Upgraded to Lightspeed.

It’s not often you get a second chance, after your writing’s hit the market.

You predicate a whole subspecies on a genetic glitch that, as it turns out, only occurs in males. A character dramatically closes her eyes while wearing corneal overlays that prevent the closing of eyes. You use a friend’s name as a placeholder for a violent borderline personality in one of your novels, fully intending to swap it out it before it goes to press— then totally forget about it until you receive an email from said friend, wondering what he ever did to piss you off.

Oops.

Where Version 1.0 appeared.

Where Version 1.0 appeared.

Once in a blue moon, though, you get a do-over. And I am pleased to announce that as of this past midnight, the eZine Lightspeed has reposted my story “Collateral”, which originally appeared in Neil Clarke’s cyborg anthology Upgraded. And they didn’t just reprint it; they let me upgrade it in its own right.

Not that I didn’t like the original “Collateral”, mind you. It played with some interesting ideas about ethics vs. morality, collateral damage, the culpability of augmentation. But while the themes were solid, the execution was a bit lacking. A gun on the mantelpiece got used in the last act (which is exactly what’s supposed to happen with guns on mantelpieces), but it was also introduced in the last act— which made part of the climax look kind of shoehorned and contrived. I always wanted to take another run at that story, but deadlines are deadlines and the ship sailed.

When John Adams approached me for the reprint rights, I asked if I could take that second run— and he said Sure. (He even agreed that it would improve the story.) So what you’ll find over at Lightspeed is “Collateral, the Director’s Cut“: same story, same payoff, but you notice the critical gun a lot earlier in the story. The payoff unfolds more organically now. Plus, the need to relocate that element also gave me the opportunity to tune up some dialog, coax a little more tension out of the exchanges between Becker and Sabrie.

V1.2. I do not know why this woman is literally tossing her cookies, but I can only hope the rest of you react more favorably.

V1.2. I do not know why this woman is literally tossing her cookies. I can only hope the rest of you react more favorably.

It’s not a radically different story, by any means. But I think it’s a better one. I’m grateful to Lightspeed for letting me tune it up.

I’m also grateful that they threw their “Author Spotlight” on me in the same issue. Interviewer Sandra Odell hit me with a nice mix of questions, ranging from the familiar (who do you like to read) to some finely-focussed probing into the specifics of this particular story (the manipulation of identity to military and propagandistic ends). About the only thing she got wrong was her allegation that I write “fully realized and complex” characters, but I corrected her on that score.

Anyway, check it out. If you’ve already read the story, see if you can spot the differences. If you haven’t, I hope you like it.

Also I really like the author pic they used.

Posted in: interviews, writing news by Peter Watts 23 Comments

Adaptive Management and the Walking Dead

According to Rule 34, someone, somewhere finds this hot.

According to Rule 34, someone somewhere thinks this is really hot.

So. Another year, another season of The Walking Dead. Not the worst time to weigh in, now that the Season finale is behind us. An even better time would have been a few days back, but I was busy getting cowified and I’m still in the medicated recovery phase. Basically there isn’t enough bone between my maxilla and the overlaying sinus to properly anchor the titanium Terminator Tooth that has to ultimately go in there. So back on Tuesday they implanted in my face a lattice of bone fragments grown from bovine stem cells. Over the next few months my own osteoblasts will crawl all over that scaffolding; by the time they’re done there’ll be enough new bone up there to anchor the CN Tower.

In the meantime it hurts, and it’s puffy and swollen, and my tongue can’t keep from poking the stitches. On the plus side, the new tusk seems to be coming in fine.

*

Anyway.

*

Although we cancelled our cable years ago, television is a time-honored tradition at the Magic Bungalow. It’s not only our primary technique for educating the pones, it’s also the only time we ever get to see them. Fortunately, thanks to television, we get to see them a lot: we’ve shared everything from Breaking Bad to BSG to Game of Thrones on that bed (with occasional retro forays into Buffy and The Prisoner). Each series contributes its own educational insights. The Sarah Connor Chronicles introduces Turing Tests and the Singularity; Breaking Bad lays out the essential concepts of small business management; Buffy’s subtle progressive analysis teaches us that feminism consists of being a hot cheerleader with superpowers who teams up with a hot lesbian with superpowers who together triumph over the world’s assholes by beating the living shit out of them.

Only one of thse pones still likes The Walking Dead.  Guess which.

Only one of these pones still likes The Walking Dead. Guess which.

One show the four of us watched religiously was The Walking Dead; we’d climb onto Big Green every Monday to watch Ian Anderson’s son-in-law lead his merry band of survivors through a postapocalyptic zombie-infested hellscape where no one, curiously, ever used the word “zombie”. It was a glorious time, a family time, until the Meez decided it was too predictable and dropped out. “It never changes,” she said. “They wander around until they find some place to settle down and they start off thinking it’s wonderful. Then the wonderful place turns out to be horrible, and it gets bombed or burned to the ground or something, and they just go back to wandering around again.”

Let us chalk up to coincidence the fact that the Meez came to this conclusion about the same time she discovered sex and started holing up down in the Ponearium with her boyfriend. Let’s take her critique at face value. Her sister does not share that opinion (which is not to say that Micropone doesn’t have her own criticisms; her observation, for example, that by now the survivors should all be living in Ewok-like treehouse communities because Walkers can’t climb is particularly astute). Micro owns the graphic novels. Micro was on the edge of her seat waiting for the season finale (although, like many of you, she was pissed at the coyness of that final scene. I was fine with the cliffhanger; I just didn’t like the pacing of the scene that led up to it.)

Everybody's a critic.

Everybody’s a critic.

So: one show, two pones, two opposing opinions. The Meez isn’t alone in hers; a lot of folks have grown disillusioned with TWD over the years. The second season was especially trying for many: I remember one person who, afterward, facebooked that the prospect of watching Season 3 was like having an abusive boyfriend promise he wouldn’t beat you again if you just gave him another chance. (This person markets herself as a Serious Feminist; you can imagine the visceral revulsion a mere TV show would have to instill, to drive her to jokes about domestic violence). And complaints about the relentless, grinding sameness of seasonal arcs are laughably easy to find: Googling “The Walking Dead” with “repetitive” just got me 166,000 hits.

If you listen carefully, you'll actually pick out a few Walking Dead references in the lyrics.

If you listen carefully, you’ll actually pick out a few Walking Dead references in the lyrics.

