December 27 2004: New Blurb Page
Now that the last of the rifter volumes is in print (and the first is about to fall out of it), a few reviewers have begun passing judgment on the trilogy as a whole. I've therefore added a new page to this site; when you click on "Blurbs", you'll see a default page containing excerpts from such overviews. Once there, submenu options link to comments on the individual novels, as always.
December 25 2004: Merry Fucking Christmas
Oh, what the hell—here's the Christmas Card we cobbled together this year:
Inside it says: "The Cuthbert girls get their religious holidays mixed up again." Ain't Photoshop grand?
I really fucking hate Christmas.
December 24 2004: "Horrific Porn",
The publishers of Iain Banks first novel, The Wasp Factory, employed an unusual marketing strategy; they printed both positive and negative blurbs on the book itself, in an approximate 50:50 ratio. They were smart enough to realise that these negative blurbs were actually complimentary in a backhanded way: they generally boiled down to "there's no denying Banks is an extremely talented writer but he's also a sick twisted fuck who for the good of decent society should never be allowed to write again". In other words, he'd gotten under people's skin, and made it crawl. He'd evoked a powerful emotional response with his writing; he'd done what writers are supposed to do. The reviews a writer should cringe at are those that dismiss the work as uninvolving or inconsequential, or—worst of all—boring. To have one's work viscerally abhorred is to succeed: you got to someone.
I've always wanted a review like that. Kirkus has just given me my first, in their review of Seppuku. They find my world-building "vivid and telling", and admit I might actually have a few stylistic chops. But they loathe my "utterly repellent" depictions of sexual torture, and suggest that it's time for me to choose between science fiction and "horrific porn". (They seem to think the two mutually exclusive for some reason.)
This is pretty cool. I'm glad ("relieved" might be a better word) that my depictions of sexual torture are horrific and repellent. I would have been troubled if they'd come across as heartwarming or romantic. But I'd disagree that the passages qualify as "pornography". Porn's primary purpose is sexual arousal; neither of the two things I was trying to do in those sex-torture scenes involved getting the readers' rocks off.
What was I trying to do? First, I wanted to convey a lot of technical information without boring the reader to tears. Presenting it in the context of a sadistic tutorial was a lot more dramatic than showing a couple of talking heads facting at each other. Secondly, I was trying to make a point about the inherent hypocrisy of our social priorities; Achilles saves thousands of lives a day and yet we consider him a monster because he tortures one or two women to death every month. Compare him to your average multicorp, which for purely economic reasons is responsible for more death and suffering than all the serial killers who ever lived—and whose Captains of Industry are regarded by many as bastions of society. (Dow Chemical in India, anyone? Shell in South Africa?)
Now that's something I think worthy of the term "utterly repellent". And I make no apologies if your stomach turns as I make the point.
December 23 2004: Peter Plath
A couple of comments from prolific Usenet reviewer James Nicoll, posted on rec.arts.sf.written:
On ß-Max: "I think Watts is a powerful writer. I also think that if I were to sit down with a big stack of his books, I would hang myself after finishing the last one."
On Seppuku: "Whenever I find my will to live becoming too powerful, I read Peter Watts."
These are great. I just wish this Nicoll guy were affiliated with a traditional newspaper or something; then maybe I could talk Tor into sticking these blurbs on the jacket.
December 22 2004: IRoSF Retrospective
The Internet Review of Science Fiction has posted Janine Stinson's retrospective on my rifters trilogy in their December edition. (You have to subscribe to read it, but subscription—for the moment, anyway—is free.) Among other things, Janine presents an insightful analysis of the unifying metaphors I used, consciously or not, throughout the story. She makes no mention of the whole nature-of-free-will riff—a major part (I like to think) of the trilogy's subtext— but then again you can only cram so much into two thousand words.
It's a pretty positive review, mentioning me in the same breath with much better writers. It may actually be a bit too positive. I've never met Janine, but we correspond intermittently and I can see how someone might pull their punches in light of such a relationship. But if so, she wouldn't have pulled them very much; she's always been more than willing to tell me what she doesn't like about my work (my inability to draw believable children, for instance), and more often than not I agree with her. So for the most part I'm just going to bask in this review, while continuing to entertain the just-being-nice hypothesis to keep my ego in check.
Yeah, I know. Wish me luck.
December 13 2004: Starred Review in Publisher's Weekly
Amazon has stopped listing Seppuku as "not yet available", so I guess Volume Two is now officially on the shelves. It looks pretty good there, except for two things:
A fuzzy, muppet-like buck-toothed beaver face appears in the cover art, for reasons which remain unclear (go on, see for yourself; the cover's available via the Gallery link, and said fuzzy beaver is at about eight o'clock);
Those idiots at Tor have once again failed to credit Karen Fernandez, who took the author photo! This is especially infuriating since they fucked up in exactly the same way over ß-Max, after which they bowed and scraped and promised in their most sincere this-time-we-really-mean-it voice that it wouldn't happen again. And I kept reminding them anyway. And it didn't make a goddamned bit of difference.
I'm still waiting to see what—if anything—will be done to rectify this latter issue. At the very least, Tor should send out a bunch of erratum stickers to be affixed to the books they've shipped. Precedent, however, weighs against betting on anything beyond a sheepish shrug, an "Oops! We did it again!" and their usual dismissive assertion that it's far too late to fix it at this point, and I'm being a Very Difficult Author for making such a fuss about it.
At which point I might just make Seppuku available as a free pdf for anyone who asks. This is just the latest in a series of fuck-ups dating back to the last century, and in pretty much every instance Tor has simply refused to make things right unless it doesn't cost them anything. And logically, without leverage or recourse to other alternatives, the only way I can cost them anything is to resort to sabotage.
Anyway. That's for another time. As today's headline suggests, there's also cheerier news in the pike: Publisher's Weekly gave Seppuku a starred review, describing it as an adrenaline-charged fusion of Gibson and Clarke. That comment alone kicks all kinds of ass, so it's what I've excerpted on the blurbs page, but I might as well quote the review in its entirety right here:
"In Canadian author Watt's intense, beautifully written conclusion to his Rifters trilogy (after 2004's ßehemoth: ß-Max) Lenie Clarke, the near-psychotic, bio-engineered woman who loosed the deadly organism known as ßehemoth on an already environmentally compromised world, resurfaces from the ocean's depths to discover who's behind continuing efforts to destroy all life on Earth. Together with Lubin, a bio-engineered man who's a highly efficient killer, Clarke discovers an America that has been devastated, not just by ßehemoth but by attacks from heavily fortified, high-tech enclaves whose rulers will stop at nothing in a futile attempt to contain the out-of-control organism. Worse still, the battle is apparently being led by Achilles Desjardins, a murderous psychopath who has slipped the protective psychological programming that once kept his darker impulses under control. Aided by Taka Ouelette, a guilt-ridden, second-rate physician, Clarke and Lubin strive desperately to unravel the secrets of both ßehemoth and Seppuku, its even more dangerous mutation. Like some adrenaline-charged fusion of Clarke's The Deep Range and Gibson's Neuromancer, Watt's trilogy represents a major addition to early 21st-century hard SF."
There's some factual and plot-related errors there, but still. Nice, huh?
December 2 2004: Support your local jarhead
Too bent over the rewrite now to keep up on news of the world—three months of unread Science and almost as many Economists are piling up in front of the toilet as I type. Yet if I'm going to continue to indulge the faint hope that new material breeds new traffic, I've really got to post something; and having fallen behind on the science, all I really got to offer is another excerpt from Blindsight. So that's what you get. Click on "In Progress" for the latest.
November 29 2004: Ad Astra, Excelsior
There's this local but relatively large sf convention, Ad Astra; I've got a bit of a soft spot for it, because it was there that I handed Starfish* to David Hartwell of Tor, not to mention meeting the only woman I've ever had a relationship with that's lasted more than three years. I've fallen away from it in recent years for pretty much the same reason that I've fallen away from cons in general: too much investment for too little payoff.
Well, I'm gonna be going next year, because I'm one of the Authorial Guests of Honor (the other is Nalo Hopkinson, whose voice in this largely white-bread sf subculture is way more distinctive than mine). Evidently this means I get to sit on lots of panels, and give a one-hour lecture to whoever accidentally wanders into the room in search of more famous names. I just hope they don't schedule the GoH's against each other. (Don't laugh; that's exactly what happened when I was at Conglomeration a couple of years back.)
Anyway, it's April 8-10. Toronto. Details here. (Actually, very few details there at the moment, but they'll be filling them in as they resolve.)
*Re handing manuscripts to editors: kids, don't try this either at home or at cons. Evidently it's considered a huge social faux pas. The only reason I got away with it was because a) nobody stopped me, and b) Hartwell already wanted to see the ms, so I wasn't pushing unsolicited slush on the man. Even though that's probably what it looked like.
November 21 2004: Irony of the Month
My writing has, very occasionally, been taught at the university level. I'm no Nalo Hopkinson, but every now and then I see my books or stories on course lists, generally as "extra reading" but once or twice as a core text. Once I even got to be a writer-in-residence, and angst out all over a bunch of Minnesota undergrads for a week. As far as I know, though, my fiction has never been the subject of serious academic scholarship, in the sense that no accredited academic has ever written an article or given a formal paper on my literary work.
Until October of this year, when this hotshot prof from McMaster presented a paper on my rifters trilogy during a conference at the University of Toronto. I wish I'd known about it at the time. I would've snuck in. But you know what the real kicker is? Do you? Just guess.
The paper was given at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies.
They keep using that word. I don't think it means what they think it means.
November 19 2004: The Opposite of Leeches
New prose over on "In Progress".
November 14 2004: My heart may not go on, but my mouth sure does...
The Challenging Destiny guys have finally posted their interview with me, here. Readers of this exchange will notice that I am longwinded. In fact, you don't know the half of it; I was even more longwinded than the transcript suggests, but Dave Switzer kindly offered me the chance to edit prior to posting. I tried to avoid too much revisionism— I cut out explicitly repetitive and irrelevant bits, but left enough drunken meandering to ensure that no one will accuse me of trying to make myself look good in hindsight.
I've also added a section to the Links page, pointing to this and a few other interviews I've done over the past couple of years. It misses some stuff, but it's easier than writing a FAQ.
November 12 2004: Rapture of the Deep
Way back in January, someone started a thread on this SCUBA forum about divers being attacked by giant gulper eels, linking to a news item found online. A bunch of other divers responded to it over the following few days, shivering vicariously at the thought of such an attack, wondering at the extreme bottom depth of the encounter, contributing giant-attacking-sea-monster stories of their own.
Nobody ever seemed to twig to the fact that the "news item" they were looking at was, in fact, the "Channer Vent" page here at rifters.com, and that none of it is real. Yet every now and then, I still get hits from that board. I got a couple just today.
So for those of you surfing in from scubaboard.com—it's science fiction, guys. It didn’t really happen. But I'm glad you found the lie so convincing.
For a taste of more explicit fiction, I've posted a new story on the Shorts page.
November 11 2004: Cloned
Okay, this is odd: someone's mirroring this site. I have no idea who, and there are a few associated weirdnesses. First, the URL begins with 'https://'— evidently the 's' after 'http' connotes an encrypted site with enhanced security. Secondly, when I access the main site under which the mirror occurs, my browser throws up all sorts of warnings about invalid certificates (something to do with Weirdness #1, I'd guess). And thirdly, that same main site seems to be written in Chinese (at least, it doesn't render properly without downloading a Chinese font.
Offhand, I've got no objections if someone wants to mirror my site. I guess it's free publicity, of a sort. But it would be nice to know who, and why. And in English.
November 10 2004: Silent Auction, Blind Sight
The Philadelphia Free Library's silent auction has concluded. Some unsuspecting Star Wars fan is about to appear as a twisted deviant character in Blindsight, courtesy of a friend/relative/enemy who paid $250 for the Tuckerising rights. I'd be quite pleased with that sum—it means at least two people bid back and forth across fifteen iterations—except I don't think they were competing to appear in a Peter Watts story so much as just any old science fiction novel. Whatever. It goes to a good cause, and I'm glad someone's making money off the stuff I'm writing.
I'd tell you more, but it's supposed to be a surprise and I don't want to leave any incriminating details lying around in front of Google.
November 3 2004: It's Moron in America!
Normally this newscrawl keeps a tight focus on writing and science. If you want recipes, pictures of kittens, or stream-of-consciousness egesta about eggplants or human rights, there're plenty of other blogs out there taking up bandwidth. But if there's one thing that informs both my science and my writing, it's near-future dystopias. And that's not a bad description of what's just happened south of the 49th.
I'm no great fan of John Kerry. I don't have to be: the question was never whether Kerry would have been a good president, only whether he would have been better than Bush. He would have been. Francis the Talking Mule would have been. You all know what's happened on Bush's watch. A hundred thousand dead Iraqi civilians; over a thousand dead Americans, which loom so much larger in your collective mindset. Routine widespread torture. Elimination of civil rights at home and abroad. Halliburton. Suppression of ideologically-unpalatable scientific research. Preemptive war on false pretenses. You were repeatedly fed shit on a plate, America, and you knew better. The evidence was right there for anyone who wanted to look. You knew what you were being fed and you gulped it down anyway, on issues ranging from yellow-cake uranium to greenhouse gases.
