April 21 2007: Reloaded, Retired
As of now, this iteration of the crawl is pure archive. All further postings will be made here, courtesy of Google's "Blogger" software. The new crawl is still located at rifters.com. It is still defiantly free of moods, ads, and cutesy fucking icons. But it's a real blog now. You can leave comments. It's got RSS. You can subscribe.
Henceforth, all the "Newscrawl" menu items on rifters.com will take you to the new crawl. This here old one is still accessible via a new link, "(Old Newscrawl)", which has been added to all page menus on the site (except this one, for reasons which should be obvious.) If you're not seeing that new item — or if the "Newscrawl" links don't take you to the reloaded newscrawl — then the problem's at your end. You should probably clear out your browser cache.
The Crawl is dead. Long live the Crawl.
April 16 2007: Called Worse Things By Better People
I seem to be a scab. By giving my stories and novels away for free, I'm stealing bread from the mouths of all those those hardworking fellow scribes who are trying to make a real living at storytelling. It must be true, because I read it on the web.
Normally, of course, one would barely notice such a waste of ascii — drivel is bound to be everywhere on a continent where over half the population believes in angels, for chrissakes — except that this particular rant was posted by Howard Hendrix, the vice-president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. And given that he was democratically elected to his position, it follows that if his feelings don't reflect those of SFWA's membership, they must at least reflect that membership's inability to choose a competent spokesperson.
John Scalzi has already dissected Hendrix's fallacious arguments with his usual relentless skill, all the while keeping a far more civil tongue in his head than I ever could. Charlie Stross has been among those to find fault with Hendrix's inflammmatory and utterly inaccurate use of the term "scab" itself (although I can't find the appropriate link at the moment). Jo Walton has declared April 23rd "International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day", on which all and sundry are encouraged to post their writings from trivial to profound online, gratis, just to piss this reactionary Hendrix doofus off. I myself was one of those approached by Galleycat for my reaction, but since the story they ran only quoted a couple of lines, I thought I'd give you the unabridged verbiage here:
I was actually unaware that Howard Hendrix had written the various novels, essays, and short stories posted on my website. I could have sworn that I had written them, and that the only person I could be accused of undercutting would be myself. The only alternative is that Hendrix regards authors as so utterly interchangeable that a public posting of "Atlas Shrugged" would, for example, somehow compromise sales of "Harry Potter and the Overdue Bitch-Slap". It seems unlikely that anyone possessed of such idiotic perspectives could ever have been elected to the vice-presidency of any body so august as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America— or at least, if he was, it certainly doesn't reflect well on SFWA's choices.
Then again— these days, what does?
Moving on. I am tickled by these strangely Victorian elves, and honored to be lampooned in the same panels as the vastly better-known Charlie Stross. When someone can drop your name into a scenario with the obvious expectation that most of their readership will get the joke, either that writer is delusional or this one actually has some kind of public profile. And "ice-water enema" is one of those almost Nicollesque quotes that I dearly wish Tor would use as a blurb on Blindsight. (Assuming, of course, that I could get Tor to actually put any blurbs on Blindsight that weren't for some other title entirely...)
Finally, I'm pleased to announce that David Nickle, frequently cited in this column and the man most directly responsible for many of the things you don't like about my writing, has at long last, and after much prodding, constructed his own web site. It's still in its early stages, but is nonetheless rife with style, wit, and generally better prose than you're likely to find here. I recommend it highly.
April 13 2007: So he goes
Kurt Vonnegut, dead at 84.
Times like this, you wish there was a heaven.
April 10 2007: Momentum
I'm not exactly sure how this happened, but there's gotta be some kind of skew here. Non-normality. Heteroscedasticity. Kickbacks. Because otherwise, well, it's a really pleasant surprise.
In other news, John Adams has taken some of the outtakes and b-sides from his previous interview and spliced them into a new piece for SciFi Wire. I like the result. I think I come off well. I use grisly imagery. I claim to not be a dork.
Update 11/4: I figured it out. How many respondents to that poll were Japanese? I'm guessing, none. And the one piece of fan mail I received from Japan stated explicitly that Stross and Vinge were huge over there, while Blindsight was, to be charitable, not. And since Japan is where the vote is being held, well, let's just say my expectations are back to where they should be.
April 8 2007: The Clifford Burns Memorial Anti-Veto Bomb
On Spec and I had a falling out around the turn of the century.
It had been coming for some time. In its early days, OS had been this brave little rag that took chances. They once published a story of mine so politically incorrect that other venues wouldn't even admit to having received it. When they asked me to help out as a fiction editor a few years later, I was honoured. And the slush— the slush was pure bonus. How often do you get to see sentences like "She whispered comforting words of love into his pus-oozing ears" written with a straight face?
Over the years, though, we started playing it safe. A childproof sheath was slipped discreetly onto the cutting edge, so as to not alienate the granting agencies. We started passing on stories for the very reason we'd once bought them: they pushed limits. They risked pissing people off.
And when a wicked little story from one Cliff Burns got bounced, a nasty piece of work called "Strays", I could see which way the wind was blowing.
"Strays" was a western, told in jagged semiexperimental prose where the dialog and the narrative run together without quotations marks. There were cowpokes. There were cattle. The cattle turned out to be women. (That was kind of a punchline, actually. Sorry if I spoiled it for you.) Maybe, knowing that and no more, you're deciding that ”Strays" was a cheap misogynistic piece of trash that deserved eternal obscurity; but what you didn't know until now was that it was a spot-on parody of Cormac McCarthy's brilliant, horrific, and ultraviolent Blood Meridian, which I'd just finished reading. And if you thought about it a bit, you might even recognise it as a powerful metaphor for the wanton exploitative indifference with which we as a species treat pretty much every living thing that isn't us. You might conclude that such a story has to offend if it is to succeed, because we've become so indifferent to our own atrocities that the only way to wake us up is to replace the cattle, and the rhesus monkeys, and the decimated fish populations with things that we do care about, so that we will be offended. And if the metaphor also helps a few Dolcett snuff fetishists get their rocks off in the process, well that's just collateral damage (or bonus, depending on which way you swing). It doesn't detract from the point of the exercise.
