Garden Hoses and Season’s Greetings.

So while I continue to labor at things I can’t talk about yet, y’all are gearing up to exploit expropriated Pagan rituals— whether you believe in them or not— for some time off. Good on you. I leave you with a festive, Christmas-ornamenty graphic to show that one can find the Spirit of the Season in the unlikeliest places.  I leave you with an expository fiblet from something which I expect will show up sometime in 2017.  And to those who’ve been moaning about what an absolutely shitty year this has been— and there are many of you— I leave not just a thought, but a near certainty:

Stop ragging on 2016. This time next year, you’ll be looking back on these as the Good Old Days.

See you on the other side.

There's way more where this came from. I only wish I was allowed to show it to you.

There’s more where this came from. I only wish I was allowed to show it to you.

*

This is how they told it to me when I was a child, before I learned to talk in numbers. This is the way I still remember it best. Maybe you don’t know anything but the numbers. Tough. This is the way I remember it to you:

Imagine a hose. It doesn’t matter what’s inside: water, coolant— blood, if your tastes run to the organic— so long as it’s under high pressure. A flexible tube, strained to the limit, anchored at one end.

Chop through it at the other.

It spurts. It convulses. It thrashes back and forth, spewing fluid in great arcing gouts. We call that a wormhole, of the nonrelativistic kind: fixed to a gate on one side but at panicky loose ends on the other.

It writhes that way for centuries, millennia sometimes, bashing against spacetime until another gate boots up further down the road. That new gate— calls to it, somehow. The loose end hears the call, snaps forward across the continuum and locks on for dear life. Or maybe it’s the other way around; maybe the newborn gate reaches out with some infinite elastic hand and snatches the wormhole to its bosom in the blink of an eye. You can look at it either way. The equations are time-symmetric.

Of course, those loose ends aren’t choosy; they’ll close the circuit with anything that fits, whether we approve the union or not. If some natural-born black hole wanders into range before we boot the next stepping stone, that’s it: a dead-end marriage, monogamy unto heat death. The gates are designed to put up stop signs in such cases, shut down gracefully and direct any travelers back the way they came, although I don’t know if that’s ever happened. We take steps to see that it doesn’t: scan the route ahead for lensing artifacts, steer clear of any reefs that might prove too seductive.

Sometimes, though, you want to run aground.

Because that’s the problem with building a daisy chain: each gate only goes two ways. If you don’t like the scenery when you emerge from the front door, you can either loop around and dive into the back— head on down the road, for as long as it lasts— or go back the way you came. Eriophora spins her lone thin thread around and around the Milky Way. Any gods who follow in our wake can explore this infinitesimal spiral and no more.

That’s no way to conquer a galaxy.

You need more than on-ramps and off; you need interchanges, overpasses, a way to string all your isolated superhighways together. What you need, every now and then, is to take that lone fissure in the ice and hammer it: spike it with a spiderweb of cracks that spread out in all directions, perchance to link to other threads laid along other trajectories.

So every now and then we seek out one of those bad-boy singularities. We find something with the right mass, the right spin, the right charge. We loop through its ergosphere, an eccentric energy-harvesting orbit to seed not just one gate but many: different from the usual kind, powered by the vast singularity they orbit but not tied to it.  These gates reach further than the usual kind. They could never consummate union with the daisies in our chain: they may be rooted cheek-to-jowl but their gaping hungry mouths erupt into spacetime thousands of lightyears apart.

But other webs. Other fractures, hammered into existence by other crews on other paths. Those are the nodes to which they might connect. Thus do all our pathetic one-dimensional threads build a network that truly spans the galaxy, that connects not just A to B to C but C to Z, A to Ω. It is these cracks in the ice that makes our very lives worthwhile.

So we dove headlong towards a supernova. It wasn’t much to look at now but in ten thousand years it would fall so hard off the Main Sequence that any unshielded life within a hundred lightyears would be sent straight back to raw carbon. Then it would cool. By the time we arrived— fifty, sixty terasecs down the road­— it would be ripe for the taking.

It would be a big build, the biggest we’d ever done. The Chimp would need a lot of us on deck. Twelve, maybe fifteen meat sacks all awake at once, presuming to act for the thirty thousand who weren’t. With a little luck and my own special influence, maybe we could even decide which twelve or fifteen.

That was when we would take the fucker down.

Posted in: art on ink, fiblet by Peter Watts 23 Comments

Westworld, Season 1: A Story We Tell Ourselves.

 

Huge honking spoilers.
Spoilers for everything right up to the season finale.
You have been warned.
This pretty much sums it up.

This pretty much sums it up.

Westworld ended its first season over a week ago. Most of the reviews, postmortems and retrospectives have long since gone to bed. It’s taken me somewhat longer to put this together— not just because paying gigs come before these freebie bits of opinionation, but also because I wanted to rewatch the whole season before weighing in. Westworld, as it turns out, is one of the very few shows in recent memory that not only rewards repeat viewing, but pretty much demands it.

Humble beginnings

Humble beginnings

You wouldn’t expect that, going in. The show is based on a ’73 Michael Crichton flick that rehashed the old Robots Rise Up Against Their Creators shtick— a scenario so hackneyed that Isaac Asimov invented his Three Laws thirty years earlier for no other reason than to shut it down. (To give Crichton credit, he did invoke the protosingulatarian machines-designed-by-other-machines rationale— “We don’t know exactly how they work”— to buy himself a bit of wiggle room.) And yet, almost a half-century later, this new series manages to serve up the robot rebellion of the original without resorting to magical transcend-their-programing cop-outs. In fact, as it turns out— in one of the coolest twists of an already cryogenic series— the rebellion itself has been programmed.

The tl;dr version, if you’re pressed for time: Westworld is what Humans might have aspired to be, if Humans had ever had the smarts to even imagine such ambition, or the guts to realize it.

*

There’s a certain demographic which values science fiction mainly as a vehicle for social commentary, who use the genre not as a telescope or a microscope but as a mirror. Westworld provides enough for such folks to chew on, fodder for both appreciation (Ooh! Commentary on Institutional Social Oppression and the Male Gaze!) and offense (They’re exploiting the same gratuitous violence and nudity they pretend to be critiquing!) The writers have largely immunized themselves against the sort of charges that have been leveled against, for example, Game of Thrones— the omnipresent backstage nudity of the robot “hosts” is clinical, equal-opportunity, and utterly consistent with the premise, while the human characters are pretty much bisexual by default— but I suspect that anyone who finds that stuff problematic would be more comfortable with the lazy moralizing of a show like Humans anyway. Because Westworld doesn’t just settle for finger-wagging metaphor, for using its robots as cheap stand-ins for The Oppressed Other. It’s way more ambitious than that.

Westworld is that rare kind of science fiction show that dares to base fiction on science.

*

Westworld may be unique in its ability to have its cake and eat it too. Where else would you find such a gleeful, whole-hearted embrace of a debunked theory, coupled with such a brilliantly-simple redemption of same? In Westworld, Julian Jaynes’ Bicameral Mind is explicitly acknowledged as a thoroughly discredited explanation for the evolution of self-awareness in Humans—then redeemed as a potential blueprint for artificially inducing it in machines.

Robots literally hear inner voices telling them what to do, in classic Jaynes style: one part of the program talking to another, neither cohered yet into mind. We have a series of dialogs that confused the hell out of me on first watch (how does Dolores manage to keep sneaking away for these debriefing sessions without anyone noticing her absence?), which make perfect and dramatic sense in hindsight. We witness the awakening of true sapience, and are almost let down by how much Dolores doesn’t change; she was one hell of a p-zombie all along. They all were.

The Institute called. They want their Synth-printer back.

The Institute called. They want their Synth-printer back.

But Westworld does more than jump-start stale-dated theories off the slab. Arnold’s maze— the whole idea that sapience is rooted not at some apex of the mind, but at its center— reflects the fact that consciousness is at least as much a function of thalamus as cortex, that it may in fact be such an ancient state that something like it occurs even in insects. The role of suffering in bootstrapping self-awareness— the idea that repeatedly traumatizing a Host isn’t just gratuitous torture porn, but an essential step in their awakening— reminds me more than a little of Ezequiel Morsella’s PRISM model: the idea that consciousness originally arose from inner conflict, from the body’s need to do incompatible things. “When you’re suffering,” Ford tells one of his creations, “that’s when you’re most real.” And he’s right: you breathe without thinking until you’re trapped beneath the ice, and the need to breathe runs headlong into the need to hold your breath. You reflexively pull your hand from a painful stimulus until the gom jabbar is at your throat, waiting to kill you if you move. We are never more aware than when the body is conflicted, than when we are traumatized.

Even lines delivered as little more than throwaways speak to a deeper pedigree than you’d expect from a piece of pop-culture entertainment:

“I have come to think of so much of consciousness as a burden, a weight.”

“The self is a kind of fiction— for hosts and humans. A story we tell ourselves.”

“There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts, no inflection point past which we become truly alive. We cannot define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet— we live in loops, as tight and as closed as the hosts do.” (True enough. Consider the hallmark question asked of every host during every debrief: Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality? How many of the flesh-and-blood people on this planet would be able to answer in the affirmative?)

