Viva Zika!

There’s this guy I knew, Dan Brooks. Retired now, an eminent parasitologist and evolutionary biologist back in the day. He did a lot of work on emerging infectious diseases (EIDs, for you acronym fetishists) down in Latin America. A few years back I wrote some introductory text for an online database he was compiling. Part of it went like this:

You will find no public health advisories about Lyme Disease in Costa Rica. On the face of it, this is perfectly reasonable; Lyme Disease has never been reported there, and none of the local tick species is known to carry the bacterium that causes it.

Some of those ticks, however, are closely related to those in other regions which do carry that bacterium, and many pathogens are able to infect a far greater range of species than they actually occupy; simple isolation is the only thing that keeps them from reaching their true infectious potential. Thus, while Costa Rica is free of Lyme Disease at present, potential vectors already occur in abundance there. The infrastructure for an outbreak is already in place: a single asymptomatic tourist may be all it takes to loose this painful, debilitating disease on the local population.

Lyme disease is by no means unique. Climate change alters movement and home range for a myriad organisms. Our transport of people and goods carries countless pathogens around the globe. Isolated species come into sudden contact; parasites and diseases find themselves surrounded by naïve and vulnerable new hosts. And so maladies literally unknown only four or five decades ago — AIDS in humans, Ebola in humans and gorillas, West Nile virus and Avian Influenza in humans and birds, chytrid fungi in amphibians, distemper in sea lions — have today become almost commonplace. Pathogens encounter new hosts with no resistance and no time to evolve any. In such a world EIDs are inevitable. They are ongoing. A month scarcely passes without news of some freshly-discovered strain of influenza trading up to a human host.

This month, it’s Zika. Spread by the tropical mosquito Aedes aegypti, so we northern folks (so they assured us only last week) don’t have to worry. Hell, even 80% of the people who do get infected never show any symptoms. The other 20% have to suffer through joint pain, fever, a mild skin rash before Zika gets bored and wanders off to bother someone else. Ebola this ain’t; it’s never even killed anyone, as far as we know. I’m guessing that’s why no one’s bothered to develop a vaccine.

The things it does to fetuses, though. Now that’s pretty horrific, even if WHO is back-peddling and admitting that no one’s yet proven beyond a doubt that Zika causes microcephaly. (If it doesn’t, someone’s going to have to explain the fact that Brazilian cases of microcephaly shot up by a factor of twenty-five since Zika debuted there last year— from a long-term annual average of 150 cases to well over four thousand, and climbing. That’s a pretty stark coincidence.)

OK, so correlation is not causation. Tell me what this is correlated with. (From ECDC.)

OK, so correlation is not causation. Tell me what this is correlated with. (From ECDC.)

Even granting the argument that rampant Zikaphobia has resulted in the erroneous tagging of garden-variety small-headed babies— of a sample of 732 diagnoses, only 270 (37%) turned out to be truly microcephalic— we’re still talking a tenfold increase over historical levels. (And that may be conservative; it implicitly assumes that even though so many recent cases were misdiagnosed, none of the previous decades’ baseline cases were.) Claims that Zika wasn’t confirmed even in the majority of the verified cases aren’t especially reassuring given that tests for Zika in the hot zone are “very inefficient“— not to mention the fact that French Polynesia experienced a similar correlation between fetal CNS malformations and a Zika outbreak just the year before.

Back last week— when we were all being told that we had nothing to fear because A. aegypti never got out of the subtropics— the first thing that came to mind was Dan’s work on EIDs, and the ease with which certain microbes can swap hosts. “Sure, aegypti won’t make it this far,” I told the BUG, “but what if if Zika hitches a ride with Anopheles in the overlap zone?” It was, for a science fiction writer and worst-case scenarist, an embarrassing failure of imagination. Because Zika has in fact found some new Uber driver to hitch a ride with over the past few days, and it isn’t a mosquito.

It’s us. Zika has learned to cut out the middleman. It is now a sexually transmitted human disease.

Our Hope and our Salvation.

Our Hope and our Salvation.

And call me Pollyanna, but I can’t help nurture the outlandish-but-not-entirely-impossible dream that we might be looking at our own salvation. We might be looking at the salvation of the planet itself.

Because there’s no denying that pretty much every problem in the biosphere hails from a common cause. Climate change, pollution, habitat loss, the emptying of biodiversity from land sea and air, an extinction rate unparalleled since the last asteroid and the transformation of our homeworld into a planet of weeds— all our fault, of course. There are simply too many of us, and— being mammals— we just can’t stop breeding. Over seven billion of us already, and we still can’t keep it in our pants.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. My money was on some kind of self-induced die-off: a global pandemic that left corpses piled in the streets, or some societal collapse that reduced us to savagery on the third day and a relict population on the three hundredth. Maybe a holy nuclear war, if you’re into golden oldies. The problem with these scenarios— other than the fact that they involve the violent suffering and extermination of billions of sapient beings— is that we’d wreck the environment even more on our way out, leave behind a devastated wasteland where only cockroaches and stromatolites could flourish. The cure would be worse than the disease.

Many well-meaning folks have pointed out that birth rates decline as living standards improve; since so much of the world still lives in relative poverty, the obvious solution is to simply raise everyone’s quality of life to Norwegian levels. The obvious fly in that ointment is that your average first-worlder stamps a far bigger boot onto the face of the planet than some subsistence farmer in Burkina Faso no matter how many kids she might have. Mammals like me don’t need a brood of children to wreck the environment; we do it just fine with our cars and our imported groceries and our giant 4K TVs. Elevating 7.3 billion people to levels of North American gluttony does not strike me as a solution to anything other than fast-tracking the planet back to Scenario One.

But look at Zika. It doesn’t kill you, doesn’t even present symptoms in most cases. The worst you have to fear is a few aches and pains, a rash, a couple of sick days.

All it really does is stop you from breeding.

In a way it’s almost secondary, all this hemming and hawing about whether Zika causes birth defects or whether it’s just mysteriously correlated with them somehow. Fear hangs in the air, and the benefits are already starting to roll in. Just two days ago, WHO declared Zika a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern“. Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador and Venezuela have all publicly advised their citizens against getting pregnant— all the more remarkable for the fact that all but Jamaica are bastions of Catholicism, which normally champions the whole Biblical fill-the-earth-with-thy-numbers imperative. And now that this baby-monsterizing bug can be transmitted directly, human to human, through the very act of intercourse? Why, none of us are safe!

I look forward to a day when Zika— or at least, the fear of Zika— is everywhere. I look forward to a day when this benign baby-twisting bug inspires us to save ourselves, frightens us into necessary measures that mere foresight and intelligence could never inspire. There need be no societal collapse, no devastating pandemic or wretched nuclear winter. There need be no great die-off to save the planet. There need only be this additional cost, this danger, that makes you think twice before indulging your reproductive urges. In the space of a single generation, the numbers of this pest species could just… gently taper off. We could become sustainable again.

