Books and Banana.

Here’s the latest in an intermittent series of self-related roundups from around the world, which— while perhaps lacking a certain focus— culminates in what has to qualify as The Best Author Photo Of All Time.

But let’s start small, and build to it:

  • It’s only a Recommended list, not a Required one, but it’s nice to see that Blindsight made Berkeley’s 2016 Summer Reading List. Especially since said list is not even genre-based.
  • From the ever-growing list of “Look Who I’ve Inspired Though Myself They Haven’t Hired” game companies: I get name-checked along with Harrison, Moorcock, Simmons, Zelazny— oh and the “Heavy Metal” Movie— as an influence on Torment: Tides of Numenera. Of course, we all take a back seat to Gene Wolfe, but that’s as it should be.
  • This one gives me shivers. Courtesy of a dude named Danil Krivoruchko, one of several images which come closer than any I’ve seen to the actual vision of Rorschach that haunted my brain when I was writing Blindsight:
Embers and lightning. Tweak the allometry a bit and it'll be just about perfect.

Embers and lightning. Tweak the allometry a bit and it’ll be just about perfect.

It’s only a rough draft, mind you. Still under construction. I can’t wait to see what the finished product looks like.

  • More rough drafts, this time from Manchu: a couple of options for the cover of the upcoming Au-delà du Gouffre (which I originally took to mean “Audience of Guff”, but which is apparently French for Beyond the Rift):

Beyond-The-Abyss-by-Manchu

Although these too are preliminary, I’m pretty sure I’m not violating any kind of embargo since Le Béliaľ has already polled their forum to help choose between them. (I think they’re both pretty great. I think they should go with both, and release two editions.)

*   *   *

But Finally.  Finally. The moment I’ve been waiting to share with you all:

BS-Turkish01

BS-Turkish02

You may look over at this cover for Blindsight‘s Turkish edition, and wonder why. Oh, it’s a fine cover, no doubt about it. A bit spaceship-generic maybe but the lighting is nice. It gleams, it pops, it does everything cover art is supposed to do. Still. You may wonder at my excitement, until you look at the back cover.

Until you look at the lower left back cover.

The Author photo, if you haven’t caught on yet.  Click on the image if you must; it gets bigger.

I have been trying for years to get publishers to adopt Banana as my official head shot. I have sent them Banana when they asked for an author photo. I have set precedent by inserting Banana into my own, collectors-edition Blindsight covers. I have suggested and wheedled and begged over drinks.

Finally, success.

The weird thing is, I don’t think I ever actually asked the Turks to do this. I don’t even remember having any direct contact with them; everything was negotiated overseas, the whole contract was a done deal before I even knew it was in the works. And yet, somehow they knew. Somehow, the Turks stepped up when others stepped back.

Thank you, Gürer Publishing and marketing Trade Co. Ltd. I don’t know you. I don’t know how you knew. But it was a grand and noble thing you did, for a grand and noble old cat.

If Banana were here today, he wouldn’t give a shit.

 

I, for One, Welcome Our New…

I’d just like to say that, when you read Annalee Newitz writing

“If trends continue, cephalopods may be among the species who are poised to survive a mass extinction in the oceans, leading to a future marine ecosystem ruled by tentacles.”

—or Cory Doctorow warning that—

“To imagine the ocean of the future: picture a writhing mass of unkillable tentacles, forever.”

—or even Doubleday et al (whose research inspired the preceding dire warnings) opining more calmly that—

From Doubleday et al 2016.

From Doubleday et al 2016.

“…the proliferation of cephalopod populations has been driven by large-scale processes that are common across a broad range of marine environments and facilitated by biological characteristics common to all cephalopods. … anthropogenic climate change, especially ocean warming, [is] a plausible driver of the observed increase. … Further, it has been hypothesised that the global depletion of fish stocks, together with the potential release of cephalopods from predation and competition pressure, could be driving the growth in cephalopod populations.”

I’d just like to point out that I called it twelve years ago, in βehemoth:

I'm actually much greyer now. And bearded.

Note the t-shirt.

To Clarke this is the scariest part of the ocean, the half-lit midwater depths where real squid roam: boneless tentacled monsters thirty meters long, their brains as cold and quick as superconductors. They’re twice as large as they used to be, she’s been told. Five times more abundant. Apparently it all comes down to better day care. Architeuthis larvae grow faster in the warming seas, their numbers unconstrained by predators long since fished out of existence.

