Monday, August 25, 2008

Speciation Ahoy!

Strange Horizons has just posted this bipartite piece on Scott Bakker's Neuropath and my own Blindsight. It's billed as a review, but it doesn't read as one so much as a brief comparative essay on the thematic focii of the two novels. The reviewer— one Nader Elhefnawy, visiting professor of Literature out of U. Miami— regards the books as exemplars of sf's "new direction", a course also being plotted by the likes of Ted Chiang, Greg Egan, and Daryl Gregory as a kind of nihilistic counterpoint to the post-cyberpunk Singularity-huggers.

So I'm looking at this, and I'm thinking Hmmm… an academic comparing two related works in a burgeoning thematic niche. Or, more concisely: New Subgenre! All we really need to keep the marketers happy (and to keep the unicorn-huggers out of our shelf space at Barnes & Noble) is a name.

I call dibs on Neuropunk. Who's with me?

Update 26/08/08 (in response to Ray's well-taken comment): Ooh! Ooh! Even better:


Doesn't it just roll off the tongue? It sounds like some kind of all-natural herbal remedy!

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Friday, August 22, 2008

A Plague of Angels (or, Rorschach in your living room!)

Well, this is interesting. Intel has leapfrogged MIT on the whole magnetic-resonance schtick. They can wirelessly light a 60-watt bulb from almost a meter away, wasting only 25% of the broadcast energy in transit. This is a good thing, because "…the human body is not affected by magnetic fields," Josh Smith from Intel reassures us. "It is affected by electric fields. So what we are doing is transmitting energy using the magnetic field not the electric field." And I have to admit, it's heartening that the whole zapped-by-the-arc problem that electrocuted so many early-adopters seems to be a thing of the past.

I just have two teensy, niggling questions.

First up, in a world in which Peak Oil also seems to be a thing of the past — and in which the inextricably-linked issues of energy security and climate change grow increasingly troubling to anyone who isn't a) Michael Crichton and/or b) convinced that the Rapture will spirit them away and save their asses before the bill comes due — do we really want to be celebrating a technology that wastes a quarter of its kick before it even reaches its destination? Yes, the technology will improve over time; yes, efficiency will increase. But we're still talking about an omnidirectional broadcast here; even if the bulk of the signal strength passes in one direction, there's still going to be at least some wasted energy going out along the whole 360.

More to the point though, is Smith's confident assertions that "the human body is not affected by magnetic fields". Maybe he's talking about a different model of human body. Maybe the model he's talking about comes with a Faraday cage built into the skull, and is not susceptible to the induction of religious rapture1, selective blindness2, or the impaired speech and memory effects3,4 that transcranial magnetic stimulation can provoke in our obsolete ol' baseline brains.

Or maybe, once Intel gets its way and this "worldchanging" technology saturates our living space with directed magnetic fields, we'll all just start seeing things, bumping into chairs, vomiting from inexplicable bouts of spontaneous nausea, and freaking out at the sight of angels and aliens5 swarming through our living rooms.

Granted, so far you have to sit down in a lab and wear a magnetic hair-net to experience the effects I've described. But I wonder how many appliance-feeding magnetic-resonance transmitters we'll be able to load into our apartments before hallucinogenic hotspots start spontaneously appearing in our living rooms. At which point our local utility will reclassify these side-effects from "bug" to "feature", and add a small additional charge for "multisensory entertainment" onto our monthly power bill.

I'm actually kind of looking forward to it. It's bound to be cheaper than cable.

(Photo credit: Australian PC Authority)

Ramachandran, V.S., and Blakeslee, S. 1998. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. William Morrow, New York.
Kamitani, Y. and Shimojo, S. 1999. Manifestation of scotomas created by transcranial magnetic stimulation of human visual cortex. Nature Neuroscience 2: 767-771.
Hallett, M. 2000. Transcranial magnetic stimulation and the human brain. Nature 406: 147-150.
Goldberg, C. 2003. Zap! Scientist bombards brains with super-magnets to edifying effect. Boston Globe 14/1/2003, pE1.
Persinger, M.A. 2001 The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences. J Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neuroscience 13: 515-524.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Whiney, Shiney, Cerebrospiney

So much happened during my absence on the Island. Worldcon, for one. For another, a big honking propane storage facility blew up in the northwestern 'burbs of Greater Toronto, provoking howls of outrage from concerned citizens who wanted to know how such a dangerous facility ended up in the heart of a residential area. (And am I the only person who thinks that that's exactly where all such hazardous facilities should be? It's not as though the wildlife of northern Ontario are using the stuff; why should they bear the risks of a product we demand? Has anyone seen hard-hatted grizzly bears pumping their shit into our living rooms since Gary Larsen went away?)

