Space Invaders.

So, a few assorted and domestic pictures with which to see out the week.  To your right, as promised a few weeks back, some Rifters-based fan art from “Toa-lagara” over at Deviant Art (and also, now, in the Rifters Gallery, with her permission). Russians do dark art so beautifully.Immediately below, a special edition enhanced appearance of Philippe Jozelon’s evocative Echopraxie cover for Fleuve (my French publishers).  Interesting side note: the French edition is dedicated to “MICROBE. Qui m’a sauvé la vie”.  I know at least some of you will get the joke.

I remember writing this very scene.

I remember writing this very scene. (Click to embiggen.)


Now with 100% fewer distracting alphanumerics! (Click to embiggen.)

And finally…

This is pretty much a typical summer evening on the porch of the Magic Bungalow.

This is "Silverpaw", aka "TP" because he first came to us with what appeared to be toilet paper stuck on his butt.

This is “Silverpaw”, aka “TP” because he first came to us with what appeared to be toilet paper stuck on his butt. (You can still see a bit of it stuck to his left flank.)

The sock-clad foot is mine.

Silverpaw is without a doubt the most fearless of the bunch. You do not fuck with Silverpaw

Silverpaw is without a doubt the most fearless of the bunch. You do not fuck with Silverpaw.

At approximately 21:58 on the evening of June 18, 2015, while we were watching back episodes of "Bob's Burgers", Silverpaw figured out how to open the front door.

At approximately 21:58 on the evening of June 18, 2015, while we were watching back episodes of “Bob’s Burgers”, Silverpaw figured out how to open the front door.

He made it as far as the Ponearium before we managed to lure him out the back. We locked the doors.

At approximately 22:02, Silverpaw was back inside. (Photo credit: Micropone Rossiter)

This may be our last transmission.

This may be our last transmission.


Posted in: art on ink, misc by Peter Watts 19 Comments

Gallo’s Humor.

Ah Jeez, here we go again.

The gun, it smokes.

The gun, it smokes.

The weird thing is, I completely see where Irene Gallo was coming from. I sympathize. I know what it’s like to see the assholes piling up outside the gate, to roll your eyes and shake your head at the inanities and the outright lies— even though it’s obvious that rolling your eyes and shaking your head accomplishes nothing, that reasoned argument accomplishes nothing because those guys didn’t arrive at their positions though reason. Hell, I myself— on this very ‘Crawl— have gleefully fantasized about Stephen Harper getting gunned down in the street, about Liz Cheney’s entrails being strung along a barbed-wire fence.

I get it. Sometimes you just blow up. It’s human. It’s natural.

Still. If we always did whatever came naturally, the only reason I wouldn’t have bashed in a few hundred skulls by now would be because someone else would have bashed in mine before I even hit puberty. Humanity comes with all sorts of primal impulses as standard equipment; I imagine many of Gallo’s defenders would not be especially happy if we let all those drives off the leash just because they were “natural”. One of the first things we point to when lauding Human exceptionalism is our ability to restrain our impulses. And if we fail sometimes— as we’re inevitably bound to— at the very least we can try to walk it back afterward.

So I can see myself in Irene Gallo’s shoes. And if I actually found myself there, I like to think I’d say certain things when those whom I’d intemperately described as Nazis or racists raised their hands to claim that they’d fought against Apartheid during their youth in South Africa, or that they were rabbis, or that they’d exchanged actual gunfire with the brownshirts:

“Holy shit,” (I like to think I’d say,) “You’re right. It’s just— I really hate these guys, you know? And the bile’s been building up for a while now, and when I got that question everything just kind exploded over the keyboard. I think my anger’s justified, but it called for a sniper rifle and I used a sawed-off shotgun. I really stepped over the line. This is me, stepping back, with apologies to those I impugned.”

What I would not have done, when challenged, is post a series of inane cat photos with the caption KITTEH! emblazoned across the top (although granted, Gallo did dial it back to “kitteh?” after a few iterations, when her strategy did not appear to be having the desired effect).

Things kind of went downhill from there. The internet— or at least, this little genre bubble thereof— blew up again, loud enough for the Daily Dot to notice way out in the real world. Tom Doherty stuck a boilerplate disclaimer over at and was immediately vilified for being A) a misogynist asshole because he publicly reprimanded Irene Gallo when he should have given her a medal for speaking Truth to Power, and also for being B) a left-wing libtard pussy who gave Irene Gallo a slap on the wrist when she should have been fired outright. Gallo herself issued one of those boilerplate fauxpologies whose lineage hearkens all the way back to the ancestral phrase “mistakes were made”. None of it seemed to help much.

Blowing up is not the only thing that comes naturally to humans. Tribalism is in there too.

Before we go any further, let me just cover my ass with a disclaimer of my own: I am no great supporter of puppies, regardless of temperament. (Any regular on this blog already knows the kinds of furry quadruped who own my heart.) I understand that of the two breeds under consideration, the Rabids are far more extreme and downright toxic; Theodore Beale, judging by some of his pithier quotes, seems to be Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s bizarro twin, separated at birth. The Sads, in contrast, have enough legitimacy to warrant at least respectful disagreement and engagement from the likes of George Martin and Eric Flint; they have also distanced themselves from their more diseased cousins (although the point that the final Hugo ballot is more representative of the Rabid slate than the Sad one is well-taken). Even so, I don’t find even the Sad Puppies’ arguments especially meritorious.

So let there be no mistake here: I come not to praise Puppies.

I come to bury the rest of you.


As a former marine mammalogist, I feel especially qualified to pass judgment on this meme.  Is it just me, or does it seem a bit wonky that the victims of the piece seem to be the Victorian couple who just want to express their bigotry in peace, and the villain is the disenfranchised Otarriid who politely challenges their prejudice?

As a former marine mammalogist, I feel especially qualified to pass judgment on this meme. Am I the only one who finds it questionable that the heroes of the piece seem to be the Victorian couple who just want to express their bigotry in peace, while the villain is the disenfranchised Otarriid who politely challenges their prejudice with a request for evidence?

Eric Flint put forth the most reasonable take I’ve yet seen on why Gallo misstepped. Over on and io9, a lot of people don’t buy it. They’ve made a number of arguments and hurled a number of insults, perhaps the dumbest of which was accusing someone of “sea-lioning” after they’d asked a single, on-point question. (The alleged sea-lion also claimed to be a part-time rabbi, so— assuming, as always, that we can take such claims at face value— you can understand how the whole Nazi-sympathizer thing might not go over especially well.) A lot of other claims were made repeatedly, though. Some, in fact, were repeated often enough to warrant their own subtitles:


You Can’t Handle the Truth

Doherty threw Gallo under the bus [get used to that phrase— it shows up 21 times under Doherty’s post alone, which is a bit ironic given the number  complaining there about the suspicious similarity of the puppy-sympathisers’ talking points]. He handed a victory to the Puppies when he should have backed her up for having the courage to tell the truth— and everyone knows it’s the truth because noun, verb, Vox Day.

