The Perfect Gift for Someone You Don’t Like Very Much.

 

How time flies.

Peter Watts is an Angry Sentient Tumor is on the verge of release— Nov 12 according to official schedules, but if past experience is anything to go on it could be on bookstore shelves before then. (It could be on bookstore shelves now for all I know. Assuming there are any bookstore shelves any more. I don’t get out much these days.)  In any event, I’ll either be in Bulgaria or recovering therefrom when that happens, so I might as well post this now.

Another good reason to post is because Tumor just got a starred review in Booklist, which I reproduce in full because it is so packed-to-the-gills with praise that cutting any of it would be a crime against Nature:

“Former marine biologist and Hugo Award–winning sf author Watts has collected over 50 essays from his blog, Crawl, and other sources from as far back as 2004. His writing is irreverent, self-depreciating, profane, and funny, showcasing a Hunter S. Thompson–esque studied rage and dissatisfaction with the status quo combined with the readability and humor of John Scalzi. These thought-provoking essays rail against hypocrisy, question the usefulness of consciousness, and explore counterrhetorical biases and how they impact our society. With intellectual rigor, clarity, and dark humor, Watts covers subjects as widely divergent as holidays, law enforcement and surveillance, homelessness, and the intersection of science and sf in the study of dolphin language. His film criticism covers J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies, Blade Runner 2049, and the fallacy of oppression in the X-Men franchise. He shares personal stories, too: a life-threatening illness, the death of his brother. This collection of well-written essays has actual science backing up most of Watts’ opinions about politics and humanity. Give it to readers looking for a deep dive into privacy, antirhetorical biases, and other sociological issues.”

I could nitpick if I had to, of course. This blog is not called Crawl but The ‘Crawl (short for “newscrawl”). “Self-depreciating”, while probably accurate, is also probably a mistake (although not so egregious as that made by one of The BUG’s ex-boyfriends when— eager to impress during the initial stages of courtship— he proclaimed unto her that he was “self-defecating”). (That was probably accurate too, now that I think of it.) The fusion of Hunter S. Thompson with John Scalzi brings to mind some kind of Cronenbergian Brundlefly teleportation accident. But not even I can find fault with “intellectual rigor, clarity, and dark humor”. In fact, if the book is this damn good, you gotta wonder why Tachyon could only find one person willing to blurb it up front.

None of this will come as any surprise to you regulars. You’ll have read a lot of Tumor right here on the ‘crawl over the years (although I bet you  haven’t read all of it, because a lot of it hails from other sources as well). You’ll have to judge for yourselves whether the various B-sides and arcana you haven’t read justify the price of purchase— although I should highlight the awesome little bits of iconography, courtesy of one John Coulthart, that illustrate each of the “over fifty” essays (51, actually— they could have just said that). You can see a few of those just to the right. (I might also add that even if you have read all the content before, this might make the perfect Christmas gift for people you don’t like very much.)

In all honestly, it really is a nice little package. The cover design and internal layout are a delight (and I say this as someone notorious for speaking out when I don’t like the design). If you happen to wander in to the official launch at Bakka-Phoenix during the afternoon of Nov 16th— and if you ask nicely— I could sign one for you.

Hell, if you happen to be in Sofia on Sunday the 10th, I could even sign it before then.

 

Posted in: On the Road, public interface, reviews by Peter Watts 9 Comments

Transitioning to Apocalypse

 

Meghan Murphy, a radical feminist in the classic Second-Wave mold (that’s TERF to you kids), gave a talk to a packed house at the Toronto Public Library last night. She got a standing ovation inside and hundreds of shouting protesters outside.

I’m giving a talk tomorrow at a different TPL branch, to a smaller (possibly nonexistent) audience— on our current environmental catastrophe, the hardwired impulses that have led to it, and a couple of wildly-speculative thoughts on how we might hack Human Nature to try and fix things. Because my talk is being hosted by the same institution that hosted Murphy’s, my co-sponsors— the Black Museum— backed out of the event just this morning, citing “backlash”. At least one fellow Multiverse presenter has relocated their event to another venue. It’s possible that others will cancel entirely.

I am not among them.

The weird thing is, I actually think Meghan Murphy is wrong.

I’ll grant you I’m not entirely sure of the approved definitions. I’ve read that, in trans circles, the word “woman” is now utterly divorced from anatomy, genes, and hormones: that if someone simply states that they identify as a woman then they are one to all intents and purposes. If that’s the case I can certainly see why there’d be concerns about such a person competing professionally in “women’s athletics”— but then I’ve always regarded competitive athletics as faintly bogus anyway, no hill to die on. As for the who gets to use which washroom, I think Murphy’s dead wrong— and in any event the whole issue evaporates if you just make all public washrooms gender-neutral.

But as to the question of whether “trans” woman are “real” women? What does that even mean? Call yourself whatever you like, identify however you please; as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or have an adverse environmental impact, go wild. It’s not science (at least, not until self-identification can be tagged to consistent and objectively observable physical correlates)— but it doesn’t have to be. Ideological construct, political self-model, whatever. It’s a big tent; there should be room for us all.

So I think Murphy’s wrong, mostly. But having read a number of her columns, having read third-party analyses of her positions, having watched interviews in which she’s been explicitly called out for her opinions on trans rights— I don’t think she’s guilty of hate speech. Not even close.

If someone told my Dad that he should be chucked off a bridge because he was gay— that’s hate. But if someone told my Dad that he wasn’t gay, that there was no such thing as gayness and he was just, I dunno, confused— that isn’t. It’s wrong. It’s bizarrely wrong. But it isn’t hate speech. That’s where I see Murphy.

Of course I’m aware of the immediate rejoinders:  the appalling violence and discrimination faced by trans folks, the exclusionary politics which help to fuel it. But I haven’t found any evidence of Murphy advocating for trans folk to be beaten, or fired, or evicted from their homes. She has explicitly repudiated such abuses, in fact. (Compare this to a seemingly-endless stream of Twitter comments explicitly wishing Murphy dead; you want hate speech, you can always count on the Twits.)

I don’t pretend there’s no connection between speech and actions, even actions committed by someone else— any more than can I pretend there’s no connection between the Eugenics movement and Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. One fed off the other, to horrific effect. I’m still not going to advocate for shutting down anyone who wants to give a talk on evolution, even if I think their take on it is bonkers. (Unless they are a self-declared member of the Eugenics movement, which gets us back into hate speech territory.)

Of course, my take on free speech might be more extreme than most. If you look, you can still find someone on this very blog fantasizing (if you squint a little you might even say threatening) about ripping off my genitals with a rusty meathook. I let that pass. Back in the days of Squidgate some of the most virulent Lock-Him-Up voices were largely restricted to posting on this ‘crawl because they’d been banned everywhere else. I suspect I value free speech more than most would consider prudent.

