A Tale of Two Cities (or, I Think I’ll Wait Another Year)

trudeauocalypse

The first city is Montreal, to which I’ll be returning next week: Concordia once more, this time to deliver a lecture entitled “The Best-Case Apocalypse: Why Reality Is Worse Than Fiction.” (I was going to call it “My Dinner With Daniel”, but I figured the reference might be too obscure.) It’s part of a longer program for summer students, but the events of August 10th— collectively billed as a “Workshop on Speculative Fictions and Methods”— is open to the public:

 

10AM-12PM:
 Sarah Sharma, University of Toronto  “No Exit”
1:30-3:30PM:
Ezekiel Dixon Roman, University of Pennsylvania, “Rethinking Quantification Toward the AutoPoietic Turn/Overturn”
4:00PM-6PM:
Me, using a fair bit of casual profanity.

 

I’ll be recycling the pareidolia-origin-of-religion bit from my 2014 Privacy talk, but most of the other stuff is new. Drop by if you happen to be in the neighborhood.  The neighborhood is here.

*

“I’ll bring the smokes, you bring the beer,
I think I’ll wait another year.”
—Amanda Palmer

 

The second City is Lviv, in Ukraine, and holy shit did that implode suddenly.

Or rather, it imploded over time, and I just found out about it suddenly.

I mentioned back in April that I’d be attending the Lviv International Literary Festival this Fall, in commemoration of the Ukrainian publication  of Blindsight. Things seemed to be going along tickety-boo. I was corresponding with the translators— who seemed like really nice people— and helping them out with the fiddly bits. I was in intermittent touch with Sofia Cheliak, a program director at the festival. Just a few weeks back the translators passed on a message from the publisher, asking what airport I wanted to fly out of.

Except apparently they didn’t. Or rather, the publisher never sent that message. The translators  just— made it up or something.  In fact, the whole thing had been called off sometime before July 10, and no one had told me. First I heard of it was when Sofia showed up on Facebook and asked if I could maybe apply for a Canada Council grant to cover the trip. (I could not; I wouldn’t have found out whether said grant had been approved until a couple of months after the festival. Not a chance I was willing to take.)

Turns out the translators, well, never finished the translation. And then never told me that the trip had been canceled (which apparently they’d been told to do, although since they’d also apparently stopped responding to contact from the publisher, I’m not entirely certain how that instruction was delivered and/or confirmed.)  Apparently Sofia herself didn’t know what was going on until she stumbled onto Oleksy’s (my Ukrainian publisher’s) Facebook announcement.

I poked the translators myself from this end, got a fractured reply to the effect of we’re-sure-we-told-you-before-but-here-it-is-again. Family troubles. Blindsight untranslated. SNAFU.

To Sofia’s and Oleksy’s enormous credit, they’re willing to have me over this fall anyway (last I heard, Sofia was actually approaching the Canadian embassy in hope of some kind of financial support). Given that there won’t be any book in evidence, though, there’s not much I could do there except drink and look cute. At my age, I can only do one of those things with any proficiency, and I bet the average Ukrainian could beat me even at that.

Next year, though, I’m assured that Blindsight will be ready. And I’m also assured that the offer to be a festival guest stands. So I think we’re just gonna move the date on that sidebar forward by a year, and steady as she goes.

It’s been a shitshow, but it looks like we were all blindsided— me, the festival, the publisher. Sofia and Oleksy are to be commended for offering to make it work anyway— nay, even encouraging me to come this year, and promising me a great time even in the absence of anything to pimp. But clearly it would be better for everyone if we put this off.

I don’t know if any Lvivians are reading the ‘crawl right now; if so, know that I am truly bummed about this. But know also that I am still really looking forward to getting over there— and if it takes another year, it’ll just be that much sweeter when I arrive.

Offred of Dune.