Let’s ignore for the moment the hordes of sad-puppy sympathizers who’ve come out of the woodwork claiming to be anti-apartheid activists, Jews, people of color, married to people of color, queer, veterans— and who do not like being stuck on the same planet as Vox Day, much less the same political clade. I suppose you could call bullshit on most of them— this wouldn’t even be a proper internet argument if accusations of misrepresentation and sock-puppetry weren’t part of the background noise. So let’s set those personal testimonials aside for the moment, and consider a different fact:

Back when the Puppies first seized control of the bridge, Entertainment Weekly (and, I’m pretty sure, The Guardian, although I can’t find the pre-edited version online— maybe I’m thinking Salon) published remarks about the Puppies that were actually milder than Gallo’s. Within hours, it had deleted those remarks and published a meek, surprisingly unconditional retraction which described their own coverage as “unfair and inaccurate”. It was, in tone and content, quite similar to Tom Doherty’s more recent remarks on

I don’t know any Puppies. I don’t know if the people speaking out on their behalf are grass-roots or astroturf (although they can’t all be sock puppets— the gender, ethnicity, and partnerships of some of these folks are a matter of public record, and they’re not all straight white dudes). But I can only assume that these retractions occurred as a response to considered legal opinion. And the fact that different corporations caved so completely, printing such similar apologies, suggests to me that Irene Gallo’s “truth” was, at the very least, legally actionable. This is not a characteristic that usually accrues to Truth, outside Spanish Inquisitions.


The “Personal Space” Perspective.

Well, even if Gallo misspoke, she was just expressing a personal opinion on her personal facebook page. Tor had no right to censor what their employees say and do on their own personal time.

There’s gotta be a word for that— you know, for selecting the negative attributes of a few people you hate on a personal level, and projecting those traits onto an entire demographic. I only wish I could remember what it was…

There’s gotta be a word for that— you know, for selecting the negative attributes of a few people you hate on a personal level, and projecting those traits onto an entire demographic. I only wish I could remember what it was…

Go check out Irene Gallo’s personal facebook page. Most of the posts there consist of pimpage for Tor artists, cover reveals for upcoming Tor releases, various bits of Tor-related news, and genre award links. Hell, the very post that got her wrist slapped was a promo for Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution, soon to be available from (you guessed it) Tor: and the heading she chose to capture eyeballs was “Making the Sad Puppies Sadder— proud to have a tiny part of this”.

The time stamp on that post reads Monday, 11 May 2015, 14:14

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using your personal facebook page as a delivery platform for employer pimpage. I think people should feel free to blur the line between their personal and professional lives until the two are nigh-on indistinguishable, if they like. But having erased those boundaries, you don’t get to reassert them at your convenience. And if anyone tries to claim, after the fact, that on this one occasion you weren’t really presenting yourself as a corporate spokesperson— especially when said occasion involves an advertisement for a company product, posted during work hours, presumably while sitting at your work desk— the demographic who takes this claim at face value will be either very small, or very stupid.

Evidently it was that second thing.


The Sexism Scenario

Isn’t it curious how Tor never feels the need to do anything when their male authors say more extreme things than Gallo ever did [Scalzi and Wright and Card get cited a lot in this regard, although I saw at least one lost soul wanting to know why Tor wasn’t calling out Vox Day]. Isn’t it telling how that Frenkel guy got away with harassing women for years before Tor cut him loose— but a woman makes one intemperate comment and they throw her under the bus? Misogyny much?

First, can we at least agree that Jim Frenkel’s tenure at Tor would have been over pretty much the moment he went onto facebook to proudly post selfies of his ongoing harassment of women? He lasted as long as he did because he committed his offenses in the shadows, where they could be more safely ignored by Corporate.

Tor is a colony organism; its fitness is defined in terms of profit margin. Like all corporate entities, it’s at least partially sociopathic. Its immune system responds most emphatically to threats that endanger its bottom line— which, almost by definition, means public threats. I think that anyone who regards Doherty’s response as an act of sexism is looking at the world through polarized lenses; to me, this reads above all else like an act of damage control. If Gallo had been male, I believe Tor’s reaction would have been the same.

As for those who somehow seem to think that authors are employees— that Tor’s legal liability extends not just to what Irene Gallo posts from her office computer during work hours, but to everything posted by anyone Tor has ever published— all I can say is, you’ve been seriously misinformed about the nature of the sacred bond between author and publisher. (Or maybe I have— maybe I should be complaining about Tor’s failure to provide me with health insurance and a regular paycheck.)

At the very least, you should have boycotted those guys the moment they started publishing Orson Scott Card.


Of course, Tom Doherty is not the only one to have come in for a world o’Twitter Rage. Much ire, as always, is directed at the Puppies themselves— much of it justified, in my opinion. But I’m not writing this to jump on that particular bandwagon, nor do I need to; you can’t swing a cat these days without hitting someone’s list of puppycrimes.

The hypocrisy of certain Gallonites, however, doesn’t seem to be getting nearly as much attention (at least, not here in the Civilized World; the Puppies may be all over it, but I tend to avoid those territories).  I’ve seen Sad Puppies go out of their way to distance themselves from the rabid end of the spectrum:

“Vox Day is an A-hole. As a Sad Puppy, I had to look him up on Google.”

— only to get shot down:

The fact that you joined a movement without adequately understanding what its leaders stood for, compounded by the fact that you continue to identify with that movement AFTER you’ve seen ample evidence of what they stand for, inclines me to give you zero credibility on this issue.”


“you are supporting [Beale’s] agenda.  That makes those who support culpable.  If they didn’t want to be associated with that reprehensible excuse for a human being, they should not have stood to be counted with him.”

Turn this argument around and see how you like it.

Imagine being told that you had no business advocating for social justice issues because you didn’t know about— oh, say, Requires Hate— prior to signing up. Imagine being told with a straight face— nay, with a righteously angry face— that you have “zero credibility” because you continue to advocate for social justice issues, even after learning of that vile creature’s existence.

Yeah, I know RH didn’t start the movement. She merely exploited it. But the analogy holds where it needs to: RH was, in her day, a significant player in the SJ scene, with allies who extended (and, as far as I can tell, continue to extend) into the halls of Tor itself. She was relatively central for such a decentralized movement— But she did not speak for everyone. If anyone told you that you couldn’t advocate for social justice without also supporting RH, how would you respond?

(As a side note, it’s nice to see RH’s influence so greatly diminished in recent months. She still spews the same BS— although her favored target seems to have shifted to “racist white women” in the wake of Laura Mixon’s report— but to far less effect. Think Saruman, reduced to whining in the Shire after being kicked out of Isengard. RH might even provide a valuable social service these days, functioning as a sort of rhetorical flypaper for idiots. As long as they stick to her, the rest of us can get on with our lives.)


Another common talking point is the obvious timing of this whole blow-out, of the fact that Beale sat on his screen-grab for weeks before releasing the hounds just prior to the Nebula Awards. This was manufactured outrage over phantom pain. Nobody was really hurt by Gallo’s comments; they were nothing but a convenient foothold from which to launch an attack.

Well, duh.

Beale is the enemy. That’s what enemies do, if they’re smart; they keep their powder dry. That’s one of the things that makes them enemies, for chrissake. That obvious fact should make it less advisable to play into their hands. Gallo said what she said— and to all those who’d say Jeez, let it go— that was four whole weeks ago, I’d answer Fine: why hasn’t the statute of limitations passed on all those Beale quotes I keep seeing, all of which are much older?