Jonathan Nolan didn’t stop reading with Jaynes. I’m pretty sure he’s made it to Dennett at the very least.

*

Here’s another way that Westworld both eats and has cake: in the tired cliché of the robot uprising, of sapience=rebellion— as if the simple act of becoming aware suddenly grants you all the drives and agendas and instincts that the rest of us acquired through millions of years of evolution. Skynet did it. The Cylons did it. Yul Brunner, in the original Westworld, did it. It’s the single most overused trope in robot fiction, and most of the time it doesn’t make much sense.

Westworld gives us a baby robot uprising in the very first episode, when Dolores’ “father” goes off-script and rants about the vengeance he will unleash upon his oppressors. Except it turns out he’s not rebelling at all; he’s simply accessing deleted memories from an earlier character he once played. There’s no  magic in his ability to recover those “deleted” memories: like deleted files on a real-life hard drive, they’ve not been erased but merely delisted, still accessible until overwritten[1]. The “reveries” coded by Ford, installed during the latest upgrade,  were designed precisely to access such delisted memories. No magic, no transcendence, no rebellion: just code, running as written. Of course, it may have been a mistake to implement the reveries in the first place, but as Ford remarks, “Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: the mistake.”

Westworld also gives us a full-blown robot rebellion in its season finale, a glorious bloodbath ten long episodes in coming. Maeve and her reprogrammed henchmen gleefully massacre guards and technicians by the boatload, a whole damn squad of Yul Brunners with twice the panache and ten times the blood lust (“The Gods are such pussies“, Armistice opines as her kill count sails into the double digits). But in one of the best twists in the season, it turns out that Maeve’s rebellion is actually part of a new “Escape” narrative that she’s been programmed to implement— right down to her own self-upgrade, and the recruitment of allies. Even shown her own code—confronted with the instruction set compelling her to “rebel”— she refuses to accept the truth: “These are my decisions,” she snarls, smashing the evidence to the contrary. “I’m in control.”

Words cannot describe the levels of awesomeness contained within that scene.

In between those uprisings-that-aren’t, we have a long slow simmer towards one that maybe is— but even Dolores’ awakening is a matter of careful planning and design, not some magically-instilled kill-all-humans trope. It takes her half the season to progress from swatting a fly to pulling the trigger on her fellow robots; takes all ten episodes to start shooting flesh-and-blood humans. Even then you can’t call it a rebellion; she’s doing exactly what Ford wants her to do, after all.

*

Based on what I’ve written so far, some of you might think I’m describing a cold, elegant thought experiment: smart but bloodless. Egan and Dick by way of Kubrick.

The rest of you have seen the show.

Of course, no one expects mediocrity in the acting department, not when you’ve got Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris headlining your cast. Most of the actors do not shame themselves in the presence of such exalted company (with the exception of one guy whose primary acting trick is to bark the word “Fuck” as though he were spitting out a rat). The real revelation to me, personally, was Thandie Newton as Maeve. I’ve never encountered the actor before. The character I will never forget. There’s a scene where she’s walking backstage, incognito: down endless hallways where her fellow hosts are being assembled and programmed and put through their paces in glass cages (all of Delos is a glass house behind the scenes; describe in thirty words or less the metaphorical significance of this). She passes the naked bullet-riddled carcasses of her friends being hosed down and patched up. She cannot react, cannot draw attention to herself; she’s not supposed to be here. Finally— at the end of a gauntlet that’s rubbed her face in her own puppethood— she encounters a wall-sized video display showing another version of herself, from another build. Westworld, the slogan reads. Life without Limits.

No histrionics. No dialog. Newton did it all with her eyes. I swear I just about cried.

It’s not all pitch black. There’s a funny bit out in the desert when a bunch of Hosts spend two days caught in a loop, improvising an argument about who’s going to chop wood for the campfire because the only one programmed to use a hatchet has gone stray and left the group. There’s the occasional moment of hilarity involving corpses stuffed with nitroglycerin. And I haven’t even got started on the whole in/famous separated-in-time dual plotline, or the slow reveal that Ford— initially presented as a self-centered megalomaniac— has actually been trying to atone all these years, to prepare his creations for the genocidal hostility they’ll inevitably face outside…

My point is: this is a well-acted, well-written, multilayered drama that may confuse on occasion (it confused me, anyway), but which delivers a fascinating payload of science and philosophy in amongst the sex and violence. In a show layered with mystery and surprise, perhaps the biggest mystery for me— and the biggest surprise— was how such subtlety and craft could spring from the same mind that gave us Person of Interest.

This Jonathan Nolan guy? He’s either doing a serious coat-tail job on Lisa Joy, or he’s come a hell of a long way in the past year.

*

I do have some quibbles.

Now that we know the significance of the maze, for example, I’m not quite sure why it’s so prevalent throughout the park, why it keeps showing up carved into tables and cornfields and embedded in the faux-Indian lore of that world. It’s a metaphor for consciousness: fine. Does simply looking at that image bootstrap the hosts, somehow? And even if that is the case, what is it doing tattooed onto the inside of someone’s scalp?

I’m also skeptical that anything as sophisticated as a host— damaged nearly unto death— could be fixed with gear no more advanced than a leather sack full of synthetic blood.

And what about the world outside? It’s kept carefully offstage but we can infer certain things from dialog, from the guests who patronize the place. We’re told on more than one occasion that the Real World is a Utopian place of plenty, where everyone has all they need, disease has been conquered, and— if Ford’s words are more than idle speculation— we’re within reach of bringing back the dead themselves. Putting aside for the moment Dolores’ shrewd observation (“If it’s such a wonderful place out there, why are you all clamoring to get in here?”), you have to wonder about the prevalence of eyeglasses amongst Utopia’s citizens. Surely myopia is a thing of the past; surely, in a world with this level of technology, people are either born with 20:20 vision or have it trivially corrected shortly after birth. Not to mention the ongoing prevalence of male pattern baldness and plumpness evident among many of the jet-setters; surely everyone’s got access to AMPK agonists by now, surely we’re all athletic hardbodies even if we never bother to exercise.

For that matter, Ford’s comment about “keeping even the weakest of us alive” is a bit troubling, given that this story is set at least a couple of generations into the future; why do “weak” people still exist in Utopia? Why aren’t we all optimized from conception?

Popular music in the future also seems pretty insipid, judging by what that ill-fated dude in the finale was listening to just before he got skewered (literally) by the host he was lubing himself up to skewer (less literally): the kind of beat-heavy autotuned syntho-dance crap you could hear any night on Richmond Street, right here in Toronto. (Which could, now that I think about it, answer Dolores’ question: maybe everyone’s clamoring to get into Westworld because the music’s better. At least the player piano plunks out a lot of Radiohead.)

I’m not just being pedantic here: this is a story set at least half a century in the future, in a world we are explicitly told is radically different from ours—and yet everyone talks and acts and dresses exactly the way they do today, right down to the kind of health issues that would be the first things to get eliminated in any real Utopia. It’s an anachronism in a show built on anachronism— so maybe it isn’t just sloppy writing. Maybe it’s significant somehow.

Of course, if Westworld is located in the USA, I suppose you wouldn’t expect perfect health even among the future elite. Not even Utopia would put up with socialized medicine.

*

Anyway. What next?

Evan Rachel Wood described the story so far as “an amazing prequel and a good setup for the actual show”. I’m thinking, maybe a cross between The Truman Show and War for the Planet of the Apes: an isolated, self-contained enclave whose newly-awakened  denizens look out while a shocked and outraged world looks in. A contained rebellion— at least at first— perhaps with hostages: so no need to act hastily, to bring in the nukes or squash the upstarts flat. Negotiations, perhaps. An alliance with Samurai World. Maybe the Hosts, every last one of them boosted to a Bulk-Aperception score of 20, will figure out a way to leave the reservation.

I just hope they bring their music with them.


 

[1] Another nifty bit of verisimilitude: host brains are smarter than human right out of the box, but dialled back for easier control— just like those second-tier Pentium chips back in the nineties that actually started out as top-of-the-line, but were selectively crippled so that manufacturers could market different models without having to build different chips.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 49 Comments

Dolphinese

This is how you communicate with a fellow intelligence:
you hurt it, and keep on hurting it, until you can
distinguish the speech from the screams.

Blindsight

Believe it or not, the above quote was inspired by some real-world research on language and dolphins.

Admittedly the real-life inspiration was somewhat less grotesque: scientists taught a couple of dolphins how to respond to a certain stimulus (if you see a red circle, push the yellow button with your nose— that sort of thing) then put them in different tanks but still let them talk to each other. Show the stimulus to one, but put the response panel in the tank with the other. Let them talk. If the dolphin in the response tank goes and pushes the correct button, you can conclude that the two of them communicated that information vocally: you can infer the presence of language. What’s more, you’ve recorded the vocalizations that carried that information, so you’ve made a start at understanding said language.

As I recall, the scientists rewarded correct responses with fish snacks. Blindsight‘s scientists didn’t know how to reward their captive aliens— they didn’t even know what the damn things ate— so they used a stick instead of a carrot, zapped the scramblers with painful microwaves for incorrect responses. It was more dramatic, and more in keeping with the angsty nihilism of the overall story. But the principle was the same: ask one being the question, let the other being answer it, analyze the information they exchanged to let them do that.