Now.  Aren’t you ashamed none of you read the damn book?

Posted in: biology, marine, rifters by Peter Watts 35 Comments

Gods and Gamma.

Here’s something interesting: “God Has Sent Me To You” by Arzy and Schurr, in Epilepsy & Behavior (not to mention the usual pop-sci sites that ran with it a couple weeks back). Middle-aged Jewish male, practicing but not religious, goes off his meds as part of an ongoing treatment for grand mal seizures (although evidently “tonic-clonic” seizures is now the approved term). Freed from the drugs, he is touched by God. He sees Yahweh approaching, converses with It, accepts a new destiny: he is now The Chosen One, assigned by the Almighty to bring Redemption to the People of Israel. He rips the leads off his scalp and stalks out into the hospital corridors in search of disciples.

God on the Brain. From Arzy and Schurr, 2016

God on the Brain. From Arzy and Schurr, 2016

That’s right: they got it all on tape. Seven seconds of low-gamma spikes in the 30-40Hz range (I didn’t know what that was either— turns out it’s a pattern of neural activity associated with “conscious attention”).

(The figures might lead you astray if you don’t read the fine print: they didn’t actually get God’s footprints on an MRI. They got them on one of those lo-tech EEGs that traces squiggly lines across a display, then they photoshopped the relevant spikes onto an archival MRI image for display purposes.)

Regardless, the findings themselves are really interesting. For one thing, the God spikes manifested on the left prefrontal cortex, although the seizure was concentrated in the right temporal. For another, God took Its own sweet time taking the stage: the conversion event happened eight hours after the seizure. They’re still trying to figure out what to make of all this.

The behavioral manifestations are classic, though. This guy didn’t just believe he was the chosen one; he knew it down in the gut, with the same certainty that you know your arm is attached to your shoulder. When asked what he was going to do with his disciples when he recruited them, he admitted that he had no plan, that he didn’t need one: God would tell him what to do.

God didn’t, of course. They managed to shut the psychosis down with olanzapine, returned the patient to normalcy a few hours after the event. As far as I know he’s back at work, his buddies on the factory floor blissfully unrecruited.

But what if he hadn’t got better?

This is hardly the first time temporal-lobe epilepsy has been implicated in religious fanaticism; medical correlates extend back to the seventies, and tonic-clonic seizures have been trotted out to retrospectively explain martyrs and prophets going all the way back to the Old Testament. Perhaps the most famous such case involved Saul of Tarsus.

Of course, there are more pedestrian explanations...

Of course, there are more pedestrian explanations…

You know that guy. First-century dude, dual citizen (Saul was his Jewish name, Paul his Roman one— let’s just call him SPaul). Didn’t much like these newfangled Christian cults that were springing up everywhere following the crucifixion. His main claim to fame was being the coat-check guy at the stoning of Stephen, up until he was struck blind by a bright light en route to Damascus.

God spoke to SPaul, too. Converted him from nemesis to champion on the spot. There was no olanzapine available. It’s been two thousand years and we’re still picking up the pieces.

Epilepsy isn’t the only explanation that’s been put forth for SPaul’s conversion. Some have argued for a near-miss by a meteorite, on the grounds that the blinding light couldn’t have been hallucinatory since Saul’s traveling companions also saw it. That’s true, according to some accounts; other versions have those same companions hearing God’s voice but not seeing the light. If I had to choose (and if I was denied the option of dismissing the whole damn tale as retconned religious propaganda), I’d believe the latter iteration, and chalk those sounds up to a bout of ululation during the seizure. Speaking in tongues, blindness— most dramatically, of course, the whole hyper-religiosity thing— are all consistent with temporal-lobe epilepsy.

Messiahs. The movie was actually a lot more accurate than many theologians would like to admit.

Messiahs. The movie was actually a lot more accurate than many theologians would like to admit.

