High-Concept Low-Brow

It’s credibility of a sort, I guess. The Sydney Morning Herald has just published a John Birmingham piece which jumps off from the teenybopper suckfest “Twilight” to dip its toes in the whole pop-culture vampire mystique. And what should appear, mixed in with all the Buffy and True Blood callouts, but a whole paragraph devoted to the vampires of Blindsight:

In author Peter Watts’s hard-science space opera, Blindsight, Dracula’s children aren’t disguised at all; they’re reborn from ancient DNA samples and put to work by humanity, which needs their superior physical and intellectual skills to face off a universe full of even scarier monsters. It all sounds like a low-brow spook’n’shoot, an ill-advised cocktail of the undead and laser beams. But it’s high-concept low-brow, with Watts providing reams of credible-sounding scientific “research” in a “Notes and References” section that recalls nothing so much as the early work of the recently departed Michael Crichton.

Birmingham evidently didn’t realize that those “references” are real, but that’s cool. I don’t even mind being compared to Crichton; I actually quite like a lot of Mikey’s “early work”— and hey, if a critic in a mainstream newspaper thinks the shoe fits, maybe some publisher might notice a vacant niche waiting to be filled…

What I do find a bit odd, though, is that Blindsight got as much attention it did (not that I’m complaining). Beyond the obligatory commentary on the Twilight novels, the article focuses almost entirely on cinevision: Buffy, True Blood, even some pretty strained references to Borgs and zombies. The only non-Stoker, non-Meyer book to get any attention is some vampire-gumshoe novel by Charlie Huston. And while I’m never one to turn down free publicity, I seem to remember some guy called Matheson doing something along the same lines a while back— something that can hardly have fallen out of the public eye so soon after Will Smith poked it back in there — not to mention a more recent vampire riff by that Butler chick. And there’s no way I wield a fraction of the influence of either of those authors, even on their bad days. So I’m wondering why Blindsight made Birmingham’s cut, when I am Legend and Fledgling didn’t. It obviously isn’t a function of either literary quality or sales.

You know what that leaves. Cover art.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Saturday December 06 2008at 08:12 am , filed under blindsight, ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

25 Responses to “High-Concept Low-Brow”

  1. Well, it DID get a Hugo nom, about the time Birmingham was getting into alternate history and might have been reading up in the field.

    Who knows…

    El

  2. It’s probably because your vampires are so very unromantic. They’re not thinly-veiled metaphors for repressed or alternative sexuality, they’re just, you know, top predators. As such they’re a good foil for the creatures on the Meyer/Whedon continuum.

  3. It’s because your vampires are unique, incredibly cool, terrifying and, as Madeleine says, top predators.

  4. Right on, Pete! Got mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald, eh? That alone elevates you to celebrity status. Are you getting a reality show soon? Damn.

    As for vampires, I agree with Madeline. Your vampires are scary real predators engineered to exceed humanity’s capabilities. Which is fucking cool. They’re not Buffyverse metaphors or Anne Rice beings of repressed sexuality. Your vampires would stare, scheme, rock forth, and tear the heads off those girlish supernatural vampires any day of week. Just for the sheer predatory rush of it.

    Let me know when that reality show airs, ok? Can’t wait.

  5. A Peter Watts reality-TV show?

    “Today’s first guest is Mrs. Jane Simples, from Ohio. Now, Jane, put on the helmet. Yes, the bright yellow one with the wires. Thank you.”
    “As you can see, as we increase the amplitude of the voltage waves in the helmet, and simultaneously lower Mrs. Simples into the Little Aquarium, she will start attempting to breathe water.”
    “Indeed, yes, she is clinically dead. But observe! The brain readings continue, though the complex patterns we saw during her frantic struggles just moments ago are gone, replaced by this carrier-wave structure.”

    “No, I’m sorry, we had to use the Little Aquarium because the Big Aquarium is still being cleaned after last week’s ‘spirited conversation’ between an Orca and Beluga. Those sea-canaries sure are cute when they panic, aren’t they?”

    I’d pay good money to see that.

  6. I’m pretty sure this guy fails to understand what “high concept” means. If the work takes more than ten words to explain, it’s not high concept.

