Periscope Down

So, yeah, once again I’ve been remiss on the  ‘crawl postings.  And those I have managed tend to be heavy on the Lookit-me elements, while posts on nifty sciencey stuff have been pretty much absent.  (This pisses me off more than I can say; I haven’t checked my science feeds in fucking weeks, and even so I’ve stumbled across no end of news items I’d like to present and opine upon.)

This time, the biggest bottleneck is the damned Things story, which gleams and glitters in my mind’s eye but which then, on its way to the keyboard, passes through the crappifiers that are evidently embedded in my forearms.  The stuff on my screen looks more like turds on a string than the multilayered hard-Lamarckian allegory mocking me from its perch in Plato’s Ideal Fun-time Extravaganza World.

It’s overdue already.  And it’s over the maximum allowable word count.  And just last night, somewhere between the pizza and the image of myself spooning a naked William Shatner with an infestation of countless twitching, blinking eyeballs scattered across his body (and thank you very fucking much for that particular image, Dave Nickle) — sometime last night, I realized that once again I’d written a story founded on a fundamental thematic contradiction, and now I have to tear the whole damn thing apart and do it again.

Which is what I’m doing now.  Which is why you won’t be hearing from me for a while.

Maybe next week.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday May 18 2009at 10:05 am , filed under misc . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

14 Responses to “Periscope Down”

  1. “This time, the biggest bottleneck is the damned Things story, which gleams and glitters in my mind’s eye but which then, on its way to the keyboard, passes through the crappifiers that are evidently embedded in my forearms. The stuff on my screen looks more like turds on a string than the multilayered hard-Lamarckian allegory mocking me from its perch in Plato’s Ideal Fun-time Extravaganza World.

    It’s overdue already. And it’s over the maximum allowable word count. And just last night, somewhere between the pizza and the image of myself spooning a naked William Shatner with an infestation of countless twitching, blinking eyeballs scattered across his body (and thank you very fucking much for that particular image, Dave Nickle) — sometime last night, I realized that once again I’d written a story founded on a fundamental thematic contradiction, and now I have to tear the whole damn thing apart and do it again.”

    Yeah, I can see a lot of contradictory concepts involved. How does the Thing express a unified consciousness when “each part is a whole” as Macready says? Reminds me of some difficulty I had expressing a science fiction concept that multicellular life was actually the result of a billion year rescue operation recreating the exact DNA and physiology, including personalities, of a crew of 12 space travelers who crashed on the planet when it was only a mass of microbes. In that scenario, the first cells that would eventually become the human immune system essentially acted like mercenaries, hiring out to masses of protozoans, sharing nutrients and DNA as it protected them from predators and “domesticated” them into the first multicellular colonies with the final outcome being the eventual recreation of the “Olympian Gods” who’ve been imprinted on our subconscious to the cellular level.

    The problem, of course, is how do cellular processes actually perform complex functions that would essentially be consciousness as we know it. When your “thing” is “being Palmer” how can it express a single consciousness when it would have to be a kind of “body politic.”

    It seems maybe a bit more likely that it would not be conscious in the same way – not self-aware, as you point out elsewhere is not a necessity for intelligent and advanced civilized behavior. Instead, it would be a conglomeration of Dawkins’ selfish genes simply performing whatever behavior and acquiring whatever tools (including the intelligence of its victims) allowed it to acquire the greatest spread of its base organic material and control of nutrient resources.

    Stephen King sorta used this as the basis of his aliens in Dreamcatcher. They were a kind of Lovecraftian fungi that had simply absorbed the aliens and crafts they used to spread to other planets. They were not in fact the aliens who had created the flying saucers that brought the infection here.

  2. By the way, one of the most interesting and creepiest moments in the movie was when the character had a heart attack and turned into a monster on the table. The strangest part of that idea was that the thing would perfectly copy a defect. It made me wonder if you had been taken over, would you necessarily know it? Would the thing in your cells keep that information hidden from your conscious awareness to allow you to be a better copy and the alien superconsciousness would only take over when threatened or to perform functions like creating a flying saucer to escape.

  3. Quit whining and come back when you got something. Otherwise the cats will run out of food and eat you. That would suck for the gluttons of punishment like that read your stuff.

  4. I think John has a point, but if you extrapolate that too far, then you’re questioning the roots of fiction writing itself. Writers have wrestled with how to represent consciousness for a long time, even if it’s just another human’s. This is one of the reasons that the epistolary novel enjoyed such popularity, I suspect — the tone of a letter is easier to reproduce than actually digging into the subjectivity of another person. And accurately representing the consciousness of another person, not to mention an alien, is sort of a writerly lie. (After all, if we were to really do it, there would be abrupt flashes of “Hey, his fly is undone” within the more poetic paragraphs.) The most common method is just the one that’s survived the market; Ulysses is another, so is Motherless Brooklyn, so is The Bluest Eye. The representation is merely a consensual hallucination, a fiction we mostly agree upon because it makes relaying information that much easier.