Unlike his (vastly less-influential) 21st Century counterpart, SPaul was not charged with Redeeming the Israelites: Jesus already had dibs on those guys. Instead, Paul claimed that Yahweh had assigned him to preach to the Gentiles, a much vaster market albeit not the one for whom Christ’s teachings were originally intended. Biblical scholar Hugh Schonfield speculates that the reason SPaul had such a hate-on for Jesus in the first place might have been because SPaul regarded himself as the Messiah. (Apparently every second person you met back then regarded themselves as The Chosen One, thanks to Scriptures which promised that such a savior was due Any Day Now, and to ancillary prophecies vague enough to apply to anyone from Rocket Raccoon to Donald Trump). This would imply that SPaul’s roadside conversion was not an isolated event, and sure enough there’s evidence of recurring hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur at other times in his life (although these may be more consistent with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder than with epilepsy). According to Schonfield, SPaul— denied the job of Jewish Messiah— took on the Christ’s-Ambassador-to-the-Gentiles gig as a kind of consolation prize.

Good company, at least. Murray et al 2012.

Good company, at least. Murray et al 2012.

The irony, of course, is that modern Christianity is arguably far more reflective of SPaul’s teachings than of Jesus’s. Cue two thousand years of crusade, inquisition, homophobia, and misogyny.

So let us all bow our heads in a moment of silent gratitude both for the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals, and for the diligent neurologists at Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center. Thanks to them, we may have dodged a bullet.

This time, at least.

 

Posted in: ass-hamsters, neuro by Peter Watts 30 Comments

Diamond Blogs

By Dan Ghiordanescu. Unsurprisingly.

By Dan Ghiordanescu. Unsurprisingly.

We had a legend, we denizens of Eriophora, of a cavern— deep aft, almost as far back as the launch thrusters themselves— filled with diamonds. Not just ordinary diamonds, either: the uncut, hexagonal shit. Lonsdaleite. The toughest solid in the whole damn solar system— back when we shipped out, at least— and laser-readable to boot.

Build your backups out of anything less and you might as well be carving them from butter.

Nothing’s immortal on a road trip of a billion years. The universe runs down in stop-motion around you, your backups’ backups’ backups need backups. Not even the error-correcting replication strategies cadged from biology can keep the mutations at bay forever. It was true for us meatsacks cycling through mayfly moments every thousand years; it was true for the hardware as well. It was so obvious I never even thought about it. By the time I did, the Chimp was on its eighty-third reincarnation.

Not enough that the processors lived down near the event horizon, where the subtle pull of Eri’s time-dilating heart stretched operational lifespans epochs past their expiration dates. Not enough that the circuits themselves were almost paleolithically crude; when your AI packs less than half the synapse count of a human brain, fiddling around down on nano scales is just grandstanding. Still, things fall apart. Conduits decay. Circuits a dozen molecules thick would just— evaporate over time, even if entropy and quantum tunneling didn’t degrade them down to sponge first.

Every now and then, you have to renovate.

And so was born the legend of The Cave: an archive of backups, slabs of diamond statuary a thousand times larger than life, like some crystal cubist Easter Island. When the inventory of backup Chimps ran too low— or of grav lenses, or air-conditioners, or any other vital artefact more short-lived than a proton— Eri would send lumbering copyeditors back to the Secret Place to read great mineral blueprints so vast, so stable, they might outlast the Milky Way.

The place wasn’t always so secret, mind you. Or so legendary. We trooped through it a dozen times during construction, a dozen more in training. But one day, maybe our third or fourth pass through the Sagittarius Arm, Ghora went spelunking at the end of a shift while the rest of us lay dead in the crypt; just killing time, he told me later, staving off the inevitable shut-down with a little recreational reconnaissance. He hiked down into the hi-gee zone, wormed through crawlways and crevices to where X marked the Spot— and found the Cave scoured clean: just a dark gaping cavity in the rock, studded with the stubs of bolts and anchors sheared off a few centimeters above the substrate.

The Chimp had relocated the whole damn archive while we’d slept between the stars.

He wouldn’t tell us where. He couldn’t tell us, he insisted. Said he’d just been following prerecorded instructions from Mission Control, hadn’t been aware of them himself until some timer ticked over and injected the new instructions into his job stack. He couldn’t even tell us why.

I believed him. When was the last time coders explained themselves to the code?

We still go searching now and then, on those rare occasions when there’s time to kill and itches to scratch. We plant tiny charges in the rock, read the echoes vibrating through our worldlet in search of some undiscovered grotto. The Chimp doesn’t stop us. It’s never had to; we’ve never found anything.

“They don’t trust us,” Kai said, rolling his eyes. “Seven million years down the road, all long gone to dust, and they’re afraid we might— what? Trash our own life support? Write Sawada sucks farts on their scale models?” He spoke for all of us; this was hardly the first evidence of head-up-ass syndrome we’d encountered.

