Somebody Get This Guy a Budget

We open on two civilians waiting to board a train. To their left stands a SWAT cop in riot gear; to their right, a battered drone right out of Blade Runner hovers menacingly at heart level. Glances are exchanged, though no words are spoken: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Slowly— making no sudden moves— the civilians climb aboard.

Welcome to the Special Economic Zone. You’ll like the shops, if you like to sweat.

*

That is not a Donnie Darko hoodie.  Then again, it could be a Donnie Darko tribute.

That is not a Donnie Darko hoodie. Then again, it could be a Donnie Darko shout-out.

When Jim Munroe was first starting out, he broke up with Rupert Murdoch. He turned his back on conventional publishing after a successful debut with Harper-Collins, choosing instead to go indie. Of course, they didn’t call it “going indie” back in the final year of the twentieth century. They barely even called it “self-publishing”. What they really called it was career suicide.

But damned if he didn’t make a go of it, years before Howey and Weir and all those other late-comers jumped on the bandwagon. Novels were only the start; Munroe branched out into games, graphic novels, lo-fi movies. His first web serial, Infest Wisely, had a budget of about twenty bucks and looked it. Its most expensive prop was a mock-up of an ATM (or possibly, an actual ATM boosted from the local 7-11 à la first-season Breaking Bad. Jim’s resourceful that way.)

postopianHis second outing was a mockumentary purporting to be a Chinese human-interest piece set in 2045, tut-tutting about the poor white underclass that had emerged following America’s bankruptcy (and subsequent repossession of the Cloud) way back in 2016. Android babies and human spam figured on-stage; the giant mutant spiders, in deference to budget reality, stayed out of frame. Ghosts With Shit Jobs weighed in at a still-meager budget of $4K and 7,000 hours of volunteer effort— constraints which didn’t stop it from showing at festivals from London to Beijing, and two dozen cities in between. It got a shitload of rave reviews and took home the Best Feature award at Sci-Fi-London in 2012. Ghosts looked significantly better than Infest— largely because Toronto’s Dundas Square makes a pretty shiny SFnal backdrop for free— but the shoestring, while thicker, remained.

Third time out, though, Jim graduated from shoestrings to bootstraps. He got 150K from the Independent Production Fund, so he could pay his crew. He raised another 25 grand on Kickstarter to cover post-production. The result is an eight-episode web-series (or, if you prefer, a 70-minute movie) called Haphead (here’s the trailer, here’s the fb page)— still made for an infinitesimal fraction of your typical movie, but still forty times richer than last time.

It shows. It premiered in Toronto just last Thursday and it’s already picked up its first nomination (Best Score, out at Vancouver Webfest). I rather expect more will be coming.

A Clockwork Orange glower for the 21rst Century.  Look into her eyes: that's the Aster*sk corporate logo. It washes out the inside of your head every time you boot up.

A Clockwork Orange glower for the 21rst Century. Look into her eyes: that’s the Aster*sk corporate logo. It scrubs out the inside of your head every time you boot up.

Haphead is a story of the near future, set in Hamilton’s “Special Economic Zone”— basically an industrial ghetto, liberated from such anticompetitive woes as the minimum wage, or safety standards. Our guide is an assembly-line grunt named Maxine, who makes a marginal living slapping together brain-game interfaces for overseas markets. The device clings to the base of your skull like a leech, bypasses your sense organs in favor of writing input directly onto the sensory cortex (I’m guessing some kind of TMS or targeted ultrasound, although we’re never told). Maxine isn’t allowed to use them herself; the tech hasn’t been approved for domestic distribution. But she steals one anyway, uses it as a passport into a virtual game world that— well, imagine Skyrim inhabited entirely by bipedal sapient kick-boxing ninja bunnies.

No, really.

Max spends a lot of time there.

The thing is, this interface is immersive. It doesn’t just fill the senses, it works out the body. Spend enough time fighting killer rabbits in fantasy-land and you develop moves— not to mention improved stamina and muscle tone — back here in meatspace. Which comes in handy when someone close to Maxine dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances…

Haphead is way better than it has any right to be. Little gems of technosocial extrapolation glitter throughout Munroe’s screenplay: upscale malls with perky automated security systems, apologetically refusing entry to consumers with “mixed-income backgrounds”; insurance companies with their own paramilitary SWAT teams to go after false claimants. The plot itself— at first glance a straightforward lefty bit of capitalist-bashing— takes turns you might not expect. People are not always who they seem to be; the victims aren’t always who you might think (or if they are, they might be a bit less deserving of sympathy than they first seem). Star Elysia White is a real find; whether Max is mourning or raging, pondering some mystery or cracking wise, her performance is spot-on throughout.

You're in good hands with Allstate.

You’re in good hands with Allstate.

It’s not a perfect film. The extrapolation’s a bit sloppy in places, the narrative occasionally inconsistent. I love, for example, the face-recognition specs that flash your net financial worth to any mall cop who crosses your path— but I’m skeptical that a social infrastructure with that level of casual surveillance would also let you extract two million dollars from a corner ATM by dragging an unconscious account-holder up to the keyboard and smushing their fingerprint onto the ID pad. And after seeing a security drone break up an after-hours Fight Club on the factory floor mere moments after it starts, I gotta wonder why none of those bots show up when Max gets into an extended knock-down-drag-out with an actual supervisor in the same building.

It’s important to note, though, that when I find something wanting in this series— something that can’t be obviously forgiven as a budgetary artefact— the fault I’m finding is that Haphead occasionally descends to the quality of Hollywood productions with Hollywood budgets. If the dialog is clunky now and then— as when a couple of generic bad guys loom and spout threatening clichés in the first few minutes, before fading away to make room for the main story— it’s still no worse than much of the dialog I’ve endured while catching up on “Person of Interest”. If some of the secondary characters don’t always hit their marks acting-wise, they still look pretty good next to some of the performances in a cult favorite like, say, Babylon 5. The only reason I grumble about them at all is because I hold Postopia Productions to a higher standard, teensy budget notwithstanding.

Personally I would've preferred Catworld. but to each his own.

Personally I would’ve preferred Cat World, but to each his own.

And in fact, most of the nits I’d pick pretty much do come down to budget. It’s impressive enough that Munroe’s modest funds were sufficient to render a high-altitude zoom from jet stream to worktable in a single continuous shot, or anchor a futuristic CGI shopping mall onto a real-world industrial park; I shouldn’t complain just because there weren’t enough customers in the parking lot. Ninja Bunny World looks curiously retro for a 2025 game environment, and a plot-critical piece of biotech seems a bit too advanced for the world we see on screen— but this is the price you pay for rendering macro concepts with modest funding. For me, the choice between rich-but-dumb vs. smart-but-poor is a no-brainer (granted, the existence of Michael Bay makes it pretty obvious that mine is a minority view). Still. Wouldn’t it be great to have that third option? Wouldn’t it be awesome to live in a world where smart-and-rich came along more often than a solar eclipse?

Wouldn’t it be great if this guy got some serious money behind him?

From troposphere to Table in one smooth shot. I would've built an animated gif showing the sequence, but I couldn't be bothered.

From troposphere to tabletop in one smooth shot. I would’ve built an animated gif showing the sequence, but I couldn’t be bothered.

 

Munroe continues to do wonders with the means at his disposal. Every time he’s up to bat, he hits the ball further. I don’t know what his next project is going to be (beyond, hopefully, another season of Haphead). I don’t know what kind of budget he’ll manage to put together. But the trend is unambiguous. One of these days— sooner rather than later, I’m thinking— Jim Munroe is going to hit it right out of the goddamn park.