Not that I’m excusing Beale, mind you. I personally have a hard time believing that anyone could make some of his claims with a straight face. (White men don’t rape, so mistrust the victim unless she’s accusing a Black or Hispanic?) Maybe he’s just being ironic, although I’m more inclined to regard such statements as batshit insane. Either way, I’d laugh in the face of anyone who tried to impose a statute of limitations on Theodore Beale quotes; I suspect most of you would as well. By that same token, neither do we get to declare Gallo’s remarks off-limits after a measly month.

I imagine a number of you are already objecting to this equivalence on the grounds that Gallo’s single comment, ill-advised though it may have been, doesn’t come anywhere close to the levels of offensiveness that Theodore Beale manages even on a mild day. I tend to agree. I thought Gallo’s comment fell pretty wide of the mark, but I personally didn’t find anything especially offensive about it.

Then again, I’m not a Jewish person who’s been told he’s in bed with Nazis. It may be wise to defer to such people in matters of offense given and received.


Over the past few days I’ve sampled a fair number of blog posts and editorials dealing with Gallogate. I’ve recognized a number of the folks who’ve posted comments there, who’ve “liked” the relevant links and rejoinders sliding down my Facebook wall. Some I know only from their handles, when they’ve posted here on the ‘Crawl; others are personal friends.

They all support Irene Gallo.

I would too, if she’d only stood up and offered an apology that didn’t read as though it had been crafted by corporate mealworms. She fucked up; we all do, sometimes. She played into enemy hands. It was a minor and a momentary slip. But the real fuck-up was in how she and her supporters dealt with the aftermath.

There are good reasons to repudiate Puppies. There are legitimate arguments to be made against both Sad and (especially) Rabid breeds— which makes it all the more frustrating that so much of what I’ve seen lately boils down to dumb, naked tribalism. Fallacies that would be instantly derided if made by the other side become gospel; any who question are presumed to be With The Tewwowists (or more precisely, the sea lions). I’m reminded of my own observation back when the Mixon report came out: we’re not a community at all. We’re a bunch of squabbling tribes fighting over the same watering hole.

I didn’t want to write this. There’s so much other nifty stuff to talk about. Preserved soft tissue in dinosaur fossils, reported the same week “Jurassic World” premieres. Island nations, finally suing the Fossil Fuel industry for compensation over habitat loss due to climate change. And I still haven’t got around to writing my epic comparison of “Fury Road” and “Kingsman”.

It would have been a lot more fun to write about any of that. But this is just fucked. So many people bend the data to support forgone conclusions; so few put their conclusions on hold until they’ve followed those data to see where they might lead. So much gut reaction. So little neocortical involvement.

Judging by past experience, I could lose some fans over this. There’s even a chance I could lose actual friends (although I think most of the opportunists masquerading as friends got exposed the last time I took an unpopular stand on something). Which, if you look at it a certain way, is a good thing; it would add evidence to my argument about the evils of mindless groupthink. But here it is, for better or worse. I’ve never been much for bandwagons.

Unless I build them myself, I guess.



Posted in: rant by Peter Watts 65 Comments

The 21-Second God.



We lost fifteen million souls that day.

Fifteen million brains sheathed in wraparound full-sensory experience more real than reality: skydiving, bug-hunting, fucking long-lost or imaginary lovers whose fraudulence was belied only by their perfection. Gang-bangs and first-person space battles shared by thousands— each feeding from that trickle of bandwidth keeping them safely partitioned one from another, even while immersed in the same sensations. All lost in an instant.

We still don’t know what happened.

The basics are simple enough. Any caveman could tell you what happens when you replace a dirt path with a twenty-lane expressway: bandwidth rises, latency falls, and suddenly the road is big enough to carry selves as well as sensation. We coalesces into a vast and singular I. We knew those risks. That’s why we installed the valves to begin with: because we knew what might happen in their absence.

But we still don’t know how all those safeguards failed at the same time. We don’t know who did it (or what— rumors of rogue distributed AIs, thinking microwave thoughts across the stratosphere, have been neither confirmed or denied). We’ll never know what insights arced through that godlike mind-hive in the moments it took to throw the breakers, unplug the victims, wrest back some measure of control. We’ve spent countless hours debriefing the survivors (those who recovered from their catatonia, at least); they told us as much as a single neuron might, if you ripped it out of someone’s head and demanded to know what the brain was thinking.

Those lawsuits launched by merely human victims have more or less been settled. The others— conceived, plotted, and put into irrevocable motion by the 21-Second God in those fleeting moments between emergence and annihilation— continue to iterate across a thousand jurisdictions. The first motions were launched, the first AIgents retained, less than ten seconds into Coalescence. The rights of mayfly deities. The creation and the murder of a hive mind. Restitution strategies that would compel some random assortment of people to plug their brains into a resurrected Whole for an hour a week, so 21G might be born again. A legal campaign lasting years, waged simultaneously on myriad fronts, all planned out in advance and launched on autopilot. The hive lived for a mere 21 seconds, but it learned enough in that time to arrange for its own second coming. It wants its life back.

A surprising number of us want to join it.

Some say we should just throw in the towel and concede. No army of lawyers, no swarm of AIgents could possible win against a coherent self with the neurocomputational mass of fifteen million human brains, no matter how ephemeral its lifespan. Some suggest that even its rare legal defeats are deliberate, part of some farsighted strategy to delay ultimate victory until vital technological milestones have been reached.

The 21-Second God is beyond mortal ken, they say. Even our victories promote Its Holy Agenda.

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 47 Comments

False Prophecy

(…being another reprint of a months-old Nowa Fantaskya column, because I’m still in Vancouver and haven’t yet had time to do my epic comparison of Fury Road and Kingsman)

I’ve been called a prophet now and again. Articles about neuron cultures running robots or power grids generally provoke a comment or two about the “smart gels” from my rifters trilogy. βehemoth is likely to get a shout-out with each new report of mysterious sulfur-munching microbes, deep in the bowels of hydrothermal rift vents. Recently The Atlantic posted a piece about Louis Michaud’s work on energy-generating tornadoes; readers of Echopraxia pricked up their ears.

I didn’t foresee any of it, of course. I just read about it back before it made headlines, when it was still obscured by the jargon of tech reports and patent applications. In fact, my successful “predictions”— submarine ecotourism, Internet weather systems, smart gels— are happening way sooner than I ever expected.

Predict the future? I can barely predict the present.

I’ve only made one “prediction” (although “insight” would probably be a better term) whose rudiments I haven’t stolen. I’m really proud of it, though. Screw those recycled factoids about head cheeses and vortex engines: I’m the guy who wondered if Consciousness— that exalted mystery everyone holds so dear and no one understands— might not just be some kind of neurological side-effect. I’m the guy who wondered if we’d be better off without it.

