Proof of Principle

Dateline Munich. Scribbled in a near-coma while sitting in a chair which has been designed by aliens who obviously never looked at a human body.

Which is to say, at an airport…

 

 

Something slipped under my radar last week. I was nose-deep in “Freeze-Frame Revolution” and the upcoming Ratio talk, and when I looked up to find my way to the airport, “Fish To Mars” had hatched.

It’s still larval, mind you. Eighty percent yolk sac and 10% big round eyes. But there it was, wriggling in the current for an hour on the evening of May 31: a live trailer-for/excerpt-from next year’s (hopefully) full-blown production “Fish To Mars” belted out— appropriately enough— amongst the seals and lumpfish of the Bergen Aquarium.

I’m writing the story. It involves terrorist vegan gengineering and academic hierarchies and marbled lungfish and autocannibalism.  Also terraforming and First Contact with aliens who showed up on Earth long before Kubrick’s transcendent monolith-makers, and who— being not very bright— bet on an utterly wrong horse. There’s a lot of story, a lot of backstory, and yet the story almost seems to be the least of it. It’s an actual opera, you see; a fusion of classic high-pitched arias and growling distorted black-metal grunge. There’s music, and a libretto. There are singers and sets and costumes— relatively primitive at this stage, the event was basically a proof-of-principle exercise after all— and scientific fact-checking courtesy of  a number of real authorities, not the least being the co-discoverer of Dark Energy. We’re after verisimilitude, here. This aims to be the most scientifically-rigorous opera about alien lungfish on Mars ever written.

It is a high bar to clear.

The production is so multifaceted that the story itself is really more seed than structure; the actual production was built by people from a half-dozen institutions and I-don’t-know how many independent agents and artists.  It was an orgy of musical collaboration between Oded Ben-Horin (on the classical side) and Arild Brakstad (on the black-metal side), all of us herded by the award-winning jet-setting Karin Pittman of the University of Bergen (and who honestly seems way too connected for your average marine biologist— I’m starting to think that’s a cover identity or something).

Really, it shouldn’t have worked. But I’ve heard some tunes, and I’ve seen the pics, and…well, yes. It really seems to have turned out nicely. Wish I could’ve been there.

All the following photos are by Jarle Hovda Moe.

The set was really cool.

The set was really cool.

...although admittedly, some of the props could have used a bit more work.admittedly have

…although admittedly, some of the props could have used a bit more work.

JHM_8739-small

JHM_8742-small

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I think those were scientists on the left. And the guy with the bowling ball on his head is an engineer.

I think those were scientists on the left. And the guy with the bowling ball on his head is either an engineer or the most overqualified post-doc in the solar system.

I think this might be kind of a post-apocalyptic Greek Chorus.

I think this might be kind of a post-apocalyptic Greek Chorus.

I don't actually now if this is part of the performance or not, but it looks cool.

I don’t actually now if this is part of the performance or not, but it looks cool.

This is Karin, who set the whole thing up. And something else I got a PhD in once, but I've forgotten the details

This is Karin, who set the whole thing up. And something else I got a PhD in once, but I’ve forgotten the details

Posted in: ink on art, On the Road, writing news by Peter Watts 11 Comments

An X-Prize for Irony.

 

 

You may have heard of these things called “X Prizes”: big cash awards, handed out by the non-profit Xprize Foundation to encourage advances in everything from spaceflight to genomics to undersea exploration. It’s run by some pretty big names; Craig Venter may ring a bell with some of you. Or Ray Kurzweil. Or, um, Arianna Huffington.

Together, they want to save the world.

It’s obviously a pretty optimistic endeavor. “The benefit of humanity” shows up twice in a  mission statement of only 15 lines. The email I received last night, encouraging me to help spread the word about their new advisory body, suggested use of the phrase “chart a path toward a positive future”.

Given all this, you have to wonder why they’d want me anywhere near their clubhouse. Maybe they haven’t read any of my stuff. Maybe they’ve got me mixed up with some other Peter Watts. I asked the person who recruited me about that. She said I had the right sense of humor.

So there I am, second shelf from the bottom: part of X-Prize’s “Science Fiction Advisory Council“, up there with sixty-odd other SF writers, film-makers, and scientists, most of whom are of far greater stature than I. I’m told we hail from nine countries; that among us we have 13 doctorates, 44 Hugos, 28 Nebulas (Nebulae?), 35 Locuses, 10 John W. Campbells, six Arthur C. Clarkes, six British Science Fiction Association Awards, and one Academy Award. Looking beyond all that chrome I see a collection of colleagues, friends, personal heroes, and benefactors (you may know Straczynski from B5; I also know him for the massive donation he made to my legal defense back in 2010). I see a large number of people I’d love to hang out with over beers (and only one or two that I wouldn’t). It’s an august group, and I’m proud to be part of it.

One thing that makes me cringe a bit is my bio note. It’s self-aggrandizing. I wrote it years ago, in deference to some agency or application that demanded extreme tub-thumpery. I freshened it up and sent it off to the X-Prize people in case they, too, demanded Ultimate Pimpage— but I also submitted another bio which, as I told them, “has much less of a stick up its ass, and would be the one I’d choose if I had my druthers.”

The dude told me it was the best email he’d received all day. But they went with the ass-stick anyway.

I submit the other below. Because it’s better.  Just so you know.

Peter Watts spent the first two decades of his adult life as a marine biologist. After fleeing academia for science fiction, he became known for the habit of appending technical bibliographies onto his novels; this both confers a veneer of credibility and covers his ass against nitpickers. Described by the Globe & Mail as “one of the very best [hard-sf writers] alive”, the overall effect of his prose is perhaps best summed up by critic James Nicoll: “Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts”.

Watts’ debut novel (Starfish) was a New York Times Notable Book, while his fourth (Blindsight)— a rumination on the utility of consciousness which has become a required text in undergraduate courses ranging from philosophy to neuroscience— was a finalist for numerous North American genre awards, winning exactly none of them. (It did, however, win a shitload of awards overseas, which suggests that his translators may be better writers than he is.) His shorter work has also picked up trophies in a variety of jurisdictions, notably a Shirley Jackson (possibly due to fan sympathy over nearly dying of flesh-eating disease in 2011) and a Hugo (possibly due to fan outrage over an altercation with US border guards in 2009). The latter incident resulted in Watts being barred from entering the US— not getting on the ground fast enough after being punched in the face by border guards is a “felony” under Michigan statutes— but especially these days, he can’t honestly say he misses the place all that much.

Watts’s work is available in 20 languages. He and his cat, Banana (since deceased) have both appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. A few years ago he briefly returned to science with a postdoc in molecular genetics, but he really sucked at it.

Now I sit back and wait for the conference calls with James Cameron.

 

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 15 Comments

“You Tried So Hard”, The Toilet of Poking, and Other Tales of Adrenaline Week.

Three days in Warsaw.  Three in Poznań. Four days in Berlin. Fifteen hours travel time stapled to either end.

It rained the whole time.

I’m typing this 15000 meters over the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Behind us, Europe is turning bright and sunny after its long deluge. Ahead of us, Toronto braces to evacuate waterfront homes in anticipation of extreme flooding. After that, they say there will be snow. As I recall, the same thing happened a few years back when we returned from Helsinki.

Almost an hour in the cold and wind and rain to get there. Almost an hour in the cold and wind and rain to get back. Totally worth it.

Almost an hour in the cold and wind and rain to get there. Almost an hour in the cold and wind and rain to get back.

Totally worth it.

I don’t even care. It was great.  It was all great.