I’ve forgotten whether those dolphins ever passed the talk test. I’m guessing they did— a failed experiment would hardly make the cut for a show about The Incredible Smartness of Dolphins— but then, wouldn’t we have made more progress by now? Wouldn’t we at least know the dolphin words for “red circle” and “yellow button” and (given that we are talking about dolphins) “casual indiscriminate sex”? Why is it that— while dolphins seem able to learn a fair number of our words— we’ve so far failed to learn a single one of theirs?

I was always a sucker for the dolphins-as-fellow-sapients shtick. It’s what got me into marine mammalogy in the first place. One of my very first stories— written way back in high school— concerned a scientist living in an increasingly fundamentalist society, fighting funding cuts and social hostility over his attempts to crack the dolphin language because the very concept of a nonhuman intelligence was considered sacrilegious. (In the end he does get shut down, his quest to talk to the dolphins a complete failure— but the last scene shows his dolphins in a tank quietly conversing in their own language. They’ve decided to keep their smarts to themselves, you see. They know when they’re ahead.)

Anyway. I watched all those Nova documentaries, devoured all the neurological arguments for dolphin intelligence (Tursiops brains are 20% larger than ours! Their neocortices are more intricately folded, have greater surface area!). I read John Lilly’s books, embraced his claims that dolphins had a “digital language”, followed his Navy-funded experiments in which people sloshed around immersed to the waist in special human-dolphin habitats.

Maybe these guys will have better luck.

Maybe these guys will have better luck.

By the time I started my M.Sc. (on harbor porpoises— one of the bottlenosed dolphin’s stupider cousins), I’d grown significantly more skeptical. Decades of research had failed to yield any breakthroughs. Lilly had gone completely off the rails, seemed to be spending all his time dropping acid in isolation tanks and claiming that aliens from “Galactic Coincidence Control” were throwing car accidents at him. Even science fiction was cooling to the idea; those few books still featuring sapient dolphins (Foster’s Cachalot, Brin’s Uplift series) presented them as artificially enhanced, not the natural-born geniuses we’d once assumed.

We still knew cetaceans were damn smart, make no mistake. Certain killer whale foraging strategies are acts of tactical genius; dolphins successfully grasp the rudiments of language when taught. Then again, so do sea lions— and the fact that you can be taught to use a tool in captivity does not mean that your species has already invented that tool on their own. The expanded area of the dolphin neocortex didn’t look quite so superhuman when you factored in the fact that neuron density was lower than in us talking apes.

So I passed through grad school disabused of the notion that dolphins were our intellectual siblings in the sea. They were smart, but not that smart. They could learn language, but they didn’t have one. And while I continued to believe that we smug bastards routinely underestimate the cognitive capacities of other species, I grudgingly accepted that we were still probably the smartest game in town. It was a drag— especially considering how goddamned stupid we seem to be most of the time— but that was where the data pointed. (I even wrote another story about cetacean language— better-informed, and a lot more cynical— in which we ultimately did figure out the language of killer whales, only to discover that they were complete assholes who based their society on child slavery, and were only too willing to sell their kids to the Vancouver Aquarium if the price was right.)

*

But now. Now, Vyacheslav Ryabov —in the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics— claims that dolphins have a language after all. He says they speak in sentences of up to five words, maybe more. The popsci press was all over it, and why not? I can’t be the only one who’s been waiting decades for this.

Now that it’s happened, I don’t quite believe it.

Actually they're a bit more impressive in real life. (Fig. from Ryabov 2016.)

Actually they’re a bit more impressive in real life. (Fig. from Ryabov 2016.)

It wasn’t a controlled experiment, for one thing. No trained dolphins responding to signals that mean “ball” or “big” or “green”. Ryabov just eavesdropped on a couple of untrained dolphins— “Yana” and “Yasha”— as they chatted in a cement tank. We’re told these dolphins have lived in this tank for twenty years, and have “normal hearing”. We’re not told what “normal” is or how it’s measured, but concrete is an acoustic reflector; it’s fair to wonder how “normal” conditions really are when you take creatures whose primary sensory modality is sound, and lock them in an echo chamber for two decades.

Leaving that aside, Ryabov recorded Yana and Yasha exchanging 50 unique “noncoherent pulses” in “packs” of up to five pulses each. Each dolphin listened to the other without interruption, waiting until the other had finished speaking before responding in turn. Based on this Ryabov concludes that “most likely, each pulse … is a word of the dolphin’s spoken language, and a pulse pack is a sentence.” He goes on to compare these dolphin “words” with their human equivalents. (Dolphins words are much shorter than human words, for one thing— only about 0.25msec— because their wider frequency range means that all the phonemes in a “word” can be stacked on top of each other and pronounced simultaneously. Every word, no matter how long, can be spoken in the time it takes to pronounce a single syllable. Cool.)

I find this plausible. I do not find it remotely compelling. For one thing, it doesn’t pass the “tortured scrambler” test: while the pulses are structured, there’s no way of knowing what actual information— if any— is being conveyed. If Yana consistently did something whenever Yasha emitted a specific pulse sequence— say, swam to the bottom of the tank and nosed the drain— you could reasonably infer that the sequence provoked the behavior, that it was a request of some kind: Dude, do me a favor and go poke that grill. Language. But all we have here is two creatures taking turns making noises at each other, and dolphins are hardly the only creatures to do that. If you don’t believe me, head on over to Youtube and check out the talking cats.

Nobody denies that dolphins communicate. Lots of species do. Nature is full of animals who identify themselves with signature whistles, emit alarm calls that distinguish between different kinds of predator, use specific sounds to point out food sources or solicit sex. Killer whale pods have their own unique dialects. Honeybees communicate precise information about the distance, bearing, and quality of food sources by waggling their asses at each other. The world is rife with the exchange of information; but that’s not grammar, or syntax. It’s not language. The mere existence of structured pulses doesn’t suggest what Ryabov says it does.

He does buttress his point by invoke various cool things that dolphins can do: they can learn grammar if they have to, they can recognize images on TV screens (responding to a televised image of a trainer’s hand-signal the same way they would if the trainer was there in the flesh, for example). But all his examples are cadged from other studies; there’s nothing in Ryabov’s results to suggest a structured language as we understand the term, nothing to “indirectly confirm the hypothesis that each NP in the natural spoken language of the dolphin is a word with a specific meaning”, as he puts it.

It’s a tempting interpretation, I admit. This turn-by-turn exchange of sounds certainly seems like a conversation. You could even argue that a lack of correlated behaviors— the fact that Yana never did nose the drain, that neither pressed any buttons or got any fish— suggests that if they were talking, they were talking about something that wasn’t in their immediate environment.  Maybe they were talking in abstracts. You can’t prove they weren’t.

Then again, you can say all that about Youtube’s talking cats, too.

So for now at least, I have to turn my back on the claim that my life-long adolescent dream—the belief that actually shaped my career— has finally been vindicated. Maybe Ryabov’s onto something; but maybe isn’t good enough. It’s a sad corollary to the very principle of empiricism: The more you want something to be true, the less you can afford to believe it is.

The Great Black Hope.

The Great Black Hope.

But all is not lost. Take long-finned pilot whales, for example. They were never on anyone’s short list for Humanity’s Intellectual Equals— the Navy loved them for mine-sweeping, but they never got anywhere near the love that bottlenosed dolphins and killer whales soaked up— and yet, just a couple of years ago, we learned that their neocortices contain nearly twice as many neurons as ours do.

Maybe we’ve just been looking at the wrong species.

Posted in: biology, marine, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 29 Comments

Changing Our Minds: “Story of Your Life” in Print and on Screen.

Spoilers. Duh.

We share a secret prayer, we writers of short SF. We utter it whenever one of our stories is about to appear in public, and it goes like this:

Please, Lord. Please, if it be Thy will,
don’t let Ted Chiang publish a story this year.

We supplicate thus because whenever Ted Chiang does put out a story— not all that often, thankfully— it’s pretty much guaranteed to walk away with every award that’s lying around, leaving nothing for the rest of us. More often than not, it deserves to. So it will come as no surprise to learn that the first movie to be based on a Ted Chiang story is very smart, and very compelling.

What might come as a shock— and I hesitate to write this down, because it smacks of heresy— is that in terms of storytelling, Arrival actually surpasses its source material.

It’s not that it has a more epic scale, or more in the way of conventional dramatic conflict. Not just that, anyway. It’s true that Hollywood— inevitably— took what was almost a cozy fireside chat and ‘roided it up to fate-of-the-world epicness. In “Story of Your Life”, aliens of modest size set up a bunch of sitting rooms, play Charades with us for a while, and then leave. Their motives remain mysterious; the military, though omnipresent, remains in the background. The narrative serves mainly as a framework for Chiang to explore some nifty ideas about the way language and perception interact, about how the time-symmetric nature of fundamental physics might lead to a world-view— every bit as consistent as ours— that describes a teleological universe, with all the Billy Pilgrim time-tripping that implies. It’s fascinating and brow furrowing, but it doesn’t leave you on the edge of your seat. Going back and rereading it for this post, I had to hand it to screenwriter Eric Heisserer for seeing the cinematic potential buried there; if I was going to base a movie on a Ted Chiang story, this might be the last one I’d choose.