I don't know how many people, not having read McCarthy, would have got the joke, or the lesson. But I did. And it went for the jugular.
And we bounced it. Everyone agreed that Burns was a talented writer; opinions on the story at hand were somewhat more mixed. The female editors found it shallow, offensive, and predictable. The male editors thought it was powerful, disturbing, and eloquently written (even though one of them changed his vote afterwards to avoid internal conflict). I think there may have been an abstention in there somewhere from our hermaphrodite editor. And me — when it became obvious that we were going to reject the most assured, technically-proficient, and in-your-face challenging story we'd received all year for purely political reasons, I decided it was time to move on. I resigned.
Jump forward a couple of years. On Spec asks if I'd be willing to give it another shot, even admits that they've become a bit too tame for their own good. And I almost turned them down, because what guarantee did I have that they'd be willing to take chances again?
Thus was born the Cliff Burns Memorial Anti-Veto Bomb.
Every year, each editor at On Spec has two such bombs to drop on any story they choose, and those stories will run. No matter if this editor stands alone. No matter if all the other editors hate the story outright. If one of us feels passionately enough about a story to use one of our precious anti-veto bombs, we publish it. That was my condition for returning to the fold. On Spec agreed.
I have never dropped such a bomb. I have been the victim of one: Holly Phillips once rammed through a piece I wasn't all that impressed with. Fair enough. The fact that I never used Cliff Burns' name in vain doesn't matter: nobody has since submitted a story as offensive (and I mean that in a good way) as "Strays" (although we have subsequently published other stories by Burns). But if they ever do, I'm ready.
Now, Cliff Burns has a blog. And that fact alone is pretty remarkable, because Cliff is not what you'd call an early-adopter of the latest presingularity tech. But here he is at last, climbing into the twenty-first century with a couple of decades of critically-lauded stories and opinion pieces on his back. Much of it— like "Strays"— aims for the throat. An uncomfortably high proportion lands there, and sinks its teeth in.
So check him out. The man has talent, the man has chops, the man has ideas. Diplomacy, not so much— but then, I'm hardly in a position to pass judgment on anyone on that score.
April 5 2007: And now, in keeping with our policy of providing equal time to opposing viewpoints...
Egosurfing has yielded a gratifying upswing in Blindsight-related bloggage since the Hugo finalists were announced. Most of this commentary has
been positive, with several lapses into outright squeeing; and the book now seems to be attracting attention not just as a novel, but as a
case study representing larger sets of objects. Interzone editor Jetse de Vries, for example, uses Blindsight to illustrate the merits of the
350-word book review
(with limited success, according to Niall Harrison and Jon McCalmont),
this much-cited column on Bloggasm presents Blindsight and Nick Mamatas’s Move Under Ground as representative forays into the Creative Commons.
I am tickled.
But not everyone is feeling the love, and it would be remiss to not also shine a spotlight on those whose opinions are not quite so charitable.
Chris Garcia, for example, up for a fan Hugo himself, who stalled a measly fifty pages in and
ranks Blindsight least likely to take home the prize. Or John Snead, a Wiccan role-playing writer who
describes Blindsight as "wretched", "essentially unreadable", and "utter trash".
But my favorite of the week has to be "Dirigible Trance", a Texan with a fondness for
gun-wielding anime-chick userpics, and whose LiveJournal interests include both my present-day real-world friend "Karl Schroeder" and my childhood invisible friend "Jesus". Mr. Trance has embarked upon a campaign to steer people away from my novels (without, apparently, having read any of them) because I am an "angry athiest".
I thank Mr. Trance for his restraint; we are all too familiar with the extremes angry believers can attain in their struggle against those who do not
share their one true faith. A boycott? I'm getting off easy.
You go, God-boy.
April 4 2007: "If killing one person saves ten, it's a bargain."
Six people careening down the track in an out-of-control trolley, heading for a cliff. You can save them by rerouting
to a new track, but there's someone standing along that route and they won't be able to get out of the way in time. Do
you kill one to save six?
Most people say yes, without hesitation.
Now say there's no alternate track, but you're standing on a bridge next to a grotesquely obese person who is large enough to stop the trolley if pushed onto the tracks in time. (We presume a fairly small trolley here.) Do you kill one to save six?
Most people say no. Despite the fact that both algebra and agency of death are the same. Only the means of execution changes— and logically,
that should make no difference at all.
It makes a hell of a difference. Even those who say yes take a significantly longer time to come to that decision, as they strain against the
instinctive "right" answer. And the part of the brain that decides what's "right" and "wrong" in these cases? The emotional centers. Not the cognitive
ones. Our vaunted human morality comes from the gut. Stephen Colbert would be proud.
This is old news. (I cited it way back in ßehemoth; it was all tied in with Guilt Trip and
Absolution and the various other neurochemical chains inflicted upon CSIRA's 'lawbreakers.) But now, in Nature, we see that the right kind of
brain damage can free us from these inconsistent and indefensible moral impulses. Here is the study
: here is a nontechnical summary*. And here is what they say: People with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex experience none of the cognitive dissonance of the trolly paradox. Emotions do not blind them; they see the equivalence. They understand that killing one to save ten is a bargain, no matter what sarcastic ol' Leonard McCoy said back in "Operation: Annihilate". They have been freed from making the "right" choice; they make the correct one.