I cannot tell you what I was doing in Warsaw— contractually, what happens in Warsaw stays there— beyond the fact that while I was doing it the BUG found this great little café where you could eat strudel and drink coffee and be swarmed by resident cats. It was hard, though, to avoid a certain sullen sense of resentment: Cat Cafes were one of two sure-fire get-rich-quick schemes I had back in the eighties, and everybody told me it would never fly because you’d have to bribe too many health inspectors.

*

OK, now rthat I look at it more closely, it was a pretty dumb mistake.

OK, now that I look at it more closely, it was a pretty dumb mistake.

I can tell you about Poznań. Poznań blew my mind.

Of course, Pyrkon’s organizers had told me that this was one of the largest cons in Europe when they first extended the invite. I guess I never really internalized that. I’d been to Polish cons before. They were cool. I was happy to go back. When they sent me a map of the venue I thought, huh: big building, a lot of odd-shaped rooms. Typical convention center.

I was wrong.

The Map showed a big campus. Each room was a convention-center-sized building. This motherfucker weighed in at somewhere between forty and fifty thousand attendees.

fish mortality

The audience for the “Fish Mortality” panel. Or maybe it was “False Morality”; it’s hard to keep them straight sometimes. This was pretty typical.

That’s a big con. I thought Utopiales over in France was huge, and that only weighed in at a tenth the size. Next to Pyrkon, Worldcon is a bake sale at Altadore Baptist Church.

The merch room. On a slow day.

The merch room. On a slow day.

There were the usual cheesy home-built contraptions...

There were the usual cheesy home-built contraptions (this is in a completely different building than the quaint little merch room portrayed above, by the way…)

...and the usual obsessively-perfect costumes. This guy had his arm surgically removed for added verisimilitude; he kept it in the bathtub of his hotel room, buried in crushed ice, for post-con reattachment.

…and the usual obsessively-perfect costumes. This guy had his arm surgically removed for added verisimilitude; he kept it in the bathtub of his hotel room, buried in crushed ice, for post-con reattachment.

This thing, which was apparently around 3m tall, had moss on its back and filled Caitlin with an unnerving sense of disquiet.

This thing, which was apparently around 3m tall, had moss on its back and filled Caitlin with an unnerving sense of disquiet.

While these things, whatever the hell they were, scared the living shit out of me.

While these things, whatever the hell they were, scared the living shit out of me.

When a con is this big, it doesn’t matter if the vast majority of the attendees don’t even know who the hell you are; even with the infinitesimal fraction who do, you sign a lot of books.

IMG_3316

This session went a half hour overtime, and by the end the line wasn’t any shorter than it was at the beginning.  I ended up having to do additional signings; I figure somewhere between 5-6 hours all told. The up side is that it did wonders for my ego.

The down side is, I didn’t eat on Saturday.

There were the usual author-fan selfies, which degraded over time from the usual arm-drape down to a series of pics on Saturday night in which I was stabbing supplicants in the eye with my Tuff-Write Tactical Pen (“We think our pens are cooler than sharks with lasers”). I wanted to build a collage documenting that progression. Strangely, though— while I had no trouble scraping up arm-drapey pics online— I couldn’t find any eye-stabby ones.  The closest I got was that shot down near the lower-right corner, where— having regressed to the emotional age of ten— I rabbit-eared the guy with the beard:

sellage

I had to settle for symbolism, grabbing a graphic from Tuff-Write’s website— which sells, I shit you not, instructional DVDs on How To Stab Someone In The Eye With A Tactical Pen.

 There was at least one person, however, who I asked for a photo. Frequent visitors to the Rifters gallery may recognize Karolina Cisowska, who so awesomely cosplayed Lenie Clarke for photographer Allan Rotter a couple of years back. This was an honor; the BUG and I wanted to hang out with Karolina and her partner post-con, but we couldn’t make it work. Next time.

 

18216661_1460750303964399_4675997626050237558_oThis is “Q&A with Peter Watts”. I’m not exactly sure what I was finding so hilarious at this point, but it may have had something to do with my interrogator’s claim that Blindsight has been a bestseller in Poland. I was not fooled. I’ve seen my royalty statements. 18216736_1461873520518744_3944883674424680453_o“Harnessing the Power of Ignorance: Worst-case Neuroscenarios from the Peanut Gallery” was one of my few events that didn’t run late— ironically, since people in orange shirts kept waving signs at me telling me to wrap it up.  One of them even came up on stage and interrupted my climax; I told her in the nicest possible way to go away, and finished exactly on time. (It was, admittedly, a bit awkward when she returned as the moderator of my next panel.)

 

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This was weird. These “Free hugs” signs were everywhere at Pyrkon— generally carried by women, and almost always in English (although there were exceptions). I never did figure out what was going on.
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Whatever it was, it had obviously been going on long enough for the inevitable backlash to kick in…
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I’m pretty sure this was just blatant entrapment, though. (And count on the BUG to remind me of the pass phrase one must utter to get into the Mines of Moria.)

 

Occasionally Caitlin would lead me off-site to take in the sights of Poznań— such as the famous Museum of Croissants, home to evocative dioramas memorializing "Croissant-themed Hats of the Victorian Era" and "The Great Croissant Massacre of 1587". Sadly, we missed the English-language tour by a mere ten minutes and had to spend the afternoon drinking instead.

Occasionally Caitlin would lead me off-site to take in the sights of Poznań— such as the famous Museum of Croissants, home to evocative dioramas memorializing “Croissant-themed Hats of the Victorian Era” and “The Great Croissant Massacre of 1587”.

Sadly, we missed the English-language tour by a mere ten minutes and had to spend the afternoon drinking instead.

Yeah, right.

Yeah, right.

Did I say I didn’t eat on Saturday?  Not quite true. I had breakfast at 8a.m., and then supper at 11pm.

Supper consisted entirely of beer. This was Poland, after all.

 

IMG_3332Nowa Fantaskyka. Interviewer and translator. I first met these guys in Zielona Gora, back in 2011. They haven’t changed much.
My non-Nowa Fantastique translator, whose shirt struck a chord with me because I studied these guys for my doctorate. (Not Navy seals specifically, just the regular harbor kind.)

My non-Nowa Fantastique translator, whose shirt struck a chord with me because I studied these guys for my doctorate. (Not Navy seals specifically, just the regular harbor kind.)

*

Somehow we woke up in Berlin.

*

The BUG and I had a dual reading, a little place called “Otherland“: Berlin’s premiere SF store. (To give you a sense of how premiere, Ty Franck— half of James S. A. Corey, the duo behind The Expanse— read there just a couple of days after we did.) The reading served as an anchor for a couple of evenings’ drinks, dins, and socializing with the local genre crowd— and as is usual at such paired appearances, it was all oooh, Peter Watts (and wife) when we arrived, and all OMG Caitlin is so awesome along numerous orthogonal axes by the time we left.

In between, though, we had a great time.

Names— at least, real names— will be thin upon the ground here, as we’ve been requested to keep them off the record for “the usual paranoid privacy reasons” which I, for one, don’t find especially paranoid at all these days.

But first: before we get to the nameless community itself— remember how, some odd few-dozen pictures ago, I complained about how Cat Cafes were one of my two doomed get-rich-quick schemes of the eighties?  The other was a franchise of space-themed restaurants: places you could go where the windows open up on low-orbit planetscapes or glorious nebulae, where you ordered your food on a touchpad set into the table and had it delivered by robot arms running along rooftop rails. Where the food was crap but it was supposed to be crap, because you’re on a space station, goddamnit, and everything’s recycled.  That was my idea.

Guess what we came across while heading to Otherland:

I'm going to assume that nobody here needs the name explained to you.

I’m going to assume that nobody here needs the name explained to you.