That is my dream. Of course, upon waking, I have to admit that now Zika is in the spotlight, the medical community will simply fall over itself in the race to find a cure. They will succeed. And we’ll be back where we started— albeit with some new proprietary and lucrative drug in hand, available only from Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson.

That’s the thing about being an optimist. You have dreams, and reality crushes them.

I could write an upbeat short story about it, at least. Too bad that none of those Shine-on Let’s do an SF anthology about positive futures! people have ever approached me, for some reason…

 

 

 

 

Posted in: biology, just putting it out there... by Peter Watts 51 Comments

Colossus.

 

 Two ARCs sit on the bedside table, here in the Magic Bungalow. One waits for a blurb from the BUG, the other for a blurb from me. They represent my most recent interaction with the NY publishing industry. They were both sent by David Hartwell, of Tor.

On my brag shelf is an old copy of Northern Stars: The Anthology of Canadian Science Fiction. I haven’t noticed it for years. The first story in that anthology is “A Niche”: the first story I ever had published, the first to get reprinted. Northern Stars represents my very first interaction with the NY publishing industry.

It was edited by Glenn Grant and David Hartwell.

It would not be much of an overstatement to say that David is largely responsible for my current incarnation as an SF author. It would almost be an understatement to point out that I’m just one of a myriad people who can say this.

It was David who, having read the rough first half of a first draft that would later become Starfish, sent me an email that inspired me to keep writing when I was on the brink of junking this whole fucking pipe dream of authorhood and resigning myself to getting a Real Job. (Don’t try this at home, kids— it was Glenn Grant who took it upon himself to pass my scribblings along, and even then only because David had expressed an interest. Where are you, Glenn? Haven’t seen you for years. I still owe you.) It was David who accepted the completed manuscript back in 1996, after I’d flown across the country to attend my first con (okay, my second, if you insist on counting that Star Trek thing at the Royal York back in 1975). That was even more of a faux pas— you never thrust a manuscript at an editor during a con— but I didn’t know that, and he took it anyway. He then sat on it for eighteen months, waiting for exactly the right moment to phone with an offer: when I was sitting on the toilet with my pants around my ankles, in the worst possible psychological space for aggressive negotiation. To this day I wonder how he knew that.

David with Christian Sauvé and Karl Schroeder, since I can't seem to find a picture with he and I in the same shot. (Photo: Kathryn Cramer)

David with Christian Sauvé and Karl Schroeder, since I can’t seem to find a picture with he and I in the same shot.  David is the one with the understated tie. (Photo: Kathryn Cramer)

I was fortunate to come of age (authorwise) during the days of David’s Canadian initiative, back when everyone else in NY regarded Canada as little more than America’s Hat. We northern wannabes were overjoyed at his scouting efforts north of the 49th (and heartbroken when, a few years later, he headed off in the opposite direction on his somewhat-less-applauded Australia Initiative). He launched my career, showcased my stories in a half-dozen best-of collections, edited every one of my novels except for the Crysis tie-in. I wish he’d edited one less title, actually: some will remember that βehemoth was intended as a single book, and try as I might I could not prevail on the man to waive Tor’s tendency to split long novels into separate volumes. He did, however, let me add an Author’s Apology to each volume, warning potential buyers that they were only getting half a story for the price. It was a concession, and it cost, and it was more than most split-volumes got.

That one episode might just epitomize my relationship with David, and/or with Tor (it was always difficult to know where one ended and the other began, whether he was making policy or channeling it). He did not cave, but he could— bend. Enough to make enough of a difference, usually.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a relationship, professional or otherwise, that was so simultaneously rocky and cordial. We would— I guess you’d call it fight, except it wasn’t really. We would argue, passionately— I was usually the more hot-headed, big surprise— but while it was about things that mattered personally, it never seemed to get personal. There was never any question of us hanging out when he was in town— on patios or in hotels, with partners or one-on-one. We didn’t always butt heads; most of the time we just shot the shit, about everything from relationships to jellyfish, from politics to history. The man was a walking encyclopedia, he rubbed shoulder with giants; the man was a giant in his own right. And even at its most infuriating, there was always something— mitigating, I guess you’d say, about the relationship.

I remember buying him drinks not so long ago, on the rooftop patio at Hemingways. “I really like you, man,” I told him. “I respect you. But I don’t know if I can trust you.” He shrugged, and smiled, and we clinked glasses.

This morning I awoke to the news that David Hartwell had suffered a massive brain injury, and that while the heart continued to beat, the man was not expected to survive. As I write these words my facebook feed is alive with the news: with expressions of shock and sadness and regret, with sympathy for Kathryn and their kids. Making Light called it, then walked it back; Locus posted an obit and deleted it. SF is holding its breath, awaiting the inevitable.

He was in his seventies. He was winding down to retirement anyway. Nobody thought he was immortal.

Except we did. I did. It’s the dumbest thing, this obstinate Human refusal to internalize our own mortality. Down in my gut, I guess I just expected the guy to go on forever.

There was still so much to argue about.

Posted in: eulogy by Peter Watts 10 Comments

Anatomy of a Flameout

I can think of about a hundred people who’d argue that writing this post is the dumbest, most counterproductive thing I could possibly do— that I’m not only burning my bridges behind me, but burning others before I come to them. These people would tell me to keep my opinions to myself, for the sake of my career.

They’re probably right.

The thing is, though, it’s not always about hustling the next book or making the smart career move. Sometimes it’s about being able to look at yourself in the mirror.

*

Courtesy of David Nickle (who, I'm guessing would be one of the hundred). He really knows how to pick 'em. The last time he bought me alcohol in bulk, it was a bottle of white called "Guilty Men".

From David Nickle (who I’m guessing would be one of the hundred), in commiseration. He really knows how to pick ’em. The last time he bought me a bottle, it was a Cab Merlot called “Guilty Men”.

Well, that was fast. Turns out I’m not doing a “Person of Interest” novel after all.

I did warn you. I told you that the whole thing might get junked if they didn’t like the outline. As it turns out, though, the project is dead for a different reason entirely.

It turns out they didn’t like my last blog post.

For my part, I was rather fond of it. I’d been sitting on the news ever since last summer, unable to share; even after the book ended up on Amazon I still figured I should get explicit permission from Titan before going public. Permission in hand, I framed the story as a bit of good news, albeit hard-won good news that had to be fought for; I talked about the inevitable delays that gum up the works when multiple corporations, all with their own vested interests, have to get on the same page. As far as I was concerned it was like pointing out that Canadian winters are cold— not an insult, just an unpleasant fact. The way things are.

Evidently that’s not how certain other parties felt. (Exactly which other parties remains unclear, other than they obviously live somewhere in the Titan/Warner Bros./Bad Robot triumvirate. No one has communicated directly with me on the matter, so this is all coming via my agent with the serial numbers filed off.) They saw it as an extensive and detailed list of my own personal irritations and frustrations, name-checking of the characters involved, and complaints about remuneration. The most egregious sin, in their eyes, was the fact that I spilled “confidential” information— to wit, the title. That was enough to cancel the contract outright, Japan’s apparent interest notwithstanding.