But in this case it’s not just me. You can be damn sure the TPL had their legal counsel go over the Murphy thing with a microscope— they knew what was coming— and they decided to let it proceed. My understanding is that the board’s vote was unanimous, even in the face of massive and virulent opposition. Toronto’s chief librarian remains steadfast that the whole point of Free Speech legislation is to protect that which people find offensive; there’s no need to protect words nobody objects to. You don’t get to say Sure, Free Speech is great but I really don’t like what that person over there is saying so it doesn’t apply to them.

I think Murphy is wrong. But I support the TPL’s decision.

It’s gonna cost me. I’m generally not much on tub-thumping so I haven’t pimped my own talk at all,  beyond passing mention in a month-old blog post about the whole “Seeding Utopia” series. It was going to be a small audience at best. Now the Black Museum has caved, so whatever promotion they were contemplating has passed to the winds; and the whole library boycott thing will probably take care of whatever weedy remnants were still planning to attend. I may well end up talking to an empty room.

Which is a shame, because just yesterday Nature published a paper reporting that flooding and sea-level rise due to Climate Change is actually triple what we thought it was. Tribal identity politics are not to be trifled with (they are, in fact, part of the wiring that got us into this mess) but our fucking house is on fire. Maybe we should spend a little more time talking about that.

Posted in: public interface, scilitics by Peter Watts 36 Comments

Smarter Than TED.

(A Nowa Fantastyka remix)

If you’ve been following along on the ‘crawl for any length of time, you  may remember that a few months back, a guy from Lawrence Livermore trained a neural net on Blindsight and told it to start a sequel. The results were— disquieting. The AI wrote a lot like I did: same rhythm, same use of florid analogies, same Socratic dialogs about brain function. A lot of it didn’t make sense but it certainly seemed to, especially if you were skimming. If you weren’t familiar with the source material— if, for example, you didn’t know that “the shuttle” wouldn’t fit into “the spine”— a lot of it would pass muster.

This kind of AI is purely correlational. You train it on millions of words written in the style you want it to emulate— news stories, high fantasy, reddit posts1— then feed it a sentence or two. Based on what it’s read, it predicts the words most likely to follow: adds them to the string, uses the modified text to predict the words likely to follow that, and so on. There’s no comprehension. It’s the textbook example of a Chinese Room, all style over substance— but that style can be so convincing that it’s raised serious concerns about the manipulation of online dialog. (OpenAI have opted to release only a crippled version of their famous GPT2 textbot, for fear that the fully-functional version would be used to produce undetectable and pernicious deepfakes.  I think that’s a mistake, personally; it’s only a matter of time before someone else develops something equally or more powerful,2 so we might as well get the fucker out there to give people a chance to develop countermeasures.)

This has inevitably led to all sorts of online discourse about how one might filter out such fake content. That in turn has led to claims which I, of all people, should not have been so startled to read: that there may be no way to filter bot-generated from human-generated text because a lot of the time, conversing Humans are nothing more than Chinese rooms themselves.

Start with Sara Constantin’s claim that “Humans who are not concentrating are not General Intelligences“. She argues that skimming readers are liable to miss obvious absurdities in content—that stylistic consistency is enough to pass superficial muster, and superficiality is what most of us default to much of the time. (This reminds me of the argument that conformity is a survival trait in social species like ours, which is why—for example—your statistical skills decline when the correct solution to a stats problem would contradict tribal dogma. The point is not to understand input—that might very well be counterproductive. The goal is to parrot that input, to reinforce community standards.)

Move on to Robin Hanson’s concept of “babbling“, speech based on low-order correlations between phrases and sentences— exactly what textbots are proficient at. According to Hanson, babbling “isn’t meaningless”, but “often appears to be based on a deeper understanding than is actually the case”; it’s “sufficient to capture most polite conversation talk, such as the weather is nice, how is your mother’s illness, and damn that other political party”. He also sticks most TED talks into this category, as well as many of the undergraduate essays he’s forced to read (Hansen is a university professor). Again, this makes eminent sense to me: a typical student’s goal is not to acquire insight but to pass the exam. She’s been to class (to some of them, anyway), she knows what words and phrases the guy at the front of the class keeps using. All she has to do is figure out how to rearrange those words in a way that gets a pass.3

So it may be impossible to distinguish between people and bots not because the bots have grown as smart as people, but because much of the time, people are as dumb as bots. I don’t really share in the resultant pearl-clutching over how to exclude one while retaining the other— why not filter all bot-like discourse, regardless of origin?— but imagine the outcry if people were told they had to actually think, to demonstrate actual comprehension, before they could exercise their right of free speech. When you get right down to it, do bot-generated remarks about four-horned unicorns make any less sense than real-world protest signs saying “Get your government hands off my medicare“?

But screw all that. Let the pundits angst over how to draw their lines in some way that maintains a facile pretense of Human uniqueness. I see a silver lining, a ready-made role for textbots even in their current unfinished state: non-player characters in video games.

There. Isn’t that better?

I mean, I love Bethesda as much as the next guy, but how many passing strangers can rattle off the same line about taking an arrow to the knee before it gets old? Limited dialog options are the bane of true immersion for any game with speaking parts; we put up with it because there’s a limit to the amount of small talk you can pay a voice actor to record. But small talk is what textbots excel at, they generate it on the fly; you could wander Nilfgaard or Night City for years and never hear the same sentence twice. The extras you encountered would speak naturally, unpredictably, as fluidly as anyone you’d pass on the street in meatspace.  (And, since the bot behind them would have been trained exclusively on an in-game vocabulary, there’d be no chance of it going off the rails with random references to Donald Trump.)

Of course we’re talking about generating text here, not speech; you’d be cutting voice actors out of this particular loop, reserving them for meatier roles that convey useful information. But text-to-speech generation is getting better all the time. I’ve heard some synthetic voices that sound more real than any politician I’ve ever seen.

As it happens, I’m back in the video game racket myself these days, working on a project with a company out of Tel Aviv. I can’t tell you much except that it’s cyberpunk, it’s VR, and— if it goes like every other game gig I’ve had for the past twenty years— it will crash and burn before ever getting to market. But these folk are sharp, and ambitious, and used to pushing envelopes. When I broached the subject, they told me that bot-generated dialog was only one of the things they’d been itching to try.

Sadly, they also told me that they couldn’t scratch all those itches; there’s a limit to the number of technological peaks you can scale at any given time. So I’m not counting on anything. Still, as long as there’s a chance I’ll be there, nagging with all the gentle relentless force of a starfish prying open a clam. If I do not succeed, others will. At some point, sooner rather than later, bit players in video games will be at least as smart as the people who give TED talks.

I just wish that were more of an accomplishment.


