The Bicentennial 21st-Century Symposium of All About Me.


If you'd rather not go I completely understand.

If you’d rather not go I completely understand.

This feels a bit weird. Creepy, even.  If it makes any difference, I advised them not to go ahead with it.

A couple of weeks from now— Nov 10-11— the University of Toronto will be hosting an academic symposium about me. More precisely, about my writing.

You could even call it an international event. While U of T is providing the venue, the symposium itself is organized by Aussie Ben Eldridge, of the University of Sydney. At least two of the presenters are from the US (although one of them will be Skyping in, doubtless to avoid the mandatory cavity search that seems to be SOP at the border these days).

Friday is layperson-friendly: a round-table discussion of my oeuvre, or omelet, or however you say that; a reading (new stuff, yet to be published); an interview; a bit of Q&A.  The schedule only listed 15 minutes for drinks after that, but as Ben reminds me he is an Australian and would never make so rookie a mistake. That 15 minutes is only for warm-up drinking on campus, after which we retire to the Duke of York.

Saturday is the academic stuff. I don’t know who’s giving what talks just yet, but apparently the titles include—

  • The (Grammatical) Autonomy of Angels: “Malak” & The Language of Logic.
  • The Influence of Paratextual Reputation on Textual Authority.
  • Rifters and Beyond: An (Overly) Educated Fan’s Perspective.
  • “Lenie Clarke is God”: Religion & Peter Watts.
  • Peter Watts’s Rifters Trilogy and the Apocalyptic Tradition.
  • Cyborgs, Hybrids, and Alien Others: Peter Watts’s Posthumanism.
  • From Simile to Metaphor: The Alien in Clarke’s Rendevous with Rama and Watts’ Blindsight.

—plus a couple of others yet to be finalized.

Honestly, I don’t even understand one of those titles. Can’t wait to hear the actual talks.

I remain skeptical that my work is of sufficient influence to support such a dedicated event, especially on such short notice. I’ve been told to stop being an Eeyore, and to just get on board with the thing; the speaking slots are all filled, after all. Surely that speaks to the fact that academically at least, I do have my own Niche. What remains to be seen is whether those speakers will be holding forth to an actual audience, or merely to each other— and since they’re going ahead with it regardless, the least I can do is try and encourage some asses to find some seats.

So there it is. If you’re in town, and if you’re so inclined, I’d much rather see you there than rows of empty chairs. And to repeat: while the entire event is open to all, Friday night’s events are gonna be especially accessible to a general audience.

Also, it’s free.

Although you get what you pay for.

Update 28/10/2017: The schedule seems to have firmed up. Nine talks, four things-with-me-as-participant, eight institutions represented:


1500-1515  Welcome / Event Introduction
1515-1600 Roundtable Discussion: On Peter Watts and the Science/Fiction Divide. Allan Weiss, Amy J. Ransom, Dominick Grace, Michele Braun
Peter Watts Introduction by Michael Johnstone
1615-1645 Peter Watts Reading
1645-1730 Peter Watts in Conversation with Ben Eldridge & Michael Johnstone
1730-1745 Peter Watts Q&A
Close / Drinks
1830-late Symposium dinner @ Duke of York.



1000-1015 Welcome / Coffee
1015-1145 Canonical Distortions
TBA: Edward Keller (Parsons New School of Design)
“Lenie Clarke is God”: Religion & Peter Watts. Dominick Grace (Brescia University College)
Rifters and Beyond: An (Overly) Educated Fan’s Perspective. Amy J. Ransom (Central Michigan University)
1145-1245 Narratological Distortions
From Simile to Metaphor: The Alien in Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama & Watts’ Blindsight. Michael Johnstone (University of Toronto)
Sculpting the Past: Fractal Narrative in Peter Watts’ Rifters Trilogy. Devin Oxman (Concordia University)
1245-1330 Lunch
1330-1430 Cyborgs, Hybrids, and Alien Others: Peter Watts’s  Posthumanism. Clare Wall (York University)
1430-1530 The (Grammatical) Autonomy of Angels: “Malak” and the Language of Logic. Ben Eldridge (University of Sydney)
1530-1630 The Influence of Paratextual Reputation on Textual Authority. Michele Braun (Mount Royal University)
1630-1645 Afternoon break
1645-1745 Peter Watts’s Rifters Trilogy and the Apocalyptic Tradition. Allan Weiss (York University)
1745-1800 Close / Drinks
Posted in: public interface by Peter Watts 47 Comments

My Dinner with Ramez: or, The Identity Landscape.

A week or two ago— just before all the stuff with Kevin went down— I hung out with Ramez Naam for an evening. (If you know who I am you certainly know who he is; his Nexus trilogy burned across the charts in a way I can only dream of.) We snarfed. We drank. We covered all manner of topics from climate change to networked intelligence, from self-promotion to the Koch Brothers. It gave me the same kind of rush I used to take for granted in grad school; ideas and paradigms and competing hypotheses dueling over beers, a kind of good-natured head-butting where ideas trump ideology. I also have Mez to thank for kicking loose in my brain perhaps the first semi-original idea I’ve had in months.

It has to do with continuity of the self.

We all know that the mere act of existing changes us. Every poster you read, every song you hear, every fart you smell rewires the brain a little. Every perception of every qualium literally changes your mind.

How many of those changes does it take to turn you into a qualitatively different person?

It’s a question that’s always nagged at me. I certainly feel like I’m the same person I was when I was eighteen— my tastes may have changed, I may have learned a bit more restraint, my priorities and opinions may have mutated and metastasized— but that all just feels like tweaking the interface. Swapping out old peripherals for new. Deep in my skull the CPU feels the same it always has, even if it’s layered a few more social skills onto the GUI. All my experiences, such as they are, don’t seem to have altered my basic perceptions and attitudes very much. To the extent that I’ve been reprogrammed, those inputs haven’t reprogrammed me as much as, say, a tamping iron through the frontal lobe. Or even the less-traumatic— but no less remarkable— messianism that sometimes results from epilepsy.

From split-brain studies to multicore manifestations, there seem to be cases in which one person can abruptly change into another. Is this truly a more radical transformation than the changes we all go through in the course of our lives, or does it simply seem that way because it happens instantaneously? How much of a difference is enough? How many arguments and antiabortion posters and life-threatening situations do you have to experience before you’ve turned into someone else, a different being lurking behind the same name and face?

It may seem like a fatuous question, like arguing over a series of indistinguishably different shades of paint; a biologist friend of mine likened it to trying to define the term species (how many genetic differences are enough? How many incompatible traits?). Maybe it’s a fool’s errand to try and make a step function out of something that’s intrinsically continuous— and yet, dammit, there are these radical toggle-shifts between personae, even as there are innumerable little edits and rewires that alter a stable identity from second to second. Kevin can switch from relative lucidity to literally thinking that he and his cat are the only non-illusory beings in the universe, and that they are living on the surface of the Sun. Surely there’s got to be a model that encompasses both?

