The Tale of Nellie the Nephron.

They know about this in Poland. They’ve known it for over a month now.  So it seems only fair that I bring the rest of you up to speed on the latest: my imminent retirement from the field of science fiction.

Genre SF has been in decline for a number of years. My own work has been declining even faster. They say Young Adult is where the action is, but I suspect in time even that fad will run its course. YA is but one step on a staircase heading down into the basement. As humanity grows ever-dumber, readers will inevitably gravitate towards simpler tales that don’t tax the intellect and which never stray from familiar, predictable paths (anyone who’s read the Harry Potter books will know what I mean).

When readers reach the bottom of that incline, I intend to be waiting for them there. Henceforth I will be writing only storybooks for children aged four through eight. I have already begun. (Although given the sudden dismaying popularity of— I kid you not— Coloring Books for Adults, you have to wonder if even writing for preschoolers is aiming low enough.)

Admittedly, we're still looking for an artist...

Admittedly, we’re still looking for an artist…

I am collaborating on my next work with my wife, on a book called The Tale of Nellie the Nephron. It’s the story of a kidney cell who gets tired of filtering urine all the time and sets out to see the world. Her restlessness is fed by the red blood cells, dumb but amiable beings who stoke Nellie’s wanderlust as they bumble past in their capillary beds. The other nephrons never deign to talk to the RBCs because they’re a vulgar lot who don’t even have nuclei, but their oft-repeated salutation “Heart is where the home is!” makes Nellie long for other organs to explore, other cell types to be. (The thumping of the heart can of course be heard down in the kidneys, but it is a distant sound, an endless and unquestioned bit of background noise as far as Nellie’s fellow nephrons are concerned.)

All the other nephrons warn Nellie that leaving the kidney means certain death; every now and then some sick or dying cell gets swept away down the ureter and is never heard from again. But Nellie is resolute. One day, screwing up her courage, she filters one last aliquot of urine, pulls free of the cortex, and heads off down the ureter.

She nearly dies right then, caught up in a torrential cascade of urine squeezed from the bladder into a blinding cold world of bright light and terrifying open spaces. It is only the merest luck that she finds herself saved by some great celestial hand that catches her and wipes her back onto a vast open plain (the “Plains of Perineum” as she later learns). Hanging on desperately by her Loop of Henle, Nellie manages to find a dark puckered crack in the landscape and finds her way back into the welcome darkness of her world.

Now her journey truly begins. She climbs through the rectum and the colon, and there— amongst the great sluggish boulders of developing feces— she meets Tony the Tapeworm, the parasite with a thousand faces. She meets the cells of the intestinal epithelium, and encounters the diffuse lurking evil of the Gut Brain, plotting its insurrection against the hated Brain in the Head. Up on the Pancreatic Front she encounters White Blood Cells, the Navy SEALs of the body’s immune system, and nearly dies helping them fight off an infection. She visits their training camp in the bone marrow, where new recruits are grown. She befriends the cardiac communist collective known as Percy the Pacemaker, and finally shoots the rapids of the Carotid Artery all the way up to the legendary Head Brain.

At every step in her journey, Nellie asks: should I be a gut cell? Should I be a liver cell? A cardiac cell, maybe even a, a— a brain cell?

And so Nellie the Nephron tries to become Nellie the Neuron— but of course she’s no better at this than she is at all the other roles she’s tried on. All she’s really built for, after all, is the filtering of urine. Her attempts to contribute to the brain’s decision-making process go horribly awry when the body starts voting Conservative and develops a fetish for golden showers.

Eventually, the other cell types help Nellie see the error of her ways and return her to the kidney where she belongs, letting the smarter brain cells make all the important decisions. (She even rats out the insurrectionist Gut Brain for extra brownie points!) And the moral she learns— the moral of the whole book— is threefold:

  1. Know Your Place;
  2. Do What You’re Told; and
  3. Don’t Rock the Boat.

We thought that Nellie could be a big seller here in Canada. It fit so neatly into the ideology of the former Harper government that we could see the Harperites ordering multiple copies for every school library, passing legislation to mandate its inclusion in primary-school curricula across the nation. (Hell, someone might even do an adult coloring-book edition.) Unfortunately, Canada finally awoke from its long slumber and booted those asshole out of office, so we’re looking for another market. Maybe south of the border. If we can just figure out some way for a sapient nephron to learn that extrajudicial drone strikes on civilians are a good thing, we might have a big seller in the US.

