Eulogy and Dissection.

I was planning on getting back to science this time around: an opinion piece on gengineered non-suffering livestock, perhaps, or a review of recent progress in telematter technology. But someone died last night, a distant member of my immediate family: someone I ended contact with years ago, save for one brief shining moment back in ’08 when I appeared like the Ghost of Christmas Past in the nursing home hallway, spelled out the facts of life, and vanished forever.

The physical death of that organism, all this time later, is purely theoretical to me. It has no mass or inertia, no charge positive or negative. Everything’s already cancelled out. Sow; Reap; Finis. And yet by all accounts this should be a momentous occasion, should provoke some kind of spontaneous visceral or emotional response. It doesn’t. So I’ve experimented with alternate perspectives to see if I can stir something up — and I think I’ve found a viewpoint I can sort of get behind.

If you can’t respect the government, respect the people. If the Queen is corrupt, at least find something to admire in her soldiers.

The heart, for example. A muscle that beat nonstop every second of every day since 1920, almost a century’s relentless rearguard against entropy itself. Three billion beats in that time; four supertankers filled to the brim; two battleships lifted clear of the ocean. Or the eyes: miracles of incompetent design, photoreceptors straining for light through a tangle of cabling laid on top of them, not tucked away behind as any more-than-half-witted designer would have done. Sight is mechanical, did you know that? No digital electronics: pure clockwork, that far down. The visual pigment is a kind of spring-lever affair; the photon hits it and the pigment passes that impact upstream with all the elegance of a game of whack-a-mole.

Nine decades of parsing the world through those haphazard bits and pieces is nothing to sneeze at either.

The GI tract. The skeletal muscles. The pulmonary and lymphatic systems, the bone marrow, the semiautonomous mitochondria renting out space by their thousands in each individual cell.  Forget about that thinking neuronal mass festering up in the skull. It can’t even decide what persona to run, a few million synapses corrode and it turns from black to white. Whatever lived up there originally has been dead for longer than Andrew Ryan; the splicers have been running things for years. But down here in the gut, in the kidneys and capillaries; these are the rank and file, the actual citizens of this close-knit colony we call a person. And when the brain finally shuts down completely — when the chest stops moving and the pacemaker gives out and the telemetry clip comes off the finger — all those citizens keep plugging away, filtering blood or transporting nutrients in a world gone suddenly stagnant, still doing their best even starving for oxygen, even drowning in acid. Some of those valiant colonists keep going for hours, until the suffocating cold finally kills them off.

Good soldiers, our cells. Good citizens.

When you think of it that way, perhaps even this death is something to be mourned.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Thursday February 25 2010at 01:02 pm , filed under eulogy . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

31 Responses to “Eulogy and Dissection.”

  1. I’m assuming this is a eulogy written for your mom? Well, even though it probably doesn’t mean much in this case: I’m sorry for your loss.

  2. And many of them live brief lives, giving their all for the whole, quietly dying when their time is up: and no matter how long they live, they never demand a holiday, and they never get a pay rise.

    (On the other hand, they want for nothing, unless they’re unlucky enough to be a B cell, in which case the poor sods get exposed to the relentless buzzsaw of selection time and again.)

    And rebellions, though they happen, and at times succeed, are one-in-ten-trillion events. No human society has ever been so placid.

  3. You, sir, are a poet in anything you write. I do not know how or what you feel, or how you choose to process that emotion. I hope that it is a speedy and painless process, however it plays out.

  4. Oh, sweetie. :(

    Our family builds us from the ground up, bad or good, harm and nurture. Maybe you’re free now.

  5. Condolences, should you wish to accept them. I’m sure that last thing you need right now is a bunch of people gushing, patting you on the back, talking about sorry they are.

    Your own machinery seems to be handing this as it might any aberrant event; it clears the problem as best it can and pushes onward. Sometimes that leaves a mark – a crack in the gears or misalignment of joins.

    Anyway, you’ve spun this event into a more beautiful eulogy than I think even you had imagined. Whomever this is for, I think you’ve paid tribute.

    Thanks for sharing this with us. We’ll be here if you have anything else that needs saying.

  6. A body weight’s worth of ATP processed and reprocessed every single day to make it all happen start to finish, womb to worm food.

    Excellent post, my favorite so far I believe.

  7. … sounds like a rumination on death by the Thing, in its way.

    Hell, that might be an interesting perspective, a Thing(s) killing once to understand the phenomenon of multicellular activity coming to that “stop” it noted.

    And would Blampires perceive any benefit to a non-suffering prey breed of human? I’m inclined to think not; something tells me they like the bitter burnt adrenaline taste of something that died suffering and screaming.

  8. So many times I have tried to explain to my friends, family, and lovers how I can find beauty in someone’s life and existence without believing in a soul or spirit. If only I could have words as eloquent as these at times like those.

    I want a eulogy like this at my funeral.

  9. I thought the death of Andrew Ryan was just a rumor.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BioShock

  10. There is utter beauty in truth. Genetic linkage a family does not one make. Ultimately, a family is what one creates, and not a collective of life forms related by blood ties and ancestral links.

    We are merely the chance random union of one egg and one sperm that made the connection, implanted within a womb.

    That seemingly elevated standard of a nuclear family by which humans believe is the basis of their particular formulation in who and what they are as if it is THEE blueprint for their very life is nothing more than a fallacy wrapped in emotional blackmail.

    What does not kill us makes us stronger. Indeed. Certainly one may allude to the notion that our families make us who and what we are, but I believe that we have the free will to choose to be, or not to be, who and what we are.

    We are truly “dust in the wind”…

    The question is did our dust shine while it was unified and animated on this planet?