Looking back, though, we really should’ve taken the hint. Job descriptions notwithstanding, we weren’t really crew after all. Never had been. We were just another set of tools.

And if we’d somehow left orbit under the wrong impression, grandiosely inflated our own roles in Humanity’s Grand Exodus To The Stars— well, at least it had kept the departure protocols on track.

Posted in: fiblet, Sunflowers by Peter Watts 54 Comments

The Smoke of That Great Burning.

There was a time, a few weeks ago, when I reconsidered my decision to stay out of the US.

Most of you know that I’m banned from entering that country anyway. What you may not know is that, as of last summer, I don’t have to be. There’s a kind of expiration date on my conviction; after five years I can apply to have my record “expunged”. I’ve never bothered, never even explored the possibility. Why would I? Exile doesn’t seem to have harmed my career (such as it is), has actually helped it in a few ways I could name. And the overall quality of my border-crossing experiences has vastly improved ever since that particular boundary got scratched off the list. Why waste effort gaining re-entry into a country which qualifies as third-world along every metric from religiosity to life expectancy?

USA highlighted in yellow. In comparison with 16 other "first-world" nations around the globe.

USA highlighted in yellow. In comparison with 16 “other” first-world nations around the globe.

I suppose it might be nice to be able to prove that my aversion to the US isn’t just sour grapes, that I choose to keep my distance even though I don’t have to; but anyone who’d seriously raise such an argument in the first place would be a card-carrying member of the Dunning-Kruger Club, and not worth the effort. Besides, I got hassled enough crossing that border even before I was on the radar; does anyone really think I’d ever get across the US border again without falling victim to a “random” cavity search, no matter what my legal standing might be?

And yet, just a few weeks ago I was seriously thinking about it. It was during that brief bright window when it looked like Bernie Sanders might have a shot. Think of it: a presidential candidate who didn’t arrive pre-pocketed by the multinationals. A candidate who consistently maintained the same forthright positions for decades, even when they were politically unpopular. A candidate who, instead of  sheepishly apologizing for jumping on the Iraq bandwagon, could say: hey, I voted against that fucking war from the outset.

Talk about making America great again.

I would gladly return to a country that voted for such a candidate. It might even be worth enduring the velvet touch of Andrew Beaudry’s latex-covered hand up my ass. But you all know what’s happened since. The Democrat machine put its foot down, told its bitches how to vote, and— barring some late-breaking statistical miracle— relegated Sanders to footnote status. Further to the right, Trump’s ascension has pretty much sealed the deal. Suddenly the court jester is within a stone’s throw of the crown. Pundits on both ends of the spectrum have stopped laughing. Conventional wisdom is that no sane person has a choice any longer: unite behind Clinton, lest the country burn.

Hey. Could be worse.

I make the best conflagrations.  Nobody makes better conflagrations than me.

I agree with that math. Which is exactly why I so fervently hope that Trump becomes the next US president.

A child-rearing analogy might come in handy here. Some believe that the way to teach a toddler to avoid hot stove-tops is to scoop them up whenever they get too close to the burner, followed perhaps with firm warnings of potential consequence. Personally, I think the take-home message in that scenario might not be Stove-tops are dangerous so much as If I want to find out what’s the deal up on that cool stove-top thing, I should wait until there aren’t any grown-ups around to stop me. If you really want to teach the little darlings to avoid stove-tops— if you want the lesson to stick— step back and let ’em discover that red-hot element for themselves. Once should be enough (or if it isn’t, at least you now know to cut your losses on this one and invest your efforts in any other offspring that might be crawling around.[1])

A Clinton presidency would be tantamount to the interventionist approach. Business would continue pretty much as usual; we’d continue toward the iceberg (or at least, we would if there were any icebergs left), albeit with a stern finger-wagging and whatever teensy course corrections might be permitted by Clinton’s corporate owners. The USA might experience a few more years of what currently passes for “stability”, but the only ones who got burned would be those who always have been. Little would change— except that at the end of it, we’d be that much closer to the precipice.