We didn’t patronize the place, since we were already on our way elsewhere.  Just stuck our faces up against the glass long enough to get really pissed off, then grabbed these interior shots off the web.

But all was forgotten and forgiven when we finally arrived at Otherland, to discover this in the back room:

The Grail.

The Grail.

I’ve been searching for this toilet since before my very first trip to Germany: the one they described in the Germany for Dummies guidebook, the one that has the little flat dry platform for shit to land in, the better for these proud Teutonic people to poke and prod their feces for parasites and abnormalities before finally— after intensive examination— flushing it away into the mighty Havel. For years I searched in vain. I was beginning to think it was the stuff of myth. But here it was, in the back of a humble genre bookstore.

After that, the evening would have been a success even if no one had showed up for the reading.

 

IMG_20170503_234715We approach the shop like timid nervous animals in the night.

Otherland-Crew-NamesThese are the guys who run the store.

 

DSCN1759This is Luke Burrage, World-Class Juggler and book-review podcaster. I’ve been waiting to meet this guy for years.

 

C-7mIUBXoAQLiJh.jpg largeThis is me reading and the BUG looking skeptical before she blows me out of the water.

IMG_20170503_234351This is me barely winning a back-t0-back height contest with Saruman’s evil twin.

 

wattsupSaruman and I, discussing the things we would do with sexbots. (This is actually a moving gif, but I think you have to click on it or something.)

We totally avoid this shop like our lives depend on it.

 

DSCN1758This is Birgit, my awesome German translator. She said it took her two tries to see what I was getting at in Echopraxia, how finally everything clicked and she could see how everything fit together.  “You tried so hard,” she said.

I want that carved on my tombstone.

Also she didn’t know that BUG stood for Beloved Unicorn Girl— she thought I meant some kind of microbe— so German editions of Echopraxia are dedicated “To the BAZILLUS. Who saved my life.”

Which, if anything, is better than the original.

 

IMG_3378This is the napkin upon which the cognitive neuroscientist in the crowd (there always is at least one) jotted down his contact info (blurred to protect the educated) and his areas of specialization. I will be calling on him by and by. Oh yes I will.

 

DSCN1746The crowd enters a place to drink, and talk about the ethics of sexbots.

 

DSCN1750I converse with a woman who has an advanced degree in Mathematics, on the ethical implications of sexbots.

After the Otherland Affair, we gave ourselves a day to relax before heading back home. My ambitions were modest; I wanted to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2”. Caitlin set her sights a bit higher; she wanted to finish writing a novel.

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She’s not in this picture because she took it. That’s Henry, her life-long friend and the dude we stayed with, to the left. Those are our glasses of celebratory champagne there in the middle.

So we both accomplished what we wanted to on that last day. I guess that makes us even.

And now I have less than a month before I have to turn around, go back to Bulgaria, and do the whole damn thing all over again.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 48 Comments

Noms and Cons and Metal Alms

Stuff’s been piling up in the wings as a side-effect of my ongoing battle against ego creep— enough now, as it turns out, to warrant a whole catch-all catch-up post in its own right. And since some of the following travel plans might intersect with the occasional fan, I should probably outline where I’m going to be for the next few months. And why I’m not going to be here all that often.

Road Trips.

I already mentioned that I’m going to be at Pyrkon a couple weeks down the road. For those who will be in attendance, I’ve now got a preliminary listing of my panels in hand [update: actual times and schedules!]:

  • (Fri, 28 April, 18:30, Sala Ziemi): Peter Watts – Q&A
  • (Fri, 28 April, 19:30, Aula 2): [Panel] How to make one’s debut?
  • (Fri, 28 April, 21:00, Aula 2): [Panel] False morality
  • (Sat, 29 April, 13:00, Autografy): Autograph session
  • (Sat, 29 April, 17:30, Aula 2): [Panel] My life in my hands: does free will exist?
  • (Sat, 29 April, 19:00, Aula 2): Worst-case Neuroscenarios from the Peanut Gallery
  • (Sat, 29 April, 20:30, Aula 2): [Panel] The limits of humanity and playing God

All characteristically Polish in outlook, except for that second one (and even it would fit if they just swapped out “make one’s debut” for “meet one’s end”).

“Worst-case Neuroscenarios” is a solo talk. About 50 slides so far, although I can’t seem to get the gom jabbar clip from “Dune” to render properly in Irfanview. (Stupid Lenovo Thinkpad. This stuff always worked fine on the Asus, before I punched it.)

We’re sneaking into Poznan after a few days in Warsaw and sneaking out again via Berlin, where the BUG and I will be reading at the Otherland bookstore on May 3rd. Not yet sure what I’ll read, although it’ll be from either the Sunflowers novella I’m currently finishing or the David-Bowie-themed piece of military SF I recently finished for the latest installment of Jonathan Strahan’s Fill-in-the-Blank Infinity series. (It’s coming out this fall, by the way; not seeing any cover art yet. Cover art and contents over here.) Pretty much all the fiblets I’ve posted this year hail from one or the other, but there’s plenty of yet-unposted stuff to choose from.

Bulgaria in June. I’m giving a talk at the Ratio Symposium, which frighteningly is not SF but straight-up pop science— usually delivered by leading lights and actual experts in their fields, not half-assed pretenders who happened to make a lucky guess ten years ago. I keep telling this to the organizers, but they seem to want me anyway.  They’ve booked my tickets, so if this is all a cruel hoax it’s an elaborate one.

Still trying to figure out that talk. If I wanted to focus on my own area of current expertise, I’d give one on dealing with stained pants.

The Ukraine in September; I’ll be at the Lviv International Book Fair & Literature Festival from the 13-17th, which I’m told will coincide with the release of the Ukrainian edition of Blindsight. Also Lviv is evidently the birthplace of Stanislaw Lem, and has many fine drinking establishments. (This seems to be a recurring motif; people in Warsaw, Berlin, Sofia, and Lviv have all emphasized unto me the quality of their local drinking establishments. Go figure.)

Lviv appears to be the go-to place for various festivals, and much as I’m looking forward to the literary one I can’t help but cast a wistful eye over references to the annual “Coffee and Chocolate Feast” and the intriguing “Feast of Pampukh”, an event I would very much like to attend if for no other reason than to find out what a “pampukh” is.  I’m thinking, maybe a gaff used by eighteenth-century whalers to hook porpoises and heft them over the gunwales.

Fish. To Mars.

Note the cool spirally spine. Remind you of anything?

Note the cool spirally spine. Remind you of anything?

Those are the road trips, although there might also be a Skype appearance at the Bergen Aquarium on May 31 for, well…

I don’t know exactly how to describe this. It’s kind of a teaser for a currently-under-development post-apocalyptic Norwegian Black Metal Science Opera about sending Marbled Lungfish to Mars. I’m told the embargo’s lifted this week so I can talk about it, but I don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes just yet so it’s probably best to keep it vague. Suffice to say the project seems to be drawing in talent from a number of different institutions, scientific and musical.  We’ve got head-bangers. We’ve got classical librettists. We’ve got marine biologists (real ones, not Twentieth-century dropouts clinging to some shred of credibility by sticking technical references onto the end of their SF novels). I am apparently responsible for the basic storyline, and I’ve got the co-discoverer of Dark Energy checking my astrophysics. No pressure there at all. (I hope to meet the guy in person some day. I’ve got a bone to pick with him. That discovery of his is directly responsible for one of my stories going from cutting-edge when it was written, to completely obsolete when it was published.)

In the meantime, I’m told it’s okay to share this protoype promotional art by Kim Holm.

Nom.