Perhaps you would call them heartless. Perhaps you would say this loss of emotion dehumanises them somehow, and you would be right:
but you would say it as though it were a bad thing, and in that you would be mistaken. These are not sociopaths— they were no more likely than
"healthy" individuals to claim that they'd abandon a baby to avoid the burden of caring for it, for instance. But they did appear more willing
to sacrifice that baby— even their own baby— if doing so would save a greater number of lives. These cold-eyed pod people would save more lives with their heartless rationality than you with all of your motherhood issues.
The authors conclude that emotions play a "necessary role" in the formation of "normal judgments of right and wrong". I find their careful wording notable. "Normal judgments" are not necessarily "good judgments".
Right can be wrong.
*Thanks to Alistair Blachford and Jennifer Kerr for the pdfs.
March 29 2007: Good Jam.
Here's something that pays: Blindsight is going into a third hardcover printing. Blindsight is scheduled for a trade paperback release. Blindsight is a Hugo finalist:
Nominees for Best Novel:
Michael F. Flynn, Eifelheim
Naomi Novik, His Majesty’s Dragon
Charles Stross, Glasshouse
Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End
Peter Watts, Blindsight
(Complete list of nominees here)
Blindsight fucking made it.
Let me correct that emphasis: Blindsight fucking made it. By itself. On its own merits. I did not kiss anyone's ass. I fellated no Hugo voters. I erected no embarrassing "For the Consideration of the Worldcon Community" banners in fifty-point type on my website. I did give my vampire domestication talk at a couple of cons over the past two years, but got a literal cuff across the ear for my troubles (from Karl Schroeder) because I never mentioned that said talk was a tie-in to an actual product. And while I occasionally stooped to strategies that might in more delicate hands have constituted promotion — the Creative Commons giveaway, the alternate covers — I seem to have mitigated those actions by performing them in a way that alienated fan and industry alike. One sf author, less averse to self-promotion than I and with a far higher profile, was willing to lay money against me getting this far. A fantasist with a higher profile still used me as an example of how-not-to.
And yet, here we are. I am reminded of an old seventies-era SNL sketch, in which Chevy Chase holds up a jar of jam called Painful Rectal Itch: "If we can give it a name like that and it still sells, that's good jam..."
So I guess it is. I've had my own doubts about Blindsight over the years; editors and friends alike have remarked upon its opacity and talkiness, and I've agreed and shuddered. But this nomination, at least, is righteous vindication. I did nothing to grease the wheels or skew the odds, beyond trying to get it out there so people could read it.
The only reason it's up for the Hugo now is because you people think it's a good book.
I have no great hopes for taking home the trophy: I'm up against the likes of Stross (who's more than overdue for his own win, and whose literary chops could bitch-slap me up one wall and down the other) and this Novik chick (who will crush us all because her novel got optioned by Peter Jackson). But you guys got it this far, and for that I am profoundly grateful, and (uncharacteristically) humbled.
March 28 2007: Dem Bones. And some guy from Finland.
Yes, it's been a while. Yes, there is news. No, I can't talk about all of it yet. And there was an incredibly cool little tidbit from the Science/Fiction interface, a paper in Nature revealling that the right kind of so-called "brain damage" actually makes us more rational in a way that certain characters from the rifters trilogy would find uncomfortably familiar. (Such people are freed of emotional constraints such as morality, which gives them an edge is dealing with "trolley paradox"-type problems.) But I can't even talk about that because Nature barricaded the relevant URL behind a "premium content" bridge troll, so the link wouldn't do most of you any good. So that'll have to wait until my Nature mole gets back in the country and can slip me a pdf.
Instead, here's a link to a public-domain piece on the disease that turned Chelsea to stone in Blindsight. The freedom fighters who tweaked the disease dubbed it "Golem", but the base malady is known as fibrodysplasia, and — like most of the really disquieting things in my books — I didn't make it up. The picture on that ABC story are disturbing enough, but they focus on cute little kids to maximize the edutainment awwww factor. You want a much scarier picture of what this disease does to you, go here, and scroll down to Fig. 1.
But enough about the scariness of ther world. Let's talk about me.
Norman Spinrad's rather glum essay on the prognosis for hard-sf (including a review of Blindsight, excerpted previously) is now online over at Asimov's. A couple more glowy online reviews of Blindsight have gone live over the past couple of weeks, here, and here; and, hey! I actually seem to be on some kind of literature course curriculum somewhere, but I have no idea where. Except maybe in Finland. Somewhere overseas anyway, I bet.
I should stop. I have this wine to get through before I go out.
March 4 2007: Prophecy, Policy, Paintings, Popularity, Podcasts, and — er, Germans.
Don't Mention the War: A few years ago, I wrote a book called Starfish. It might have got translated into German (it did get translated into Italian) but evidently the Germans (along with the Russians) found it "too dark". Now, however, they want to publish a German edition of Blindsight. Apparently Blindsight is more emotionally uplifting than Starfish was. Or perhaps the Germans merely have a cruel sense of irony. I would believe that. I've known a few.
Inspiration reprise: Another author has gone CC with their book, citing Blindsight as the inspiration. Only this time it's a nonfiction book: Pepe Escobar's Globalistan, a critique of corporate globalisation. The press release (by a dude named Zimmerman, if I'm reading this correctly) draws some thematic parallels between the economic argments in Escobar's book and the evolutionary arguments in mine. Also between Escobar and myself as authors. I can't judge that, not having read Globalistan and barely knowing myself, but it still rather surprises me because, well, a nonfiction critique of global economics?
(And while this is the second time that someone states that they've taken their lead from Blindsight, I should repeat that Blindsight itself took its lead from earlier, bolder visionaries than I. So once again, Cory, Charlie: I'm on your shoulders.)