Just like that battered menacing drone at the train station, I’m going to be watching him every step of the way.

 

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 33 Comments

What’s Wrong With This Picture.

A snapshot of the past work week:

Research, 5.6 hours. Interviews & columns, 1.4 hours. Blog and website, 3.8h (update: 4.5). Critiquing, 4 hours. Writing (nonfiction— I’ll tell you about it if it doesn’t get rejected), 18.7h. Writing (fiction), 0 hours.

Office work, mainly emails: 12.6 hours.

That’s a pretty-typical 46-hour work week, not counting 3.0 hours spent surfing porn (which is an underestimate overall, but 3.0 during the nine-to-five window anyway). Office work— finances, mailings, trying to figure out why I haven’t been paid for Firefall, but mostly e-mails— devours more time than anything else except actual writing-for-money, and it weighs in at two-thirds of that far-more-respectable activity. 12.6 hours on e-mails. Two work days, with lunch breaks.

If you look closely, you might see something else conspicuous in its absence: there’s no field for “genre reading”. I don’t mean science reading, or reading to research my own stupid books, or reading under a deadline because someone leaned on me for a blurb. I mean reading for actual goddamn pleasure and enlightenment. Reading to see what tricks my friends and colleagues and role models are up to these days. My writing has grown too inbred even though I’m surrounded by inspiration, whole bookshelves full of novels and stories acquired over the years but never read because some new bit of research was lighting up the feeds, or the column was due, or I’d already skipped running once this week and the plumpness was ratcheting up. That kind of reading. Because it doesn’t just shame me that the only novel I’ve read since the summer was The Martian: it diminishes me too, because I’m losing touch with the rest of the field. I’ve been losing touch for years.

I really need to make a change, and I need to do that before I dive into Intelligent Design.

In the meantime, I watch a lot of TV.

*

I blame you for that, actually. All of you. The people who insisted I shouldn’t have given up on “Agents of SHIELD” after three episodes, because it got really good just thirteen episodes later. Those who admit that sure, “Person of Interest” is formulaic and derivative and badly acted for the first couple of seasons, but if I just hang in there I’ll be treated to a first-rate, intellectually-challenging epic about bootstrapping AI. I blame you all, because my self-esteem issues make me very susceptible to peer pressure, and I’d much rather lay that responsibility on society than on me.

So I’m catching up on SHIELD and sure enough, it gets pretty good around the end of the first season before re-mediocrifying into the second. The BUG and I continue to plow through “Person of Interest”, waiting for some Person therein to become Interesting (when is that going to happen, by the way, and dear God why couldn’t it happen sooner?). “12 Monkeys” started off better than expected, and maintained that high bar right up until the second episode when we were shown a modern mental institution in which a patient— committed for presumably slashing a roomful of throats— is allowed to wander the halls with a scalpel, visiting and threatening other patients who are tied to their beds. Also an institution in which any inmate can apparently make it down into the basement sub-levels (and hence outside) if they’re at least sane enough to open an unlocked door with “This Way to Freedom” stenciled above the knob.

The return of “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” and “Orphan Black” all seem so far away, as distant as any star. Thank God Archer’s back, at least.

*

So this is the plan: allocate specific amounts to time for specific activities. Those emails that devour your whole day if you let them, then devour the next with replies to your replies? One hour, every morning. The blog, which all the Winds agree must be fed new material at least three times weekly to stave off being trampled  in the Darwinian meatgrinder of the Midlist Tubthumpathon? One. Hour. Per. Day. Five per week.

If an hour isn’t enough time to keep the emails in check— if they burst Thunderbird at the seams and spill pixels all over my desk— I’ll triage and amputate. (Some folks will have to make peace with the fact that I won’t always get back to them, and when I do I may not have had a chance to read the 50-page pdf on the lachrymal-gland secretions of Bonaparte’s Gulls they sent me.) If a blog post isn’t complete after an hour (and it never will be), I’ll just stop and pick it up the next day, and hope that by the time I finish the fucking thing it won’t be an antique.

Most importantly, I am going to read again. I am going to make the time. I am going to devote one day a week to Morgan and Miéville and Martel and a bunch of other authors whose names don’t even begin with M. I will force my gut to accept that pleasure does not equal unimportance. Henceforth, the mere fact that I enjoy reading will not give “enjoyable reading” the automatic short straw every time a deadline demands I chuck some lesser priority overboard. This is research, dammit. It will make me a better writer even if I don’t find it completely onerous.

Of course, in some ways this isn’t much of a change. My correspondence with many of you has been sporadic for years. Unanswered emails from 2010 still sit in my In box— you can never have too many unfinished tasks hanging over you, right?— but it’s been a long time since I entertained serious hopes of answering them. I’ve got several blog posts lying around in various states of completion— movie reviews, thoughts on time travel in popular culture (go see Predestination, by the way), little self-back-pats about vaguely βehemoth-like sulfur-munchers turning up under the Juan de Fuca Ridge, or hints of large potentially Big-Benian objects lurking undiscovered in the outer reaches of the solar system. (I’ve also been working on a strategy to reduce the number of unarmed civilians killed by police through the implementation of a randomized  tit-for-two-tats strategy of retributive cop-shooting, but I’m still trying to figure out if it’s possible to present such a thesis without being childishly naïve on the one hand or a reactionary asshole on the other.) When it comes to blog posts, the whole hour-a-day law seems great at producing fragments, but not so hot when it comes to finished product. Hell, I’ve had to go way over today’s hour just to get this fucking thing out the door.

Still, there’s something to be said for formalizing the approach. I’d actually planned on doing that before now— hell, I’d be long-since finished The Steel Remains if I’d booted the new schedule up on January 1 as originally planned. But you know. Things got in the way.

No longer. I will read more. I will write more. I will be a receptionist a lot less. Starting now, next week at the latest. Just as soon as I get my In-box down below thirty.

Anybody know when “Hannibal” returns?

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 47 Comments

Desperately Seeking Citation.

Can anyone point me to an anecdote about an introvert who manifested a sudden extrovertian personality change (cracking jokes, hitting on the nurses) when one of his cerebral hemispheres was anesthetized prior to brain surgery? I’m almost certain it hails from one of Ramachandran’s books, but I can’t find the damn thing and it’s relevant to a nonfiction piece that’s due next week.

(Yes, I’ve tried searching for keywords using Amazon’s “look inside” feature. No joy.)

Anyone?

Posted in: misc, neuro, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 15 Comments

Rollover

They say I'm in here.  Even though I'm not on the cover. Bastards.

They say I’m in here. Even though I’m not on the cover. Bastards.

So, here we are again. Another year.

The last one went decently enough, writing-wise at least. “The Colonel” got picked up for reprint both in Dozois’ Best SF 32 and in Allan Kaster’s Top Ten Tales of SF 7. “Collateral” made the ninth iteration of Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. I was actually a bit surprised at those choices— I thought “Giants” was more epic, and had more ideas and exotic weirdness than “Collateral” and “The Colonel” combined— but I’m not complaining.

Echopraxia seems to be doing okay too, all things considered. Ended up on some best-of lists (even the occasional non-genre one), even managed to sneak into some kind of Goodreadsian Top 25 SF/F/H tally, based on a formula whose underpinnings I’m willing to take on faith. Blindsight continued to do my translators proud, grabbing the Seiun and the Tähtivaeltaja; and in just-breaking news, I recently learned that its Bulgarian edition made the finals for something called the “Krastan Dyankov” Award for translated works. On the one hand, not a winner, just a finalist; on the other, though, the award itself is non-genre, and apparently this is the first time a genre book has made the finals for eight years. So there’s that.

