No Answers. Only Choices.

(A lightly edited reprint of a recent Nowa Fantastyka column.)

My stuff has been compared, on occasion, to the work of Stanislaw Lem. I find this intimidating. It’s kind of a high bar to clear; when expectations are calibrated to such altitudes, it’s easy to fall short.

Fortunately there’s a way to distract from that constant likelihood of failure; if you’re not quite up to scrambling onto the shoulders of giants, you can always rip into the efforts of others who’ve tried. So today I’m going to take a look back at what is probably Lem’s crowning literary achievement, as interpreted through the eyes of two outsiders. One of these is Russian— Andrei Tarkovsky— and his vision has been hailed as a cinematic classic: nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, winner of the Jury Grand Prize there, winner of Japan’s Seiun Award and frequently cited as one of the greatest SF films ever made.

The other outsider is American. Steven Soderbergh’s vision won no awards, tanked so badly in theatres it never even recouped its production costs, and was reviled by no less a luminary than Salman Rushdie before it was even made.

I’m talking, of course, about Solaris. Guess which version I prefer.

It’s not that there’s anything egregiously wrong with Tarkovsky’s; it is in many ways a truly beautiful film, apparently conceived at least partly in opposition to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but somehow ending up as more of an homage to that film. Tarkovsky’s hypnotic opening sequence, framing a lush and beautiful Earth in a series of static shots,

Which is not to say that Kubrick's vision is devoid of humanity.  You just have to look closely.

Which is not to say that Kubrick’s vision is devoid of humanity. You just have to look closely.

both echoes and contradicts the arid, hard-focus desert vistas that boot up 2001. The closing reveal of an astronaut trapped in an alien simulacrum of home is conceptually identical to the final scenes of Kubrick’s masterpiece. There’s even a man-taking-an-extremely-long-time-to-pass-through-tunnels-of-light sequence, although in Tarkovsky’s vision the highways are of human construction, the bright streamers courtesy of headlamps and taillights rather than hyperspatial stargates[1].

Although to be fair, Tarkovsky probably had a smaller budget to work with.

Although to be fair, Tarkovsky probably had a smaller budget to work with.

Tarkovsky uses his lengthy earthbound prolog to frame Solaris in an epistemological context, to question the nature and utility of knowledge itself: what’s the worth of any pile of disjointed facts, no matter how impressive, if there’s no coherent way to fit them together? Should we seek knowledge at any price? These are essential elements of Lem’s novel, and it’s nice to see them included (although apparently Lem hated the prolog in which they were conveyed). And of course, Lem’s more central rumination on the futility of communication with any truly alien intelligence is right up my alley.

So, a lot to admire. The problem I have with Tarkovsky’s Solaris is not so much with its payload as with how it’s delivered. This is a movie that tells, not shows; it’s jam-packed with monologs and arguments that belabor obvious points. People witter on endlessly about the morality of data collection, or declaim upon Man’s Place in the Cosmos while generally being assholes to one another. (One of them helpfully remarks that “We are losing our dignity and human character!”, just in case we’ve missed that point). Near the end of the film, protagonist Kris Kelvin delivers a delirious ramble about Love and Suffering.

This fondness for discourse reaches an almost ridiculous extreme within minutes of Kelvin’s arrival on the station. Almost immediately upon debarking he starts glimpsing things and people that shouldn’t be there, apparitions presenting themselves in defiance of all logic and expectation. And yet—where you and I might be inclined to grab the nearest crew member by the lapels and say “What is that dwarf doing in your cabin and how did he get here?”— Kelvin just keeps arguing with the locals about the personal integrity of his dead friend Gibarian. It’s a level of incuriosity so profound as to be almost inhuman, a triumph of verbiage over logic that runs through the whole damn movie.

Let us take a moment here to allow you all to roll your eyes at the fact that I, of all people, have the nerve to complain about talkiness in a science fiction story. There you go. Get it out of your system.

Now let’s look at the 2002 iteration of the same story.

It took three quarters of an hour to get us to Solaris in 1972. Soderburgh gets us there in seven minutes; and when we arrive we don’t find the station littered with the refuse and dismembered power cables that Tarkovsky showed us. Soderbergh’s station is pristine, icy, all mirrors and edges and gleaming alloy— which makes the bloodstains smeared across those surfaces even more ominous. Less is more: there’s a minimalism here which heightens the impact.