  7. I’d pay to see that too, TheBrummell.

    “And tune in next week as Peter, pissed off that an intelligent designer gets nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics, searches for his cat.”

    (cue weepy music)

    PETER: Dammit, kitty! Where are you?

    (Distant meow)

    PETER: It’s not bad enough that I have to live in a world where some a-hole creationist gets nominated for the big cheese, huh? You furry little twat then has to go and get lost in the freakin’ bushes!

    “Yes, viewers, it’ll be some stellar fun! Tune in!”

    (music fades out)

  8. Having read Matheson’s novel only after the Will Smith movie, it’s probably a fair bet that many consider “I am Legend” (the movie) a zombie flick. The creatures are only peripherally vampirish — a huge departure from the book.

    It’s a damned shame the writer didn’t realize that your references weren’t bogus.

  9. My opinion on the matter is this: the writer was smart enough to make mention of the sci-fi vampires but not smart enough to grasp their importance.

    There’s just no comparison to every pixie fucking bitch ass ‘fantasy style’ vampire. Jukka Sarasti would throat rape dracula, blade and every other iteration of pansy ass blood suckers.

    Hell I hope PW goes after the whole fucking genre. Tinkerbelle could be a mutated flying squirrel with articulate vocal cords.

    Elves could a nordic strain of vampire, musical prodigies each and every one.

    Dwarves and orcs could be curious offshoots of neanderthal and werewolves could just be a clade with excess body hair and immunity to prionic diseases.

    Fuck we might even come up with something fun to do with zombies. Maybe parasitic microbes that can form computational colonies that only work in human brains (like herpes but with massive parallel processing.)

    Maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part. Fantasy doesn’t deserve to share shelf space with the really good literary shit. That’s sci-fi, black text, white paper, hard as diamonds.

  10. I don’t know about the reality show but I would certainly pay to see Mr. Watts debate Pastor Hagee and “Dr.” Charles McVety on evolution vs intelligent design.

  11. (moderately long time reader, first time commentor)

    Based on my experience in the entertainment newspaper business, the most likely explanation is that Birmingham emailed his friends and coworkers asking for Vampire recommendations and somebody suggested Blindsight, which Birmingham then skimmed. That would explain both his awareness of the book (unlikely, no offense) and his getting it so wrong in the article.

  12. Seth, I totally just imagined a version of Peter Pan in which Tinkerbell is a subdermally-burrowing insect spread bioluminescent goo in her wake. So thanks for that.

  13. Madeline,

    The idea isn’t without precedent. In Pan’s Labyrinth the protagonist sees this HUGE insect and calls it a fairy.

    It just irks me when people think that ‘fantasy’ vampires are so scary because they are moody immortal blood suckers. A rival clade (once you negate the crucifix glitch) becomes infinitely more terrifying. Then again a lot of that is jealousy because if I were a spinal fluid drinking omnisavant I would have a lot more fun.

    Plus I bet humans are tasty.

  14. Seth,

    I was more thinking of coke-fueled delusions of subdermal insects, although I did think of PL too. I like the idea of “pixies” with just enough hallucinogenic “fairy dust” to make you think you can fly. You’d go splat, clapping your hands and insisting that “they’re really real if you just believe!”

    I think the point of fantasy vampires is not fear, it’s, well, fantasy. The fantasy of taming something which is allegedly very scary. It’s an old romance trope that plays off heteronormative definitions of male and female, and long-held gender roles, which is part of why it survives and succeeds. (The other part is probably something evo-biological, and I’d launch into a cognitive narratology lecture right now if I weren’t at this moment editing a short story and working on my thesis.) Go back and have a look at Jane Eyre. It’s the basic primer for all those stories, and features a far stronger heroine than most of them.

  15. Madeline said “I think the point of fantasy vampires is not fear, it’s, well, fantasy. The fantasy of taming something which is allegedly very scary.”

    See I can’t connect my brain to that sentiment in any fashion save by garrote. The idea that imagined creatures, be they whimsical deities or majestic blood suckers just does not make sense in my brain anymore.