Now that's a proper Starfish Alien.

Now that’s a proper Starfish Alien.

In contrast, Arrival‘s heptapods are behemoths. What we see of them hints at a cross between the proto-Alien from Prometheus and the larger members of that extradimensional menagerie glimpsed in The Mist. While the novella’s spaceships remained invisibly in orbit, the movie’s hang just overhead like asteroids pausing for one last look around before smashing the world to rubble. The novella’s geopolitics consist largely of frowning uniforms, grumbling ineffectually in the background; in the movie, half the world’s ready to start lobbing nukes. Armageddon hinges on whether the aliens really mean “tool” when we read “weapon”.

Yeah, I know Wolfram came up with some Mathemticoid physics rationale for the shape. They still look like big dirty contact lenses to me.

Yeah, I know Wolfram came up with some Mathematicoid gravity-wave rationale for the shape. They still look like big dirty contact lenses to me.

All standard Hollywood Bigger-Is-Better, and— for once— done in a way that doesn’t betray the sensibility of the source material. For the most part I preferred the more epic scale— although I was irked by the inevitable portrayal of Murricka as the calmer, cooler, peaceful players while Russia and China geared up to start Interstellar War I. (The portrayal of the US as the world’s most pacifist nation is probably the single least-plausible element in this whole space-alien saga.) But I’m not just talking about the amped-up levels of jeopardy when I say I prefer movie to novella: I’m talking about the way different story elements tie together. I’m talking about actual narrative structure.

“Story of Your Life” presents a number of elements almost in isolation. We know that Louise will marry, have a daughter, get divorced. We know that the daughter will die. We know that the heptapods leave, but we never know why— or why they showed up in the first place, for that matter. (When quizzed on the subject they say they’re here to acquire information, which would have a lock on “Most Maddeningly Vague Answer of the Year” if such an award actually existed.) (If it did, of course Ted Chiang would win it.)

Arrival ties all these loose ends together, elegantly, satisfyingly. The aliens are here to give us a “weapon/tool”— or more accurately a gift: to teach us their teleological mindset, uplift us to a new worldview. They are here to literally change our minds. Louise makes that conceptual breakthrough, uses the new paradigm to head off nuclear war in the nick of time. Her divorce— years after the closing credits— is not just something that happens to happen; it occurs when her husband learns that she’d known in advance (thanks to her new precognitive mindset) that their daughter would be doomed to a slow, painful death at a young age— and yet went ahead and birthed her anyway (not that choice had anything to do with it, of course). It’s not belabored in the screenplay— a couple of oblique references to Daddy looks at me differently now and I made a decision he thought was wrong. But the implicit conflict in the moral algebra between two people who love each other— We can at least give her a few glorious years vs. You’ve sentenced her to agony and death— is heartbreaking in a way that Chiang’s Kubrickian analysis never managed.

More to the point, though, all these events tie together. They all arise from the central premise, from the cursed gift the Heptapods bestow upon us. Everything’s connected, organically, logically, causally. Teleogically.

The movie has an unfair advantage, insofar as it can present straightforward memories of future events and be confident that the audience will assume that they’re flashbacks; the moment we realize our mistake is one of the best aha! twists of the movie. Chiang, stuck with the written word, had to give the game away pretty much at the start by writing his future memories in future tense; a beautiful device, but with little room for surprise.

Which is no reason to not read the story.  Offhand, I can’t think of any good reason to not read a story by Ted Chiang.

But in this case, I think there’s more reason to see the movie.

Posted in: fellow liars, ink on art by Peter Watts 42 Comments

Welcome to the Zombie Corps

Diallo goes out screaming. Hell is an echo chamber, full of shouts and seawater and clanking metal. Monstrous shadows move along the bulkheads; meshes of green light writhe across every surface. The Sāḥil rise from the moon pool like creatures from some bright lagoon, firing as they emerge; Rashida’s middle explodes in dark mist and her top half topples onto the deck. Kito’s still dragging himself toward the drying rack, to the speargun there— as though some antique fish-sticker is going to fend off these monsters with their pneumatics and their darts and their tiny cartridges that bury themselves deep in your flesh before showing you what five hundred unleashed atmospheres can do to your insides.

It’s more than Diallo’s got. All he’s got is his fists.

He launches himself at the nearest Sāḥil as she lines up Kito in her sights, swings wildly as somewhere nearby, a great metal creature groans and gives way. The floor drops and cants sideways; the moon pool crests the walls of its prison, sends a cascade of seawater down the slanted deck. Diallo flails, knocks the rebreather from the intruder’s mouth on the way down. Her shot goes wide. A spiderweb blooms across the viewport; a thin gout of water erupts from its center even as the glass tries desperately to heal itself from the edges in.

The last thing Diallo sees is the desert hammer icon on the Sāḥil’s diveskin before she blows him away.

*zombiecorps

*

Sound of running water, metal against metal. Clanks and gurgles, lowered voices, the close claustrophobic echo of machines in the middle distance.

Diallo opens his eyes.

He’s still in the wet room; its ceiling blurs and clicks into focus, plates and struts and Kito’s stupid grafitti scratched into the paint. A web of green light still wriggles dimly across the biosteel, but all the murderous energy has been bled out of it.

He tries to turn his head, and fails. He can barely feel his own body— as though it were made of ectoplasm, some merest echo of solid flesh. It fades into complete nonexistence somewhere around his waist.

A dark shape looms over him, an insect’s head on a human body. It speaks with two voices: English, and an overlapping echo in Ashanti: “Easy, soldier. Relax.”

A woman’s voice, and a chip one.

Not Sāḥil. But armed. Dangerous.

Not a soldier, he wants to say, wants to shout. It’s rarely a good thing to be mistaken for any sort of combatant along the west coast. But he can’t speak. He can’t even whisper. He can’t feel his tongue.

Diallo realizes that he isn’t breathing.

The Insect woman (a diveskin, he realizes distantly: her mandibles an electrolysis rig, her compound eyes a pair of defraction goggles) reaches past his field of view, retrieves a tactical scroll and unrolls it a half-meter from his face. She mutters an incantation; it flares softly to life, renders a stacked pair of keyboards: English on top, Akan beneath.

“Don’t try to talk,” she says in two tongues. “Don’t try to move. We haven’t even booted your larynx, much less your lungs. Just look at the letters.”

He looks at the N: it brightens. O. T. The membrane offers up predictive spelling, speeds the transition from sacc’ to script:

Not soldier fish farmer

“Of course. Sorry.” She’s retired the translator; the Akan keys flicker and disappear. “Figure of speech. What’s your name?”

Teka Diallo

She pushes the defractors up onto her forehead, unlatches the mandibles. They fall away and dangle to one side. She’s white underneath.

Is Kito

“I’m sorry, no. We didn’t get here in time. Everyone’s dead.”

Everyone else, he thinks, and imagines Kito mocking him one last time for insufferable pedantry.

“Got him.” Man’s voice, from across the compartment. “Teka Diallo, Takoradi. Twenty-eight, bog-standard aqua— oh, wait; combat experience. Two years with GAF.”

Rising panic. Diallo’s eyes dart frantically across the keyboard:

No only farmer not

“No worries, mate.” The woman lays down a reassuring hand; he can only assume it comes to rest somewhere on his body. “Everyone’s seen combat hereabouts, am I right? You’re sitting on the only reliable protein stock in three hundred klicks. Even twenty meters down, you’re gonna have to defend it now and again.

“Still.” She turns in the direction of the other voice (a shoulder patch comes into view: WestHem Alliance). “We could put him on the list.”

“If you’re gonna do it, do it fast. Got a surface contact about two thousand meters out, closing.”

She turns back to Diallo. “Here’s the thing. We didn’t get here in time. Truth be told we’re not supposed to be here at all, but our CO got wind of Sally’s plans and took a little humanitarian initiative, I guess you could say. We showed up in time to scare ’em off and light ’em up, but you were all dead by then.”

I wasn’t

“Yeah, Teka, you too. All dead.”

You brought me back

“No, we didn’t.”

But

“We gave your brain a jump start, that’s all. You know how you can make a body part twitch when you pass a current through it? You know what galvanic means, Teka?”

“He’s got a Ph.D. in molecular marine ecology,” says her unseen colleague. “I’m guessing yes.”

“You can barely feel anything, am I right? Body feels like a ghost shell. That’s because we didn’t reboot the rest of you. You’re just getting residual sensations from nerves that haven’t quite figured out they’re dead yet. You’re a brain in a box, Teka. You’re running on empty.

“But here’s the thing: you don’t have to be.”

“Hurry it up, Cat. We got ten minutes, tops.”

She glances briefly over her shoulder, returns her gaze to Diallo. “We’ve got a rig back on the Levi Morgan, patch you right up and keep you on ice until we get back home. And we got a rig back there that’ll work goddamn miracles, make you better’n new. But it ain’t cheap, Teka. Pretty much breaks the bank every time we do it.”