Ass Cover: Also following in my footsteps (although not knowingly, AFAIK), another St. Martin's author, disgruntled by the cover art for his novel, has generated his own. Evidently "A publicist for St. Martin's had no comment when asked about the house's reaction to Frost's actions."
I've got a reaction. T'Ain't just me. That's three of us, now. And thanks to Guy Kay for the link.
Aliens Killed the Radio Star: In a recent episode of his SF-themed show "Beam Me Up" on WRFR in Maine, Paul Cole performed a live reading of my short story "Ambassador". I have not heard it yet— I couldn't access more than a few Megs of either the download or the stream feed without getting an error— but the podcast is out there, for those of you with better luck. I'll get through someday.
People's Choice: Blindsight weighs in at #4 for the Reader's Choice Top Ten at SF-Site — a list notable largely for its great divergence from the Editor's Choice list at the same site. What I find intriguing about this list is that Blindsight is the highest-ranked science fiction book thereupon: the top three are all fantasies, two of which I have heard incredible things about and really will check out when I have the time. Regardless: fantasy does seem to be kicking sf's ass these days, even in sfnal strongholds. A shame my genetic programming won't let me write the stuff.
February 24 2007: Spearchucker/Monolith/Tentacles.
Another spot of corrosion on the rusty armor of those who still exhalt our species as unique: chimpanzees make spears, and sharpen them, and use them to stab other primates. A big step closer to true humanity than those inoffensive little termite sticks we've known about since the sixties, or even the stone tools they've been fashioning for thousands of years. (Note that last link leads to a jpegged screen grab, not a pdf).
Speaking of weapons, Blindsight's aliens could do very nasty things with magnetic fields — use them to turn failed stars into giant particle-beam cannons, for example. Kinda like this newly-discovered mechanism for stellar gamma-ray bursts (another jpeg). I wonder how long before the chimps figure that one out.
And by the way, courtesy of an entity going by the name of "Dystonia Entartete-Kunst", some very cool, crisp vivacious squid footage for those who haven't seen it yet. Squid seem to be popping up everywhere these days. And it's about time.
February 22 2007: I'm Too Good for You All.
Couple of new reviews for you. The first, by Gwenda Bond writing in the Washington Post, is brief but positive, one of four capsule reviews (another of which raves about Ursabelle's Carnival — more on that later.)
The other review is likewise embedded in a discussion of other books, a much more in-depth and focused one. I'm talking "Whither the Hard Stuff", the latest essay from Norman Spinrad in the April/May issue of Asimov's (not available online yet). Spinrad seems like a fairly glum dude, even when brimming with praise; he reviewed Starfish a few years back, and here, as then, his comments might best be thumbnailed as Damn good work there, Watts. Too bad nobody buys damn good work any more.
I don't mind. Like I'm going to turn my nose up at praise from the author of The Big Flash and Bug Jack Barron and — sorry, r's and K's, but it was my introduction to the man and it still has a fond place in my heart — Star Trek's classic "Doomsday Machine" episode?
He starts right in with the glum:
"Certainly at the very least something of real intellectual and literary value would be lost if there were not enough potential readers around to make something like Peter Watts' Blindsight publishable, and therefore in the end writeable. And what such a loss would indicate about the state of the cultural union would be much, much worse."
There follows a brief précis of the novel's setup, some thematic cock-teasing (for which I am profoundly grateful: Spinrad, unlike some reviewers I could name, is careful to hint at punchlines without spoiling them for the reader), and the placing of "paleogenetics" in quotes even though, swear to god, it's a real word. Then he says nice things about the structure and characterization — even assures us of "plenty of physical action", which is nice to see in reference to a book that seems to be getting discussed mainly in terms of its idea content. He praises the "fascinatingly counterintuitive" ideas I put forth, even compares me to Benford and Clarke.
But then, here comes the glum again:
"...whether he or anyone else can build a commercially viable career on novels which, however well-written and characterologically interesting, the speculative science is not only front and center, but provides the dramatic and thematic capper, is more questionable. ... The question is whether there are enough readers left out there who find that sort of experience actually enjoyable to continue to keep such fiction commercially publishable."
He's got a point. Certainly the industry consensus was that the book lacked commercial potential (have I complained about the number of publishers who turned Blindsight down flat? I mean, lately?) I would certainly have agreed with him wholeheartedly only six months ago. And yet, despite industry indifference, the book does seem to be hanging in there, doesn’t it? It's certainly getting more buzz than anything else I've written, even though it's by far the most challenging/difficult novel I've put out.
Which brings me back to Elisabeth's novel Carnival: another book I thought that might be too challenging for the average skiffy fan. In some places, if you don't pay attention, it almost seems as though she's channeling Joanna Russ (albeit Russ on mood stabilizers, thank God). You had to kind of squint to see the satiric gleam in Ursabelle's prose, and I wondered how many would. Not to mention the fact that any book with two gay leads might have a bit of trouble getting prominent placement in the Heartland's Wal-Marts. But Carnival is garnering heaps of critical acclaim and loads of street-level buzz and (because there's no fucking justice) good cover art to boot.
So maybe ol' Norm and I are wrong. Maybe you guys are up for a challenge after all. Certainly, the most frequent reaction I've seen lately is "Bring it on."
So prove it. Make me rich. And thanks to Rob Robertson for the Spinrad piece.
Excerpts on the Blurbs page.
February 17 2007: Peter the Polariser.