    Language itself relies on these agreements — you can guess what I mean by “sad,” but without me communing with you Thing-style, you’ll never really be sure if my sadness is the same as yours. (And even if we could, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish my feelings from yours, much less judge their possible similarity.) If you look too deeply into this particular abyss, you’ll end up chucking language altogether, and with it all contractual agreements, all fiction, all expressions of sentiment. Which is fine, until the moment you wish to communicate something beyond that which your body can readily convey.

    Then again, I’m not sure that the consciousness issue is the “fundamental thematic contradiction.” In fact I’m not sure what that contradiction is at all. I feel a bit silly for having missed it.

  5. For me the line “I am being Palmer” implies a lot – a lot that I may be reading into. Again, to bring up another work of fiction deeply influence by the original movie The Thing and Who Goes There? the short story it was based on, Dean Koontz’s Phantoms (not a great book and a terrible movie adaptation, actually) has an interesting point of view. The shape-changing creature had no self awareness or identity in that story until it absorbed the minds and memories of the people of the town of Snowfield. Then, it came to see itself as Satan from their minds and began to behave accordingly essentially manifesting the cultural unconsciousness of Evil.

    Imagine the Thing, on a cellular level, simply has a great deal of complexity that follows essentially evolutionary rules but with a greater ability for metamorphosis and adaptation, actually rewriting DNA as it goes rather than depending upon random mutation. In this sense, it is a high information kind of biosphere compared to basically the dumbsphere of a terran animal or plant body.

    However, doing what it does naturally, it digests and assimilates a human being. Now, being an ancient collection of entities that has survived any number of environments by basically taking the tools necessary from the organic molecules already in that environment, it copies a human and now has acquired our animal self-consciousness. It is “being Palmer” when it has this inner monologue, but before it was Palmer, there was nothing like a human culture or “morality” to its nature. From it’s cellular perspective, its world was simply the way it was.

    Perhaps in the process of assimilating the humans, it now has a perspective to apply morality to the metamorphic world it knows – that it emerged from – as good, and the strange cellular anomolies it encounters on earth as “bad.” It infects us biologically, but we in turn infect it psychologically.

  6. The Norris chest-chomp scene was one of my favorites too, and is one of the scenes I’m more pleased with in the retelling. (I even explain how Copper’s arms could snap off two inches above the bite.) The way I envision Thingian consciousness working is as a diffuse net that permeates the tissues and keeps the seething cellular subcultures in line. That, of course, introduces latency issues. Your brain is distributed all over the soma instead of concentrated at the top of the spinal cord, which makes it a lot easier to disrupt. The electrical static from Norris’s failing heart shatters that cohesion; Copper’s application of the defribrillator paddles is even worse. So the Thing permeating Norris looses cohesion, and the individual parts begin to manifest autonomously (“Norris has just stopped, I realize. This is how these creatures end. And he has left me here, trapped in this quivering mass of fossilised, cyanotic meat. But I feel myself degrading. Each moment I am less than I was the moment before. I am breaking apart. I am a network, seceding from itself. I am becoming legion.”)

    Hence, multithing at the end of that scene.

    In terms of whether a thing knows it’s a thing, I’m playing with that too: the best forgery is the one that has forgotten it isn’t real. I’m looking at a dual-consciousness mode; there’s a thingy homunculus sitting at the back of the brain, watching, but the assimilated host brain still thinks like the original; Norris actually believes he’s Norris, and the parasite basically communicates through brain-stem intuitions and subconscious hints. (It can also take over motor control directly if it has to, but it generally lets the body run itself. The soma knows the native protocols and the local language, after all. The rider doesn’t even know what planet it’s on.)

    But man, there’s a lot of unanswered questions when you think about it a bit. The Thing thinks of itself as “a world”, because every lifeform on its native planet is an interchangeable part of the same superorganism. So what does something like that eat? If it eats itself, is it violating the second law of thermodynamics? Does it culture bits of itself to photosynthesize and grow, ensuring that those little mushroom-like entities never achieve sufficient mass for self-awareness? Does it even care about such things? (Why should it? Nothing dies where it comes from, everything just gets recycled into the great porridge.)

    I also have to deal with the energy it takes for tissues to morph the way they do. Norris and Blair must be stuffing themselves nonstop with luncheon meats to support those kinds of transformations. Shapeshifting is not an easy conceit to justify.

  7. Also I’m experimenting with rewriting the whole damn thing in second person. There are solid thematic reasons for doing that, but it might seem too gimmicky.

  8. That’s a great perspective. The same sort of calorie burning problem could also be applied to Wolverine in the X-men. Instantaneous healing should leave a person emaciated and ravenous.

    I don’t know if there is any realistic way around the gimmick of shapechanging. It seems like nature is already as efficient as possible in any given environment so if you are going to mimic something – a leg or even a toenail – then you have to go through the same essential process nature did to create it.