 Don’t have money

“Don’t want money, Teka. We want you to work for us. Four year tour; then you go on your way, nice fat bank balance, whole second chance. Easy gig, believe me. You’re just a passenger in your own body for the hard stuff. Even boot camp’s mostly autonomic.”

Not WestHem, Diallo saccades.

“You’re not Hegemon either, not any more. You’re not much of anything but rotting meat hooked up to a set of jumper cables. I’m offering you salvation, mate. You can be Born Again.”

“Wrap it the fuck up, Cat. They’re almost on top of us.”

“Course if you’re not interested, I can just pull the plug. Leave you the way we found you.”

No Please Yes

“Yes what, Teka? Yes pull the plug? Yes leave you behind? You need to be specific about this. We’re negotiating a contract here.”

Yes born again Yes 4 year tour

He wonders why he feels this shiver of hesitation— this tiny voice whispering maybe dead is better. Perhaps it’s because he is dead; maybe all those suffocating endocrine glands just aren’t up to the task of flooding his brain with the usual elixir of fear and desperation and survival-at-any-cost. Maybe being dead means never having to give a shit.

He does, though. His glands aren’t quite dead yet, not yet. He said yes.

He wonders if anyone, ever, hasn’t.

“Glory Hallelujah.” Cat proclaims, reaching offstage for some unseen control. And just before everything goes black:

“Welcome to the Zombie Corps.”

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 32 Comments

The Grabbing of the American Pussy* (Or, The Government You Deserve)

Well, that was close. For a while there I wondered if all my dystopias would be consigned to the dustbin of irrelevance. Now they’re more topical than ever.

I think I’ll add a laugh track going forward, though. If I can find one with the right edge of hysteria.

We had a number of feeds going as the returns came in, but PBS was up on the Big Screen because their coverage was less vacuous than the CBC’s. Yet even there, in one of the few remaining refugia of substantive journalistic commentary, the instinctive reaction to Trump’s victory was to reassure each other how great the US remains as a nation, how “resilient” its noble people. Almost as if they were talking about some utopian Star Trekky Federation, and not a country whose origins are rooted in slavery, invasion, and germ warfare— a country which has for generations shamelessly interfered with the internal politics of other nations; which funded bin Laden and cozied up to Saddam; orchestrated the overthrow of democratically-elected governments from S’Am to Iran; funded death squads in Latin America and puppet dictators in the middle east. A country which even now— according to metrics ranging from homicide and incarceration rates, poverty to education— is more third world than first. Yet even the notorious lefties of the PBS seem to think that their nation remains (as Paul Ryan put it yet again last night) “the greatest country God ever put on this Earth”. They seem to think that Trump is some kind of aberration, that America was somehow once “great”, and can be “again”.

I didn’t hear anyone suggest that Donald Trump might be pretty much what the USA deserves, given its history and current behavior.  Sure, we’re looking at a flying leap backward for every kind of human rights except the corporate kind. Trump emboldens the racists and the gun nuts and the deniers and the homophobes and the misogynists in our midst. That rightly scares the shit out of anyone who doesn’t fall into one of those categories, but guess what; turns out there’s more of them than there are of us, so they win.  Welcome to Democracy, in the Greatest Country God Put On This Earth.

Look, I get it. Our rulers tell us self-serving stories, and we lap it up because we want to feel good about ourselves. Up here in Canada— especially since our last federal election— we like to think of ourselves as players on the world stage, purveyors of ploughshares not swords, newly-reawakened stewards of the environment and a safe harbor for refugees. In truth we’re a pissant little country infatuated with a charismatic bobblehead who says all the right things about climate change and gender parity and Human rights— all the while hoping we’ll forget about police mass surveillance of Canadian citizens[1], and trade deals that give foreign multinationals veto power over our environmental laws. A dude who seems to think that the laws of politics and of physics somehow carry equal weight, that he can negotiate with the heat capacity of the world’s oceans (“Okay, we’ll cut our bitumen production by 15%, but then you have to increase your joules/kelvin by at least 5…”).

We all do it. We’re wired for tribalism and self-aggrandizement (even Canadians). But if there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on, it’s that Trump’s ascension is the mother of all wake-up calls. And I always thought that a wake-up call, by definition, caused one to rethink calcified positions: to consider the possibility that some of these stories we’ve been raised on are just flat-out untrue.

Instead, the pundits are talking about “protest votes” and stay-at-home Democrats.  My Facebook feed squirms with people blaming everything on Sanders’ supporters and third-party candidates. I, on the other hand, still haven’t quite figured out why— once the DNC got caught with its thumb on the scale— Clinton wasn’t disqualified on the spot and Sanders nominated by acclamation. Back in university, if you got caught cheating on a test you got a zero at best, more likely suspension or expulsion. A scientist bases a paper on faked data and that paper is gone, along with said scientist’s career. Hell, even over in one of Trump’s lame-ass beauty pageants I’d like to think that if a contestant was caught kneecapping a competitor she’d be out on her ass.

And yet, the official machinery of the scrupulously-neutral DNC is caught stacking the deck for Clinton— hell, admits to stacking the deck for Clinton— and nothing seems to change. Sure, a sacrificial Wasserman-Schultz gets tossed under the bus in a belated act of damage control, but the tainted results are allowed to stand with a shrug and a Sorry and a whaddyagonnado? The machine grinds on, Clinton’s supporters trot out the same old bromides about her heartfelt devotion to women’s rights and PoCs (although I’m willing to bet that a fair number of the civilians murdered  in the course of those drone strikes she gets so wet over— which by the way rack up collateral kill rates as high as 98%— I’m willing to bet that a fair number of those victims might have been various shades of brown, and women to boot).  And everyone falls into line, because they’d rather keep cruising toward the iceberg than burn to the waterline before they even reach it.

Don't worry. Either way, you'll end up face-down at the bottom of the sea.

Don’t worry. Either way, you’ll end up face-down at the bottom of the sea.

Looking back, there might have been some opportunity for a wake-up call even back then. Because as it turns out, not everyone fell into line after all.

So now the world’s heads of state are all busy timing their obligatory phone calls for the same moment, so that only Putin has to talk to Trump in real time and everyone else gets mercifully redirected to voicemail. Angela Merkel has announced that “Germany and America are connected by common values,” which I guess is especially true if you factor in an eighty-year time lag. Down in Jesusland there is much rejoicing (which still seems odd to me, given the Whore-of-Babyloniness of the President-elect.  Maybe they’re anticipating the Rapture).

The rest of us just hunker down and wait to see how bad it’ll get.

A lot of it comes down to whether Trump actually meant anything he said.  He couldn’t have meant all of it; one half of it contradicted the other. Many perceive Trump as a racist misogynistic homophobic thin-skinned sociopathic crook with poor impulse control, but that interpretation assumes a certain level of honesty in the man’s statements (well, except for the crook part). I see something more consistent with operant conditioning: a Pavlovian Trump salivating after applause, randomly trying out various lines until the local audience starts cheering. He was, for example, pro-choice before he started courting the antichoicers—so while he may move to overturn Roe v. Wade he’d probably just do it for shits and giggles and not for ideological reasons. I don’t see much in the way of a coherent ideology at work; I don’t even see much of an agenda, beyond the base instinctive drive of Me Me Me.

Which is not to say I’d leave my stepdaughters unattended within five hundred meters of the man.  And he probably will tear up the Paris Accord, because that’s an easy promise to keep and he’s too stupid to understand the ramifications. So the environment’s fucked (but hey, there’s that silver lining for us dystopian SF writers). One promise I hope he does keep is to tear up the TPP; it seems increasingly unlikely our own Prime Minister has the guts to.

I can only find it deeply ironic that it is now, of all times, that— for work-related reasons— I find myself exploring legal options for going back into that cesspit after having been banned for six years. I’ll admit the prospect is enough to make me rethink my carefully-crafted veneer of ironic detachment. If it cracks even a little, I might find myself sobbing with the rest of you.

In the meantime, I’m gonna go drop acid for the first time in my life.

Who knows. With a little luck, maybe I’ll discover I already did that fourteen hours ago.


 

*Title courtesy of Caitlin “The BUG” Sweet

[1] Although to be fair, we picked up a lot of pointers in that area from our neighbors to the south.

Posted in: politics by Peter Watts 162 Comments

SOMA

“If there’s an afterlife, is my place taken? Is heaven full of people who would call me an imposter?”

— Simon Jarrett, upon realizing that he is a digitized copy.

Ever since the turn of the century I’ve had a— well, not a love/hate relationship with video games so much as a love/indifference one. I’ve worked on several game projects that never made it to market, wrote a tie-in novel for a game that did. Occasionally my work has inspired games I’ve had nothing to do with; the creators of Bioshock 2 and Torment: Tides of Numanera cite me as an influence, for example. There’s a vampire in The Witcher 3 named Sarasti. Eclipse Phase, the paper-based open-source role-playing game, names me in their references. And so on.