I think all these people are wrong. And not just because I can’t watch an episode without thinking Wow, that guy is married to Ian Anderson’s daughter. He probably hangs out with Ian Anderson at Christmas. I wonder what they talk about. I wonder if he ever asked whether the “sleeping flies” lyric in A Passion Play was a nod to Shakespeare. I regarded the pacing of Season Two— all those motionless episodes spent on Herschel’s farm— not as a boring snoozefest, but as a deliberate slow burn that made the final climactic payoff all the more devastating. And I think those who complain about the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of Sanctuary-found-Sanctuary-Lost are completely missing the point. It’s almost as though they think The Walking Dead is a show about zombies or something.

It’s not, of course. It never has been, any more than The Road was about asteroid impacts. The Walking Dead is about lifeboat ethics— about what people are willing to do, to sacrifice, to stay alive. It’s a monte-carlo exercise in adaptive management: knock back the population, seed the survivors, set the clock running and observe the results. The scenario doesn’t have to change so long as the people do; in fact, the very point of the exercise is lost if the scenario does change. The point is to see how different people react to a common apocalypse.

There are as many different answers to that as there are survivors left in the world. You could be a complete wuss, an overweight schoolteacher with no skills and no hope— until you become the world’s best cosplayer, presenting yourself as a black-ops scientist with vital intel Who Must Be Protected At All Costs. You could be a military hard-ass with all the survival skills in the world, lacking the will to do anything but put a gun in your mouth— until some overweight dweeb tells you about a “mission” that gives you a reason to go on living. You could be the well-meaning survivors who try to establish a refuge for your fellow humans, only to see your loved ones brutally killed when marauders show up at the table you welcomed them to; if you survive that experience, you could well decide to be the butchers next time around, and not the cattle. You could decide to enforce a Darwinian regime where the tech remains relatively high but the consequences of not pulling your weight are— draconian…

Or you could just carve a big W into your forehead and go native.

"I wanna show you the new world, Carl." Uh, okay. Just hope 3D movies aren't a big part of it, though.

“I wanna show you the new world, Carl.” Uh, okay. Let’s just hope 3D movies aren’t a big part of it.

It doesn’t matter whether you set it in Terminus or Woodbury, Alexandria or Grady Memorial Hospital. It’s like Stephen Jay Gould’s metaphor for the irreproducibility of evolution: you can rewind the tape, start at the same point, and go off in entirely different and endlessly fascinating directions. (Here’s a new direction for you: The Bobbing Dead, the upcoming second season of the WD spin-off Fear the Walking Dead. Survivors on yachts, safe from zombie depredations until bacterial methane bloats enough walkers to let them float out to sea after the escapees. Tell me you saw that coming.)

Even when the characters stay the same, they change. Look at Ian Anderson’s Son-In-Law. Look at Carol Peletier, perhaps the most awesome character in an ensemble made of awesome. One begins the gauntlet as a career cop: the idea of rules, of recourse to the law is built into his DNA. Carol starts off as a mousy middle-aged battered wife; she knows with every thrown punch, with every “accidental” fall down the stairs, that there’s no cavalry coming over the hill. She knew it years before the apocalypse ever got off the ground.

So who fares better? The police officer— trained in the use of force and firearms, with years of experience under his belt— hears spectral voices from dead telephones. He wanders the forest in the grip of hallucinations. He veers between blood-eyed preemptive murder and a bucolic desire to farm tomatoes.

Meanwhile, Carol— in slow, irreversible ratchets— turns to steel. She leaves trolly paradoxes in the dust while everyone else is still wittering on about morality and the sanctity of human life. She makes the hard calls, kills the vectors and burns the bodies to protect the very people who cast her out for her heartlessness. She keeps a grim distance, surviving alone on her own wits; comes back in the nick of time to save, yet again, the people who’d have killed her if they knew what she’d done for them.

She doesn’t like it. Rick snarls that it’s Us or Them when he pulls the trigger, but Carol only grits her teeth. She wishes it were different. She pleads with her victims to walk away, before she guns them down. And in so doing, she confirms again the insight Rick Grimes shared with his fellow survivors a season or two back, a line that turns the entire premise of the series inside out: “We are the walking dead.”

And I haven’t even mentioned Michonne, or Daryl, Herschel or that glorious understated moment when Governor brushes his undead daughter’s hair…

So, yes. I come down firmly on Micropone’s side, and shake my head at her sister and all those others who complain about needless repetition and pointless deaths— as though the very pointlessness of most death isn’t a point in and of itself. To paraphrase someone whose name I’ve forgotten, most of us don’t get to be Mad Max; most of us just end up as one of those skulls piled up in the background.

There’s no drama in the center of one’s comfort zone, no excitement to be had in watching someone snarf Dorritos on a couch. Drama works by pushing people away from that center, towards their limits. Apocalyptic drama pushes to the limits of all of Humanity.

The Walking Dead goes even further. It quite deliberately asks whether retaining one’s Humanity is even a good thing.

I think it’s a question worth asking. More than once.

Posted in: art on ink by Peter Watts 57 Comments

Of Mice, and Men, and Magneto.

So lookee here (or here, for popsci coverage). Researchers out of the University of Virginia have successfully controlled behavior in mice— possibly instilled True Happiness, although it’s impossible to be sure about another being’s inner emotional state— using controlled magnetic fields. By hacking into the reward centers of the rodent brain they induced the little guys to assemble on command, drew them to any spot where critical lines of force brought down the rapture. (It’s a little like the “wirehead” tech that Louis Wu became addicted to in Larry Niven’s Ringworld books. Only wireless.) Faster than drugs, deeper than optogenetics, more precise than that run-of-the-mill transcranial magnetic stimulation that induces night terrors and “sensed presence”, the new technique represents “the first demonstration of bona fide magnetic control of the nervous system.”

A new view of mice and men.

Meet Magneto2.0

Wheeler et al rhapsodize about the benefits such methods will ultimately confer. A real boon to research, they say. A way to “better understand neural development, function and pathology.”

Meanwhile the US government is doing its damnedest to force the whole tech industry to break its own encryption. (Don’t breathe easy just because the spooks have backed off on the Apple case; they’ve already got their legal judgment and their cracked iPhone. Remember those heartfelt, wide-eyed assurances that we only want to look inside this one, tewwowist phone, how could anyone object to weakening the security on this single, solitary tewwowist phone? Just kidding! The DOJ have served notice that henceforth the entire tech industry is their bitch and can be commanded to unlock anything at any time, with or without cooperation from “the relevant parties”.)

I don’t know if anyone has drawn a line between these two developments, between happy mice and gloating spooks. To me, that line is drawn in neon.