Way back in my former life as a marine biologist, I coauthored a video documentary on the maritime seal/fishery conflict. Despite its cheesiness, it won some stuff including the federal government's Environment Canada Trophy for "Best Film on the Environment". It was also excoriated as antigovernment propaganda— also by the federal government. I'm told this resulted in at least one vaguely surrealistic episode where a tourist kiosk in the Gaspé was visited by Men in Black (actually, Men in Grey— we Canucks tend to avoid strong statements) who told the proprieters that they really didn’t want to be showing this antigovernment propaganda that the government had given them to show.
This is not the first time I've catalysed such schizoid reactions. There was also my Ph.D thesis, which one of my external reviewers described as a ground-breaking piece of research with far-reaching ecological implications, while the other said I should probably just throw it out and start over. (I didn't, she died, I graduated, and I had those two evaluations
framed side-by-side and hung in my office at the University of Guelph.) There are other examples, which I omit for the sake of brevity and to cover my ass. The point is made.
So given the story of my life, I actually think I'm getting off easy when the SF Site publishes two 10-Best-of-2006 lists, one of which includes Blindsight and one which doesn't even give it an honorable mention. I'm batting above average even if the latter review carries a greater weight of reviewers: precedent would lead me to expect an appearance on SF Site's 10-worst list. And Greg Johnson's description of the book as "remorseless" and "unflinching" warms my very tum.
I've also been told that the bimonthly Bookmarks Magazine — evidently a kind of Reader's Digest of book reviews — gave Blindsight a 4-star rating, which translates to "one of the best of its genre". That's nice, although I wouldn't turn my nose up at their fived-star ranking ("a timeless classic to be read by all") either. Anyway Bookmarks — which I have not read, and only just heard about — evidently skews to the literary end of the spectum and does not review a lot of science fiction, so it's nice to get a nod from outside the ghetto. You know how we skiffy types crave respect.
February 16 2007: I am an Inspiration.
Evidently this Nick Mamatas fellow has set his novel, Move Under Ground, free under a Creative Commons License. He
my example as inspiration. As far as I know, this is the first time anyone has done this: usually, my own CC experiment gets
cited as one of those following in the footsteps of Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross, not as a trailblazer in its own right.
Of course, Cory and Charles were rising stars before they started giving their material away gratis — for them, the Creative
Commons was a playground for experimentation, not an arena for a life-or-death struggle. So perhaps I am a pioneer in this
respect: not the first to set his work free, but the first to do so without a happy face. I am an inspiration to other Grumps,
dissatisfied with their lot. (You'd think there'd be a lot more of those around than utopian optimists: by rights, I should be the patron saint of a much greater horde than that sunny genius Doctorow...)
Nick's novel — "Jack Kerouac wandering an America where the elder gods of H.P. Lovecraft are warping society in their own image" — sounds intriguing. I wish the man good fortune as he plunges into the Commons. This is still a relatively rare measure for a working artist to take, and as long as it remains rare — and hence, newsworthy — it should work to generate buzz.
It's a niche strategy, though. If everyone does it, the whole house of cards collapses. We are the sneaky fuckers in a population of alpha males; we only get to breed as long as most of our competitors are out butting heads.
February 15 2007:
How I scooped the Daily Show.
John Hodgson turned his deadpan reductionist gaze on love during the Valentine's Day episode of the Daily Show last night. He spoke of the mass-marketing of romantic love in pill form, but his own personal favorite method of delivery was in a handy aerosol spray. Check out the "Why is Love?" segment on the Comedy Central Website. Watch Hodgman explain the etymology of the phrase "to fuck like a prairie vole". Jon Stewart even uses the word "dystopian".
Now, I refer you to page 35 of Blindsight (p 24 in the freeware pdf):
Jim had his inhaler in hand as we emerged from the darkness. I hoped, without much hope, that he'd throw it into the garbage receptacle as we passed through the lobby. But he raised it to his mouth and took another hit of vassopressin, that he would never be tempted.
Fidelity in an aerosol.
Did I call it, or what? And who do I threaten to get my share of the royalties for that joke?
Blinded by the Light; also, Cephalopods and the Self.
Also, for those of you who've been with me since Starfish days, Bahumat points out this nifty story about a new mesopelagic foraging strategy amongst large, vivacious squid: using their photophores to stun prey with bright lights. You've all probably heard of the electric eel's trick of zapping prey with electrical fields; some of you may have heard the (not widely-held) theory that dolphins stun their prey with high-intensity sound bursts. But this is the first time I've seen bright light suggested as a prey-stunning mechanism Cool, if true.
Squid— cephalopods in general, actually— get cooler the longer you look at them, and represent the closest thing to a truly alien intelligence on the planet insofar as they're invertebrates and all the other bright species are furballs of one kind or another. And the thing about furballs, about vertebrates of any kind, is that we all share similar brain structures. Mammals, reptiles, even boney fish have a reticular formation, for example, which is often cited as the seat of consciousness. If you don't like the ret, others hang sentience on the hippocampus— but in either case, one is forced to at least consider the possibility that even the lowly flounder is "conscious" to at least some extent, because these deep brain structures are so ubiquitous among the vertebrates.
But not among the inverts. Not among the cephalopods. Cephalopod brains have an utterly different architecture than those of vertebrates — a circumesophogeal hoop of brain cells and a distributed neural net spread through the limbs — but nonetheless show signs of complex problem-solving intelligence. They're smart, but they're distributed. And they lack the brain structures conventionally associated with consciousness.
Kinda makes you wonder, don't it?
February 12 2007: Reviews and Regrets.
More egosurfy stuff, in lieu of anything more substantive. Rick Kleffel says nice things about Blindsight over at The Agony Column, even though he had to pay for his own copy. (Cory Doctorow never got a review ARC either, which is odd.) Jonathan McCalmont has posted an interview with me over at SF Diplomat, in which I go on (at too much length, I think — I'm surprised he didn't cut some of my more longwinded digressions) about everything from the nature of morality to cat consciousness. And Biology in Science Fiction reprinted a few relevant quotess from my recent interview with SciFi Wire.