It’s admittedly a better fate than what might have awaited the world if Cruz had made it to the finals: even ongoing environmental catastrophe doesn’t stack up decisively against the immediate threat posed by a batshit religious fanatic with his hands on half the world’s nuclear arsenal. But Trump doesn’t have Cruz’s focus, or his agenda. Or any agenda, maybe. Trump just seems to make shit up as he goes along— and while both his strategic foresight and his impulse control might evoke images of The Joker, as far as I can tell he doesn’t want to watch the world burn.

The world will burn, though. Or enough of it, at least. If Trump gets in, there are gonna be a lot of screaming toddlers with scorched hands. Shouldn’t take him more than one term to bring that whole damn country down around his ears.

And once the pot has well and truly boiled over— when even the Guccis of the one-percenters are slick with the blood in the streets; when Flint-level infrastructure has spread to every corner of the fifty states; when those damned Mexicans finally build Trump’s wall for him, but along the original Mexican/US boundary— why, the Land of the Free will be just begging for someone like Elizabeth Warren to take the helm.

It might be the only way to return sanity to the US political process, in a world where the Overton Window has moved so far to the right that yesterday’s centrism is today’s radical loony tune. In order to reset the scale to the point where workable solutions are even visible, you might have to shatter that window entirely and start over. Or— if you prefer pendulum metaphors— pushing the bob all the way over to Trump might be the only way to build enough energy to reach Warren/Sanders territory on the return swing.

It sounds grim, but at heart this is a hopeful message. True democracy might yet play a constructive role, even if its voice is dominated by toddlers who thus far have refused to accept the danger posed by stove-tops. So let them prevail, I say. Let them burn. Let them learn the hard way, and the sooner the better.

There’s a nice fringe benefit for the rest of us, too. Once those burns have been sustained, perhaps the toddlers will be so busy trying to stamp out the fires within their own borders that they’ll be less inclined to keep starting them elsewhere in the world. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Maybe I’ll head down south after all, in a few more years. Hang out with some old friends I haven’t been able to visit in a while.

In the meantime I’ll keep playing Fallout 4. Just to get ready.


 

[1] It’s such an obvious— and yet, such a rarely-mentioned— approach that I’m thinking of writing a book on child-rearing, right after the BUG and I complete Nellie the Nephron.

Posted in: politics, rant by Peter Watts 79 Comments

Art, from Ice to Fire

Some new artwork for you, scavenged from my last bout of ego-surfing, because I’m holding off on fiblets until I have something to actually announce; and because any comments I’d make on the ongoing immolation of tar-sands boomtown Fort McMurray by (increasingly less-unseasonable) forest fire activity would be so laden with irony as to be insensitive to the 88,000 who’ve had to flee.

So let’s stick with self-absorption for the mo.

First up, Dmitriy Vishnev’s absolutely glorious rendering of “The Things”, which is going onto the cover of Beyond the Rift‘s upcoming Russian edition:

BtR-DmitriyVishnevskiy

 

Followed by some Rifters fan art scraped from the web:

I don't know who "catchfiya" is, beyond an Australian artist, but man, I really like this: it's almost a stained-glass window of the Meltdown Madonna

I don’t know who “catchfiya” is, beyond an Australian artist, but man, I really like this: it’s almost a stained-glass window of the Meltdown Madonna

I know even less about Eric He, because I can't find any art site he might have set up (I screen-grabbed these off his twitter feed). Nice alien rendering of Lenie and her spirit-echinoderm.

I know even less about Eric He, because I can’t find any art site he might have set up (I screen-grabbed these next two off his twitter feed). Nice alien rendering of Lenie and her spirit-echinoderm.

Really original and evocative rifter aesthetic here. Obviously these guys have been down there for awhile. Love the mouth apparatus.

Really original and evocative rifter aesthetic here. Obviously these guys have been down there for awhile. Love the mouth apparatus.

(And of course, if either of these folks would rather that their stuff not be conscripted into service of the ‘crawl, I will take it down forthwith.)

Moving forward, through time: some Blindsight illos from a— shall we say a range of aesthetic perspectives.

I don't know whether these are real or not. They appear to be audiobook covers by Thomas Jaworsky, but if so no one's sent me any comp copies. Not that it matters. I like 'em anyway.

I don’t know whether these are real or not. They appear to be audiobook covers by Thomas Jaworsky, but if so no one’s sent me any comp copies.
Not that it matters. I like ’em anyway.