For chrissakes Tarkovsky, would it kill you to clean up a bit when we're having company over?

For chrissakes, Andrei, would it kill you to clean up a bit when we’re having company over?  Why can’t you be more like Steve here?

Soderbergh’s characters are more believable, too. The first time Kelvin sees someone that doesn’t belong, he gives chase; finding someone who does, his first question is What are those things? His reaction to the sudden manifestation of his dead wife at his side— shock, denial, a struggle to rein in bubbling panic and stay rational, for chrissake— is perfect.

Tarkovsky's Solaris.

Mare Tarkovskia.

Soderbergh’s movie loses more of the novel than Tarkovsky’s does, but is arguably better for it. The epistemology is mostly jettisoned (Solaristics is no esoteric quest for knowledge here, but a grubby hunt for commercial applications), and the viscous self-modeling clay of Lem’s sentient ocean has been replaced by a luminous world suffused in flickering aurorae and sheet lightning. Maybe there’s still an ocean down there, generating all those lights. Maybe it’s something else entirely. The movie doesn’t say; nowhere throughout those stripped-down 94 minutes does anyone explicitly describe what Solaris even is, beyond alien and intelligent[2]. And yet there’s something undeniably synaptic about all those writhing flux lines, something that conveys intelligence without the need for exposition. We see the lights move as Kelvin dreams, we watch those bright filigreed tendrils make connections and forge luminous pathways, and somehow we know that Solaris is watching, and taking notes. It’s a brilliant bit of visual shorthand.

Mare Soderburgh.

Mare Soderburgh.

Soderbergh trusts us to connect the dots. That’s the difference. Both films, for example, thumbnail human anthropocentrism with an elegant observation from Lem’s novel: “We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors.” But while Tarkovsky buries that gem in an extended framing debate between characters, Soderbergh presents it almost in isolation: a prerecorded snippet from a dead man, playing in the background.

And yet for all the frugality with which he doles out his data points, Soderbergh does offer up something that Tarkovsky denied us: a few moments of something that might pass as actual honest-to-God contact (assuming it’s not just another troubled dream— although can there even be mere dreams when Solaris is walking through your brain?). Kelvin awakens to find his dead friend sitting at his side, eyes glinting from deep within a featureless silhouette. “What does it want?” Kelvin asks the apparition, and I can’t help hearing does it turn into do you in my head. “Why does Solaris have to want something?” says the man-shaped thing in the darkness. “If you keep thinking there’s a solution, you’ll die here. There are no answers. Only choices.”

That’s Lem’s thesis in a nutshell, right there. If anything like those lines were ever spoken in Tarkovsky’s movie, I missed them in all the sound and fury.

There is also a profoundly human element to Soderbergh’s thought experiment that’s missing from Tarkovsky’s. It’s a bit paradoxical. Both movies tell the same story, draw their plots and characters from the same well. If words and emotions are the conduits through which relationships occur, you’d expect to find the strongest human interactions in the movie with the most verbiage, the loudest histrionics— not in George Clooney’s minimalist performance, which has been described as “wooden”. But Clooney’s Kelvin is not a man without emotion; he’s a man whose emotions would overwhelm him if he ever let them out. He doesn’t exposit about his backstory (he doesn’t have to— the movie does, through a series of flashbacks) but you can see it there in the eyes, in the tremor in his voice. As the final curtain falls, the sight of Kelvin in his kitchen— performing the same rote actions that occupied him at the start of the film— evokes the scene in 2001 where space-suited astronauts touch the unburied monolith in the same tentative way their ancestors did, four million years before.

Soderbergh’s subtext is more disturbing, though. Both echoes use repetition to convey a sense of stagnation— but while Kubrick was suggesting that Humanity, for all its artifice, hasn’t really changed, Soderbergh’s Kelvin doesn’t even exist by the end of his movie. What we’re seeing is another simulacrum. And the tragedy is not that this isn’t the real Kelvin, but that the real Kelvin had so thoroughly suppressed his own humanity that it doesn’t really matter that he’s been replaced. Solaris plays with itself, endlessly running its humanoid puppets through the same routines. Maybe it puts them through those paces in service of some profound alien insight; maybe it’s just mindlessly re-enacting the obsessions and rituals that shone brightest in human minds when it was listening in. It’s Lem’s thesis of cosmic futility made intimate, humane, and even more tragic. In contrast, Tarkovsky’s decision to close the same loop using tacked-on daddy issues— invented completely independent of the novel— feels contrived and empty.