But today I think I'll serve up a tripartite brain sampler; three little appetizers concerning neurons that are in turn whiney, shiny, and cerebrospinal.

Cerebrospiney: being the kind of fluid that's now filling the great cavernous hole in six-year-old Jessie Hall's head after doctors cut out half her brain to control seizures resulting from Rasmussen's encephalitis. Her father (who I'm sure has never heard the name Siri Keeton) says that there's no memory loss and that she's "the same Jessie" she always was. Of course, he also said that her survival was "a miracle of medicine and God"— presumably the same God who stuck the encephalitis into her head in the first place. Which would logically make the liberation of Auschwitz at the end of WW2 "a miracle of the Russians and Nazis". Man, what I wouldn't give to have God's PR guy on my side.

Shiney: being the porridge of rat neurons running Gordon, an echolocating robot out of the University of Reading. (Most of you have already seen this; at least, most of you seem to have sent me the links.) It's getting close enough to the head-cheeses of the rifters trilogy— right down to the little rows of electrodes poking up into the tissue and incipient behavioral unpredictability— that Technovelgy describes it as "a pretty exact match" to the rifters vision, and although that's a big overstatement I am tickled at the nod because not too many other authors seem to have picked up on the whole head-cheese thing way back in the twentieth century. But it's probably worth noting the slightly grumpy dissent of Steve Potter from the Georgia Institute of Technology, whose work is extensively cited in New Scientist's coverage (check the comments for this entry). Potter regards the Reading work as just another incremental step on the path, and not nearly so shiny as the popular press has made it out to be (although if you ask me, cultured neurons running robot bodies is pretty damn shiny no matter how you slice 'em). Could just be the sour grapes of an upstaged rival, of course. Still, anyone who's spent more than thirty seconds in academia will know that it's not the people with the best ideas who rise to the top; it's the people with the best self-promotion. Just like everywhere else on the planet.

Whiney: being my own neurons, which may verge on paranoid at the best of times, but that doesn't mean everyone isn't out to ignore me (well, everyone except Technovelgy, I guess). Take these i09 folks, for example. A while back they did a list of recent sf novels that put the "hard" back into sf. And you know, there are a lot of those, so you really can't feel too hard done by if your own book doesn't make the list, even if none of those that did came with a hundred-plus technical references. The fact that one of the novels they did cite was self-published made me wonder how widely they'd cast their net for candidates, but whatever. At least a couple of folks mentioned Blindsight in the Comments section.

But now they've done a piece on science-fiction rationales for vampires, and I'm sorry r's and K's but I own that particular bit of the genre. And Blindsight did not exactly go unmentioned in the field. I mean, come on, people: Half a dozen final award ballots. Multiple printings. Eight languages. Marc Andreessen even put it on his list of the best sf novels of the new century, and a good chunk of those hundred-plus technical references appeared under the heading "A brief primer on vampire biology". There's even a Powerpoint for chrissakes (or there was, until Flash fucked everything up with their so-called "upgrade"). So do you think Blindsight finally got a nod over at i09?

Not a whisper. Unless you count all those people in the Comments section, wondering why Blindsight wasn't mentioned.

I mean, seriously. What does it take to get a date with these people? I'll even bring my own kneepads.

And what does "i09" even mean, anyway?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rumor Control

I have it on reasonably good authority that David Hartwell, during a panel on upcoming Tor titles at last week's Worldcon, announced that he had sent me a contract for a new novel and was awaiting my response.

Technically this might be true. In terms of the take-home message, however — i.e. the reasonable inference that I'm still in bed with Tor, and that another Peter Watts novel is imminent or even likely from that publisher— it is not.

Just so you know.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I, Steampunk

Ślepowidzenie is out in Poland. The cover makes it look kinda like a Jules Verne retread, and I mean that in a good way; in terms of literal, technical detail it gets pretty much everything wrong, but in terms of thematic ambience (and basic artistic skill) it rules.

This is just as well, because I was never consulted on this cover despite a clause in the contract stipulating that I would be (a clause I have insisted on, for obvious reasons, in every contract subsequent to the Tor edition). Once again I am reminded of how fucking impotent authors are, and how utterly meaningless contracts are. Over the past year, various contracts have promised me input on cover art; interest payments for late advances; consultation on audio performances; and unabridged transcription of text. And whenever these commitments have failed to solidify, I've always been told that there's fuck-all I can do about it; the contracts contain promises but no penalties. They're universally described as essential things for authors to have, yet there doesn't seem to be any recourse when a publisher breaks them.