    Surely I remember a time when conventional fantasy archetypes held a certain allure but as I age my brain appears to cure (in the bacon, not medicine sense [for my mental wanderings there is no remedy short of an icepick or a break in the oxygen supply]) I find the natural world all the more beautiful and terrifying and the ‘fantasy’ world ever more pixelated and coarse.

    The great appeal of the PW vampires was their justified indignation that a minor glitch in their processing centers undid their entire species. It’s like rodents and giant land tortoises. The former saw to the latter’s extinction by making large landmasses inimical to big piles of fresh eggs laying around unprotected.

    That we accidentally annihilated and then resurrected the vamps was a thrilling and necessary feature of the story. Fantasy vampires are pointless victorian relics or cheesy derivations thereof.

    Sci-fi vampires represent something new and emergent in the universe. And thank buddha for it because as humans we are all but destined to create out betters.

    And at the end of the day killer cannibal savants are much more interesting than hostile robots.

  16. But..But I love hostile robots…

  17. Birmo’s mention of Blindsight is not really that surprising, on his blog some months back he mentioned having recently read it, and as I recall he spoke highly of it.

  18. “You know what that leaves. Cover art.”

    Or maybe – Shock horror probe! – the guy read the book and enjoyed it?

  19. Thanks Neal, and Anon.

    I really did like Blindsight, and read it well before being asked to respond to the release of Twilight with a coupla thousand words on vampires in pop culture.

    If Peter knew as much as about ‘the entertainment newspaper biz’ as he thinks, he might have pondered for a moment whether any of the original copy was cut for space reasons, and/or replaced with copy I didn’t write for other purposes

    But i suppose that would get in the way of all that righteous certainty.

    My apologies for the references, uh, reference. On my original read thru I saw them, noted them but didn’t read them closely. Mea culpa. I was kinda bummed out by the victory of the vamps, and I wanted to get on with reading Don Winslow.

    It’s still a great book though. As are Huston’s, for different reasons.

  20. Birmo- If your editor changed your copy to refer to Blindsight as ‘space opera’, then I’m truly sorry for mischaracterizing you as a dope. That was the phrase that led me to conclude you didn’t know what you were talking about.

  21. Birmo said…

    If Peter knew as much as about ‘the entertainment newspaper biz’ as he thinks, he might have pondered for a moment whether any of the original copy was cut for space reasons, and/or replaced with copy I didn’t write for other purposes.

    Different Peter here— the Blindsight guy, not the entertainment biz guy — curious about those cuts (which have happened to my pieces too, a lot). What elements did the editors find expendable?

    And no worries on the references; It's just as well most people don’t follow up on those. (One guy did, and ended up finding a couple of spots where I’d cited the wrong source.) Besides, I’m just happy you liked the book enough to pimp it. I’m surprised to have made the cut in light of those that didn’t, but I’m not complaining.

    Which I guess is a rare and wondrous state that you should all enjoy while it lasts.

  22. PW:
    And no worries on the references; It’s just as well most people don’t follow up on those.

    Speaking of references, if you never follow up with those discussion-cinching chart and graphs about energetics you offered me, does that mean I win the argument about the flexibility in human sexuality, by default?

    ~bec-87rb

  23. “curious about those cuts (which have happened to my pieces too, a lot). What elements did the editors find expendable? “

    As I recall, some very cruel but funny jokes about the tv series, Moonlight, a ref to Legend/Omega Man, a Charlie Huston par, some stuff about the Brit TV series Ultraviolet, and a ref to Kostova’s ‘The Historian’

    What went in were quotes from the True Blood producers.

    It’s not something I get worked up over. The quotes were interesting and suited the angle of the story the ed’s were after. The whole piece was tied in with the Twilight release.

    I’m just glad they left Blindsight in because I really wanted to push it to a mass audience, as much as that inevitably involves ruffling the feathers of some true believers ;-)

  24. Is it John Birmingham of _Axis of Time_ ?
    On the unrelated note physorg has piece about real behemoths

  25. bec-87rb wondered…

    …if you never follow up with those discussion-cinching chart and graphs about energetics you offered me, does that mean I win the argument about the flexibility in human sexuality, by default?

    It might if I never followed up. But there’s no statute of limitations on this; you’re just gonna have to wait for me to get some spare time…