At the very least, it’s got to make more money than science fiction.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday February 10 2016at 10:02 am , filed under writing news . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

44 Responses to “The Tale of Nellie the Nephron.”

  1. Noooo! The ending is all wrong! She should turn cancerous. Attempting to utilize what she’s learned from other cell types and her deep understanding of the multi-cellular body system, which she’s learned of in her travels, she builds a body of her own, only to turn into the world’s biggest malignant tumour. She is then removed and given a place of honour in some medical museum.

    The little cancer cell that could, if you will.

  2. If your life pattern holds true the publishers of “Go the fuck to sleep” will approach you to make this a reality, and you’ll work on the project for 6 months until a random commenter in the crawl makes a disparaging remark about Samuel L. Jackson that scuppers the whole thing.

    (Too soon?) ^_^;

  3. Damn, both the author and the two previous commenters are actually predictable. You display the same brand of twists i would. Same mental patterns if you will.
    Not that we are really smarter or merrier for it…

  4. And, since we are talking about money, Not that i predict “Nelly the nephron” wont climb to the next top 10 bestsellers of this year, but ¿how do you make enough money for it to no longer matter and be able to be truly free to do whatever the fuck you want?
    (i do have two bachelors, in economics and business administration, an MBA specialized in finance and a job as an economic consultant for a blue chip company and still dont quite grasp how)

  5. You paint a dark future, but I don’t know if it’s an accurate one. I hope not! And all these people reading YA now will grow up into people who read more and more and more. I read YA like a fiend when I was a kid… and back then it was like, one shelf in the bookstore.

    It seems to me that you were never marketed well, and beyond that, you have a lot of complicated ideas. I’ve bought Starfish three times now because I keep lending it to people who don’t give it back. Blindsight is often on the reading list at UofT, for one English course or another. Echopraxia sits on my shelf, since I don’t want to read it until I’m in the perfect mood to savour it. It’s too bad you’re giving up on writing, but I hope maybe some idea will wriggle deep into your head and you won’t be able to get it out except by giving it a book to live in.

    As for colouring books, don’t be hatin’. Colouring is fun! What’s wrong with that? I mean, I am a dirty YA reader and all… but fun ain’t all bad.

  6. Seriously, what’s with the coloring book hatred? They’re not to replace reading. They’re for times when you don’t feel like reading, you feel like putting down color — and you don’t have the talent, skill, or experience to do freehand art. That’s a crime past age ten, Peter?

  7. Furthermore, if cells were individually sapient, humans would never exist. Which I guess is sort of related to your point: people need freedoms to live that cells don’t; and cells MUST NOT HAVE those freedoms, or else people won’t live.

    The problem is when subgroups start seeing other humans as cells.

  8. Hey! *Spoilers*. C’mon. 😉

  9. I’m trying as hard as I can to read between the lines here, and with my imagination working overtime, I somehow concoct the notion that Our Gracious Host (“OGH”) has been approached, and pretty aggressively, about developing a certain intellectual property often referred to as “taming yesterday’s nightmares for a better tomorrow”. Something to do with a secret cloning academy of the future creating a genetically modified population and then trying to make a master race of corporate department heads out of them… and then having a lot of them escape, specifically the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades of their special academy. The production would then follow their adventures as they discover the world of the future, previously not seen by them nor the audience.

    I can easily imagine OGH actually considering it for a few moments, and then pointing out that to be remotely true to the concepts that made this intellectual property a core of his fandom’s affections, the production would have to be CGI animation since they couldn’t likely find actors with the physical attributes… and I can as easily imagine the hollywood negotiator’s off-the-cuff reply “well, I don’t think we can budget full CGI but we can certainly use enough to make the characters extra sparkly”.

    This, or something like it, could explain this latest outburst of “Nellie the Nephron”.

  10. 1) Please don’t scare me like that
    2) really expected you to have her become cancer

  11. I recently finished blindsight and echopraxia. Blindsight is probably my favorite book, ever. I read it twice more.

    Sure, there’s plenty wrong with the world, and I don’t like the growing inequality, attacks on civil rights, or savage foreign policy of my country. I hope the pendulum swings back the other way. But you’ve made some glorious, entertaining, thought provoking stuff and I hope you aren’t serious about stopping altogether.

  12. All this hemming and hawing makes me want to take a piss.

  13. I recently read Blindsight and Echopraxia. Blindsight is my new favorite book ever. I reread blindsight twice more.

    Sure, there’s plenty of things going wrong with the world, inequality, attacks on civil rights, my country’s savage foreign policy. But you have made some glorious, thought provoking, entertaining work, and I hope you will write more.

  14. The intro scared the hell out of me. I almost thought that the Person of Interest fiasco was the last straw.

  15. You have a future in writing cutting satire. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay any better than genre fiction.