The only bummer arising from all this is that the McCalmont interview seems to have convinced Paul Raven over at Velcro City that there's no longer much point in interviewing me himself.
February 3 2007: Announcing the Niblet Memorial Kibble Fund.
Hey. All you people who told me to go out and sign up with Paypal, despite their arbitrary and high-handed propensity for freezing people's accounts. You know who you are.
I did it. I have launched the Niblet Memorial Kibble Fund. My timing sucks; if I had done this just a couple of days earlier I would have caught the wave that passed through from Scifi Wire. Unfortunately, other more urgent deadlines kept me occupied.
But it's out there now. I've called your bluff. You have no excuse. Feed us.
Panhandling button is over on the Backlist page next to the freebies, just above a link to a new page containing an endearingly-defensive rationale for the whole thing.
February 1 2007: A cameo at Scifi.com
SciFi.com just posted a nice little profile based on a recent interview with me. They didn't use nearly as much material as they had— they asked me a number of questions that don't appear anywhere in the final piece— but that's fine. This is one hellaciously popular website, and I'm happy to get a nod thereupon. The interviewer— one John Joseph Adams— was kind enough to send me a rip of Blindsight converted from the online html into Mobipocket format. So I'm adding that to the download page for those who want to read a 110,000 word novel off their cell-phones, with his compliments and my thanks.
Also, I seem to have made the Locus list of recommended novels for 2006, which kind of surprizes me because those guys haven't paid any attention to me since Maelstrom. I'm surprized to see them recommending a book they haven't actually reviewed, but again— not complaining.
Coming attractions: I've agreed to do a couple more e-mail interviews, this time with the authors of two of the most erudite reviews of Blindsight to have come down the tubes in a while. I will try very hard to maintain a façade of literary geniusity. Wish me luck.
And now, I must explore this whole Paypal thing.
January 26 2007: The Long and the Short of It
Via Karl Schroeder, news that Starlog has weighed in on Blindsight (and, evocatively, on the Rifters novels by way of comparison):
"...Welcome to the new work by Watts. Blindsight doesn't take the reader through the twisted, hi-tech human sewers of his Rifters novels, but the characters here are no less uniquely twisted. They're composed of the same literary putty that sticks to you.
The author's view of space travel is just as compelling as the pressure-haunted diseased landscape he painted earlier. Once again, the darkness is waiting: either as a hiding place, or as a threat."
Short, but to the point. I especially like the phrase "Human sewers". Can't really tell whether they liked it or not, but at least they found it evocative.
There's no such ambiguity over at SF Diplomat, which actually— I kid you not— uses the phrase "great literature" to describe BS (and yes, my use of the acronymn at this point is an intentional bit of preemptive self-deprecation). Blindsight has attracted its share of in-depth reviews— go back and check out Stephen Shaviro's piece, or Paul Raven's, or Niall Harrison's over at Bookslut. But I don't know if any of them has gone quite so far as this one, which weighs in at close to three thousand words and touches on everything from Dawkins to Plato. This is not so much review as a thesis: while other reviews may have listed the characters, this one dedicates a paragraph to each (with the exception of Cunningham), delving into their specific thematic and literary significance. A good quarter of the piece explores Blindsight's use of the "alien" trope (and is, I believe, the first to explicitly regard "the Captain" as one of The Others,
worthy of analysis in its own right). Another section explores the thematic significance of the ship's nomenclature. And all this is in addition to the usual squinty-eyed look at my sentience riff. "Mr. Analytical", whoever he is, gives me way to much credit; he attributes even my incompetence to deliberate design.
I was convinced months ago that Blindsight was a worthwhile book. It never occurred to me, though, that anyone would think it worth cramming down the throats of unappreciative students in Grade 11 English classes. Oh, such effusive praise shalt thou find over on "blurbs"
And I really gotta start putting some real science back into this thing.
January 22 2007: All the News that Sticks
Paul Raven has pixelled a review of Blindsight over at the Velcro City Tourist Board. (Now that I think of it, he was supposed to interview me at one point, but I haven't heard back from the man.) Anyway, this is definitely one of the more in-depth pieces I've read, going beyond the upfront plot and thematic elements and diving into architecture — i.e., the various gimmicks and recursions used to structure and ration out the tale.
I like this approach. It makes me look smarter than I am. His bottom line, commercial-success-wise? My appeal is limited to a small chunk of the market, but within that specialised niche, I fucking rule.
As usual, excerpts on Blurbs.
January 19 2007: In the Zone.
Via sf-star and Blindsight-pimp Neal Asher, news that Blindsight has scored a five-star rating in "The Zone" ("the science fiction fantasy horror & mystery website"). The reviewer describes Blindsight as the best book he read in 2006. (I like it when people people say things like that. I just wish more of them had a say in the major "best-of-year" lists which always sprout like mushrooms this time of year— buzz or no, Blindsight doesn't seem to be making much of an appearance in those so far.)
Anyway, review here. It's short but it glows. Or, for something even shorter, just check the bottom of my blurbs page for excerpts.
Also, I've added an "Updates" page to keep track of changes to this site; the link's on the splash page, embedded in the line beginning "Last tweaked on".
January 17 2007: Edmonton Ecstacy.