    On the other hand, maybe it is all “special effects” in some sense. When you look closer at the “perfect” copy, it turn out to be not so perfect – instead it’s all papier-mache and mirrors, a temporary structure designed to be used and discarded as soon as possible and only mimic human processes rather than completely copy them.

  9. “Shapeshifting is not an easy conceit to justify.”

    Well not if you stick with earthly tissues and organs. However if ‘thing’ can control a chunk of biomass down to subcellular you’d think it could hack out some hypereffective cells/bones/tissues/nerves that would allow it to optimize for shapeshifting.

    Granted it would still need to keep the basic shape of a human but it could, presumably, hack the host body and shave off a lot of surplus tissue. With better than human musculature and bone structure you could have a lot of empty space for glucose/ATP storage for rapid cell change.

    After all a Pentium 3 is made of the same basic stock material as a core 2 quad it’s just organized, cooled and powered more efficiently.

    See, problem solved, you may shower me with praise at your discretion.

  10. That is pretty cool. I wonder if anything like that could have evolved on our world?

    In my mind, with no scientific basis whatsoever, I imagine that the microbial antecedents to multicellular life started out something like wolf/ranchers. They were a “predatory protozoan” that either gave birth to or somehow domesticated other microbes that would absorb nutrients and grow into a kind of herd. The ranchers would protect the herd as well as cull these cells for sustenance. Over time, I imagine this would lead to differentiation with, in my imagination, the “ranchers” behavior being mimicked by animal immune systems in later organisms.

    I’ve also read of an idea that multicellular organisms grow out of a need to control dangerous inanimate particles like calcium that free-floating might damage cell walls. Perhaps the “Thing” emerged in a primarily liquid and gas environment where this environmental stressor did not require the formation of strict multicellular development. Add a few billion more years of development time to its evolution and maybe that would give rise to the anarchic, opportunistic microbal colony behavior – the “network” of biochemical “hackers” – that the Norwegians free from the ice.

  11. I must have missed something here. Normally I can follow the train (or trainwreck) of thought that runs through these blogs. But I am completely lost here. I know prokaryotes, I know eukaryotes, I know bacteria,
    protozoans and metazoans, and I have an unnatural attraction to tintinnids. But I have no idea what anyone here is talking about. Can someone please enlighten me?????

  12. @Anony mouse
    Well, we are talking about a work-in-progress story which is an alternate take on Carpenter’s “The Thing” (Google it) and/or John W. Campbell, Jr.’s “Who Goes There” (Google it!).

    The story deals with an extraterrestrial being which happens to have nontrivial biology and weird mental structure arising from this biology.

    Think of it as a high-performance, high-resilience ad-hoc computer network, only made of biological cells.

  13. So, what I’m hearing is that you’re imagining an organism whose primordial ancestors opted not to pursue cell specialization based on function, instead going with complete totipotency. All cells can do all jobs, rather than for each job, a cell. If each cell functions partly as a neuron, then you’d end up with a distributed consciousness. I’d guess that each cell wouldn’t necessarily be as efficient as the dedicated neuron, but that would be compensated for by the vast increase in cells doing a neuronal function. Loss of appendages, etc would lead to a diminution in thinking capacity, but not a loss in a specific ability – the more you lop off, the dumber it gets. Also, if you preserve the totipotency of each cell, I suppose the Thing could opt to specialize a set of cells – switch a group to be more purely ‘muscle’ for example – to achieve an end, and then reverting them back when desired. I expect that would mean that those purposed cells wouldn’t be able to contribute (to the consciousness field, for example) as they would in the totipotent state. Speed of transition might be an issue, as you mention, but there are examples of very fast repurposing in Earth biology. Early cell divisions during development can be quite rapid; the egg has a huge store of components on hand. Perhaps surrounding cells could contribute to the cells undergoing specialization to enhance speed and efficiency. A cellularly distributed consciousness should be able to do such redirecting efficiently.

  14. Well, IMHO trying to resolve various internal communication issues, such as “speed of transition” in a detailed manner is a rather tough cookie. I would have copped out :) by drawing a vague analogy with ad-hoc,self-healing wireless networks in the military. Maybe that’s because I like wireless networks too much…

    As for assimilation… One could see it spreading as a virus between host cells, through a viral synapse mechanism (http://www.springerlink.com/content/u521468764r87417/), subverting and completely reverse-engineering the host cells biochemistry without vastly disrupting its immediate biological functioning. This would allow Thing to “assimilate” (I would rather say “put on, as leather pants”) other life without raising too much suspicion, and save some energy as free bonus.
    BTW, the “simulation” in the movie showed something very similar to “viral synapse” infection spread…

    On a sidenote , Mr. Watts, I believe that the idea regarding the (unhealthy) effect the contact with human mind has on the alien is worthy of exploring. What if some facet of our mental structure is a disease for the fragile alien mind 😉 ?