  16. Forget the satire. I think you should turn to Mil-SF. Write a big, long book full of exploding starships and tough, manly people making difficult decisions. Have a too-noble, heroic Captain as the protagonist and call him something like Conner Carrington. Make sure the text is full of three-page infodumps and sell it to Baen!

    You’ll be rich soon enough!

  17. I realize (now) that this is satire, but in all seriousness, Peter, have you ever thought of doing a Patreon or a Kickstarter for books and/or stories? I support Kameron Hurley’s Patreon, and she is planning on putting out 7 longer stories this year through it. (She also sells them to other places as reprints.) I’m sure you have enough fans to make such a thing viable. I for one would pony up a goodly amount to get Omniscience.

  18. Spoilers.

  19. Woah, emotional rollercoaster. For a moment there my faith in god came rushing back in a (no pun intended) urine yellow stream…my favourite writer stopping to write my favourite books? That can, nay, must be HIS DIVINE Retribution, a thunderbolt from the skies to strike my heathen carcass down.

    But seriously, that children´s book sounds great, i would gobble that up in an instant.
    I always imagined my white blood cells being commandered by an insane General Ripper, hellbent on destroying those evil communist pollen, thus causing my allergies. Also, Nellie should totally stick it up to the oppressive system and go cancerous!

  20. Don’t give up hope. There may still be some Harper appointees left in the Education Department.

  21. Snape’s arc was a bit interesting. Dumbledore had a gay affair with a Nazi and was revealed to be as bad at strategy as Gandalf. Harry’s father turned out to be an asshole. Luna Lovegood. Maybe Rowling did not intend it, but the Ministry in Book 5 was way scarier than Voldemort. On the other hand no one questioned the use of dementors by the state as basically a crime against humanity.

    It wasn’t great literature, but it was not completely color by numbers plotting.

  22. Mr. Watts,

    I have to express my melancholy upon hearing your plan to retire from SF; Blindsight & Echopraxia were life-changing books for me. I both appreciated and stood in awe of your dedication to the craft and to thought-provoking material based (most incredibly to me) on real science.

    I wish I could tell you that things will get better, but I think we both know you’re correct on every point, and so I respect your choice. It doesn’t make your already-published body of work any less valuable to me and to the world of avid SF readers (that very much exists). You have already done so much for us.

    I can also appreciate your view of Harper, as a fellow Canadian, though one living in America; it’s a bit like looking at a mirror upside-down, I suppose, when I compare our journeys.

    Maybe one day the reading community will surprise you, and inspire you to return.

    – T

  23. Mister_DK,
    which was precysely why he didnt…

  24. Hmmm, my publisher might be interested in that….they’ve recently started publishing science books for kids in that exact age range.

  25. but of course she’s no better at this than she is at all the other roles she’s tried on. All she’s really built for, after all, is the filtering of urine.

    And when she tried doing anything else, she was accused of taking the piss.

  26. Chill the fuck out hitler.

  27. A humble suggestion, while in the brain she could meet some prions who hitched a load with some refugee neurons that somehow fled a violence-torn region in another state and made it into this one through the digestive system. And in exchange for letting them find a home, they start making holes everywhere, probably because of their upbringing, and although it’s doesn’t seem like a big problem now because the holes are small and there’s plenty of room, it might lead to problems down the line.

  28. Some Ayn Rand book had a novel about a cell as an imagination of the degeneration of literature in that setting. right? I only vaguely remember. I read a couple of her novels, in skim mode.

  29. anyway, I think you could do a wattsverse tie-in. Thing: A Child’s Tale.

  30. oh! as a lucrative tie-in. the coloring book. Thing: A Child’s Garden

    (however. I’m with above poster who doesn’t hate on coloring books.)

  31. Konstantin Klaiber:
    Woah, emotional rollercoaster. For a moment there my faith in god came rushing back in a (no pun intended) urine yellow stream…my favourite writer stopping to write my favourite books? That can, nay, must be HIS DIVINE Retribution, a thunderbolt from the skies to strike my heathen carcass down.

    But seriously, that children´s book sounds great, i would gobble that up in an instant.
    I always imagined my white blood cells being commandeered by an insane General Ripper, hellbent on destroying those evil communist pollen, thus causing my allergies. Also, Nellie should totally stick it up to the oppressive system and go cancerous!

    He’s being ironic. I hope.

    But I’d not be surprised, especially in regards to his own work. It’s fiction, but it has the ring of truth to it. Which makes it even more depressing, and that’s something people in general don’t appreciate. They might give it good reviews, even re-read it, but subconsciously it’s likely another story.

    Depressing fantasy is better. People know it’s not real. Everyone loved True Detective, while the non-fantasy series on which it was based (Red Riding )seems to have been far less successful.