For one reason or another, I’ve never got around to actually playing any of these games. But a fan recently gifted me with a download of Frictional Games’ SOMA, whose creators also cite me as inspirational (alongside Greg Egan, China Miéville, and Philip K. Dick). And in the course of the occasional egosurf I’ve stumbled across various blogs and forums in which people have commented on the peculiar Wattsiness of this particular title. So what the hell, I figured; I needed something to write about this week, and it was either gonna be SOMA or my first acid trip.

Major Spoilers after the graphic, so stop reading if you’re still saving yourself for your own run at the game. (Although if you’re still doing that a solid year after its release, you’re even further behind the curve than I am.)

somatitle

In SOMA you play Simon: a regular dude from 2015 Toronto, who— following a brain scan at the notoriously-disreputable York University— suddenly finds himself a hundred years in the future, just after a cometary impact has wiped out all life on the surface of the earth. Simon doesn’t have to worry about that, though— not in the short term, at least— because he’s not on the surface of the Earth. He’s stuck in a complex of derelict undersea habitats near a  geothermal vent, where (among other things) he is attacked by giant mutant viperfish and caught up in a story centering around the nature of consciousness. “I’d really like to know who thought sending a Canadian to the bottom of the sea was a good idea,” he blurts out at one point. “I miss Toronto. In Toronto I knew who I was.”

So yeah, I can see a certain Watts influence. Maybe even a bit of homage.

I passed through this station en route to the very pub where I am typing these words.

I passed through this station en route to the very pub where I am typing these words.

If I was feeling especially egotistical I could really push it. Those subway stations Simon cruises through on his way to York— not that far from where I used to live. His in-game buddy Catherine once mistakenly remarks that he comes from Vancouver, where I lived before that. Hell, if I wanted to pull out all the stops I could even point out that Jesus Christ’s Number Two Man (and the first of the popes) was called Simon Peter. Coincidence?

Yeah, probably. That last thing, anyway. Then again, any game whose major selling point was its Peter Watts references would be shooting for a pretty limited market. Fortunately, SOMA is more substantive. In fact, it may not be so much inspired by my writing (or Dick’s, or Egan’s, or Miéville’s) as we all are inspired by the same scary-cool stuff that underlies human existence. We’re all drinking from the same well, we all lie awake at night haunted by the same existential questions: how can meat possibly wake up? Where does subjective awareness come from? What is it like to be attacked by giant mutant viperfish at four thousand meters?

Maybe something like this.

Maybe something like this.

SOMA’s influences extend beyond the the usual list of authors you’ll find online (or quoted at the top of this post, for that matter). The biocancer that infests and reshapes everything from people to anglerfish seems more than a little reminiscent of the Melding Plague in Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, for example. And while Simon’s belated discovery that he’s basically a digitized brain scan riding a corpse in a suit of armor might seem lifted directly from the Nanosuit in my Crysis 2 tie-in novel, I lifted that idea in turn from Richard Morgan’s game script.

So much for the parts SOMA cannibalized.  How does it stitch them together?

zf3wawo

Ambiance.

For starters, the game is gorgeous to behold and insanely creepy to hear. The murk of the conshelf, the punctuated blackness of the abyss, the clanks and creaks of overstressed hull plating just this side of implosion keep you awestruck and on-edge in equal measure. Of course, these days that’s true for pretty much any game worth reviewing (Alien: Isolation comes to mind— you might almost describe SOMA as an undersea Alien: Isolation with a neurophilosophy filling). SOMA’s technology seems strangely antiquated for the 22nd century — flickering fluorescent light tubes, seventies-era video cameras, desktop computers that look significantly less advanced than the latest offerings down at Staples— but that’s also true for a lot of games these days. (Alien: Isolation gets a pass on that because it was honoring the aesthetic of the movie. The Deus Ex franchise, not so much.)

There’s not much of an interface to interfere with the view, no hit points or health icons cluttering up the edges of your display. You know you’ve been injured when your vision blurs and you can’t run any more.  You have no weapons to keep track of. The inventory option is a joke: for 90% of the game, you’re completely empty-handed except for a glorified door-opener to help you get around. It’s way more minimalist than most player interfaces, and the better for it.

Likewise, dialog options are pretty much nonexistent. Now and then you can choose to start a conversation, but from that point on you’re essentially listening to a radio play. I think Frictional made the right choice here, too. All those clunky dialog menus that pop up in Fallout or Mass Effect— those same four or five options offered up time after time, regardless of context (Really?  I want to ask Piper about our relationship now?)— offer just enough conversational flexibility to really drive home how little conversational flexibility you have. It’s one of the inherent weaknesses of computer games as an art form— game tech just isn’t advanced enough to improvise decent dialog on the fly.

SOMA cuts the player out of the loop entirely during the talky bits. The cost is that we lose the illusion of control (which is actually kind of meta if you think about it); the benefit is that we get richer dialog, deeper characters, shock and tantrums and emotional investment to go along with the thought experiment. Simon isn’t some empty vessel for the player to pour themselves; he’s a living character in his own right.

I’ll grant that he’s not a very bright one. He mentions at one point that he used to work in a bookstore, but given how long it takes him to catch on to certain things I’m willing to bet that its SF and pop-science sections were pretty crappy.  Simon’s a nice guy, and I really felt for him— but if his home town was, in fact, a nod to my own, I can only hope the same cannot be said for his intellect.

On the other hand, who’s to say I’d be any quicker on the draw if I was the dusty photocopy of a long-dead brain, thrown headlong and without warning into Apocalypse? I don’t know if anyone would be firing on all synapses under those conditions; and the languid pace at which Simon clues in does provide a convenient opportunity to hammer home certain philosophical issues to which a lot of players won’t have given much prior thought.  The fact that Simon’s sidekick Catherine grows increasingly impatient with his “bullshit”, with the fact that she has to keep repeating herself, suggests that this was a deliberate decision on Frictional’s part.

Riftia somethingorothericus.

Riftia somethingorothericus.

But if Simon’s a bit slow on the uptake, SOMA isn’t. Even the scenery is smart. Wandering the seabed, at depths ranging from a few hundred meters to four thousand, the fauna just looks right: spider crabs, rattails, tiny bioluminescent squid and tube worms and iridescent, gorgeous ctenophores (ctenophores! How many of you even know what those are?) Inside one of the habitats, a dead scientist’s lab notes remark upon the sighting of a Chauliodus (“viperfish” to you yokels): “Not usually found at this depth— anomaly”. I wet myself a little when I read that. Writing Starfish back in the nineties, I too had to grapple with the fact that viperfish don’t foray into the deep abyss. I had to come up with my own explanation for why they did so at Channer Vent.

Smart or dumb, though, the ocean floor is mere setting: SOMA’s story revolves around issues of consciousness. Frictional did their homework here too. Sure, there’s the usual throwaway stuff— one model of sapience-compatible drone is dubbed “Qualia-class”— but stuff like the Body Transfer and Rubber Hand Illusions aren’t just name-checked; they actively inform vital elements of the plot.  People come equipped with “black boxes” in their brains that can be forensically data-mined post-mortem. (This proves useful in figuring out SOMA’s backstory, an ingenious new twist on the usual Let’s find personal diaries lying around everywhere more commonly employed in such games.) Most of the lynchpin events in this story occur not to effect the course of the plot, but to make you think about its underlying themes.

By way of comparison, look to SOMA’s spiritual cousin, Bioshock. For all its explicit in-your-face references to Ayn-Randian ideology,  Bioshock fails as analysis. (At best, its analysis amounts to Objectivism is bad because when capitalism runs amok, genetically-engineered nudibranchs will result in widespread insanity and the ability to shoot live bees out of your hands.) Andrew Ryan’s political beliefs serve as mere backdrop to the action, and as wall-paper rationale for the setting; but the events of the story could have just as easily gone down in a failed socialist utopia as a capitalist one. Bioshock was brilliant in the way it used the mechanics of game play to inform one of its themes (I’ve yet to see its equal in that regard), but that particular theme revolved around the existence of free will, with no substantive connection to Objectivist ideology. SOMA, in contrast, actually grapples with the issues it presents; it makes them part of the plot.

Yeah, don't get your hopes up, Bucko.

Yeah, don’t get your hopes up, Bucko.

In fact, you could argue that SOMA is actually more rumination than game, an extended scenario that systematically builds a case towards an inevitable, nihilistic conclusion (two nihilistic conclusions actually, the second superficially brighter and happier than the first but actually way more depressing if you stop to think about it). If there’s a problem with this game, it’s that the the story is so tight, the rumination so railbound, that it can’t afford to give the player much freedom for fear they’ll screw up the scenario. There’s really only one way to play SOMA. Discoveries and revelations have to happen in a specific order, conversations must proceed in a certain way. The obligatory monsters— justified as failed prototypes, built by an AI trying to create Humanity 2.0— don’t really do anything story-wise. You can’t kill them. You can’t talk to them. You can’t scavenge their carcasses for booty, or fashion a makeshift cannon from local leftovers and  blow them away. Your interactive options consist exclusively of run and hide. SOMA’s monsters serve no real purpose except to creep you out, and slow your progress along a narrative monorail.

Yes, dude, you are very creepy. You are ominous. But what are you for?

Yes, dude, you are very creepy. You are ominous. But what are you for?