So that was last year. What about this one?

greendesign2015

As it happens, I’ve made a few predictions for 2015. They’ve been posted over on a site called Inhabit.com. If you check out the opinions listed under “2015 Green Design Predictions“— scroll down past environmental superstar Bill McGibbon, the environmental activism of 360.org, the sustainable solutions of Autodesk and a handful of other forward-thinking entities— you’ll come to my own thoughts about what 2015 holds in store.

You collected data on this?  The boys in red serge would like a word with you...

You collected data on this? The boys in red serge would like a word with you…

You’ll notice that my predictions diverge somewhat from the others. For one thing, the other guys restrict themselves to predicting the future; I start off by predicting the past (which, I’ve learned, tends to return significantly higher bullseye count). Also the other soothsayers tend to be a bit— well, perky might be a good word. We’re going to “protect vulnerable areas” and “learn to build the way nature always has”; the climate justice movement will become “too powerful to ignore”.

I cover much the same territory, although I suggest it may be a lot easier to ignore voices which have already been silenced by an unexpected and previously-unknown strain of equine encephalitis. Or perhaps simply by RCMP officers kicking in your door after you’ve quantified the death toll attributable to Tar Sands development.

Don’t take it too seriously. I admit up front that I’m probably being a bit conservative in my predictions.

Ether way, though, we’re in for quite a year.

Yup.

Fellow scribe Jon Evans sent this to me yesterday. Random encounter on a subway. Oh, how I have longed for such a moment.

Fellow scribe Jon Evans sent this to me yesterday. Random encounter on a subway. Oh, how I have longed for such a moment.

Posted in: climate, interviews, scilitics, writing news by Peter Watts 66 Comments

Jewels and Cataracts: the Echopraxia Postmortem

Why yes, since you ask; I expect there will be a concluding volume to the Consciousnundrum series. I know how it begins: father and son (what’s left of them) finally reunite, decades after the fall of Icarus hit the world’s reset button. I know how it ends too, although I don’t want to spoil it for you. (I will admit that it won’t be quite as upbeat as my other endings.) I have only the vaguest idea what happens in between, but I can tell you that it involves whatever’s operating the undead carcass of Daniel Brüks, and the Bicamerals’ use of tweaked enzymes as a medium for prayer.

I’m calling it Omniscience. I don’t know exactly what the delivery platform might be: maybe traditional publishing, maybe crowdsourcing, maybe self-pubbing beyond the bounds of the pernicious Amazonian ecosystem and hoping for the best. I haven’t even bothered pitching it yet. But I do expect to write it, one way or another. There’s more to this story; elements of the first two books dovetail in a way that points towards a conclusion I never consciously planned—didn’t even see— until after Echopraxia was already out the door. It’s kind of meta if you think about it, which is at least one reason to go ahead with it.

Another reason is to try and get and get it right this time.

*

GoodreadsIt’s not that the last outing went wrong, exactly. In terms of reviews—both reader and traditional— I actually got off easier than I expected. I knew it would be pretty much impossible to deliver a focused thematic Blindsight-scale gut-punch twice in a row, I knew that playing with multiple cool ideas wouldn’t match the impact of a single mind-blowing one. Echopraxia wasn’t ever going to escape the shadow of its predecessor. So I downsized my hopes. I’d settle for people thinking this was a good or (preferably) a very good book, even if it didn’t shatter anyone’s worldview. Echopraxia could be 2010 to Clarke’s 2001, Count Zero to Gibson’s Neuromancer[1].

By that measure, I should be happy. I should be downright ecstatic; a lot of people are actually saying that Echopraxia is as good as Blindsight (or even better). Traditional reviews from the usual suspects are, if anything, better than for the first book (Kirkus, whose praise for my work has generally been leavened with grumbles, just pulled out all the stops and raved this time around). The Goodreads graph is more in line with expectation, showing a strong preference for 4- over 5-star reviews (compared to the slight 4-over-5 preference in Blindsight‘s case), but the mean score is statistically identical (technically 0.01 star less, but P>0.6). It wasn’t loved as much or reviled as much, but it was “liked” by a greater proportion of the overall audience. (Actually, the spread is almost identical to that for Starfish, which was hardly a flop.)

And over on Amazon— against all expectation— Echopraxia is kicking Blindsight‘s ass by almost half a star, 4.4 to 4.0. Even given the fact that Blindsight has over three times as many ratings, that’s highly significant (P<0.002). Echopraxia pulls in twice as many 5-star ratings on Amazon as all its other scores combined: 84% of readers gave it 4 or 5 stars.

AmazonThere’s a general pattern to reader reviews that I’ve mentioned before. Normally you expect initial scores to be really high as hardcore fans, favorably disposed, snatch up the first copies and comment early. Mean score thereafter declines as the wider audience, with less of a positive bias, weigh in at their leisure. For Echopraxia that happened at Goodreads— but not at Amazon. It’s been four months and Echopraxia‘s mean Amazon rating remains pretty much where it was at the outset. Maybe that means that people who write Amazon reviews really do prefer Echopraxia. Maybe it means the wider audience never even got to Echopraxia, and that stellar score only suggests that nobody read the book except hardcore fans. (I was warned this would happen, back when I insisted on “Echopraxia” for a title. The sales people won’t know what it means, my then-editor told me. They won’t know how to pronounce it. Rather than risk embarrassment during a pitch call to distributers, they’ll just ignore it entirely in favor of books with simpler titles.  Maybe this is the price I pay for sticking to my guns.)

Anyway. There’s no shortage of readers on either site who think that Echopraxia is the best thing I’ve ever written. In fact, in some ways it’s received too much critical adulation; when a book starts getting raves from men’s rights groups and climate change deniers, you begin to wonder what went so horribly right.

And yet I am bummed.

I am bummed because other readers aren’t just meh, but deeply disappointed. Some people waited eight long years for a follow-up, only to get something that fell short in every way: less characterization, less plot, less depth, less focus. Less point.

Of course, Blindsight was bound to have had an easier time if for no other reason than that there was no other book to compare it to. Even if the two books were of empirically identical quality, human variability dictates that some will prefer one and some the other. So why worry about those inevitable naysayers when the overall response is actually better than I’d hoped?

Basically, because I’m afraid they may be right. I was afraid of that before I even started writing the damn thing.

They’re not right about everything, mind you. Some hold, for example, that Echopraxia is plotless next to Blindsight. But when I put Echopraxia next to Blindsight, I see one book that spends its first half in conversation and setup, basically “My Dinner with André” in a tin can— while the other hits the ground with a vampire uprising, a desert war with zombies and a weaponized tornado, a bioengineered plague and an close escape into space, followed by an immediate jump-cut to an attack on a spaceship from without and a vampire playing cat-and-mouse within. I see one book with a single team and a single purpose up against a single antagonist— and another where everybody and their dog has their own agenda, each exploiting the others in a weird game of posthuman chess. If I had to pick one of those books to call plotless, it sure as shit wouldn’t be Echopraxia.

The problem, I think, is not lack of plot; it’s lack of clarity. You can see it in some of the complaints: oh, lots of stuff happens, people admit. Shit blows up real good. But it never seems to converge on anything with a point. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

It does signify stuff, of course. There is a point, but these readers aren’t seeing it. And I can only assume they’re not seeing it because I fucked up the delivery.