And yet, I don't hate George W. Bush. I don't even blame him. I can certainly understand why so many do, but let's face it—when you put a capuchin monkey at the controls of a 747, you don't blame the monkey when the plane goes down. I didn't even think "My Pet Goat" was a particularly big deal—no ventriloquist wastes time running his dummy when the house is on fire, and I'm sure Rumsfeld and Rove were on top of things during those infamous seven minutes.
(I do admit I don't understand why the Right doesn't hate the man, though. Bush epitomizes everything that honest conservatives should despise. He hid behind Daddy's skirts to get out of Viet Nam—and was then too much of a pussy to even do his time in the Guard. He drove every business that was handed to him straight into the ground. His government burns money in a way true fiscal conservatives would find abhorrent. He's made a cruel joke of the conservative ideal of "small government". And he could probably answer the question "Who would Jesus bomb?" with a straight face and no glimmer of irony. Jesus would bomb Iraq, of course.)
It seemed so obvious to me, to us, that I thought it would be obvious to you guys down south as well. But no. The bogeyman jumps out at you and you run screaming to Daddy like an abused little child. No use pointing out that Daddy is actually using the bogeyman to keep you in line, that he created the bogeyman called Saddam, just as he created bin Laden before him. No use pointing to all the weapons and aid and government contracts the US gave the "terrorists" back when they were "allies", back when Daddy ignored the same transgressions he now trumpets to justify the body count. Scared little boys and girls think with their brain stems, and brain stems don't parse cause and effect. They can't remember anything Daddy doesn't tell them to.
Last time, you could blame dirty tricks. You could claim that Bush didn't really win, that he didn't represent the majority view in that self-exalted country of yours. And the rest of us could agree; we didn't hate Americans, only their current illegitimate administration. But you don't get to say that any more. Yes, there are millions of bright well-informed people down there (more than in Canada, in terms of absolute numbers). Yes, some of the most vociferous critics of the American mindset are Americans. I welcome those folks into my home any time they want a place to claim refugee status. (At least, I welcome as many as will fit.)
But they are not the majority. The majority is a reactionary mob of fundamentalist bible-thumpers, barely literate and utterly intolerant of anything that would provoke thought rather than reflex. I know this because smart people like Rove and Cheney fine-tuned their campaign specifically to the Ignorant Hick demographic, and over half the population fell for it.
You see, I can't blame Bush. Without his connections and his handlers, he'd be just another anonymous beer-swilling redneck from Crawford. And I can't blame the men behind the curtain, either; they're just furthering their own interests at the expense of everyone else's, because that's what life does in Darwin's universe.
I can't blame them for trying. I can only blame the people who let them get away with it. I can't blame the administration; I can only blame the voters. Because this time, it was a fair call. Democracy worked, and America, you truly have the government you deserve. If I'm lucky, it will trample you before it tramples me. It's the most I can hope for now: to catch a glimpse of the astonished dismay on your bovine faces before the ceiling crashes in.
November 1 2004: Bitchin' Bear
I've just finished reading the new trilogy by Elizabeth Bear. You can't have it yet; the first installment, Hammered, isn't even out for another month or two. Your loss, Toots. This stuff is great. It combines a gritty, dystopian Brunneresque worldview—politically astute, globally wide-angled, and refreshingly non-US-centric—with the kind of open-mouthed sense-of-wonder you might get from a collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Vernor Vinge. Except Bear's aliens are more alien than Vinge's and her humans are way more human than Kubrick's.
Mind, we are talking about a single story in three volumes; although Hammered sings on its own, some of the harmonics dangle loose enough to leave you wondering why they're there in the first place. Never fear; they're integral, and all (well, most) is resolved by the end of the tale. I can say this, because unlike you poor saps, I don't have to wait until 2006 to see how it all shakes out.
If you write sf, you'll be wondering if maybe it wouldn't be better for your own career if this Bear chick didn't just, you know, disappear before things get out of hand. (Drop me a line; we'll talk.) But if you mainly just read the stuff, believe me: you're going to eat this up.
October 20 2004: Metareview
Analog reviews ß-Max this month. I've stuck the blurb on the "pro" side of the table, since the only judgmental line in the whole review—"I think it safe to say that readers will be satisfied"—is positive. But that is the only judgmental line; the rest of the review is pure plot synopsis, which is to say, not really a review at all.
Mind, I'm not complaining. I'm well aware of that old "be careful what you wish for" proverb, so I'll take the plug gratefully, such as it is. Still. Is it just my imagination, or are "reviews" increasingly morphing into "summaries" these days?
In unrelated news, Tor now admits that a misplaced decimal point resulted in their erroneous report to Revenue Canada, which in turn led to RevCan's querulous accusation that I was evading taxes on half a million US dollars (see Oct 15 entry for details). In fact, they seem to have misplaced a whole lot of decimal points; evidently up to eighty Canadian authors might have been caught in the same glitch. Tor is now diligently tracking down the source of the error so that they have someone to blame. Despite my urging, they seem unwilling to contact Revenue Canada and admit the mistake prior to having a fall guy in place.
October 15 2004: Notes From the Front (or, how is a Tor like a brick?)
In case any of you envy me my cozy relationship with a Big NY Publisher of Hardcover SF, here is the essence of that relationship over recent months. Read it and weep:
Tor printed the wrong jacket text for Volume 1...
...which necessitated me writing new jacket text for Volume 2....
...which Tor forgot about, resulting in the wrong text ending up on the preliminary prints of the Volume 2 jacket as well...
...which I caught, and which I was told would be rectified...
...and was then asked what exactly the differences were between the old and new text, because they couldn't find any...
...so I pointed out that their "new" text was just the old text with a new filename, and not the real new text, which they had evidently lost in the months since I'd sent it...
...to which they said 'oh, our bad', and added that it would be too expensive to change it back at this late date anyway, although they would be able to add the glowing blurbs for Volume 1 that I'd forwarded from the Edmonton Journal and Quill & Quire...
...after which they sent me "revised" jackets that were identical to the "unrevised" jackets, and did not contain said blurbs...
...so I asked...
...and was told that they'd never got around to telling me, but they'd decided not to use those blurbs after all because they were from Canadian sources and nobody in the US cares what the Edmonton Journal says...
...to which I said But you've already got a blurb from the Edmonton Journal on that jacket, only it's for Starfish, and since you obviously do find them worth quoting, why not use a more recent blurb that relates directly to the novel at hand?...
...to which they said Nah, nobody cares what book the blurb is about...
...Revenue Canada tells me I made a half-million US$ in undeclared royalties last year, and they're getting ready to freeze my assets and charge me with tax evasion.
Of course, I never made anywhere near that much—I'm living on rice and barnacles up here—and I already paid my taxes on what I did make, and who could possibly have told them that...
...Ah, yes. Here it is. Holtzbrinck Publishing. Also known as...
Believe it or not, this is actually pretty typical of my interactions with these guys. The naive among us might suggest that I retain the services of an agent to deal with such travails. When I had one, though, things were even worse; said (ex)agent took longer to not deal with these issues than I've since taken tackling them myself, and his success rate was a lot lower too. So to anyone out there who yearns for life as a midlist author of downbeat sf, be advised: it's very little money for putting up with an awful lot of shit and a readership whose numbers (if these hit counts are any indication) might be charitably described as "pitiful".
Have a good weekend.
October 3 2004: Q & Ale
The guys from Challenging Destiny and Crystalline Sphere came by yesterday for a lengthy interview in the faux-Irish pub on the corner. They had Sprites and Orange Juice; I had many pints of Rickard's. A lot of fun and much ground covered— but whether the interview got better or worse over time probably depends on whether the correlation between sobriety and wit is positive or negative. I'm probably not the best judge. I'll keep you posted.
Praise me: I passed the 60,000-word mark on Blindsight last week. Also, since the Wired bounce has subsided, I've got "Bethlehem" back up on the Shorts page.
September 25 2004: Upcoming pub
The upcoming Tesseracts 9—latest in a semiregular series of Canadian sf anthologies, put out by Edge/Tesseract Books—apparently includes a story I coauthored several years ago with Derryl Murphy. At least, the editors (Nalo Hopkinson and Geoff Ryman—you must have heard of them, because you've evidently heard of me and they're way more famous) have solicited bio notes and suggested editorial changes, although until I see an actual contract I leave open the possibility that this is some kind of cruel hoax.
The story itself is called "Firefly". Not quite sure how I feel about it. I suspect I'm not very good at collaborations in general (I don't play well with others), and this particular tale carries the added burden of being about a young girl. Now, Derryl loves kids—he's got some of his own, in fact—while I regard them as either lame-ass consolation prizes for people without cats (at best), or as larvae destined to metamorphose into typical Human adults (at worst). Whether you regard "Firefly" as inspirational or depressive depends on which of us you agree with, and when not even the authors see eye-to-eye... well, maybe there's a reason it took four years to sell the damn thing.
On the other hand, look at Lennon and McCartney. Some might say the only times they ever did anything worthwhile was when they were butting heads...
September 22 2004: Peter the Perv
So I check to see if Google News reports my name, because after all anybody can show up on regular ol' Goog but how many of us make the news metabase? Certainly not me, not since the last time that I was quoted in Wired a couple of years back. So here I am, quoted in Wired again, eagerly Googling News for one more brief moment of microfame...
And there I am. There's my name. There's a 37-year-old pedophile named Peter Watts, from "Upper Dicker" (I kid you not) being led away in handcuffs on the BBC. My one teensy moment of glory and some guy with my exact same name gets caught making kiddie-porn on the same damn day.
Yes, the Wired article showed up too. Underneath the kiddie-porn story. Which makes it just as well I didn't tell my Mom to look for my name on the web today. (And no, I'm not linking to the damn BBC story. Google it yourself if you're so interested.)
September 20 2004: ReWired
So the Wired story came out. They didn't misquote me. Better, they didn't accurately quote any of the dumber things I said. And even better, they linked to my Shorts page.
Which of course has made me second-guess myself, because let's face it, how many shiny happy Wireheads are gonna want to read a story about global ecological collapse as seen through the eyes of a failed academic with a quantum-physics fetish? Sounds almost like Can-Lit, doesn't it? What else would they like? Well, what the hell—Starfish went over pretty well, and I haven't posted "A Niche" from that book yet, so...
...so I've retired Bethlehem for a few days (although it's still available as a pdf), just temporarily. It'll be back. In fact, it may be back really soon, if I don't notice a bump in my hits...
September 16 2004: The Editrix Comes Through Again
Thanks to Jena Snyder for forwarding the complete text of the Journal review (now properly excerpted in Blurbs).
September 15 2004: Cats Who Bite Balls and the Humans Who Love Them
New story posted under "Shorts". Also, if anyone out there has any idea why an otherwise-affectionate 15-week-old kitten would start regularly biting someone's testicles (really hard) at around 3a.m. every morning, I want to hear from you.
September 14 2004: Truncated Review
While ego-surfing, I've discovered that the Edmonton Journal has run a review of ß-Max under the title "Deeply Intelligent, Worrying Thriller." This sounds encouraging and potentially rife with blurbs; unfortunately, only paying subscribers get to read past the headline, and I'm not one. I know this is a long shot, but if anyone out there is reading this, and happens to have a copy of said review, I'd go all treacly with gratitude if they could scan me a jpeg.
September 10 2004: Fresh Meat In Progress
In celebration of cracking 40,000 words, I've posted a new excerpt to works In Progress. It's not fun. Hopefully it's at least evocative.
September 8 2004: Wired
I got interviewed by a journalist for Wired today. Not about my own work (not directly, anyway)—I'm sure the woman wouldn't even know who I was if Cory Doctorow hadn't put her on to me. She was soliciting my opinion on whether giving away one's work online might, paradoxically, increase sales of the same titles. Which led of course into the whole online piracy thing, and obsolete business models in the entertainment industry, and evil little trolls named Valenti who use specious logic to argue idiotic ideologies.
I was only one of several people interviewed for the piece. I don't know if she'll use anything I said. Maybe the bit about the inherent masochism evident in anyone who'd read an entire novel off a Palm Pilot. She probably won't use my suggestion about reducing online 'piracy' by preceding each illegal download with a 2-second fullscreen video of a baby seal getting its skull staved in. And it would be nice if she mentioned my riff on the Trolley Paradox and the moral rightness of pushing people in front of trains, but I bet she won't. (Come to think of it, that last bit might not even have been entirely on point.)
Actually, maybe it would better if she didn't mention me at all. I'll know for sure next week.
September 1 2004: Philadelphia Freedom
The Free Library if Philadelphia is strapped. Maybe this is inevitable in a society in which nobody fucking reads any more (a condition I would lament even if I didn't have such a vested interest). Or, just maybe, we can help them out.
I'm going to try for that last thing. The Philadelphia Library is doing some fundraising, and I've agreed to donate one of the prizes. I'm not sure exactly how the winner will be determined—maybe via a simple raffle, maybe through a process involving sacrificial goats. But the winner gets his or her name attached to one of the characters in Blindsight (a process known in the field as "Tuckerising").
The catch is, my characters tend to be a bit, well, unsympathetic; I don't know how many people would pay to have their name attached to a murderer or a child molester, no matter how worthy the cause. Also, I don't want to get sued. So the ad copy has to be handled delicately. This is what I've approved:
Be a Deviant (and profoundly misunderstood) Character in a Science Fiction Novel!