    We can choose to drown in the cry me a river of muddy waters blues or elevate our consciousness to that higher plane of profound truth in being what we are meant to be despite the good and the bad.

    I am sincerely sorry for your loss.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and breathing life into them through words, rendering the invisible visible…

  11. Condolences, Peter.

  12. I know that when my grandma died after suffering from Alzheimer’s and an assortment of other diseases the elderly tend to acquire, it was more of a relief than anything else. After a certain point, it’s hard to feel bad for the loss of someone who, for all intents and purposes, stopped existing as soon as the wiring in their brain gave out.

    This would have been a nice post to read back then. At the very least, I could still have managed to summon some form of sadness at the loss of someone who I had begun and ended mourning far before their actual death.

    On the technical side, it’s interesting to think of cells as the actual creatures being murdered as opposed to the larger autonomous structure they tend to make up. Maybe killing a whale is a greater fault than murdering a human. After all, their sheer volume means we’re ending the “lives” of far more biological beings.

    Still, that would probably lead to mandatory prosecution of lumberjacks. And while I wouldn’t specifically disagree with that, the family of the deceased would hardly be stimulating witnesses at parole hearings.

  13. […] which brings up the problem of what does exist if we don’t. Here’s an excerpt, but go read the whole (short) thing: The physical death of that organism, all this time later, is purely theoretical to me. It has no […]

  14. Condolences.


  15. Biological antecedents are incapable of processing reap/sow logic. If this computed for them, they would not have become biological antecedents. Reap/sow rationales are tools for descendants. Tools for the child. For making sense of their inheritance.

    For probing a parent organism, some other tools are required. I rather suspect that those in turn will also generally not compute for the child.

    It is in this near-perfect double-blind system that the species pushes on, and the population swells in the space between.

  16. I DON’T want a eulogy like that when I die. Jesus, someone please just make something up.

    Peter…

    I didn’t think there was anything more depressing than this class I’m currently stuck in.

    Thanks a ton.

  17. I have to admit, the fact that anyone would want to be eulogised thusly was not something I was expecting. After all, we’re talking about someone who pupped and raised me, someone with whom I have a history extending across half a century — and the most positive thing I can say about her is “She had cells. They metabolised.”

    According to one of the pingbacks in this comment thread, this is even being cited in an introductory course on Buddhism. I am honored, but utterly mystified.

  18. Really? I’m actually more surprised about the guy that -doesn’t- want that as a eulogy. I’m going to go out on a bit of limb, but I kind of assumed that the majority of folks on here are cranky biology fans.

    I know for me, this would definitely be one of the -nicer- things I could picture said at my funeral. At least this way my cells would be exempted of blame for my misdeeds.

  19. My condolences, Peter.

  20. I’d want something as moving and poetic said over my corpse, but maybe a little more personal than, “Hljóðlegur’s right kidney fought on bravely even after the lungs gave up.”

    Such as, “Hljóðlegur laughed too heartily, and wasted too much time gazing out the window.”

    Or some kind of Viking eulogy. “Burnt Hljóðlegur killed many, offended more, drank deeply, and was a good storyteller.” But more poetical. And weird. I’d like my eulogy to be weird.

  21. I don’t care about my eulogy. I’ll be dead, after all.

  22. I do care about my eulogy. I am alive, after all. It’s just that I won’t care about my eulogy after I’m gone, because I’ll be dead, but that doesn’t stop me from caring about my eulogy right now.

  23. I did not know you mother, but I know your Dad, a bit. I visited him yesterday and he proudly showed me his copy of Blindsight.

  24. I don’t think the poor dude ever got more than 20 pages into it, though. I’m afraid he wasn’t really the target audience (which, judging by Tor’s decision re the packaging, must have been “people who like really bad cover design”).

  25. I guess its not just a matter of who she was but who she might have been. I’m sorry for your loss throughout your life.

  26. Peter: I noticed the other day that blisteringly-talented Dreamworks concept artist Nathan Fowkes digs Blindsight:

    http://nathanfowkes.blogspot.com/

    (scroll down to the post titled “First Contact”)

  27. […] Peter Watts on the death of his mother. tags: human body, peter watts older » Goodbye to it all » No Responses to "A heart that raised battleships". Add a comment? or Follow comments by RSS? Be the first and share your thoughts! […]

  28. interesting eulogy.. this is likely even more than Fanchen ( Fanchon- sp? ) might have expected from you. Kudos
    p.s. did you weep when I killed your lizard?

  29. Failing to check in, as usual…

    Sorry for your troubles…

  30. You live on. I speak as someone (know I posted about this already, yadda yadda) for whom all my family is now dust.

    You live on. You have that part of them in your life: even as a force to resist, as a thing to never be.

    There is no other gift, no other meaning, no other applause.

    How many of our unknown ancestors were liars, whores, assassins, scumbags, people we’d not want to share a lift with? Over the millenia, I think it was probably quite a high percentage!

    You’re the gift their genes gave to this world. And I don’t know about your relationship, but it fucking hurts, usually, no matter what, and then it gets better, and then you find what it means for you.

    Celebrating your life is the only way to eulogise and honour the dead, imo. Sorry if this sounds, tit-ish! 😮

    First rule of losing family? No-one can tell you how to do it. No-one can tell you how to feel. They’re yours.

    Second rule is, it gets better. No matter what the feeling is, it starts to make sense, and you’ll start to feel okay.

    Otherwise, how did any of us make it to this late point? Be safe, because nothing else has meaning.

    (Hljóðlegur, I’m there with your gravy win, on the side of the surreal, should I ever outlive you! 😉 )

  31. First rule of losing family? No-one can tell you how to do it. No-one can tell you how to feel. They’re yours.

    What she said.