If you go back and review the post in question, you’ll see that none of these claims stand up to scrutiny.

For example, if I’d wanted to “list my irritations and frustrations”, I would have mentioned the fact that I was given three months to write a novel, then put on hold for almost a third of that time while waiting for someone to approve a 5-page proposal. Or the contractual clause obligating me to return my signing installment if the project were cancelled up to the detailed-outline phase— in which case I’d be the only person on the project expected to work for free (unless Titan and WB employees routinely hand back portions of their salaries every time a project goes south). I’d have talked about the uncertainty of working up ten thousand words of prose, scaffolding, and outlines— without a contract and without payment— purely as a show of good faith, because I knew time was pressing and I didn’t want contract negotiations to slow things down even further. The teleconference that answered nothing; the makeup conference promised, but never delivered. There’s no end to the “frustrations” I could have “detailed”.

What I actually wrote was “There were contractual issues, but I figured we could work those through— because sometimes, as my buddy Mike Skeet opined, you just gotta tell the story.”

Name-checking the involved parties? The only person I named was JJ Abrams (who, let’s be clear, I’m pretty sure was not involved)— and unless his role as head of Bad Robot is supposed to be some kind of trade secret, I’m unclear as to how this constitutes any sort of breach. I didn’t mention remuneration at all until someone in the comments talked about a dream come true. My response— “You haven’t seen what they’re paying me”— was intended more as a wry commentary on general midlister income than anything else. (Titan was actually paying about a third of what I’d received for my previous tie-in, so in this case the remuneration was especially low. Which was, ironically, why I didn’t mention it.)

As for the real deal-breaker— spilling the title—to which title are they referring? “Person of Interest Novel #1”, which someone had already plastered across Amazon websites the world over? Or “The Hephaestus Iteration”, working title for an outline that had already been scuppered from above because it didn’t reflect the latest state of the narrative? A title, and an outline, submitted months before I was even signed?

Nothing in that post was factually inaccurate. Nothing breached contract. Nothing was even really all that negative, especially in light of the things I could have said; basically just generic grumblings about the speed at which corporations move. So why, after alternately working my ass off and twiddling my thumbs for extended periods over the past several months— after having had the work I submitted described as “brilliant”, “really cool”, and “fantastic”— after seeing myself described as “the perfect person to write this book”— why am I suddenly out of a gig?

The reasons that have filtered through to me simply don’t hold up (the claim about name-checking is pure fabrication). I’ve seen grumblings about “lost trust”, but the foundation laid out for such a claim is so insubstantial as to be meaningless—mealy-mouthed evasion to mask some other reason, some real reason, that remains unspoken. So, in the absence of first-hand information, we are left to speculate.

We could speculate that this was a diversionary tactic meant to distract from whoever jumped the gun and released the novel info in the first place.  Maybe someone, red-faced, figures they can take cover behind related collateral.

Maybe.  But I doubt it.

I think this may have more to do with the prevailing power dynamic between publishers and authors in general, the reason my hundred advisors would advise me to keep my mouth shut. When you’re a midlist author, you just don’t talk about this shit. Whatever the merits of your complaint, whatever steps you’ve taken behind the scenes, there’s a kind of gentleperson’s agreement that publishers never get called out in public. It’s partly decorum (no one wants to look unprofessional by airing their dirty laundry) but it’s also fear, a fear informed by the fact that there are so very many writers and so very few publishers, fewer with each passing year. You make the wrong person look bad and you just may never sell a book in this town again.

The threat is by no means universal— at a rough count I’ve had dealings with somewhere around thirty publishers over the course of my career, and working with most of them has ranged from hassle-free to downright joyful. Still, the power imbalance weighs more heavily than you might expect from reading the relentlessly upbeat blogs of your typical midlist author. I belong to a couple of online writers’ lists, those private communities where they say things they’d never be dumb enough to express in public. The nickel-and-diming, the questionable accounting, the deliberate cutting of authors out of every relevant loop. The manipulative editors, the incompetent agents, the endless ass-covering. Writers bitch about it behind the scenes, and ask each other for advice; they compare notes about this potential career-killer or that potential career-savior.

Never in the open, though. We hide in the closet and we commiserate over our mutual misfortunes, but everything’s prefaced with Obviously this is in strictest confidence and Don’t tell anyone, it’ll only get him mad…

So I’m thinking, maybe I told someone.

I wasn’t trying to. I wasn’t on any kind of crusade, wasn’t trying to Speak Truth to Power or any of that shit. I kept carefully mum about all my real gripes. The stuff I did mention— the glacial pace of corporate decision-making, the top-down creative control exerted on media tie-ins— just weather reports, as far as I was concerned. Generic stuff, impersonal, elements for the protagonist to endure on his quest for a cool sandbox and a happy ending. I named no names— hell, I didn’t even know any.

But perhaps even that mild, good-natured grumbling is still a bridge too far. I guess, without even meaning to, I called them out.

*

At this point, the smart thing would probably be to make some brief announcement— couldn’t come to terms, creative differences, yadda yadda yadda— but that would be horseshit.

So here’s something that isn’t. I am bummed, and I am pissed— because while the gig may have been frustrating, the book would have been great. I was really excited about writing it, and I was honored to be invited into the coolest AI sandbox TV has ever seen. But that doesn’t change the fact that these guys got me to put my life on hold and then dicked me around for a third of a year. I wasted months, turned down other gigs that would have paid more. I was happy to. Sometimes you just gotta tell the story.

There will be other gigs. There already are. My royalties alone for last year were almost four times what this book would have netted me (admittedly, it was a good year for royalties), so I’m not ending up on the street any time soon. Even if I did, there’s little joy in a relationship that lets one party piss with impunity into the punch bowl while giving the bum’s rush to anyone with the temerity to remark upon it.

The problem, my hundred smarter advisers would say, is that most of the industry operates exactly that way. Maybe all.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe any other publisher who passes this way will read the tale and say, “What a fucking diva. Can’t trust him. Put him on the list of Difficult Authors to Never Work With.”

But maybe, some will say “Huh. I guess I’d be pissed too, if someone kept jerking me around like that. Since we don’t treat our people that way, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

There’s cause to hope. Like I said; thirty publishers, and most have been just fine.

But if I’m wrong— if the entire industry does, in fact, think it’s the author’s job to just shut up and smile, regardless— well, then I’ve already lasted in this business far longer than I should have.

‘Bye, PoI Novel #1. Too bad we couldn’t make it work.

It would have been glorious.

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 61 Comments

Novel of Interest.

Catchy title, no?

Catchy title, no? And how about that cover art?

Chances are, if you emailed me this autumn past you received a terse autoresponse claiming that I was too busy to respond, thanks to some hush-hush project that might implode at any moment. Over in Poland, readers of Nowa Fantastyka might have noticed that my column in that magazine went dark about the same time. A number of you have enquired as to just what I was doing all fall.

As it turns out, the answer is: well, nothing. Nothing at all.