For a writer who grew up in an age when his chosen genre was routinely derided in polite company— when even impolite company could be forgiven for thinking that SF boiled down to megablockbusters about snarky sapient raccoons and alien-punching fighter pilots— it doesn’t get much better than waking up to find that a big chunk of this year’s Emmy Awards comes down to a dust-up between two actual, non-escapist, serious and thought-provoking SF series.

Not fantasy. Not superhero adaptations. Science fiction.

It is a wet dream come true.

You ask me, this is the real Wonder Woman.

You ask me, this is the real Wonder Woman.

Both The Handmaid’s Tale (13 nominations) and Westworld (22!) are brilliant in their own utterly different ways. Westworld impressed me with its clinical dissection of SF tropes and neurophilosophy, with the erudition of its premise and the skill of its execution. Handmaid’s, on the other hand, was like a weekly hour-long kick in the gut, an ordeal you couldn’t look away from, a story from a universe not so much parallel to ours as converging on it. (Yes, I’m familiar with the claim that said convergence happened generations ago, that every one of Gilead’s horrors have already and repeatedly blighted this timeline. I don’t dispute this, but it’s not the whole story. Read on.) If Elisabeth Moss doesn’t win every fucking award on the planet— and I’m including the Nobel in Medicine, and the Golden Rhododendron for best floral arrangement, and Best North American Guppy Breeder in that lot— if she doesn’t take home every award there is, there should be rioting in the streets.

One series is cryosurgical, the other intensely visceral. Both inspired widespread, almost universal acclaim; both are undeniably science fiction.

Or are they?

You might know my opinion of Margaret Atwood’s notorious aversion to the “science fiction” label when applied to her work. (If not, here’s a refresher.) Even if you’re unfamiliar with my take, you probably know about her infamous “Beam me up, Scotty”, “chemicals and rockets”, “talking squids in outer space” definitions of the genre; her half-assed back-peddling when Ursula Le Guin sat her down and gave her a good talking to; her more recent (if still vaguely ambivalent) self-acceptance: Hi. I’m Peggy, and I’m a science-fiction writer.

What's wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?

And yet, watching the virtually-flawless Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale— twice now— I found even myself plagued with moments of doubt. This is not a future world. It contains no advanced technology; if anything, it had the feel of a particularly nightmarish period piece. Maybe Atwood was right along.

Maybe this isn’t science fiction.

Nah.

*

I’m sticking to my story. I’m going all in, too. I’m not even going to take the easy way out, stick Atwood over with those Humanities soft-SF types who aren’t even interested in science or technology, who’d rather use aliens and dystopias as metaphors for Othering and Intersectionality and Heteronormative whateverthehells. Atwood herself eschewed that particular cop-out when she wrapped herself in the flag of “speculative fiction”: the thing that separated her writing from science fiction, she said then, was that her fiction was rigorously researched and based on Real Science. (I myself have always preferred William Gibson’s offhanded rejoinder that “All fiction is speculative.”)

No, I’m going to argue— after, admittedly, some serious moments of self-doubt— that The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction in the pure sense: fiction designed to explore the societal impact of scientific and technological change. The All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again argument is true but irrelevant. The fact that Gilead is based on historical precedent does not get Handmaid a Get-Out-Of-SF-Free card.

Take, for example, the very reason Gilead was born in the first place, the catalyst that allowed the fundamentalists to seize power: a global collapse in human fertility, brought about by environmental catastrophes hinted at but never really explored. We know about “the Colonies”, places where the toxic waste is so ubiquitous your “skin falls off in sheets”. I seem to remember the novel talking about reactor meltdowns and high-rad zones. The apocalypse has already happened in that universe; Gilead smolders at the base of the same cliff that we, in this reality, still teeter on the edge of. The fact that it took place offstage, before the curtain rose, does not make it any less central; it set Handmaid‘s whole world in motion.

Environmental collapse. Imminent Human extinction due to pollution-induced sterility. A classic case of If This Goes On: the impact of technology, our birds come home to roost, sometime in the future.