It’s probably too early to worry about the Magneto tech just yet. It doesn’t work on any old field mouse; the critters have to be genetically tweaked beforehand, their very brain cells reshaped for increased sensitivity to magnetic fields. They had to retcon a whole new set of switches to control ion channels in the brain. The same invasive molecular reconstruction would have to be performed on people before evil government agencies could take over our nervous systems. Relieved sigh, right?

Then again, why wouldn’t evil government agencies just go right ahead and mandate such measures in the name of Security?

*

Our watchers employ a wonderful sort of doublethink to extend their reach: they pretend that nothing has changed, then grab more power by arguing that everything has. Why, we’ve always been able to tap people’s phones, or tail them, or bug their apartments: how is sifting through email and using face-recognition algos any different?

The fallacy, of course, is the ease with which one can indiscriminately surveil millions today, versus yesterday’s difficulty in targeting high-value suspects and following them around town in a van with fake FTD logos on the side. Governments and spooks want you to believe that a fishing rod equals a drift net, and they’re hoping you won’t notice that 99% of their haul is by-catch.

Trust him.

Trust him.

Of course, they’re just as ready to exploit the opposite rationale: OMG terrorists and child molesters are everywhere exploiting webcams and end-to-end encryption in ways that have never been done before! We need more power to combat this unprecedented and existential threat! The problem with that being— as I’ve argued before— that the moment you accept mass online surveillance because horrible things happen to innocent children on the Internet, you pretty much have to let Big Brother install cameras in private bathrooms and bedrooms because horrible things happen to innocent children there, too. I’d be tempted to call it “Mission Creep”, were it not for the fact that mission creep is something that happens inadvertently and this whole panopticon project is so damn deliberate.

We can already see it happening with the ambulatory computers we drive around in. A Rand report from last year— on a workshop  exploring the use of future tech by law enforcement— stirred up a blizzard of online commentary thanks to a scenario about Law Enforcement remotely commandeering driverless vehicles. Workshop participants apparently regarded such interfaces as “low” priority”. Still. We’re talking about people who reserve the right to Stingray your cell phone conversations and read your emails without a warrant. We’re talking about people who can prevent you, without explanation or recourse, from getting on an airplane to go visit your mum. People who seem curiously immune to indictment no matter how many unarmed black people they kill. It’s difficult to imagine such folks walking away from the power to remote-control your car from the comfort of their dashboards. Hell, thanks to OnStar, they’ve been remotely shutting down drivered vehicles since 2009. And how can we stop suspected terrorists from flying, yet draw the line at ground-based travel? Does anyone honestly think that evildoers never drive to the scene of their evil deeds?

Of course, evildoers sometimes walk, too.

*

Come on in. If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear.

Come on in. If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.

You can see where I’m going with this.

One line in particular jumped out at me while reading Wheeler et al: their description of Magneto2.0 as “a prototype for a class of magnetogenetic remote controlled actuators.” They targeted the striatum— a central element of the brain’s reward system— but they could have just as easily gone after the motor strip, provoked a case of alien-paw syndrome instead of a dopamine high. A few years down the road, they might be able to run the motor systems of those mice as easily as the LAPD runs other people’s self-driving 2022 Teslas.

Of course, if you were going to scale up to humans you’d need to tweak our genes first. That’s not as big a barrier as you might think, it’s not like you have to raise the new flesh from embryos or anything.  Wheeler and his buddies used adult mice, injected their customized genes directly into the brain using a virus as a carrier.

And if we can’t handle the inoculation of a few million North Americans, what the hell is all that vaccination infrastructure for?

Evildoers fly to their targets, so we keep them from flying. If they ride overland to their targets we take control of their vehicles, keep them from riding; it’s the same thing. If they walk to their targets— if they disobey a lawful command, try to run— well, how can we stop suspected terrorists from driving, yet draw the line at arms and legs?

Police have always had the right to immobilize suspects, tackle them physically, restrain them. For the good of society.

It’s the same thing, right?

William Gibson was right. The street finds its own uses for things.

Of course, so does the state.

It would not behoove us to forget that.

Dumb Adult.

Actually, this was pretty good.

Actually, this was pretty good.

We didn’t have “Young Adult” when I was your age, much less this newfangled “New Adult” thing they coddle you with. We had to jump right from Peter the Sea Trout and Freddy and the Ignormus straight into Stand on Zanzibar and Solaris, no water wings or training wheels or anything.

Amazingly, I managed to read anyway. I discovered Asimov and Bradbury and Bester at eleven, read Zanzibar at twelve, Solaris at thirteen. I may have been smarter than most of my age class (I hope I was— if not, I sure got picked on a lot for no good reason), but I was by no means unique; I only discovered The Sheep Look Up when a classmate recommended it to me in the tenth grade. And judging by the wear and tear on the paperbacks in the school library, everyone was into Asimov and Bradbury back then. Delany too, judging by the way the covers kept falling off The Einstein Intersection. Back in those days we didn’t need no steenking Young Adult.

Now get off my lawn.

I’ll admit my attitude could be a bit more nuanced. After all, my wife has recently been marketed as a YA author, and her writing is gorgeous (although I would argue it’s also not YA). Friends and peers swim in young-adult waters. Well-intentioned advisers, ever mindful of the nichiness of my own market share, have suggested that I try writing YA because that’s where the money is, because that’s the one part of the fiction market that didn’t implode with the rest of the economy a few years back.

But I can’t help myself. It’s not that I don’t think we should encourage young adults to read (in fact, if we can’t get them to read more than the last generation, we’re pretty much fucked). It’s that I’m starting to think YA doesn’t do that.

I’m starting to think it may do the opposite.

Hanging out at last fall’s SFContario, I sat in on a panel on the subject. It was populated by a bunch of very smart authors who most assuredly do not suck, who know far more about this YA than I do, and whom I hope will not take offense when I shit all over their chosen pseudogenre— because even this panel of experts had a hard time coming up with a working definition of what a Young Adult novel even was (beyond a self-serving marketing category, at least).

The rules keep changing, you see. It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t say “fuck” in a YA novel; these days you can. Back around the turn of the century, YA novels were 100% sex-free, beyond the chaste fifties-era hand-holding and nookie that never seemed to involve the unzipping of anyone’s fly; today, YA can encompass not just sex, but pregnancy and venereal disease and rape. Stories that once took place in some parallel, intercourse-free universe now juggle gay sex and gender fluidity as if they were just another iteration of Archie and Betty down at the malt shop (which is, don’t get me wrong, an awesome and overdue thing; but it doesn’t give you much of a leg up when you’re trying to define “Young Adult” in more satisfying terms than “Books that can be found in the YA section at Indigo”).