I don't even know where this came from. I don't know who did it. Whoever it was, we're probably both in some kind of copyright violation

I don’t even know where this came from. I don’t know who did it. Whoever it was, we’re probably both in some kind of copyright violation

I don’t even know where this came from. I don’t know who did it. Whoever it was, we’re probably both in some kind of copyright violation

And finally. Finally:

dan-ghiordanescu-watts2

Remember this guy? The guy who did all the awesome concept art for that ill-fated Sunflowers project?  Well, in between his recent travels around the world, Dan Ghiordanescu managed to squeeze out a couple new paintings— and I’m pretty much speechless at the preceding evocation of the following passage from “Giants”:

We fall towards ice. Ice falls towards fire. Both spill through the link and spread across the back of my skull in glorious terrifying first-person. Orders of magnitude aren’t empty abstractions in here: they’re life-size, you feel them in your gut. Surtr may be small to a textbook — at seven million kilometers across, it’s barely big enough to get into the giant’s club — but that doesn’t mean shit when you meet it face to face. That’s not a star out there: that’s the scorching edge of all creation, that’s heat-death incarnate. Its breath stinks of left-over lithium from the worlds it’s already devoured. And the dark blemish marching across its face isn’t just a planet. It’s a melting hellscape twice the size of Uranus, it’s frozen methane and liquid hydrogen and a core hot and heavy enough to bake diamonds. Already it’s coming apart before my eyes, any moons long since lost, the tattered remnants of a ring system shredding around it like a rotting halo. Storms boil across its face; aurorae flicker madly at both poles. A supercyclone pinwheels at the center of the dark side, fed by turbulent streamers fleeing from light into shadow. Its stares back at me like the eye of a blind god.

Holy fuck, did Dan ever nail it. Every time I look at these pictures the bitterness wells up anew, that Eriophora— for all its galaxy-spanning travels never made it as far as a video game. What glorious mission levels these could be.

Dan did another one, too, but I think I want to hold onto it for the time being. It’ll make a better fit with an upcoming fiblet.

Anyway.  All this stuff should be up in the gallery within the next day or so. I just wanted to post here fast, so I can get my exercises out of the way before the pones get home from school. They tend to mock me whenever they catch me trying to stay in shape.

Fuck.

Too late.

Posted in: art on ink by Peter Watts 20 Comments

Ad-A O’Riley.

So, I’m off to gear up for the inaugural night of Ad Astra, but I thought I’d leave the rest of you with a fragment of a (sadly unrealized) science fiction opus about VR, biofeedback, and the addictive properties of targeted music (although this particular fragment was apparently about some farmer). “Baba O’Riley”, from the ill-fated Lifehouse project. (As was “Won’t Get Fooled Again—which, of course, they also played):

 

Thanks to Dave Olsen, and to the Meez for pointing me to his link. I do not know this Olsen dude, but judging by the angle he was sitting about 5-10m to the right of us. Also, his camera is way better than mine.

If you’re more in the mood for instrumentals, check out this bit from Quadrophenia.

Honestly, it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever experienced. I can only pray that I’m half as spry at 72.

I’d call that a Bargain…

baba

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 3 Comments

Ad Astra and the Battle of Agincourt

You know those dreams where suddenly you’re back in high school and it’s finals week and it’s just dawned on you that you never went to any of your classes? I just had one of those. Except I was awake.

It was actually my first high-school appearance since a disastrous encounter with a bunch of bovine cheerleaders at one of those “alternative” schools, back around the turn of the century. (That actually turned out okay in the long run; the student who’d coaxed me into appearing eventually grew up, got his own PhD, and now provides me with free drugs.) This week’s iteration turned out somewhat better; for one thing, the science teacher who’d recommended me for the gig (and who, as it turns out, is a regular here on the ‘crawl) brought me a bag of homemade cookies to mellow me out before I started.

Agincourt students did this. I was still reading Star Trek books when I was their age.

Agincourt students did this. I was still reading Star Trek books when I was their age.

I gotta admit, there was some apprehension up front. I’m not bad at public speaking— even won the occasional award for it, in both scientific and popular arenas— but high school crowds are something different. And these guys had the potential to be an especially hard crowd. Agincourt Collegiate is the only secondary educational institution I know of with a functional space program for Lego People, and science/engineering isn’t even their star program. Plus I was talking to a mixed audience of science and creative writing students; target one demographic, you risk losing the other.