The question came up while Ramez and I were talking about uploaded consciousness— something to do with how much fidelity the upload has to share with the meat in order to be considered the same individual— and faded again into the last round as the subject turned to climate change. Ramez is intrinsically more optimistic than I about our prospects in that regard (although not so optimistic as his twitter feed might lead you to believe); I was trying to change his mind by reconstructing what I remembered from grad school about fold catastrophes:

Good luck climbing back up the damn thing.

Good luck climbing back up the damn thing.

It’s like all the possible system states form this line, I said. Imagine that the system itself is a ball bearing rolling along it. A fold catastrophe is what happens when the line twists into a kind of overhang. The system is perfectly stable until it reaches the edge of that cliff; then it drops down to a whole new equilibrium. It only took a little push in one direction to go over the edge, but you can’t get back to your original state by simply expending the same amount of energy in the opposite direction; it takes way more energy to get back up the cliff than it did to fall off it in the first place. So the system stabilizes at a new, lower, more fucked-up equilibrium, and it’s pretty much stuck there.

We were talking about climate change, but the residue of our previous foray into neuroscience was still rattling around in my mind. And over our third beers, there at the Bedford Academy, those two subjects just kinda clicked, two bubbles in a Venn Diagram overlapping at just the right spot—

What if Identity is like a fitness landscape?

Forget the simplistic 2D line I invoked for fold catastrophes; that’s just one axis of a complex system. And forget any N-dimensional landscape that could hope to encompass fitness landscapes in all their glory; our dumb ape brains wouldn’t be able to grasp those figures even if there was some way of rendering them on the screen. Settle instead for a 3D surface where fitness scales to altitude and the X and Y axes represent any two variables you’d care to consider. Grab that ball-bearing from the previous exercise; once again, that represents the actual system at any given time.

stable-unstable-graphThere are a lot of equilibria on such landscapes, places where the ball-bearing— left to itself— would rest motionless forever. Some of them are stable: little pockets in the landscape the system will roll back to even if perturbed. Once achieved, it takes a lot to keep it away from those coordinates. Other equilibria are unstable. Think of the ball-bearing balancing atop a peak: it won’t move if you don’t disturb it, but you could knock the little fucker from its perch with a sneeze— and once displaced, it’s unlikely to ever attain those heights again. And then you’ve got the neutral equilibria: the flat bits, where the system can be pushed off-center with relatively little force but can be pushed back again just as easily.

Everything else on the landscape is slope, transition zone. The system can pass through those states, but always on its way somewhere else. It can never come to rest there.

Just sign off on the concept, and we'll fill in all the fiddly little details later. Graphic grabbed from Hayashi et al 2006, and put to completely inappropriate use in a totally different context.

Just sign off on the concept, and we’ll fill in all the fiddly little details later. Graphic grabbed from Hayashi et al 2006, stapled together with some other stuff, and and put to completely inappropriate use in a totally different context.

You see where I’m going with this, right? You saw it about three paragraphs ago. I’m not talking about landscapes of genetic or ecological fitness at all; I’m talking about neurological system states.

Every equilibrium is a Self, an identity. The slopes between them contain camping trips, love affairs, concerts— all the day-to-day experiences that incrementally change the system as it moves through phase space, but not enough to change the identity at its heart. No one of these infinite-divisible coordinate shifts is enough to turn one Self into another; for that, you have to move between equilibria. At the same time, you can’t move from one equilibrium to another without passing through a myriad of those intermediate states.

The vital variable, therefore, is how steep the slope is between selves.

The Sybils and Phineas Gages and Kevins of the world, rolling around their steep hills and valleys, may go through more transitional states in minutes than the average neurotypical would experience in decades, maybe a whole adult life. The trip covers the same straight-line distance; its just that most of that distance is measured vertically, along the Z axis. People with a secure, stable sense of self will exist in topographic depressions, stable equilibria the ball-bearing will roll back to after all but the strongest perturbations. People on the verge of a psychotic break might be perched atop a mountain somewhere.

(For the purposes of this post it doesn’t really matter what the axes measure—any relevant metrics of brain activity will do—  since any useful quantitative model is likely to have way more than three dimensions anyway. This is just an illustration of the general principle.)

It’s not a perfect model. What about the plains, for example, the realm of the neutral equilibria? If you define each Self as an equilibrium, then the plains would contain myriad Selves existing cheek-to-jowl, technically separate “people” even though they may only differ in whether they think that “Spock’s Brain” was a worse episode than “Plato’s Stepchildren”. On the flatlands, you could change back and forth from one person to another a dozen times during the course of a single Star Trek episode. This doesn’t leave us much better off than we were before.

Offhand I can think of two ways to deal with this: either exclude 0-slope terrain from the model as a starting condition (thus eliminating neutral equilibria); or weight the value of the Z-axis in such a way that the separation in the X-Y plane doesn’t matter nearly as much as separation in altitude. In the latter case, the system could change from one self to another either by moving halfway across the world horizontally (the equivalent of gradually becoming a different person as you accumulate experience throughout your life); or by only moving a step or two the left in XY space while moving radically along the Z axis (those identities that shift instantly, those cases where it seems as though there are two people in the same head).

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a useful metaphor (then again, ecological fitness landscapes are basically metaphors anyway); maybe it’s a framework for something you could plug real numbers into. Or maybe it’s just a deep dumb dive down a wrong alley. But I’ve been thinking about such things ever since Kevin arrived, and vanished, and reappeared like a scarecrow in our back yard (yeah, the story continues— another post, maybe). And I can’t help but think that this insight, right or wrong, would never have occurred to me as I sat here typing and scrolling and reading by myself with my cats at my side; it took a free-wheeling conversation with a dude I’d just met for me to knock those pieces together in new ways. I’ve lost count of the cool ideas that have emerged not from my brain, not from someone else’s, but from the sparks that fly when two or more brains get together in meatspace and real time. I’ve yet to experience an online platform that works as well as the neighborhood pub.

It’s a bit ironic, though, isn’t it?

Almost two thousand words of free-wheeling cognitive speculation, of new conceptual models of neuroidentity— and it all boils down to the conclusion that I need to go out more often to kill my own brain cells.

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 35 Comments

We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Oh fuck, I think. I’m gonna get arrested again.

There’s a growing cluster of uniforms in the ravine abutting our property: city employees, police, a couple of guys wearing insignia I don’t recognize.  Two cops poke at the tent in the ravine just across the fence from our tool shed. Their cars are pulled up in front of the house: those ones with the new, aggressive gray-and-black styling because the old blue-and-whites didn’t look enough like the Batmobile.

It was only a matter of time. Kevin spent most of last night screaming death threats to the trees again. Someone must have complained.

I switch on my phone’s voice recorder, slip it into my back pocket, trudge grimly into the underbrush. I pass the two whose insignia I didn’t recognize from the window: Salvation Army, as it turns out (“Gateway: The Hand of God in the Heart of the City”). They look concerned and ready to help. I wonder if they know that Kevin’s gay; the Sally Ann’s a notoriously homophobic organization.

“So what’s going on?” I ask in passing. One of them shrugs, jerks a thumb towards the center of action.