An anonymous friend at On Spec sent me a review of Blindsight by one Wayne Arthurson in the Edmonton Journal. I'm used to seeing Doug Barbour's name on Journal reviews, but I could get used to this Arthurson guy. He certainly seems to like Blindsight enough:
On the surface, Blindsight is a thrilling first-contact novel filled with hard science, but that's like saying To Kill a Mockingbird is just a book about a little girl's summer in the American south … Blindsight bursts with ideas … Watts shows us [all sorts of cool shit] without bogging down on the science, without being preachy or bashing you over the head again and again to make a point. He just tells an intriguing story with prose that dances across the page in complex yet precise rhythms. It's intricate and beautiful, heartwarming and dark. Many times your head will spin in joyous incredulity, or you'll freeze in jaw-dropped wonder.
Blindsight is a brilliant piece of work, one that will delight fans of hard science fiction, but will also demonstrate to literary fans that contemporary science fiction is dynamic and fascinating literature that demands to be read.
Wayne, your cheque is in the mail.
On a more ambiguous note, fantasy superstar Guy Gavriel Kay has taken note of the Angry Man Interview, and linked to it from his own site as a "cautionary tale" (scroll down to December 26). He's far too diplomatic to get explicit on exactly what he's cautioning against, but the subtext seems to be something along the lines of Watch it people. Or you could end up like this twisted bitter sonofabitch.
January 11 2007: NO GRILS ALOUD.
(Edited for style 12/1/07)
Just got back from giving a lecture to a bunch of humanities undergrads at York University. Went pretty well . On the way home I stopped off at Bakka, one of the local specialty sf stores, to sign their new shipment of Blindsights. Evidently they sold out the last shipment before New years (I checked: the new shipment still hails from the first print run.) Came home to find a few more fan e-mails, and just last night I was contacted by a guy from SciFi.com for an interview. All very nice.
But there's also this review from John Clute in the New York Review of Science Fiction, and boy is it— well — snippy.
John Clute, for those of you seeing the name for the first time, is no lightweight. You'll find his name on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (both editions) and the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. He has one novel out, Appleseed, which is (ironically, as you shall see) widely regarded as a "difficult" book by virtue of its dense and florid prose; I believe he has another on the way. SciFi Weekly runs a semiregular column by the man, which I frequently check out. I've met him once or twice, found him personable, intelligent, and insightful. In terms of overall rep, if he isn't the foremost sf critic out there, he's certain within spitting distance of that position.
And his review begins "Here is one example of what is very wrong with Blindsight."
He quotes from the text— "We passed Ben's Rayleigh Limit." — then rolls his eyes: "(be still my heart)". He then complains that the phrase "Milky Way" is used only once in the whole book. He reports on our cast's discovery of large numbers of meteorites in orbit around Ben, complaining further about my use of the word "morphometrics", then brings on another eye roll: "Willickers, what next?"
He then quotes a few paragraphs of technical description — omitting some nontechnical lines, which kinda skews the sample (the quoted passage starts here and ends with Szpindel asking "Is that right?") — and now, finally, he gets explicit as to what's been pissing him off about all this: it's dense. It's opaque. It's unintelligible to the initiated. It's— ah hell, why don't I just let the man speak for himself?
"..most of what I quoted above is undigested geek static, a deincentiviging fug of unverb, as depressive as old cigarette smoke: another iteration of the old NO GRILS ALOUD treehouse argot of hard sf — I mean, if you don't understand the holy shit significance of 11.2 Tesla you don't belong in my tree."
I can see what the man is saying here, and one side of my brain can't even disagree— I've said more than once on this crawl that I felt Blindsight was a talky book, that I wished I could have used fewer expository threads to weave theory into story. Technically Clute is complaining about the exact opposite — I don't exposit enough — but the overall problem is still one of inaccessibility. So that side of my brain can't really complain when one of the world's foremost sf critics agrees with its own misgivings.
And yet, I get the sense there's something else going on here. "Be still my heart" seems somewhat sharper than an inoffensive little sentence like "We passed Ben's Rayleigh Limit" really deserves, even if ol' John has forgotten what a Rayleigh Limit is. I've received a number of e-mails from people telling me they loved the book, even though they didn't understand all the technical terminology. After all, the characters in Master and Commander don't bother defining the nautical terminology they use, yet landlubbers enjoy that book, absorb the ambience of strange words from context, and don't complain that the author should have explained how to tie a sheepshank. This is pretty much the same thing.
The essence of Clute's criticism actually verges on a critique of marketing strategy: "The problem with all this sclerosis is that it comes close to shutting Peter Watts off from most of his potential readership", he opines, and I gotta wonder: Dude, where've you been the past couple of months? Yes, Blindsight is perhaps the most technically-dense book I've written (or maybe it ties with Maelstrom), but it's gotten buzz and raves far beyond anything my rifters trilogy ever provoked. All the evidence I've seen is that this book has significantly expanded my readership. Clute's remarks are the kind of things I would have said prerelease, back in the days before the readers weighed in.
What makes this especially weird is, if you read the whole review, Clute actually seems to kinda like the book. Take this line, for example:
"The genius of Blindsight is that it's author ... has been clever enough to build a story that demonstrates [his] case."
"...it is a sign of the pervasive toughness of Blindsight that its human readers can take pleasure in [the] message, because what the scramblers say to us in the end is, "Shut up".
"Much of the narrative pleasure of Blindsight comes from a conjoined experience of doubled discovery: as we gradually get to understand the nature of the crew ... we find ourselves simultaneously beginning to get some sense of the alien species orbiting Ben in something ... that Watts describes in terms that evoked, for me, some great, granulated, anfractous ratking of shrikes multiplied a thousandfold from the simple single shrike out of Dan Simmons's Hyperion which so goosed my midbrain."