    Perhaps branch out into near-future technothrillers? Hive minds, internet, mind-altering protozoans and subconscious mind control. Goes together like milk and cookies. Give schizophrenics something plausible to be afraid..

  32. And in related news:

    Another scientist wakes up and smells the ashes..

    Paige Harden ‏@kph3k 22h ago
    I thought the whole idea of “liberal intolerance” was kind of a myth until this year.

    Anyone who knows me or my work knows that I am a fuzzy, bleeding heart leftist compared to many BG-ers

    I believe that poverty has real effects! That early environments matter!

    And yet — someone looked me straight in the eye today and said it would “good” if I stopped doing science

    Their rationale? Because calling anything heritable is “problematic”

    Actual tenured professors at Ivy League schools have said: “you shouldn’t talk about animal models”

    “You should never use race as a variable if you are talking about biology” (I was talking about pubertal timing.)

    “All of twin studies are flawed and should be abandoned”

    It’s like they’ve thought about things for all of 30 min and don’t even understand the basic math but feel free to dismiss entire fields

    How long will this go on? This habitual denial of the giant bloody obvious fact that as long as we’re talking about disgusting, sloshing meatbags, DNA matters. A lot.

  33. I find reading at novel, short story, and blog post lengths tiresome and confusing, so I’m looking forward to buying the colouring book editions of his novels that he talks about it this post (except for Behemoth, because I don’t want to get arrested).

  34. An Adult Coloring Book. There is apparently a trend and there are several older articles about other books, though I’d call this latest one more a puzzle coloring book. Love the maze to kiss the bearded hipster.

  35. Oh man! I’m sorry the wiles of hard character science fiction have thrown you, Peter, because your books are fantastic. Except for a few short stories, I’ve read everything you’ve ever written. I think I have, anyway. But that said, may “Nellie The Nephron” drive you toward greater fame and fortune. And maybe in 3000 years, when the Earth is one giant ball of processing power controlled by incorporeal personalities, a question will emerge: why the fuck didn’t our progenitors read more of this guy?

    I tip my cap, Peter. Good luck!

  36. Y.: Perhaps branch out into near-future technothrillers? Hive minds, internet, mind-altering protozoans and subconscious mind control. Goes together like milk and cookies. Give schizophrenics something plausible to be afraid..

    Is that even fiction?

    Well, I guess it might have been fiction when Philip K Dick covered it, but nowadays? I’m not so sure. Dick would have loved the ambiguity and the onion-like layers of WTF. Yet in the end he’d have tried to give some over-arching significance to the whole squishy smear. I suspect Our Gracious Host might go in exactly the opposite direction and make what was already ambiguous into something with all of the clarity and illumination (and stickiness, one presumes) of pelagic mud… while providing a lot of stuff to think about on the way down.

  37. Y.: Perhaps branch out into near-future technothrillers? Hive minds, internet, mind-altering protozoans and subconscious mind control. Goes together like milk and cookies. Give schizophrenics something plausible to be afraid..

    I dunno if you are saying that that’s a bad thing, but Paolo Bacigalupi did that recently with The Water Knife and honestly it was my favorite sf book of 2015. Thrillers can actually be a great way to get your point across

  38. Peter, Peter, Peter.

    You can’t stop because a) we won’t let you b) a writer as good as you can’t sip, it’s incorrigible now and c) who’d employ your sorry Canuck ass to do anything else?

    Kickstarter is sensible. I’d pay. I’ve just KS-ed a book project here in the UK. Look at it as a business model.

    But please, really. Smile the next time you do this to us.

  39. Adam Etzion: Noooo! The ending is all wrong! She should turn cancerous.

    Yes. Indeed, that may be the perfect ending. (But we may save it for the sequel.)

    Dr.No: but ¿how do you make enough money for it to no longer matter and be able to be truly free to do whatever the fuck you want?

    Well, if Pikkety is right, these days you inherit it. Lacking that option, I may have to resort to knocking over 7-11s.

    Ross Presser: Seriously, what’s with the coloring book hatred? They’re not to replace reading.

    I’d feel better if I believed that. There does, however, seem to be an ongoing dumbification of literature right across the spectrum, into which this whole coloring-book thing fits dismayingly well. Remind me to dig out that old article showing how the very same passages of the very same Hardy Boys titles have been simplified with each reissue.

    It’s the ever-diminishing Newspeak Dictionary, I tell you.

    Troutwaxer: Forget the satire. I think you should turn to Mil-SF.

    Troutwaxer, meet Crysis: Legion. Legion, meet Waxer of Trouts…

  40. redheadedfemme: I realize (now) that this is satire, but in all seriousness, Peter, have you ever thought of doing a Patreon or a Kickstarter for books and/or stories?