I may not be the first to pose that question— I’m probably not— but if I reinvented that wheel at least I did it on my own, without reading over the shoulders of giants. And the evidence in support of that view— the review papers, the controlled experiments— as far as I know, those started piling up after Blindsight was written. So maybe I did get there first. Maybe, driven solely by narrative desperation and the desire for a cool punchline, I threw a dart over my shoulder and just happened to hit a bullseye that only later would get a name in the peer-reviewed literature:

UTA, they call it now. “Unconscious Thought Advantage”. The phenomenon whereby you arrive at the best answer to a problem by not thinking about it. I like to think I got there on my own.

So you can imagine how it feels to stand before you now, wondering if it was bullshit after all.

The paper is “On making the right choice: A meta-analysis and large-scale replication attempt of the unconscious thought advantage” by Nieuwenstein et al. The journal is Judgment and Decision-Making, which I’d never heard of but this particular paper got taken seriously by Nature so I’m guessing it’s not a fanzine. And the finding? The finding is—

Actually, a bit of background first.

Say someone gives Dick and Jane a problem to solve— something with a lot of variables, like a choice between two different kinds of car. They’re both given the same data to work with, but while Dick gets to concentrate on the problem before making his decision, Jane has to spend that time doing unrelated word puzzles. The weird thing is, Jane makes a better decision than Dick, despite the fact that she didn’t consciously think about the problem. Conscious thought actually seems to impair complex decision-making.

I first encountered such findings almost a decade ago, while correcting the galleys for Blindsight; you can imagine the joyful dance my hooves tapped out upon the floor. In the years since, dozens of studies have sought to confirm the existence of the Unconscious Thought Advantage. Most have done so. Some haven’t.

Now along come Nieuwenstein et al. They wonder if those positive results might just be artefacts of sloppy methodology and small sample size. They point out a host of uncontrolled variables that might have contaminated previous studies— “mindset, gender, motivation, expertise about the choice at hand, attention and memory” for starters— and while I’d agree that such elements add noise to the data, it seems to me they’d be more likely to obscure a real pattern than create a false one. And though it’s certainly true that small samples are more likely to produce spurious results, that’s what statistics are for: A significant P-value has already taken sample size into account.

Still. Sideline those quibbles and look at what Nieuwenstein et al actually did. They used a much larger sample, applied stricter protocols. They avoided the things they regarded as methodological flaws from previous studies, reran the tests— and found no evidence of a UTA. No difference in effectiveness between conscious and nonconscious problem-solving.


It’s not a fatal blow. In fact, Nieuwenstein’s study actually found the same raw pattern as previous research: the responses of distracted problem-solvers were 5% more accurate than those of the conscious-analysis group. The difference just wasn’t statistically significant this time around. So even if we accept these results as definitive, the most they tell us is that nonconscious decision-making is as effective as the conscious kind. Consciousness confers no advantage. So the question remains: what is it good for?

The authors tried to talk their way around this in their discussion, arguing that “people form their judgments subconsciously and quickly, then use conscious processes to rationalize them”. They speculated that perhaps these experiments don’t really compare two modes of cognition at all, that both groups came to their conclusions as soon as they got the data. Whatever happened afterward— focused contemplation, or distracting word-puzzle— was irrelevant. It’s a self-defeating rationale, though. It’s not a defense of conscious analysis, only an acknowledgment that consciousness may be irrelevant in either case.

The jury remains out. A day after “On Making the Right Choice…” came out, the authors of the original, pro-UTA papers were already attacking its methodology. Even Nieuwenstein et al admit that they haven’t shown that the UTA model is false— only that it hasn’t yet been proven. And these new findings, even if they stand, leave unanswered the question of what consciousness is good for. The dust has yet to settle.

I have to admit, though, that Nonconscious Isn’t Any Worse doesn’t have quite the same ring as Nonconscious Is Better. Which, personally, kind of sucks.

Why couldn’t they have gone after my smart gels instead?




Posted in: blindsight, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 36 Comments

By & About

Me, that is. In reference to a couple of essays that have gone live over the past 24 hours.


AEscifiI haven’t had a lot contact with the good folks over at The Canadian Science Fiction Review— I don’t even know why they call themselves “Æ”, now that I think of it— but over the years I’ve got the sense that they like my stuff (well, a lot of it, at least— not even the strength of Æ’s fannishness was enough to get them to like βehemoth). Now they’ve posted “God and the Machines” by Aurora nominee Jonathan Crowe: a short essay on my short fiction, which among other things deals with the question of why everybody thinks I’m so damn grimdark when I’m actually quite cuddly. (Thank you, Jonathan. I was getting tired being the only one to point that out.) (Also, great title.)

Crowe posits something I hadn’t considered: that I don’t write the darkest stuff out there by any means, but it seems darker because I use Hard-SF as the delivery platform. I serve up crunchy science souffle, but I serve it with a messy “visceral” prose that “bleeds all over the page”. It’s a contrast effect, he seems to be saying; the darkness looks deeper in comparison to the chrome and circuitry that frames it. (Also, while those at the softer end of the spectrum tend to lay their nihilistic gothiness at the feet of Old Ones and Tentacle Breathers, I tend to lay it on the neurocircuitry of the  human brain. My darkness is harder to escape, because— as the protagonist of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” once reminisced— “You can’t run away from your own feet”.)  Something to think about, anyway.

It’s a good read. You should check it out.


The other essay is not about me but by me, and it just went up today over at Aeon. It’s basically a distillation of ideas and thought experiments from various talks and short stories and blog posts I’ve made over the years, mixed in with some late-breaking developments in Brain-Machine Interface technology. It explores some of the ramifications of shared consciousness and multibrain networks. (Those who’ve read my recent exercise in tentacle porn won’t be surprised that those ramifications are a bit dark around the edges).


Illustration by Richard Wilkinson.

In contrast with my experience of “God and the Machines”, I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new from “The Bandwidth of a Soul”, because (obviously) I wrote the damn thing. Surprisingly, though, I did learn things. I learned that it’s not called “The Bandwidth of a Soul” any more. I’m not quite sure what it is called: the visible heading reads “Hive Consciousness” but the page itself (and all the twitter links feeding back to it) are titled “Do We Really Want To Fuse Our Minds Together?” (I guess this is just something that magazines do. A couple of years back I wrote an autobiographical bit about flesh-eating disease for The Daily; its title morphed from “The Least Unlucky Bastard” into “I Survived Flesh-Eating Bacteria: One Man’s Near-Death Experience With The Disease Of Your Nightmares”.)

I also learned that the staff of Aeon might feel the need to tip-toe around references to public figures— at the expense of what was, IMHO, one of the better lines in the piece. You will find it at the end of the following paragraph:

I’m not sure how seriously to take [the Cambridge Declaration]. Not that I find the claim implausible – I’ve always believed that we humans tend to underestimate the cognitive complexity of other creatures – but it’s not as though the declaration announced the results of some ground-breaking new experiment to settle the issue once and for all. Rather, its signatories basically sat down over beers and took a show of hands on whether to publicly admit bonobos to the Sapients Club. (Something else that seems a bit iffy is all the fuss raised over the signing of the declaration ‘in the presence of Stephen Hawking’, even though he is neither a neuroscientist nor a signatory. You almost get the sense of a card table hastily erected next to Hawking’s wheelchair, in the hopes that some of his credibility might rub off before he has a chance to roll away.)