The cops have ripped away the fly and are talking to the huddled figure rocking in the exposed shell of the tent. They look up as I approach.

“Hi. That’s my tent.” Maybe not the optimal ice-breaking line, but better than back away from the homeless guy and no one gets hurt.


They look at me.

“I gave it to him to keep him from getting rained on.” There was a torrential rainstorm a few months back, punched a hole in our roof and soaked through to the living room ceiling. I came home that afternoon to find Kevin taking shelter on our porch. He apologized for the intrusion. It was the first time we spoke, although he’d been living rough in the ravine for a couple of months at least.  “He’s harmless, really. He yells a lot, but when he’s leveled out he’s actually kind of charming.”

One of the cops is about as tall as me, and broader. The other is short enough to be susceptible to Napoleon Complex. He’s the one who first tells me to back up, who says I’m interfering with their job.

“Kevin?” I say. “You okay, dude?” The figure in the tent keeps rocking.

They tell me, once again, to back off. “The problem,” I say, “is that you guys have a really bad reputation when it comes to dealing with black guys with mental issues. I’m worried about what you might do to him.” At some point during this exchange I’ve pulled my phone from my pocket and switched to video record.

“Look, you want your tent back, we’ll give you your tent back.”

“It’s not about the tent, he’s welcome to the tent—”

“You want to record this, go ahead and record. But you are interfering with our job. So back away.”

Which, despite my gut instincts, I have to admit is reasonable. I take a few steps back.

“Further,” says the littler guy.

Another step.


I figure I’m far enough; certainly well out of Interfering Range. “I don’t think that’s gonna happen,” I say, “But I will stay right here.”

He doesn’t push it.

And I have to admit, they seem to be trying their best at a tough job. Nobody’s tasered or shot Kevin (or me) yet. They’re not escalating in the way that ends with unarmed people shot in the back, or choked to death for selling loosies. They’re actually trying to talk to the dude.

One of the Gateway guys has dealt with Kevin before. They bring him over to try and talk Kevin out of the tent. I end up chatting with the City people; against the law to camp on public property, they point out. They gave Kevin almost a week’s warning that they’d be coming. Came by just yesterday to remind him, left a note when he wasn’t there. And there are shelters. Gateway’s got a bed for him.

But Toronto shelters don’t allow pets, and Kevin has a cat: a skittish, overweight black-and-white shorthair named “Blueberry Panda”. They used to live together in an apartment run by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. Kevin had arranged with the government to have his rent deducted automatically from his disability income. He went for months thinking that his rent was being paid; he believed that right up until the day TCHC evicted him last spring. Apparently they’d refused to authorize the direct-deposit arrangement after being unable to contact him by phone for “verbal confirmation”[1].

I explain this to the City people; they’re sympathetic but whatyagonnado. “Just hypothetically,” I wonder, “what if Kevin moves into our back yard?”

They look at me as though I’m the one rocking back and forth in the tent. “Well he wouldn’t be on public land, but there’d still be the disturbing the peace issue.” And they’re right, of course. The current situation is unsustainable. A few nights back I found myself standing out in the rain at 2 a.m., peering through the fence to see if the fire Kevin had lit was in danger of burning down our shed or setting the ravine alight. It wasn’t; but obviously the guy needs help. I just don’t know if the current system can give him any. In terms of mental health this place has gone to shit ever since the government decided to cut costs by classifying everyone as an outpatient. It’s a lesser-evil sort of thing.

Gateway guy has made no progress; Big Cop (Officer Baird, I learn later) approaches me and says, “I think we got off on the wrong foot. You don’t know me, you’re judging me by the uniform. I’m honestly trying to help this guy; you say you have a relationship with him? Maybe you could try talking to him?”

“Well, sure,” I say, suddenly feeling like kind of a dick.

We go back to Kevin’s tent— my tent, until I gave it to him on the condition that he stop screaming death threats in the middle of the night (or at least that he make it really clear that those death threats were not aimed at us). I remember he smiled when I said that, looked kind of rueful. Now that I think back, though, I realize he made no promises.

He’s originally from Trinidad. Speaks with this cool accent. Back in the nineties he earned a degree from the University of Toronto: dual major in chemistry and philosophy. How cool is that?

Now he huddles half-naked in the woods, and rages against monsters at three in the morning.


“Kevin?  Dude? Remember me?”

The tent stinks. There’s a tear down one side where the local raccoons tried to get at Blueberry’s kibble. A small mountain of Bic lighters spills across a dirty scavenged mattress.  A drift of empty plastic bottles. Half-eaten meals gone bad in foil wrappings. A couple of empty prescription vials (big surprise there). Kevin’s knapsack: the thin edge of a grimy Macbook peeking out from a nest of balled up socks and underwear.

He sits in the middle of it all, half-clothed: a dirty sleeping bag wrapped around his shoulders, a forgotten cigarette burning down between his fingers. He looks a little like a performance-artist channeling that mud-and-garbage Devil’s Tower Richard Dreyfuss sculpted in his living room, back in Close Encounters.

After our first sodden introduction, Kevin would wave a cheery “Hello neighbors!” at the BUG and me during his comings and goings. Occasionally he bummed a twenty to pay for a shower and a roof at the local bath-house; once he woke us late on a Saturday morning to ask if he could use our bathroom. Every now and then he’d push it a bit— asked if he could keep my hammer with him in the ravine, asked our house-sitters for the household WiFi password while we were out of town— but he also took No for an answer. We were a bit worried, at first, about getting sucked into a camel-nose scenario, but the dude always respected boundaries. Always cheerful and charming, in the light of day at least.

A centimeter of ash drops off the cig and smolders on the mattress.  I try to tap it out. Kevin flinches away and doesn’t look at me.

I ask how he’s doing, try to invoke past shared experience to bring him out of it: “Remember when we set this tent up? Fucking insects nearly ate me alive.”

Insects don’t exist in Alzheimer Space,” he snaps.

It’s a start. It’s more than he’s said to anyone else. I slide a bit of aluminum foil towards him across the fabric: “Just to keep the ash from, you know, setting the mattress on fire.”

Ash does not exist in Alzheimer Space. Mattress does not exist in Alzheimer Space.

“Dude? What are you—”

You do not exist. You do not exist in Alzheimer—

Finally it clicks: All time and space.

“You do not exist in all time and space. Nothing exists in all time and space.”

In principle it’s a decent coping mechanism. On some level he must know that the voices he hears at night, the things he rails against when the rest of us are trying to sleep, don’t actually exist. So he’s rejecting false input, only he’s— overgeneralizing. He’s rejecting everything as unreal.

I am false data. Why would he believe anything I say?

I try a bit longer, take some small satisfaction that at least I’ve got him talking, even if only to deny reality. Finally I crawl out of the tent, turn to Baird & Bud: “He’s gone totally solipsistic.”

“What’s sol—solistic?”

“He’s not recognizing anything beyond himself as real. I think he thinks we’re all hallucinations or something, like he’s some kind of Boltzmann brain.”

