By Dan Ghiordanescu.

By Dan Ghiordanescu.

I cried for the Chimp, once.

I was there for his birth. I saw the lights come on, listened as he found his voice, watched him learn to tell Sunday from Kai from Ishmael. He was such a fast learner, and an eager one; back then, barely out of my own accelerated adolescence and not yet bound for the stars, I felt sure he’d streak straight into godhood while we stood mired in flesh and blood.

I didn’t feel the slightest hint of envy. How could I? He seemed so happy: devoured every benchmark, met every challenge, anticipated each new one with a kind of hardwired enthusiasm I could only describe as voracious. Once, rounding a corner into some rough-hewn catacomb, I came upon a torrent of bots swirling in perfect complex formation: a school of silver fish, in the center of Eri‘s newly-seeded forest. The shapes I glimpsed there still make my head hurt, when I think about them.

“Yeah, we’re not quite sure what that is,” one of the gearheads said when I asked her. “He does it sometimes.”

“He’s dancing,” I told her.

She regarded me with something like pity. “More likely just twiddling his thumbs. Running some motor diagnostic that kicks in when there’s a few cycles to spare.” She shrugged. “Why don’t you ask him?”

“Maybe I will.” Although I never got around to it.

I’d hike to the caverns during down time, watched him dance as the forest went in: theorems and fractal symphonies playing out against fissured basalt, against a mist of mycelia, against proliferating vine-tangles of photosynthetic pods so good at sucking up light that even under lights designed to mimic the very sun, they presented nothing but black silhouettes. When the forest grew too crowded the Chimp moved to some unfinished factory floor; when that started to fill up he relocated to an empty coolant tank the size of a skyscraper; finally, to that vast hollow in the center of the world where someday— a few centuries down the line— ramscoops and lasers and magnetic fields would devour dust and hydrogen like some colossal filterfeeding space whale, squeeze it all down to a small black mass heavy as moons. The dance evolved with each new venue. Every day those kinetic tapestries grew more elaborate and mindbending and beautiful. It didn’t matter where he went. I found him. I was there.

Sometimes I’d try to proselytize, invite some friend or lover along for the show, but except for Kai— who humored me a couple of times— no one was especially interested in watching an onboard diagnostic twiddle its thumbs. That was okay. By now, I knew the Chimp was mainly playing for me anyway. Why not? Cats and dogs had feelings. Fish even. They develop habits, loyalties. Affections. The Chimp may have only weighed in at a fraction of a human brain but he was easily smarter than any number of sentient beings with personalities to call their own.

One day, though, he didn’t seem twice as smart as he’d been the day before.

I couldn’t really put my finger on it at first. I’d just— developed this model of exponential expectation, I guess. I took for granted that the toddler playing with numbered blocks in the morning would have blown through tensor calculus by lunchtime. Now, in subtle increments, he wasn’t quite living up to that curve. Now he grew only incrementally smarter over time. I never asked the techs about it— I never even mentioned it to the other ‘spores— but within a week there wasn’t any doubt. Chimp wasn’t exponential after all. He was only sigmoid, past inflection and closing on the asymptote, and for all his amazing savantic skills he’d be nowhere near godhood by the time he scraped that ceiling.

Ultimately, he wouldn’t even be as smart as me.

They kept running him through his paces, of course. Kept loading him up with new and more complex tasks. And he was still up for the job, still kept scoring a hundred. It’s not like they’d designed him to fail. But he had to work harder, now. The exercises took evermore resources. Every day, there was less left over.

He stopped dancing.

The real tragedy was that it didn’t seem to bother him. I asked him if he missed the ballet and he didn’t know what I was talking about. I commiserated about the hammer that had knocked him from the sky and he told me he was doing fine. “Don’t worry about me, Sunday,” he said. “I’m happy.”

It was the first time he’d ever used that word. If I’d heard it even ten days earlier, I might have believed him.

So I descended into the forest— gone to twilight now, the full-spectrum floods retired once the undergrowth had booted past the seedling stage— and I wept for a happy stunted being who didn’t know or care that it had once been blazing towards transcendence before some soulless mission priority froze him midflight and stuck him in amber.

What can I say? I was young, I was stupid.

I thought I could afford to feel pity.

Posted in: fiblet, Sunflowers by Peter Watts 17 Comments

The Physics of Hope.

Okay, one more before I pack.  Since it came out in NF a long time ago:

I never liked physics much.

I’m not just talking about the math. I don’t like what modern physics tells us: that time is an illusion, for one thing. That we live in a reality where everything that ever was, and ever will be, always is: static timelines embedded in a “block universe” like threads in amber. I may remember scratching my head before writing this sentence, but that’s just one frozen slice of me with a bunch of frozen memories. An instant further along is another slice at t+1, with memories incrementally more advanced, and because it remembers the past it believes that it is moving through time. But in reality— seen from some higher-dimensioned overhead perspective— we exist on a tabletop where nothing changes, nothing moves, nothing goes away.