Science fiction author and reformed marine biologist Peter Watts has kindly offered to name one of his dysfunctional characters after you. Said character will appear in the upcoming novel "Blindsight", due from Tor Books by spring 2006. Watts--author of the critically-praised-and-scarcely-read "Rifters Trilogy" ("Starfish", "Maelstrom", and "ßehemoth")-- offers you one of the following characters:
- either member of a dysfunctional marriage "decaying with the exponential determinism of a radioactive isotope", involving brains wired into virtual utopias and the use of vassopressin to prevent infidelity;
- one of several personalities living together in the head of a linguist whose brain has been surgically partitioned into autonomous chunks as a form of career advancement (males with gender issues should keep in mind that the host body is female);
Sadly, the role of "pod-boy with half his brain cut out in childhood" has been taken.
- a career-army female whose brain is wired into a pack of semiautonomous military drones, and whose career-defining moment occured when she allowed a captured terrorist to kill soldiers under her command as restitution for acts of rape and torture committed on her watch.
Perfect for the teen on your list, though release form is required. Void where prohibited by the Patriot Act.
They say they'll probably have to cut this down to fit, so consider the above a kind of "Director's Cut". And if any of you live down there, go give them money.
August 29 2004: Critical Maass
I see an ongoing trickle of hits tracing back to a link on the website of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, which lists me as a client. Those who arrived here from there might read that link as an implicit endorsement on my part; after all, I wouldn't have Don Maass as my agent if I couldn't recommend him, right?
It's a reasonable inference, but an erroneous one. So to set the record straight: I fired Don several months ago, for chronic dereliction on a number of fronts. He continues to represent Maelstrom, ßehemoth, and the upcoming Blindsight—when an agent negotiates a title, he's pretty much locked in for the count—but he no longer represents me. (Looking back, I rather wonder if he ever did.)
This could be a YMMV situation. I originally sought out Don because he had a solid rep, and presumably he earned it somehow. I've met those who gape in astonishment at the news that I'd ever fire someone of Don's stature. Interestingly, though, none of those people have actually experienced Don as their agent; of the half-dozen friends and acquaintances who have, all but one have expressed dissatisfaction (two of them to the point of firing him themselves). But that lone exception loves the guy, and I believe Maass continues to come highly recommended by a number of other sources.
Just, you know. Not this one.
August 25 2004: Short story update
There's a new story up in Shorts. "Flesh Made Word". Feast. Even if it is a bit past the expiry date.
August 24 2004: The Ice Cube Diet
Yes, I disappeared for a writer's retreat, and yes, there was both writing and retreating, but what's really gonna go down in history is that last week I came up with the idea for a new diet that's gonna blow Atkins right out of the water.
Let's start with the technical definition of "calorie": the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one cc of water by one degree Centigrade at STP (Standard Temperature and Pressure--273K at sea level). In common, food-related parlance, "calorie" actually means "kilocalorie"—the amount of energy required to heat a litre by one degree—but in either case, we're talking about heat.
Now, we all know that cold objects contain less energy than hot ones do. And what happens when you put ice on something? You lower its temperature, and hence, its caloric content. Colder objects contain fewer calories.
This, my friends, is the heart of the revolutionary Ice Cube Diet. Refrigerate everything. Put ice on your fries, and they will be less fattening. Eat as much as you want, of whatever you want; just make sure that you accompany everything with loads of crushed ice.
Absolutely brilliant in its simplicity. Don't you wish you'd thought of it?
I am gonna be so rich...
August 13 2004: Defending the Dopers—Hurrah for the 'Roids!
First off, I'm gone tomorrow to a writer's retreat at an undisclosed location; this will be my last post for at least a week. But I really have to get something off my chest before I go. Times like this I really wish my newscrawl didn't have such a pathetically small readership, because more people should be exposed to the following intemperate opinion.
The Olympics are underway. You can tell because every news outlet on the planet is running earnest editorials on the evils of drugs in sport. Not even the opening ceremonies could escape a mini-blizzard of sanctimonious speeches and pledges about freedom from drugs (in light of which, the unmistakable resemblance of the Olympic torch to a humungous joint was more than a bit ironic.) This week's Economist approaches common sense by admitting that drugs in sports are here to stay so we might as well get used to it, but even they shy away from something that seems blindingly apparent from here. Which is:
Drugs in competitive sports should not only be tolerated, they should be mandatory. In fact, I'd argue that performance-enhancing drugs are essential to the very Spirit of the Games.
Of course you think I'm a loon. But pay attention to the ideals that everyone claims to be celebrating here: you'll hear phrases like the competitive spirit and the drive to succeed. You'll watch inspiring little minidocs showing athletes training endlessly, working through the pain, striving to make the cut. "Striving" is the essential word here, folks: the Olympics is a celebration of athletic effort. The winners, we like to believe, are those who trained longest, worked hardest, never stopped trying.
So how do you react when some guy trains twice as hard, for twice as long, overcomes twice as many hurdles—only to get his ass kicked by someone who happened to be born with a more steroid-friendly metabolism? I'll tell you how I react. I conclude that we're not celebrating competitive effort at all. We're celebrating an accident of birth.
People come with different biochemistries. Even among natural-born athletes, some are more equal than others. If you really want to reward those who strive hardest, the first thing you've got to do is level the playing field. Remove the unearned advantage of the guy whose genotype puts him five steps ahead of the game before he even laces his shoes. Make sure everyone trains and competes with comparable steroid levels and RBC counts; then you know the winner won solely through the sweat of her brow.
And how do you do that? You top up those with lower natural counts until everyone's on the same footing.
Not that I expect this to happen any time soon (or ever). This widespread resistance to 'roids and doping ("gene-doping" seems to be the current flavor of the month) seems based more in the gut than the brain; "Well shee-it, that just ain't natural". Moreover, it's inconsistent: nobody gets bent out of shape when an athlete dons new-and-improved running shoes, although we all recognise the potential advantage confered by the right footwear. Athletes sleep in high-altitude tents to build up their red cell counts and nobody bats an eye. So it's okay to get ahead by putting something on your body, but putting something in it for exactly the same reason somehow violates the Spirit of the Games? Why should that difference make a difference?
Give me a reason, or give me a break. And have a good week.
August 12 2004: Two New
1. A change over on the In Progress page: the Afterword from my ReVisions story has been retired, and a new snippet from Blindsight is on display.
2. ß-Max review excerpted from Booklist added to Blurbs. It's good (well, as much good as can fit when 90% of the wordage is pure synopsis), but seasoned with a bitter (and justified) complaint over the one-book-half-a-novel thing. If anyone from Tor is in the audience—and I know they're not—I told you so.
August 9 2004: R.I.P, Cygnus T.
There'll be limited activity here for the next few days, since I'm kind of messed up about the death of my 17-year-old cat Cygnus. Yesterday, everything was hunky; she was in for a follow-up to see if her thyroid meds were working. The vet found a lump in her abdomen. Today they opened her up and found massive tumor infiltration of the liver, pancreas, stomach, intestine, and lungs. It was 50:50 whether she was even going to recover from the surgery. Best case scenario she had a few days left.
I can't believe it. Sure she was losing weight, but when I took her in she seemed fine.
Anyway, this is not one of those blogs where one vomits one's emotions all over the screen, so in the interests of decorum I won't go on about it. Except to say that tomorrow we're going to wrap her in a Jethro Tull t-shirt, drive her to the ravine out in Guelph she used to haunt back in her prime, and bury her next to her buddy Strange Cat (who died last year; kidney failure).
I know it's completely fucking irrational. I know it's all for me, and not at all for that cooling little carcass in the fridge who is beyond all help. I don't give a shit. This is the one area where I let myself off the leash.
August 6 2004: The Secret of Sentience
Okay, so I'm musing a lot on the subject of consciousness lately, and wondering how you could tell, for example, whether or not a member of another species was sentient. Mere problem-solving intelligence isn't enough: nobody's claiming that Deep Blue is self-aware, for all it's chess-playing smarts, and there appear to be many folks out there who qualify as "conscious" without being "intelligent" as most of us understand the term. So I'm feeding pigeons and sparrows from my table on this restaurant patio—an activity that, for some reason, seems to be drawing looks of consternation from the hostess—when it comes to me. The secret of sentience, is...wait for it...
Mooching. If you can mooch, you're sentient.
No, bear with me here. This is brilliant. I'm not talking about an animal hanging out some place where he's learned there's food to be had. I'm talking about the active, premeditated mooch, the manipulation of moochee by moocher. I'm talking expectation and eye contact. When an organism simply shows up and waits for food to drop out of the sky, that's just operant conditioning. But when a sparrow with a brain the size of a lentil—basically, a hopping piece of feathered popcorn—actually looks you in the eye, and changes its behaviour based on what it sees there, we're talking something else again. When the expected food doesn't materialise, and the would-be moocher actually fixes you with a baleful bird stare and scolds you, we're talking something that has a Theory of Mind.
Such a creature is not treating you as an inanimate object, he's treating you as a fellow autonomous agent with your own agenda. The crumbs he wants don't come out of your eyes, they come from the table by way of your hand—yet this little beast makes eye contact, for all the world as though it knows that what it reads there is more important than what's happening with the actual delivery system. And when you fail to deliver, the disappointed bird doesn't vent its rage on the hand or the table from which the hoped-for breadcrumbs failed to materialise. He's pissed off at the other thing, the thing with the eyes, the thing that he knows—somehow—is calling the shots.
Admittedly my reasoning's a bit fallacious here. Who's to say we're not just seeing a more complex form of operant conditioning, one in which the moocher has learned that if it squawks at the two shiny beady things it sometimes gets fed, without having any inkling of why? For that matter, it has even been argued that a theory of mind is not proof of self-awareness; evolution could shape us to read the mental states of others without ever examining our own. (This is in fact one of the conundrums I'm exploring in Blindsight.)
To the first point I would reply: you could use the same reasoning to argue that our very use of language is nothing more than a conditioned response, albeit a very complex one. How many steps of remove, how much added complexity, does one have to add to a conditioned response before it qualifies as a cognitive one?
To the second point, I can only plead parsimony. I have a theory of mind, and am myself sentient. I am willing to assume that the people I meet are also sentient, because there's no reason to believe that I am unique in this way. That said, Occam's Razor is a general principle to be used in the absence of evidence, not a rule without exceptions. I could easily be wrong.
Which is where I would stop, but for the fact that this whole train of thought reminds me of my pet peeve against those who refuse to discuss the potential consciousness of other creatures on the grounds that it is "unscientific". You frequently encounter these folks working for the aquarium industry, where—faced with criticism over their third dead killer-whale calf in a row—they dismiss any "anthromorphic" suggestion that the mother could be grieving or bereaved, because killer whales only "live in the moment" and only the most weepy of bunnyhuggers would ever credit them with "human" emotions.
Put aside, for the moment, the remarkable insight that allows such people to so confidently assert what goes on in the heads of alien creatures. Forget also the odd fact that these same people tend to embrace anthropomorphism when it suits their purposes (if I have to witness another perky "name the baby orca!" contest I think I'll climb a tower somewhere and start shooting). The fact is, scientists extrapolate between taxa all the time, and rightly so. Complex behaviours are common all across the animal kingdom, and in the case of fellow mammals—and especially the Cetacea—the structures of the brain responsible for emotional responses are pretty much the same, anatomically. They haven't changed appreciably for tens of millions of years. Our brains may be Pentium 4's, but a lot of our OSs run just fine on a 386. Simple parsimony would suggest that if the neurochemistry, the circuitry, and the actual macro-level behaviour are all comparable, the subjective experience is probably comparable as well (barring explicit evidence to the contrary).
In this light, anthropomorphism is actually the only defensible scientific attitude to take. To claim that other animals don't feel as we do, when our respective "feeling" circuitry is so similar, is not science; it's fucking wish-fulfillment, a desparate straw of hope for those who just can't believe that we aren't somehow "special".
Not that I would drag my own species down into the mud, you understand. Just that I'd have us treat other species with a bit more respect.
August 4 2004: The Trouble with Track Records
Another ß-Max review, in SciFi Weekly this time (blurbed excerpts here). By Paul Di Filippo no less, a guy whose own writing I admire a great deal. (His Ribofunk did much of what I was trying to do in Maelstrom, and IMO did it better.) Once again, I get lots of props for lots of things—he even uses words like "poetic" and "brilliant"—but once again, it's just "a tad less compelling than its predecessors".
Fair enough, although by now I'm starting to wish that my other books hadn't been so well-reviewed. About the only thing I'd grumble about is Paul's complaint over the "sameness" of the deep-sea setting, already explored in "Starfish", and my grumble would be this: well, yeah, dude, the setting's much the same—it's the social dynamic that's completely different. And Part Two gives you new elements on a whole new stage; not my fault Tor split the baby down the middle.
But in print those words look whiney and ungracious, so I think I'll just be satisfied with what is, overall, a pretty glowing review. And speaking of Part Two, the copy-edit I finished yesterday left me reasonably content. You finally get to ride one of those big-ass flying flame-throwers you've been seeing since Maelstrom, for one thing. And dog lovers will either canonise me or take out a contract on my life once they see what happens to Kenny and Lenie near the end.