Every now and then one of the panelists would cite an actual rule that seemed to hold up over time, but which was arcane unto inanity. In one case, apparently, a story with an adolescent protagonist— a story that met pretty much any YA convention you might want to name— was excluded from the club simply because it was told as an extended flashback, from the POV of the protagonist as a grown adult looking back. Apparently it’s not enough that a story revolve around adolescents; the perspective, the mindset of the novel as artefact must also be rooted in adolescence. If adults are even present in the tale, they must remain facades; we can never see the world through their eyes.

Remember those old Peanuts TV specials where the grownups were never seen, and whose only bits of dialog consisted entirely of muted trombones going mwa-mwa-mwa? Young Adult, apparently.

Finally the panel came up with a checklist they could all agree upon. To qualify as YA, a story would have to incorporate the following elements:

  • Youthful protagonist(s)
  • Youthful mindset
  • Corrupt/dystopian society (this criterion may have been intended to apply to modern 21rst-century YA rather than the older stuff, although I suppose a cadre of Evil Cheerleaders Who Run The School might qualify)
  • Inconvenient/ineffectual/absent parents: more a logistic constraint than a philosophical one. Your protagonists have to be free to be proactive, which is hard to pull off with parents always looking over their shoulders and telling them it’s time to come in now.
  • Uplifting, or at least hopeful ending: your protags may only be a bunch of meddlesome kids, but the Evil Empire can’t defeat them.

Accepting these criteria as authoritative—they were, after all, hashed out by a panel of authorities— it came to me in a blinding flash. The archetypal YA novel just had to be— wait for it—

Don't blame me. The shoe fits.

Don’t blame me. The shoe fits.

A Clockwork Orange.

Think about it: a story told from the exclusive first-person perspective of an adolescent, check. Corrupt dystopian society, check. Irrelevant parents, check. And in the end, Alex wins: the government sets him free once again, to rape and pillage to his heart’s content. Admittedly the evil government isn’t outright defeated at the end of the novel; it simply has to let Alex walk, let him get back to his life (a more recent YA novel with the same payoff is Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother). Still: it failed to defeat the meddlesome kid.

So according to a panel of YA authors— or at least, according to the criteria they laid out— one of the most violent, subversive, and inaccessible novels of the Twentieth Century is a work of YA fiction. Which pretty much brings us back to 11-year-old me and John Brunner. If A Clockwork Orange is Young Adult, aren’t that category’s boundaries so wide as to be pretty much meaningless?

But there’s one rule nobody mentioned, a rule I suspect may be more relevant than all the others combined. A Clockwork Orange is not an easy read by any stretch. Not only are the words big and difficult, half of them are in goddamn Russian. The whole book is written in a polygot dialect that doesn’t even exist in the real world. And I suspect that toughness, that inaccessibility, would cause most to exclude it from YAhood.

In order to be YA, the writing has to be simple. It may have once been a good thing to throw the occasional unfamiliar word at an adolescent; hell, it might force them to look the damn thing up, increase their vocabulary a bit. No longer. I haven’t read a whole lot of YA— Gaiman, Doctorow, Miéville are three that come most readily to mind— but I’ve noticed a common thread in their YA works that extends beyond merely dialing back the sex and profanity. The prose is less challenging than the stuff you find in adult works by the same authors.

Nice try, Bloomsbury. It's still KidLit.

Nice try, Bloomsbury. It’s still KidLit.

Well, duh, you might think: of course it’s simpler. It’s written for a younger audience. But increasingly, that isn’t the case any more, at least not since they started printing Harry Potter with understated “adult” covers, so all those not-so-young-adult fans could get their Hogworts fix on the subway without being embarrassed by lurid and childish artwork. The Hunger Games was first recommended to me by a woman who was (back then) on the cusp of thirty, and no dummy.

All these actual adults, reading progressively simpler writing. All us authors, chasing them down the stairs. Hell, Neil Gaiman took a classic that nine-year-old Peter Watts devoured at age nine without any trouble at all— Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book— and dumbed it down to an (admittedly award-winning) story about ghosts and vampires, aimed at an audience who might find a story about sapient wolves and tigers too challenging. It may only be a matter of time before Nineteen Eighty Four is reissued using only words from the Eleventh edition of the Newspeak Dictionary. We may already be past the point when anyone looking to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea looks any further than the Classics Illustrated comic.

I know how this sounds. I led with that whole crotchety get-off-my-lawn shtick because the Old are famously compelled to rail against the failings of the Young, because rants about the Good Old Days are as tiresome when they’re about literacy as they are when they’re about music or haircuts. It was a self-aware (and probably ineffective) attempt at critic-proofing.

So let me emphasize: I’ve got nothing against clear, concise prose (despite the florid nature of my own, sometimes). Hemingway wrote simple prose. Orwell extolled its virtues. If that was all that made up Young Adult, even I would be a YA writer (at least, I don’t think your average 16-year-old would have any trouble getting through Starfish).

But there’s a difference between novels that happen to be accessible to teens, and novels that put teens in their heat-sensitive, wallet-lightening crosshairs. I know of one author who had to go back and tear up an adult novel, already written, by the roots: rewrite and duct-tape it onto YA scaffolding because that’s the only way it would sell. I know a very smart, highly-respected editor who once raved about the incredible, well-thought-out plotting of the Harry Potter books, apparently blind to the fact that Rowling— her claims to the contrary notwithstanding— seemed to be just making shit up as she went along.[1]

A long time ago, a childhood friend named Stuart Blyth gave me the collected tales of Edgar Allen Poe for my tenth birthday. I loved that stuff. It taught me things— made me teach myself things, in the same way a Jethro Tull song a few decades later forced me to look up the meaning of “overpressure wave”. I have to wonder if YA does that, if it improves one’s reading skills or merely panders to them. I doubt that your vocabulary is any bigger when you finish Harry Potter and the Well-Deserved Bitch-Slap than when you started. You may have been entertained, but you were not upgraded.

Of course, if entertainment’s all you’re after, no biggie. The problem, though, is that it acts like a ratchet. If we only allow ourselves to write down, never up— and if the age of the YA market edges up, never down— it’s hard to see how the overall sophistication of our writing can do anything but decline monotonically over time[2].

Who among you will tell me this is a good thing?