By now the paramedics have arrived. Officer Baird and I stand back and watch one of them squat down, ask Kevin to come out.  “Just want to test your blood pressure, buddy”— which, if not a bald-faced lie, is so very far from the whole truth that it might as well be. And yet, what else is there to do? Kevin couldn’t even pass a Turing test in his current condition.

“You know, the press paints us in a really bad light,” Officer Baird remarks. “There are a few assholes, but most of us are good people. I’m a good person.”

I actually believe him. That last part, anyway.

“I get that,” I say. “The trouble is, you good people cover for the assholes. You have to, because you need to count on them when you’re in a tight spot. I understand the dynamic, but you gotta admit that suspicion is a reasonable mindset to take into these things.”

“I’ve had training in this sort of thing. I go for de-escalation.” (I immediately flash back to a couple of other incidents in my past where LEOs, fully free to escalate, stepped back and chose to engage instead. And others where they, well, didn’t. Funny how the latter interactions tend to loom so much larger in memory.) “I always try to resolve things peacefully,” Baird continues.

“And ninety-five percent of snakes are harmless—” invoking my most-favorite ever biology-cop analogy— “but you still carry an antivenom kit when you go into the desert.”

He shrugs and, I think, concedes the point.

Kevin’s been contained. The paramedics wheel him past on a stretcher. He’s buckled down and strapped in. His hands are cuffed behind his back. He looks around, lost. “Could you take the cuffs off, please?” he asks. “I’m not a violent person.”

Three minutes, tops, since nothing existed in all time or space. Just moments ago he was stuck in a loop that denied the very existence of external reality. Now he’s perfectly coherent. He doesn’t understand why he’s being treated this way.

They don’t take off the cuffs. I don’t blame them. It breaks my heart anyway. I tell Kevin I’ll take care of Blueberry while he’s away (the little pudgeball fled into our backyard while all this was going down). Officer Baird and I wander after the gurney; he gives me his badge and phone number, and his email in case I want to follow up (“I probably won’t be able to give you any details— that’s Kevin’s confidence— but I can at least tell you he’s okay.”) I wonder if he’s the kind of guy who’d be willing to answer a few background questions if I ever put a cop in one of my stories.

The city employees move in with garbage bags and blue latex gloves. They say I can have my tent back if I want but it’s a write-off; I salvage the hollow bones (gotta be able to find a use for those somewhere) and let them collect everything else for disposal.

The ambulance drives away.

There are two people in Kevin’s brain. They don’t play well together; only one is in control at any given time. Some kind of switch toggles between them. I hope Kevin can find a way to keep his hand on it.

What? I told you she was fat.

What? I told you she was fat.

In the meantime, a black shape lurks in the underbrush and glares at me with yellow eyes. She’s lost her best and only friend; Kevin may have his issues but those two have been together for almost ten years, and he chose to sleep without a roof over his head rather than abandon her. So we won’t abandon her either. She still doesn’t trust us as far as she could throw an ibex, but she creeps out of cover to eat the food we serve, once we’ve gone back inside.

I guess it’s a start.

[1] This is typical of the TCHC; they treat their tenants with contempt and every request as a shiftless attempt to game the system. I lived there for years, fighting rearguard against bedbugs and bad electrical wiring. When I asked them to deal with the black mold in my bathroom or the meter-wide hole in my ceiling, they literally laughed in my face.

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 24 Comments

Pearls Before Cows: Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049





You Have Been Warned.


I'll give 'em this much: they owned The Curse.

I’ll give ’em this much: they owned The Curse.

I’ve been dreading this film ever since I heard it was in the works. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I saw Arrival. Now that I’ve seen it, well, I’m…

Vaguely, I don’t know. Dissatisfied?

Not that Blade Runner 2049 is a bad movie by any stretch. It’s brilliant along several axes, and admirable along pretty much all of them. I can’t remember, for example, the last time I saw a mainstream movie that dared to be so slow, that lingered so on faces and snowscapes. Almost Saylesian, this sequel. In a century dominated by clickbait and cat memes, Villeneuve has made a movie for people with actual attention spans. (This may explain why it appears to be bombing at the box office.)

The plot is, unsurprisingly, more substantive than that of your average SF blockbuster (it’s nothing special next to the written genre, but ’twas ever thus with movies vs. books). It’s downright brilliant in the way it transcends the current movie and reaches back to redeem the earlier one. Back in 2019 it took Deckard three speed dates and a couple of days to go from How can it not know what it is to Self-Sacrificing Twoo Wuv; for me, that was the weakest element of the original movie. (Rachael’s participation in that dynamic was easier to understand; she had, after all, been built to do as she was told.) 2049 fixes that— while throwing its precursor into an entirely new light— without disturbing canon by a jot. Nice trick.

The AI-mediated sex-by-proxy scene was, I thought, wonderfully creepy and even better than the corresponding scene in Her (the similarity to which is apparently deliberate homage rather than blatant rip-off). The usual suspects have already weighed in with accusations that the movie is sexist— and though I’ll admit that I, too, would like to have seen one or two of those twenty-meter-tall sex holograms sporting a penis, it still seems a bit knee-jerky to complain about depictions of objectification in a movie explicitly designed to explore the ramifications of objectification. (You could always fall back on Foz Meadows’ rejoinder that “Depiction isn’t endorsement, but it is perpetuation”, so long as you’re the kind  of person who’s willing to believe that Schindler’s List perpetuates antisemitism.)

Visually, of course, 2049 is stunning. Even its occasional detractors admit that much. Inspired by the aesthetic of the original Blade Runner but never enslaved to it, every framing shot, every closeup, every throwaway glimpse of Frank Sinatra under glass is utterly gorgeous. But the art direction is also where I started to experience my first rumblings of discontent, because some of those elements seemed designed solely for eyeball kicks even if they made no narrative sense.

Dude. You literally own an eyeball factory.

Dude. You literally own an eyeball factory.

Here’s an example: Niander Wallace, the chief villain, is blind. His blindness is spookily photogenic— as are the silent floating microdrones which wirelessly port images to his brain (is it just me, or did those look for all the world like scaled-down versions of the alien spaceships from Arrival?)— but this is a guy who owns a company that mass-produces people, all of whom seem to have 20/20 vision. A pair of prosthetic eyes is somehow out of his budget? Wallace chooses blindness for the sake of some cool close-ups?

I’m also thinking of the dancing meshes of waterlight writhing across so many surfaces in his lair; dynamic, hypnotic, mesmerizing. As sheer objets d’art I’d project them onto my own living room walls in an instant— but why the hell would Wallace floor so many of his workspaces with wading pools? Solely for the visual aesthetic? Was it some kind of kink? Did Wallace buy off  the building inspectors, or did they just not notice that his office design would let you kill someone by pushing them a half-meter to the left and tossing a live toaster in after them?

By the time a silent horde of renegade replicants emerged from the radioactive darkness of the Las Vegas sewers (a rare misfire, more hokey than dramatic), my misgivings about eye candy started spilling over into the story itself. The secret of replicant procreation is of understandable interest to Wallace because it would allow him to boost his production rate; its revelation is dangerous to K’s boss for reasons that are somewhat less clear (it would “break the world”, in ways left unexplained). The renegade sewer replicants value the secret because— somehow— the ability to reproduce means they’re not slaves any more?