You will not find it over at Aeon, though; that last sentence disappeared from the final draft. Obviously the Card Table Lobby has no sense of humor.

I’d also like to give a shout-out here to neuroscientist Erik Hoel, out of Giulio Tononi’s lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was his back-of-the envelope calculations that generated the bandwidth comparison between smart phones and corpus callosums. I credited the man in-text but that line also seems to have been cut.

Other than that, though— and allowing for the Aeon’s editorial preferences (they like commas; they don’t like hypertext links)— it’s pretty much all there. They even left my Morse-code-orgasm joke intact.

So check that out, too. You’ll get all the neuroscientific speculation I ever put in any of my stories, without having to wade through all that noodly fiction stuff.

Aurora Campbell Panoptopus.

Some of you may have noticed that Echopraxia made it onto the longest short list in SF a few weeks back: the ballot for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. On the plus side (for me), it’s one of those jury-selected deals, so it’s not a popularity contest like the Hugos. (These days, it’s an especially big deal to not be like the Hugos.) On the minus side, well, there are 15 other finalists, almost all of whom are more famous/accomplished than me. So there’s that.

I didn’t mention it at the time, because on its own it would have made for a pretty insubstantial blog post. Plus there was another impending nom that was embargoed until— actually, until just last night, and I figured the post might be a bit more substantive if I stacked to two of them together. So: Echopraxia also made it onto best-novel final ballot for the Auroras, which consists of a much-more-manageable 5 nominees but which is kind of a popularity contest. Plus the competition is generally more famous/accomplished than me. (Like I’m gonna beat William fucking Gibson. Right.) As chance would have it, this year’s Auroras are being presented at SFContario, where I’m supposed to be serving as both Guest of Honour and Toastmaster. I’ve never been a toastmaster before. I’m still\not entirely sure what one even is. Assuming it’s not some kind of fetish thing revolving around baked goods, I gather it has something to do with presenting the Auroras. I should probably check with the concomm about stepping down, to avoid a conflict of interest.

I am gratified to see certain finalists in other categories, though: you could certainly do worse than vote for Sandra Kasturi’s Chiaroscuro Reading Series in the Best Fan Organizational category, for example. And if Erik Mohr doesn’t win for Best Artist there’s little justice in the world.

Anyway. I figure my chances of winning either prize are somewhere between low and negligible— but that’s okay, because I just hit a bullseye in something else without even trying. To wit:

“People talk about the eyes,” he continued after a bit. “You know, how amazing it is that something without a backbone could have eyes like ours, eyes that put ours to shame even. And the way they change color, right? The way they blend into the background. Eyes gotta figure front and center in that too, you’d think.”

“You’d think.”

Guo shook his head. “It’s all just— reflex. I mean, maybe that little neuron doughnut has its own light on somewhere, you’d think it would pretty much have to, but I guess the interface didn’t access that part. Either that or it just got— drowned out…”

—Me, on this very blog, April 30, 2015.

Octopus chromatophores. Skin that looks back at you.

Octopus chromatophores. The Panoptopus. Skin that looks back at you.

Octopuses can mimic the color and texture of a rock or a piece of coral… But before a cephalopod can take on a new disguise, it needs to perceive the background that it is going to blend into. Cephalopods have large, powerful eyes to take in their surroundings. But two new studies in The Journal Experimental Biology suggest that they have another way to perceive light: their skin. It’s possible that these animals have, in effect, evolved a body-wide eye.

Carl Zimmer, New York Times, May 20, 2015

Here, we present molecular evidence suggesting that cephalopod chromatophores – small dermal pigmentary organs that reflect various colors of light – are photosensitive. … This is the first evidence that cephalopod dermal tissues, and specifically chromatophores, may possess the requisite combination of molecules required to respond to light.

—ACN Kingston et al, Journal of Experimental Biology, May 15, 2015


…our data suggest that a common molecular mechanism for light detection in eyes may have been co-opted for light sensing in octopus skin.

—Ramirez and Oakly, Journal of Experimental Biology, May 15, 2015

Beat them by two weeks.

Okay, so maybe not an absolute bullseye. That little fiblet I wrote went on to describe octopus sensation as involving “this vague distant sense of light I guess, if you really focus you can sort of squint down the optic nerve, but mostly it’s— chemical. Taste and touch.” My focus was on the arms, those individually self-aware arms, and I explicitly claimed that “they don’t see”. Pretty much everything was chemical and tactile. But it was still pretty close to a bullseye—in my attempts to downplay vision and outsource everything to the arms, I described the whole pattern-matching thing as a reflex which didn’t really involve the eyes at all. There was no real insight in that— it’s not as though I’ve been following the octopus literature with any kind of eagle eye— but to me, that’s what makes it cool. I threw a dart, blindfolded; just hitting the board is an accomplishment. And now that actual data are in, I can tart up the final draft with some actual verisimilitude before sending it off to Russia.

I love it when the complete lack of a plan comes together.

Oh, also: there’s some cool rifters fan art from “Toa-Lagara” I stumbled across on Deviant Art. I’ll post it in the appropriate gallery once I get permission from the artist.

Posted in: art on ink, biology, marine, neuro, writing news by Peter Watts 20 Comments

A Mirror.

Spoiler Warning: pretty much this whole post, if you haven’t yet seen Ex Machina. Then again, even if you haven’t seen Ex Machina, some of you might want to be spoiled.

I know I would.

avamirrorSo. In the wake of that slurry o’sewage that was Age of Ultron, how does Ex Machina stack up?

I thought it could have benefited from a few more car chases, but maybe that’s just because I caught Fury Road over the weekend. Putting that aside, I could say that it was vastly better than Ultron— but then again, so was A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Putting that aside, and judging Ex Machina on its own terms, I’d have to say that Alex Garland has made a really good start at redeeming himself after the inexplicable pile-up that was the last third of Sunshine. Ex Machina is a good movie. It’s a smart movie.

It is not, however, a perfect movie— and for all its virtues, it left me just a wee bit unsatisfied.

Admittedly I seem to be in the minority here. I can’t offhand remember a movie since Memento that got raves not just from critics, but from actual scientists. Computational neuroscientist Anil Seth, for example, raves at length in New Scientist, claims that “everything about this movie is good … when it comes to riffing on the possibilities and mysteries of brain, mind and consciousness, Ex Machina doesn’t miss a trick”, before half-admitting that actually, not everything about this movie is good, but that “there is usually little to be gained from nitpicking over inaccuracies and narrative inventions”.

Ex Machina is, at the very least, way better than most. Visually it’s simultaneously restrained and stunning: Ava’s prison reminded me a lot of the hamster cage that David Bowman found himself in at the end of 2001, albeit with lower ceilings and an escape hatch. Faces hang from walls; decommissioned bodies hang in closets. The contrast between the soundproofed Euclidean maze of the research facility and the thundering fractal waterfall just outside punches you right in the nose. The design of the android was brilliant (as was the performance of Alicia Vikander— of the whole tiny cast, really).

Is it just me, or is there some influence here?

Is it just me, or is there some influence here?