Late-breaking edit, 22/03/2016:  Courtesy of “Damon”, about whom I know very little except that he’s chosen an awesome ISP, Teksavvy, which puts him somewhere in my end of Canada. Apparently his buddies in the local bookstore have taken my insights to heart, and rearranged the YA section thusly:

young-adult-small

My work here is done.


 

[1] I mean, think about it: we have a protagonist whose central defining feature is the murder of his parents when he was an infant. And when he discovers that time travel is so trivially accessible that his classmate uses it for no better purpose than to double up her course load, it never once occurs to him to wonder: Hey— maybe I can go back and save my parents! This is careful plotting?

[2] This was one of the points I was trying to make a few weeks back when I announced my retirement from the word of adult fiction, and my new career as an author of stories written exclusively for preschoolers. That post was satirical, by the way, although I’m grateful to all of you who wished me well in my new endeavor.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 171 Comments

Destination X.

Hello, ‘crawlsters.  I would like to solicit your input on the following (utterly hypothetical) question:

If, sometime in the next year, you could send me somewhere on this planet— somewhere from which I’d be obligated to report back on my experiences— where would it be?

Probably out of the running, sadly.

Probably not, sadly.

Some conditions apply. I would not willingly go to the bottom of an unstable mine shaft, for example. The destination would have to be reasonably accessible— no lengthy Himalayan foot-treks to lost valleys, and I’m pretty sure low earth orbit is out of the running (although the ISS would be awesome). I don’t speak Portuguese or Hadzane or, really, any language other than this one here—  so if there were people there, some of them would have to be Anglophones. Finally, it can’t be anywhere in the USA. Much as I’d love to check out that country’s steroidally-overmilitarized police forces, clownish electoral politics— maybe even get one of those three-mass-shootings-or-your-money-back tourist packages— I’m not actually allowed into the country. (Which may well have added a few years to my expected lifespan, at least until the extrajudicial drone-strike program spreads north.)

Other than that, though, I’m open to suggestions.  Again, purely hypothetically.

I was thinking, maybe hitch a ride to a hydrothermal vent…


P.S. Also, it can’t be the location of some con which I would be attending anyway.

Posted in: just putting it out there... by Peter Watts 70 Comments

Verbal, Visual

Verbal.

This is going to be one of those colloidal installments containing bits and pieces too insubstantial to warrant their own standalone posts. Upcoming appearances, for one thing: over the next few months, they’re letting me out in public on three separate occasions:

  • The BUG and I will be coappearing at the Peterborough iteration of the Chiaroscuro Reading Series, on the evening of March 3. (They don’t seem to have actually announced it on their site yet, but it’s getting pretty close to the wire so I’m jumping the gun in deference to the whole sufficient-warning thing.) We will be coappearing with a third party, but don’t know who that is yet.
  • .

    .

    After a one-year, hiatus, I’m back at the SpecFic Colloquium giving a talk on ScArt. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, the subtitle to the right should fill you in.  Also there will be fractals. Other speakers include Alyx Dellamonica, Peter Chiykowski, Andrew Pyper, Michael Rowe— and Guest of Honor Margaret Atwood, delivering the keynote address “SF in my Life and Art”. (I’m guessing the S stands for “speculative”.)

Traditionally these things have been held upstairs in a cozy little bar/performance venue called The Round. This time they’re springing for the Innis Town Hall, which is, well, somewhat bigger. Saturday, March 12, 9:30-5:00. Get your tickets soon, folks; this one is gonna sell out fast. And not because of ScArt.

  • Finally, I’m going to be one of many Ghosts of GoHs Past at this year’s Ad Astra. In honour of their 35th Anniversary, the organizers are trying to get as many past GoHs to show up as they can. I’m told I’m one of them, even though as of this writing they don’t seem to have put me on their list of panelists here either (Between this and Peterborough, I’m starting to wonder if all these invitations are part of some great and cruel hoax…)

As chance would have it, Ad Astra’s actual Guests of Honour this year include Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory, the implacable duo behind ChiZine Press, the Chiaroscuro Reading Series, and the SpecFic Colloquium. It’s a small world.

And Brett and Sandra rule most of it.

Visual.

A few more bits of fan art have accumulated since the last upload, oh, nigh on two months past. Take a gander as they pass through en route to the gallery.  (To those who have only awakened to the concept of web browsing within the past 48 hours, you may click to embiggen.)

An evocative, minimalist impression of Valerie by the ever-awesome Brian Prince. I don't know why I'm only now getting around to highlighting this on the crawl— it's been in the gallery for ages...

An evocative, minimalist impression of Valerie by the ever-awesome Brian Prince. I don’t know why I’m only now getting around to highlighting this on the crawl— it’s been in the gallery for ages…

"Blindsight", by Derek Greenley.  Whoever that character is, they're looking in the wrong direction. (And with the wrong focal length.)

“Blindsight”, by Derek Greenley. Whoever that character is, they’re looking in the wrong direction. (And with the wrong focal length.)

Valerie as Nosferatu, by Polish artist DraxMustHurt.  Noncanonnical though it be, I like the juxtaposition of old school with hard tech.

Valerie as Nosferatu, by Polish artist DraxMustHurt. Noncanonical though it be, I like the juxtaposition of old school with hard tech.

Yeah, I know. Me and media tie-ins just don't mix. But thanks to Dmitry Burdokov, I'm gonna risk it one more time.

Yeah, I know. Me and media tie-ins just don’t mix. But thanks to Dmitry Burdokov, I’m gonna risk it one more time.

Posted in: ink on art, On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 4 Comments

The Tale of Nellie the Nephron.

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

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

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

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

Admittedly, we’re still looking for an artist…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 44 Comments

Viva Zika!

There’s this guy I knew, Dan Brooks. Retired now, an eminent parasitologist and evolutionary biologist back in the day. He did a lot of work on emerging infectious diseases (EIDs, for you acronym fetishists) down in Latin America. A few years back I wrote some introductory text for an online database he was compiling. Part of it went like this:

You will find no public health advisories about Lyme Disease in Costa Rica. On the face of it, this is perfectly reasonable; Lyme Disease has never been reported there, and none of the local tick species is known to carry the bacterium that causes it.

Some of those ticks, however, are closely related to those in other regions which do carry that bacterium, and many pathogens are able to infect a far greater range of species than they actually occupy; simple isolation is the only thing that keeps them from reaching their true infectious potential. Thus, while Costa Rica is free of Lyme Disease at present, potential vectors already occur in abundance there. The infrastructure for an outbreak is already in place: a single asymptomatic tourist may be all it takes to loose this painful, debilitating disease on the local population.