I might be a bit more receptive to this claim if self-replicating stock hasn’t always be one of the cornerstones of institutionalized slavery in real life, but I doubt it. Beyond the questionable implication that you have to procreate to be truly human, the claim makes no logical sense to me— unless the point is to simply breed, through brute iteration, a rebel army in the sewers (which seems like a very slow, inefficient route to emancipation in the high-tech blasted-wasteland environment of 2049).

All of which segues nicely into my biggest complaint about this admittedly beautiful film; why are the replicants rebelling at all? Why, thematically, does 2049 play it so damn safe?

Liander Wallace’s replicants are obedient: so obedient that they  can be trusted to run down and kill previous generations of runaways who were not so effectively programmed (apparently Tyrell Corporation got all the way up to Nexus-8s before the number of replicants going Batty drove them out of business). That premise opens the door for more challenging themes than the preachy, obvious moral that Slavery Is Bad.

Is slavery bad when the underclass wants to be enslaved? Does it even qualify as slavery if it’s consensual? Yes, the replicants were designed for compliance; they had no choice in how they were designed. Does that make their desires any less sincere?  Do any of us get a say in how we’re designed? Are engineered desires somehow less worthy than those that emerge from the random shuffling of natural meiosis?  Is it simply the nature of the desire that makes it abhorrent, is the wish to be enslaved so morally repugnant in principle that we should never honor it no matter how heartfelt? If so, what do you say to the submissives in BDSM relationships?

(To those who’d point out that, in fact, the old Nexus-era replicants sincerely desired not be enslaved— that only the Gosling/Hoeks-era replicants were content with their lot— I’d say that’s kind of my point. A movie that starts with the intriguing premise of rebellion-proof replicants throws that premise away to rehash issues already explored in the original Blade Runner.  And not only does 2049 throw the premise away, it betrays the premise outright when rebellion-proof K ends up, er, rebelling.)

2049 could have played with all these ideas and more— its thematic depth could have leapt beyond that of the original in the same way its visual design did. Instead, screenwriters Fancher and Green chose to retread the same moralistic clichés of shows like (the vastly inferior) “Humans“.

Smaller budget. Greater depth.

Smaller budget. Greater depth.

Almost 40 years ago, Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy showed us a sapient cow who wanted be be eaten, recommending its own choice cuts to diners in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Douglas Adams explored more interesting territory in that two-minute vignette than 2049 does in its whole two hours and forty-five minutes.

Denis Villeneuve has served up a pearl of a movie for us: glittering, opalescent, so smooth and slick you could grind it into a Hubble mirror. You should definitely go see it on as big a screen as you can find; it’s one of the better films you’re likely to see this year. But the thing about pearls is, they’re essentially an allergic reaction: an oyster’s response to some irritant, a nacreous secretion hiding the gritty contaminant at its heart. Pearls are beautiful band-aids wrapped around imperfection.

Blade Runner 2049 is a fine pearl. But it would have made a better cow.

"It's science fiction, after all. Maybe there should be less self-centered navel-gazing about what it is to be Human, and more exploration of what it is to not be"— The BUG.

“Maybe science fiction should involve less self-centered navel-gazing about What It Is To Be Human, and more exploration of What It Is To Not Be.”— The BUG.

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 99 Comments

Nazis and Skin Cream

I went out drinking the other night with someone who punches Nazis.

Certainly, ever since Charlottesville, there’s been no shortage of people who advocate Nazi-punching. For a while there, my Facebook feed was awash with the emissions of people jizzing all over their keyboards at the prospect of punching Nazis. People who argued— generally with more passion than eloquence— that the usual rules of engagement and free speech don’t apply when dealing with Nazis, because, well, they’re Nazis. People who, in fits of righteous anger, unfriended other people who didn’t believe that it was okay to punch Nazis.  I haven’t seen such a torrent of unfriending since all those die-hard supporters of frakking, omnipresent state surveillance, and extra-judicial assassination-by-drone rose up and unfriended everyone who hadn’t voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election. Even the ACLU has been bitch-slapped into “rethinking” its support for “Free speech“.

So, no shortage of Big Talk. But this was the first person I’d hung with who actually seemed to have walked the walk. She attributes it to her Mohawk heritage; not knowing any other Mohawks, I can’t speak to that. But I’ve known the lady for most of this century, and she doesn’t take shit from anyone.

I gotta say, I found it refreshing. So many of these self-proclaimed Nazi-punchers don’t seem to have a clue.

It’s not that I have anything against violence per se. I’m no principled pacifist: I’m the guy who openly muses about shooting heads of state and selecting random cops for assassination. If anything, I’m more into the healing power of cathartic violence than most. But even I had to roll my eyes when I saw so many of those same would-be Nazipunchers retweeting the most popular tweet of all time, courtesy of Barack Obama— a quote lifted from Martin Luther King Jr:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

As far as I could tell, all the likers and retweeters weren’t even doing this ironically. They actually didn’t seem to grasp the contradiction.

It only got worse when a bunch of right-wing 4channers repurposed a handful of domestic-violence posters, hoaxing up a fake Antifa campaign that took the Punch-a-Nazi meme and ran with it. Servers across the globe are still smoking from the outrage engendered by that little prank.

And yet— once you get past the fact that those images originated not from the left, but from right-wing trolls impersonating them— the hoax does not, in fact, misrepresent the position it’s trolling. It would utterly fail as satire or parody; it doesn’t even exaggerate for effect. It pretty much just echoes what the whole Nazi-punching brigade has been going on about these past weeks, using female models instead of males for illustrative purposes. And yet, people got really pissed about it.

The main difference seems to be that the trolls have higher production values.

The main difference seems to be that the trolls have higher production values.

What’s the take-home message here? That it’s only okay to punch Nazis if they’re male, or unattractive?  (A couple weeks back I actually asked this on on of the Facebook threads that was spluttering indignantly about the whole thing; so far, no one’s answered.) Or is the take-home, rather, that what’s said doesn’t matter so much as who’s saying it? When you get right down to it, is this just a matter of skin cream vs. gun control?

I guess that last reference could use some context.

It relates to a 2013 study out of Yale by Dan Kahan et al, a study for which I conveniently happen to have some illustrative slides because I mentioned it in a recent talk at Concordia. Kahan et al  showed data to over a thousand people— some right-wingers, some left, some statistically savvy, others functionally innumerate. Sometimes these data showed that a particular skin cream helped cure a rash; sometimes they showed the cream made the rash worse. Sometimes the data showed clearly that gun control reduced crime rate; other times, it showed the exact opposite.

Here’s the trick: it was all exactly the same data. All Kahan et al did was switch the labels.

Turns out skin cream is not a hot-button topic.

Turns out skin cream is not a hot-button topic.