August 1 2004: Hard-Core Religious Snuff
So it's August. The official release date for Czerneda & Spzindel's alternate-history anthology Revisions, in which I have a story called "A Word for Heathens". Let's hope it goes over better than the last story of mine Julie put out.
Let us also recognise, however, that at least in some quarters this may be unlikely. The story deals, you see, with the neurological basis of the religious impulse, and if there's one thing to which I—as the son of a Baptist minister—can attest, it's that people with strong religious beliefs don't like being told about the neurology of their dysfunction. So I've taken some time to construct a respectful and diplomatic response to those who may object to my reductionist take on Lords and Saviors in general. I offer it here as a gesture of reconciliation to any I might have offended:
Tough cheese, God-boy.
For the rest of you, I've posted the Author's Afterword that accompanies AWFH on the "In Progress" page. Yes, I know it might be more appropriate to post it under "Shorts", since it's been finished for months. But that would mean replacing "Bulk Food", which hasn't been up for all that long and which deserves, I think, a bit longer in the candle-light.
July 27 2004: Builds to a Trickle
Two new ß-Max reviews just came over the transom, one from Robert Wiersema at Quill & Quire and the other from James Schellenberg at Challenging Destiny. (Excerpts festoon the blurbs page, if you can't be bothered reading the reviews in their entirety.) While both critics said very kind things, Wiersema also had some criticisms which pretty much reflect my own insecurities about this last volume (i.e. it's good, just not as good as Starfish and Maelstrom). It's possible (as he admits) that his misgivings arise from only having read half the novel—Schellenberg too had doubts after Volume 1, but seemed happier once he saw how the story ended (he actually reviewed both volumes semi-separately). Or maybe Wiersema's right. I'm kind of thinking he is.
Interestingly, one of the things Q&Q complained about was superficial characterisation (relative to my other books), while CD remarked that I'd actually amped-up the characterisation this time out. This may not be the can't-please-everyone contradiction it appears, though. Q&Q is a literary review that, unlike CD, doesn't deal heavilly in sf (although it doesn't avoid the genre). And given that sf doesn't, shall we say, emphasise character development, I figure that Q&Q is just more sensitised to those elements than your average genre review would be. I suspect Wiersema isn't claiming that ß-Max lacks character development so much as saying that said development isn't quite as subtle as it might be. Fair enough.
(Although now that I think of it, Publisher's Weekly isn't a genre mag either, and they actually remarked on how gripping the "flawed and ferocious" characters were...)
Anyway, even with its failings, Wiersema liked ß-Max way better than "the bulk of science fiction", so I'm not complaining.
I'm out of town for the rest of the week, and may be unable to post. Just as well; I may actually get some work done on the novel for a change. Back for the weekend.
July 26 2004: The Pursuit of Happiness
I rediscovered an essential thumbnail description of the Human condition today, while going over quotes for use in Blindsight. (I'm finding a fair range of memorable lines; everyone from Einstein to Bundy's got something interesting to say.) The following passage from Pinker's How the Mind Works may be a bit wordy, but boy does it hit the mark. Pay attention:
"Some parts of the mind register the attainment of increments of fitness by giving us a sensation of pleasure. Other parts use a knowledge of cause and effect to bring about goals. Put them together and you get a mind that rises to a biologically pointless challenge: figuring out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment without the inconvenience of wringing bona fide fitness increments from the harsh world."
That's us all over: big, lazy brains trying to scam themselves an undeserved dopamine rush. Could be as simple as gorging on chocolate. Could be as subtle as the high you get from van Gogh or Jethro Tull. Anyway you cut it, aesthetics itself—that most-exclusively-Human province of art and creation that sets us apart from the beasts of the field—is a neurological con job.
And the best part is, player and mark are always one and the same.
July 24 2004: I will not brag in public. I will not brag in public.
You know the entry just below this one? The one where I talk about the good review for Ten Monkeys? It may not have gone over the way I intended.
In fact, I've been told that it comes across as downright boastful—and this from someone who usually tells me I'm way too negative about my own stuff. Personally, I hate boastful. The whole damn field is cheek-to-jowl with writers of a dozen calibres, thumping their chests and yelling "Look at Me!" and "Gimme a Hugo!". I'd thought myself at least partially immune—hell, how many other authors do you know who post negative reviewer comments alongside the positive ones?—but it still took some convincing to get me to even start this blog, because on some level I was afraid of starting down the same ol' slippery slope.
Anyway, there's two possibilities. Either my confidant is out to lunch, or I strayed past the boundaries of good taste. If the latter, I'd like to apologise for any smarminess in my posting of July 23. I was just really pleased that this Kennedy guy liked my stories.
July 23 2004: Why You Do Want Me Talking To Your Parents...
So while I may not be the best ChildLit author since Robert Munsch, I do seem to be a hit with certain twisted, slightly sunburned adults. I came upon this review of Ten Monkeys Ten Minutes while ego-surfing yesterday, and naturally it warmed the ventricles of my heart. Why can't you all be like this David Kennedy guy?
In fact, since I don't think anyone's described my work as "hilarious" before—at least, no one who was willing to grant that the hilarity might be intentional—I think that in honor of this review I'll post "Bulk Food" as this week's short story. Even though my coauthor was responsible for at least as much of its hilarity as I.
July 20 2004: Why You Don't Want Me Talking To Your Kids
I've only written two children's stories in my life. The first was for a Creative Writing Class in Grade Eleven English; it was called "Pancake, Snookums, and the Balance of Nature", and it retold The Great Escape from the POV of a leopard frog and a garter snake trapped in a terrarium. The secret to freedom lay in cooperation; predator and prey had to put aside their differences and work together if they ever wanted to see the outdoors again.
There was a bit of a twist, though. Once they'd made their escape, the whole predator-prey thing reasserted itself. Snookums (the snake) convinced Pancake (the frog) that there was a certain immortality to be had in being eaten—that in fact, the bond they'd established could be made even closer because Pancake, once digested, would actually become part of his friend Snookums. In the spirit of that friendship, Pancake allowed himself to be eaten by his one-time ally. The moral of the story was: if you're born to be victimised, go with it.
It didn't get a very good grade. The teacher remarked that it didn't come across so much as a real children's story as a kind of bitter parody, written by someone who resented being handed a stupid assignment.
The second children's story I ever wrote for children was recently published in Julie Czerneda's Odyssey collection, and it seems to be going over about as well as the first one did.
A bit of set-up. Odyssey is the latest in a line of books intended to sugar-coat science education. Each volume is aimed at a particular grade level, and each story illustrates a particular scientific concept or principle; levers, surface tension, the periodic table, etc. My story—"Defining an Elephant"—dealt roughly with cells/organisms/nature-of-life, and it involved a network of military satellites that was slagging Planet Earth down to a lifeless cinder. It's educational enough, but it doesn't have what you'd call a happy ending.
Evidently, middle-schoolers—and at least one adult UK reviewer with a strangely childlike affect—prefer stories with happy endings.
Adult reviewers don't have such a problem with it. Challenging Destiny describes it as well-written and grim, while Tangent Online describes it as "lethally wry", and a "grim descent from trouble into worse trouble"—but wisely, Tangent also solicited the opinions of two young readers in the actual target demographic, and they just hated the fucking thing. "Defining an Elephant is a horrible story," one of them says. "It has no point and the earth blows up at the end." The other writes "This shouldn't have been in a kid's book, it had little description and a depressing ending."
What have I learned from all this? Children are not my ideal audience. In fact, I've never been all that good with kids; back in the eighties I picked up one particularly-insufferable larva by the throat and threatened to break his fucking neck if he didn't behave. It worked, too. He went catatonic for the rest of the morning. The Children's staff at Sunbury Shores Arts and Nature Center barely got him moving again before his parents showed up. (There was no danger of criminal charges; the little monster had been told what would happen if anyone learned 'our little secret'. As far as I know he never breathed a word.)
Those were the days.
July 19 2004: Periscope Depth
Lots of stuff to report: my new hard-sf religious snuff story in print, a foolproof method to detect sentience in other organisms, a radical new socioeconomic paradigm that came to me while watching a pine cone drop onto a Rogers Cable truck, and Two Reasons Why You Don't Want Me Talking To Your Kids. Unfortunately, another catastrophic hard drive crash stole most of the past three days (not to mention a CD-ROM drive and most of last night's sleep allotment), leaving me cranky, tired, and in desparate need of a shower. Idle ruminations, therefore, are on hold for the moment. I'll get around to them in the next couple of days. (Except maybe for that socioeconomic paradigm. Might be a novel in there somewhere, if I keep it close to my chest for a bit.)
In the meantime I'll just mention Saturday's book signing at Bakka-Phoenix, wedged in between the time the hard drive crashed and the time I smashed it into teeny cathartic shards. The signing wasn't nearly the disaster I'd expected—there were cookies, and actual people there beyond myself and the staff. Even better, some of them were even people I did not actually know personally, and some of those bought books despite my earnest assurances that they might want to hold off because we are, after all, only talking about half a novel here.
The third time I said that, somebody cuffed me across the back of the head. I still don't know who. There was, however, some guy taking pictures throughout, so it's possible that the crime was recorded. And the photographer also happens to run the Bakka-Phoenix web site;, so the evidence might even end up in the public domain at some point.
And then, oh boy. Someone's really gonna be in a world of hurt for that cowardly act of tewwowism. Maybe I'll invade Belgium or something in retaliation.
July 13 2004: Art That Takes Her Breath Away
This morning I awoke to an e-mail that literally made me gasp (the first ever to do so without resorting to pictures of extreme genital piercing or Seniors' mud-wrestling). An artist named Scott Clarke had stolen an image from right out of my head and turned it into pixels. With his permission, I've added it to the gallery—it loads by default, so you don't even have to click on a thumbnail. Go there now. Check it out. I dare you to tell me it doesn't absolutely kick ass.
July 10 2004: In-progress tidbit
Finally deep enough into Blindsight to consider it well and truly underway. In observance of breaking the 10,000 word barrier, "In Progress" has been loaded up with a new excerpt, and "Shorts" is playing a new encore from the backlist.
July 9 2004: Hung...over...must...reach...toilet...
Today's entry will be thankfully brief. More hits from Pokemon Place, for reasons which remain unclear. Edge/Tesseract has finally removed the "best-seller" reference from their catalog listing on Ten Monkeys Ten Minutes. Finally received the first part of my Blindsight advance, only three months late. Ironically, the financial markets tell me that the Canadian dollar is now at a three month high against the greenback, which means that once you take the exchange rate into account my advance is now significantly smaller than it would have been if I had been paid on time. (This has actually happened before—Tor sat on money from an Italian edition of Starfish for eighteen months a couple of years ago. Back then, when I raised the subject of interest on the overdue amount I was told that a) interest would certainly be reasonable under the circumstances, and b) to forget it.)
Look at me. This is becoming as self-indulgent as all those other lame-ass blogs I hold in such contempt. I better just go away and guzzle coffee.
July 8 2004: The Pokemon Connection
Over the past two days, this site has received a bunch of hits from—wait for it—a Pokemon forum in the UK. I have no idea why. I can't find a rifters reference or link anywhere in the page source, and it's hard even for a writer of fantastic fiction to imagine an overlap between fans of Pokemon and readers of my, well, whatever it is that I do. If someone wanted to fill me in, I wouldn't complain.
July 6 2004: "Tripping the Rifters"
This Rick Kleffel fellow has printed some flattering stuff about me on his disturbingly-named "Agony Column", based on an e-mail exchange we had last week. While I'll take whatever glory I can get—and Kleffel's kudos carry a bit more weight because he's also up-front when I don't impress him—I'm a bit queasy to see such praise bestowed on a book he hasn't actually read yet. Now I'm gonna be looking over my shoulder, expecting to be cut back down to size once he actually reviews the damn thing. (Update circa July 9: the link to this interview seems to have been broken. I guess he read it after all.)
On the other hand, he also seems impressed by the bits of Blindsight that I mentioned, and it'll be well over a year before that title hits the shelves, so I've got breathing room on that score.
July 4 2004: Credit where it's due
The latest screwup: although the dust jacket for ßehemoth: ß-Max comes with an author photo, it doesn't credit the photographer. Her name is Karen Fernandez, and Tor assures me that she will be credited on Volume Two. (Of course, Tor also assures me that the cheque is in the mail.)
And yet another vendor refering to my previous books as bestsellers. Who started this? And what is a company like "San Diego Technical Books Inc." doing selling sf potboilers anyway?
June 28 2004: With due respect to Sally Field
Saw my first official review of ß-Max today, from Publisher's Weekly. They like me. So I've started a ßehemoth blurbs-and-reviews page.
Also there's a new illustration in the gallery (Peter MacDougal's rendering for "Bulk Food"), and a new/old story—"Nimbus"—on the Shorts page.
Now I'm going back to bed on account of being sick. I wonder if my beleaguered and rumbling tum has anything to do with the federal election.
June 25 2004: First Feedback
ß-Max netted its first fan mail yesterday. The guy raved. I'm relieved, but not convinced.
In other news, the book-signing I mentioned a few days ago has been rescheduled to July 17th. According to my publicist, "some of the key Bakka people won't be at the store on the 10th and would really like to be there when you're there."
I'm not sure how to take this. It sounds like they want to keep an eye on me. Maybe they're afraid I'm going to steal the silverware or something.