There is a double irony in the way these movies were put together. Tarkovsky built his thought experiment in the mold of 2001, a philosophical investigation in which human characters are mere chess pieces to be moved in service of a greater agenda; yet his dialog-heavy approach is the very antithesis of Kubrick’s largely-silent masterpiece. Soderbergh, in contrast, layered a deeply human story onto Lem’s intellectual thesis and made me feel for his characters— yet paradoxically, he drew me in with the same minimalist tools that Kubrick used to put us at a distance.

Both directors created thoughtful, engaging experiments out of Lem’s canonical work. But Soderbergh made me care about the rats as well as marvel at the maze in which they found themselves. That’s a trick even Kubrick didn’t manage, and it’s one I’d love to learn how to do myself someday.

Perhaps that’s the biggest reason I prefer Soderberg’s vision: it gives me something to aspire to. It’s not just a better movie than Tarkovsky’s. Ignored, panned, commercially unsuccessful, I believe that— in a very real way— it’s a better movie even than 2001.

How astonishing, to find myself admitting that.

solarishelmet


 

[1] It’s not just Tarkovsky. Both he and Soderbergh owe almost as much to Stanley as to Stanislaw, from the look and pacing of their films right down to the atonal, Ligeti-like soundtracks that back up those images.

[2] I thought they might, at one point. The simulacrum of Kelvin’s wife looks out the viewport and exclaims “What is that?”— to which Kelvin replies “Solaris”, setting the scene for a bit of helpful exposition. But Rheya only nods— “Oh my God, yes…”— and the moment passes. I suspect Soderbergh may have done that just to yank the chains of viewers who wanted it all spelled out…

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 30 Comments

Black Wedding: The Re-emergence of Lenie Clarke.

Inverted.

Inverted.

Let’s get the trivial notes and minutes out of the way first. Echopraxia, “Collateral”, and “The Colonel” all made it onto the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2014. (Still no love for “Giants”, I see, though I continue to love it as perhaps only a father can). Echopraxia (which I’m told has gone into a second hardcover printing, which comes as more of a relief than a delight) has also popped up over at CBC of all places, on a lonely little page with no intro and zero comments— yet accompanied by a pithy little excerpt from the middle of the book, so someone obviously at least read it halfway. I have no idea what it’s doing there. It  just sprouted under “CBC Books” for some reason.

Maybe it has something to do with my recent co-appearance with Alyx Dellamonica at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference (yes, that’s really what it’s called). That was largely Lexus’ doing. She has a certain ease with distributors and publishers, whereas my own experience has taught me to just kind of crouch down and avoid them. Lexus dragged me into the light and we sat there at the Raincoast booth on a January afternoon, where I felt all pleased and warm because there was this lineup and so many people wanted us to sign our books for various school libraries even after I suggested that maybe I could personalize each with a pro-recreational-drug-use message next to my signature. I actually felt really good until Lexus confessed later, over Innis & Gunns, that nobody had actually bought any of our books. Raincoast had just given them away for promotional purposes. It made me sad.

Anyway, I’m wondering if Raincoast might also be behind the whole CBC thing, whatever it is.

Latest report from the Barn Door Post-Horse Department: I’ve installed a WordPress Plug-in— accessible from the bottom of the Author page or the [Contact] link over on the side-bar— which allows newcomers to send me emails without revealing my own email in turn. Those already privy to that info might as well keep using it (it’s not as though our interactions have been anything but pleasant, from this side of the exchange at least). Just be aware that from here on in, you’ll all be on the suspects list for any death threats sent to my personal address.

*

Born Again.

Born Again.

Today’s headline, though, hails from Poland, where Adam Rotter took a gorgeous-yet-macabre turn from his usual day job as a wedding photographer to cast his partner, Karolina Cisowska, as Lenie Clarke. Together they’ve done a 16-shot spread[1] inspired by specific passages from Maelstrom.  It’s over on facebook under the project heading “Syrena” (which I assume translates as “Siren” and not the more biological interpretation involving manatees). But I have, with Adam’s permission, posted the pics here at rifters.com, together with the associated inspirational snippets o’prose, over in the Rifters Gallery. View. Enjoy.