1 There’s a subreddit populated only by bots who’ve been trained on other subreddits. It’s a glorious and scary place.

2 Someone already has, more or less, although they too have opted not to release it.

3 I am also reminded of Robert Hare’s observation that sociopaths tend to think in smaller “conceptual units” than neurotypicals— in terms of phrases, for example, rather than complete sentences. It gives them very fast semantic reflexes, so they sound glib and compelling and can turn on a dime if cornered; but they are given to malaprompims, and statements that tend to self-contradiction at higher levels.

Not that I would ever say that university students are sociopaths, of course.

Posted in: AI/robotics, ink on art by Peter Watts 20 Comments

Seeding Utopia. Like, Today.

Hey, Torontonians:

The official “Seeding Utopia, Fighting Dystopia” series poster, by Annette Nedilenka.

There’s this local thing I’m a part of: “The Multiversity Collective” (which might not strike some of you as the coolest name on the block, until you learn that we narrowly avoided being called “Multiversity Our Strength”). Remember that “Toronto 2033” book that came out from Spacing a while back? That was the the Collective’s public debut, under the leadership of local Renaissance Dude Jim Munroe.

Well, we’re at it again: the Collective’s sophomore effort is “Seeding Utopias and Resisting Dystopias“, a series of workshops, demos, and lectures starting this—

Oh crap.

I thought it was starting on the 26th. I’ve just visited the website and discovered it’s starting tonight at 6pm, i.e., about two hours from the time I’m typing this (and significantly less counting from the time this post goes live). And in fact, Jim has managed to wangle some names much bigger than any of us actual Collective members: Cory Doctorow, for one, who is kicking things off mere minutes from now at the Oakwood Village Library and Arts Centre.

Sorry about that.

All is not lost, however. If I’ve given you unforgivably short notice about Cory, here’s a heads-up weeks in advance for the appearance of one Charlie Jane Anders, appearing at the same location on October 17. In fact, the series includes a solid dozen events stretching all the way into December and ending with my buddy Karl Schroeder on the 5th.

Head over to the Multiversity Collective Home Page for all the gory details. Here’s the executive summary:

  • Sep 23 2019: Seeding Utopias & Resisting Dystopias Launch with Cory Doctorow, Jim Munro, and Madeline Ashby (again, sorry).
  • Sep 26. Create Your Own Sci-Fi Podcast Show with Maggie MacDonald [Workshop]
  • Oct 3 2019 BIPOC Utopian Dreams with Zainab Amadahy [Workshop]
  • Oct 10 2019 Science Fiction from Elsewhere with Paul Hong [Discussion]
  • Oct 17 2019 Never Say You Can’t Survive with Charlie Jane Anders [Talk/Reading]
  • Oct 24 2019 Time Capsule: A Writing Workshop with Elyse Friedman [Workshop]
  • Oct 31 2019 Horrific Ways to Save the World with Peter Watts [Talk]
  • Nov 7 2019 Apocalypse Prepping Workshop with Kristyn Dunnion [Workshop]
  • Nov 14 2019 Whorestories: Sci-Fi Futures Edition [Performance]
  • Nov 21 2019 Sky Lab Revolution with Hillary Predko and Lee Wilkins [Discussion]
  • Nov 28 2019 Everyone Makes Choices: Creating Choice-Driven Games to Re-Imagine our Civic Future with Tanya Kan [Workshop]
  • Dec 5 2019 Scaling to Fit: Making Art in the Anthropocene with Karl Schroeder [Talk]

All events start at 6p.m. All events are free of charge. All events take place at the OVLAC. (I would also like to point out that all events except tonight’s take place on a Thursday, so maybe my screwing up isn’t unforgivable after all.)

Jim’s slotted my appearance in for Hallowe’en, which is not entirely accidental. I suspect I might be the least Utopia-seeding-minded participant on the roster, so it only makes sense that I appear in the context of mass death and resurrected corpses. If you happen to be in the area, drop in.

Hell, drop in on all these events. You’re bound to find something that reaches you.  As you can tell from the roster, it’s a pretty diverse collection of topics. What else would you expect with a name like ours?

Oh, and about a week later I’m going to be in Bulgaria again. Details to follow.

Debunking the Debunkers: Free Will on Appeal.

Not a bad visual metaphor for the credibility of Gholipour’s argument, now that I think of it…

If you read The Atlantic, you may have heard the news: A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked! Libet’s classic eighties experiments, the first neurological spike in the Autonomist’s coffin, has been misinterpreted for decades! Myriad subsequent studies have been founded on a faulty and untested assumption, the whole edifice is a house of cards on a foundation of shifting sand. What’s more, Big Neuro has known about it for years! They just haven’t told you: Free Will is back on the table!

Take that, Determinists.

Three or four times, tops.

You can be damn sure the link has shown up in my in box more than once (although I haven’t been as inundated as some people seem to think). But having read Gholipour’s article— and having gone back and read the 2012 paper he bases it on— I gotta say Not so fast, buddy.

A quick summary for those at the back: during the eighties a dude named Benjamin Libet published research showing that the conscious decision to move one’s finger was always preceded by a nonconscious burst of brain activity (“Reaction Potential”, or RP) starting up to half a second before. The conclusion seemed obvious: the brain was already booting up to move before the conscious self “decided” to move, so that conscious decision was no decision at all. It was more like a memo, delivered after the fact by the guys down in Engineering, which the pointy-haired boss upstairs— a half-second late and a dollar short— took credit for. Something that comes after cannot dictate something that came before.

Therefore, Free Will— or more precisely, Conscious Will—  is an illusion.

In the years since, pretty much every study following in Libet’s footsteps not only conformed his findings but extended them. Soon et al reported lags of 7-10 seconds back in 2008, putting Libet’s measly half-second to shame. PopSci books started appearing with titles like The Illusion of Conscious Will. Carl Zimmer wrote a piece for Discover in which he reported that “a small but growing number of re­searchers are challenging some of the more extreme arguments supporting the primacy of the inner zombie”; suddenly, people who advocated for Free Will were no more than a plucky minority, standing up to Conventional Wisdom.

Until— according to Gholipour— a groundbreaking 2012 study by Schurger et al kicked the legs out from under the whole paradigm.

I’ve read that paper. I don’t think it means what he thinks it means.

It’s not that I find any great fault with the research itself. It actually seems like a pretty solid piece of work. Schurger and his colleagues questioned an assumption implicit in the work of Libet and his successors: that Reaction Potential does, in fact, reflect a deliberate decision prior to awareness. Sure, Schurger et al admitted, RP always precedes movement—  but what if that’s coincidence? What if RPs are firing off all the time, but no one noticed all the ones that weren’t associated with voluntary movement because nobody was looking for them? Libet’s subjects were told to move their finger whenever they wanted, without regard to any external stimulus; suppose initiation of that movement happens whenever the system crosses a particular threshold, and these random RPs boost the signal almost but not quite to that threshold so it takes less to tip it over the edge? Suppose that RPs don’t indicate a formal decision to move, but just a primed state where the decision is more likely to happen because the system’s already been boosted?