Granted I'm not so sure about that last one, but it certainly seems positive. At least, Clute liked Simmons's single shrike goosing his midbrain, and my scramblers seemed to multiply that effect by a thousandfold granulated anfractous ratkings (and would it seem too defensive of me to remark on the irony of a sentence like that appearing in a piece that finds such fault with my use of arcane terminology? Or do you suppose the dude was being deliberately satirical?) (And by the way, all the ellipses in that quote were not intended to gloss over any negativity— by now you should know I don't surf that wave— but just to cut a lot of parentheticals that would have otherwise had you gasping for breath halfway through the uncut sentence.)
Still, there's no denying the other words: genius, he said. Narrative pleasure. Pervasive toughness. These are complimentary words, and there are a fair number of them. It's just that they're all backloaded after a front end weighed down entirely by griping about my use of geekspeak, and perhaps going a teeny bit overboard on that point.
I'm not worried about this review. The NYRSF is pretty much run out of David Hartwell's basement; I suspect more people will read about Clute's review here on the crawl than will ever lay eyes on the original article. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut — but no, it is not my way to cover up bad press (or to keep my mouth shut), and there are good blurbs to mine along with the bad. I'm just mystified a bit by the tone.
I mentioned that I met Clute once or twice. I wonder if I did something to piss him off.
January 4 2007: 365 days closer to death.
So. The New Year.
I’ve been busy, and let things slide a bit lately. Or maybe an unusual number of things happened, and caught me unawares. At any rate, there are enough developments in need of telling to warrant the use of separate headings within the course of today’s entry. So:
Strange Horizons polled assorted SF punditry for thoughts on the best books of the year. More than one of those pundits (well, okay, two) named Blindsight. Blindsight also made it onto Clarkesworld’s year-end bestseller list, barely squeaking in at #10. The Clarkesworld list is hardly a barometer of the Big Picture: they’re a specialty store, and they’re passionate about their favorites (which they seem to pimp to everyone straying within ten kilometers of their storefront). So a lot of their bestsellers, Blindsight probably among them, don’t show up on anyone else’s lists. Still. Not a bad showing for a book that wasn’t released until October, and which wasn’t even available for much of that month.
Blindsight also made the last-of-the best on Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, again barely making the grade at #10. And yet I am still pleased, because Blindsight is a hard-sf book and by rights shouldn’t even be in the running on a list explicitly tilted towards fantasy. Besides, Pat also gave a nod to my Hugo chances and even bestowed an Honorable Mention onto the interview I did with him. (And no, this new-found upbeatedness does not reflect my attempt to adhere to some lame-ass New Year’s resolution. It just happens to be justified by these particular facts, is all.)
And here’s a neat little party favor by way of my coauthor Derryl Murphy: turns out that “Mayfly”, the story we collaborated on, is on the syllabus for "Science Fiction, Technology, and Society", a course being taught out of Rutgers University. Which I guess by definition makes it “literature”.
My bad. Chimps good.
An eagle-eyed expert has pointed out a mistake in Blindsight’s “Notes and References”. I cite a paper reporting that only half of your average chimps (or at least, half of those tested) prove capable of self-recognition in mirrors. Unfortunately I cited the wrong paper, I cited Povinelli 1993. I should have cited Gallup 1997. I’ve gone back and fixed that in all the digital versions on this site, not to mention a fair number of typos that various folks have reported — mainly for Blindsight, but a few for Starfish as well, so it’s nice to see that people are spreading out and reading the rest of the backlist. Thanks to Carlos Yu for finding the error, and Doug Muir for passing it on. Thanks also to Patrick van Aalst, Garnet McKeen, Craig Moynes, Allen Rouse, and Kevin Tan for catching the typos. All fixed now.
The Opposite of Robbery
People are demanding that I set up a Paypal account so they can give me money. I never set one up before because, people who want to pay for something they already got for free? Never gonna happen, I thought — so if I set up an account I’m basically a pathetic beggar sitting on the side of the Information Superhighway, his cup forever empty.
But evidently not. And if people want to pay me, far be it from me to stand in their way. I don’t believe this weird burst of altruism will last much past five or six generations — after all, those who pay have less money than those who don’t, who can then put that extra cash into getting laid, which means they will leave more offspring to the next generation, ultimately driving the altruists to extinction— so I'd better take advantage before that happens. So I will, sometime soon, set up a Paypal account. I'll put the link on the Backlist page, and I'll try to keep it minimally crass.
Some have given me a choice: having already grabbed my stuff online, they're either going to pay me directly or buy a dead-tree copy of the book. They want to know which I'd prefer, and it's a tougher call than you might expect. If you go the Paypal route, you have the desirable option of paying me a great deal more than the two or three measly bucks I get out of each hardcover sale. On the other hand, direct donations, welcome as they are, don't count as "sales" as far as the publisher is concerned; a million people could send me money through Paypal and the book would still be considered a dismal failure if nobody actually bought it through official channels. And we all know how publishers treat authors whose books are classed as dismal failures. Still, the number of direct donations is most likely going to be no more than a drop in the bucket either way, so it probably doesn't matter in the long run. Do whatever you feel most comfortable doing (including, of course, not paying me at all).
But if you really want my advice, there's no reason you can't go for both options A and B: buy many copies of my book in hardcover, and send me thousands of dollar via paypal. Hard to see the downside in that.
Pursuant to the whole install-Paypal thing, I'm hearing increasingly loud grumbles from the pit that I should drag my sorry ass into the 21rst century and equip this 'crawl with an RSS feed. I haven't looked into those mechanics yet — in my ignorance I suspect that it'll be tougher to do here than it would be if I was on a real blog — but fine. I'll do that too, when I have time. And I'll also finish the Blindsight wing, and euthenise Dubya and Benedict, refreeze the ice caps, and bring about world peace while I'm at it. When I have the time.
In the meantime, let the upgraded typo-free backlist and the new quotes on the splash page serve as a down payment on future improvements.
How I made John Clute feel like a girl.