Too many people never got a good sense of what was going on. Even many of those who absolutely adore Echopraxia admit that it is a “difficult” book, that they frequently had to reread certain passages, that they’ll probably need to read the whole book again— perhaps after revisiting Blindsight— to really understand what happened.

This should not be necessary.

It’s true that I deliberately constructed Echopraxia to reward multiple passes. It’s also true that a certain level of reader confusion was built into its DNA, for the simple reason that posthuman motives are going to be at least partially opaque to baselines by definition. But no one was supposed to leave the party confused. My goal was to have various motives and agendas gradually resolve through the haze, and then— as we joined Daniel Brüks back in the desert— to be able to say Hmmm, the Bicams could be doing thus or they could be doing so. Valerie’s actions are consistent with either Scenario A or B. Don’t really know which at this stage, but it could work either way…

In other words, you weren’t supposed to wonder what was going on. You were supposed to know what was going on, and wonder what it meant.

I think there are two problems here. The first is that I don’t like fiction that talks down to me, that assumes a reader/viewer so damn dumb that every plot point has to be hammered home repeatedly. (Looking at you, “Interstellar“. Also “Extant”. And especially SyFy’s recent “Ascension”, which took expository dead-horse-beating to a level I never thought possible.) I have taken a solemn oath never to insult my own readers that way. With Echopraxia, I think I may have overcompensated.

The other problem is related, but distinct. I think it was Asimov who once compared prose to windows. Some authors, he said— like Asimov himself— wrote in a style devoid of flourishes or lyricism, telling the story in a just the facts, ma’am kinda way. This is your standard clear-window prose; you don’t appreciate it, you don’t even notice it, but at least you’ve got a clear view of what’s going down on the other side. Others (Samuel Delany and China Miéville come to mind) write “stained-glass-window” prose: the words contain a kind of beauty in the way they’re put together, they draw attention to their own construction and invite whistles of admiration. The only problem with stained-glass windows is, the more ornate the pane, the tougher it is to see what’s on the other side.

I like stained-glass writing. In hindsight, maybe I like it too much. Basically I need a more ruthless editor (which is unlikely to happen, given that this particular project had three different editors attached to it over the years, none of whom had anything to say about the first three-hundred-and-some pages of a 400-page manuscript.) Failing that, I really need to dial back the narrative bling.

I hope to make progress on both fronts with my next novel. Maybe the themes will be simpler. Maybe I’ll just be more condescending in my exploration of them. Either way, I’ve decided to stop being smart for a while, and try to be popular instead. Then— once I’ve learned the difference between jeweled prose and cataracts— I can take a run at Omniscience. With a little discipline it could be the best of the three.

Wish me luck. See you next year.


[1] I actually liked Count Zero better than Neuromancer. But you know what I mean.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 84 Comments

Squids With Tasers.

A simple experiment, a famous fish. Electric eels, shocking their prey. Nothing to see here, right?

“The mechanism of the eel’s attack is unknown”, Kenneth Catania states right off the top in his new paper in Science, and I admit I shrugged and thought What’s to know? What’s so mysterious about electrocution?

But it turns out there’s a subtlety, a nuance to Electrophorus electricus’s attacks that nobody suspected until now. (Yes, Electrophorus. Not only does this fish have the powers of a Marvel superhero, she’s got a name that’s every bit as hokey.)

Electric eels hunt kind of like this.

“A signal, Commander!” “We have him. Move toward him.”
Electric eels hunt kind of like this.

Catania’s experimental setup was surprisingly low-tech: basically, coax an eel into firing her weapons by feeding her worms, while monitoring neuromuscular activity inside pithed fish placed nearby (but still deep in the shock zone). It yielded some very nifty insights, though. For one thing, Electrophorus doesn’t just use her superpower to kill prey; she uses it to detect that prey beforehand. She sends a low-voltage tickle through the water that mimics fish-motor-neuron commands, tricks her victim’s muscles into a twitch response. The prey jerks; that movement generates a pressure wave that the eel can lock onto (think of sharks, drawn to the signature thrashing of wounded prey; think of a submarine, patiently pinging for enemy contacts). Only then, with her target in the crosshairs, does Electrophorus fire the big guns: packs of modified muscle tissue punching 600 volts through the water, turning the target into one big clenching charlie-horse to be scooped up at leisure.

We’re not just talking about muscles frying in an electrical field, or just sticking your tongue into a light socket. This is far more sophisticated. The muscle contractions don’t occur unless the motor neurons controlling them are active. It’s the neurons, not the muscles, that are being targeted. What we have here is a strategy that precisely and remotely hacks the prey’s nervous system, planting an explicit self-destruct command that throws the whole body into tetanus.

From Catania 2004.

If you don’t find this deeply cool, you shouldn’t be reading this blog. And if I can’t find a way to use this, then I shouldn’t be writing it.

Fortunately I can think of two ways. This remote-firing of neurons reminds me of the “ephaptic coupling” some of you may have noticed in Echopraxia‘s endnotes, in which neurons are induced to fire not by direct synaptic stimulation but by diffuse electrical fields generated elsewhere in the brain. I invoked it as a mechanism for the Bicameral hive-mind interface— but this whole eel-zap strategy could serve a similar function if harnessed for good instead of evil (especially if the Hive happens to be hanging out in a hot tub). So maybe Electrophorus will get a walk-on part in Omniscience.

That’s small potatoes, though. Regular visitors will know that my next novel (as things stand now, at least) is going to involve genetically-engineered giant squids attacking Petrocan wellheads in a melting Arctic. They already pack some cool modifications: kidneys that double as batteries, generating current along the ionic gradient in the nephridium. Weird membranous structures, like some kind of diffuse body-spanning eardrum tuned way down to the 5Hz range: an organic acoustic modem, sensitive to low-frequency rumbles that could cross an ocean.

Would it not be awesome to equip them also with remote neuron-hacking battery packs that could take down— or even better, commandeer—other life forms at 200 meters?

Squids with tasers. I’m telling you, Intelligent Design is looking better and better.

Interstellar and my Inner Anti-Abortionist.

Let’s start this review by warning you all that major spoilers follow. Then let’s talk about abortion.

If I squint really hard, I can sort of see how someone possessed of a belief in an immortal soul— and further, that it slides down the chute the moment some lucky sperm achieves penetration— might hold an antiabortion stance on the grounds that they’re protecting Sacred Human Life. What I can’t see is how that stance would be in any way compatible with actively denying the means to prevent such life from being jeopardized in the first place. And yet— assuming the stats haven’t changed since I last looked in on them— the majority of those who unironically refer to themselves as “pro-Life” not only oppose abortion, but birth control and sex education as well.

You can’t reasonably describe such a suite of beliefs as “pro Life”. You can’t even reasonably describe them as “anti-abortion”. What they are is anti-sex. These people just don’t want us fucking except under their rules, and if we insist on making our own we should damn well pay the price. We deserve that STD. We should be forced to carry that pregnancy to term, to give up the following two decades of our lives— not because new life is a sacred and joyous thing, but because it is onerous and painful, a penalty for breaking the rules. We should suffer. We should live to regret our wanton animalistic shortsightedness. It is galling to think that we might just skip gaily off into the sunset, postcoitally content, unburdened by the merest shred of guilt. There should be consequences.

Movies like Interstellar serve as an uncomfortable reminder that maybe I have more in common with those assholes than I’d like to admit.