They put that supposition to the test. Suffice to say, without getting bogged down in methodological details (again, check the paper if you’re interested), it really paid off. So, cool. Looks like we have to re-evaluate the functional significance of Reaction Potential.

Does it “debunk” arguments against free will? Not even close.

What Schurger et al have done is replace a deterministic precursor with a stochastic one: whereas Libet Classic told us that the finger moved because it was following the directions of a flowchart, Libet Revisited says that it comes down to a dice roll. Decisions based on dice rolls aren’t any “freer” than those based on decision trees; they’re simply less predictable. And in both cases, the activity occurs prior to conscious involvement.

So Gholipour’s hopeful and strident claim holds no water. A classic argument against free will has not been debunked; rather, one example in support of that argument has been misinterpreted.

There’s a more fundamental problem here, though: the whole damn issue has been framed backwards. Free will is always being regarded as the Null Hypothesis; the onus is traditionally on researchers to disprove its existence. That’s not consistent with what we know about how brains work. As far as we know, everything in there is a function of neuroactivity: logic, emotion, perception, all result from the firing of neurons, and that only happens when input strength exceeds action potential. Will and perception do not cause the firing of neurons; they result from it. By definition, everything we are conscious of  has to be preceded by neuronal activity that we are not conscious of. That’s just cause/effect. That’s physics.

Advocates of free will are claiming— based mainly on a subjective feeling of agency that carries no evidentiary weight whatsoever— that effect precedes cause (or that the very least, that they occur simultaneously). Given the violence this does to everything we understand about reality, it seems to me that “No Free Will” should be the Null Hypothesis. The onus should be on the Free Willians to prove otherwise.

If Gholipour is anything to go on, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 23 Comments

The Senior Emissary from Moo.

She hated me on sight. I don’t know why. Her compatriot, Nutmeg, was a furry little slut who climbed into my lap the moment we met and wouldn’t stop talking (still hasn’t, actually). But Minion— back in the early days, Minion would hurtle towards the front door at the sound of someone entering the house (obviously assuming that her beloved mom was home at last) only to slam on the brakes at the sight of me. It was like something out of a Warner Brothers cartoon. She would screech to a halt and give me a glare of pure green hatred— You!— before turning and heading back downstairs.

I hardly ever saw her those first weeks. Neither did Caitlin, for that matter: Minion, ever-loathing of the intruder, basically retreated to the basement and would not come out while I was around. I swear, I did nothing at all to piss her off.

Eventually, she relented. The BUG nudged me awake early one morning to see Minion creeping ever-so-slowly onto the bed between us. I remember my bladder filling, my back increasingly stiff as I lay there like a statue, loathe to move lest I fuck up this tiny bit of progress and startle her back down the stairs again. She basically got me to torture myself for an hour by the simple act of of snoozing at my side.

Looking back, of course, she knew exactly what she was doing. That cat was a fucking genius.

She was unremarkable to look at: your standard subcompact tuxedo, who always looked perfectly dignified and not a little reserved whether imitating a loaf of bread or a table lamp. (She did, admittedly, look like a complete goof when drinking water from the bathroom sink.) But she was smart: you could see her sizing up every room, every situation, before stepping into it. She was one of only two cats I ever knew who figured out the Sliding Window Principle on her own; the only cat who kept that discovery to herself.

We’ll never know how long she was sneaking out to explore the world while we innocently continued regarding her as an Indoor Cat; she would make her clandestine exit after we’d gone to sleep and return before the alarm went off in the morning. Sure, I could’ve sworn I’d closed the window the night before, but the BUG was always going on about fresh air; she must have slid it back during the night. Clearly none of the cats were getting out; they were all present and accounted for every morning (and it’s not like a slip-of-a-thing like Minion would be able to leap the eight feet from patio to windowsill anyway). The BUG and I were so oblivious we thought we were sharing the same dream, thought we were psychically bonded through Love: Honey, I dreamt that Minion was coming in from outside— Really? I had the exact same dream!

It wasn’t until we noticed the muddy paw prints all over our sheets after a rainy night that the truth finally sank in. By then, Minion was already Mistress of the Ravine— and once she knew we knew, she dropped the pretense. She started going outside during the day, spent her evenings sleeping with us.

She was a bit of a dictator about that. She would stand on the headboard, staring at us until we flipped over on our backs and pulled up the sheets[1]. Then she’d step down and try each of us on for size, pipping each chest, bonking each face, walking back and forth and finally settling on whichever thorax she wanted to use as her mattress that night. And while she generally selected The BUG and me with equal frequency, I could not help but notice that when she slept on the BUG she would stretch out across her shoulder, cheek to cheek, purring happily. When she chose me, she would usually turn the other way around and I’d end up spending the night with Minion’s butt in my face.

Caitlin kept calling her a “Moo”, which I’m given to understand is a habit endemic to people with a background in the Humanities (and which at least was consistent with her insistence on calling the household rabbit a “Boo”). As an empiricist with a strong scientific background, I could not let such mushy cutesiness stand. If the BUG insisted on using the term, it would fucking well mean something. Which is how “Minny Moo” became “Min of Moo”— or more formally, “The Senior Emissary From Moo.”[2]

She was master of the proportional response. If, for example, you were to mime the use of her nose as a button on a NORAD missile-control panel, she would first meep her objection. If that didn’t work she would nip, but gently: Seriously, Can Opener, you do not want to continue down this road. Only if both those warnings went unheeded would she resort to the nuclear option— at which point you would find yourself walking gingerly around the house with a cat balled around your hand, anchored to your flesh by four sets of claws and a mouthful of teeth. And you would not be able to claim you hadn’t asked for it.

She was impervious to rain. She would rejoice in the snow. She’d freeze our asses off at 3a.m. in the dead of winter, hopping onto the sill above our bed, hooking her paw around the edge of the windowframe, leaning into it with her shoulder and pulling until it was open far enough to leap away into the night. Frigid air would cascade into the room and I’d reach up and pull the window shut and growl That’s it, she’s out for the night and the BUG would say She is not and sure enough, 5 minutes or two hours later, Minion would be back on the windowsill knocking (no gentle paw-tap here— the previous owner had installed a metal security grid across the window, secured with a padlock that Minion had learned to bat to get our attention). I would heroically try to ignore the incessant clacking of metal on glass but eventually I’d give in or the BUG, exasperated, would climb over me and open the window and Minion would nonchalantly hop back inside and do whatever cat things she did at 3:30 in the morning until deciding she wanted to go out again.