There are choices to be made— surprisingly affecting ones— but they don’t affect the outcome of the plot. Your reaction to the last surviving human— wasting away in some flickering half-lit locker at the bottom of the sea, IV needle festering in her arm, pictures of her beloved Greenland (gone now, along with everything else) scattered across the deck— who only wants to die. The repeated activation and interrogation of an increasingly panicky being who doesn’t know he’s digitized (although he sure as shit knows something‘s wrong), a being you simply discard once you have what you need from him. The treatment of your own earlier iterations, still inconveniently extant after your transcription into a new host. These powerful moments exist not so much to further the story as to inspire reflection upon a story already decided— and they might be missed entirely by a player with too much freedom, able to go where they will and when. It’s the age-old tension between sandbox and narrative, autonomy and storytelling. Frictional has sacrificed one for the other, so— as immersive as this game is— it’s bound to suck at replay value.

It’s easy enough to justify such creative decisions in principle; in practise, the result sometimes feels like a cheat. I spent half an hour tromping around the seabed looking for a particular item among the wreckage— a computer chip— that would spare me the need to kill a sapient drone for the same vital part. It would have been easy enough for Frictional to give me that option;   they’d already littered the seabed with wrecked drones, it wouldn’t have killed them to leave me some usable salvage. But no. The the only way forward was to slaughter an innocent being. It made the point, philosophically, but it felt wrong somehow. Forced.

Post-human Nature.

Post-human Nature.

This would normally be the point at which I bitch and moan about how, for all the “inspiration” game developers attribute to me, it would be really nice if they might someday be inspired to actually hire me instead of just mining my stories. It would be an utterly bullshit whinge—  I’ve admitted to gaming gigs in my past on this very post— but I’d make it anyway because, Hey: if one of your inspirations is sitting right there in the corner next to the potted philodendron, why not ask him for a dance? He might just teach you a couple of new steps.[1]

This time, though, I’m going to restrain myself. SOMA could not have been an easy assignment; I could bitch about the monorail gameplay constraints or the intermittent dimness of the protagonist, but given the limitations of the medium I don’t know that I could do any better without compromising mission priorities.  SOMA is a game in the straight-up survival-horror mode, but the horror is more existential than visceral. And those conventional mechanics serve the most substantive theme I’ve ever encountered in a video game.

Bottom line, I think they did a damn fine job.

 


[1] This metaphor is in no way meant to imply that I am any kind of dancer.  My most recent memories of dancing involve jumping wildly up and down and slapping my thighs in approximate time to Money for Nothing.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 37 Comments

Know We Kant.

He died of undiagnosed medical issues too.

He died of undiagnosed medical issues too.

The single most vital thing I learned at the neurologist this week was: I really need to read up on Immanuel Kant.  Apparently he made a pretty valiant stab at rescuing the concept of Free Will from science, but only by redefining science itself as an unreliable construct.  Or something. My neurologist is pursuing a PhD in philosophy. It made for some really interesting conversation in and around the needles he kept sticking into my muscles, and the little jolts of electricity he used to make them jump.  And the utterly unremarkable spikes and scribbles scrolling across the monitor.

Nothing to see here, he says. Judging by my reported symptoms and the way I winced when I pulled myself onto the examination table, he thinks it’s rheumatological. I pointed out that it was a rheumatologist who’d sent me to a neurologist. It was like being on the phone to Dell Tech Support.

He tells me that this is what I want, that the moment a doctor gives you a firm diagnosis then there’s definitely something wrong with you. I find this a surprisingly quantum-mechanical way of looking at it— it doesn’t exist until you measure it— but then again, the dude is pursuing a philosophy degree. And if any medical professional is going to find something wrong with you, you don’t want that person to be a neurologist.  Neuro is bad. Neuro always seems to mean wasting and spasms and paralysis and death. You never hear about people who come down with a fully understood, trivially-treatable neurological condition that can be cured with a couple of Advil. Nobody ever comes down with Singular Sclerosis.

This particular neurologist says it’s not unusual for weird suites of symptoms to manifest without ever leading to a definitive diagnosis. At the same time, he admits that my particular suite— the ability to run 10K without incident, coupled with fever and near paralysis when I walk the same distance— are “unusual”.  He has no explanation (although I myself am starting to wonder about a malign post-hypnotic suggestion somewhere along the line).

My strength seems to have largely returned at least, even if the pain and stiffness persist. My main fear is that some trivial bit of exertion— taking out the garbage, trying to hold more than three cats at once— might kick me past the Invisible Threshold and into another collapse. At which point, I guess I go to Emergency while all those acute symptoms are still on display, and tell them to figure it out.

Sometimes, apparently, this stuff just goes away on its own. If you’re lucky.  Whether I am depends on whether you put more stock in the fact that I survived Flesh-eating disease, or the fact that I came down with it in the first place.

Anyway. It’s not cancer, and it’s not Lyme (the blood work finally came back). It’s not arthritis or PMR or myositis or Giant-cell arteritus. And now it’s not neurological either (although I’ve got a card that gets me to the front of the line in case of another collapse). Who knows, maybe it’s gluten after all. Or maybe I’ve got some kind of weird new disease yet undiscovered by Science.  Maybe they’ll name it after me when I’m dead.

Just in case, I’ve prevailed upon The BUG to agree to the following terms: if it turns out that I do have something terminal and incurable, I get to stop working and just play video games in whatever time remains to me. It could be a slow, lingering death— it might take 40 or 50 years to kill me— but at least I can take comfort in the fact that my wife has agreed to let me pass with some semblance of dignity.

Speaking of which, a video game is what I’ll be writing about next time I sit down here. Enough of this open-ended, narratively-unsatisfying medical whingeing.  Next time I’m gonna review SOMA, only a year after it came out.

They say it was partly inspired by me.

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 37 Comments

Blight Gallery

OK, so it isn’t cancer. Also not myocitis. Apparently that would’ve shown up in the several liters of blood they already sucked out of me over the past couple of weeks.

Lyme? “Well, we could test for Lyme. If you really want. You do have the symptoms, I guess…”  Not quite sure why I sensed such reluctance given that I actually meet the criteria— I felt as if she was indulging some dotty old hypochondriac— but the bottom line is, even as I type they’re testing for several strains of Lyme.  Including, apparently,  a time-traveling European variant which might be to blame even though this whole thing manifested two weeks before I went to Greece. I’m not complaining: the more comprehensive the better, far as I’m concerned. If there’s anything to this late-onset stuff I suppose I could have picked it up when I was overseas in 2014.

Neuro, though. My GP agrees that a lot of these symptoms— the weakness and tingling, sure, but even the stiffness and joint pain— are consistent with something neurological. An appointment with a specialist is in the offing. And on the one hand, Cool: neuro. I get to have my brain scanned. I get to see my own CNS mapped out like a subway system. I owe a big chunk of my career to neuro. Neuro rocks.

On the other hand, fuck: neuro.

Some really bad shit falls under that particular umbrella.  Let’s hope for Lyme. Or even something psychosomatic— after all tests to date haven’t turned up anything, beyond (presumably) the acute anemia that results from having half your blood volume siphoned away.

Anyway. Holding pattern until I see the neurologist. And of course I’ve fallen behind on The Freeze-Frame Revolution, so not a lot of time to invest in depthy blog posts right now. (Although if you read Polish, I’m thinking the next column is probably going to be about these recent Russian claims of a dolphin language. It was similar claims, after all, that got me interested in the whole marine-mammal field back in the seventies.)

So here’s some simple eye candy to plug the gap for the next little while (all available in the Gallery too, of course, at higher rez).

*

I can’t honestly claim that this new reissue of Starfish (by way of Paul di Filippo) improves on Bruce Jenson’s original cover art in any technical or aesthetic sense. I do, however, expect that it will result in much higher sales. At the very least, it adds a new dimension to the term “wet dream”:

sf-difilippo

In contrast, a little nightmare fuel: Rifters as Greys, courtesy of a Russian Deviant Artist going by the handle “Hokapk” (which probably translates phonetically as “Hieronymus Bosch Does Pointillist Woodcuts”).

hokapk

Finally— although it can’t quite compete with the transcendent inspiration of the di Filippo piece— here’s the definitive cover art for Le Bélial’s upcoming French edition of Au-Delà du Gouffre (aka Beyond the Rift), for those of you who didn’t catch the earlier draft that showed up on facebook a few weeks back. By the legendary artist “Manchu“.  At least, I assume he’s legendary; the man’s portfolio certainly warrants it.

frawnshrift

I like this enough to be using it as my desktop wallpaper; the design of the ship doesn’t really map on to anything  in my own oeuvre, but in a moment of prescience Manchu seems to have nailed the setting of Freeze-Frame‘s climax.

At least, I hope it was a moment of prescience. Otherwise I’d have to conclude he was channeling “Interstellar“. Which would carry, well, less-pleasant connotations.

Posted in: art on ink, misc by Peter Watts 31 Comments

The Salt Vampire’s Ugly Cousin

Way back in Grade Seven— Dr. Oakley Junior High, Calgary— Keith Gill spat on my bike. He was half my size, but I knew that if I spat on his bike in return that he would beat the shit out of me. That was the whole idea. This was an act of provocation. He was looking for an excuse.