What they discovered was that your ability to correctly interpret these data comes down to how statistically smart you are, regardless of political leanings— but only when you think you’re dealing with rashes and skin creams. If you think you’re looking at gun control data, suddenly politics matter.  If you’re a numerically-smart conservative, you’ll have no trouble parsing the data so long as they show that gun control results in increased crime; but if they show that gun control reduces crime, suddenly your ability to read those numbers drops to the level of a complete innumerate. You’ll only be able to interpret the data correctly if they conform to your pre-existing biases.

Gun control? Little more testy.

Gun control? Little more testy.

Smart liberals are just as stupid as smart conservatives, but in the opposite direction.  Show a numerically-savvy left-winger that gun control reduces crime, they’ll be all over it; show them the opposite and, once again, their performance drops to the point where they might as well not have any statistical smarts at all.

You’ve seen this story a dozen times in a dozen guises. Fitting in with the tribe has more fitness value than independent thought. Conformers leave more genes behind than independent loners, so our brains evolved in service to conformity.  In fact,we’ll be lucky if reflexive conformity is as bad as the malfunction gets: recent machine-learning research out of Carnegie Melon hints that we may actually be wired for genocide (hat tip to Ray Nielson for that link, by the way).

Illo credit: Mother Jones

Illo credit: Mother Jones

Tribalism Trumps Truth. ‘Twas ever thus; a smaller, pettier iteration took place not so long ago in our own so-called community.

God knows I’ve no sympathy for Nazis. I have enough trouble keeping my lunch down when I reflect upon the Tea Party. I do have doubts about the effectiveness of Nazi-punching as a coherent strategy, but I’ve never been one to rule out violence as a tool in the box.  And as for my friend, she’s on firm footing. She’s not only punched Nazis, she’s punched female ones, and she  doesn’t compromise the integrity of her position by retweeting any love-is-the-answer pablum from Obama or anyone else. She’s cool, at least. She knows which side she’s on.

But all those other incoherent people ranting on facebook? I just can’t bring myself to line up with people so resistant to cognitive dissonance that they honestly don’t seem to realize they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth at the same time.

I swear to God. It makes me want to punch someone.

Posted in: politics by Peter Watts 72 Comments

Occasional demons.

It’s pretty much done. We even have a tentative publication date: June, 2018. All I need to do now is figure out how to embed a coded message into the text.

In the meantime, a final fiblet. The Freeze-Frame Revolution. From Tachyon.

It was the Monocerus build that broke her. The gremlin came out of the gate a split-second after we booted it up: as if the fucking thing had been waiting the whole time, hunger and hatred building with every second of every century we’d been crawling across the void to set it free. Maybe it was whatever Humanity turned into, after we shipped out. Maybe it was something that came along after, something that swallowed Humanity whole and raced along our conquered highways in search of loose ends to devour.

It doesn’t matter. It never matters. We birthed the gate; the gate birthed an abomination. This one stirred something in me, a faint familiar echo I couldn’t quite put my finger on. That happens more often than you might think. Rack up enough gigasecs on the road and you’re bound to start seeing the same models in your rear-view eventually.

 The usual protocols saved us. Deceleration in the wake of a boot is just another word for suicide: the radiation erupting from a newborn wormhole would turn us to ash long seconds before the occasional demon had a chance to gulp us down. So we threaded that needle as we always did: rode our bareback singularity through a hoop barely twice as wide as we were, closed the circuit at sixty thousand kps, connected there to here without ever slowing down. We trusted the rules hadn’t changed, that math and physics and the ass-saving geometry of distance-cubed would water down the wavefront before it caught up with us.

We outran the rads, and we outran the gremlin, and as two kinds of uncertain death redshifted to stern Chimp threw a little yellow icon onto the corner of my eye—

Medical assistance?

— and I didn’t know why, until I turned to Lian and saw that she was shaking.

I reached out. “Lian, are you—”

She waved me away. Her breathing was fast and shallow. Her pulse jumped in her throat.

“I’m okay. I’m just…”

Medical Assistance?

I could see a fragile kind of control trying to assert itself. I saw it struggle, and weaken, and not entirely succeed. But her breathing slowed.

Medical Assistance? Medical Assistance?

I killed the icon.

“Lian, what’s the problem? You know it can’t catch us.”

She gave me a look I’d never seen before. “You don’t know what they can do. You don’t even know what they are. You don’t know anything.”

“I know they’d have maybe ten kilosecs to get up to twenty percent lightspeed from a standing start to even try to catch up. I know anything that could pull that off would’ve been able to squash us like a bug long before now, if it wanted to. You know that too.”

She used to, anyway.

“Is that how you do it?” A small giggle, a sound too close to the edge of hysteria.


“Is that how you deal with it? If it never happened, it never will?”

Five of us on deck for the build, and I have to be the one at her side when she loses it. “Li, where’s this coming from? Ninety-five percent of the time the gate just sits there.”

“As if that’s any better.” She spread her hands, a paradoxical gesture of defeat and defiance. “How long have we been doing this?”

“You know as well as I do.”

“Furthering the Human Empire. Whatever it’s turned into by now.” As if this was any kind of news. “So we build another gate and nothing comes out. They’re extinct? They don’t care? They just forgot about us?”

I opened my mouth.

Or—” she went on, “we build a gate and something tries to kill us. Or we—”

“Or we build a gate,” I said firmly, “and something wonderful happens. Remember the bubbles? Remember those gorgeous bubbles?” They’d boiled through the hoop like rainbows, iridescent and beautiful, dancing around each other as they grew to the size of cities and then just faded away.

Their invocation got me a small, broken smile. “Yeah. What were those things?”

“They didn’t eat us. That’s my point. Didn’t even try. We’re still alive, Lian. We’re doing fine— better than fine, we’ve overperformed on any axis you could name. And we’re exploring the galaxy. How can you have forgotten how amazing that is? Back on Earth— they never could’ve dreamed of the things we’ve seen.”

“Living the non-dream.” She giggled again. “That’s just fucking aces, Sunday.”

I watched some biomechanical monstrosity fade behind us. I watched a swarm of icons flicker and update in the tac tank. I watched deck plating glint in the dim bridgelight.

“Why can’t they just— talk to us? Say hello now and again? Just once, even?”

“I dunno. You ever hop over to Madagascar before we shipped out, look up any tree shrews, thank them for the helping hand?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Just—” I shrugged. “I think they’ve got other priorities by now.”

“It should be over. They were supposed to call us back millions of years ago. No—” she held up a shaky hand— “we were not supposed to go on forever. How many times have we tunneled through this fucking ring already?” She threw an arm wide: Chimp, misreading the gesture, sprinkled the local starfield across the backs of our brains. “We could be the only ones left. And we still could’ve gated the whole disk ourselves by now.”

I tried for a chuckle. “It’s a big galaxy. We’ll have to go a few more circuits before there’s much chance of that.”

“And we will. You can count on it. Until the drive evaporates and the Chimp runs out of juice and the last of us rots away in the crypt like a piece of moldy fruit.” She glanced back at the tac tank, though its vistas floated in our heads as well. “We’ve done the job, Sunday. We’re way past mission expiration, Eri was never supposed to last this long. We weren’t.” She took a breath, let it out. “Surely we’ve done enough.”