Okay, then. You explain this.

Okay, then. You explain it.

As of yesterday, you could be forgiven for thinking that I’d been hard at work on a new book with the intriguing title Person of Interest Novel #1, release date March 29, that’s just gone live on Amazon websites around the world. Certainly a bunch of people in Japan seem to think so: as of five minutes ago Novel #1 is the #1 best-selling Media Tie-in at Amazon.co.jp and their #31 best-selling title overall. Which means that in Japan at least, it’s kicking the ass of the new Star Wars novelization by Alan Dean Foster (and absolutely whipping the ass of 50 Shades of Grey). I have no idea how to interpret this beyond concluding that someone must have hacked their servers.

In fact, though, the book is not coming out on March 29. Nor is it called Person of Interest Novel #1. I was hoping it would be called Person of Interest: The Hephaestus Iteration but I can’t even swear to that; the same pitch that Warner Brothers enthusiastically approved in October got a pin stuck in it by Bad Robot in November, because they want the story to dovetail with a finale that I haven’t seen yet. I can’t even say for sure the damn thing will even happen, because various suits and higher-ups reserve the right to junk the whole project if they don’t like the detailed outline. And I can’t write said outline until someone tells me what characters I can use, or what shape they’re going to be in when I get them. I would be sworn to silence even now, were it not for the fact that someone jumped the gun and released all those Amazon pages into the wild. As of yesterday, though, mute is moot.

What I can tell you is that this is the risk you run when you write an extended blog post both praising Person of Interest for its smarts and its depth, and critiquing it for clunky writing. There’s always the chance someone might show up at your In Box to say “All right, smart guy: you show us how it’s done.”

The Offending Page, as of 1041EST this morning. Click to embiggen.

The Offending Page, as of 1041EST this morning. Click to embiggen.

Which is what happened to me back in July. Titan Books threw down the gauntlet: how could I not pick it up? A chance to play in that sandbox? A chance to dance with that particular Machine?

Of course, the deadline’s very tight, they told me. We’re talking a spring release, so you’ll have to clear your calendar for the next three months. Done. Done done done. Autoresponder engaged. NF Column hiatused. Intelligent Design and other assorted gigs backburnered or refused outright. There were contractual issues, but I figured we could work those through— because sometimes, as my buddy Mike Skeet opined, you just gotta tell the story.

Don’t get too excited. I haven’t told it yet.

Oh, I’ve plotted the thing out. I’ve written a couple of chapters. I’ve wined and dined computer nerds to pick their brains, lined up an ex NY cop to help me get the LE details right. But it’s not just Titan I’m dealing with here. There’s Warner Brothers. There’s Bad Robot. Every level needs to approve every stage (there’s always a chance this Watts guy could go rogue and turn Reese into a pedophile or something for dramatic purposes). And while you might think that J.J. Abrams would naturally give all his attention to an obscure paperback tie-in for one of his TV shows, turns out Bad Robot has a couple of other irons in the fire these days. Go figure.

So those three months have come and gone, and I’m still pretty much in the dark. I’ve retired the autoresponder for the time being, have started taking other gigs to fill the emptiness. I expect the project is still a go— we finally came to contractual terms at the end of November, so everything’s signed and official— but anyone expecting a March release is in for a world of disappointment.

I’m hoping to retain the basic premise, at least. I’m really excited about it, and it should be portable to a variety of contexts— but it all comes down to the glacial firing speeds of corporate synapses at three different levels. So I’m no longer waiting with bated breath. At some point they’ll give me something I can work with, and I’ll work with it. In the meantime, I’ve taken my life off hold.

After all this, though, it better happen.

Apparently Japan demands it.

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 33 Comments

Christmas Cards.

Blindsight-Xmas

So before I disappear for the holidays (or more accurately, before the holidays give me an excuse to feel less guilty about my continued dereliction of the ‘crawl), I thought I’d leave you with an assortment of visual stocking stuffers that have been piling up over the past few months. Behold, and click to embiggen:

Vadim Marchenkov's "Wurlitzer of Doom" cover for the Russian Special Edition Blindsight relrelease!

Vadim Marchenkov’s “Wurlitzer of Doom” cover for the Russian Special Edition Blindsight rerelease!

Vladimir Gurkov's "Ferris Wheel of Death" cover for the upcoming Russian premiere of Echopraxia!

Vladimir Gurkov’s “Ferris Wheel of Death” cover for the upcoming Russian premiere of Echopraxia!

Angus McIntyre's "Drones of Debauchery", featuring Amanda Bates and the Kevlars!

Angus McIntyre’s “Drones of Debauchery”, featuring Amanda Bates and the Kevlars!

Ken Lubin and the Corneas of Consternation, from Petr Vorontsov!

Ken Lubin and the Corneas of Consternation, from Petr Vorontsov!

See what he did there?

See what he did there?

And finally, the awesome visual pun of Beyond the Rift (or whatever that translates into in Bulgarian, which is the language of this particular edition), in which cover artist Zhivko Petrov shows us both a literal rift and an evocation of “The Thing(s)” therein that would take us beyond it. Very nice job, Zhiv.

As usual, these have all been archived in the appropriate galleries for posterity. Enjoy at your leisure.

That does it for me.  In the spirit of the season I might get around to a quick blog post on this new fad that has fetishists the world over inserting slimy alien eggs up their vaginas and/or asses using a specially-designed strap-on.

But if not, see you in the new year.

Posted in: art on ink, blindsight, Dumbspeech, rifters by Peter Watts 19 Comments

The Beast Upon Your Shoulder, The Price Upon Your Head.

Imagine a place that looks pretty much like any other faux-English pub/sports bar on the planet: familiar, unremarkable, safe. It’s only when you eye the menu— “Deviled Lamb Kidneys on Dripping Toast”; “Stilton Cheese Ice Cream”; “Crusty Lard in Mason Jars”; “Jellied Stingray garnished with Nettles”— that you start to wonder if you’ve entered some kind of gustatory Twilight Zone. It’s like they’re daring you to eat this stuff by giving it the most revolting names possible.

Weird thing, though: the worse it sounds, the better it tastes. They once served up a one-off batch of— I kid you not— cinder ice cream. It tasted exactly like the bottom of a fireplace, and somehow it was delicious. It must have been five years ago now, and I still beg them to bring it back every time I climb those stairs.

We call this place “The Queeve” (short for “Queen and Beaver”, its actual name), and it’s a good place to hang out with fellow authors. (At the very least, horror writers can seek inspiration from the menu listings.) Dale Sproule for example, with whom I argued a few weeks back over a pint and a plate of kedgerie. The daily peeve was online privacy: I recited my usual outraged litany of violations committed by corporations and governments alike as they stalked us across the internet. It cut no ice with Dale: “You know, if CSIS is really all that interested in where I buy my underwear or what porn sites I visit, they’re welcome to it.”