I hate that vision. My gut rebels at the grim counterintuitive determinism of it. But I’m no physicist, and we all know how misleading gut feelings can be. I don’t like it, but what do I know? I know nothing.

You can’t say that about Lee Smolin. Eminent theoretical physicist, co-Founder of the  world-renowned Perimeter Institute, author of the 2013 book Time Reborn. I’ve just read it. It gives me hope. It says my gut was right all along. We do exist from one moment to the next. This flow we perceive is no illusion. Time is real.

It’s space that’s bullshit.

Imagine the universe as a lattice of nodes; the only way to get from one place to another is to hop along the nodes between, like stepping-stones in a stream. The more dimensions the lattice has, the shorter the number of hops required to get between two points: Smolin invokes the analogy of a cell-phone network, which puts you just one step away from billions of “nearest neighbors”.

Well, sure, if this is how you represent a "higher dimension, then of course the cell phone collapses space...

Well, sure, if this is how you represent a “higher dimension, then of course the cell phone collapses space…

It takes energy to keep those higher dimensions active, though. In the early, hot universe— right after the Big Bang— there was energy to spare; dimensions were abundant and everything was one cell-phone-hop away from everything else. “Space” didn’t really exist back then. As the universe cooled, those higher dimensions collapsed; the cell network shut down, flattening reality into a low-energy mode where only those few locations adjacent in three dimensions could be considered “nearest”. Now, to get anywhere else, you have to hop a myriad low-dimensional nodes. You have to cross “space”.

The point is, space is not a fundamental property of reality; it only emerged in the wake of that energy-starved collapse. This is the story Smolin is selling: There is no time-space continuum. There is only time.

Physics is wrong.

According to Time Reborn, physics went astray at two points. The first was when it started confusing maps with the territories they described. Most physics equations are time-symmetric; they work as well backwards as forwards. They are timeless, these rules that do such a good job of describing our observations of reality; so, physicists thought, maybe reality is timeless too. When we first started drawing graphs of motion and mass on paper— each moment a fixed point along some static axis— we were being lulled into a Block-Universe mindset.

Smolin describes the second wrong turn as “the Cosmological Fallacy”: an unwarranted extrapolation of the local to the universal. Physics studies systems in isolation; you’re not going to factor in the gravitational influences of the Virgo Supercluster when you’re calculating the trajectory of a bowling bowl, for example. You ignore trivial variables, you impose boundaries by necessity. You put physics in a box and leave certain universals— the laws of nature, for example— outside. Those laws reach into the box and work their magic, but you don’t have to explain them; they just are.

Physics works really well in boxes. The problem arises when you extrapolate those boxy insights to the whole universe. There is no “outside” when you’re talking about all of existence, no other realm from which the timeless laws of nature can reach in and do their thing. Suddenly you’ve got to explain all that stuff that could be taken as axiomatic before. So you start fiddling around with branes and superstrings; you invoke an infinite number of parallel universes to increase the statistical odds that some of them would turn out the way ours did. If Smolin’s right, a lot of modern physics is an attempt to reimpose an outside on a universe that doesn’t have one. And because we’re trying to apply locally-derived insights onto a totality where they don’t apply, our models break.

Smolin’s alternative sits so much easier in the gut— and, at the same time, seems even more radical. Everything affects everything else, he says; and that includes the laws of physics themselves. They are not timeless or immutable: they are affected by the rest of the universe, just as the universe is affected by them.

They evolve, he says, over time.

Everyone agrees that reality was in flux during the first moments after the Big Bang: universal laws and constants could have taken entirely different values than they did when the universe finally congealed into its present configuration. The strong and weak nuclear forces could have taken different values; the Gravitational Constant could have turned out negative instead of positive. Smolin suggests natural laws are still not set in stone, even now; rather, they result from a sort of ongoing plebiscite. How the universe reacts to X+Y comes down to a roll of the dice, weighted by past experience. Correlations, initially random, strengthen over time; if X+Y rolled mostly snake-eyes in the past it’ll be increasingly likely to do so in the future.

Now we’re 15 billion years into the game. Those precedents have grown so weighty, the correlations so strong, that we mistake them for laws; when we see X+Y, we never observe any result but snake-eyes. Different outcomes are possible, though—just very, very unlikely. (Think of the Infinite Improbability Drive from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, transmuting a missile into a sperm whale or a bowl of petunias.)