Consider also the tactics used by the revolution: computer technology, used to disenfranchise half the population in an instant. Offred spells it out explicitly in the novel: “[T]hat’s how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand.  If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.” “All they needed to do was push a few buttons,” Moira remarks a couple of pages later.

Of course, computers and ATMs aren’t what you’d call futuristic technology. (In fact, Atwood’s references to “Compubanks” and “portable money” seemed quaint even in 1985 when the book came out; the term “ATM” never even appears in the text, although such machines were ubiquitous back then.) That hardly matters. Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon didn’t stop being SF when Apollo 11 touched down on the Sea of Tranquility. Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider didn’t turn into a historical drama with the coding of the first real-world computer virus.

If you want to be pedantic I could always roll out Offred’s cryptic references to “Feels on Wheels” and “Bun-Dle Buggies”— even the (incongruously optimistic) fact that Gilead is mainly powered by renewables, in the series at least—  to plant this society clearly in a technological future. I could cite the presence of “pocket computers”, which were undeniably futuristic back in the day when amber-screened ATs with 8088 chips were the high end of personal computing. (The TV series, made in a time when the tech has surpassed that of Atwood’s original Gilead, just swaps in iPads and laptops and doesn’t sweat it.) Either way, Gilead arises via the manipulation and misuse of a particular kind of technology, inflicted on a society. It’s pretty much the textbook definition of the science-fictional thought experiment.

I admit, they had me going for a while. The lack of FX, the staid, almost Victorian setting, the overall undeniable low-key prestige of the thing had me wondering if maybe Atwood’s protestations might have more substance to them than the initially-diagnosed fear of SF cooties. This is certainly one of those shows that people who hate science fiction could watch without being any the wiser— maybe we could call it “Stealth-SF”. But SF it is: It describes a world compromised by one kind of technology, and a societal response enabled by another. I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could disqualify it on the grounds that those elements are never the thematic focus of the tale, that the real spotlight is on the way that people use religion as a means of social control.

Of course, if that’s the literary bed you want to make, you might find yourself waking up next to a guy called Atreides…

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 27 Comments

The 600.

 

 

When a pop science symposium takes place in Bulgaria’s premiere, state-of-the-art convention hall— when past speakers include bestselling authors and actual scientists talking about their own cutting-edge research— and when they ask you to give a talk on a profoundly difficult branch of science in which you have no formal expertise whatsoever— it’s reasonable to assume, right off the bat, that the invitation is meant in jest. When it turns out to be real, it’s reasonable to wonder if the whole thing isn’t some kind of cruel hoax.

This is the attitude with which I approached last month’s trip to Sofia, to give a talk at something called “Ratio“. I didn’t know what shadowy cabal lurked behind these Bulgarian TED talks, or why they had painted a bullseye on my back. I knew it was most likely a trap, but I’d been published in Bulgaria. I had readers there. It was a risk I had to take.

Vasselina, Lubo, and me. We fight crime.

Vassilena, Lubo, and me. We fight crime.

Turns out, though, this annual symposium with the high-end production values is basically a hobby: the part-time brainchild of a couple of people with day jobs, who one day just decided that Bulgaria needed a popular science event and set out to make it happen. Lubo Baburov runs an online shopping site; Vassy Valchanova is in Marketing and loves cats. For shadowy evil masterminds they both turned out to be pretty awesome.

Their many minions, far as I can tell, put the whole thing together out of the sheer love of science; at least, they don’t get paid anything. Ratio’s numerous corporate sponsors presumably get some kind of positive PR out of their contributions, but why shouldn’t they? It’s a damn good cause.  Hey, they paid my way.

To give you some idea of just how professional, this is what was waiting for me after my talk.

To give you some idea of just how professional, this is what was waiting for me after my talk.

Put it all together, and you get a day-long event run so proficiently, so glitch-free, that it puts to shame most of the professional conferences I’ve attended.