Hardly the first time I’d heard that line— it’s one of the most common variants of the “nothing to hide = nothing to fear” fallacy— but it got me thinking. Dale’s no dummy. Neither is ecofantasist extraordinaire Alyx Dellamonica, who responded to an earlier iteration of the same tirade with “Your arguments all make sense, and I know I should care— but I don’t, really.”

That’s okay, guys. Nobody does. All these years post-Snowden, all these endless warnings and reports on slashdot and ars Technica and the EFF website— LG televisions listen to your pillow talk and report it to headquarters, CSIS routinely scrapes Canadians’ social media accounts just for the hell of it, Windows 10 logs your keystrokes— and for the most part, people yawn and shrug and get on with their lives. If LG really wants to know what I say to my boyfriend in front of the TV, they’re welcome to it.

Why is that?

Back at the Queeve, last week’s hang-out was with Karl Schroeder. We bitched about our publisher; we knocked around an actual adaptive function for consciousness (or at least, a potential function, if you tweak it just a hair to the left); and—

“— and Dale, he was just if CSIS is really all that interested they’re welcome to it. But you know, if every time he walked down the street some hulking guy was two steps back, taking notes on everything he did and muttering into a wrist mic, I’m pretty sure it’d creep him out. And people wouldn’t be so copacetic if every time they made a purchase a Man in Black grabbed their wallet and riffled through it to see how much was inside. Or if Sony sent some guy to follow you around in your house with a voice recorder.”

Karl nodded patiently.

“But that’s exactly what happens when you go online, when you boot up your smart TV. It’s the same damn thing but nobody cares because we’re not wired to feel threatened by electrons. You can’t even see electrons, so all you have is this intellectual knowledge. There’s no gut response to online threats. But if every one of those trackers manifested as some dark predatory shape, I bet Dale and Lexus wold be quite so blasé about—”

Blink.

I think it was Karl who suggested building an app at that point. At least, he’d evidently invented something similar in a story he wrote for the Hieroglyph anthology: a VR app called “Fountainview”, which— every time you made a financial transaction— showed where your money was going by drawing an luminous arc from you to whatever entity(s) had lightened your wallet. (I’ve just bought three tickets for The Force Awakens. Oh, my: there goes a bright stream arcing through the air from me to Disney, and another to Cineplex Odeon! Oh, and there’s there’s a little JJ Abrams icon, sipping from Disney’s run-off. See how it works?)

(The biggest stream of all, of course, goes to Engulf and Devour Inc, the company that sells cinema popcorn at $4.80 per kernel.)

Karl had envisioned a great user-friendly visual aid to show exactly who you were supporting with your hard-earned bucks, and how many skips it took to get back to the Koch Brothers. If someone isn’t building something like that in real life, they damn well should be.

Now imagine another app that manifests a dark, threatening figure at your shoulder every time twitter plants a tracking cookie on your laptop, or whenever Google mines your email for lucrative keywords. Imagine some raincoat-wearing perv with binoculars, popping onto your screen whenever the TV relays your living-room conversation upstream to parties unknown. Or a monstrous leech affixing itself to the glass, pulsing and sucking and grotesquely swollen with data, every time you fill out one of those facebook surveys to discover which Disney Princess you are.

The Apparent Online Experience.

The Apparent Online Experience.

The actual online experience, brought to you by Real Life (TM).

The actual online experience, brought to you by Real Life (TM).

Nothing that actually blocks the stream, mind you. Nothing that might disrupt functionality or fuck with any of those peeks and scrapes nobody seems to care about. Just something to show your online environment as it really is, in a way your Pleistocene brain can grasp. Write it first for cell phones, tablets, and laptops. Move on to the Oculus Rift and the HoloLens; have it ready for that imminent point, just a few years down the road, when our realities are all augmented. That’s when it will really hit its stride, gut-reaction wise.

Call it “Realview”. Better yet, call it Real Life. I’ve even got a tag line for you:

Real Life. When facts aren’t enough.

Coders, you have your mission. Get started. I know a couple of people who could really use this.

Just don’t count on ever being able to sell it in the Apple Store.

 

Posted in: Big Brother, relevant tech by Peter Watts 43 Comments

(In)Sense8

Spoilers.  Duh.

 

When Caitlin Sweet, Mistress of the Character-Based Narrative, complains that a TV show wallows too much in characterization— worse, that it needs more science— you know a screenwriter somewhere has seriously missed the boat.

medium_sense8_poster

Really awesome opening credits, at least.

Over the weekend we binged on this Sense8 show everyone’s been raving about, curled up on Big Green with cheese and wine and Lexus (Kelly was supposed to join us, but was abducted by an employer with urgent deadlines to meet). Despite the glowing reviews, I approached it with a combination of hope and dread; it was, after all, the love child of J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowski sibs, three bright flawed gems of the genre. Straczynski’s Babylon 5 was consistently brilliant in scope and ambition but only intermittently so in execution; the Wachowskis, after proving they could rock both indie (Bound) and SF (The Matrix), squandered their enormous cred on increasingly lame sequels and standalones. Sense8 might represent a return to form, or the last gasp of three has-beens clinging to each other as they circled the bowl.

I watched the first episodes with a sense of relief. The premise was intriguing. The performances were pretty good (some of the writing and characterizations were a bit clunky, but nobody who cut early B5 or Next-Gen the necessary slack can begrudge Sense8 a few episodes to find its feet). It was cinematically beautiful; and given the Wachowskis’ involvement, I don’t have to tell you the fight scenes rocked. I didn’t even mind that the science seemed shakey, at least to start with; only one of the characters had any kind of science background, and that was in pharmaceuticals. Eight minds scattered across the globe, suddenly finding themselves linked one to another? You’d expect them to figure out the rules through trial and error (which they did), but they’re not gonna have a clue about underlying mechanisms. Any speculation they indulge in is going to be loopy pretty much by definition. I was happy to wait for explanations: happier than I would have been if, for example, one of the newly-awakened “cluster” just happened to be a quantum neurologist who could exposit the technical specs by the end of the pilot.

And Jesus, wasn’t it nice to see such a diverse range of characters in a show whose premise doesn’t hinge on diversity and/or marginalization? Not one of those self-conscious shows about being trans or gay or black or viking, but a show about something else entirely in which the characters happen to be those things because that’s just the way folks are? That was pretty great.

In fact, the further the season progressed, the more apparent it became that that was maybe the only great thing about it.

Look past the hokey promo shot.  And the fact that one of the characters is named Ann Coulter.

Look past the hokey promo shot. And the fact that one of the characters is named Ann Coulter.

The idea that there are two distinct and competing species of modern Humans is a very cool one, ripe with SFnal potential. (It’s already been done on TV, in fact, back in 1998— in a pretty good, lamentably short-lived series called Prey.) Judging by the first season, though, Wachzynski don’t seem especially interested in the biological, ethical, or philosophical implications of their premise; they seem focused on character, almost to the exclusion of logic. Caitlin likens the series to Lost— a show which drew in viewers with three-dimensional characters and deep biographical back stories, only to alienate them when it failed to pay off all that setup in any coherent way.