She stalked the night. She prowled the day. She ruled the roost. (She was, admittedly, kind of a bitch to Swiffer.) She somehow managed to be both the most aloof of our cats and the most affectionate. There was a nobility to her. It was not enough to merely love this cat: you had to admire her.

It was Caitlin who first noticed, of course. After we came back from Tel Aviv: something different about Minion. She wasn’t sleeping in the sock drawer any more. She was a little more— withdrawn, somehow. We took her in and the blood work came back— kidney disease, stage 3; then Stage 4, just a few weeks later. Weeks, the vet told us over the phone, and I didn’t believe her, and we looked up the literature and the literature said weeks and I still didn’t believe it. I’d lost a cat to kidney disease years before, you see— but not without a fight. Special diet, sub-q fluids, and you could buy a whole year of high-quality life, easy. I’d seen it. I’d done it. Fuck your median survival 35 days post-diagnosis.

So we stocked up on Ringer’s Lactate and k/d diet. The BUG and the Meez learned how to tent the skin between shoulder blades, slide the needle into that gap between skin and muscle, feel the hump of saline growing under the fur once a day, then twice. Minion bore it all stoically, even when we fucked up, even when we had to stab two or three times to get it right.

Thirty-five days came and went and we cheered. But Minion was— disappearing, piecemeal. She slept on our chests. Then she slept on the bed. Then she slept outside. She receded from us in concentric increments as the disease ran its course.

All those behaviors so uniquely hers, that suite of Minionisms that made up her interface with the world. She stopped leaping onto the ledge ringing our porch pillars; stopped leaping onto the windowsill. She stopped racing to the bathroom whenever anyone went for a pee. That high-speed patter of paws, the leap onto the sink, the steady demanding stare until you cranked the faucet just enough to let her lap from the stream: inevitable, then intermittent, then a memory. Her appetite faded. Where once she’d line up with everyone else for brekky and dins and elevensies, now we’d seek her out in the garden or the ravine, tempt her with tuna when she turned her nose up at the k/d, try her on IAMS when the tuna lost its appeal, on salmon when she turned her back on IAMS. She was spending almost all her time outside now, she built little nests and hideouts to curl up in: in the back garden, in the tall grass by the oak out front, in the copse across the fence or under the hostas our neighbors had planted in their guerrilla garden on city lands.

She diminished. At first you’d just notice the shoulder blades sticking out like they never had before; then you’d scoop her up and she was light as twigs. Once or twice she’d go a whole day barely eating anything, barely even present in our lives. We’d brace ourselves and fear the worst (and I would rage inwardly because I’d been here before for fucksake and it wasn’t supposed to go like this. She was supposed to get better, we were supposed to get a few more months at least, a year or more, not these short fucking days. Not just days).  And then things would seem to turn around: Minion would jump up on the patio table and purr and bonk and eat half a tin of k/d in ten minutes, snarf a divot right down to bedrock. (And my gut would unclench because the trajectory had finally bent back in the right direction, and the reprieve was on again.)

“It’s like she’s pissed off,” the Meez said. “Like she knows she’s sick and she refuses to give in and she’s going to keep doing what she’s always done no matter what.”

Caitlin and I had a wedding to attend last week, out in Vancouver. Right up to the last day we weren’t sure we were going to make it. We’d warned the happy couple that our beloved Minion was ill and we might have to jam on the celebrations. But the day before departure we saw her rolling in the ravine, stretched out in all her bony glory and squirming in the way of cats doing their sun-worshiping thing. She accepted our scritches with hedonistic purrs. “This is a quality-of-life moment,” Caitlin told me. “If this is the last time we see her, it will be a good memory.” And I thought What do you mean, the last time? She’s happy, she’s eating, we’re only gone for a few days. I swear she’s even gained back some weight.

Sure enough, when we arrived in Vancouver, Emma had good news: Minion had hung out downstairs with them. She’d eaten “with enthusiasm!”. She’d even leapt up onto the porch pillar, something she hadn’t done for weeks.

Twelve hours later she was dead.

We know when, almost to the minute. Emma couldn’t find her in the morning; she checked all the places we’d mapped out— at 6a.m., again at 9—  and found them empty. But Minion reappeared sometime before noon, curled up in our back garden; she’d stayed away, stayed hidden, until just before she died. Then she came back to that first little retreat she’d made for herself all that time ago, and she curled up in the sun and closed her eyes. She twitched, just once, when Emma found her and picked her up. Then she was gone.

Emma’s dad came over and dug the grave, in that same spot. The in-laws and Emma’s partner arrived for the burial; the BUG and I Skyped in from the coast, watched through chunky low-bandwidth video as they laid to rest something wrapped in a towel. They poured a little half’n’half into the hole, a ritual we’ve observed ever since Banana died seven years ago. All the while I couldn’t stop thinking: it was like she’d planned it.

And that’s the irony of all this. It was the best way Minion could have ended. She didn’t die on some veterinarian’s table, surrounded by disinfectant smells and strange noises, pumped full of lethal chemicals. She didn’t starve to death; she was skinny and emaciated but she never stopped eating, never had any trouble keeping her food down, never spent horrible days or weeks unable to eat or move or take any pleasure from life. The last time we saw her— less than 24 hours before she died— she was happy, I swear it. When she’d had enough, she took herself off to some unmapped spot where she could be alone— and at the very end she came back home to die in the sun. I’ve lost a lot of cats over the years. This was the best death of the lot, by a long shot.

So why does that make it worse, somehow?

Maybe because it implies a kind of awareness that I wouldn’t wish on any dying creature. It’s so hard not to project, not to anthropomorphize; who knows what goes on even in another Human mind, let alone a being of an entirely separate species? But she was a being, no more a machine than any of us. And a cat strong enough to snarf, socialize, leap six times her body height in the evening shouldn’t be weak enough to die twelve hours later. Maybe she pushed herself, maybe she knew she was under deadline and she had a list: spend quality time, say goodbye, ensure you won’t be disturbed by well-intentioned but pointless harassment and indignity. Finally, when there’s nothing else to do, come home to your favorite spot to die.

I don’t pretend to know how much abstraction these creatures are capable of. There’s no end of experts who’ll smugly assure you that “animals” cannot contemplate their own mortality, although none to my knowledge have ever explained  how they could possibly know that (and it’s been eight years since a different cadre of prominent neuroscientists opined that everything from parrots to octopi experience “near-human levels of consciousness”). All I can say is, it’s as if Minion knew something was coming, and chose to handle it her way. She controlled her narrative, as Caitlin put it. And if she was capable of such foresight, then the dissolution of that bright little soul is an even greater loss.

She took no shit from anyone. Even dying, she was defiant in her love of life. She handled her own death better than I probably will, when the time comes. She was the very incarnation of Michael Joseph’s observation: a cat’s friendship is not easily won, but is worth having. Now she’s gone away.