Finally this, just over the transom: Bélial’s edition of Beyond the Rift (Au-delà du gouffre) has made the finals for France’s Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire under the “Foreign Short Fiction” category. I’m up against some heavy hitters so I’m not getting my hopes up— but hey, any excuse to trot out Manchu‘s awesome cover art one more time, am I right?

Especially since this is also up for a Prix in the art category...

Especially since this is also up for a Prix in the art category…

Whispers in the Vomit Vale.

.

 

The hatch closed at our backs, swallowing us in brief darkness; it brightened to dim twilight as our eyes adjusted to luciferin constellations glowing dimly on all sides. We stood on a catwalk half a meter above rock and drifts of thin soil. (Eri‘s botanicals take their lead from the rainforests of Earth’s long-dead tropics: impoverished soil, production and nutrients all locked up in the biomass.)

We followed the path. My BUD flickered.

The catwalk forked. Lian nudged me right: “This way.” After a few meters I closed my eyes experimentally, found myself just the tiniest bit uncertain where down was.

Glistening black meshes with gelatinous orbs— each the size of an eyeball— glowing at their interstices. Thick ropey trunks arching up through the vault like a great charred rib cage, festooned with vines and patio lanterns. They leaned just a little, as though bent by some prevailing wind.

BUD flickered again, faded, sparked back to life as one of the Glade’s mechanical moles snuffled past close enough to pinch-hit as a booster station. We pushed on in the direction of that imaginary wind. The trees leaned further as we advanced; their bases thickened and spread wide across the ground, trunks buttressed against forces that pulled simultaneously along different bearings. The Glade passes right over the Higgs conduit, between the core that contains our singularity and the maw where its wormhole emerges. The vectors get messy in between. Down is mostly coreward but a little forward too; how far those downs diverge depends on how fast Eri happens to be falling through the cosmos at any given moment. Twisted trees and Kai’s squicky inner ears are the price we pay for a reactionless drive.

BUD finally went down and stayed there: victim of signal-squelching rocks and bioelectric static and drive circuitry that couldn’t possibly be expected to control such vast energies without emitting some of its own. This dead link was our privacy alarm. As long as we were blind, we were alone.

“So what the hell were you doing, Li?”

She didn’t answer at first. She didn’t answer at all.

Instead: “You read books, right?”

“Sure. Sometimes.”

“You plug in, play realsies. Go touring. Watch ennies.”

“What’s your point?”

“You’ve seen the way people lived. Kids with cats, or hacking their tutors, or parasailing on their birthdays.”

“Yeah. So?”

“You’ve done more than see it, Sunday. You feed off it. You base your life on it. Our speech patterns, our turns of phrase— fuck, our swear words for chrissake— all of it’s lifted from a culture that hasn’t existed for hundreds of petasecs. We’ve been out here so very long, Sunday.”

I admit I rolled my eyes. “Enough with the world-weary ancient immortal shtick, okay? The fact that we’ve been out here for sixty million years—”

“Sixty-five.”

“— doesn’t change the fact that you’ve only been awake for twenty, tops.”

“My point is we’re living dead lives. Theirs, not ours. We never went hiking, or scuba diving, or—”

“Sure we have. We can. Any time we want. You just said so.”

“They cheated us. We wake up, we build their fucking gates, we recycle their lives because they never gave us any of our own.”

I should have pitied her. Instead, surprisingly, I found myself getting angry. “Do you even remember the shape Earth was in when we left? I wouldn’t trade this life for centuries on that grubby shithole if God Itself came through the gate and offered me a ticket. I like this life.”

We regarded each other through the gloom for a moment. Finally, Lian spoke— and there was none of my anger there, only sadness.

“You like it because they built you to. Because they’d never get any competent baseline to sign up for a one-way trip in a dead rock to the end of time, so they built this special model all small and twisted, like— like those plants they used to grow. In Japan or somewhere. Something so stunted it couldn’t even imagine spending its life outside a cage.”

Bonsai, I remembered. But I didn’t want to encourage her.

“You liked it here too,” I said instead. “You liked it just fine.” Until you broke.

“Yeah.” She nodded, and even in the dimness I got the sense of a sad smile. “But I got better.”

“Lian. What were you doing in the crawlway?”

She sighed. “I was running a bypass on one of the Chimp’s sensory trunks.”

“I saw that. What for?”

“Nothing critical. I was just going to— inject some noise into the channel.”

“Noise.”

“Static. To reduce signal fidelity.”

I spread my palms: So?

“I was trying to take back a little control, okay? For all of us!”

“How in Christ’s name does compromising Chimp’s—”

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

“You were increasing the uncertainty threshold…” I murmured.

“Yeah. Exactly.”

Because the only reason Eri shipped out with meat on board in the first place was for those times when the Chimp didn’t feel up to managing a build on his own, when he needed some of that organic Human insight to get him past the unknown variables and halting states. And the less reliable his data, the less certain he’d be that he could handle it on his own. Lian was trying to tilt the algos towards Human input.

In principle, it was a pretty clever hack. In practice…

“Even if you figured out some way to keep the Chimp from just— finding your monkey wrenches and fixing them while we’re all down for the count, do you have any idea how many of those cables you’d have to jam up before you even started to make a dent in the redundant systems?”

“Somewhere between two thousand and twenty-seven hundred.” Then added: “You don’t have to cut the inputs, you just have to— fog them a little. Widen the confidence limits.”

“Uh huh. And how many of those nerves you hacked into so far?”

“Five.”

I guess maybe I thought that she’d realize how insane the whole idea was if she said it aloud. Nothing in her voice suggested she had.

“Why do you even want this? It’s not like Chimp’s fucking up the builds when we’re not up to keep an eye on him.”

“It’s not about the builds, Sun. It’s about being Human. It’s about getting back a little autonomy.”

“And what are you gonna do with that autonomy when you get it?”

“First, gain freedom. Lots of time to figure out what to do with it afterward.”

“You think if Chimp wakes us up often enough he’ll just roll over, suggest we all go back to Earth to drop off anyone who’s got bored along the way? You think if we just circle back around to the last build and wait for a while, some magic silver ship is gonna sail out and give all first-class tickets to the retirement paradise of our choice?” There’d actually been some talk about that, back at the beginning. It may even have been part of the original mission profile, before those first few gates opened up and spat out nothing but automation and ancient binary. Before the next few just sat there empty. Before the gremlins started. But it must have been thirty million years since I’d heard anyone bring up the subject as anything other than a cheap punchline.

“What were you thinking?” I finished.

Something changed in her posture. “I suppose I was thinking that maybe there’s more to life than living like a troglodyte for a few days every century or two, building toys for ungrateful grandchildren and knowing that I’m never gonna see an honest-to-God forest again that doesn’t look like, like—” She glanced around— “a nightmare someone shat out in lieu of therapy.”

“Li, seriously.” I tried to de-escalate. “I don’t understand the problem. Any time you want a— a green forest, just plug in. Any time you want to hike the desert or dive Europa or, or fly into the sunset, just plug in. You can experience things nobody ever did back on Earth, any time you want.”

“It’s not real, okay?”

“You can’t tell the difference.”

“I know the difference.” She looked back at me from a face full of blue-gray shadows. “And I don’t understand you either, okay? I thought we were the same, I thought I was just following in your footsteps…”

Silence.

“Why would you think that?” I asked at last.

“Because you fought it too, didn’t you? Before we ever shipped out. You were always pushing back, you were always challenging everyone and everything about the mission. You were, like, six years old and you called bullshit on Mamoro Sawada. Nobody could believe it. I mean, there we all were, programmed for the mission before we were even born, everything preloaded and hardwired and you— threw it off, somehow. Resisted. Way I hear it they nearly kicked you out a few times.”

“Where did you hear that.” Because I was really damn sure that Lian Wei and I did not go through training within ten thousand kliks of each other.