June 24 2004: The Hosannah That Would Not Die
So I see the guys at Edge/Tesseract Books continue to describe Starfish and Maelstrom as "bestsellers". Fine; I set them straight on that account a while ago, so mine own ethical ass is covered. Only now, some bookseller in New Zealand is pitching ß-Max as "a sequel to the best-selling Starfish and Maelstrom", while a Yahoo search credits the same line to Wal-Mart as well (although I see nothing of the kind when I actually follow the link). Surely these guys aren't taking their lead from a teensy little press like Edge?
Or maybe, just maybe, my previous books actually were best-sellers, and my publisher and my ex-agent—and Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble, and every other bookstore I've dropped in on recently—have been conspiring to keep my own success secret from me, while pocketing the change and all the subsidiary rights? Perhaps only Wal-Mart, already so stuffed with money it couldn't eat another bite, didn't fall into line. Wal-Mart and some lone Kiwi bookstore that never got the memo.
Go ahead. Laugh. But if either of you happen to come across, say, a Lenie Clarke Sexual Abuse Action Figure from Mattel, you'll let me know, right?
June 22 2004: Actual promotion.
So it looks like I'm going to be signing ß-Max at Bakka, the local sf- bookstore- which- does- not- seem- to- have- a- website- if- indeed- it- ever- did. I fear such events. I fear the prospect of sitting in a corner behind an untouched pile of autographed novels, while people who have come indoors only to escape the rain keep a safe distance and avoid eye contact. I do not blame them in the slightest; who the fuck is this Peter Watts anyway, and what right does he have to try and guilt me into buying his lousy book with those forlorn puppy-dog eyes? Dudes and Dudettes, I completely sympathise.
Still, I'm gonna be there, so if any locals are feeling especially charitable the address is 598 Yonge St, here in Toronto. The date is July 10th17th. The time is 3pm. Now run right out and make other plans, so you've got an excuse if I should corner you in the subway.
By the way, this whole launch was instigated by Janis Ackroyd, my publicist at Fenn. I think she may be a saint. She deserves better clients.
June 21 2004: Now this is art.
Just got some advance dust-jackets for Seppuku. The bad news is, Tor used the wrong jacket text for ß-Max—a draft written back when I was expecting a single-volume release, and which therefore covers both volumes—so now, some wordage from vol. 1 is duplicated verbatim on vol. 2. Sloppy.
But the good news is—well, just check it out in the gallery. Bruce Jensen has done it again. I love this guy.
June 19 2004: But is it art?
Just added a new page to the Real World: a (sparse) gallery of artwork related to my fiction. In most cases, the artists had no choice: it was illustrate my stuff or not get paid. However, one non-rifters-related piece drew at least stylistic inspiration from my work, and I even did a couple of other illos myself, so, well, enjoy.
In an unrelated story: Pursuant to the ongoing nonappearance of my last signing cheque, Tor has just admitted to losing my Blindsight contract for the second time in a month. Both times they tried to blame my (former) agent for not sending the contract in the first place—it took special balls to do this the second time, since they'd already admitted to possession a month earlier. Sadly, this is par for the course where Tor is concerned. I should tell you about the Italian fiasco. Or the infamous Maelstrom "blurb-dropping" affair. Or the jacket-text—
Actually, I'm thinking of starting yet another page on this site. Kind of a top-ten list. Three guesses as to the subject.
June 16 2004: The Solomon Solution
Encountered the following pointed question when ego-surfing this morning:
"Oh, puh-lease: Part three of Peter Watts trilogy to be released in two parts. Wouldn't that make it a tetralogy?"
A: Not unless splitting a person in half makes twins.
June 15 2004: I don't think it means what you think it means...
This nice dude down in Louisville has put me on his website as his "Author of the Month", and while I'm flattered, I'm also mystified because he describes me as—wait for it— "optimistic". He doesn't let it go at that, either; of Laurie Channer and myself, he says "These are people who truly enjoy living each day and making the most of it."
"Optimistic"? Do I really leave that impression? It was bad enough when some blogger described me as "bouncy", but this...
People can be so hurtful.
June 11 2004: Personal Best
I think I've set a new personal record. Only three thousand words into Blindsight, and already I think it's crap. Took me sixty thou to reach the same conclusion about ßehemoth.
On the other hand, I'm really excited about the premise for the novel after this one, which came to me in a strange and vivid dream. It's a post-cold-war technothriller by way of Richard Dawkins, exploring the evolutionary significance of tapered feces (hint: untapered feces make more of a noise when they snap off, which attracts predators). I see shadowy government agencies haunting the research labs of a promising young grad student; the CIA is interested in his feces research because of the inevitable military-intelligence applications (after all, when you're out in the field spying on a North Korean nuclear site, you can't just drop in and use the men's room). Must speak to M. about this. "Means To An End" as a possible title?
Also posted a new archival photo on Author page. I was not what you would call a lovely child.
June 8 2004: At Peace With Anachronism
Been working my way through the humungous Aliens Quadrilogy, and have finally decided to stop bitching about lack of technological imagination.
You probably know the litany. We're shown a technology centuries ahead of ours that still uses cathode-ray tubes for its video displays. TwenCen hypodermic syringes in the infirmary. Grunts who, the occasional smart gun notwithstanding, don't seem to have changed since Viet Nam. And while the Nostromo certainly did convey that lived-in look that Ridley Scott was after, wouldn't somebody have come up with non-peeling paint by then?
It's not just the Alien movies, of course; pretty much every sf movie save one has suffered from the same stunted vision. The notable exception, of course, was 2001; way back in the sixties, Kubrick knew we wouldn't be using CRTs for much longer. His technology was totally flatscreen. Compare that to Peter Hyams' inferior 2010— displays explicitly shown as flatscreen in the first movie have been miraculously downgraded to CRTs. Ah, those wacky aliens.
But as I say, I've decided to let it go. I've even decided to justify it, after the fact. Because movies, necessarily, are full of conventionalizations. The German Commandants of WW2 didn't actually speak heavilly-accented English among themselves, but we accept it in the service of easier storytelling; we all know they're really speaking German. The thing is, most of us don't, and we still need to know what's going on. If you were part of this milieu, the moviemakers are saying, this is what you'd understand. Fine.
I've decided to regard anachronistic sf technology the same way. If we're not back in the Stone Age a few centuries hence, we sure as shit won't be in an environment that poor old preSingularity brains will be able to parse. Technology will be neuro and nano and bio, perhaps downright psionic. Some people may be virtual instead of flesh and blood, while fashion trends could have turned the rest into blue octopi. The language will almost certainly be unrecognizable. And yet, the actual inhabitants of that future will take all the upgrades for granted. They'll have their own equivalents of peeling paint. And if you wanted to convey that feeling of relative mundanity to a conventional audience, it makes sense to use artefacts a conventional audience can relate to. So maybe we're not supposed to believe that Gorman is really watching an array of grainy ol' TV screens there in Aliens, any more than we were supposed to believe that Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schulz conversed in English. Maybe it's the same unwritten contract between creator and witness, deliberate artifice to make us feel at home.
Yeah, I know. Moviemakers aren't that smart. For the most part, it really does just come down to lack of vision. But hey—if it lets me sleep without grinding my teeth, who are you to complain?
June 7 2004: Great American President, My Ass
Reagan's dead, after a lengthy bout with Alzheimer's (which, I remain convinced, was in bloom long before he retired from public office). And since nobody else seems to be saying it in the blizzard of fluffy pink sentimentality currently swirling through the media, I might as well: good riddance, and it's about goddamned time.
This was, after all, the man who thought that trees were responsible for air pollution, and whose administration both waged a war on drugs and sold them for weapons. The man who funded Latin American terrorists with 30,000 civilian notches on their belts. The "poor dear" who even Margaret Thatcher admitted had "nothing between his ears".
He was an asshole, and a senile old fool, and I've already wasted too many words on him.
June 1 2004: Sneak Peak
So here it is, ßehemoth: ß-Max in all its printed glory. Tor sent me a couple of comp copies in advance of the July release, and I gotta say it looks pretty good. Bruce Jensen's cover art is, as always, glorious, and they used my jacket text (albeit the wrong jacket text) with only minor mangles. For some reason they went with text that I wrote back when I was expecting a single-volume release, which gives away (what has now become) a major plot revelation near the climax of Book 1. And for some other reason they changed "destroyed the world on false pretenses" to "destroyed the world for a fallacy", which IMO has about as much edge as a jet-puffed marshmallow. Still. Compared to the fiasco that was Maelstrom, I've got nothing to complain about.
(You may have noticed that I complained anyway. It's just my nature.)
May 28 2004: One! One! One book for the price of two!
Given the imminent arrival of ßehemoth: ß-Max in bookstores, I should probably explain this whole 2-volume release thing.
Bottom line, I think it sucks. You get one novel for the price of two. At the same time, there doesn't seem to be a real alternative. The problem is that North America's biggest booksellers—Borders and Barnes&Noble, among others—no longer stock titles by midlist authors (that's me) if those titles retail above $US25. Evidently that's why preorders for Maelstrom were only half those for Starfish, even though Starfish nailed the reviews and kicked ass in sales; Maelstrom was 10,000 words longer, enough to kick it over the $25 impulse-buy threshold.
I just discovered this a couple of months back—apparently it wasn't an open policy back in 2001. But the policy has since come out of the closet, and to get around it Tor has begun releasing long novels in two (or even three) parts. ßehemoth, which outweighed Maelstrom by 40,000 words, was an obvious candidate for bisection. I hated the prospect, so much that I even tried cutting the novel by 30%. Didn't work. It was a gory eviscerated mess before I even got halfway. Yet releasing the whole thing in a single volume would have excluded it from over half the North American market. It would have been professional suicide.
I'm resigned, therefore, to the whole Solomon-baby thing. Which is not to say that I approve of Tor's habit of selling you half a novel without telling you up front that's all you're getting. So I pissed and moaned, and—when my (former) agent didn't want to take up the cause on my behalf—I did it myself and won a few concessions. For one thing, "Book 1" is written clearly on the the front cover. For another, the flap text explicitly states that this is only the beginning of a story, to be concluded with ßehemoth: Seppuku. And finally, I got to write an "author's note" at the front of the book, explaining the situation and warning everyone exactly what they'd be purchasing. I gotta say, although my editor (David Hartwell) wasn't especially pleased, he granted the concessions even though it'll probably cost sales; I commend the man. (He did force me to change some bits— I had to remove "We hates Barnes & Noble, we hates them forever" and the odd phrase about "craven cash grabs"—but you can't have everything.)
Anyway, there you go. I'm still not happy with this—I'm considering offering the second half as a freely-available download, the way Cory markets his books, although in my case there might be dicey legal complications that prevent it. But at the very least nobody's gonna buy the book under false pretenses, so my conscience is clear.
I just hope that doesn't translate into nobody's gonna buy the book, period.
December 23 2004: More Cloned Cats!
Genetic Savings and Clone has served its first customer with a clone of her nearly-departed Maine Coon, in a scene ripped whole from the (less- awful- than- it- had- any- right- to- be) Schwarzenegger flick The Sixth Day. Evidently this has reignited debate over the ethics of cloning in general. I'm not really on-side with those whose panties get twisted out of shape on this score. Sure there are risks, high failure rates, and bad copies, but it's an infant technology for Christ's sake; keeping at it is the only way to weed out those bugs.
Of course, the "unacceptable risk" argument is basically camouflage; if Human cloning was routine and utterly risk-free, the howls of outrage would only grow louder. The real objection is unacceptable ambition. There were some things man was not meant to know, according to some. We have no right to play God.
Well, maybe not. But given how badly God's been screwing the pooch right down the line, someone's gotta take up that slack.
I will say, though—as someone who's lost more than my share of beloved, decrepit old felines over the past few years—that I wish Little Nicky's benefactor had chosen to take in some homeless cat already in the world, instead of trying to reclaim the past. You could rescue a lot of strays with fifty grand.
December 21 2004: Breakthrough of Thirty Years Ago.
Science magazine has published its "Breakthrough of the Year" edition. The winner: water on Mars.
I'm not sure I actually get this. Don't I remember looking at a bunch of front-page headlines to the same effect way back in the nineteen-seventies? Back then it was orbital shots from the Viking probe, showing large-scale water-erosion artefacts that could have swallowed the Grand Canyon without belching. Definite evidence of flowing liquid, everyone said then. Mars shaped by running water in its geological past. Did I just dream that?
So now a couple of radio-controlled skateboards have dug up high-res confirmation of something we've known for the better part of three decades. It's very cool, no doubt about it. But Breakthrough of the Year?
Yes, I'm way behind on my technical journals these days. But there's gotta be more radical discoveries in that backlog. Those Hobbit-dudes, for one thing: Stone-Age tech and possible language in a hominid brain smaller than a chimp's. Or (speaking of small-brained creatures) we could cite the hopeful discovery that slightly more than half of the adult US population can now correctly answer the question "How long does it take for the Earth to complete a circuit of the Sun?", as long as it's presented in multiple-choice format.
Of course, that particular breakthrough is actually several years old. It's probably not even true any more, given the results of November 2 last...
December 12 2004: Smoked by the Swedes
Ugly fact time. You know that guy Persinger up in Laurentian University? The guy who induces religious and alien-abduction experiences by applying magnetic fields to the temporal lobes? The guy whose work I based my most recent story on, not to mention large chunks of Blindsight?