They always go away. You’d think I’d be used to that by now.

Drawing up plans.

I think at this point she was starting to learn to close windows as well as open them.

The BUG gets Shoulder Cat. I get Butt-in-Face.

The Senior and Junior Emissaries from Moo.

Diplomacy was especially difficult when dealing with prey species who would fucking end you if you crossed them.

In her element.

Tell me that isn’t a relationship based on mutual respect and affection. I dare you.

Dignity under the most challenging circumstances.

Some times dignity was tougher to pull off than at others.

Well? What are you waiting for?

Half’n’half. On her Exclusive h&h delivery platform. On demand.

The Meez and The Min.

Two of the most beloved mammals in my world.

Declining. Dying. Defiant.

 

[1] There always had to be sheets, or at clothing involved. She would never settle on naked skin. To this day I don’t know what  made her such a prude.

[2] Due to the Law of Alliteration, Meggles was also “of Moo”, necessitating a ranking of emmisariness.

Posted in: eulogy by Peter Watts 28 Comments

The Oxymoronic Earth

(A Nowa Fantastyka remix)

Lers of Spoi.

You Have Been Warned.

 

Either a publicity still or the cover for a Christian rock album.

“The Wandering Earth” is the most successful movie I almost never heard of. It’s China’s second-highest grossing movie ever. Globally it’s the 3rd-highest grossing film so far this year, and the 2nd-highest grossing non-English movie of all time. Yet I blinked and missed its theatrical run here in Toronto; a couple of weeks, a couple of theaters, and it was gone. Pretty shoddy treatment for a movie based on a Cixin Liu story.

Netflix recently slipped it into their lineup with nary a whisper. That’s where I saw it— and after two viewings I can report that “The Wandering Earth” is one of the most derivative movies I’ve ever seen. It’s also unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

I’m still working out how it manages to be both those things at once.

The derivative parts hit you in the face from the opening frame: In terms of sheer epic scale, this movie out-Hollywoods Hollywood. Humanity discovers the sun is about to turn into a red giant and retrofits the entire planet into a vast interstellar spaceship. Ten thousand Everest-sized fusion rockets kick Earth out of orbit and onto course for Alpha Centauri. And all this happens during the opening credits. It’s as if Emmerich and Bruckheimer and Cameron all got into a pissing match to see who could up the stakes fastest.

The characters are also pure Hollywood, stock cut-outs recruited from Central Casting. Plucky young protagonists, check. Obnoxious comic-relief sidekick, check. Wise self-sacrificing father figure, check. No-nonsense soldiers with their eyes on the mission but hearts in the right place, check. All that’s missing is a cute pet dog to run off and force the adults into danger when they try to rescue it.

There’s surprisingly little interpersonal drama. Even other movies which star Nature as Antagonist[1] usually spend some time on the social unrest provoked by imminent catastrophe: the rioting and martial law, the choice of who lives and who dies, the looters and cheaters and altruists who give up their spot so others might live. None of that seems to happen here; those chosen to survive go underground and everyone else apparently just waits outside to die. Nobody rebels, nobody panics (or if they do, it’s not mentioned). Everyone accepts their fate. The conflict we do see is trivial stuff, teenage rebellion or parental scolding designed to get our heroes topside before all the shit goes down.

It’s a heartening, noble view of Human Nature. It’s also exactly the kind of perspective that a totalitarian regime would want to show its citizens. Respect authority. Never question. Do as you’re told, no matter the price. (Time travel stories are illegal in China, did you know that? Can’t have people thinking about alternative realities…) Watching TWE sometimes feels like watching the purest Chinese propaganda— which is strange for a movie in which countries don’t exist any more, in which all of Humanity has coalesced around a World Government to face its existential crisis.

The film does have a refreshingly positive attitude towards science— no trust-your-feelings-trust-the-force, no Scientists Play God and Doom Us All. Science is portrayed here as a good thing, a tool vital to our survival. It’s a nice change from the usual anti-intellectualism permeating the culture these days— but it’s also a damned shame because the science in this movie is absolutely terrible.

Probably no more absurd that a warp drive based on mushrooms…

If you like to nitpick you’ll love “The Wandering Earth”: why doesn’t Jupiter’s magnetosphere fill Earth’s sky with spectacular auroras, why don’t its radiation belts cook everyone in their suits after an hour on the surface? There’s no need to waste your time on trivia, though; the whole premise of the sun turning into a red giant is five billion years out of sync with reality. If you can swallow that, the subsequent plot hinges on a “gravity spike” knocking Earth off course to send it hurtling toward Jupiter. Nobody explains what this spike actually is, or why it wasn’t foreseen by scientists who were, after all, smart enough to turn a planet into a spaceship. Nobody wonders where Jupiter suddenly got all that extra mass from (and where it disappeared to after the spike had passed). This is especially strange because they talk about pretty much everything else; in one scene an astronaut even has to explain to another why they’re slingshotting around Jupiter in the first place. I haven’t seen such epic levels of astronaut ignorance since David Gyasi had to explain wormholes to Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar.

But a “gravity spike” that defies the laws of physics? Nobody wonders about that except the audience.

By the climax— when our heroes ignite the hydrogen-oxygen mix created by atmospheric intermingling, creating a shockwave which kicks the Earth to safety— I’d lost interest in whether those physics would hold up even in theory. I was too busy wondering how such sloppy handwaving could possibly have come from the same mind who created the Dark Forest trilogy. (To give Liu his due: it didn’t. Turns out none of the movie’s Jovian hijinks happened in his novella.)

What do we have then, when all is said and done? We have a pro-science movie with really bad science. We have jingoistic nationalism without nations. We have a Hollywood blockbuster with no villains. Hell, there are barely any heroes— a couple of people give their lives for the greater good but no plucky team of Avengers is going to be able to fix things when five thousand Earth Engines go offline at once. We are all the heroes in this movie, we have to be: The Human Race, pulling together to save itself, taking the necessary steps and making the necessary sacrifices without complaint.

Which is admittedly a lesson we’d do well to learn here in the west. For all its human rights issues, China can at least plan for the future without pandering to some lowest common denominator every few years. Perhaps such a long-term perspective makes it easier to envision the Earth on a 2,500-year voyage to Alpha Centauri; makes it easier,  perhaps, to deal with more imminent (if less spectacular) crises.

Meanwhile, here in North America, we can’t even pass a fucking carbon tax.

Sometimes I almost wish China would just hurry up and finish taking over the world. At the very least that might distract them from making more SF movies.