*

In a market owned by genre, where every second movie is crammed to the gills with spaceships and aliens (or, at the very least, plucky young protagonists dishing out Truth to Power), Interstellar aspires to inspire.  It explicitly sets out to follow in the footsteps of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It wants to make you think, and wonder.

It succeeds, too. It makes me wonder how it could fall so far short of a movie made half a century ago.

This is not to say that Interstellar is a bad movie. It actually has significantly more on the ball than your average 21rst-century genre flick (although granted, that’s a much lower bar to clear than the one Kubrick presented). The dust-bowl vistas of a dying Earth evoke the sort of grim desolation we used to get from John Brunner’s environmental dytopias, and— most of the time, anyway—  Interstellar shows a respect for science comparable to that evident in Gravity and 2001.

This part was pretty cool.

This part was pretty cool.

Admittedly, my delight at seeing space presented as silent has more to do with the way decades of Hollywood crap have hammered down my own expectations than it does with any groundbreaking peaks of verisimilitude; it’s not as though every school kid doesn’t know there’s no sound in a vacuum. On the other hand, the equations Interstellar‘s FX team used to render the lensing effects around Gargantua, the movie’s black hole— equations derived by theoretical physicist-and-science-consultant Kip Thorne— have provided the basis for at least one astrophysics paper here in the real world, an accomplishment that would make Arthur C. Clarke jealous. The hole was carefully parameterized to let our protags do what the plot required without being spaghettified or cooked by radiation. The physics of space travel and Gargantua’s relativistic extremes are, I’m willing to believe, plausibly worked out.  So much of the science seems so much better than we have any right to expect from a big-budget blockbuster aimed at the popcorn set.

Why, then, does the same movie that gets the physics of event horizons right also ask us to believe that icebergs float unsupported in the clouds of alien worlds? How can the same movie that shows such a nuanced grasp of the gravity around black holes serve up such a face-palming portrayal of gravity around planets? And even if we accept the premise of ocean swells the size of the Himalayas (Thorne himself serves up some numbers that I’m sure as shit not going to dispute), wouldn’t such colossal formations be blindingly obvious from orbit? Wouldn’t our heroes have seen them by just looking out the window on the way down?  How dumb do you have to be to let yourself get snuck up on by a mountain range?

Almost as dumb, perhaps, as you’d be to believe that “love” is some kind of mysterious cosmic force transcending time and space, even though you hold a doctorate in biology.

"Love is a— you're joking, right? Please tell me you're fucking joking.

“Love is a— you’re joking, right? Please tell me you’re fucking joking.”

You’re probably already aware of the wails and sighs that arose from that particular gaffe. Personally, I didn’t find it as egregious as I expected—at least Amelia Brand’s inane proclamation was immediately rebutted by Cooper’s itemization of the mundane social-bonding functions for which “love” is a convenient shorthand. It was far from a perfect exchange, but at least the woo did not go unchallenged. What most bothered me about that line— beyond the fact that anyone with any scientific background could deliver it with a straight face— was the fact that it had to be delivered by Anne Hathaway. If we’re going to get all mystic about the Transcendent Power of Lurve, could we a least invert the cliché a bit by using a male as the delivery platform?

The world that contains Interstellar is far more competent than the story it holds. It was built by astrophysicists and engineers, and it is a thing of wonder. The good ship Endurance, for example, oozes verisimilitude right down to the spin rate. Oddly, though, the same movie also shows us a civilization over a century into the future— a whole species luxuriating in the spacious comfort of a myriad O’Neil cylinders orbiting Saturn— in which the medical technology stuck up Murphy Cooper’s nose hasn’t changed its appearance since 2012. (Compare that to 2001, which anticipated flatscreen tech so effectively that it got cited in Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung half a century later.) (Compare it also to Peter Hyam’s inferior sequel 2010, in which Discovery‘s flatscreens somehow devolved back into cathode-ray-tubes during its decade parked over Io.)

Why such simultaneous success and failure of technical extrapolation in the same movie? I can only assume that the Nolans sought out expert help to design their spaceships, but figured their own vision would suffice for the medtech. Unfortunately, their vision isn’t all it could be.

This is the heart of the problem.  Interstellar soars when outsourced; only when the Nolans do something on their own does it suck. The result is a movie in which the natural science of the cosmos is rendered with glorious mind-boggling precision, while the people blundering about within it are morons.  NASA happens to be set up just down the road from the only qualified test pilot on the continent— a guy who’s friends with the Mission Director, for Chrissakes— yet nobody thinks to just knock on his door and ask for a hand. No, they just sit there through years of R&D until cryptic Talfamadorians herd Cooper into their clutches by scribbling messages in the dirt.  Once the mission finally achieves liftoff,  Endurance‘s crew can’t seem to take a dump without explaining to each other what they’re doing and why. (Seriously, dude? You’re a bleeding-edge astronaut on a last-ditch Humanity-saving mission through a wormhole, and you didn’t even know what a wormhole looked like until someone explained it to you while you were both staring at the damn thing through your windshield?)

You could argue that the Nolans don’t regard their characters as morons so much as they regard us that way; some of this might  be no more than clunky infodumping delivered for our benefit.  If so, they apparently think we’re just as dumb about emotional resonance and literary allusion as we are about the technical specs on black holes.  Michael Caine has to hammer home the same damn rage against the dying of the light stanza on three separate occasions, just in case it might slip under our radar.

And yet, Interstellar came so close in some ways.  The sheer milk-out-the-nose absurdity of a project to lift billions of people off-planet turns out to be, after all, just a grand lie to motivate short-sighted human brain stems— until Murphy Cooper figures out how to do it for real after all.  Amelia Brand’s heartbroken, irrational description of love as some kind of transcendent Cosmic Force, invoked in a desperate bid to reunite with her lost lover and instantly shot down by Cooper’s cooler intellect—  until Cooper encounters the truth of those idiot beliefs in the heart of a black hole.  Time and again, Interstellar edges toward the Cold Equations, only to chicken out when the chips are down.

*

But the thing that most bugs me about this movie— the thing that comes closest to offending me, although I can’t summon anywhere near that much intensity— was something I knew going in, because it’s right there in the tag line on every advance promo, every Coming-Soon poster:

The end of the Earth will not be the end of us.

 Or

Mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here.

Or

We were not meant to save the Earth.  We were meant to leave it.

Which all comes down to

Let’s trash the place, then skip out and stick everyone else with the bill.

Check your technosapiens privilege, asshole.

Check your technosapiens privilege, asshole.

This is where I finally connect with my inner antiabortionist.  Because I, too, think you should pay for your sins. I think that if you break it, you damn well own it; and if your own short-sighted stupidity has killed off your life-support system, it’s only right and proper that that you suffer, that you sink into the quagmire along with the other nine million species your appetites have condemned to extinction. There should be consequences.

And yet, even in the face of Interstellar‘s objectionable political stance— baldly stated, unquestioned, and unapologetic—  I can only bristle, not find fault. Because this is perhaps the one time the Nolan sibs got their characters right.  Shitting all over the living room rug and leaving our roommates to deal with the mess? That’s exactly what we’d do, if we could get away with it.

Besides. When all is said and done, this was still a hell of a lot better than Prometheus.

Posted in: ink on art, reviews by Peter Watts 93 Comments

David and the Goliaths.

Perhaps the saddest, most telling indictment of our current political administration is that even after the drone strikes, the executive murders, the ongoing suppression of torture reports, the all-engulfing phagocytosis of the surveillance state— basically, a Human Rights record so abysmal that even Dubya might flush with shame—  we Canadians can still look south of the border and wish we were led by the likes of Barack Obama.