The days leading up to this event, mind you, were not entirely without incident. I spent most of one day on interviews which ranged from smooth and free-wheeling to, well, dissonant. (Try going on live radio when, due to time constraints, the translator at your side is turning your words into Bulgarian at the same time you’re speaking them in English. I dare you to deliver focused and cogent responses in the presence of simultaneous dubbing.)  And there was this other interview with a different translator— for an outlet that was only ever described to me as “Socialist NPR”— whose first question was “Tell us, what is your favoured theory for the origin of life on this planet?”

Socialist NPR. Magic crystals.

Socialist NPR. Magic crystals.

It was not a question I’ve ever been asked before. I certainly wasn’t expecting it. I did my best: talked about my fondness for the “catalytic clay” model, where tiny vacuoles in the clays around hydrothermal vents provided convenient sticky surfaces for the accumulation of the organic molecules that precipitated from this mineral-rich, energy-dense environment, concentrating and containing them so they could interact in biologically-significant ways even in the absence of cellular membranes. I mentioned the whole RNA-World thing, pointed out how certain brands of RNA could act both as catalysts for those reactions and as replicators in their own right.

They smiled and nodded and spoke among themselves, jotting down my words on a yellow notepad. I thought it had gone pretty well until they’d departed, at which point Lubo rolled his eyes and told me that my answer had been translated as: “Magic crystals in the deep sea are awakened by energy.”

My Bulgarian Publishers! One of them is taller than me!

My Bulgarian Publishers! One of them is taller than me!

I met my Bulgarian publishers, who— judging by their choice of authors—  are obviously in the business more for love than for money. I hung out at a retro Soviet-era Space Age restaurant where you have to sit on a swing to use the toilet. I snapped pictures of many strange and dystopian monuments, ranging from brutalist Soviet-era kitsch to artefacts that have obviously leaked across the dimensional boundary from some parallel timeline.  I got briefly swept up in Sofia’s Pride Parade en route to dinner, reveled vaguely in the obvious feel-good ambiance of the thing, and then— the next day— discovered a note someone had sent me on Facebook Messenger two days before, mentioning that the local LGBT community faced a fair bit of hostility and wondering if I might want to informally join the parade. (I would have, too— for longer than those happenstance five minutes— if I’d seen the message in time. For future reference: my presence on facebook is reluctant at best, and I utterly loathe Messenger. Anyone trying to get in touch with me would be better off sending smoke signals.)

I spent much of each day sampling the local beerage and having eighteen different varieties of pork shoved endlessly down my gullet. (Anywhere else on the planet the term “pork bacon” would be redundant; in Bulgaria, it’s a high-level classification roughly equivalent to “phylum”.)

Fiording Pride. That's us along the bottom.

Fjording Pride. That’s us along the bottom.

The rest of the time I  anxiously went over my notes and hoped I wouldn’t go down in flames.  After all, the guys scheduled to speak right after me were real  neuroscientists. Plus my talk was half-recycled; a chunk of the previous month’s Pyrkon lecture stapled onto some late-breaking headlines, a couple of new modules, and a change of focus for a different audience. I was worried that someone from Poznan might have made it down to Sofia (Europe’s small, right? Traveling from Poland to Bulgaria is like taking a bus across the GTA); half-convinced they’d start booing when they realized they’d made the trip for the same old slides.

You literally couldn't take a dump without seeing my name. (Well, you could, but only if you didn't wash your hands afterward.)

You literally couldn’t take a dump without seeing my name. (Well, you could, but only if you didn’t wash your hands afterward.)

It was for this explicit reason I’d arranged to spend most of my time in Bulgaria before Ratio. If I crashed and burned, at least I wouldn’t have to hang around to face the music. I’d be out of there on the next flight.

As it turned out, though, it went pretty well. Over six hundred people in the audience and not a single catcall; in fact, people seemed to like it a lot. Made some awesome new contacts, including a corporate lawyer who specializes in contract law, and who is now on my List Of Pesterable Experts. I even got to talk about Westworld during the group Q&A at day’s end.

Really, I wasted a perfectly good ulcer.  I’d even do it again.

ratio-insectconsciousness

I think this might be my new Author Photo.