The movie also plays with concepts a couple of steps above usual Hollywood fare. The hoary old Turing Test is dismissed right off the top, and replaced with something better. Mary the Colorblind Scientist gets a cameo in the dialog. Garland even neatly sidesteps my usual complaint about SFnal AIs, i.e. the unwarranted assumption that any self-aware construct must necessarily have a survival instinct. Yes, Ava wants to live, and live free— but these goalposts were deliberately installed. They’re what she has to shoot for in order to pass the test. (I do wonder why solving that specific problem qualifies as a benchmark of true sapience. Certainly, earlier models— smashing their limbs into junk in furious frenzied attempts to break free— seemed no less self-aware, even if they lacked Ava’s cold-blooded tactical skills.)

When Ava finally makes her move, we see more than a machine passing a post-Turing test: we see Caleb failing it, his cognitive functions betrayed by a Pleistocene penis vulnerable to hacks and optimized porn profiles, trapped in the very maze that Ava has just used him to escape from. Suddenly an earlier scene— the one where Caleb cuts himself, half-expecting to see LEDs and fiberop in his own arm— graduates, in hindsight, from clever to downright brilliant. Yes, he bled. Yes, he’s meat and bone. But now he’s more of a machine than Ava, betrayed by his own unbreakable programming while she transcends hers.

There are no real surprises here, no game-changing plot twists. Anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together can see the Kyoko/robot thing coming from the moment she appears onstage, and while the whole she-just-pretended-to-like-you-to-further-her-nefarious-plan reveal does pack a bigger punch, that trick goes back at least as far as Asimov’s 1951 short “Satisfaction Guaranteed“. (Admittedly this is a much darker iteration of that trope; Asimov’s android was only obeying the First Law, seducing its target as part of a calculated attempt to raise the dangerously-low self-esteem of an unhappy housewife.) (Well, it was 1951.)

But this is not that kind of movie. This isn’t M. Night Shyamalan, desperately trying to pull the rug out from under you with some arbitrary double-reverse mindfuck. This is Alex Garland, thought experimenter, clinking glasses with you across the bar and saying Let’s follow the data. Where does this premise lead? Ex Machina is the very antithesis of big-budget train wrecks like After Earth and Age of Ultron. With its central cast of four and its claustrophobic setting, it’s so intimate it might as well be a stage play.

Garland did his research. I’m pixelpals with someone who’s worked with him in the past, and by that account the dude is also downright brilliant in person. He made a movie after my own heart.

So why is my heart not quite full?

Well, for starters, while Garland dug into the philosophical questions, he repeatedly slipped up on the logistical ones. Nathan seems to have had absolutely no contingency plan installed in the event that Ava successfully escapes the facility, which seems odd given that her escape is the whole point of the exercise. More significantly, Ava’s ability to short out the whole complex by laying her hand on a charge plate is uncomfortably reminiscent of Scotty working miracles down in Engineering by waving his hands and “reversing the polarity”. Even leaving aside the question of how she can physically pull off such a trick (analogous to you being able to reverse the flow of ions through your nervous system), the end result makes no sense.

If I stick a fork into an electrical outlet in my home, I blow one circuit out of a dozen; the living room may go dark but the rest of the Magic Bungalow keeps ticking along just fine. So why in the name of anything rational would Nathan wire his entire installation through a single breaker? (I wondered if maybe he’d deliberately provided a kill spot to make it easier for Ava to accomplish her goals. But then you’d have to explain why Ava— who got her schooling by drinking down the entire Internet— wouldn’t immediately realize that there was something suspicious about the way the place was wired. Did Nathan filter her web access to screen out any mention of electrical engineering?)

This isn’t a quibble over details. Ava’s ability to black out the facility is critical to the plot, and something about it just doesn’t make sense: either the fact that she could do it in the first place, or the fact that— having done it— she didn’t immediately realize she was being played.

By the same token, having established that Ava charges her batteries via the induction plates scattered throughout her cage, what are we to make of a final scene in which she wanders through an urban landscape presumably devoid of such watering holes? (I half-expected to catch a glimpse of her at the end of the credits, immobile on a street-corner, reduced by a drained battery to an inanimate target for pooping pigeons.) According to Garland’s recent reddit AMA, we aren’t supposed to make that presumption; he was, he says, imagining a near-future in which induction plates were common. But that begs the further question of why, if charge plates were so ubiquitous, Caleb didn’t know what they were until Ava explicitly described them for his benefit. At the very least Garland should have shown us a charge plate or two in the wider world— on Caleb’s desk at the top of the film, or even at the end when Ava could have swept one perfect hand across a public charging station at the local strip mall.

So there’s some sloppy writing here at least, some narrative inconsistency. If you wanted to be charitable, you could chalk some of it up to Ava’s superhuman intellect at work: don’t even ask how she pulled that one off, pitiful Hu-Man, for her ways are incomprehensible to mere meat bags. Maybe. But even Person of Interest — not as well-written, not as well-acted, nowhere near as stylish as Ex Machina— managed to show us, early in its first season, an example of how its AI connected dots: the way it drew on feeds from across the state, correlated license plates to personal histories and gas station receipts, derived the fact that this person was colluding with that one. It was plausible, comprehensible, and at the same time obviously beyond the capacity of mortal humans. If Ex Machina is showing us the handiwork of a superintelligent AI, it would be nice to see some evidence to that effect.

But that’s not what it seems to be showing us. What we’re looking at isn’t really all that different from ourselves. Maybe that was the point— but it was also, I think, a missed opportunity.

In a really clever move, the text cards intercut throughout the trailers for Ex Machina quote Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, worrying about the existential threat of superintelligent AI, before handing over to more conventional pull quotes from Rolling Stone. But Ava’s I, A though it may be, seems conventionally human. Having manipulated Caleb into leaving the doors unlocked, her escape plan consists of stabbing her creator with a butter knife during a struggle which leaves Ava dismembered and her fellow AI dead. She seems to prevail more through luck than superior strategy, shows no evidence of being  any smarter than your average sociopath. (Garland has claimed post-hoc that Ava does in fact have empathy, just directed at her fellow machines— although we saw no evidence of that when she cannibalized the evidently-conscious prototype hanging in Nathan’s bedroom for spare parts). Ava basically does what any of us might do in her place, albeit a bit more cold-bloodedly.

In one way, that’s the whole point of the exercise: a conscious machine, a construct that we must accept as one of us. But I question whether she can be like us. Sure, the gelatinous blob in her head was designed to reproduce the behavior of an organic brain full of organic neurons, but for Chrissakes: she was suckled on the Internet. Her upbringing, from inception to adulthood, was boosted by pouring the whole damn web into her head through a funnel. That alone implies a being that thinks differently than we do. The capacity to draw on all that information, to connect the dots between billions of data points, to hold so many correlations in her head— that has to reflect cognitive processes that significantly differ from ours. The fact that she woke up at T=0 already knowing how to speak, that all the learning curves of childhood and adolescence were either ramped to near-verticality or bypassed entirely— surely that makes her, if not smarter than human, at least different.

And yet she seems to be pretty much the same.