“Kai told me.”

“Kai talks too much.”

Her shoulders rose, fell. “What happened to you, Sunday? How did you go from Hell-raiser to Chimp’s lapdog?”

“Fuck you, Lian. You don’t know me.”

“I know you better than you think.”

“No you don’t. The fact that you thought for one cursed corsec that I could ever be anything like you just proves it.”

She shook her head. “You can be such an asshole sometimes.”

I can be an asshole? How about a show of hands” —raising mine— “everyone who hasn’t stabbed anyone in the face today?” She looked away. “What’s that? Just me?”

“Case in point,” she whispered.

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 30 Comments

Cambridge Analytica and the Other Turing Test.

Not even scripted.

Not even scripted.

Near the end of the recent German movie “Er Ist Wieder Da” (“Look Who’s Back”), Adolph Hitler— transported through time to the year 2015— is picking up where he left off. On the roof of the television studio that fueled his resurgence (the network thought they were just exploiting an especially-tasteless Internet meme for ratings), the sad-sack freelancer who discovered “the world’s best Hitler impersonator” confronts his Frankenstein’s monster— but Hitler proves unkillable. Even worse, he makes some good points:

“In 1933, people were not fooled by propaganda. They elected a leader who openly disclosed his plans with great clarity. The Germans elected me… ordinary people who chose to elect an extraordinary man, and entrust the fate of the country to him.

What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban elections?”

It’s a good movie, hilarious and scary and sociologically plausible (hell, maybe sociologically inevitable), and given that one of Hitler’s lines is “Make Germany Great Again” it’s not surprising that it’s been rediscovered in recent months. Imagine a cross between “Borat”, “The Terminator”, and “Springtime for Hitler”, wrapped around a spot-on re-enactment of that Hitler-in-the-Bunker meme.

But that rooftop challenge: that, I think, really cuts to the heart of things: What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban elections?

I feel roughly the same way every time I read another outraged screed about Cambridge Analytica.

The internet’s been all a’seethe with such stories lately. The details are arcane, but the take-home message is right there in the headlines: The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine; Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?; Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media.

The executive summary goes something like this: An evil right-wing computer genius has developed scarily-effective data scraping techniques which— based entirely on cues gleaned from social media— knows individual voters better than do their own friends, colleagues, even family. This permits “behavioral microtargetting”: campaign messages customized not for boroughs or counties or demographic groups, but at you. Individually. A bot for every voter.

Therefore democracy itself is in danger.

Put aside for the moment the fact that the US isn’t a functioning democracy anyway (unless you define “democracy” as a system in which— to quote Thomas Piketty— “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose”). Ignore any troublesome doubts about whether the same folks screaming about Cambridge Analytica would be quite so opposed to the tech if it had been used to benefit Clinton instead of Trump. (It’s not as though the Dems didn’t have their own algorithms, their own databased targeting systems; it’s just that those algos  really sucked.) Put aside the obvious partisan elements and focus on the essential argument: the better They know you, the more finely They can tune their message. The more finely They tune their message, the less freedom you have. To quote directly from Helbing et al over on the SciAm blog,

The trend goes from programming computers to programming people.” [breathless italics courtesy of the original authors]

Or from Berit Anderson, over at Medium.com:

“Instead of having to deal with misleading politicians, we may soon witness a Cambrian explosion of pathologically-lying political and corporate bots that constantly improve at manipulating us.”

You’d expect me to be all over this, right? What could be more up my alley than Machiavellian code which  treats us not as autonomous beings but as physical systems, collections of inputs and outputs whose state variables show not the slightest trace of Free Will? You can almost see Valerie tapping her arrhythmic tattoos on the the bulkhead, reprogramming the crew of the Crown of Thorns without their knowledge.

And I am all over it. Kind of. I shrugged at the finding that it took Mercer’s machine 150 Facebook “Likes” to know someone better than their parents did (hell, you’d know me better than my parents did based on, like, three), but I was more impressed when I learned that 300 “Likes” is all it would take to know me better than Caitlin does. And no one has to convince me that sufficient computing power, coupled with sufficient data, can both predict and manipulate human behavior.

But so what? ‘Twas ever thus, no?

No, Helbing and his buddies assert:

“Personalized advertising and pricing cannot be compared to classical advertising or discount coupons, as the latter are non-specific and also do not invade our privacy with the goal to take advantage of our psychological weaknesses and knock out our critical thinking.”

Oh, give me a fucking break.

They’ve been taking advantage of our psychological weaknesses to knock out our critical thinking skills since before the first booth babe giggled coquettishly at the Houston Auto Show, since the first gurgling baby was used to sell Goodyear radials, since IFAW decided they could raise more funds if they showed Loretta Swit hugging baby seals instead of giant banana slugs. Advertising tries to knock out your critical thinking by definition. Every tasteless anti-abortion poster, every unfailing-cute child suffering from bowel disease in the local bus shelter, every cartoon bear doing unnatural things with toilet paper is an attempt to rewire your synapses, to literally change your mind.

The face of the enemy (figure: J. Albright)

The face of the enemy (figure: J. Albright)

Ah, but those aren’t targeted to individuals, are they? Those are crude hacks of universal gut responses, the awww when confronted with cute babies, the hubba hubba when tits are shoved in the straight male face. (Well, almost universal; show me a picture of a cute baby and I’m more likely to vomit than coo.) This is different, Mercer’s algos know us personally. They know us as well as our friends, family, lovers!

Maybe so. But you know who else knows us as well as our friends, family and lovers? Our friends, family, and lovers. The same folks who sit across from us at the pub or the kitchen table, who cuddle up for a marsupial cling when the lights go out. Such people routinely use their intimate knowledge of us to convince us to see a particular movie or visit a particular restaurant— or, god forbid, vote for a particular political candidate. People who, for want of a better word, attempt to reprogram us using sound waves and visual stimuli; they do everything the bots do, and they probably still do it better.

What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban advertising? Ban debate? Ban conversation?

I hear that Scottsman, there in the back: he says we’re not talking about real debate, real conversation. When Cambridge Analytica targets you there’s no other being involved; just code, hacking meat.

As if it would be somehow better if meat were hacking meat. The prediction that half our jobs will be lost to automation within the next couple of decades is already a  tired cliché, but most experts don’t react to such news by demanding the repeal of Moore’s Law. They talk about retraining, universal basic income— adaptation, in a word. Why should this be any different?

Don’t misunderstand me. The fact that our destiny is in the hands of evil right-wing billionaires doesn’t make me any happier than it makes the rest of you. I just don’t see the ongoing automation of that process as anything more than another step along the same grim road they’ve been driving us down for decades. Back in 2008 and 2012 I don’t remember anyone howling with outrage over Obama’s then-cutting-edge voter-profiling database. I do remember a lot of admiring commentary on his campaign’s ability to “get out the vote”.

Curious that the line between grass-roots activism and totalitarian neuroprogramming should fall so neatly between Then and Now.

Cambridge Analytica’s psyops tech doesn’t so much “threaten democracy” as drive one more nail into its coffin. For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, the corpse has been rotting for some time now.

‘Course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight back. There are ways to do that, even on an individual level. I’m not talking about the vacuous aspirations peddled over on SciAm, by folks who apparently don’t know the difference between a slogan and a strategy (Ensure that people have access to their data! Make government accountable!) I’m talking about things you can do right now. Easy things.