Well, these Swedes replicated his experiments, and they got nothing.
You know what? I don't care. I'm gonna run with it anyway.
November 23 2004: Church of Death
We all know the Church's vital and venerable role in the furtherance of murder and suffering around the world. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the ongoing sexual and physical abuse of minors (of both Christian and Godless-savage varieties) are but a few highlights in a record reaching all the way back to Constantine. But there's more than one way to skin a heathen, many of which are more subtle and elegant than the gaudy Greatest Hits..
Would you believe, candles?
Yup. All those waxy fumes from candles and incense increase in-church concentrations of free radicals, PAHs, and other cancer-causing goodies to levels up to twenty times what you'd find on a busy industrialised street, according to a paper just out in the European Respiratory Journal.
After all, when you take your lead from a document that starts off by telling you to "Fill the world with thy numbers", well, you're gonna have to do something about those numbers somewhere down the line. It's kind of inspirational to know that even candles are part of God's plan: every point of light, doing its part.
November 8, 2004: Breaking Wind
It had to happen: a recent simulation study suggests that sufficiently large windfarms (say, 10,000 turbines strong) might actually change local weather through turbulent mixing of atmospheric layers. "You might see some kind of convective clouds or scattered rainfall here and there", remarked the senior author.
Well. There's an environmental cost I didn’t see coming, albeit a minor one. Minor or not, I expect the Global-warming deniers will have some fun with it. And I can't really begrudge them, since their own official position becomes more laughably untenable by the minute; now, for example, an international study by 250 scientists concludes that global warming is happening twice as fast in the Arctic as elsewhere, that polar bears could well be extinct by the end of the century, and that mean sea level rises resulting from arctic meltwater could exceed a meter over the same time. (No mention of the methane clathrates ticking away in the Siberian permafrost, which some say could kickstart a runaway-greenhouse "Venus effect" if dumped too quickly into the atmosphere.)
Maybe it's time the fossil-fuel industry finally embraced such studies. They should certainly embrace this one; it's as chock full of oily goodness for Big Petro as it is gloomy for bear-huggers. It states—with no trace of irony—that the melting of the icecap will open vast new reserves of gas and oil for exploitation. Polish up that ol' silver lining, kids.
In completely unrelated news, "Environment Canada" may be on the verge of being renamed the "Department of Sustainable Economy". They tell us this is a good thing.
Of course, they said the same thing about DDT...
November 1 2004: Hobbits and Vampires
This new island-dwelling hobbitoid hominid is not only catastrophically cool in its own right, it is my salvation. (You know the creature I'm talking about—it's been all over the news and the journals for the past week. But here's a link to a cluster of relevant stories on Nature's website, if you've just emerged from a coma.)
Sure, this find raises all sorts of compelling issues. The mere existence of a big-brained hominid evolving into a small-brained one is a delicious kick in the shins to anyone who thinks of evolution as an endless ascent towards increasing intelligence. (It also brings back fond memories of Vonnegut's novel Galapagos: after a lethal germ wipes out virtually the entire human race, the only survivors—members of a celebrity cruise isolated on the Galapagos Islands—devolve over a million years into stupid, small-brained seal-like creatures who retain but one trait of their previous big-brained selves: when one farts, the others laugh and laugh.) But a creature with a brain smaller than a chimp's who is also still capable of using tools, fire, and (some say) language? That raises even wilder questions regarding the difference between a brain that was always small, vs. one that started big and then shrank. Still, in my current deadline-fearing state, this all takes a back seat to the mere fact that this radically different humanoid persisted at least until the last ice age (and quite possibly into historical times), and we never had a fucking clue that it even existed until now.
This is very good news for me, because one of the central characters in Blindsight is a vampire—or more correctly, a reconstructed member of the cannibalistic human subspecies that gave rise to the original vampire myth before going extinct in the recent evolutionary past. And for months now, I've been struggling with how to reconcile the presence of such a creature with its absence from the paleontological record. Was it so similar to us that its fossil remains were indistinguishable? Was its population so small (being an apex predator) that we plausibly might not discover any fossils for another few decades? Was it even a distinct species, or just a congenital syndrome with a consistent set of deformities?
But now, hey: if something as radically different as Homo floresiensis slipped under the radar, I got nothing to worry about. On this one point, my ass is saved.
October 25 2004: Bulls-eye on the Head Cheese
If you glance down here you'll see me going aw-shucks about a recent news story on medical robotics and how it was presaged by a scene in Starfish. That nod was only partially deserved, insofar as it doesn't take a whole lot of technical insight to predict medical teleoperators and I'm far from the only one to have done so.
But head cheeses—cultured neurons on an electrode-riddled slab, which interface with machinery and learn to drive vehicles via operant conditioning—now that's a dart with a very fine point, and damned if I didn't just hit a bullseye. They've built one. Actually, they've built two—the first was reported back in 2003, and I cite it at the end of ßehemoth— but now they've got one that's actually running a flight simulator. And once again, the Technovelgy guys have pointed out that I came up with the idea back in the last century. And this time I'm going to take the bow no ifs ands or buts because as far as I know, I was the first sf writer to throw that particular dart. And my head cheeses weren't just incidental ambience. The whole plot hinged on the way they worked. So, yeah. Dudes and dudettes, I fucking called it, and I don't care if that constitutes a brag.
You should check out this Technovelgy site, by the way. Not just because they say nice things about Starfish, which is only one of the hundreds of books they cite, but because they report on benchmarks in science and technology in the explicit context of how well (or poorly) science fiction has foreseen them. Yes, I know that only ignorant mainstream doofii really believe that sf is supposed to "predict the future". We're much better at "what-if" than we are at "what's-coming", and our real mandate is to predict the consequences of new tech, not the tech itself. But imagining plausible tech is not an trivial part of that process, and Technovelgy does a bang-up job of comparing forecast to fact. In fact, I'm adding them to my Links page right now.
October 22 2004: Ecological Footprint/Deficit Spending
The World Wide Fund for Nature (previously the World Wildlife Fund, which I find way catchier) has released its latest report on the state of the world, and they report—not surprisingly—that we're gobbling up planetary resources 20% faster than the planet can regenerate them. "Resources" in this context refers to real things: the amount of productive planetscape necessary to actually absorb our waste and generate our oxygen and grow our food. You know. Life support.
Except evidently some people don't know. Like Fred Smith, from the subtly-monikered Competitive Enterprise Institute. Smith dismisses WWF's findings as "alarmist", but if you want to be really alarmed get a load of his argument: "It's sort of like saying, 'General Motors must be much more wasteful than the local laundromat because General Motors spends more resources.' Yes, but they are producing more product, too. ... We're using a lot of the world's resources but we're producing far more of the world's resources."
So we may be destroying our own oxygen supply, but surely that's a small price to pay for all these cool cars and TVs we're making...
Perhaps Smith simply doesn't get it. Perhaps he really does believe that drinking water and stereo systems are interchangeable. But it raises a truly scary question: are all economists, fiscal conservatives, whatever you want to call them—are they all this stupid?
And the answer is even scarier: no, economists are not that stupid. People are. Because most of you idiots listen to these guys. And way too many of you vote for them.
October 16 2004: Peter Predicts Medical Mantis (or, Credit Where Credit Ain't Due).
There's this news item on Space.com about an experiment in remote-controlled surgery using a teleoperated robot. The surgeon sits on land; the 'patient' lies in an underwater habitat twenty meters down; and NASA pays the bill. What's especially nifty about this particular piece is that it effusively cites Starfish as the novel that saw this stuff coming way, way back in the twentieth century. It even contains a brief excerpt from the book, and a link to a separate page which describes other Starfish-related technology. (And poking around the site a bit, I see they've also cited other bits of tech from my rifters novels—head cheeses, lucid dreamers, and water-cracking electrolysis implants—in relation to a half-dozen other real-world science stories they've posted over the past year or so.)
Of course, giving me credit for predicting medical robots makes about as much sense as crediting Margaret Atwood for predicting drug-resistant diseases. (A sidebar to the same article links to a description of teleop medicine dating from 1909, although it doesn't get the face time my own book does.) Still. Given that such Big Names do, in fact, routinely get lauded for unoriginal insights, it's nice to know that we teensy names also get occasionally stroked for same. I'm not complaining.
Well, not this time, anyway.
October 8 2004: Hey, I know these guys... (or, How Science Really Works)
I've been out of Academia for almost ten years now, but in my day my contacts ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. Exhibit A: Paul Hebert of the University of Guelph, who was all over the news this week for his pioneering work on "DNA barcoding": basically, a quick-and-dirty way to identify species on the basis of a single characteristic gene. Finally, we may be able to discover new species almost half as fast as we wipe them out. I guess it's progress.
Exhibit B: Larry Dill, of Simon Fraser University, a kick-ass behavioral ecologist with a shitload of very respectable papers under his belt. He shared one of this year's Ig Nobel prizes for his work on—wait for it—herring farts. Officially, the Iggies are awarded to people who have "done something that first makes people LAUGH, then makes them THINK". Unfortunately, some of the popular press simply dismiss it as a kind of silly night for "oddballs", which—while certainly consistent with the oversimplification and misrepresentation for which the popular press is so justly famous—is a shame. But the Iggies are important, because by and large science has no sense of humor at all. Humor is sometimes regarded as a sin as great as bad methodology.
You think I lie? I speak from my own memories of 1990, when this self-same Larry Dill went to bat for me over a paper I'd presented to the Canadian Society of Zoologists. I was a mere grad student then, in the running for the unfortunately-named "Hoar Award". The judging committee agreed unanimously that my work was the best of the lot. They also agreed that I shouldn't be allowed to win, because I'd had the temerity to make a humorous presentation (I'd even made them laugh out loud), and rewarding such an obviously disrespectful approach to science would send "the wrong message". (I'd encountered this same attitude before, when I'd dedicated my Master's thesis to my cat, and I would encounter it again shortly afterwards, when UBC's Department of Grad Studies tried to force me to change my Acknowledgements to show more respect for my Alma Mater. In fact, come to think of it, I encountered this attitude in one form or another pretty much every fucking day of my scientific career. I'm proud to say I triumphed more often than not. Except all those guys still have jobs in science and I don't.)
Anyway, Larry Dill was the only member of the judges' panel to stand up and insist that the award be presented on the basis of merit rather than politics. He also threatened to go public with those politics if the board didn't change its mind. Which it did. Which is how I came to win the Hoar Award (or, even more unfortunately in French, the "Prix Hoar")
—although I still wonder if it was a coincidence that when they handed me the certificate, the name field had been left blank. (I later scrawled in my name with purple crayon.)
I met Paul Hebert later that year, when I began a post-doc at the University of Guelph. Hebert was the Chair of the Zoology Department back then, and he and my post-doc supervisor—a guy named Dave Lavigne—hated each other as only academics can. My post-doctoral duties included teaching, and one day Hebert called me into his office and encouraged me to fail at that task. He assured me that if I found it too tough, I could come to him or anyone else in the Department, and they would all pitch in and give "guest lectures" so I wouldn't have such a heavy workload. "It's no reflection on you if you can't do it on your own," he assured me. "I won't blame you. I'll blame Lavigne." In fact, it was more than apparent that he really, really wanted to blame Lavigne for something.
I did not fail. I asked for no guest lecturers. And at the end of my first course, the student-evaluation forms came back with a cool 92.5% mean rating. Paul Hebert never spoke to me again.
This is not to deride Hebert's research, of course. From what I've read his barcoding work deserves the accolades. Still, I can't help but note the irony: Machiavelli gets the plaudits, and the decent guy with the backbone gets a joke prize.
Not just in science, more's the pity.
October 3 2004: The God Gene...
... being the name of this book from the molecular biologist Dean "Gay-Gene" Hamer. Haven't read it; but the Toronto Star did run this excerpt yesterday. Seems that a tendency for "self-transcendence" correlates with a specific gene that codes for monoamine production.
I am a loud, proud adherent of the position that we are all, at heart, organic machinery. Hamer's thesis should appeal to me if it appeals to anyone, and I'm certainly willing to grant his premise in principal. But the claims in this article seem way too simplistic even for me. To say that we are machines is not to say that we are simple machines. There's a huge difference between levers and neural nets. And for this guy to claim that VMAT2 is some kind of God Gene goes way beyond caricature and plunges headlong into "Kick Me" territory.
In fact, if you read the man's words carefully enough, you discover he backpeddles from that position almost as soon as he's shouted it from the mountaintops. Yes, we're talking about a weak correlation with a diffuse emotional state. Yes, the roots of religious belief are bound to be orders of magnitude more complex than one lousy dose of neurotransmitters. Yes, I guess I really was just trying to get your attention with an outlandish claim. Sorry.
I wish he wouldn't do that. Empiricists have a hard enough time dealing with the way that True Believers misrepresent our arguments. We hardly need one of our own handing out preassembled straw men.
September 27 2004: Good News, Bad News.
The good news is, we're looking at commercial "space" tourism by 2007 (although a measly 100km altitude just barely qualifies for the term; give me a Jupiter flyby and I'll be impressed).
The bad news is, the melting of all those glaciers and icecaps beneath our warming skies might well mean even more than coastal flooding and massive disruptions to ocean currents; it might also mean the release of shitloads of virulent microbes from suspended animation. Just speculation at this point, but hey, that's what we do here...