Just how disinterested were Sense8‘s creators in exploring the ramifications of their own creation? You can get a pretty good sense in Episode 10— “What is Human?”— when one of the newly-awakened Sensates wonders, with understandable skepticism, how it’s possible for two distinct species to look so indistinguishably similar, to coexist in the modern world without everyone being aware of the fact.

“Evolution is frugal”, explains the show’s expository guru. “One small chromosome here or there and you walk on two legs instead of four … we are closer to humankind than the bonobo is to a baboon.” Except a single human chromosome contains up to 2000 genes, which is not exactly a “small” amount of variation (I’m guessing that “gene”, in fact— not chromosome— was the word the screenwriters were groping for). And if you want to illustrate how two distinct species can resemble each other to the point of indistinguishability, you might want to go with a different comparison than:

My God, it's like they're identical twins!

My God, it’s like they’re identical twins!

Okay, you might say. So Hollywood writers can’t be bothered to learn the difference between a gene and a chromosome. It’s not as though those guys are especially renowned for their biological erudition anyway. If you’re feeling generous you can write these shortcomings off as the equivalent of a typo, nothing for anyone but compulsive nerds and antisocial biologists to get upset about.

But it goes deeper than that. It’s not just that Sense8′s plays a bit loose with its techspeak; it’s that the show’s premise contradicts its own plot.

Consider: we’re told that the mind-hive state is baseline, that back in the Pleistocene the whole species was connected this way. We modern humans are a stunted offshoot, a mutation that lost the psychic interface; this gave us a competitive advantage allowing us to take over, because “killing’s easy when you feel nothing”. (This is presented as informed speculation by one of the characters— hence not definitive— but Straczynski’s on record stating that them’s the rules, so consider it canon.)

Right there I have problems. Sure, losing mind-to-mind empathic contact makes it a lot easier to kill without remorse— but there’s more to murder than attitude. There’s the fact that your supposedly-disadvantaged victims are still part of a telepathic network that allows them to be in a dozen places at once, that lets them instantaneously pool skills and knowledge and resources (and apparently muscle tone, given that untrained noncombatants become kick-ass killing machines when linked into the mind of a martial-arts expert). Every time you try to take out one, you’re actually fighting many. You were once part of such a network; but you traded it all away in exchange for a muffled conscience.

Not much of a threat, really.

Not much of a threat, really.

It’s as though someone rewrote the The Walking Dead so that zombieism resulted not via some contagious pathogen, but by a process of random mutation. A cosmic ray tears through a germ cell: a critical base pair flips. One person becomes a walker. One person. They are now a shambling killing machine, utterly devoid of conscience and remorse. And this would in fact give them an edge when it came to slaughtering their former fellows, were it not for the fact that the rest of us still had mass communications, flame-throwers, and F16s. Also, good luck finding a mate who just happened to experience exactly the same random roll of genetic dice in time to found the new lineage.

I fail to see how such a trade-off constitutes an evolutionary advantage.

But okay. Let it slide, accept the premise as one of those single impossible things you’re allowed in an SF story. Let’s see how the implications play out. Sense8′s narrative arc involves an implacable human enemy determined to exterminate the Sensates because they pose a threat to singleton humanity. Straczynzki spells it right out in the Wall Street Journal: “By the end, the eight different characters are functioning as one. And that’s when you realize the danger, because it becomes cumulative. A person with that range of skills and determination is a massive threat to the organization.”

Except the whole series is based on the premise that we rose to ascendancy because we were the tougher, meaner bad-asses, that the mind-linked baseline strain didn’t stand a chance against our capacity for guilt-free murder. Our differing biology gave us a massive advantage over the other guys, who we must now hunt down because their differing biology gives them a massive advantage.

Is it just me, or does accepting Sense8′s premise logically entail rejecting Sense8′s plot? And given that three such admittedly smart folks as JMS and the Wachowskis spent a solid month “working out the rules”, how the hell did that slip by? (And we haven’t even started talking about how different species— even if they are more closely related than bonobos and baboons!— seem able to interbreed without any trouble.)

If I had to guess, I’d say it slipped by because they just didn’t care about that stuff. They were interested in exploring other issues entirely.

But here’s the thing: all that character-dense diversity stuff that Sense8 gets right is nothing to do with any particular genre. Every show should feel this inclusive. Every show should be so explicitly matter-of-fact about genitalia and childbirth. (I might be in the minority here; I’m one of those people who really doesn’t care about the “gratuitous” nudity in shows like Game of Thrones, because objectively the sight of genitals should be no more offensive than the sight of any other body part— and when was the last time anyone complained about all the bare feet you see on television, at times when showing bare feet doesn’t advance the plot at all! It’s completely gratuitous, shown for no other reason than to titillate foot fetishists!

(No: roll those eyes back down. I am not being disingenuous, and I am not being naive. I’m perfectly aware that genitals are shown all too often to titillate— but that’s because the dominant North American society was founded by brain-dead Bible-thumping prudes whose descendants, to this day, howl in outrage at a brief glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple while yawning at the latest cop-on-black homicide stats. Does anyone really think we owe the Standards of that Community anything but contempt, starting with sexual prudery and extending right across the board to evolution and climate change?

(But I digress.)

Where was I. Oh, right: Every show should be so matter-of-fact about human anatomy and the gender spectrum. The problem is, Sense8 is not ostensibly a show about those things; and while it’s great to see them get such a basic aspect so completely right, that’s not so much an accolade of Sense8 as it is an indictment of all the other shows out there.

Ultimately, all that progressive groundbreaking stuff is just wallpaper. In terms of actual story, Wachzynski seems mainly interested in giving us another iteration of the usual You’re A Wizard, Harry! wish-fulfillment fantasy: some unremarkable everyperson discovers they can be a medical expert, a lethal combat specialist, an Engine Whisperer, a Black-hat Hacker, or any other item in Batman’s utility belt the plot might call for. Sense8 is basically Buckaroo Banzai spread across eight bodies, played straight and without any of the winking self-awareness. It is— as I put it unto Caitlin— the Bruce Cockburn of televised SF: so earnest, so carefully progressive and inclusive and on the right side of history, that it almost feels treasonous to point out its hamfisted preachiness and incoherent narrative logic. It is— as Caitlin put it unto me— an earthbound Interstellar: visually gorgeous, superficially groundbreaking, but with a shockingly conventional Love Is The Answer moral twitching in its flaccid Hollywood heart.

Seriously, you need to check this out.

Seriously, you need to check this out.

As the credits rolled for the final episode of the season, Netflix suggested that we might like to try another series with a similar theme: Orphan Black, a little home-grown Canadian number. Netflix was right: Orphan Black is, I think, what Sense8 wants to be. It doesn’t have nearly the production values— like most Canadian television, it feels a bit cheap in the grain and it lacks the geographic scope of the Wachzynski effort. But the spectrum suffuses Orphan Black as it does Sense8: as foundation, not focus. The difference is, something substantial rises from that foundation: a scientifically literate plot that makes sense, that not only understands the difference between genes and chromosomes but plays with gengineering (and religious) tropes in new ways. And Tatiana Maslany’s performance— in a dozen roles so far, and counting— is a wonder to behold.