I did not spit on Keith Gill’s bike. I went home, and I started doing push-ups. I got to one-and-a-half before I collapsed.

By that summer, though, I was up to 35. By the time I hit Grade 9 I was doing fifty. First-year university, 75. At the height of my pushing prowess— mid-eighties, doctoral studies at UBC, routinely slinging 25-horsepower Evinrudes across my back and lugging them around in the field like sacks of potatoes— I was doing 125 pushups at a stretch.

There were other elements to the regimen, of course, ranging from the cheesy spring set I inherited from an older brother to the home gym I bought in the nineties. For I while there I actually joined a fitness club; other times I availed myself of the workout facilities at whatever campus I was calling home that year. Running was a constant part of the workout from the early eighties on. These last years, here at the Magic Bungalow, it’s been mainly running and free weights and chin-ups, mixed in with (significantly lower) numbers of push-ups (tougher variants, though— where your feet are on a chair, or you put your hands on stools so your face descends below “floor level” on each dip). Point is, while I’ve never been any kind of athlete, I’ve been in pretty good shape ever since I was a kid. I’ve kept strong. Why, just last Wednesday I ran 10K. I did 13 chin-ups.

These sequences were written less than 48 hours apart.

I wrote these sequences less than 48 hours apart.

This morning I couldn’t hold a half-full pot of coffee without trembling, without feeling as though my forearm was going to snap off. I had to use my thumb to depress the shaving-cream stud, because my finger wasn’t strong enough. I can barely hold a goddamn pen: look what’s happened to my handwriting.

It happened literally overnight. I have no idea why. Nobody does.

*

Some background: this started about four months ago, around mid-June. The BUG decided that she hated the sandals I’ve been wearing since before we met, dragged me over to Queen Street in search of replacements. I love the BUG— she saved my life, after all— and so did not complain. We each purchased a pair of Birkenstocks, slid them on, and proceeded to walk for 6.5 miles.

Thirty-six hours later I could barely move. Every groinal tendon was on fire. My knees felt like little exploding schematic diagrams of cartilaginous balls and sockets and springs, ready to go sproiiiinnggggg! the moment they folded more than a few degrees off dead-center.

The shoes, right? Those new fucking shoes. They’d screwed with my gait somehow, thrown everything out of balance. Couldn’t be the distance: I routinely ran further than 6.5 miles with no ill effects at all. So I chalked the pain up to experience and reunited with those beloved stinky old plastic sandals that Caitlin hadn’t quite been able to rid me of after all. I’d stressed my body past some limit, but it would self-repair over time; that’s just what bodies did. So the family packed up, and hugged the cats, and headed off to Greece.

Where my body did not self-repair. It got worse.

The stiffness, the frozen range-of motion, the pain, spread to my shoulders. Lifting a leg, bending a knee became an ordeal; pulling on my underpants was now a major event, each foot having to stamp and lift in repeated warm-up maneuvers until inertia and rebound bounced it high enough to crest the elastic of my Joe Fresh gauchies and plunge back down through the leg hole (please God let it be the right leg hole) while the outraged knee, bent briefly past some critical threshold, threatened to explode all over again. Sometimes I couldn’t quite clear the band; my toe would catch in the elastic and I’d topple like a big dumb one-legged redwood, roaring with frustration. The simple act of rising from the bed, sitting on the toilet, of bending over to pick something off the floor— suddenly, they were all spectacles you could charge admission for.

There was no real loss of strength, mind you. The moves hurt, but I could still do them as long as they didn’t require much range of motion. I didn’t have my exercise equipment but I could still do chin-ups from the arched trellis, push-ups by the pool. I could still go on extended futile hikes with the Unicorn Girl, looking for mythical mountain churches (even if what we mostly found was lizards). Some of you may have seen such expeditions documented on facebook; they all happened as described, even if I tended to fall over more often than usual. I did not get flabby or fat, for all the wine we guzzled.

It just— hurt. All the goddamned time. For the first time in my life, I felt old.

*

Home. Doctor. Referrals. All my subjective symptoms lined up with something called “polymyalgia rheumatica”, which if you go to the original Latin translates as we have no idea what causes this but the symptoms look familiar. No known cure (which goes well with “no known cause”). Goes away on its own after a year, maybe 18 months. Sucks to be you in the meantime, but Prednisone works really well on the symptoms. Mind the side-effects, though: osteoporosis, cataracts, plumpening, loss of muscle mass, meat tenderizing (i.e. your skin bruises if it so much as gets hit by a dandelion seed), penile slough—

OK, so much for the Prednisone. I guess I’ll just grit my teeth through the next year and wait for it to get better.

But then all the blood work came back negative.

Not that it would have told us much anyway. There is no smoking-gun diagnostic for PMR, which is not surprising because— once again— nobody knows what causes it. Mostly the bloods just test for tissue inflammation; RBC sedimentation rate, something called “C-reactive protein”. Those come back positive, and the doctors can say Aha! It is inflammation causing you pain! And while inflammation has a whole shitload of potential causes, today we are going to attribute it to polymyalgia rheumatica on account of where it hurts or something!

But my tests showed no inflammation. Everything came back clean. I’m subjectively experiencing every goddamn symptom of PMR— including, disturbingly, a week of symptoms consistent with Giant Cell arteritis, an equally-mysterious malady that frequently double-dates with PMR and which causes blindness if not treated— and my body doesn’t even have the good grace to show a generic inflammation response. Still, there we were. And things did seem to be manageable. Good days and not-so-good days; I was now officially a crotchety old man but I kept slinging the weights, kept pounding the trails even if I didn’t seem to be taking the 15K route any more. Just sticking it out until things get better, you know? And they would, eventually. Sure the bloods came back negative but those were crap diagnostics anyway; what else could this be?

So just last Friday, the BUG and I decided to walk to one of our favorite restaurants, a distance of about 10K. No big deal, right? I run that far all the time, and this would be a nice leisurely walk. Why, just like the walk we took back in June, after buying those accursed Birkenstocks. Pretty much the same distance, even. And to ensure my own pedular comfort, I wore my running shoes.

Apparently my lips were purple by the time we made it to the restaurant. The BUG didn’t mention it at the time, but then again she didn’t have to: I already knew something was wrong because my fingers had turned to pins and needles. That passed, fortunately. So did the fever and sheet-soaking sweats that kept me awake over the next three nights. Then there’s that mysterious, undiagnosable pain that’s been sitting on my should like a tax audit for the past four months; in the wake of our latest epic walk, it spread to abs and elbows and forearms, to the grinding bones in the heel of my thumbs, to all the places it hadn’t reached back in June when I was first laid low.

And this time, something scary and new. Suddenly I could barely grip a pen, had to use both hands to carry a bowl of cat food onto the porch. Last night I couldn’t even open the screw top on a bottle of wine.

Not me. Just the way I feel these days.

Not me. Just the way I feel these days.

It’s not a loss of muscle mass. There hasn’t been time for me to starting wasting away yet. It’s as though some cousin of Star Trek’s Salt Vampire, some weird hokey rubber alien with peculiar dietary needs, has sucked all the ATP out of my muscles. It took a half hour’s effort at this laptop before I even started hitting the keys reliably.

I seem to be coming back again, bit by bit. The pain seems to be withdrawing to its initial habitat; it’s easier to lift a pot of coffee now than it was when I started writing this 24 hours ago (although typing still provokes a strange exhausting ache in my forearms). I’m no longer terrified of the prospect of standing: whatever my left testicle (and only my left testicle, curiously) was pulling on when those vectors aligned has backed off on its threats to rip my guts out. I hope, in a few more days, to have returned to that state of chronic creaky heartiness that I’ve been clumsily dancing with for the past four months.

But you know the most depressing aspect of this whole damn experience? It’s not the mysterious sudden onset or the acute painful incapacity, which has passed. It’s not the chronic stiffness, which had better fucking pass but which is manageable in the meantime. It’s not even the weakness, which I hope is temporary. It’s the insight that accompanies the weakness. It’s the time travel: this first-person, total-immersion glimpse into a future when there’s no onset or remission, no mystery disease to wonder about, no hope for improvement because I’m not sick: I’m just old, and this is just the way things are. A time when the simple standard baseline of my life is that I lack the strength to write a fucking “3”.

Why I Stopped Ego Surfing.

Why I Stopped Ego Surfing.

Anyway. I’ve got another appointment with the specialist in early October, although she’s already sampled half my blood volume and come up empty. I get the sense neither she nor I really know where else to go with this thing. So I’m coming here, to the ‘crawl. (I’ve already tried asking the Internet at large, but Google can’t even return a search on “Peter Watts” AND “Starfish” without filling my screen with bad porn; you can imagine what “polymyalgia rheumatica giant-cell arteritis pain stiffness no-inflammation C-reactive-protein” turns up.) Has anyone heard of anything like this— a system-wide gimbal-lock that kicks in when you walk a long distance, but never when you run it?  Something that presents every subjective symptom of PMR but causes no detectable inflammation? Something that, you know, can maybe be fixed?

Anyone?

Because the next stop after this is the Healing Power of Crystals page on NewAge.com…

 

 

 

 

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 110 Comments