And my profound thanks to Adam and Karolina. From the in-your-face black rotting skull right down the telescoping shockprod in Lenie’s hand, these are just gorgeous.


[1] At least, I think it’s 16— it’s grown from the three or four that were posted a couple of weeks back when I first mentioned it over on facebook, so maybe it’s still in progress.

Posted in: ink on art, misc, rifters by Peter Watts 11 Comments

The Slippery Step-Function: Or, Reasons to be Cheerful.

Really, not so much.

Really, not so much.

An overseas pixel-pal sent me a link to a Daily Mail (UK) piece on the Davos Forum a few days back. I think he expected me to be tickled by the second half of the headline:

Harvard professors warn ‘privacy is dead’ and predict mosquito-sized robots that steal samples of your DNA

—but predictably, it was the front end of that sentence that got under my skin. And on the off chance that the headline hadn’t hammered the point home with sufficient force, the bullet points beneath beat the horse to death:

  • Researchers told Davos that privacy is already non existent
  • Say technology will allow governments and insurance firms to steal DNA
  • Also claims the same technology could help eradicate disease

It’s a tired old story— or at least it seems old, possibly because we’ve heard it so many times. Hell, you’ve heard it repeatedly even here: about that story in Wired, the self-proclaimed cutting-edge voice of the tech-savvy, offering up a token lament for the Cloud’s lack of security before telling us all that there’s no going back so we might as well just get used to it. (Late-breaking update: and sweet smoking Jesus, they’re at it again.) Robert Sawyer debating at the Gallen Symposium, leading off with Scott McNealy’s infamous claim that “You already have zero privacy: get over it”, and proceeding to claim that this was a good thing, something that would make the world a better place.   Not to mention our old buddy David Brin.  But the Daily Mail’s bullet points— and the story that followed— show pretty much the textbook talking points you’ll find in all such arguments:

  1. You have no privacy;
  2. There’s no way to regain your privacy;
  3. But hey, that’s actually a good thing! Think of all the great travel recommendations Google will be able to serve up, once it can read your mind! Think of all the diseases we can cure and contain, now that everyone is being tracked! Think of all the lost puppies we can find!
Third one from the left, actually.

Third one from the left, actually.

It’s especially easy, these days, to believe the first two points at least. Over in the UK, after the overwhelming rejection of the so-called “Snooper’s Charter”— a law that would have forced ISPs to monitor their customers’ online activity and turn it over to pretty much anyone who dressed up like one of the Village People— politicians are still trying to sneak the same damn provisions into different pieces of legislation, hoping that one of these days no one will notice. Here in Canada, the Harper Administration has just tabled a new Bill to Keep Us Safe From Jihadists by, among other things, expanding the surveillance state, reducing civil rights protections, and making it illegal to “promote terrorism” online (which is especially troubling when you remember that “terrorists” is a term that now includes environmental activists). I was chuffed, earlier this week, to see Techdirt harken back to the fears I posted last October on this very ‘crawl. I only wish it had been under happier circumstances.

Naturally, all this extra power comes 100% Oversight-free!, which should be a surprise to no one. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is that CSIS (Canada’s spy agency) is not getting any extra money to go along with the bigger club. They’ve already admitted that they don’t have anywhere near the budget to deal with their current watchlist; there’d seem little point in giving them even more tewwowists to spy on when they can’t handle those already on their plate. This has led some to suggest that the bill is more about electioneering than security, that its purpose is to make anyone who opposes it look “weak on terror” in an election year. It’s not really meant to work.

Perhaps. But that presupposes that Islamic extremists are actually the target of the legislation, and not just the pretext. You don’t need a greatly expanded budget if you’re going after, for example, Amnesty International activists. Or pipeline protestors.

Plenty of people have called Harper evil. I don’t know of anyone who ever called him stupid.