At least Obama doesn’t muzzle his own scientists. At least his administration doesn’t strangle research programs in the crib on ideological grounds, or fight tooth and nail against the slightest effort to mitigate climate change (he has Congress to do that for him). At least Obama has the balls and the fluency to weather interviews that extend beyond the comfy restrictions of tightly-scripted photo ops.

There is, however, at least one area in which The US and Canadian governments see eye to eye. The US wants to extort money from Canadian citizens. The Harper administration wants to help them do that.

You can tell both of them to take a flying fuck at a rolling donut, if you’re so inclined.

*

Somewhere between one and two decades ago— in the midst of a relationship which has long-since ended— I first met Gwen and Kevin, a couple who were friends with my then-partner.  If you ran into them on the street you’d figure they were almost too good to be true; co-owners of a successful graphics design company they ran out of their home, both smart, both ridiculously charismatic. Gwen was hot; Kevin looked like a Navy Seal from a martial arts movie.

We called them “Gwevin”.

I fell out of touch when my partner and I split up— the last time I ran into Gwevin was at a book launch way back in 2008. We caught up a bit, friended each other on facebook, mutually liked the occasional link. That was about it. For the next six years I had no idea what either of them was up to.

That changed last summer, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

*

Like any fading imperial power, the US has a tendency to bite off more than it can chew. After a global meltdown precipitated by the deregulation of their financial institutions, a couple of unnecessary wars that continue to go about as well as could  be expected, and an ongoing smattering of police actions designed to plaster over the resulting cracks in the middle east, the royal treasury is apparently running a bit low. There are a couple of ways The IRS can boost tax revenues to make this up. They could, for example, stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, or increase taxes on the 0.1%. Alternatively, they can redefine as “US Persons” a bunch of unsuspecting little people who’ve lived their whole lives in other countries, then present them with a bill for taxes owed stretching all the way back to the fucking Paleolithic.

Guess which option they chose.

*

I first started paying attention to this in early 2014, when my eye was caught by the anomalous fact of the CBC and the Global & Mail actually agreeing on something. Turns out the NSA hasn’t quite got the whole global surveillance thing down pat just yet. They’re not up for extracting the private financial records of Canadian citizens on their own— or maybe they are, but it’s just easier to order our banks to hand over their lunch money on threat of getting the shit beaten out of them. In this case, said shit-kicking comes down to punitive financial penalties on all US activities if the banks don’t play ball, enshrined in a piece of legislation called FATCA. Two governments push; the banks go over like a pile of bricks; Harper’s henchmen collect the financial records of a few million private citizens and, tail wagging vigorously, passes it all on to Uncle Sam.

Lest you think that we’re only talking about a few rich Americans hiding out in Yellowknife to avoid the taxman, let me disabuse you: we’re talking about anyone the IRS defines as a “US Person”. That does include rich tax evaders, of course. It also includes children born in US hospitals to Canadian parents, even if those children never subsequently set foot south of the 49th. It includes people who were not born in the US and who never lived there, so long as they were pupped by Americans. In includes the Canadian spouses of Americans. Hell, my Dad— born, raised, and retired in Canada— might have been caught up in that net if he was still alive. My late brother, a US citizen, handled Dad’s finances in his declining years, and any citizen who has such financial connections with a US citizen becomes— you guessed it— a “US Person”.

A lot of these poor bastards didn’t know they were US people. It never occurred to them. A lot probably still don’t. Those waking up to demands for a few decades of back tax returns can, if they want, renounce their default US Citizenship.  Only catch is, the IRS has— coincident with the implementation of this new policy—  just jacked up the processing fees from four hundred dollars and change to well over two thousand. Then you have to file five years of back tax returns anyway, and six years of foreign bank account data on all accounts exceeding ten grand; those fees can cost you up to twenty grand. IRS demands capital gains tax on your Canadian home. Canadian retirement plans? Taxed. And you could face up to ten years in jail just for failing to file the paperwork.

One way or another, those fuckers are gonna squeeze you.

This past summer I read about a couple of women who’d launched a legal challenge on constitutional grounds— not to the US policy per sé, but to the Harper government’s eager collaboration therewith. These people took a dim view of the idea that foreign governments should be able to dictate the domestic policy of other countries, even if those countries are lapdogs. (The fact that the US has been routinely doing just that for generations is beside the point.) These people were of the opinion that FATCA violated the Constitution as well as the privacy of Canadian citizens. I had no idea who they were— I got the impression that at least one of them was keeping anonymous for fear of bureaucratic reprisal— but I wished them well. It was only a few days ago, when one of them gave me a nudge on facebook, that I finally blinked away the cobwebs.

Hello, Gwenny.

*

David and Goliath doesn’t even come close. It might, if Gwen Deegan and Ginny Hillis were only going up against the one federal government they’re taking to court. But there’s another  Goliath lurking in the shadows, vaster and darker and so much more dangerous than the pallid spiteful fish-faced lapdog yapping on its behalf.  This is David and the Goliaths, and holy shit is it going to cost.

These people need your help. They need your money. I’m giving them some of mine, and I implore you to go thou and do likewise. In exchange— just maybe, acting together— we can kill two turds with one stone.

Wouldn’t it be glorious, to see the good guys win for a change?

Posted in: rant, scilitics by Peter Watts 30 Comments

Shapeshifter.

My most recently published story, a bit of neouromil  that appears in Neil Clarke’s cyborg anthology Upgraded, contains the following passage:

Monahan had inventoried Sabrie’s weak spots as if he’d been pulling the legs off a spider. …  Not into performance rage, doesn’t waste any capital getting bent out of shape over random acts of microaggression. Smart enough to save herself for the big stuff. Which is why she still gets to soapbox on the prime feeds while the rest of the rabies brigade fights for space on the public microblogs.

A couple of phrases— “performance rage”, “rabies brigade”— were consciously inspired by my 2012 dust-up with an online shapeshifter who, at that point in her career anyway, went by the names “AcrackedMoon” and “Requires Hate”. At the time I got a fair bit of blowback for my use of the phrase “rabid animal” to describe her; Cat Valente equated my use of that term with a death threat, slung against a woman who was, she told me, “vibrantly engaging” with the SFF community. (There is an irony to this; its magnitude will be old news to most of those assembled here today.)

RequiresHate and Me, Together Again.

RequiresHate and Me, Together Again.

Funny story.  The piece immediately preceding mine in that same anthology was penned by a bright new up-and-comer named Benjanun Sriduangkaew: lauded in progressive SF circles, Campbell Award nominee, by her own admission a newcomer to the field who hadn’t even dipped a toe into the genre prior to 2011. Bright of eye, bushy of tail, her biggest flaw seemed to be a disposition so sugary sweet it would rot your pancreas from thirty paces.

Turns out Benjanun Sriduangkaew and CrackedMoon/RequiresHate are the same person. So are Winterfox, pyrofennec, and Christ knows how many other online personae.

Benjanun-This-Week has been very busy over a number of years, wearing a number of guises. She has stalked, harassed, and threatened. Some of her actions have proven actionable, to the point that authorities are now apparently involved.  She drove at least one person to attempt suicide, has induced PTSD symptoms in a number of others. She has told people who disagree with her that they should be raped by dogs, dismembered, and/or have acid thrown in their faces. She habitually deleted these comments shortly after making them, then gaslighted her targets (fortunately there are archives, and screenshots).