September 20 2004: Being No One
Another neurological case study from Metzinger, one that makes Blindsight and Anton's Syndrome look positively pedestrian: Cotard's Syndrome, a malady in which the victims lose belief in their own existence. What delicate, absurd machines we are, that tweaking my brain chemistry could induce such a state. Torque it just the right way and I'll believe I am dead: "I used to have a heart," I will say. "Now I have something that beats in its place." I will demand to be buried, because my corpse is already stinking.
One more half-turn and I will deny that I ever existed.
Appeals to logic fail utterly. If you are dead, how can you smell your own corruption? If you do not exist, what is talking to me now? But logic doesn't work on Cotard's victims. These things, just a half-degree removed from you or I, cannot be swayed by argument. They know they don't exist. They know because apparently there's this mental subroutine that—to put it crudely—keeps tabs on existence...and when it's broken, what else is the mind to conclude?
That's Metzinger's take, roughly. If I understand his argument, which I may not. But I've got my own perspective, a "what-if" that forms the thematic core of the tale I'm writing now. "I" is not the working mind, you see. "I" is only the sentient parasite that infests it. For you to say "I do not exist" would be nonsense; but if the intelligent-but-nonsentient thing beneath said the same thing, it would merely be reporting on your absence.
So: what if Cotard's Syndrome isn't really a disorder? What if it's merely what a Human mind becomes once its parasites have died?
September 4 2004: Rifters 101—Behavioral Engineering using False Memories
Perhaps the most basic psychological conceit of my Rifters trilogy is that Memories Make the Mermaid—that childhood memories, even false ones, shape adult personality. In the books, people with implanted memories of sexual abuse retroactively acquired, as adults, the traits of real abuse survivors—"pre-adapting" them to certain stressful work environments. At the time I cited the work of one Elisabeth Loftus to at least lend credence to the existence of false memories, which was being disputed by various so-called "survivors" and their advocates (who decried the whole idea as no more than a sleazy attempt by Daddy Rapist to deny his own guilt).
Well, Loftus has done it again, serving up evidence not only that false memories exist, but that they can be used to engineer behavior. Researchers induced in their subjects false childhood memories of getting sick after eating certain foods; afterwards, the subjects showed an aversion to those same items. Conversely, "remembering" falsely that your favorite childhood food had been asparagus produced adults significantly fonder of asparagus than they should have been. (PopSci Precis here, pdf of Loftus' actual speech here.)
There's a difference, of course, between changing one's culinary taste with false memories of food and changing one's stress-responses with false memories of sexual abuse—but it's a difference in degree, not in kind. We're on the way, folks. Hang on to your hats.
Too bad the research didn't come out earlier, though. That would've been a killer citation to stick at the end of ßehemoth...
September 3 2004: Rare-Earthers Have No Clothes
So people are discovering "more earth-like" planets in unprecedented abundance, although the adjective is relative in the extreme; we're speaking of planets with almost Neptunian mass, which could still prove to be gas giants although many are hopeful that they're solid rocky worlds like those of our own inner system (albeit somewhat larger). It's progress, though; up to now, extrasolar planets have tended to be big honking superJovians with wild and woolly eliptical orbits that would absolutely kick the shit out of any truly Earth-type world in the neighborhood.
These recent discoveries reflect advances in the state of the planet-detecting art; for all we know such planets (and even smaller ones) are a dime a dozen, but we simply haven't been able to detect them until now because their effect on the parent star has been so small. Now, everyone's bubbling with renewed excitement about finding "earthlike worlds" in the near future.
You may remember a book called "Rare Earth" from a few years back. It took the proudly heretical view that complex life was very uncommon in the universe. It was quite popular, and written by a couple of respected academics whose conclusions I've heard echoed by astronomers and other Real Scientists, so I've always been hesitant to criticise it; I don't know shit about astronomy or geology, so who am I to challenge the experts?
Well, I'm a guy who is sufficiently heartened by these recent findings to finally vent: Dudes, that Rare Earth book was just utter crap! I may not be an astronomer but I know basic logical fallacies when I see them. When you claim that The more we learn about other solar systems, the more inhospitable to life the universe becomes, you should admit up front that the solar systems you're discovering with crude premillennial technology are bound to be unstable, because even if more benign systems existed, they'd fall beneath your radar; the prevalence of unstable systems is an artefact of your detection technology, not a representation of the galaxy at large. When you talk about the ominous extinctions brought on by meteorite impacts, and claim that such impacts would tend to wipe out complex life before it had a chance to take off, you should also recognise that similar extinctions here on earth actually hastened the evolution of complex life by wiping the slate clean and opening new niches for exploitation; if a big rock hadn't taken out the dinosaurs, you and I would still be tree shrews. (You might also show a bit of imagination and consider the possibility that life might arise in the organics-rich atmospheres of gas giants and subdwarf Oasa Objects, which would be pretty much immune to any of the planet-killing catastrophes that might threaten Earth-like worlds.)
And when you resort to arguing that intelligent life is unlikely to arise because—wait for it—it would be wiped out by other intelligent life that had evolved first, I can only shake my head at whatever Moebious Strip you drew your flowcharts on.
Oh, and after 300 handwavey pages of posing as rigorous and quantitative empiricists, it would be nice if the Chapter entitled "Assessing the Odds" actually, you know, assessed some odds. As it was, the entire book came across to me as an exercise in Argument by Incredulity—the kind of thing creationists do when they say Gee, look how complex an eye is, that couldn't possibly have happened by chance...
Anyway. Now, our distance vision is better. Now, we're finding smaller worlds in more stable orbits. Now, just maybe, the universe will stop looking so allegedly unstable and inimical.
But too late, unfortunately, to get a refund on that stupid book.
August 29 2004: Revenge is still sweet
The popsci news is all over this latest finding that vengeful acts stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain; taking a tire-iron to the skull of that bozo who cut you off on the merge is a universal Human high, not just the twisted depravity of the occasional road-raged sicko. (A pdf of the original paper is here, and here's a popsci precis.) It's a nice result to push in the face of all those psychobabblers and therapists who encourage us to "let go" of our resentments, who insist that nursing grudges only eats you up inside and makes you miserable. Wrong. Grudges only eat you up inside if you don't act on them; if you do, the high is soooo sweeeetttt...
It's worth mentioning, though, that Sanfey et al. published a paper that prefigured this result over a year ago, in the same journal even. (It figures in ßehemoth; Lubin mentions the hardwired human propensity for revenge when trying to explain the behavior of his nemesis/soul-mate, Achilles Desjardins.) None of the outlets seem to remember that paper; even the authors of the present one only cite it briefly, burying a passing reference in their closing paragraphs.
Credit where it's due, guys.
August 26 2004: Scientists on SF
I wonder why nobody did this before: survey a bunch of prominent scientists, and see what kind of written and filmed science fiction they liked.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, scientists tended to favor authors for their scientific cred over their prose style. Isaac Asimov—whose work has been described (not unfairly) by Cory Doctorow as "paleofiction hailing from a time before fiction grew style and characters and plot"—tops that list. I find the results of the film poll more interesting, though: Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey occupy the first and second positions, respectively. It's curious that the world's scientists prefer a story in which humans are the creators of intelligent life, over one in which Humans are the creation of intelligent life. We'd rather be God than clay, it seems.
But 2001 was described as a "close second" (although this doesn't exactly jibe with Blade Runner's description as the "runaway favorite"), so perhaps this difference makes no difference. Both films are acknowledged classics (assuming we're talking about the Director's Cut of Blade Runner and not the lame-ass initial release), although personally I'd have put 2001 on top. Both works explore the question of what defines Humanity, so maybe all you can conclude is that scientists are as anthropocentric as everyone else.
You can't really hold that against them. The nature of Humanity is pretty damn fascinating, even to a borderline misanthrope like me.
August 12 2004: Great News for Sweatshop Owners!
Had it up to here with surly, insolent workers grumbling about long hours and low wages? Human rights groups breathing down your neck every time you so much as think about making an example out of some malcontent? Stuck with child "laborers" who barely know the meaning of the word?
Now, thanks to the wonders of neurochemistry, HELP IS ON THE WAY!!!
By shutting off this single gene, you can turn the most indolent slacker into a COMPULSIVE WORKAHOLIC! By simply reducing the number of dopamine receptors in the brain, primates off all types will work tirelessly around the clock! Never again use threats, beatings, or intimidation as crude motivational tools! Use them only for pure enjoyment!
Act now, and we'll also send you—Absolutely Free!!—a vial of concentrated corticotropin-releasing hormone! This chemical magically SUPPRESSES MOTHER-LOVE ITSELF!! A single dose (oral or sub-q), administered to the mothers of your younger employees, will prevent any troublesome aggression on behalf of their children (your workers!). Never again will some nosy parent make a scene over "unsafe" working conditions or "unfair" labor practises! Imagine!
Offer void where prohibited by insufficient tax incentives.
August 8 2004: More Mid Atlantic Monsters
Our latest half-blind grab into the deep sea has yielded another batch of previously-unknown species (link courtesy of this cool lady on the other side of the world). Still no reports of giant voracious viperfish with teeth that shatter like fine crystal. That's okay. They're not supposed to make it over there for another 52 years anyway.
August 5 2004: Martyrs in Darwin's Universe
I was debating an e-bud the other day over the extent to which various Human cultural practices can be described in terms of natural selection. It brought to mind a recent suggestion that even something as radical as suicide bombing has its roots in basic ecological principles—more, that religious extremists use explicit Kin Selection strategies to recruit suicide bombers.
The essence of kin selection is nicely summed up by a quote attributed to JBS Haldane: "I would gladly lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins". Since it's the genes that carry information down through time, it is the success of those genes by which fitness is measured. Evolution has therefore shaped us to protect our relatives, because they carry many of the same genes we do. And we should value close relatives more than distant ones, because of the greater genetic similarity.
All pretty familiar, even boring. It picks up a bit when you realise that sometimes, you can actually maximise your own fitness by dying, by sacrificing yourself to save others—but only if those others contain more copies of your genes than reside in your own body. A small number of close relatives meet this criterion; numerous distant ones can do the job as well. Again, this should feel intuitively correct; more of us would risk our lives to protect a child or a sister than a half-cousin twice removed.
So if you want to convince someone to strap a bomb to their chest and blow themselves up for your cause, the first thing you've got to do is convince them that you're family. Convince them that you're really close family. And even better, convince them that everyone else in your happy little group is family too, and that they're all depending on your sacrifice. One way to do this is isolate the marks from their real families, and promote a uniformity of appearance to suggest genetic relatedness.
You've heard all this before, although chances are the keyword was "cult" or "denomination". In fact, it's plain ol' kin selection, and this recent letter gives some intriguing insights into its use among Islamic extremists. (Skip the "Ongoing controversy over Pfiesteria" part—you're looking for "Individual Factors in Suicide Terrorism", on the next page.)
Just goes to show. No matter how shiny our tools, no matter how eloquent our rationalisations about King and Country and having God On Our Side—really, we're all just monkeys under the skin.
August 1 2004: None So Blind As Those Who Will Not See...
Struggling manfully through all the opaque philosophical jargon in Metzinger's "Being No One" is suddenly worth the effort when you get to his case studies. For example: you may know about Blindsight, the condition in which the conscious mind is utterly blind, even though the brain is not. A blindsighted person will walk through a room packed with furniture and never bump into anything, all the while swearing up and down she can't see squat. That's pretty cool in its own right: to think that on some level you can see although you don't consciously know you can. Think Tommy without the music, if that means anything to you.
But there's this other condition—Anton's Syndrome—which is even wilder because it's exactly opposite: the victim is blind, but insists he can still see. In one instance, a woman was blind for a full year before she realised it; for a solid year she wandered around making up excuses for the fact that she kept bumping into walls, and then, one day, exclaimed "My God, I am blind!".
How is that even possible? How can anyone be unaware that they're blind, for Chrissakes? The literature's chock full of these kind of wonky maladies: people who can only see the left side of anything. People who insist that their leg doesn't belong to them, that it's a corpse-leg some joker grafted on when they weren't looking. People who mistake their wives for hats. It's enough to make you wonder if the whole field of neuropsychiatry isn't one huge practical joke.
Metzinger's take on Anton's Syndrome is that none of us actually "see" the world through our eyes. What we see is an internal model of the world, a little simulation inside the head that's informed and constantly updated by sensory input. For most of us that update happens imperceptibly fast: something changes in our visual field, the eyes send that new information into the brain, and the brain uses it to update the model. Metzinger suspects that victims of Anton Syndrome have lost the ability to update that model on the fly. The visual input stopped coming in ages ago, but for some reason the little simulation hasn't incorporated the change yet. There's a time-delay, one that sometimes extends for months.
I have no idea whether he's right, or just having us on. But My Cat, what strange and finicky machines we are...
July 25 2004: How is an herb like an alien chest-burster?
Remember how through most of the original Alien you thought, Man, what a cool-looking creature! And then at the very end, where Ripley blew it out the airlock, you thought Oh crap, it's just a guy in a rubber suit after all. If you're like me, you might have even tried a bit of back-rationalising to try and dull the ache: see, the intermediate host doesn't know what kind of an environment the adult will have to live in, but it knows the host can survive that environment so it kind of reads the host's genes, and tweaks its own to conform. So the adult always comes out looking a bit like the host. And while that's far from a perfect solution (how did natural selection on some far-off planet allow the aliens to read DNA from this one?), it at least took the sting out of the rubber suit (and besides, DNA essentially works like mechanical tinkertoy, so the same codons could code for the same little bits of protein no matter what the planet of origin).