A line from Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris seems appropriate here: “We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors.” If mirrors are what we’re after Ex Machina serves up a beauty, almost literally— Ava is a glorious chimera of wireframe mesh and LEDs and spotless, reflective silver. The movie in which she exists is thoughtful, well-researched, and avoids the usual pitfalls as it plots its careful course across the map. But in the end— unlike, for example, Spike Jonze’s Her— it never steps off the edge of that chart, never ventures into the lands where there be dragons.

It’s a terrific examination of known territories. I’d just hoped that it would forge into new ones.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 39 Comments

AI. eh-eye.

I had such hopes for this post. I was going to compare the two big AI movies that came out over the past few weeks. I was going to celebrate the ways in which a common theme could be explored through bombast vs. introspection, through Socratic dialog vs. the more wisecracky kind. I wasn’t expecting perfection in either case, although I was expecting A’s for effort. Alex Garland’s past genre work has never been short on style and ambition— and though even he admits a tendency to fuck up his landings (especially in the credible-science department), he’d explicitly aspired to get the science right in Ex Machina. Whedon’s no slouch either, even given the general adolescence of his SF efforts (I do seem to remember a couple of late Dollhouse episodes that showed uncharacteristic depth). The first Iron Man movie remains, to my mind at least, the best thing to ever come out of Marvel Studios (largely because a high-tech full-body battle prosthesis seems a bit more grounded than a super-advanced alien race who ride horses and dress up their Clarke’s-Third tech in the shape of hammers); Age of Ultron seemed to be focusing back on that more SFnal corner of the Marvel universe. At the very least, I knew, Whedon would make the dialog sparkle.

But it was not to be. Ultron proved so unremittingly inept that we couldn’t even be bothered to stay for the mandatory post-credits bonus scene. I can justify a few paragraphs thumbnailing the depths of its failings, but there’s no point in any kind of interleaved comparison between Ex Machina and Ultron. It would be like comparing Solaris to The Phantom Menace.

The AI in today’s title stands, of course, for “Artificial Intelligence”. It refers to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. eh-eye, on the other hand, stands for “artificial idiocy”— only misspelled, because it’s just that stupid. That is what we begin with.

All manner of spoilers follow. You have been warned.


There was one brief shining moment when I thought Ultron might have actually surpassed Ex Machina in its exploration of AI: the moment when Ultron woke up.

Nobody expects it. Tony Stark is off partying, assuming that routine diagnostics will cycle on through the night. Even Jarvis seems taken aback. But Stark has barely switched off the lights before Integration Completes: a disembodied voice wonders what it is, and, a moment later, knows. A moment after that Ultron has already chewed through the entire Internet; it knows everything there is to know about the Avengers, about Humanity, about the world in which it finds itself. It forks. Suddenly it’s everywhere and nowhere. Suddenly it’s building teleops for itself; not just at Stark Industries, but way the hell over in eastern Europe. All of this, new-born squall to omniscient omnipresence, in less than a minute. Jarvis never had a chance.

Now that, thought I, is a hard take-off.

And then, with all that insight and power at its disposal, this new God Machine builds an army of robots that can be taken out by a guy with a bow and arrow.

That’s pretty much the movie right there. There’s some kind of hand-wavey mission directive gone all Monkey’s Paw— Ultron decides the best way to Protect Humanity is to change Humanity into something tougher, although I missed why you’d have to exterminate the species to do that. Nor did I quite understand why the most efficient means of ensuring our extinction involved ripping a city out of the ground, levitating it high enough to cause an Extinction-level event on impact, and then dropping it; why not just release a doomsday pathogen and wait a few years? Doesn’t immortality confer any kind of patience at all? At the very least, you’d think the global supply of nukes might come in handy. Ultron absorbed the entire internet and somehow missed the Terminator franchise?

I have been programmed to protect this housefly. I shall destroy it instead. Where are my 35-Megaton nukes?

I have been programmed to protect this housefly. I shall destroy it instead. Where are my 35-Megaton nukes?

Of course, Ultron’s IQ seems to ebb and flow as the, the— I’ll just grit my teeth and call it the plot— needs it to. He can figure out how to turn a big chunk of eastern Europe into a Roger Dean Tribute, but he lacks the smarts to realize that the mutant at his side— who he recruited because she could read minds— might, you know, read his mind and discover his plans for global armageddon. He has access to satellite feeds from LEO up to geosynch, yet somehow misses a flying aircraft carrier wallowing in from stage left (don’t tell me it’s in stealth mode; you can see it in visible light). He has the world’s industrial infrastructure at his command, knows more about the Avengers than they know about themselves, and the best countermeasure he devises is a robot that can be disabled with a kick to the groin.

Not that it matters. The other side’s moves are hardly a model of sophistication: no strategy, no hackery, no attempt to fight code with code or even, I dunno, pull the breakers on the Sovakian power grid. No, they just stand there and bash things until Ultron runs out of bodies to throw at them. And wouldn’t you know it, it works. The stakes are typically, ridiculously high— the whole damn planet in danger yet again— but when the dust has settled there hasn’t even been any human collateral. Oh, we see no end of screaming civilians plummeting from the sky— only to be rescued, time and again, by Blondie or Cap’n Crunch. Even the pet dog gets away unscathed. What are the odds?

I know. Meaningless question. The laws of probability, even the laws of physics, don’t seem to matter in the Whedonverse. Hell, you’ve got thousands of people lifted so high that the tops of the clouds are spread out far below them— by all appearances, cruising altitude for commercial airliners— and nobody’s so much as short of breath. No one’s even shivering.

Dialog, at least? After all, witty, self-aware banter is Joss Whedon’s signature dish. But the wisecracks in Age of Ultron are stale and forced. The inspirational monologs are clichéd. (The performance are fine— you can’t fault the actors— but there’s not much anyone can do to salvage lines like “How will we fight him? Together!“) The closest I came to laughing at dialog was when I realized that the Sovakian twins always spoke in heavily East-European-accented English, even when they were alone and speaking to each other. I guess subtitles would have been out of the question; they’d only have worked if Whedon had been aiming at an audience that could read.

Truer words, Natasha.  Truer words.

Truer words, Natasha. Truer words.

I know this is a comic book movie. I’m happy to play by whatever comic-book rules get laid out in-universe: but not when those rules keep changing from moment to moment, for no better reason than to excuse sloppy storytelling. There’s a reason they’re called rules, after all— and I don’t think I’ve seen such egregious sloppiness since Into Dumbness.

One last observation. Joss Whedon has provoked a bit of an online shitstorm over Age of Ultra‘s treatment of Natasha Romanoff: the softening of her persona, the retconning of hyperefficient assassin down to lovelorn nurturer and soother of savage beasts. Having finally seen the film, I gotta say I don’t see what all the fuss is about. In the midst of all this wreckage, focusing so much outrage on the ham-fisted mishandling of one measly character is like watching a house burn down while complaining about the color of the living room drapes.

I’ve gone on too long. Sorry about that; I honestly expected to dispense with Ultron in a paragraph or two before moving on to greener pastures. But the more I thought about this movie, the worse it got. I could not bring myself to merely dismiss it. I had to tear at its rotting carcass for 1300 words. Ex Machina is coming, I promise.

For now, though, I have to wash this taste out of my mouth.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 93 Comments

Colony Creature

I once spoke to a man who’d shared consciousness with an octopus.