She got caught last month— outed by an advocate in a self-declared act of damage control—  and has since “apologized”. Apparently all that prior nastiness was just youthful indiscretion during the thirteen years when she was nineteen, and is now ancient history.  She feels much better now. She’s learned a lot about love. So if you’ll just believe her good intentions and let her get on with her career, we can all let bygones be bygones.  Also I have some farmland to sell you on the Sea of Storms.

The initial outing raised a bit of a storm in its own right, but it was only the opening act. The curtain on the main event went up November 6, when engineer and author Laura J. Mixon posted a comprehensive report— amazingly comprehensive, given RH’s tendency to cover her own tracks— drawing together records from as many varied incarnations as we know of to date.  Mixon presents timelines, quotes, links, demographic breakdowns of RH’s targets. Bar graphs and pie charts and tables. It’s a trove, and it’s indispensable, and it contains a wealth of links to a variety of other sources. (For that reason, I’ll be relatively sparse with my own linkage in this post.  Just go to Mixon’s page and follow the spiderweb of cracks proliferating across the internet. If I make a claim here that isn’t link-supported, you’ll probably find the documentation over at Mixon’s place.)

Mixon offered her comments section as a safe place for people to speak about their own experiences with the Winterfox Colony Creature. My own case was cited a couple of times (as one of the few honest reflections of RH’s true nature, since she couldn’t employ her usual strategy of deleting her comments and then denying she’d ever made them). I haven’t posted there myself. Partly this is because Mixon wanted to maintain an environment free of angry epithets and name-calling, even when directed at RequiresHate, and I’m not in the mood to practice such charitable restraint. More importantly, though, I don’t think it’s really my place to speak there because I’m not one of RH’s victims. I was a minor target for a while, but only because I spoke out in defense of a colleague. RH didn’t even know who I was until I mentioned her on my own blog. I was, as they say, asking for it.

The blowback pissed me off, at the time. I readily admit that much.  It pissed me off to see Valente blatantly misrepresent what I’d said, it pissed me off to get a lecture on the  power imbalance between Powerful White Authors and Poor Vulnerable Fans in a world where five minutes with Google reveals my home address to any anonymous darling who wants to take a rusty meathook to my scrotum.  (Being called a racist by someone who publicly rhapsodizes about “killing all white people”, on the other hand, was just funny.) Caitlin will attest that I wasn’t very nice to be around sometimes.

Still, anger isn’t injury. I wasn’t victimized, wasn’t driven from the field. If the righteous outrage of RH’s minions cost me any sales, I didn’t notice it. On balance it may have even been a good thing; at the very least, episodes like that show you who your friends are. (Richard Morgan, for one: a truly honorable dude who dived into the muck and engaged RH on her own blog, something I never had the stomach for.)  (You also learn about the fair-weather opportunists in your life; turns out there were a few of those, too.)

I was targeted, but I wasn’t a primary target. And that’s the curious thing: not even Scott Bakker was a primary target, not when you came right down to it. What both of us probably were, it turns out, was camouflage. We privileged white dudes provided cover so that RequiresHate could go after her real victims: Minorities. People of Color. Aspiring writers. People who, to put not too fine a point on it, might be considered competitors of one Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

It is at this point one has to stand back and emit an appreciative whistle for the sheer sick sociopathic brilliance of Benjanun’s Long Con.

Go, if you haven’t already. Look at Mixon’s figures. See for yourself.  The fact that RH occasionally went after the Bakkers and Bacigalupis of the world let her claim that she was Speaking Truth To Power, but in fact People of Color were four times more likely to be targeted than us privileged white boys.  Four times more likely to be hounded across every social media site they appeared at over months, sometimes years. More likely to be told that they should have acid thrown in their faces, or raped by dogs, or have their hands cut off.  A lot more likely to be considered insufficiently Asian, or “white on the inside”.  (Although to be fair, arguing that Paolo Bacigalupi should be flayed, dismembered, immersed in acid, set alight, and forced to eat his own genitals goes to show that RH wasn’t exactly phoning in her assault on the big names, either).

Now go read the comments below the report (461 as I write this). Read the first-hand testimonials of people hounded relentlessly for the crime of liking a book that RH didn’t. Read about the blackmail and the death threats. Read the stories of those who left fandom entirely, abandoned their own authorial aspirations, dared not speak out for fear of catching the baleful Eye of a CrackedMoon. People who could barely even see the word “Requires” on a computer screen without feeling sick to their stomach.

Those are your targets.

It’s been suggested that if RH really is a sociopath, she can’t be held accountable for her behavior because it’s hardwired. This is factually wrong. Sociopaths are not compelled to do horrible things. They’re simply not constrained from doing those things by anything we’d recognize as a conscience. They can choose to hurt the innocent, or not to; the fundamental difference between them and us is, if they choose the former it won’t really bother them.

As I mentioned above, I caught some flack back in 2012 for referring to RH as a “rabid animal”. I intended it as a precise echo of the sort of invective RH was slinging at others for no good reason (in fact the very next sentence was “See what I did there,” followed by an explicit rumination on dehumanising terminology)— but in hindsight I do regret my use of the term. Rabies victims truly do have no choice; their foamy-mouthed aggression is compelled by their affliction. RH is clearly not in that camp. I apologize to all rabid animals for the comparison.

Anyway. The news has spread like Ebolaphobia. It’s on too many blogs to link to. It’s all over the Westeros boards.  It’s also being discussed behind the scenes, in online writers communities where the shell-shocked share their stories behind closed doors— because even now, they don’t feel safe speaking openly.

Requires Hate still has friends, you see. Her legions have thinned somewhat as former allies scramble to cover their asses but she still has supporters, even if they might not all describe themselves as such. Some grumble at ground level, some huddle all the way up in the hallowed halls of Tor.com (where apparently they helped to blacklist and exclude authors of whom RH disapproved). [Editorial clarification: it’s been pointed out that this might be construed as an indictment  of Tor.com as an entity entire. I’d like to make it super clear that I’m only talking about someone affiliated with Tor.com, not any kind of corporate policy.  I have no reason to believe that Tor.com blacklisted anyone; we’re talking a standard bad-apple scenario here. Again, check out Mixon’s post for details, and apologies if I wasn’t clear on that point.) The usual outgroup rhetoric continues, oddly oblivious to the recent stark evidence of where such groupthink leads; Mixon’s  analysis has even been questioned on the grounds that it was performed by a privileged white woman. Apologists still mill about, decapitated since RH went to ground but still sparking fitfully with the same reflex-arc clichés.

Some would have us draw a distinction between RH’s abuses and her “legitimate” literary critiques, as if somehow there might remain a kernel of edible corn buried in all the shit. They don’t seem bothered by the fact that said “reviews” were often based on publisher’s blurbs, or quotes mined and presented out of context; I guess they’re also cool with the fact that RH bragged openly about not having read the books she critiqued.  It’s increasingly evident that book reviews for their own sake were never part of the plan anyway; they were just another bile-delivery platform, another iteration of patterned abuse extending back years before she ever discovered the joys of hacking social-justice paradigms for fun and profit— repurposed, now, to take out the competition. Perhaps a valid insight did slip through every now and then; as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Others opine that RH, wearing her saccharine new Benjanun costume, should continue to get her stories published based solely on their literary merit. (Let’s put aside for the moment that “merit” exists at least partly in relation to other work in the same field, a metric which might be compromised after said field has been burned to the ground in a campaign to eliminate potential competitors.) I’ll admit that there is sometimes a case to be made for separating the art from the artist.  This is not one of those times. This is not a case of a brilliant writer who happens to be an abusive shitstain in some unrelated aspect of their personal life; this is someone being an abusive shitstain as a deliberate strategy to further her writing career. Arguing that that career should be decoupled from past abuses is like catching the guy who stole your car, then letting him keep it because you like the way he drives.