Honestly, I think they wrote this off as a hoax. Like the moon landing.Maybe they're right.

Honestly, I think they wrote him off as a hoax. Like the moon landing.
Maybe they’re right.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried. The pictures of Banana the cat, and of me picking maggots out of the giant hole in my leg, seemed to go over well with both groups. (The slide showing details of US Patent #6,356,440 B1 didn’t provoke quite so many gasps of amazement, but I think they appreciated it in context.) I’m not entirely sure they believed the bit about Reagan. Based on their expressions I think at least some of them regard him as a myth. I can’t say I blame them; looking back, anyone who believed that there was no race problem in Ammurrica, that trees caused air pollution, and that eighties-era technology was up for the task of building a geosynchronous network of orbital lasers, particle-beam cannons, and autonomous battle computers was obviously way too sane, too down-to-earth, to have succeeded in US politics.

Anyway, I got out of it alive, and relieved, and actually pretty pleased with the reaction (apparently I was “inspiring” to several in the audience). And now I have to delve into a couple of other myths even less plausible than the Legend of the Gipper. Now, I must turn my attention to Ad Astra, the local con (if by “local” you mean way-the-hell-up-in-fucking-Richmond-Hill) that I’ll be attending this weekend. It’s vaguely possible I might finally get to meet Tom Doherty, the guy behind Tor Books and one of this year’s GoH’s (although it’s more likely I’ll just end up drinking with Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory, two of the other GoHs and the BUG’s publishers).

Of course, there’s also the possibility the whole thing’s just another cruel hoax— I note that two days before ignition, I’m still not listed on the panelist page. But they’ve told me, at any rate, that I will in fact be sitting on panels. And they’ve told me that said panels will look like this:

  • April 29, 9-10 pm: Cropsey Slender Man and the Angels of Mons: the Roots of Religion and Folklore – Newmarket

Fantasy and even SF have been influenced by folklore and legend, and the processes that generate monsters and heroes have not stopped. From Cargo Cults to wartime angels, from Urban Legends manifesting as reality to Internet creations inspiring killers, we look at the ongoing processes of mythmaking and how they might inspire and influence contemporary writers. Alisse Lee Goldenburg, JD Deluzio, Peter Watts.

  • April 30, 10-11 am: Bio-Technology and Transhumanism – Newmarket

Vernor Vinge wrote about the technological singularity: “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” The Transhuman debate is alive and well with lively discussion on techno-utopia, life-extension, super-intelligence, immortality, and virtual bodies. Recent films such as Lucy, Transcendence, Elysium, Ex Machina and others touch on the debate. Ray Kurzweil extols a Transhumanist future of immortals free of disease—perhaps even of biology. And what about those who may be left behind? Join the debate. Will you be a MOSH? Nina Munteanu, Peter Watts

  • April 30, 1-2pm: Modern Anxieties and Post-Apocalyptic LandscapesMarkham A

Zombies. Outbreaks. Warfare. Environmental cataclysm. Sometimes all of the above. In recent years, post-apocalypses have become all the rage. But why? Why are we so interested as a culture in exploring the end of Western civilization in the 21st century? How do the post-apocalypses we create reflect real fears and anxieties in our own time? In this panel, we’ll explore the link between post-apocalyptic fiction and worlds and modern events. Alyx Dellamonica, Catherine Asaro, Naomi Foyle, Peter Watts, Stephen Kotowych.

  • May 1, 11am-12pm: The Rise of Environmental FictionRichmond B

The rise of environmental fiction, both in literature and film, has spawned several sub-genres such as climate fiction, eco-thrillers, eco-mystery, eco-punk, and eco-romance. Is eco-fiction part of science fiction? In Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior, climate change plays a major role in a story about people’s beliefs and actions. Environmental catastrophe plays a major role in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam and Ian McEwan’s Solar. Is eco-fiction simply a new fad or does it reflect a cultural awakening to current environmental issues? What role does eco-fiction play in storytelling and defining ourselves. Who are its readers and why? Should eco-fiction educate? How can an eco-fiction writer prevent it from becoming polemic? Douglas Smith, Hayden Trenholm, Nina Munteanu, Peter Watts.

So, great. Now I have to figure out what the hell a MOSH is.  Some kind of pit, if memory serves…

But first, I have to decide what Jethro Tull shirt to wear to the Who concert tonight.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 15 Comments

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