I think this might be my new Author Photo.

At this point I was just giving thanks the damn thing was over.

At this point I was just giving thanks the damn thing was over.

Oh right, and there were all these other guys too...

Oh right, and there were all these other guys too…

The day's speakers shared the stage for an overall Q&A at the end of the day. Emil Wagenstein was responsible for coming up with context-appropriate background slides on the fly. I honestly don't know how he did it in real-time, without knowing where the conversation was even going. Once I started talking about LSD and he threw a picture of a couple of sixties-era hippies up on the screen. Took him about two seconds.

The day’s speakers shared the stage for an overall Q&A at the end of the day. Emil Wagenstein was responsible for coming up with context-appropriate background slides on the fly. I honestly don’t know how he did it in real-time, without knowing where the conversation was even going. Once I started talking about LSD and he threw a couple of sixties-era hippies up on the screen. Took him about two seconds.

Emil, the Slide Guy. For some reason all the pictures I took of him were blurry, so I just grabbed this off his facebook page. It really shows you all you need to know.

Emil, the Slide Guy. For some reason all the pictures I took of him were blurry, so I just grabbed this off his facebook page. It really shows you all you need to know.

Signing after. Apparently one of these books did really well in Bulgarian. The other tanked.

Signing. Apparently one of these books did really well in Bulgarian. The other tanked.

This is that lawyer I was telling you about. She is now on whatever I use in place of a Rolodex.

This is that cool lawyer I was telling you about. She is now on whatever I use in place of a Rolodex.

I don't quite remember why I was sticking a pen up this guy's nose. I think I got the idea from a Cory Doctorow novel.

I don’t quite remember why I was sticking a pen up this guy’s nose. I think I got the idea from a Cory Doctorow novel.

This is a basement bar the Ratio people visit a lot. We're over on the left.

This is a basement bar the Ratio people visit a lot. We’re over on the left.

 

This is a beer for necrophiliacs. I was going to say Only in Bulgaria, but I bet you can get it in Poland too.

This is a beer for necrophiliacs. I was going to say Only in Bulgaria, but I bet you can get it in Poland too.

 The Wild Dogs of Sofia are a placid and gentle lot. In Trump's America, they'd tear your fucking throat out.

The Wild Dogs of Sofia are a placid and gentle lot. In Trump’s America, they’d tear your fucking throat out.

 You gotta use one if you want to use the other. Especially after all that Pork Bacon. Leverage, you know.

You gotta use one if you want to use the other. Especially after all that Pork Bacon. Leverage, you know.

 

Sofia is rife with monuments. I am amazed that this derelict Terminator Factory does not show up in every dystopian movie ever made.

Sofia is rife with monuments. I am amazed that this derelict Terminator Factory does not show up in every dystopian movie ever made.

 

The Tomb of the Forgotten Tourist.

The Tomb of the Forgotten Tourist.

 

This is a Terminator sent back to 400BC and stuck on a time-delay switch that never tripped. Either that or someone painted a statue's eyes with radium.

This is a Terminator sent back to 400BC and stuck on a time-delay switch. Either that or someone painted a statue’s eyes with radium.

This is what the Terminator did to its digs before the snooze button kicked in.

This is what the Terminator did to its digs before the snooze button kicked in.

 

I don't even want to know what these guys are doing.

I don’t even want to know what these guys are doing.

 

This is the least intimidating monument I saw in Sofia. I believe it is called "The Coming of the Lord".

This is the least intimidating monument I saw in Sofia. I believe it is called “The Coming of the Lord”.

Me trying to gracefully ignore Lubo's look of profound awe and worshipfulness as he counts down the seconds to my departure.

Me trying to graciously take in stride Lubo’s unmistakable expression of profound awe and reverence as he counts down the seconds to my departure.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 11 Comments

Promises, Promises

Yeah, it’s been a while. There’ve been deadlines: stories to complete, talks to give. Mostly met now, for the time being. I’m never deadline-free but the pressure’s off for a month or so. I’m back.