Still others mourn the enablers, revile RH but sympathize with the eager minions she recruited in her campaign of abuse and intimidation. Not their fault, we’re told; RH merely hacked the progressive paradigm of “punching up”, turned it to evil instead of good. And after all, she made some good points.

I fell for this myself, briefly: back in 2012, when a couple of ‘crawl regulars ran the “some good points” argument up the flagpole. So I dialed back my rhetoric, asked you all to do the same, even tried to engage RH directly until she sprang the trap. But even I figured it out after a day or two, and I live in a nerdly bubble way over in the Science-is-Cool wing of the SFF mansion (which might be a problem; maybe I should get out more). I hardly ever stray across the quad to Social Commentary, where everyone’s presumably way more familiar with these moves.

“Punching up”? The premise, to me, seems corrupt at its heart. If someone walks into a pub and swings a crowbar at the first person they see, it doesn’t matter which one of them is a poor queer WoC and which is a rich straight white dude. It doesn’t matter whether the assailant is punching up, out, or down; they’ve got no claim to outrage if the target punches back. (Note this only applies if the targeting algorithm lights up indiscriminately, based solely on demographic profile. If you’re targeting the specific rich straight white dude who assaulted you the day before, I won’t get in your way.)

Apparently, RH was adept at positioning herself “below” pretty much anyone she wanted to punch. She’d deride a target as being white, and therefore privileged/punchable.  If the target turned out to be Asian, RH would redefine herself as “Asian-Asian” and her target as “white inside”. (I’m not joking. I know it sounds like I am. Read Mixon’s post.) It’s a fundamental weakness in the concept— you can always punch up if you win the race to the bottom— and I’m not sure how much sympathy I should have for people who fall for something like that. If you buy into the cult of some Nigerian Prince you met on the Internet, maybe you shouldn’t expect much support when you end up with egg on your face and a zero credibility balance— especially if you got that way by abusing people who didn’t deserve it, or by being complicit in their abuse.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve read endless lamentations about the sundering effect that Requires Hate has had on the “SFF community”. I wonder if there ever was such a thing; I don’t see a “community” so much as a bunch of squabbling tribes forced to share the same watering hole. That’s how she did it, for crying out loud: by exploiting those pre-existing fracture lines, by setting different tribes at each other’s throats.  If SFF were truly a community, would one sociopathic pissant have been able to wreak such havoc?

Blame Benjanun Sriduangkaew, by all means. She deserves it. But she didn’t do it alone. She’s not a sorcerer, she didn’t use any Jedi mind tricks to enlist her troops. They had a choice. Even those she tricked into confiding their vilest thoughts, then blackmailed by threatening to betray those confidences— she couldn’t take that power by force. She could only encourage them to give it to her. They chose fealty— either to a sociopathic troll, or to an ideology whose tires they really should have kicked a few more times before taking ownership.

So I have a question for the person who claimed to like RH’s reviews, only to jump onto the Garment-Rending bandwagon when the jig went up. I have something to ask the self-proclaimed progressive who chummed around with RH’s shock troops even while admitting— in private, with no one else around— that yes, maybe RH goes too far, but her friends follow me on twitter. I have a question for the outspoken social justice advocate who didn’t speak out when the lies spread across a site with their own name on the masthead, because they didn’t want to “fan the flames”. I’d like to ask all those self-proclaimed champions of the disenfranchised, all those defenders of up-punching, all those opportunists who are so busy now disavowing the whirlwind they helped sow:

Where were you, when RequiresHate called Cindy Pon a “stupid fuck” and a rape apologist? Where were you when she made Rachel Brown’s life a living hell? Where were you just last year, when she and her buddies went after a rape survivor for the crime of saying that recovery was a good thing?

Where were all you people?

Edmund Burke once said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. I think that begs a question.

If you do nothing, what makes you any fucking good?

Posted in: rant by Peter Watts 128 Comments

SFContario: The Schedulening.

So I’m at SFContario this weekend.  Five panels, as follows:

Reviews and Critiques – Saturday 11 AM – Courtyard
Reviews, both bad and good, are a part of being a writer and can even be a positive part of the creative process. What are the right and wrong ways to deal with reviews and criticism? How can you use them to improve your writing, and what sort of criticism can you safely ignore? Andrew Barton, Jane Ann McLachlan, Peter Watts, Maaja Wentz

It’s the End of the World as We Know It – Saturday 1PM – Ballroom BC
The post-apocalypse in genre fiction, why do we love the end of the world so much and why are we so badly prepared for it in real life? Margene Bahm, Lynna Merrill, Michael McPherson, Peter Watts

Author Branding – Saturday 3 PM – Solarium
Gaining exposure can be a challenge for an author, whether experienced or brand new and shiny. Social media like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+ have important tools for reaching an audience. Merely having an account is not sufficient. How do you develop content to attract your target audience while being creative and standing out in the crowd? Can you keep a private social presence separate from your professional persona? Alyx Dellamonica, Robin Hobb, Leeman Kessler, Peter Watts

Synchronizing the Alien and the Alien Culture– Sunday 11PM – Ballroom BC
How does the science fiction author create an alien culture that is believable, that realistically flows from the physical and psychological attributes of the alien, and yet is also relevant to human readers? Is it possible? How have authors done it successfully or not so successfully? How would you do it as an author?
Julie Czerneda, Herb Kauderer, Rob St-Martin, Peter Watts

Keeping the Science In Science Fiction – Sunday 2 PM – Ballroom BC
How can writers incorporate real science into their stories, instead of just resorting to technbabble and handwaving? What are some themes and issues being explored by today’s scientists that would make good story ideas? How do authors keep up so that their writing doesn’t become obsolete by the time their books are actually published? How do writers avoid insulting the intelligence of informed readers? How much detail do readers want and expect about science and technology in the science fiction we read? Julie Czerneda, Dan Falk, Cenk Gokce, Alex Pantaleev, Peter Watts

I don’t think I’m moderating any of those.  Which is just as well, because I’m not especially good at being moderate.

The con is also hosting a reading series called “Hydra’s Hearth“, which I can only assume is at attempt at rebranding  after those guys came off so badly in the last two Captain America movies.  Hydra has apparently infiltrated the Toronto Arts Council, which is funding the following roster:

Friday, November 14
7 PM David Nickle
8 PM Douglas Smith
9 PM Derwin Mak

Saturday, November 15
11 AM Madeline Ashby
12 PM Karl Schroeder
2 PM Hugh A.D. Spencer
3 PM Eric Choi
4 PM Robert J. Sawyer
5 PM Peter Watts

Sunday, November 16
11 AM Michelle Sagara
12 PM Lesley Livingstone
1 PM Alyx Dellamonica

Lotta good names there.  That’s me on the Saturday, although I’ve just received an email asking if I can go on Friday instead.  I’m not sure yet, but we’re getting down to the wire so I thought I’d post this as is and update if necessary. Watch this space.

Note also that these reading slots are a solid hour apiece, or the length of an undergraduate lecture on the lachrymal gland secretions of herring gulls.  You have been warned.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 6 Comments