“Are you talking about killing yourself?” Because I honestly didn’t know.

“No.” She shook her head. “No, of course not.”

“Then what do you want? I mean, here we are; where else can we be?”

“Maybe Madagascar?” She smiled then, absurdly. “Maybe they left us a spot. Next to the tree shrews.”

“I’m sure they did. Judging by that last one we saw.”

“Oh Jesus, Sun.” Her face collapsed in on itself. “I just want to go home.”

I gave physical contact another shot. “Lian— this is—

“Is it really.” But at least she didn’t shake me off this time.

“There’s nowhere else. Earth, if it even still exists— it’s not ours any more. We’re—”

“Tree shrews,” she whispered.

“Yeah. Kind of.”

“Well then, maybe there’s still a warm wet forest somewhere for us to hole up in.”

“That’s you. Ever the fucking optimist.” And when she didn’t respond: “Build’s over, Lian. Time to stand down.

“I promise: Things’ll look brighter in a couple thousand years.”

All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

Posted in: fiblet, Sunflowers by Peter Watts 51 Comments

The Return of the Slow-Wave Trader

Excerpts from dinnertime conversation with a retired investment banker:

Angela Merkel emerges from a meeting with Donald Trump. “Yes,” she says in answer to a reporter’s question, “we had a provocative but productive discussion.”

She rolls her eyes.

We probably shouldn't have forgotten about this as soon as we did. Blame hyperbolic discounting.

We probably shouldn’t have forgotten about this as soon as we did. Blame hyperbolic discounting.

The market soars on hearing the good news. It soars because once again, after a brief hiatus in the wake of that scary Flash Crash of 2010, eighty percent of market trading is once again done by bots,  and bots don’t get sarcasm yet.  They only read the words they see online, take them at face value; they don’t understand that Merkel meant exactly the opposite of what she said.

We, however, do. Finally, thanks to Trump, traders who inhabit meat have a fighting chance against those who inhabit silicon. Until bots learn about sarcasm and deception, at least.

That window may be closing even as we speak. The machines are already picking up some of those nuances. Not the HFT bots with split-second memories; those are dumb fast algos, always will be.  But the deeper AIs, the nets with layered interneurons; they seem to be catching on. Trump’s tweets are already showing less of an impact on the markets than they did after his Merkel Meeting.

I asked my friend: are those tweets losing influence because the people writing the code said “Wow, Trump’s a fucking loon— we’d better go in and tweak those parameters”— or because the code itself is learning on its own?  I mean, if I was a trading net, I’d use some Bayesian thing to constantly update the weight I attributed to any given source: the more often it paid off when compared to independent data, the more seriously I’d take it next time, and vice versa. Maybe the AIs are doing that?

My friend didn’t know.

I’m hoping one of you might.

Posted in: AI/robotics, economics by Peter Watts 10 Comments

Incorruptible, Indeed.

Illustration by Kevin Hong.

Illustration by Kevin Hong.

So I wake up in a stranger’s apartment in Montreal, reset routers and flush/re-register dns caches and do all those other should-be-unnecessary things this piece-of-shit Lenovo demands I do before it spins some internal roulette wheel to decide whether or not I’ll have internet access this morning, and—

What do you know. The X-Prize people posted my story over on Seat14C.

I have to admit I had my doubts. I’m not the first author to decry Mother Teresa for hanging around with war criminals. This is hardly the first story of mine to describe a near-future plagued by environmental collapse and pervasive government surveillance. I’m probably not even the first person to write a story advocating a sort of Final Solution for the One Percent.

I may be the first one to wrap all those elements into a project explicitly designed  to be Hopeful and Upbeat About the Future and actually get it accepted.  I think maybe I have Kathryn Cramer to thank for that.

And it is hopeful, ultimately. It’s even kind of prescriptive. Of all the 14C stories I’ve read so far (and I haven’t read all of them), “Incorruptible” is the only one which explicitly grapples with an inherent shortcoming of the X-Prize paradigm itself, and suggests a possible (albeit SFnal) fix. It’s not so much cheer-leading as commentary— which is, after all, presumably what this whole SF Advisory board thing is all about.

Still, I’m equal parts surprised, bemused, and gratified that it got through. About the only complaint I have is that they tagged the story with blog and twitter links to a completely different Peter Watts.

Maybe they’re trying to misdirect the hate mail.


Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 42 Comments

A Tale of Two Cities (or, I Think I’ll Wait Another Year)


The first city is Montreal, to which I’ll be returning next week: Concordia once more, this time to deliver a lecture entitled “The Best-Case Apocalypse: Why Reality Is Worse Than Fiction.” (I was going to call it “My Dinner With Daniel”, but I figured the reference might be too obscure.) It’s part of a longer program for summer students, but the events of August 10th— collectively billed as a “Workshop on Speculative Fictions and Methods”— is open to the public:


 Sarah Sharma, University of Toronto  “No Exit”
Ezekiel Dixon Roman, University of Pennsylvania, “Rethinking Quantification Toward the AutoPoietic Turn/Overturn”
Me, using a fair bit of casual profanity.


I’ll be recycling the pareidolia-origin-of-religion bit from my 2014 Privacy talk, but most of the other stuff is new. Drop by if you happen to be in the neighborhood.  The neighborhood is here.


“I’ll bring the smokes, you bring the beer,
I think I’ll wait another year.”
—Amanda Palmer


The second City is Lviv, in Ukraine, and holy shit did that implode suddenly.

Or rather, it imploded over time, and I just found out about it suddenly.

I mentioned back in April that I’d be attending the Lviv International Literary Festival this Fall, in commemoration of the Ukrainian publication  of Blindsight. Things seemed to be going along tickety-boo. I was corresponding with the translators— who seemed like really nice people— and helping them out with the fiddly bits. I was in intermittent touch with Sofia Cheliak, a program director at the festival. Just a few weeks back the translators passed on a message from the publisher, asking what airport I wanted to fly out of.

Except apparently they didn’t. Or rather, the publisher never sent that message. The translators  just— made it up or something.  In fact, the whole thing had been called off sometime before July 10, and no one had told me. First I heard of it was when Sofia showed up on Facebook and asked if I could maybe apply for a Canada Council grant to cover the trip. (I could not; I wouldn’t have found out whether said grant had been approved until a couple of months after the festival. Not a chance I was willing to take.)

Turns out the translators, well, never finished the translation. And then never told me that the trip had been canceled (which apparently they’d been told to do, although since they’d also apparently stopped responding to contact from the publisher, I’m not entirely certain how that instruction was delivered and/or confirmed.)  Apparently Sofia herself didn’t know what was going on until she stumbled onto Oleksy’s (my Ukrainian publisher’s) Facebook announcement.

I poked the translators myself from this end, got a fractured reply to the effect of we’re-sure-we-told-you-before-but-here-it-is-again. Family troubles. Blindsight untranslated. SNAFU.