But I digress; I'm very happy with the way this cover turned out. And initial reader reaction seems to be pretty positive too; Google translation software isn't all it might be, but this nine-star rating is pretty unambiguous. And others seem to be using words that port over as "best book published this year" and "deserve the highest praise".

So overall, a good start in Poland. I just wish there were more than fifty people in that country.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

All Hail the Mighty Ursabelle!

It takes a while sometimes for electrons to get all the way out here to Gibralter Point, but my understanding is that Elizabeth won the short-story Hugo last night for "Tideline". And though I hate her for her talent and her characters, I also love her for her talent and her character.

So, way to go, Ursabelle. Another rock face scaled.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Not the Rock. The Point.

I have dropped off the face of Toronto for the next week, returning to the magical land of orange tabby and slate-grey cats Gibralter Point, and to an annual writing retreat that I haven't attended for a few years now. My primary goal is to finally hammer those fiblets I've been dribbling into a coherent story. You might be surprised, given how sparsely I've been rationing the suckers out, but there's a good 15K worth of prose in that tale— not to mention an awful lot of pot-holes, untidy seams, and placeholding asterisks which have to be filled by actual numbers once I finally work out the morphometric algebra. There've been 15K for a couple of months now, just sitting, and not getting any better; and the damn thing's due at the end of September. So this is it. This is the week I buckle down and whip the sucker into shape (and not incidentally, get some feedback from fellow writers).

So I don't really know how much I'll be posting to the crawl over the next few days. If it goes exceptionally well, I might shower you all with glee and excerpts. Likewise, if I make no progress at all I might shower you all with displacement activity. But if you hear little or nothing from me, perhaps that means I'm plugging away, and I shouldn't be disturbed because it's slowly but surely coming together.

In the meantime, I would just like to point out that D=Danielle has got the most endearing user pic ever.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Reznor and the Singularity

Well, they suckered me. After I'd heard so much about the vaunted FX of Nine Inch Nails' live show, Reznor et al stomped through an opening assortment of Slip and Year Zero tracks against a competent-but-hardly groundbreaking backdrop of coloured spotlights and dry-ice vapor. Four or five songs in, I was resigning myself to merely settling for the best industrial noise this side of Eraserhead, when —


—suddenly the boys were playing Ghosts on the night-time sand dunes of fucking Arrakis, and then


— they were playing "Vessel" from what I can only describe as the inside of a Cylon epileptic seizure, all bloody static and distorted neurological imagery and pounding plasma wavefronts. They never looked back. One moment they'd be spinning ethereal instrumentals in a fire-blackened twilit wetland where the water shimmered like yellow mercury; the next the stage would be infested with phalanxes of luminous teleporting spindles of light. Torrents of televisual static — you know, the old stuff dating from a time when Gibson's "television tuned to a dead channel" meant something other than a blue screen of death — swirled around the band's ankles like sea foam, then took flight to coalesce into an electronic overcast ten meters above the flooring. The whole damn stage would disappear behind walls of light that morphed from waterfall to a field of pulsing topographic tumors. At one point, some guy with a squeegee came out and actually wiped the dancing visual static away from midair, for all the world as if it were muddy streaks on someone's windshield. We saw a nighttime cityscape shimmering in heat haze, and igniting. Even the more conventional LED arrays seemed to be saying something, the patterns flickering across their faces just slightly the wrong side of random. I kept squinting to see if I could decipher some hidden message in those lights, and why not? This was the guy who spectroscopically embedded The Hand of God in the static burst at the end of "My Violent Heart". It's all noise, sure: but none of it is meaningless.