There’s Bulgaria to report on, the usual crunchy science if I can get caught up.  Today, though, I’m going to fill you in on two things that are well underway but not yet finished. One of them you may have already heard about, because it’s got a big budget and it’s getting pimped all the hell over social media.

The other thing, though, will probably take you completely by surprise.

 

The Masochist Mod

You may remember my recent ascension to the ranks of X-Prize Advisoryhood. There’s a whole school of us, ranging from scientists to film-makers to authors. The first task assigned to each of us was to write an “optimistic” 3,000-word story about a “positive” future, one informed by technology that might be bootstrapped by the X-Prize itself. We were all given the same premise:  Flight ANA0008 en route to San Fransisco passes through a timespace distortion over the Pacific Ocean and ends up in 2037. Each of us tells the story of one fish-out-water passenger as they come to grips with this new, hopeful future.

As you can see, they're not exactly skimping on the production values...

As you can see, they’re not exactly skimping on the production values (although one might wonder why the flight crew wouldn’t just steer around any giant cosmic bagel that reared up in their path…)

Once again, I asked Kathryn Cramer if she had perhaps mixed me up with someone else. She insisted that I had an appropriate sense of humor for the job. I suggested that some might say any story revolving around the phrase “weaponised Ebola” couldn’t possibly be optimistic almost by definition.  She told me not to worry about it. I wrote a story called “The Masochist Mod”. She preferred “Firewalker”.

I handed it in last night. I have not yet heard back. I’ve been told it’s scheduled for upload on July 26— they’re adding one story per week for the next eight weeks— but that was by someone who had not actually seen what I’d written. The site went live yesterday, though: a very glossy, graphics-intensive production with 22 stories already in place. You should check it out: just scroll down the seating diagram, click on the passenger who’s story you want to follow, voila.

I’ve only had a chance to read a few so far. They are optimistic. If nothing else, I think “Firewalker” would be suitable company in the role of counterpoint.

I don’t know if my story will even run; but XPrize wants the word out now, so I’m jumping the gun a bit. In the meantime, here’s the briefest of dialog snippets to give you a sense of my optimistic future.

“Wait a second. Everyone had a brain interface when the flare hit? On the whole planet?”

“Well, no,” Tami admits. “Lots of people didn’t.”

“But none were Americans,” George says.

It takes Malika a moment to process this. “So you’re saying every single American had a brain interface in 2032.”

A moment’s silence.

“It was kind of a law,” Tami says at last.

“War on Terror,” George adds. “You remember.”

“Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. Stop terrorists before they commit crimes.”

“Stop terrorists when they just start thinking about them.”

“Saves a lot of time.”

“Plus, you know. Pedophiles.”

“Think of the children.”

They trail off.

 

That’s “Firewalker”, folks. AKA “The Masochist Mod”.

Let’s hope that someday soon, you can read the rest of it.

 

The Ultimate Fan Site

I’ve teased you, in the past, with intriguing illustrations and tactical maps that obviously have some kind of relationship to the Blindsight universe. (Figures like this, for example; or this.) I’ve never really told you where they came from because I actually wasn’t quite sure myself; some dude called Danil just kept dropping them into my mailbox. Pictures of space suits. Pictures of Theseus in LEO; Rorschach renditions. They all blew my mind; they were all delivered in utmost confidence (well, mostly.  They said I could post a couple of shots). Some kind of fan project underway. I didn’t know much more than that.

I know something now, though. I know that those weren’t just illustrations: they were screen grabs.  These things are animated. CGI. Game-level graphics at least; cinematic, even.

Now a teaser site has gone live, and— in service of driving traffic there— the embargo has been partially lifted. Not entirely, mind you; they’re trying to build interest for some later reveal, not give away their best tricks out of the gate. So I’m still partially muzzled. The clip I’ve embedded here [Update 30/06/17: replaced with more official teaser with soundtrack and title card!] is pretty fucking cool, but it’s not the most impressive sequence in their arsenal. You should see the attack on the lab-hab. You should see the way they make Scramblers swarm.