Meanwhile, down in the US— the country that started it all, with its pervasive and mind-boggling surveillance of friend and foe alike— those in power are finally talking about passing laws to rein in unchecked— well, encryption, actually. Because they don’t like it when they can’t spy on us, and they especially don’t like it when companies like Apple and Google— late to the party as they may be— finally wake up to the fact that there are better ways to attract customers than selling them out to every Sheriff Bubba who knocks at the door without a warrant. They don’t like the fact that end-to-end encryption is catching on, that the system is reconfiguring itself so that admins won’t be physically able to comply with Bubba even if they want to. The FBI wants to ban encryption, at least the gummint-proof kind. The Justice Department fears that giving citizens too much privacy will result in a “zone of lawlessness” in which bogeymen might flourish. “Tor obviously was created with good intentions,” admits Leslie Caldwell, assistant attorney general, “but it’s a huge problem for law enforcement. There are a lot of online supermarkets where you can do anything from purchase heroin to buy guns to hire somebody to kill somebody, there are murder for hire sites.”

It’s the go-to rationale for every peeping tom without a warrant: what if terrorists are planning their next daycare-center bombing on bittorrent? What if the plans for the next Parliament shoot-up are right there in someone’s iPhone and we can’t see them? Don’t you know that TOR is 80% pedophiles?

Won’t someone think of the children?

You have to admit: as hypothetical arguments go, it’s pretty much unassailable. If we can’t unlock all the doors, how do we stop evildoers from plotting behind them? The problem is that this argument applies as much to literal doors as to metaphoric ones. There’s no difference in logical structure between Tewwowists might be plotting via encrypted emails and Tewwowists might be plotting in your kitchen. If you agree that the spectre of potential evildoing is sufficient cause to let the government go through your mail without a warrant, how can you then deny them the right to check out your basement on a whim? Are evil deeds are any less nefarious when plotted offline?

It’s worse than a slippery slope. It’s a slippery step-function; the first concession gives everything away.

Which leads to a simple metric I use to assess the claims put forth by wannabe surveillers: simply relocate the argument from cyber- to meatspace, and see how it holds up. For example, Leslie Caldwell’s forebodings about online “zones of lawlessness” would be rendered thusly:

Caldwell also raised fresh alarms about curtains on windows and locks on bathroom doors, both of which officials say make it easier for criminals to hide their activity. “Bathroom doors obviously were created with good intentions, but are a huge problem for law enforcement. There are a lot of windowless basements and bathrooms where you can do anything from purchase heroin to buy guns to hire somebody to kill somebody”

If you remain comfortable with such arguments even when brought down to earth— well, enjoy the Panopticon. I know a few SF writers whose work you might like.

And yet, oddly, I take heart from these things.

I take heart from the fact that the the Free World is trying to curtail freedom at every turn. I take heart from the endless attempts of the UK, the US, and Canada to pry into our private lives and put webcams in our toilets (because you never know when someone might try to avoid prosecution by flushing a bag of coke down the john, you know). I take heart from PRISM and the Snooper’s Charter and Bill-C-whatever-number-they’re-up-to-this-week— because they put the lie to those stories in Wired and the Daily Mail and the New York Times, they put the lie to all those journos and pundits who would tell us that privacy is dead. It gives me hope.

Because if privacy is really dead, why are so many still trying so hard to kill it?

Posted in: Big Brother, legal by Peter Watts 52 Comments

Somebody Get This Guy a Budget

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, really.

Max spends a lot of time there.

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

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

You're in good hands with Allstate.

You’re in good hands with Allstate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 33 Comments

What’s Wrong With This Picture.

A snapshot of the past work week:

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

Office work, mainly emails: 12.6 hours.

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

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

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

In the meantime, I watch a lot of TV.

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anybody know when “Hannibal” returns?

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 47 Comments

Desperately Seeking Citation.

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

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

Anyone?

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

Rollover

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

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

So, here we are again. Another year.

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

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

So that was last year. What about this one?

greendesign2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yup.

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

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

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

Jewels and Cataracts: the Echopraxia Postmortem

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

And yet I am bummed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This should not be necessary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish me luck. See you next year.


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

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 84 Comments

Squids With Tasers.

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

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

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

Electric eels hunt kind of like this.

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

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

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

From Catania 2004.

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

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

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

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

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

Interstellar and my Inner Anti-Abortionist.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

This part was pretty cool.

This part was pretty cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

 Or

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

Or

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

Which all comes down to

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

Check your technosapiens privilege, asshole.

Check your technosapiens privilege, asshole.

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

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

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

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