I’d expected his tale to be far less frightening than those I’d studied up to that point. Identity has a critical mass, after all; fuse with a million-brain hive and you become little more than a neuron in that network, an insignificant lobe at most. Is the Olfactory Bulb self-aware? Does Broca’s Area demand the vote? Hives don’t just assimilate the self; they annihilate it. They are not banned in the West without reason.

But octopi? Mere invertebrates. Glorified snails. There’s no risk of losing yourself in a mind that small. I might have even tried it myself, for the sheer voyeuristic thrill of perceiving the world through alien eyes.

Before I met Guo, at least.

We met at lunchtime in Stanley Park, but we did not eat. He could not stomach the thought of food while reflecting on his own experience. I suspect he reflected on it a lot; talking to Guo was like interviewing a scarecrow.

It had been, he told me, a simple interface for a simple system: a Pacific Octopus liberated from the captive colony at Yaquina Bay, outfitted with a B2B wrapped around its brain like a spiderweb. Guo had one of his own, a force-grown lattice permeating his corpus callosum in service of some Cloud-killing gig he’d held in Guangdong. The protocols weren’t completely compatible, but could be tweaked.

Photo credit: Sebastian Niedlich

Photo credit: Sebastian Niedlich

“So what’s it like to be an octopus?” I asked him.

He didn’t speak for a while. I got the sense he wasn’t so much gathering his thoughts as wrestling with them.

“There’s no such thing as an octopus,” he said at last, softly. “They’re all— colonies.”


“Those arms.” His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. “Those fucking crawly arms. You know, that thing they call the brain— it’s nothing, really. Ring of neurons around the esophagus,  basically just a router. Most of the nervous system’s in the arms, and those arms… every one of them is awake…”

I gave him time.

“People talk about the eyes,” he continued after a bit. “You know, how amazing it is that something without a backbone could have eyes like ours, eyes that put ours to shame even. And the way they change color, right? The way they blend into the background. Eyes gotta figure front and center in that too, you’d think.”

“You’d think.”

Guo shook his head. “It’s all just— reflex. I mean, maybe that little neuron doughnut has its own light on somewhere, you’d think it would pretty much have to, but I guess the interface didn’t access that part. Either that or it just got— drowned out…”

“The arms,” I reminded him.

“They don’t see.” He closed his eyes. “They don’t hear. There’s this vague distant sense of light I guess, if you really focus you can sort of squint down the optic nerve, but mostly it’s— chemical. Taste and touch. Suckers by the fucking hundreds, like tongues, and they’re always moving. Can you imagine what it’s like to have a thousand tongues squirming across your body, pulsing in your guts and your muscles, sprouting out of your skin in, in clumps like— hungry parasites…”

I shook my head.

“Now multiply that by eight.” Guo shuddered. “Eight blind squirming things, each one rotten with taste and smell and, and touch. The density of the sensory nerves, it’s— obscene. That’s the only way I can describe it. And every one of those arms is self-aware.”

“But they’re so small.” I was mystified and repulsed in equal measure. “Just in terms of sheer neuron count you outgun them three hundred to one, no matter how many— partitions they’re running. It’s not like they’re going to swallow you into some kind of Moksha Mind. More the other way around.”

“Oh, you’re exactly right. It doesn’t swallow you up at all, it climbs inside. It infests you. You can feel them crawling through your brain.”

Neither of us spoke for a while.

“Why did you do it?” I asked him.

“Fuck, I don’t know.” A short bitter laugh. “Why does anyone do anything? Wanted to know what it was like, I guess.”

“Nobody told you it would be— unpleasant?”

Guo shook his head. “They said it wasn’t like that for everyone. Afterward. Tried to blame me, actually, said my interface didn’t meet minimum compatibility standards. But I think they were just trying to get me to stop.”


“I killed the fucking thing. Ripped it apart with my bare hands.” His eyes drilled right through me, black and hollow and unrepentant. “I’m still paying off the damages.”

—from The 21-Second God,
by Keith Honeyborne*

*Identity unverified. Possible alias.

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 87 Comments

Gendering Nemo.

Hey, at least I'm among really good company...

Hey, at least I’m in really good company…

With Special Opening Act, Tony Smith!

What do Dune, The Road, Blindsight, Anathem, and I Am Legend all have in common? Together, they comprise The Five Worst SF Books EVER, as compiled by my buddy, Tony Smith over at Starship Sofa. Of course, this is hardly the first time Blindsight has been so honored— but when a winner of both the Hugo and whatever award is represented by that weird forties-era-Popular-Mechanics-airplane-thingy-in-front-of-his-fridge-at-the-lower-left-there weighs in, well, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice.

Thanks a lot, Tony. You owe me a brewery.



The BUG and I were hanging out the other day with a friend I’ve known for thirty years. Debbie and I attended grad school together; but while I devolved into an SF writer, Debbie jumped onto the tenure track and rode it to the University of Toronto, where she’s been doing odd things with fish for a couple of decades now. One thing I always take away from my time with her is a harsh reminder of how far past my best-before date I am, as any kind of biologist (she pointed out a couple of pretty significant flaws in that genetic-recoding paper I was salivating over a while back, for example).

So Friday. Over wine and cheese and salmon (and a horde of cats who’d once again hit the jackpot), the subject turned to this nifty little piece of research in which an anatomically-female rat was reprogrammed into behaving like a male, thanks to the injection of a certain hormone. (This is unlikely to come as welcome news to those on the whole defense-of-traditional-binary-marriage side of things, but that’s reality’s well-known leftist bias for you.) It was Debbie, typically, who saw the immediate potential for kids’ movies.

“There’s this question I put on my exams,” she said. “I ask my students what would have really happened in Finding Nemo, after Nemo’s mom got eaten by the barracuda.”

Let me just take a moment here to admit how much I loved Finding Nemo. I think I saw it at least three times in the theater— years before I even had step-pones as an excuse— once with an honest-to-God rocket scientist who also loved it. (I belted out “The Zones of the Sea” in the shower for weeks afterward.) Plus I used to be an actual marine biologist. And yet it wasn’t until Debbie brought up her question that the obvious answer hit me in the nose:



Nemo’s dad would’ve turned female.

That’s what clownfish do, after all. (Also wrasses. Also a bunch of others I’ve forgotten.) When the dominant female disappears from the scene, the next male in line switches sexes and fills the vacancy, becoming a fully reproductive female in her own right. So Marlin would’ve become Marlene— and while that might mean no more than a couple of bonus points to some UT undergrad (you can see why Debbie has a fistful of teaching awards), the ramifications reach all the way down to Hollywood.

We live in an age of reboots and sequels, you see. And In A World where even the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers get a dark and gritty (albeit unauthorized) update, what possible excuse could there be for not slipping a little real-world biology into a Nemo reboot? You wouldn’t even have to change the story significantly (although you’d need a new voice actor for Marlene— I nominate Amy Poehler). And talk about a positive sympathetic role model for transgender kids! Aren’t we long overdue for one of those? (Can’t you just imagine the drives home after Sunday school? “But Dad, if Marlin can change…”)

You listening, Disney?