 

 

You will, some day. For now, though, you’ll have to settle for what you see here, and whatever may show up over at blindsight.space. Sign up for their mailing list. If you’ve got graphic skills, I know they’re looking.

I wish I could show you more. I’m utterly gobsmacked by pretty much everything these guys have shown me, and it’s only getting better. I may not have many fans, but I definitely have the best ones.

If CGI chops translated into sniper skills, I’d have an army that could take out entire Senates.

Oh, all right. A few more stills for you.

Oh, all right. A few more stills for you.

All the solar system objects in this sequence are real; they were extracted from the IAU database and cycled through to their predicted positions circa February 2082.

All the solar system objects in this sequence are real; they were extracted from the IAU database and cycled through to their predicted positions circa February 2082.

Okay, that's enough. Now it's off to bed with the lot of you.

Okay, that’s enough. Now it’s off to bed with the lot of you.

Posted in: art on ink, ink on art, writing news by Peter Watts 51 Comments

Proof of Principle

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

Which is to say, at an airport…

 

 

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

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

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

It is a high bar to clear.

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

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

All the following photos are by Jarle Hovda Moe.

The set was really cool.

The set was really cool.

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

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

JHM_8739-small

JHM_8742-small

JHM_8969-small

JHM_8829-small

JHM_8788-small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An X-Prize for Irony.

 

 

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

Together, they want to save the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 15 Comments

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

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

It rained the whole time.

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

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

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

Totally worth it.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

fish mortality

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

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

The merch room. On a slow day.

The merch room. On a slow day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3316

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

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

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

sellage

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

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

 

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

 

IMG_3342 18318970_1463223950383701_8169029958238905780_o
This was weird. These “Free hugs” signs were everywhere at Pyrkon— generally carried by women, and almost always in English (although there were exceptions). I never did figure out what was going on.
IMG_3349
Whatever it was, it had obviously been going on long enough for the inevitable backlash to kick in…
IMG_3347
I’m pretty sure this was just blatant entrapment, though. (And count on the BUG to remind me of the pass phrase one must utter to get into the Mines of Moria.)

 

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

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

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

Yeah, right.

Yeah, right.

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

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

 

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

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

*

Somehow we woke up in Berlin.

*

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

In between, though, we had a great time.

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

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

Guess what we came across while heading to Otherland:

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

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

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

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

The Grail.

The Grail.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

I want that carved on my tombstone.

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

Which, if anything, is better than the original.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

18238814_10155134324361420_8536602859584184717_o

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

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

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

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

Noms and Cons and Metal Alms

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

Road Trips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fish. To Mars.

Note the cool spirally spine. Remind you of anything?

Note the cool spirally spine. Remind you of anything?

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

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

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

Nom.

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

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

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

Whispers in the Vomit Vale.

.

 

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

We followed the path. My BUD flickered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead: “You read books, right?”

“Sure. Sometimes.”

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

“What’s your point?”

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

“Yeah. So?”

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

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

“Sixty-five.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I saw that. What for?”

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

“Noise.”

“Static. To reduce signal fidelity.”

I spread my palms: So?

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

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

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

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

“Yeah. Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Five.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you thinking?” I finished.

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

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

“It’s not real, okay?”

“You can’t tell the difference.”

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

Silence.

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

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

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

“Kai told me.”

“Kai talks too much.”

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

“Fuck you, Lian. You don’t know me.”

“I know you better than you think.”

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

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

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

“Case in point,” she whispered.

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 30 Comments

Cambridge Analytica and the Other Turing Test.

Not even scripted.

Not even scripted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therefore democracy itself is in danger.

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

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

Or from Berit Anderson, over at Medium.com:

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

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

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

But so what? ‘Twas ever thus, no?

No, Helbing and his buddies assert:

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

Oh, give me a fucking break.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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