The algos eat data? Stop feeding them. Don’t be a Twit: if all Twitter’s other downsides aren’t enough to scare you off, maybe the prospect of starving the beast will lure you away. If you can’t bring yourself to quit Facebook, at least stop “liking” things— or even better, “Like” things that you actually hate, throw up chaff to contaminate the data set and make you a fuzzier target. (When I encounter something I find especially endearing on Facebook, I often tag it with one of those apoplectic-with-rage emojis). Get off Instagram and GotUrBalls. Use Signal. Use a fucking VPN. Make Organia useless to them.

What’s that you say? Thousands of people around the world are just dying to know your favorite breadfruit recipe? Put it in a blog. It won’t stop bots from scraping your data, but at least they’ll have to come looking for you; you won’t be feeding yourself into a platform that’s been explicitly designed to harvest and resell your insides.

The more of us who refuse to play along— the more of us who cheat by feeding false data into the system—  the less we have to fear from code that would read our minds. And if most people can’t be bothered— if all that clickbait, all those emojis and upward-pointing thumbs are just too much of a temptation— well, we do get the government we deserve.  Just don’t complain when, after wading naked through the alligator pool, something bites your legs off.

I’m going to let Berit Anderson play me offstage:

“Imagine that in 2020 you found out that your favorite politics page or group on Facebook didn’t actually have any other human members, but was filled with dozens or hundreds of bots that made you feel at home and your opinions validated? Is it possible that you might never find out?”

I think she intends this as a warning, a dire If This Goes On portent. But what Anderson describes is  the textbook definition of a Turing Test, passed with flying colors. She sees an internet filled with zombies: I see the birth of True AI.

Of course, there are two ways to pass a Turing Test.  The obvious route is to design a smarter machine, one that can pass for human. But as anyone who’s spent any time on a social platform knows, people can be as stupid, as repetitive, and as vacuous as any bot. So the other path is to simply make people dumber, so they can be more easily fooled by machines.

I’m starting to think that second approach might be easier.

Posted in: Big Brother, politics, rant by Peter Watts 100 Comments

Oprah’s X-Men: Thoughts on Logan

Lers of Spoi. You have been warned.

Nobody said mutation was pretty.

Nobody said mutation was pretty.

There’s always been a contingent of X-Men fans who insist on seeing Mutant as Allegory, a metaphor—albeit a heavy-handed one— for prejudice and disenfranchisement. Mutants routinely get invoked as a sort of Other Of The Week: stand-ins for unwanted immigrants, untrusted ethnicities, oppressed orientations. I’ve never been a big reader of the comics, but certainly the films have played into this. One memorable example occurs early in the first movie, when a bewildered parent asks her child: “Honey, have you tried just not being a mutant?” (An even more memorable example is young Magneto’s psionic awakening in a Nazi concentration camp.)

I’ve never bought into this interpretation, for the same reason I reject the claim that Oprah Winfrey was “disenfranchised” when some racist idiot in Zurich refused to show her a handbag because it was “too expensive” for a black woman to afford. When you can buy the whole damn store and the street it sits on with pocket change; when you can buy the home of the asshole who just disrespected you and have it bulldozed; when you can use your influence to get that person fired in the blink of an eye and turn her social media life into a living hell— the fact that you don’t do any of those things does not mean that you’ve been oppressed. It means you’ve been merciful to someone you could just as easily squash like a bug.

Marvel’s mutants are something like that. We’re dealing, after all, with people who can summon storm systems with their minds and melt steel with their eyes. Xavier can not only read any mind on the planet, he can freeze time, for fucksake. These have got to be the worst case-studies in oppression you could imagine. Sure, baselines fear and revile mutants; that’s a far cry from “disenfranchising” them. How long would gay-bashing be a thing, if gays could strike down their attackers with lightning bolts?

To my mind, X-Men are the Oprahs of the Marvel Universe. Immensely powerful. Inexplicably patient with the small-minded. And the fact that they’ve been consistently portrayed as victims has significantly compromised my suspension of disbelief— and hence, my enjoyment— of pretty much every X-Men movie I’ve taken in.

Right up to the best of the lot so far, the intimate, humane, sometimes brilliant Logan.

Logan is far and away the best X-Men movie I’ve ever seen (I’m tempted to say it’s the best X-Men movie ever made, but I haven’t seen Apocalypse so who knows). The characterizations are deeper, their relationships more nuanced. The acting is better: you wouldn’t expect less from Patrick Stewart, who somehow managed to maintain his dignity and gravitas throughout even the most idiotic ST:TNG episodes (looking at you, “Skin of Evil”), but the rest of the cast keeps up with him and makes it look effortless. The fight choreography is bone-crunchingly beautiful. This is the Unforgiven of Marvel movies, a story that focuses not on some absurdly high-stakes threat to Life As We Know It but on the more intimate costs to lives as we knew them. It’s a story about entropy and unhappy endings. It earns its 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Until the last act, when it throws it all away.

I’m not just nitpicking about the canonical dumbness inevitable in any movie based on a sixties-era comic franchise. (If I were, I might wonder how Logan’s 25-cm claws manage to retract into his arms without immobilizing his wrists like rebar through salami; the guy must have to extend his claws every time he wants to hold a spoonful of Cheerios. It’s a good thing they don’t sell milk in bags down there.) I’m complaining about something which, I think, largely betrays all that resonant, character-based story-telling that comprises the bulk of the movie. Or rather, I’m complaining about two things:

  1. When the bad guys know that their quarry can freeze flesh unto shattering with their breath, summon the very undergrowth to strangle and entangle pursuers, spit out bullets, and hurl everything from trees to troop transports with their minds, why in Christ’s name would they try to take them down with conventional gun-toting infantry? They’ve got drones, for Chrissake: why not use robots to shoot the kids from above the treeline? Why not snipe them from a safe distance with tranquilizers, or gas the forest, or do any of a dozen other things that could take down their targets without exposing ill-equipped flesh-and-blood to mutant countermeasures?
  2. When said quarry can freeze flesh unto shattering with their breath, summon the very undergrowth to strangle and entangle pursuers, spit out bullets, and hurl everything from trees to troop transports with their minds, why in Christ’s name do they not do any of that until half of them have already been captured and Logan himself is half-dead? We’re not talking about do-goody pacifists here; these aren’t adults who’ve made a conscious decision to eschew violence for the greater good. These are ten-year-old kids— with all the emotional maturity that implies— who’ve been trained as supersoldiers almost from the moment of conception. Back in the first act Laura must have single-handedly killed twenty heavily-armed cyber-enhanced psycho killers with no weapons but what God and the bioengineers gave her. So why are these superkillers running like frightened animals in the first place? Why aren’t they laying traps, implementing countermeasures, fighting back? They know how to do it; hell, they don’t know how to do anything else.

The answer, I’m guessing, is because writer James Mangold bought into the same bullshit allegory that so many others have: no matter the canon, no matter their powers, these kids have to be victims, even though the script has already shown us that they definitively are not. They must be oppressed and disempowered by an intolerant world, because that’s what the whole X-Men allegory thing is all about.

And in buying into that narrative, Mangold renders Logan’s ultimate sacrifice pretty much meaningless.  The children he died protecting were far more powerful than he was: numerically, psionically, even at simple hand-to-hand combat. If they hadn’t been shackled by allegorical fiat they could have won that battle before Logan ever showed up.

Which means that Logan died for nothing. And that’s not some nerdy quibble along the lines of the transporter doesn’t work like that; it’s a betrayal of nuanced characters we’ve come to care about, all for the sake of a mutants-as-victims narrative that never made any sense to begin with.