    I’ve thought about it. It’s an option. I may go for it sooner rather than later, depending on Big Publishing’s reaction to my next book.

    Privateiron:
    Snape’s arc was a bit interesting.Dumbledore had a gay affair with a Nazi and was revealed to be as bad at strategy as Gandalf.Harry’s father turned out to be an asshole.Luna Lovegood.Maybe Rowling did not intend it, but the Ministry in Book 5 was way scarier than Voldemort.On the other hand no one questioned the use of dementors by the state as basically a crime against humanity.

    It wasn’t great literature, but it was not completely color by numbers plotting.

    I was with them until Rowling revealed that time travel was so trivial for these guys that Hermione had a pocket trinket that allowed her to go back in time for no better reason than to max out her course load— and upon making this discovery, Harry— whose entire character and motivation has been shaped by the murder of his parents— never for a moment thinks “Hey, you know, we could go back and save my mum and dad!”.

    It was at that point I realized that Rowling was just making shit up as she went along. Subsequent events (like feeding the poison in the subterranean bowl to Dumbledore without even trying to simply pour it onto the ground instead) only confirmed that revelation.

    I never did get around to reading the seventh book.

    Tyler W.R. Cole: I have to express my melancholy upon hearing your plan to retire from SF; Blindsight & Echopraxia were life-changing books for me.

    Why, thank you. And, um, don’t give up hope. Check out the rest of the comments.

    Peter D: A humble suggestion, while in the brain she could meet some prions who hitched a load with some refugee neurons that somehow fled a violence-torn region in another state and made it into this one through the digestive system.

    Another worthy suggestion. I think we may have a series on our hands.

  41. Sheila: oh! as a lucrative tie-in. the coloring book. Thing: A Child’s Garden

    Yes!!!!!

    Y.: Perhaps branch out into near-future technothrillers?

    That’s the next one, actually. Intelligent Design. I’ve talked about it a fair bit on this ‘crawl…

    Y.: Another scientist wakes up and smells the ashes..

    Jesus.

    I wish I could say it surprises me. I think the problem is, many so-called “progressives” come out of the Humanities with a mindset that sets ideology above data. Of course, even scientists are subject to human bias, but the whole point of science is that it’s designed to be self-correcting in the face of that. I don’t see much evidence of similar safeguards across campus.

    At least the Russian folks who coined the term “political correctness” did so with a self-knowing irony. Or so I’ve been told.

  42. Peter Watts,

    It’s too bad you haven’t read the seventh book because it addressed the problems you had with the earlier ones. It wasn’t so much that Rowling was being lazy as that she was waiting until the end to completely mind-fuck her loyal fans and readers.

    It turned out that Harry Potter was the greatest wizard in existence, having created the universe and everyone in it. He doesn’t go back in time to save his parents because he doesn’t give a shit – he was the one who killed them in the first place. This revelation is followed by 63 blank pages, after he has returned to his true form as Voldemort, while he considers which form or forms to take next. He eventually (63 pages later) decides to retain the form of Voldemort, but iterate a priapic replication of himself for every character that had appeared in the novels. The ensuing orgy is macabre and disgusting in an entirely self-knowing way, and can be read as a biblical allegory. In the contemplative aftermath the possibility is raised that all of the events are not actually real but merely the delusions of a psychiatric patient. It is on this ambiguous note that the novel ends, with the character, now shape-shifting through a vast range of characters from a variety of genres, sitting in front of an 18” portable colour television on a wheeled cart endlessly replaying episodes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It can be read on several, increasingly obscure, levels, one of which is clearly a rumination on Crowley’s veiled understanding of occult erotica.

    When Rowling’s publisher turned this version down she self-published it, and being in Scotland at the time I was able to obtain a copy. You may borrow it if you like. It’s occurred to me that, when you say you have not gotten around to reading the seventh book, that you are thinking of the travesty foisted on the public by a publishing industry so thirsty for profits, and so lacking in scruples, that they hired both a ghost writer, and an actor who, following plastic surgery, bears a striking resemblance to the true author. The location of the actual Rowling, if she still lives, remains sadly unknown. There is speculation on the dark net that her publisher is holding her captive on an abandoned oil tanker somewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, but to date this remains firmly in the realm of tenuous speculation.

  43. “And all these people reading YA now will grow up into people who read more and more and more.”

    Data? From what I’ve seen most of “these people reading YA now” already ARE grown up.

  44. Oh, an April Fools’ Day prank. Ha ha h-… Wait a minute. It’s not April yet! It’s March!