Lyme disease is by no means unique. Climate change alters movement and home range for a myriad organisms. Our transport of people and goods carries countless pathogens around the globe. Isolated species come into sudden contact; parasites and diseases find themselves surrounded by naïve and vulnerable new hosts. And so maladies literally unknown only four or five decades ago — AIDS in humans, Ebola in humans and gorillas, West Nile virus and Avian Influenza in humans and birds, chytrid fungi in amphibians, distemper in sea lions — have today become almost commonplace. Pathogens encounter new hosts with no resistance and no time to evolve any. In such a world EIDs are inevitable. They are ongoing. A month scarcely passes without news of some freshly-discovered strain of influenza trading up to a human host.

This month, it’s Zika. Spread by the tropical mosquito Aedes aegypti, so we northern folks (so they assured us only last week) don’t have to worry. Hell, even 80% of the people who do get infected never show any symptoms. The other 20% have to suffer through joint pain, fever, a mild skin rash before Zika gets bored and wanders off to bother someone else. Ebola this ain’t; it’s never even killed anyone, as far as we know. I’m guessing that’s why no one’s bothered to develop a vaccine.

The things it does to fetuses, though. Now that’s pretty horrific, even if WHO is back-peddling and admitting that no one’s yet proven beyond a doubt that Zika causes microcephaly. (If it doesn’t, someone’s going to have to explain the fact that Brazilian cases of microcephaly shot up by a factor of twenty-five since Zika debuted there last year— from a long-term annual average of 150 cases to well over four thousand, and climbing. That’s a pretty stark coincidence.)

OK, so correlation is not causation. Tell me what this is correlated with. (From ECDC.)

OK, so correlation is not causation. Tell me what this is correlated with. (From ECDC.)

Even granting the argument that rampant Zikaphobia has resulted in the erroneous tagging of garden-variety small-headed babies— of a sample of 732 diagnoses, only 270 (37%) turned out to be truly microcephalic— we’re still talking a tenfold increase over historical levels. (And that may be conservative; it implicitly assumes that even though so many recent cases were misdiagnosed, none of the previous decades’ baseline cases were.) Claims that Zika wasn’t confirmed even in the majority of the verified cases aren’t especially reassuring given that tests for Zika in the hot zone are “very inefficient“— not to mention the fact that French Polynesia experienced a similar correlation between fetal CNS malformations and a Zika outbreak just the year before.

Back last week— when we were all being told that we had nothing to fear because A. aegypti never got out of the subtropics— the first thing that came to mind was Dan’s work on EIDs, and the ease with which certain microbes can swap hosts. “Sure, aegypti won’t make it this far,” I told the BUG, “but what if if Zika hitches a ride with Anopheles in the overlap zone?” It was, for a science fiction writer and worst-case scenarist, an embarrassing failure of imagination. Because Zika has in fact found some new Uber driver to hitch a ride with over the past few days, and it isn’t a mosquito.

It’s us. Zika has learned to cut out the middleman. It is now a sexually transmitted human disease.

Our Hope and our Salvation.

Our Hope and our Salvation.

And call me Pollyanna, but I can’t help nurture the outlandish-but-not-entirely-impossible dream that we might be looking at our own salvation. We might be looking at the salvation of the planet itself.

Because there’s no denying that pretty much every problem in the biosphere hails from a common cause. Climate change, pollution, habitat loss, the emptying of biodiversity from land sea and air, an extinction rate unparalleled since the last asteroid and the transformation of our homeworld into a planet of weeds— all our fault, of course. There are simply too many of us, and— being mammals— we just can’t stop breeding. Over seven billion of us already, and we still can’t keep it in our pants.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. My money was on some kind of self-induced die-off: a global pandemic that left corpses piled in the streets, or some societal collapse that reduced us to savagery on the third day and a relict population on the three hundredth. Maybe a holy nuclear war, if you’re into golden oldies. The problem with these scenarios— other than the fact that they involve the violent suffering and extermination of billions of sapient beings— is that we’d wreck the environment even more on our way out, leave behind a devastated wasteland where only cockroaches and stromatolites could flourish. The cure would be worse than the disease.

Many well-meaning folks have pointed out that birth rates decline as living standards improve; since so much of the world still lives in relative poverty, the obvious solution is to simply raise everyone’s quality of life to Norwegian levels. The obvious fly in that ointment is that your average first-worlder stamps a far bigger boot onto the face of the planet than some subsistence farmer in Burkina Faso no matter how many kids she might have. Mammals like me don’t need a brood of children to wreck the environment; we do it just fine with our cars and our imported groceries and our giant 4K TVs. Elevating 7.3 billion people to levels of North American gluttony does not strike me as a solution to anything other than fast-tracking the planet back to Scenario One.

But look at Zika. It doesn’t kill you, doesn’t even present symptoms in most cases. The worst you have to fear is a few aches and pains, a rash, a couple of sick days.

All it really does is stop you from breeding.

In a way it’s almost secondary, all this hemming and hawing about whether Zika causes birth defects or whether it’s just mysteriously correlated with them somehow. Fear hangs in the air, and the benefits are already starting to roll in. Just two days ago, WHO declared Zika a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern“. Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador and Venezuela have all publicly advised their citizens against getting pregnant— all the more remarkable for the fact that all but Jamaica are bastions of Catholicism, which normally champions the whole Biblical fill-the-earth-with-thy-numbers imperative. And now that this baby-monsterizing bug can be transmitted directly, human to human, through the very act of intercourse? Why, none of us are safe!

I look forward to a day when Zika— or at least, the fear of Zika— is everywhere. I look forward to a day when this benign baby-twisting bug inspires us to save ourselves, frightens us into necessary measures that mere foresight and intelligence could never inspire. There need be no societal collapse, no devastating pandemic or wretched nuclear winter. There need be no great die-off to save the planet. There need only be this additional cost, this danger, that makes you think twice before indulging your reproductive urges. In the space of a single generation, the numbers of this pest species could just… gently taper off. We could become sustainable again.

That is my dream. Of course, upon waking, I have to admit that now Zika is in the spotlight, the medical community will simply fall over itself in the race to find a cure. They will succeed. And we’ll be back where we started— albeit with some new proprietary and lucrative drug in hand, available only from Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson.

That’s the thing about being an optimist. You have dreams, and reality crushes them.

I could write an upbeat short story about it, at least. Too bad that none of those Shine-on Let’s do an SF anthology about positive futures! people have ever approached me, for some reason…

 

 

 

 

Posted in: biology, just putting it out there... by Peter Watts 51 Comments

Colossus.