To Sofia’s and Oleksy’s enormous credit, they’re willing to have me over this fall anyway (last I heard, Sofia was actually approaching the Canadian embassy in hope of some kind of financial support). Given that there won’t be any book in evidence, though, there’s not much I could do there except drink and look cute. At my age, I can only do one of those things with any proficiency, and I bet the average Ukrainian could beat me even at that.

Next year, though, I’m assured that Blindsight will be ready. And I’m also assured that the offer to be a festival guest stands. So I think we’re just gonna move the date on that sidebar forward by a year, and steady as she goes.

It’s been a shitshow, but it looks like we were all blindsided— me, the festival, the publisher. Sofia and Oleksy are to be commended for offering to make it work anyway— nay, even encouraging me to come this year, and promising me a great time even in the absence of anything to pimp. But clearly it would be better for everyone if we put this off.

I don’t know if any Lvivians are reading the ‘crawl right now; if so, know that I am truly bummed about this. But know also that I am still really looking forward to getting over there— and if it takes another year, it’ll just be that much sweeter when I arrive.

Offred of Dune.

For a writer who grew up in an age when his chosen genre was routinely derided in polite company— when even impolite company could be forgiven for thinking that SF boiled down to megablockbusters about snarky sapient raccoons and alien-punching fighter pilots— it doesn’t get much better than waking up to find that a big chunk of this year’s Emmy Awards comes down to a dust-up between two actual, non-escapist, serious and thought-provoking SF series.

Not fantasy. Not superhero adaptations. Science fiction.

It is a wet dream come true.

You ask me, this is the real Wonder Woman.

You ask me, this is the real Wonder Woman.

Both The Handmaid’s Tale (13 nominations) and Westworld (22!) are brilliant in their own utterly different ways. Westworld impressed me with its clinical dissection of SF tropes and neurophilosophy, with the erudition of its premise and the skill of its execution. Handmaid’s, on the other hand, was like a weekly hour-long kick in the gut, an ordeal you couldn’t look away from, a story from a universe not so much parallel to ours as converging on it. (Yes, I’m familiar with the claim that said convergence happened generations ago, that every one of Gilead’s horrors have already and repeatedly blighted this timeline. I don’t dispute this, but it’s not the whole story. Read on.) If Elisabeth Moss doesn’t win every fucking award on the planet— and I’m including the Nobel in Medicine, and the Golden Rhododendron for best floral arrangement, and Best North American Guppy Breeder in that lot— if she doesn’t take home every award there is, there should be rioting in the streets.

One series is cryosurgical, the other intensely visceral. Both inspired widespread, almost universal acclaim; both are undeniably science fiction.

Or are they?

You might know my opinion of Margaret Atwood’s notorious aversion to the “science fiction” label when applied to her work. (If not, here’s a refresher.) Even if you’re unfamiliar with my take, you probably know about her infamous “Beam me up, Scotty”, “chemicals and rockets”, “talking squids in outer space” definitions of the genre; her half-assed back-peddling when Ursula Le Guin sat her down and gave her a good talking to; her more recent (if still vaguely ambivalent) self-acceptance: Hi. I’m Peggy, and I’m a science-fiction writer.

What's wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?

And yet, watching the virtually-flawless Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale— twice now— I found even myself plagued with moments of doubt. This is not a future world. It contains no advanced technology; if anything, it had the feel of a particularly nightmarish period piece. Maybe Atwood was right along.

Maybe this isn’t science fiction.



I’m sticking to my story. I’m going all in, too. I’m not even going to take the easy way out, stick Atwood over with those Humanities soft-SF types who aren’t even interested in science or technology, who’d rather use aliens and dystopias as metaphors for Othering and Intersectionality and Heteronormative whateverthehells. Atwood herself eschewed that particular cop-out when she wrapped herself in the flag of “speculative fiction”: the thing that separated her writing from science fiction, she said then, was that her fiction was rigorously researched and based on Real Science. (I myself have always preferred William Gibson’s offhanded rejoinder that “All fiction is speculative.”)

No, I’m going to argue— after, admittedly, some serious moments of self-doubt— that The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction in the pure sense: fiction designed to explore the societal impact of scientific and technological change. The All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again argument is true but irrelevant. The fact that Gilead is based on historical precedent does not get Handmaid a Get-Out-Of-SF-Free card.

Take, for example, the very reason Gilead was born in the first place, the catalyst that allowed the fundamentalists to seize power: a global collapse in human fertility, brought about by environmental catastrophes hinted at but never really explored. We know about “the Colonies”, places where the toxic waste is so ubiquitous your “skin falls off in sheets”. I seem to remember the novel talking about reactor meltdowns and high-rad zones. The apocalypse has already happened in that universe; Gilead smolders at the base of the same cliff that we, in this reality, still teeter on the edge of. The fact that it took place offstage, before the curtain rose, does not make it any less central; it set Handmaid‘s whole world in motion.

Environmental collapse. Imminent Human extinction due to pollution-induced sterility. A classic case of If This Goes On: the impact of technology, our birds come home to roost, sometime in the future.

Consider also the tactics used by the revolution: computer technology, used to disenfranchise half the population in an instant. Offred spells it out explicitly in the novel: “[T]hat’s how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand.  If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.” “All they needed to do was push a few buttons,” Moira remarks a couple of pages later.

Of course, computers and ATMs aren’t what you’d call futuristic technology. (In fact, Atwood’s references to “Compubanks” and “portable money” seemed quaint even in 1985 when the book came out; the term “ATM” never even appears in the text, although such machines were ubiquitous back then.) That hardly matters. Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon didn’t stop being SF when Apollo 11 touched down on the Sea of Tranquility. Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider didn’t turn into a historical drama with the coding of the first real-world computer virus.

If you want to be pedantic I could always roll out Offred’s cryptic references to “Feels on Wheels” and “Bun-Dle Buggies”— even the (incongruously optimistic) fact that Gilead is mainly powered by renewables, in the series at least—  to plant this society clearly in a technological future. I could cite the presence of “pocket computers”, which were undeniably futuristic back in the day when amber-screened ATs with 8088 chips were the high end of personal computing. (The TV series, made in a time when the tech has surpassed that of Atwood’s original Gilead, just swaps in iPads and laptops and doesn’t sweat it.) Either way, Gilead arises via the manipulation and misuse of a particular kind of technology, inflicted on a society. It’s pretty much the textbook definition of the science-fictional thought experiment.

I admit, they had me going for a while. The lack of FX, the staid, almost Victorian setting, the overall undeniable low-key prestige of the thing had me wondering if maybe Atwood’s protestations might have more substance to them than the initially-diagnosed fear of SF cooties. This is certainly one of those shows that people who hate science fiction could watch without being any the wiser— maybe we could call it “Stealth-SF”. But SF it is: It describes a world compromised by one kind of technology, and a societal response enabled by another. I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could disqualify it on the grounds that those elements are never the thematic focus of the tale, that the real spotlight is on the way that people use religion as a means of social control.

Of course, if that’s the literary bed you want to make, you might find yourself waking up next to a guy called Atreides…

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