I walked out the stadium feeling a little like a Cro Magnon who'd just glimpsed the far side of the Singularity, with two thoughts tugging at the back of my mind:
  • Year Zero's logo for the Faithful Civil Patrol remains the best single icon of the contemporary U.S.A. in my experience; and
  • If Reznor had told the ecstatic, fanatical mob swaying before him
    to go into the streets and tear this fucking city down, Toronto's
    police force — only marginally less corrupt than the FCP, if a lot less religious — wouldn't have stood a chance.
I almost wish he had.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Revenge of the Butterballs

A few years back — before he ascended into Heaven with the angels — Cory Doctorow submitted a nifty little story to the Gibralter Point writing workshop (an annual affair for which, come to think of it, I am about to depart this very weekend). I don't remember the title, but one of the central characters was this geeky pudgeball who, by hacking his own metabolic software, morphed into a ripped hi-def hard body without having to exercise. (This was at the height of the second Atkins craze, when eating a stack of bunless bacon cheeseburgers had stopped being a "weird-ass diet" and had started being a new way to "hack the body".) Sitting in the Commons afterwards, Cory expressed his outrage at the fact that the human body has to exercise for at least twenty minutes before flipping into fat-burning mode. "Suppose you want to read a book at night," he analogized, decrying the need for physical exercise, "and the light will only stay on if you keep hitting the switch every two seconds. We're supposed to applaud the guy who sits there all night hitting the switch? Why not just rig the damn thing so it stays on?"

"But Cory," said I, from my vantage point of greater age and vastly greater biological wisdom, "you're assuming that we're living in some kind of magical Corytopia where there's another option. You seem to think we all drag our asses out the door to go running at six a.m. because we're too stupid to just pop the hardbody pill in the medicine cabinet. But there is no hardbody pill. Not yet. So for the time being, you either keep hitting the damn switch or you stop reading when the sun goes down." And we both went away happy; me because I was right, and Cory because his story sold to Salon the next week and got optioned for a movie deal the week after.

Only now, Cory still has his option deal, and I'm not even right any more. Because now there's this new drug, AICAR, that tricks the body into thinking that it's just had a massive workout and had better start building more type-1 muscle fibers (original research here; NYT article here). Basically, we're talking triathlete-in-a-pill here. While the drug has so far worked its magic only on mice, they've already developed a test to detect its presence in cheating Olympic athletes so you know it's only a matter of time before people are using the stuff. And not much time, either; as obesity expert Richard Bergman opines, "the couch potato segment of the population might find this to be a good regimen". Duh, ya think?

You know what pisses me off about this, even more than Cory being right (again)? It's the fact that I've been hitting that damn switch every two seconds for pretty much my whole life. I first started doing pushups back in grade seven, when Keith Gill spat on my bike and I knew that he'd beat the crap out of me if I spat back on his, even though he was smaller than me. Ever since it's been a rearguard fight against entropy. I lose anywhere from six to nine hours weekly to running and working out, depending on the weather; I did an online questionnaire once and discovered that all this exercise will devour seven years of my life, and gain me only five in expected lifespan (which is a net loss of two years, if you're having trouble with the math). More than a workday per week devoted to fitness and I'm still only slowing the inevitable slide to terminal decay.

And now, any 200-kilo couch potato with a health card is gonna be able to pop a few pills and turn into The Rock while watching American fucking Idol? There better be side-effects, is all I can say. Really serious ones. I'm talking gonadal tumors the side of grapefruits. I'm talking primordial cysts erupting through newly-chiseled faces at time-lapse speed, right in the middle of a first date. I demand it.

Because otherwise, you know what? Life just wouldn't be fair.


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Loving the Alien

We sleep. The chimp makes grudging corrections to a myriad small trajectories. I set the alarm to wake me every few weeks, burn a little more of my candle in case the AI tries to pull another fast one; but for now, it seems to be behaving itself. 428 jumps towards us in the stop-motion increments of a life's moments, strung like beads along an infinite string. The factory floor slews to starboard in our sights: refineries, reservoirs, and nanofab plants, swarms of von Neumans breeding and cannibalising and recycling each other into shielding and circuitry, tugboats and spare parts. The very finest Cro Magnon technology mutates and metastasises across the universe like armor-plated cancer.

And hanging like a curtain between it and us shimmers an iridescent life form, fragile and immortal and unthinkably alien, that reduces everything my species ever accomplished to mud and shit by the simple transcendent fact of mere existence. I have never believed in gods, never believed in universal good or absolute evil. I have only ever believed that there is what works, and what doesn't. All the rest is smoke and mirrors, trickery to manipulate grunts like me.

But I believe in The Island, because I don't have to. It does not need to be taken on faith: it looms ahead of us, its existence an empirical fact. I will never know its mind, I will never know the details of its origin and evolution. But I can see it: massive, mindboggling, so utterly inHuman that it can't help but be better than us, better than anything we ever could have become.

I believe in The Island. I gambled my own son to save its life. I would have killed him to avenge its death.

I may yet.

In all these millions of wasted years, I have finally done something worthwhile.