 

 Two ARCs sit on the bedside table, here in the Magic Bungalow. One waits for a blurb from the BUG, the other for a blurb from me. They represent my most recent interaction with the NY publishing industry. They were both sent by David Hartwell, of Tor.

On my brag shelf is an old copy of Northern Stars: The Anthology of Canadian Science Fiction. I haven’t noticed it for years. The first story in that anthology is “A Niche”: the first story I ever had published, the first to get reprinted. Northern Stars represents my very first interaction with the NY publishing industry.

It was edited by Glenn Grant and David Hartwell.

It would not be much of an overstatement to say that David is largely responsible for my current incarnation as an SF author. It would almost be an understatement to point out that I’m just one of a myriad people who can say this.

It was David who, having read the rough first half of a first draft that would later become Starfish, sent me an email that inspired me to keep writing when I was on the brink of junking this whole fucking pipe dream of authorhood and resigning myself to getting a Real Job. (Don’t try this at home, kids— it was Glenn Grant who took it upon himself to pass my scribblings along, and even then only because David had expressed an interest. Where are you, Glenn? Haven’t seen you for years. I still owe you.) It was David who accepted the completed manuscript back in 1996, after I’d flown across the country to attend my first con (okay, my second, if you insist on counting that Star Trek thing at the Royal York back in 1975). That was even more of a faux pas— you never thrust a manuscript at an editor during a con— but I didn’t know that, and he took it anyway. He then sat on it for eighteen months, waiting for exactly the right moment to phone with an offer: when I was sitting on the toilet with my pants around my ankles, in the worst possible psychological space for aggressive negotiation. To this day I wonder how he knew that.

David with Christian Sauvé and Karl Schroeder, since I can't seem to find a picture with he and I in the same shot. (Photo: Kathryn Cramer)

David with Christian Sauvé and Karl Schroeder, since I can’t seem to find a picture with he and I in the same shot.  David is the one with the understated tie. (Photo: Kathryn Cramer)

I was fortunate to come of age (authorwise) during the days of David’s Canadian initiative, back when everyone else in NY regarded Canada as little more than America’s Hat. We northern wannabes were overjoyed at his scouting efforts north of the 49th (and heartbroken when, a few years later, he headed off in the opposite direction on his somewhat-less-applauded Australia Initiative). He launched my career, showcased my stories in a half-dozen best-of collections, edited every one of my novels except for the Crysis tie-in. I wish he’d edited one less title, actually: some will remember that βehemoth was intended as a single book, and try as I might I could not prevail on the man to waive Tor’s tendency to split long novels into separate volumes. He did, however, let me add an Author’s Apology to each volume, warning potential buyers that they were only getting half a story for the price. It was a concession, and it cost, and it was more than most split-volumes got.

That one episode might just epitomize my relationship with David, and/or with Tor (it was always difficult to know where one ended and the other began, whether he was making policy or channeling it). He did not cave, but he could— bend. Enough to make enough of a difference, usually.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a relationship, professional or otherwise, that was so simultaneously rocky and cordial. We would— I guess you’d call it fight, except it wasn’t really. We would argue, passionately— I was usually the more hot-headed, big surprise— but while it was about things that mattered personally, it never seemed to get personal. There was never any question of us hanging out when he was in town— on patios or in hotels, with partners or one-on-one. We didn’t always butt heads; most of the time we just shot the shit, about everything from relationships to jellyfish, from politics to history. The man was a walking encyclopedia, he rubbed shoulder with giants; the man was a giant in his own right. And even at its most infuriating, there was always something— mitigating, I guess you’d say, about the relationship.

I remember buying him drinks not so long ago, on the rooftop patio at Hemingways. “I really like you, man,” I told him. “I respect you. But I don’t know if I can trust you.” He shrugged, and smiled, and we clinked glasses.

This morning I awoke to the news that David Hartwell had suffered a massive brain injury, and that while the heart continued to beat, the man was not expected to survive. As I write these words my facebook feed is alive with the news: with expressions of shock and sadness and regret, with sympathy for Kathryn and their kids. Making Light called it, then walked it back; Locus posted an obit and deleted it. SF is holding its breath, awaiting the inevitable.

He was in his seventies. He was winding down to retirement anyway. Nobody thought he was immortal.

Except we did. I did. It’s the dumbest thing, this obstinate Human refusal to internalize our own mortality. Down in my gut, I guess I just expected the guy to go on forever.

There was still so much to argue about.

Posted in: eulogy by Peter Watts 10 Comments

Anatomy of a Flameout

I can think of about a hundred people who’d argue that writing this post is the dumbest, most counterproductive thing I could possibly do— that I’m not only burning my bridges behind me, but burning others before I come to them. These people would tell me to keep my opinions to myself, for the sake of my career.

They’re probably right.

The thing is, though, it’s not always about hustling the next book or making the smart career move. Sometimes it’s about being able to look at yourself in the mirror.

*

Courtesy of David Nickle (who, I'm guessing would be one of the hundred). He really knows how to pick 'em. The last time he bought me alcohol in bulk, it was a bottle of white called "Guilty Men".

From David Nickle (who I’m guessing would be one of the hundred), in commiseration. He really knows how to pick ’em. The last time he bought me a bottle, it was a Cab Merlot called “Guilty Men”.

Well, that was fast. Turns out I’m not doing a “Person of Interest” novel after all.

I did warn you. I told you that the whole thing might get junked if they didn’t like the outline. As it turns out, though, the project is dead for a different reason entirely.

It turns out they didn’t like my last blog post.

For my part, I was rather fond of it. I’d been sitting on the news ever since last summer, unable to share; even after the book ended up on Amazon I still figured I should get explicit permission from Titan before going public. Permission in hand, I framed the story as a bit of good news, albeit hard-won good news that had to be fought for; I talked about the inevitable delays that gum up the works when multiple corporations, all with their own vested interests, have to get on the same page. As far as I was concerned it was like pointing out that Canadian winters are cold— not an insult, just an unpleasant fact. The way things are.

Evidently that’s not how certain other parties felt. (Exactly which other parties remains unclear, other than they obviously live somewhere in the Titan/Warner Bros./Bad Robot triumvirate. No one has communicated directly with me on the matter, so this is all coming via my agent with the serial numbers filed off.) They saw it as an extensive and detailed list of my own personal irritations and frustrations, name-checking of the characters involved, and complaints about remuneration. The most egregious sin, in their eyes, was the fact that I spilled “confidential” information— to wit, the title. That was enough to cancel the contract outright, Japan’s apparent interest notwithstanding.