So much becomes possible, if this is true. Smolin’s concept of “Cosmological Natural Selection” for one, in which Darwinian processes apply to the universe at large— in which black holes, egg-like, spawn whole new realities, each governed by a different physics (those which maximize black-hole production outcompete those which don’t). Another mind-blowing implication is that if the universe were to encounter some combination of quantum events that had never happened before, it wouldn’t know what to do: it would have to roll the dice without any precedent weighting the outcome. (Something to keep in mind, now that we’re starting to play around with quantum computing in a big way.)

We may even find our way to ftl, if I’m reading this right. After all, the lightspeed limit only applies to our impoverished four-dimensional spacetime. If you pumped up the energy in a given volume enough to reactivate all those dormant cell-phone dimensions, wouldn’t space just collapse again? Wouldn’t every node suddenly get closer to every other?

Of course, all this hypothesizing leaves open the question of how the universe “remembers” what has gone before, and how it “guesses” what to do next. But is that any less absurd than a universe in which a cat is both dead and alive until something looks at it? A universe governed by timeless laws so astronomically unlikely that you have to invoke an infinite number of undetectable parallel universes just to boost the odds in your favor?

At least Smolin’s theory is testable, which makes it more scientific than this multiverse that everyone else seems so invested in. Smolin and his allies seek to do to Einstein what Einstein did to Newton: expose the current model as a local approximation, good enough for most purposes but not truly descriptive of the deeper reality.

...but this is how I envision going from 2D to 3, and I don't see how that extra layer gets Mary and Ted any closer...

…but this is how I envision going from 2D to 3, and I don’t see how that extra layer gets Mary and Ted any closer…

And yet I’m not entirely convinced. Even with my poor grasp of physics (or more likely, because of it), aspects of this new worldview seem a bit off to me. Smolin openly derides multiverse models— but then, where then do the black-hole-spawned “baby universes” of Cosmological Selection end up? And while I can easily imagine two points, three nodes apart, on a 2D lattice, I don’t see how adding a third dimension brings them any closer together (although it certainly opens up access to a whole bunch of new nodes). Also, if the laws of nature are affected by the objects and processes they affect in turn, wouldn’t that feedback follow certain rules? Wouldn’t those rules bring determinism back into play, albeit with a couple of extra complications thrown in?

These are most likely naive criticisms. Doubtless Smolin could answer them easily; I’m probably just pushing his metaphors beyond their load-bearing limits. But perhaps the most important reason that I’m not convinced is because I so very dearly want to be. Current physics leaves no room for free will, no room even for the passage of time. Every moment we experience, every decision we think we make, is a lie. It’s not just that nothing happens the way we perceive it; in the block universe nothing happens, period.

Who wouldn’t reject such a reality, given half a chance? Who wouldn’t prefer an uncertain future in which we make our own decisions and influence our own destinies? What I wouldn’t give to live in such a world. Smolin offers it up on a platter. And because it is so tempting, I must counter my desire with an extra dose of skepticism.

Then again, the most basic tenet of empiricism is that any of us could be wrong about anything. “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right,” Einstein once said. “A single experiment can prove me wrong.”

Maybe, before too long, Smolin will get his single experiment.

Stay tuned.

Posted in: astronomy/cosmology, ink on art by Peter Watts 21 Comments

Rim Shot.

So I’ve been snowed under lately, head down in a late-breaking gig that I can’t say anything about except to tell you that I can’t say anything about it (and even that might edging up against the confidentiality clause). I did, however, take a few days off to hang with a childhood friend of mine who grew up to be an opera singer with questionable taste in Science jokes. So for want of filler, I thought I’d share the ones I can still remember him rattling off as he, I, and the Mighty BUG stumbled forth from Murphy’s Law last weekend:

Only one of this trinity is to blame; the other two are an author photo. If it helps any, his singing is way better than his stand-up.

Only one of this trinity is to blame; the other two are an author photo.

If it helps any, his singing is way better than his stand-up.


“My God, I’ve lost an electron!”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive!”


A Higgs boson slides into the front pew. The priest asks what it’s doing there.

The boson replies, “You can’t have mass without me.”


An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. The first orders a beer. The second orders one-and-a-half beers. The third orders one-and-three-quarter beers. The fourth orders—

“Okay, enough.” The bartender slams two beers down on the counter. “You guys should know your limits.”


Three statisticians go duck hunting. The first one shoots wide to the right; the second shoots wide to the left. The third says, “We got him!”


There were others, but I think they were better.

This may be it from me for a while. I’m heading off to Greece in a few days and it’s pure vacation, so unless my Nowa Fantastyka review of Smolin’s “Time Reborn” comes out of exclusivity (or my review of recent findings on Insect Consciousness, whatever comes first),  it’ll probably be a couple of weeks before you hear from me again.

Talk quietly amongst yourselves.


Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 10 Comments

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):


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:



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:



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:


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.


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…


Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 3 Comments