If the screenwriters had to indulge their victim mindset, they could have done so without sacrificing story logic or throwing away two hours of character development. Here’s a thought: Posit that mutant powers only manifest at puberty (something established way back at the start of the franchise, with Rogue’s first adolescent kiss). A few of these kids are verging on adulthood, but not most; they’re still vulnerable to men with guns.  They’re being hunted not for what they can do now, but for what they’ll be able to do if allowed to live another year or two.  Let the stress of being cornered, of seeing their fellows mowed down, the sheer adrenaline response of fight/flight be the trigger that activates just a few of the older ones, allows their powers to manifest: not in full-on crush-all-opposition mode, but just enough to hold on until Logan arrives to turn the tide.  It would change very little in terms of pacing or screen time; it would change everything in terms of earned emotional impact.

But no. What we’re given is a third-act chase scene almost as dumb as the climax of Star Trek Beyond. Which is a shame, because Star Trek Beyond was a loud dumb movie from the start; one more dumb element was par for the course. Logan, by way of contrast, is a thoughtful, melancholy rumination on the whole superhero premise; it remains, for the most part, a thing of beauty.

Too bad about that big festering pustule on the forehead.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 37 Comments

Pyrkon, Philosophy, William Shatner

pyrkonBOG1

The concom is already hard at work designing appropriate attire for the BOG. This artist's conception is by Stanisław Czarnecki.

The concom is already hard at work designing appropriate attire for the BOG. This artist’s conception is by Stanisław Czarnecki.

They’ve announced it on Facebook, they’ve put it up on their website, so I guess I can announce it here: after a five-year absence, I seem to be returning to Poland as a “Special Guest” of Pyrkon: a massive Polish con attended by somewhere around forty thousand folks annually. According to the facebook comments attending the announcement, negotiations to bring BOG along are ongoing. So if you happen to be in Poznań between April 28-30, I will be making myself available to either a) apologize for putting my Nowa Fantastyka column on hiatus again, or b) accept your gratitude for same.

I’m also supposed to deliver some kind of lecture for the better part of an hour. I have about two months. Suggestions welcome.

*

Since I’m already thumping the ol’ tub, this might also be a good time to point out that Blindsight has made it onto Greg Hickey’s list of “The 105 Best Philosophical Novels“. According to the text, though, it’s not exactly Greg Hickey’s list: it’s based on “curated lists from The Guardian, Flavorwire and more, suggestions from readers on Goodreads, Quora and Reddit, and picks from philosophical fiction authors like Khaled Hosseini, Irvin D. Yalom, Rebecca Goldstein and Daniel Quinn”. On first glance that seems to be a pretty credible set of criteria (for obvious reasons, I’m not going to take a second glance).

Blindsight ranks 71rst overall, which puts it just behind Lord of the Flies and a few spots ahead of Blood Meridian and The Idiot.  It kicks the ass of various titles by Beckett, Dick, Vonnegut, Rand, and Atwood, and has its ass kicked in turn by other titles by the same authors. We all get our asses kicked by Camus’s The Stranger.

I find this list a bit suspect— maybe “mystifying” is a better word— and not just because I’m on it. For one thing, rankings were based on “a weighted score to each novel appearing on a previous list and combined these scores with votes from readers and authors to produce a cumulative score”, which implies some sort of quality-based hierarchy. But the list is also subdivided into other groups— “Black Tragicomedies”, “Cult Favorites”, “Social Critiques” (Blindsight falls under “Diamonds in the Rough”)— and all the titles in each of these groups is ranked contiguously. That is, all the “Black Tragicomedies” are worse than all the “Portraits”, all the “Portraits” are worse than all the “Mindfucks”, and so on. I find this odd.

I’m also a bit suspect of the whole idea of “philosophical novel” as a category. Fortunately I got a chance to vent on this very subject, since Greg approached me for a list of my own “favorite philosophical novels” (He includes a pdf of  annotated “Author’s picks” as a downloadable extra on the same page; my own remarks are perhaps the least informative of the eleven authors who weigh in). I tried to deflect attention from my own  lack of education by questioning the very definition of the term. “You could argue that science fiction is infested with philosophy, almost by definition,” I began, rattling off a list of obvious examples. “And those are brilliant books, and they do contain philosophical elements, but to describe all these as philosophical novels is like proudly proclaiming William Shatner to be Canadian because he passed through town on his way to Hollywood. You can make the case, technically, but it makes you look really insecure.”

Anyway. It’s a fascinating list, refreshingly genre-heavy (Dick and Stephenson are all over it, although Huxley’s the only SF author to make the Top Ten)— and if nothing else, it’ll give you a whole lot more to stick on your bucket list.

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only read a quarter of them.

You Want It Darker.

 

Modified from “toa-lagara”

They plummet head-first, dragged down by a hundred kilograms of improvised ballast. Asante chokes, jams his mouthpiece into place; coughs seawater through the exhaust and sucks in a hot lungful of fresh-sparked hydrox. Pressure builds against his eardrums. He swallows, swallows again, manages to keep a few millibars ahead of outright rupture. He has just enough freedom of movement to claw at his face and slide the defractors over his eyes. The ocean clicks into focus, clear as acid, empty as green glass.

Green turns white.

Seen in that flash-blinded instant: four thin streams of bubbles, rising to a surface gone suddenly incandescent. Four dark bodies, falling away from the light. A thunderclap rolls through the water, deep, downshifted, as much felt as heard. It comes from nowhere and everywhere.

The roof of the ocean is on fire. Some invisible force shreds their contrails from the top down, tears those bubbles into swirling silver confetti. The wave-front races implacably after them. The ocean bulges, recoils. It squeezes Asante like a fist, stretches him like rubber; Tiwana and Acosta tumble away in the backwash. He flails, stabilizes himself as the first jagged shapes resolve overhead: dismembered chunks of the booby-trapped gyland, tumbling with slow majesty into the depths. A broken wedge of deck and stairwell passes by a few meters away, tangled in monofilament. A thousand glassy eyes stare back from the netting as the wreckage fades to black.

Asante scans the ocean for that fifth bubble trail, that last dark figure to balance Those Who Left against Those Who Returned. No one overhead. Below, a dim shape that has to be Garin shares its mouthpiece with the small limp thing in its arms. Beyond that, the hint of a deeper dark against the abyss: a shark-like silhouette keeping station amid a slow rain of debris. Waiting to take its prodigal children home again.

They’re too close to shore. There might be witnesses. So much for stealth ops. So much for low profiles and no-questions-asked. Metzinger’s going to be pissed.

Then again, they are in the Gulf of Mexico.

Any witnesses will probably just think it caught fire again.

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 22 Comments

Lizards in the Sink with David.

(A Nowa Fantastyka reprint)

Squippersnapper

Squippersnapper

Back when I was in grad school, I built an electric water pipe out of Erlenmeyer flasks, rubber stoppers, and an aquarium air pump. It fed into an inhaler that dangled over my bed like the deployed O2 mask of a falling airliner— right next to the control panel that ran my planetarium, a home-built device that projected stars and nebulae and exploding spaceships across the far wall. The stars actually moved in 3D, came right out of the center of the wall and spread to the edges at different speeds. Wisps of nebulae would undulate as they streamed past. Planets swelled across the screen, rotating. Not bad for a contraption built out of old turntables and light bulbs and half-melted plastic peanut butter jars stuffed with colored cellophane. You haven’t lived until you’ve got stoned and sailed through the Trifid Nebula to the strains of Yes.

Back then I was what some might call a “pothead”. And yet I never progressed beyond cannabis, never even dabbled in hallucinogenics.

In hindsight, it was a serious deficiency in my upbringing. Two thirds of those who’ve used psychoactives describe the experience as among the most spiritually significant of their lives. MRI studies show that LSD wires together parts of the brain that normally don’t even talk to each other. It deconstructs one’s sense of Self right down at the neuronal level, and you know me: I’m flat-out fascinated by this stuff. So why, half a century of my life already spent, had I never tried LSD?