Sense8 might yet build on its foundation. It might turn from something merely beautiful into something really good. Caitlin and I will keep watching; even as it stands, Sense8 has much to commend it.  I suspect it won’t ever be as truly groundbreaking as it aspires to be, though.

It might have been, if only Orphan Black and Prey hadn’t got there first.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 27 Comments

New (I)Cons in Old Bottles; My SFContario Schedule.

portia-wine-cropped

I didn’t make this up. Honest.

A robust, full-bodied, highly adaptable wine that goes right to your head, with cryptic overtones and just a hint of arachnid. Grown in strong sunlight and arid, mineral-rich soil, this modest-yet-ambitious vintage pairs with pretty much anything. Warning: excessive consumption may result in loss of consciousness.

Personally, I think it’s too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence. Of course, given the timing they must’ve really rushed it into production. Hopefully August was a good month; I haven’t yet got up the nerve to pop the cork.

*

I’ve got a fairly busy weekend lined up, starting on Thursday the 19th at the Merrill Collection where I’ll be reading along with Saladin Ahmed (assuming he can even get across the border, given the latest outbreak of kneejerk hypertribalism sweeping the neighborhood; I wish him luck). I’ll be reading from the Russian (only in English): “Insect Gods” in its entirety, a piece that heretofore has only appeared as a couple of isolated fragments on the ‘crawl. At least, that’s the expectation as of this writing; depending on mood/circumstances/audience, things might change at the last moment.

Starting Friday, I’m at SFContario as GoH, except not exactly; that honor actually goes to Saladin (again, assuming availability) as author GoH and Tom Smith as Musician GoH. I’m actually GoH for some sort of simultaneous shadow con called Canvention— think of an intestinal parasite, coexisting as a distinct entity in the body of a larger host and feeding off its dietary stream. Except this particular parasite runs the Auroras, which I’m told I’ll be MCing on Sunday. (Maybe it’s more of a symbiont.)

There will also be panels, not all of which I feel especially competent to sit upon. If you’re interested in when and where those will be, you’ve come to the right place:

Space Weather – The Latest Forecast (M)- Friday 6 PM, Room 209: Earth, satellites, and astronauts are constantly bombarded by a drizzle of radiation from cosmic rays and the Sun that can change into a deadly downpour. High-energy particles in the solar wind carry a magnetic field powerful enough to destroy electric power systems on Earth. The panelists will talk about space weather and what we can do about it. Eric Choi, David Stephenson, Ian Stuart, Peter Watts(M) (This is the one I don’t feel competent to sit on. So of course they made me the moderator.)

Opening Ceremonies – Friday 7 PM, Courtyard: I don’t know if I’m competent to sit on this one either, but it’s kind of mandatory. At least I won’t have to say anything.

Reading – Saturday 11:00 AM, Room 207: Probably a mix of the Secret Project I have/n’t been working on all fall, a bit of the in-progress Intelligent Design, and maybe a bit of “Insect Gods” from the Merrill reading, depending on timing and degree of audience overlap. I’m sharing this slot with the estimable Alyx (aka Lexus) Dellamonica, so we may have to mud-wrestle to settle the reading order. No promises.

Consciousness in Non-human Life Forms – Saturday 12 PM, Room 207: Great apes, whales, dolphins, elephants, and parrots have all been supported as being sentient. What does that mean to SF? Should they be uplifted a la David Brin? (Finally, something I can actually witter on about. Although given the recent falling-out on this very crawl, I don’t know if I’d advocate anything being anythinged a la David Brin.) Cathy Hird, Herb Kauderer(M), Jane Ann McLachlan, Peter Watts.

First Contact in Real Life – Saturday 2 PM, Gardenview: It looks so easy in Star Trek but how could we really establish a common conceptual base to communicate with another species? Sure, we have numbers and the hydrogen atom in common, but how far would that get us with a world of beings who share none of our sensory apparatus. Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Alyx Dellamonica, Neil Jamieson-Williams(M), Peter Watts.

New Philosophies in Science Fiction – Saturday 4 PM, Courtyard: Looking at the values of the past, it is unrealistic to think that people in the future would think the same way we do and hold our values, yet looking at old SF it’s exactly what you do see. How do we get beyond that and come up with new ways for people to think about their new worlds? Neil Jamieson-Williams, Kelly Robson(M), Ian Stuart, Jo Walton, Peter Watts.

Aurora Awards – Sunday 12:15, Ballroom C: I’ll be introducing these. I should probably think of something to say.

Closing Ceremonies – Sunday 3 PM, Courtyard: For those who value choice in their social events, I’m guessing this is where you’ll find the con’s greatest range of available seating.

So there you go. If you’re in town this coming weekend, there are worse things to do.

Be warned, though. There’s no bar on the premises— which is, to my mind, kind of a glaring oversight, even if the neighborhood is rife with decent pubs (we’re especially partial to Hair of the Dog, very nearby on Church & Wood).

 

Posted in: misc, On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 23 Comments

The Yogurt Revolution.

(Another Nowa Fantaskyka remix)

Pick something you hate.

A government, maybe, or a church. Some multinational that treats its customers like shit. Any institution powerful enough to keep people under its thumb, to crush its competition (or at least fix prices with them) so you have nowhere else to go. Something you’d really like to see burned to the ground, although you know that’s never going to happen.

A good example, here in Toronto, would be a telecommunications giant called Bell Canada. (Rogers would also be a good candidate— they suck almost as hard— but I think Bell owns more media.) If you’ve ever dealt with these guys— and you probably have, if you’ve ever watched Canadian TV— the following scenario might warm you up at night:

Just before Just Desserts. (Photo Rene Johnston.)

Just before Just Desserts. (Photo Rene Johnston.)

Gustav runs a cellphone kiosk for Bell. Walking home from work one night, a passing stranger notices the perky corporate logo on his employee polo shirt— and punches Gustav in the face.

Gustav goes down. “Fucking Bell,” his assailant growls, kicking him in the ribs.

Gustav’s no dummy. He knows everyone hates Bell. He knows all about the bandwidth throttling, the extortionate overpriced contracts, the abusive telemarketing and contemptuous customer service, the routine surveillance of customers for the benefit of any government snoop with her hand out. But— “That’s not me!” he cries around a mouthful of broken teeth. “I don’t make those decisions— I just sell phones!

“It… doesn’t…matter!” the attacker spits out, emphasizing each word with another vicious kick. “You…knew. You… chose… to… work… for… them…” Eventually he tires himself out and wanders away, leaving Gustav to bleed out on the pavement.

Just a psycho with anger-management issues, you might think if you’re a Bell CEO reading about it the next day. Nothing for you to worry about, even if you did just cut Tech Support’s budget by another 10% because you want a fatter year-end bonus. The peasants will never get to you; you’re safe up here on the 50th floor. Shame about poor ol’ Gustav, though.