[1]   “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” come to mind—the latter of which might be closest to TWE in terms of sheer loud dumb spectacle.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 18 Comments

The Clipperton Conundrum

 

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Two obscure yet related things happened this month:

  1. Jonathan Strahan’s Mission Critical anthology was released, containing (among many other worthy works) my story “Cyclopterus“; and

  2. The IUCN announced the first species to receive “endangered” status due to deep-sea mining.

For those who haven’t read “Cyclopterus” (pretty much all of you, judging by MC‘s current sales ranking on Amazon), it’s set entirely underwater— there’s a kind of rifters vibe to the thing— and takes its lead from the prospect of deep-sea mining.  It unfolds against a backdrop in which hurricanes, fueled by warming oceans, last for years; in which the last of the tipping points has been passed and the worst-case scenario is now inevitable; in which the world’s environmental laws have largely been scrapped because it’s too late now anyway, so what’s the fucking point? It’s a world where doomsday partiers burn down national parks and mobs of jes’ plain folks tear the ultrarich limb from limb (on those exceedingly rare occasions when they get the chance, at least).

Victim #1

As with most of my writing, it is almost childishly optimistic— and not just because it imagines the rest of us getting our hands on the occasional plutocrat. It’s childishly optimistic because it takes place 15-20 years from now, when deep-sea mining is about to expand into the vast pristine stretch of the Pacific seabed known as  Clarion Clipperton Zone. It’s childishly optimistic because it assumes the Zone has 15-20 years before things go south, while here in the real world the International Seabed Authority has already doled out 16 permits for mineral prospecting within its boundaries. The CCZ has been described as “the most likely test bed for deep-sea mining”.

Ninety percent of the species collected there by one research team were new to science. After recent surveys covering only 0.01% of its total area, a thousand new species have been discovered. Thousands more are surely waiting to be, in the unlikely event that the robots don’t get them first.

Already carved into pieces.

Proof that even 20 years ago, I paid attention to the people who saw this coming.

Deep sea mining has been on my radar every since I was a kid in the sixties, devouring all those breathless utopian books about how we were going to farm the oceans and talk to dolphins and live in underwater cities by the turn of the century. By the time that century was actually about to turn I’d discovered the industry’s grubby underside, while researching Starfish. And my first trip to Norway in 2012 really brought it home when I met a guy who’d actually discovered a number of hydrothermal rift vents himself, and who was profoundly worried that deep-sea mining was on the cusp of explosive expansion.

And now, here we are. Imagine giant robots— like combine harvesters on steroids— scouring the bottom, hoovering up minerals from manganese to molybdenum and shitting out everything else, pulverized, in its wake. Although you don’t really have to, because they’re already building the fuckers:

From the satanic mills of the Nautilus Corporation, from my home town of Toronto. They even get a call-out in “Cyclopterus”.

Very little research has been done on the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining. The only real study was undertaken thirty years ago, led by a dude called Hjalmar Thielon. It was a pretty simple experiment. They basically dragged a giant rake across 2.5 km2 of seabed, a physical disturbance which— while devastating enough— was certainly less disruptive than commercial mining operations are likely to be. Today, thirty years later, the seabed still hasn’t recovered.

You might think that such results would provoke a flurry of follow-up tests prior to  unleashing the Giant Robot Army. However, while mining contractors are required by law to document the species that live in a habitat prior to mining, there is apparently no commensurate requirement to document the impact that mining would have on them. In fact the ISA actually regards commercial mining itself as a kind of impact-assessment process:  “Once you have mining, you have monitoring, then you can develop standards and you can progressively tighten those standards once you have a feedback loop from monitoring your activity.”

Uh huh. Back in my undergrad days I actually spent a few months working for Ontario Hydro’s Aquatic Biology department while it was “environmentally assessing” the impact of the Darlington nuclear reactor— as it was being built. Buy me a beer some day and I’ll tell you how well that worked out.

Manganese nodules. No relation to the Japanese graphic art form.

The mind-blowing irony is that all this imminent deep-sea devastation is being driven by our appetite for renewable energy. That’s what’s finally driven deep-sea mining out of the realm of wide-eyed speculation into red-hot profitability. Rare-earth metals are an essential part of the batteries required for energy storage in solar and wind-energy systems, not to mention the burgeoning population of electric cars. They’re scattered like doubloons across places like Clipperton, just waiting to be scooped up. This grand new vista of environmental destruction has been incentivized by the environmental movement.

But hey, I’m an optimist. I can end on an upbeat note. It’s all going down at the bottom of the ocean, after all.

At least none of us will have to see the damage.

Posted in: deep sea, rifters, science by Peter Watts 17 Comments

The Belligerence of Stoneburner

Meet two of the most remarkable hominins to ever cross the threshold of the Magic Bungalow:

Those in the know recognize them as the custodians of the World’s Ugliest Cat, but they are more widely known as the Industriogothronica1 duo Ego Likeness. Donna Lynch is also a poet and a horror writer and a Stoker Finalist (along with her husband) for their collection Witches. Steven Archer is a visual artist as well as an acoustic one, who does disquieting things with oils and a variety of animal parts (things which have been hung in galleries from NYC to Seattle). He does soundtracks for NASA, and writes, um, children’s storybooks. He also manifests as the solo acts Hopeful Machines and Stoneburner.

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If that last name sounds familiar to you, you’ve probably read Frank Herbert. Wikipedia describes Stoneburner’s music as “Worldbeat”, but doesn’t specify which world: Steven created Stoneburner as an ongoing experiment in what tribal dance music might sound like on Arrakis. If the name isn’t enough to clue you in to that fact, the album titles should be: On the Folding of Space; The Mouse Shadow; Songs in the Key of Arrakis.

Except for his latest, Technology Implies Belligerence, which constitutes a departure into what we might call more obscure territories than the Dune series.

It would probably be an overstatement to describe TIB as a Blindsight concept album. Certainly there’s an influence; the cover art is pretty much a giveaway, as are tracks like “The Structure Itself is in Pain”, “So Much More Aware So Much Less Perceptive”, and “Theseus Abandoned”. But there are eight other tracks on the album, and they seem to come from darker places than the Oort. Titles like “The Angel of Abscess” and “Minor Monsters” make the point; their lyrics drive it home:

You like your Violence from a distance
Voyeristic, you stagnate
Trading all lack of resistance
For excretions on your plate 

I am the storm after the calm
I am the god behind the psalm

 

There are no ancient institutions
Saving me from dissolution
You cannot preserve the stars
In empty canopic jars.

 

All the predatory creatures
Sniffing out the weak and injured
Truth inside you like a splinter
You run for shelter
They run for dinner

Of course you can be forgiven for not appreciating those elegant little turns of phrase on first listen. You can be forgiven for not even hearing them, given the way Archer growls and snarls and clinically distorts his voice in Post. I get the sense that at least three quarters of the time he treats Human vocals as just another instrument in the arsenal, another sound to be twisted and manipulated to convey not so much a coherent lyric as a gut feeling. The words are there, but they’re not front and center. You have to hunker down and mine them from the mix (or cheat by watching videos with subtitles).