This is your brain on drugs. Many questions!

This is your brain on drugs. Many questions!

About a year ago I voiced this regret to a friend of mine, a guy I’d first met when he was just a bright-eyed adolescent asking me to talk to his high-school English class. Somehow he’d grown up in the meantime (I myself remained utterly unchanged); now he has a PhD under his belt, teaches at a local university. He took pity on me; a few months back he slipped me a couple of confetti flakes laced with hallucinogenic goodness.

I knew people who swore by the stuff. I also knew people who admitted that under its influence they’d wandered down the middle of busy streets, or tripped along the edges of the Scarborough Bluffs with a strange sense of invulnerability. I was curious, but I had no great desire to end up as a puddle of viscera at the foot of some cliff. I chose a more controlled approach. I called on my buddy Dave Nickle to ride shotgun.

“Three ground rules,” Dave told me upon his arrival. “First rule: You don’t leave the house. Second rule: When you break the first rule and leave the house, do not go into the road. Third rule: when I say Stop what you’re doing right now, you stop doing whatever it is you’re doing. Right. Now.”

I sucked the first tab to mush. Not much happened, beyond a growing impatience at Dave’s rate of progress through the game of SOMA he was playing while we waited for things to get interesting. So I popped the second one after about an hour.

Things got interesting.

*

It kind of sneaks up on you.

At first it just feels like being drunk or mildly stoned: light-headedness, a loss of somatic inertia, but without any nausea or hypersalivating spinniness. After a while the edges of vision start to look a little like those optical illusions you see in Scientific American— you know, those moiré patterns that seem to be moving even though you know they’re not. The effect starts at the edge of vision, spreads inward to the center; suddenly the folds in my bedcovers are rippling like rivulets in an alluvial delta. Plunging my splayed fingers down onto the bed stops that movement dead, for a few moments at least; my fingertips somehow anchor the material, force it to behave. But then those rivulets start eroding around them, as though my fingers are sticks in a stream: not stopping the flow, but only reshaping it. No matter how hard I stare, no matter how intense my focus, I can’t get them to stop.

*

I’m a ghost for a while, my body as ethereal as mist. I think I know why. They’ve done experiments where you watch someone say a word, but the word you hear doesn’t match the speaker’s mouth movements. The brain reconciles that conflict by hearing different sounds than those actually spoken, sounds closer to what the mouth seems to be saying.

I think this is something like that.

I feel incredibly weak. I just know, down in the gut, that I lack the strength to even lift my arm off the bed. And yet I do more than that: I rise up off the bed entirely, go into the next room, do a few chin-ups. How does the brain reconcile that? How does the wetware square you’re too weak to move with you’re moving? I think it’s decided that I must be massless. I lack the strength to move anything; I am moving; therefore I must be made of nothing.  I become a ghost, utterly free of inertia. I feel the truth of that right down in my diaphanous bones.

*

There are different cognitive modes, mindsets as distinct as delight and dementia. They do not overlap. Sometimes the hallucinations are vivid and undeniable but my mind is stone cold sober: I can look hard at the bright static image on the screen, see beyond doubt that the things there are moving— and yet know intellectually that they’re not. I report the hallucination with clarity and concision, comment both on what I see and the impossibility of it, as though I were dictating the results of an autopsy. My senses are lying, but my mind is clear; I am not fooled.

I swear to God the lights in that ring moved, like traffic headlights. Going both ways.

I swear to God the lights in that ring moved, like traffic headlights. Going both ways.

Other times, though, I don’t even know if this thing called “I” even exists. It seems to— to spread out across the room, as though I’ve become some kind of diffuse neural net hanging just below the ceiling. It’s not a visual hallucination— this mode’s pretty much hallucination-free except for a ubiquitous heat-shimmer effect that makes everything ripple[1]. This is a more visceral, intuitive sense of being distributed. Every now and then some ganglion in the net lights up at random, and the system blurts out whatever words that node contains.

It is at one of these times that Dave sadistically engages me— apparently he thinks there still is a “me”— in political discourse. (I believe this is known in the vernacular as “Harshing the Buzz”.) Somehow we’re talking about the US election, and the distributed neural net wants to say: I don’t think Trump really believes all that shit he says about Muslims and Mexicans. I don’t think he believes much of anything; after all, he was staunchly pro-choice before he started running on the Republican ticket. I think he just plays to the crowd, says whatever gets him the loudest cheers. The real danger isn’t so much Trump himself, but the fact that his victory has unleashed and empowered an army of bigoted assholes down at street level. That’s what’s gonna do the most brutal damage.

This is what Neural Net Watts is trying to say. But the nodes light up at random and I think what comes out is more like “Aww, I don’t think Trump is so bad” This horrifies whatever vestigial part of me still exists; I try desperately to clarify so Dave won’t think I’m a complete asshole, but the neural net wonders “Are these words just random network discharges with no intrinsic meaning— or, have the drugs stripped away my humanitarian facade of decency revealing the true, Trump-defending monster within?” The neural net wonders how much of this it said aloud.

Some, at least. Because from a very great distance, Dave is saying “Don’t sweat it, dude; I’m not hearing anything you haven’t said before.”

*

We watch the back end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve seen that movie at least 50 times; this is the first time I’ve ever seen it while high. I am entranced, more entranced than I’ve ever been before by this masterpiece. Every frame, every sound is a revelation packed with new meaning. Five minutes after the credits, though, I can’t remember what any those meanings actually were.

This also is your brain on drugs.

This also is your brain on drugs.

I want to watch Alien next, or maybe Eraserhead. Dave guides me gently toward something less potentially-traumatizing: a fan-made episode of “Star Trek” posted on Youtube, with cardboard sets and twentysomething amateurs playing Kirk and Co. Apparently there are several of these: Star Trek Continues, they’re called collectively. This episode is a sequel to “Mirror, Mirror”. Evil Spock’s goatee looks like someone glued a shoehorn to his chin.

It’s like watching a high-school play put on by students from my ’73 shop class. The drugs do not help at all. Alien would have been far less terrifying.

I cannot look away.

*

Twenty minutes of preflight research have uncovered the fact that tomatoes apparently taste awesome when you’re high. Many have attested that the taste of a psychoactivated tomato is orgasmically intense. I have laid out an array of tomatoes, from tiny grape to humungous vine-ripened. At the height of my powers, I devour them all.

Meh.

*

In a blinding flash of insight, I understand why people always sound so trite when describing acid trips: because language evolved to describe the pedestrian realities of everyday perception. The psychoactivated brain is wired up differently; there are literally no words for the way it parses reality. These insights are literally untranslatable. Of course forcing them into words turns them into lame, trite clichés.

I try to explain this revelation to Dave. It comes out in a torrent of lame, trite clichés.

*

Coming down now. The light-headedness persists, but the shape of the world has congealed back down to its baseline state. Caitlin has returned from work; apparently Dave has been texting updates to her all day. I study the tendons in my hand as he provides my wife an executive summary. “It went okay,” he says. “There was one point where he started seeing bats everywhere, but there actually were bats, so that was fine.”

It’s been six hours, in and out. I thought it would last longer.

We release Dave from his duties with hugs and thanks and a bunch of uneaten snacks I’d stockpiled against a case of the munchies that never materialized. He is a good friend.

The last of the buzz is fading. The BUG is glad that I did not hurl myself in front of a bus. We climb into bed and boot up our laptops and discover that Leonard Cohen has died.

I hope that’s just a coincidence.

 

[1] I think these might be the source of those clichéd Aauugggh your face is melting! depictions of drug use so favored by the Just Say No crowd

Posted in: neuro by Peter Watts 31 Comments