But then it happens to Shirley. And then Piotr. And Mahmoud, and George. All those underpaid drones hawking your wares at the local malls are suddenly getting the shit kicked out them by random strangers. It’s the weirdest thing. None of the attackers even have criminal records.

Now no one wants to work for you. Drones quit in droves for fear of being kicked to death like dogs in the street, and not even the unprecedented promise of a decent wage can lure in replacements. Management’s safe— they don’t deal with the public— but how can the top of a pyramid stay standing when the base just up and leaves? Bell has but two choices: go broke, or stop pissing off their customers. For the rest of us, it’s win-win.

Isn’t that a wonderful little scenario? I call it “The Justice Plague”, and I fully intend to write it as soon as I can come up with an actual storyline. So far it’s all premise and no plot.

It’s a terrific premise, though. It hinges on yogurt— more precisely, on the ways gut microbes affect your behavior.

Of course, we’ve always known that your gut affects your mood. But the extent and complexity of those effects is only now coming to light— and it goes way beyond the cramps you get from salmonella, or the tryptophan drowsiness that lays you low after a turkey dinner. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that your gut bacteria are a large part of what makes you you, psychologically. Transfer gut biota from one animal to another, and you transfer personality traits as well.

Think about that. You can literally transplant personality traits via feces. To that extent, we all have shitty personalities.

Liberté indeed.

Liberté indeed.

How does it work? For starters, your gut has a mind of its own: a standalone neural net with the computational complexity of a cat brain (no surprise there— cats are basically stomachs sheathed in fur anyway). Your gut microbes pull its strings by feeding it a complex cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters; gutnet, in turn, tugs at the brain along the Vagus nerve. (Gut bacteria also have a more direct pipe into the brain via the endocrine system. Most of your brain’s neurotransmitters— half the dopamine, most of the serotonin— are actually produced in the gut.) Via such avenues, your gut bacteria influence the formation of memories, especially those with strong emotional components. They affect aggression and anxiety responses by influencing neuroinhibitors in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala (which is responsible for fear, aggression, and the intensity of one’s response to personal-space violations). You can make rats more or less aggressive by tweaking their gut biota.

You see where I’m going with this. Engineered gut bacteria— spread through shipments of spiked yogurt, perhaps— tweaked to promote violent, uncontrollable rage in their hosts. It’s barely even speculation; rabies does that much, and it’s not even engineered.

The big problem is targeting, of course— how to trigger reflexive aggression at the sight of a specific corporate logo. Corporations actually give us a lot of help here; they spend millions designing logos that are simple, striking, and immediately recognizable. So you could tweak responses in the V1 and V2 areas of the visual cortex— those pattern-matching parts of the brain that identify specific shapes and edges. If you could bend such circuits to your will, you could provoke a response in anyone who saw a given shape.

But it would be a lot simpler to let the brain do all that heavy lifting on its own, targeting instead those circuits that connect a general sense of “recognition” to the emotional response one feels at the sight of a given brand. You’d have to be familiar with that brand for this trigger to work— it keys on feelings of recognition, not the specific geometry of the stimulus— but who doesn’t recognize the logos of major corporations these days? The best part is that all those recognition/response macros are located in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and in the— wait for it—

The amygdala. Back down in the limbic system, where gut bugs already affect aggression.

Why, we might be able to pull this whole thing off without ever leaving the basement. We don’t even have to create the response; just magnify pre-existing resentment and let it off the leash. A thousand, a million disgruntled customers: turned into weapons of mass corporate destruction with a little help from the yogurt industry.

Hey, all you basement biologists. All you DIY Lifehackers.

Looking for a project?

Late-breaking Postscript, 0900 30/10/15: Well, look what came over the transom— from none other than Jesus Olmo, who actually wrote the screenplay for the original “28 Weeks Later”…

Here's hoping 20th Century Fox doesn't sue either of us for copyright infringement...

Here’s hoping 20th Century Fox doesn’t sue either of us for copyright infringement…

Posted in: biology, neuro by Peter Watts 63 Comments

Poet Turned Scientist. Scientist Turned Novelist. Who Will Prevail?

Christian Bök.
My Nemesis.

You may have heard of this guy before.

You may remember the occasional item on the crawl where I speak of his genetically-engineered Xenotext, or grumble about this fucking poet who makes microbes dance at his command while I spent two years failing miserably in my attempts to master the Fischer-Price Gene Starter Kit. If you read Echopraxia you may have encountered a fragment of the man’s work, iterating quietly away in the Oregon desert while Humanity burns itself to the ground:

He sampled the water, scraped flecks from the stone, pulled leaves from the ground and ran them through his barcoder. He found a thousand common bacteria, a few purebred, most rotten with lateral transfer.

He only found one that glowed in the dark.

It was a dialogue: gene and protein, talking to each other. It was a straight transposition of amino into alphabet: valine, threonine, alanine into t-h-e, phenylalanine-glutamine-valine-alanine into f-a-t-e, serine press-ganged into hard-space or hard-return depending on the iteration. The fluorescent protein spelled out a message—

                the faery is rosy
                of glow
                in fate
                we rely…                               

“It’s not contamination or lateral transfer. It’s a poem.”

“Not for you,” Valerie said. “You’re looking for something else.”

No, he thought. You are.

 

Picture.  It happened.

Picture. It happened.

If you use the Internet for things that don’t have anything to do with me (although really, why would you want to?), you might have even encountered Bök’s Griffin-Award-winning and Obama-autobiography-outselling (in the UK at least) Eunoia, or his debut work Crystallography— which, in addition to being a work of poetry, is also the Amazon #1 nonfiction seller in an arcane subspecies of chemistry.

But if you live in the GTA, instead of following all those obscure links you might just want to head down to the waterfront this coming Sunday, where I’ll be interviewing him at the 36th iteration of the International Festival of Authors.

You read that right. Your ‘umble Narrator is going to be interviewing a poet. 2pm, Brigantine Room, 235 Queens Quay West. It’s even free if you’re a student and/or under 25. If you’re neither of those things it’s $18, but those are Canadian bucks so it only comes out to around $2.50 US. Plus it includes a Q&A so you can ask your own questions, if you even have any after I strip away all of Christian Bök’s dirty little secrets on-stage (do you know, for example, that he worked on a cheesy Canadian SciFi cable feeder show? Now you do).

Think of it as a kind of Canliterary Thunderdome: Two Men Enter. One Man asks questions.

Come on, it’s a Sunday. What else are you gonna do, go to church?

Or if not Thunderdome, then maybe this.

Or if not Thunderdome, then maybe this.


(Quick note for those who don’t obsessively go back over the comments of Crawl Posts Past: pursuant to last week’s entry, Jesus Olmo has pointed me to "Investigate Fortitude", a nifty series of 3-minute Youtube shorts exploring the science that underlies the show. Be warned: these were originally aired following each episode, so they contain massive spoilers; the last one gives away the punchline of the whole season.)

Posted in: interviews, On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 3 Comments