The merest echo of being there. Photo credit: Matt Fox

The first time I saw Steven Archer in concert— at some cramped upstairs grotto in downtown Toronto— it was like being punched in the face by the evil twin of the light trip from 2001. He was a dreadlocked silhouette thrashing against a backdrop of light and noise, somewhere between grand mal and social commentary. (I whipped out my phone to document it for posterity, only to have the fucking thing go missing a week later.) I don’t know if any studio album could match that level of live spontaneous energy, but Technology Implies Belligerence captures the same sense of apocalyptic collage.

If you’re looking for easy listening you won’t find it here. If you think music reached its apotheosis with Side Three of Tales from Topographic Oceans you’d best move along (also, I can’t help you). If you dig NIN at its crunchiest, though, you should check this out.2 The signature thumping tribal rhythms of “Dance Music on Arrakis” is still front and center— a couple of tracks are pure percussion and concussion— but other passages are downright ethereal. And there’s one interlude that, swear to God, is some kind of jig. TIB has become my go-to soundtrack for trail running. Apparently it’s at #8 on the “Darkwave” charts as I type; I’m not surprised.

I’m just bummed those two won’t be back up here before this year’s crop of raccoons have buggered off.


1 Okay, the official designation is apparently “Darkwave”, but what does that even mean?

2 Also if you want to hear my own distorted and grungified guest vocals on the spoken-word final track.

Posted in: blindsight, ink on art by Peter Watts 9 Comments

The Understated, Underrated Genius of Counterpart.

 

There was a time when I lamented the cheesiness of televised science fiction. Sure, Star Trek and Babylon 5 played with cool ideas—  ideas you wouldn’t encounter anywhere else on the broadcast landscape— but why, when recommending them to the uninitiated, did I always have to start with “If you can look past the acting/writing/production values…”?  It was like some Faustian deal: we’ll give you your Big Ideas, but by God, you’ll cringe at the way we dole them out…

Of course, that was before the rebirth of Battlestar Galactica and Westworld. It was before The Handmaid’s Tale transcended not just genre but Television itself, erupted into the real world as protesters marched down the streets of Washington DC in white hoods and red cloaks. It was before Game of Thrones won more Emmy Awards than any other show in the history of television.

And it was before an obscure little show called Counterpart lived and died and left scarcely a ripple. It is Counterpart I mourn today: one of the most underrated, understated SF series in recent memory.

You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it. You can be even be forgiven if you have heard of it— watched it, even— and never realized it was SF. The dialog, the acting, the sets— nothing about that show so much as whispered SF except the premise. In this way Counterpart shares a lot with Ronald Moore’s Galactica reboot. Moore explicitly wanted to make  “science fiction for people who hate science fiction”: something that would sneak under your guard and let you think you were watching a drama set on a present-day aircraft carrier until some unexpected FX shot gave it all away with its starfields and spaceships. Parts of Counterpart‘s world  looked downright retro (another parallel with BSG), for reasons which only gradually emerged over time.

 

The premise: back in eighties-era Berlin, a supercollider mishap splits our timeline into two parallels, Alpha and Prime.  A bridge exists in the sub-basement where the experiment went awry: a portal between  worlds. People go back and forth. There are no special effects, no cheesy CGI lightning or ripply Stargate water-disks. There’s a booth where you get your visa from a bored civil servant; a flight of stairs leading down into the tunnel. You walk through that dingy neutral zone and emerge into a parallel universe. It’s all very hush-hush; only a few in either timeline know of the existence of the other.

You are never allowed to make contact with your alternate self— your “other”, in the series’ vernacular. That’s assuming your other is even alive— because, of course, those two universes diverged over time. Not much, not at first; for a decade or so, their histories were almost identical. Then Prime was struck with some kind of superflu pandemic, while Alpha sailed on serenely unscathed.

At which point things diverged really fast. Earth Prime lost 7% of its population; their efforts combating the superflu put them miles ahead of Alpha in terms of medical research and expertise, but languishing in other areas. Prime still uses old-fashioned monochrome cathode-ray displays while Alpha races ahead with flatscreens and iPads. Now we understand why Alpha operatives leave their smart phones behind when crossing timelines, why even showing such technology to visitors from the other world is a violation of protocol; Earth Prime never developed the smart phone. We come to understand why there’s so much security at the crossing, so much distrust between worlds, why this show feels so much like a cold-war drama even beyond the obvious symbolism of its Berlin setting. Where did that superflu come from, after all? Why did it affect one timeline and not the other? Are both sides already in a state of war, undeclared?

The beautiful irony, of course, is that the people running the UN’s “Office of Interchange” aren’t suspicious of foreigners or aliens or incompatible ideologies; the timelines, after all, are parallel. These people literally do not trust themselves. There’s some seriously warped commentary on Human Nature right there.

All of what I’ve described is backstory. All of it has gone down before the first episode even begins; we get to fill in the pieces retrospectively, over the course of twenty compelling episodes. The series proper begins with Howard Silk: a bureaucrat in a dead-end job, someone so low on the totem pole that even after thirty years at the Office of Interchange he still doesn’t know exactly what he does there. It begins when he meets his other self— a supremely self-assured, ultracompetent field agent equally at home— and equally lethal— in both worlds. And it continues with an exploration of how such utterly different people could have emerged from a common starting point.

J.K. Simmons— the actor playing the Howards— is a one-man master class in understatement. He doesn’t have to speak a word and you know which iteration you’re watching by the tension in his shoulders, the way he holds himself. The body language is simultaneously subtle and unmistakable. And the scripts do something similar, convey epic divergence in the lowest of keys. Who would have thought that history could hinge so irrevocably on whether or not some middle-aged man gave his daughter a cassette tape of popular music? I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a nuanced exploration of Butterfly Effects.

While you won’t find any special effects in Counterpart, you will find terrorist attacks and germ warfare, violinists and assassins (big surprise, they’re the same person); massacres and love stories. High-energy physics. Gulags and realpolitik and broken people in broken marriages. Science fiction, after all, isn’t just about change. It’s about the impact of that change on people and society, and in that sense— while the genre has frequently been both described as “the literature of ideas” and derided as “the literature of cardboard characters”— you can make a case that SF without good characterizations fails in its mission almost by definition. Counterpart most definitely does not fail as SF.

It failed as a TV show, though. A couple of months ago, its creators announced that Counterpart is dead after a mere two seasons. It just couldn’t attract enough viewers, out of all the people on two Earths. And I think that’s a shame; Counterpart was more than just SF for people who hate SF.

It was SF for people who love the stuff, too.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 23 Comments