And then Alien 3 came out, and though yea, verily, the movie was a mess, still you had a chestburster incubating inside a dog, and lo and behold the adult scampered around on all fours and looked like a dog in a rubber suit! So these Hollywood types weren't so dumb after all! And the director's commentaries on the DVD explicitly confirm this: there's Ridley Scott at the end of Alien saying, "And now you see it obviously looks like a man, but of course that was the whole point, it had developed to look like a man". And the alternate version of Alien 3 has a scene where the creature gestates inside an ox of all things, but they decided that an alien/ox hybrid would be just too fucking goofball for words.
So why am I putting all this sf bullshit in the right-hand column, which is supposed to be Real Science Only? Why, because of this.
Don't bother clicking on that link unless you're a botanist, a geneticist, or a victim of insomnia. It's a very dry research paper from Science, and here's the gist: a nasty little herb, festering as a parasite inside other plants, has learned—chest-burster-like—to steal genes from its host and incorporate them into its own code!
Yes, plants are usually boring as hell. But still—how cool is that?
July 22 2004: Brain Damage. The Very Essence of Humanity
Monkey comes down with severe stomach flu. Monkey nearly dies. Monkey recovers against all odds—and now walks exclusively erect (in the bipedal sense, not the priapic one). Veterinary experts at a loss, but suggest that the sudden switch to humanoid gait might be the result of brain damage suffered during the illness. Story with (subtly-disquieting) picture here.
Bipedalism has been cited as the genesis of humanity. It freed us to use our hands, leading to increased in manual dexterity, bigger brains, tool use, and global domination. But of all the theories I've ever seen put forth to explain why we started walking erect in the first place—nursing, thermoregulation, the need to see where the hell you were when the tall grass of the African savannah blocked your view—I don't recall anyone ever citing brain damage as the catalyst.
Fellow Mammals, it don't get more ironic than that. It's too bad Kurt Vonnegut has retired; I bet he could squeeze a killer short out of this.
July 15 2004: Maelstrom in a Box
Another paper in a front-line journal that's not afraid to use the term "digital organism": this paper from Science reports on the construction of mutable "tame viruses", forced to compete for system resources, evolving into new and cool species in the process. This kind of thing has been going on since the sixties, when an early a-life program called "Darwin" kicked things off at Bell Labs. "Core Wars" was the breakout app in the eighties, and "Tierra", in the early nineties, may have been the first a-life model to rigorously explore a variety of evolutionary processes (including the evolution of sex and parasites). So this latest research isn't new; in fact, I cite it as an example of how normal it has become to unapologetically use digital life-forms as a means of addressing real questions in biology.
I would argue that "digital organisms" may very soon qualify as "real" life forms. Literally. When I've argued this on panels at cons, the most strenuous objections generally hail not from biologists (who, after all, study "life" for a living), but rather from computer programmers; and their objections generally boil down to "it's just code, dude. There's nothing magical about it." The implication being, I guess, that there is something magical about "real" life, that We The Living are imbued with some irreducible divine spark that sets us apart from the inanimate world of ones and zeros.
Biologists would never make that mistake. Biologists know that life is, at its heart, mechanical. Life is the mathematical topology of molecules fitting one into another; life is self-replicating Tinkertoy. And if you look at the list of attributes that gets trotted out whenever anyone tries to define the word—growth, reproduction, energy transfer—you'll notice that "being soft and squishy" doesn't appear. Maybe that's because it's self-evident; after all, everything we think of as "alive" was, until very recently, solid matter, built from carbon. But that doesn't make it an essential part of the package.
If you want to know what at least one evolutionary biologist thinks on the subject, I'll cite Richard Dawkins: "Life is information, shaped by natural selection." I like that definition. I built a whole damn book around it.
I just wish someone would get off their ass and put mutable genes into a wild computer virus. Then maybe the world would finally recognise my genius.
July 7 2004: Microsoft Owns Your Skin
According to the current issue of The Economist, Microsoft has successfully patented the Human body as a data-transmission medium. Meat is an electrical conductor, you see; anything that carries electricity can also carry information, and anything that carries information can be made proprietary.
Of course, Microsoft did not acquire ownership by actually inventing anything. Rather, it let someone else do the innovating, and then took their idea—a strategy that has served it well in the past (see MS-DOS; MS-Windows; Internet Explorer). The real innovators in this case came from IBM and MIT, who back in 1996 jointly produced wearable hardware that exchanged digital information via a handshake. The idea of turning one's whole body into a LAN, where Blackberries and wristwatches and smart tags stay in touch by pressing the flesh, is almost a decade old. (It even plays a bit role in ß-Max, when a character types a password onto the skin of her forearm.)
But actually inventing something is only 0% of the law. The other 100% evidently resides in the Patent Office.
And I thought it was bad when they patented the double-click. I tell you, Microsoft should just change its name to Weyland-Yutani, start a Bioweapons Division, and get it over with.
June 30 2004: "It's not as though he went shopping for an evil makeover."
I've been reviewing my notes while gearing up for Blindsight, and rediscovered this fascinating tale of a school-teacher who suddenly became a hypersexual, sociopathic pedophile. Turns out it was all caused by a tumor in the man's frontal lobes; once the tumor was removed, the deviant behaviour disappeared.
In and of itself. that's hardly news; we've known that brain damage can cause radical personality shifts ever since Phineas Gage lost his head-butting contest with a tamping iron back in 1848. What sticks out about this story was that the man was ultimately exonerated (after spending time in prison) because "the tumor made him do it". He was not responsible for his actions. Good call, as far as it goes. But it begs the question; if tumor-addled schoolteachers aren't responsible for their actions, why should other psychopaths be held to account for theirs? Why, indeed, should you be?
Psychopaths differ from you baseline types at the neurological level; lowered glucose metabolism in the frontal lobes, no emotional responses to emotionally-charged stimuli. Even the wetware responsible for the parsing of grammar and sentence structure is anomalous. (Check out Without Conscience: the disturbing world of the psychopaths among us, by Robert Hare, if you don't believe me.) If neurochemical damage due to a tumor or a tire-iron washes the blame from someone, why should damage due to bad wiring be any different? After all, if you were wired that way, you would be that way.
And why stop with psychopaths? Every individual is individual, each CPU wired uniquely. Nobody can be blamed for the condition of their own brain on delivery. Sure, if I'd had your serotonin levels I wouldn't have smashed in that guy's skull for looking at me the wrong way, but if you'd had my serotonin levels you damn well would have. It's all just neurochemistry, physics in fluids, and nobody is to blame for anything.
I'm far from the first person to point this out, of course, and the legal beagles have defined a tipping point: whether the individual is able to control her impulses. Not whether you are a sociopath, but whether you act on your sociopathy. The psycho who murders goes to jail; the one who limits herself to ruthless business practises gets a fat year-end bonus. The key is self-control.
Except, of course, for the fact that self-control is also a function of brain chemistry, and therefore acts upon us. We do not act upon it. Chemicals do not get to change the laws of chemistry.
Your eyes are rolling. This is bullshit high-school philosophy, you say. If it were true, nobody would be responsible for anything. We'd all be little windup toys, running down predetermined pathways set in place at the beginning of time. How TwenCen Determinist. How Pre-Quantum-Uncertainty. How convenient. You might as well blame the Big Bang for the world's evils and be done with it.
And you're right. It is awfully convenient, and of zero functional utility, and if the common cry is "I'm just a prisoner of my inner drives" then why even strive for anything better? Certainly you couldn't pattern a functioning society on such a premise.
But that doesn't mean that it can't be true, nonetheless. "It mustn't be, therefore it isn't" has never ranked high as a logical argument.
The quote at the top of this rant comes from Lenie Clarke, mine own fictional creation, as she tries to justify her best friend's role in the death of someone's mother. But perhaps a better one comes from Joshua Greene, a neurologist in the real world, quoted in the April 2004 issue of Discover magazine: "Once you understand someone's behavior on a sufficiently mechanical level, it's very hard to look at them as evil. You can look at them as dangerous; you can pity them.
"But evil doesn't exist on a neuronal level."
June 25 2004: Nanotech Grows Up
Oh Nanotech, look at you now. No longer just a gleam in Drexler's eye, no longer mere pie-in-the-sky with naught but Potential to show in the real world. Nanotech, you have truly Come Of Age.
Do I say this because Global government investment in nano has quadrupled in the past four years, now weighing in at over $3.5 billion? Or because the products of practical nano are already becoming ubiquitous in applications ranging from computer chips to housepaint? Or even because George W. Bush has learned to pronounce the word "nanotechnology" correctly, three times out of four?
No. I say this because airborne carbon nanotubes damage the lungs of mice and increase apoptosis rates (programmed cell suicide) in Human tissues; and because waterborne buckyballs may cause brain damage in fish.
This is how you can tell when an industry has matured: it starts to kill you.
In a real sense, though, this is good news. At least these side-effects are coming to light now, during the industry's infancy. At least people are looking for them up front, and reporting them. At least the US Nanotechnoloy Initiative is devoting 11% of its budget to environmental studies. There are those who argue this isn't enough, and they're probably right. But hey; it's a start. It suggests we may have learned a little from our past mistakes (asbestos, anyone?).
These days, I'll take whatever silver linings I can get.
June 24 2004: I fucking knew it.
Turns out there's a bunch of age-regulated genes responsible for synaptic plasticity (i.e., "smarts") in human beings. Also turns out they degrade seriously with age, starting around the time you turn forty. One guess as to which side of that line I'm on.
Great. Just great. I mean, we all knew people got dumber with age—how else would you explain the results of the North American democratic process?—but I'd always kind of hoped it wouldn't really kick in quite so soon.
Read it and weep. Or drool, depending on your age-class.
June 17 2004: How to get Anthrax without really trying
Attention, all nonlethal Bacillus: do you envy powerful microbes that can kill with a sneeze? Do you long to turn human beings into piles of rotting meat, but the most you can pull off is a mild case of food poisoning? Take heart! Now, thanks to the miracle of plasmid exchange, you too can acquire the lethal genes of Anthrax itself, and start your own personal epidemic!
How much would you pay for these genes?
Don't answer yet, because there's more! These lethal genes can even be transfered easilly into Bacillus thuriengiensis, the microbe used by Big Agro in the production of genetically-engineered Bt crops!
Of course, these dangers are being trumpeted by one of those advocacy groups—"special interests", the politicos like to call them—who use words like "sustainable" and "society" in their press releases. So we all know where they're coming from.
June 15 2004: Life from Lego / Predicting the Past
So they figure we're just a few years away from building a completely artificial microbe—complete with working biochemistry and genetic code— according to this pop-science piece in Discover magazine.  Of more than passing interest to me, since just such a bug proves to be a lynchpin of ßehemoth: Seppuku. Except, of course, those events aren't supposed to happen for decades yet.
Once again, my far-sighted acumen allows me to write stories in which scientific breakthroughs occur years after they already happened in real life. Add that to my Head Cheeses and my Internet Weather Systems and my Deep-Sea Tours For Rich Old Geezers, all of which went from Cutting Edge to Old News in the time it took me to write a draft. I've got to let myself off the leash more--maybe throw in a little outright magic next time, to keep the tech from stale-dating.
On a lighter note, those who came here by way of an interest in deep-sea ecology might be interested in this (pdf'd) article on deep-sea oases powered by asphalt seeps in the Gulf of Mexico. Or not.
June 3 2004: Ah, the Innocence of the Unborn...
Reason To Not Have Children #2,472: preeclampsia, a formerly-mysterious malady causing high blood pressure in pregnant women. According to David Haig of Harvard, this could be just another salvo in the evolutionary war between Madonna and Child. Mom's fitness, you see, is best served if she can have a number of kids, and that means limiting her investment in any given one. The parasitic fetus, on the other hand, doesn't give a rat's ass about siblings—its interests are best served if it can suck up all of mom's resources right now.
So suppose the fetus has a secret weapon to damage mom's blood vessels except for those that feed it. Resistance to blood flow increases throughout the rest of the host body (hence the high b.p.), and the fetus gets a disproportionately high blood supply as a result. Sure, it impairs the mother's health in the long term, but all Junior cares about is the next few months (or years, if you want to factor in lactation). At the very least we know that the fetal placenta secretes a protein that screws up the host body's ability to repair damage to blood vessels. So preeclampsia might simply represent the high end of a widespread strategy by which the Armies of the Unborn suck their mothers dry for their own personal benefit. Little Enron Executives, the lot of 'em.
I've said it before, I'll say it again. Cats. Not kids.
June 1 2004: Quoth the Raven
Another nail in the coffin of the In-God's-Image brigade. Turns out that even the lowly raven has a "theory of mind"—which is to say, the little featherballs not only appreciate that other organisms have their own agendas, but they can make some pretty shrewd guesses about what those agendas are, and hatch devious little strategies to trip them up. Ravens are, in fact, consummate liars, and they don't like being found out.
This won't come as news to even casual observers of "animal" behaviour, of course, but it's always nice to see empirical confirmation in the primary lit. It's even nicer to see a one-track rag like The Economist sit up and take notice.