If you go back and review the post in question, you’ll see that none of these claims stand up to scrutiny.

For example, if I’d wanted to “list my irritations and frustrations”, I would have mentioned the fact that I was given three months to write a novel, then put on hold for almost a third of that time while waiting for someone to approve a 5-page proposal. Or the contractual clause obligating me to return my signing installment if the project were cancelled up to the detailed-outline phase— in which case I’d be the only person on the project expected to work for free (unless Titan and WB employees routinely hand back portions of their salaries every time a project goes south). I’d have talked about the uncertainty of working up ten thousand words of prose, scaffolding, and outlines— without a contract and without payment— purely as a show of good faith, because I knew time was pressing and I didn’t want contract negotiations to slow things down even further. The teleconference that answered nothing; the makeup conference promised, but never delivered. There’s no end to the “frustrations” I could have “detailed”.

What I actually wrote was “There were contractual issues, but I figured we could work those through— because sometimes, as my buddy Mike Skeet opined, you just gotta tell the story.”

Name-checking the involved parties? The only person I named was JJ Abrams (who, let’s be clear, I’m pretty sure was not involved)— and unless his role as head of Bad Robot is supposed to be some kind of trade secret, I’m unclear as to how this constitutes any sort of breach. I didn’t mention remuneration at all until someone in the comments talked about a dream come true. My response— “You haven’t seen what they’re paying me”— was intended more as a wry commentary on general midlister income than anything else. (Titan was actually paying about a third of what I’d received for my previous tie-in, so in this case the remuneration was especially low. Which was, ironically, why I didn’t mention it.)

As for the real deal-breaker— spilling the title—to which title are they referring? “Person of Interest Novel #1”, which someone had already plastered across Amazon websites the world over? Or “The Hephaestus Iteration”, working title for an outline that had already been scuppered from above because it didn’t reflect the latest state of the narrative? A title, and an outline, submitted months before I was even signed?

Nothing in that post was factually inaccurate. Nothing breached contract. Nothing was even really all that negative, especially in light of the things I could have said; basically just generic grumblings about the speed at which corporations move. So why, after alternately working my ass off and twiddling my thumbs for extended periods over the past several months— after having had the work I submitted described as “brilliant”, “really cool”, and “fantastic”— after seeing myself described as “the perfect person to write this book”— why am I suddenly out of a gig?

The reasons that have filtered through to me simply don’t hold up (the claim about name-checking is pure fabrication). I’ve seen grumblings about “lost trust”, but the foundation laid out for such a claim is so insubstantial as to be meaningless—mealy-mouthed evasion to mask some other reason, some real reason, that remains unspoken. So, in the absence of first-hand information, we are left to speculate.

We could speculate that this was a diversionary tactic meant to distract from whoever jumped the gun and released the novel info in the first place.  Maybe someone, red-faced, figures they can take cover behind related collateral.

Maybe.  But I doubt it.

I think this may have more to do with the prevailing power dynamic between publishers and authors in general, the reason my hundred advisors would advise me to keep my mouth shut. When you’re a midlist author, you just don’t talk about this shit. Whatever the merits of your complaint, whatever steps you’ve taken behind the scenes, there’s a kind of gentleperson’s agreement that publishers never get called out in public. It’s partly decorum (no one wants to look unprofessional by airing their dirty laundry) but it’s also fear, a fear informed by the fact that there are so very many writers and so very few publishers, fewer with each passing year. You make the wrong person look bad and you just may never sell a book in this town again.

The threat is by no means universal— at a rough count I’ve had dealings with somewhere around thirty publishers over the course of my career, and working with most of them has ranged from hassle-free to downright joyful. Still, the power imbalance weighs more heavily than you might expect from reading the relentlessly upbeat blogs of your typical midlist author. I belong to a couple of online writers’ lists, those private communities where they say things they’d never be dumb enough to express in public. The nickel-and-diming, the questionable accounting, the deliberate cutting of authors out of every relevant loop. The manipulative editors, the incompetent agents, the endless ass-covering. Writers bitch about it behind the scenes, and ask each other for advice; they compare notes about this potential career-killer or that potential career-savior.

Never in the open, though. We hide in the closet and we commiserate over our mutual misfortunes, but everything’s prefaced with Obviously this is in strictest confidence and Don’t tell anyone, it’ll only get him mad…

So I’m thinking, maybe I told someone.

I wasn’t trying to. I wasn’t on any kind of crusade, wasn’t trying to Speak Truth to Power or any of that shit. I kept carefully mum about all my real gripes. The stuff I did mention— the glacial pace of corporate decision-making, the top-down creative control exerted on media tie-ins— just weather reports, as far as I was concerned. Generic stuff, impersonal, elements for the protagonist to endure on his quest for a cool sandbox and a happy ending. I named no names— hell, I didn’t even know any.

But perhaps even that mild, good-natured grumbling is still a bridge too far. I guess, without even meaning to, I called them out.

*

At this point, the smart thing would probably be to make some brief announcement— couldn’t come to terms, creative differences, yadda yadda yadda— but that would be horseshit.

So here’s something that isn’t. I am bummed, and I am pissed— because while the gig may have been frustrating, the book would have been great. I was really excited about writing it, and I was honored to be invited into the coolest AI sandbox TV has ever seen. But that doesn’t change the fact that these guys got me to put my life on hold and then dicked me around for a third of a year. I wasted months, turned down other gigs that would have paid more. I was happy to. Sometimes you just gotta tell the story.

There will be other gigs. There already are. My royalties alone for last year were almost four times what this book would have netted me (admittedly, it was a good year for royalties), so I’m not ending up on the street any time soon. Even if I did, there’s little joy in a relationship that lets one party piss with impunity into the punch bowl while giving the bum’s rush to anyone with the temerity to remark upon it.

The problem, my hundred smarter advisers would say, is that most of the industry operates exactly that way. Maybe all.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe any other publisher who passes this way will read the tale and say, “What a fucking diva. Can’t trust him. Put him on the list of Difficult Authors to Never Work With.”

But maybe, some will say “Huh. I guess I’d be pissed too, if someone kept jerking me around like that. Since we don’t treat our people that way, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

There’s cause to hope. Like I said; thirty publishers, and most have been just fine.

But if I’m wrong— if the entire industry does, in fact, think it’s the author’s job to just shut up and smile, regardless— well, then I’ve already lasted in this business far longer than I should have.

‘Bye, PoI Novel #1. Too bad we couldn’t make it work.

It would have been glorious.

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 61 Comments