Toronto 2033.

Okay, this time let’s see if I can post a fluffy little bit of writing news without provoking a political shitstorm:

That Google-related fiblet  I posted a few weeks back? I can tell you where that comes from now. The critically-acclaimed urban-issues magazine Spacing is breaking with tradition and commemorating its 15th anniversary with a special themed-fiction issue [update – actually a perfect-bound book]: Toronto 2033, curated and edited by local author/indie-game/lo-tech-moviemaking celebrity Jim Munroe.

My piece is called “Gut Feelings”, and this is Mathew Borrett’s illo thereof.

A few months back, ten local authors got together and workshopped with local journos and urban planners. We pondered what might reasonably transpire over the cityscape in the coming years. We built a common broad-strokes scenario, to make sure we’d be playing in the same general sandbox (unlike last year’s Seat 14C project, where none of the stories shared the same future even though they all started from the same premise). We agreed on who the mayor would be in 2033, for example. We agreed on the plagues that had passed through. And then each of us went off and wrote a story set against that common backdrop. Visual genius Mathew Borrett brilliantly illustrated each.

The issue’s getting an official launch on the evening of December 6, at the genre-themed See-scape (very cool place, athough I haven’t been there since they renovated). The authors include Zainab Amadahy,  Madeline Ashby, Al Donato, Kristyn Dunnion, Elyse Friedman, Paul Hong, Elan Mastai, Mari Ramsawakh, Karl Schroeder, and me.

You should go, if you’re in the area. I expect most of those guys will be in attendance.

I, sadly, will not. Since I’ll be traveling to murmlemumble

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 16 Comments

Images, Opera, Israel.

 

A bit of a break from the doom’n’gloom; instead of rubbing your noses in real-world apocalypsi, I’ll rub them in my fictional ones instead. Those at least have the advantage of cool cover art.

 

Air Quotes in Israel

First off, though, let me pull a 180 and announce something downright literally Utopian: to wit, the Utopia International Film Festival next month in Tel Aviv. You can be forgiven for thinking the title is intended ironically, but I assure you they came up with it long before the current missile volleys (and as I understand it Tel Aviv is out of the hot zone anyway). Anyway, I’ve been invited—there are workshops and panels in addition to the screenings— and I fully expect to be there with the BUG even though it starts in a couple of weeks and we haven’t got our flights yet.

Even better, a friend of mine recently returned from Gaza, so we’ll be able to hang out at Stormcrow Manor and compare notes afterward.

That should be fun.

 

A Canticle for Sarasti

I’ve been honored to hear my work inspire various bits of music over the years, and surprised how much of that music I actually liked. I have not been surprised by the fact that most of those tunes have been electronic, or ambient, or thrashy electrometal (I don’t know if “thrashy electrometal” is actually a thing, mind you—I just made it up now— but you get the idea.) What else would they be?

Well, since I asked: minimalist classical.

Last year, as I understand it,  Christian Valencia of Chapman University got together with this ensemble called Loadbang, and together they produced this nifty little 5-minute—well, Christian describes it as an “art song”, but it doesn’t have lyrics, per sé. Just a sung excerpt from Blindsight, from the POV of the probe that first intercepts the Burns-Caulfield transmission.  The tag on SoundCloud is “Contemporary Classical”.

Personally, I like to think of it as an unearthed  fragment of a lost opera. That fits nicely with both the non-rhyming prose-vocals and the orchestration (bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone and baritone singer). Plus the whole “unearthed fragment” bit explains why it’s only five minutes long.

Maybe, long after society collapses, some studious monk sifting through  the wreckage will find a thumb drive containing this file. Perhaps he will diligently bring it back to the monastery for preservation and decoding, and then— realizing that this message from The Before Time is but a fragment— he will spend the remainder of his stupid diligent life looking for the rest. Maybe that small cruel irony will give some degree of meaning to our fallen empire.

Anyway, here’s the link. Check it out. Personally I quite liked it, once I came to terms with the concept of a singing space probe.

 

F/Art (or, The Search For Better Acronyms)

You’ll have noticed the artwork. It’s been piling up for a while now, and I’ve just added a fair bit to the galleries.  The bulk of the new material can be found over in the Blindopraxia wing, and hails from just two artists, both Russian: Алекс Трейс and Dmitry Skolzki. Both have produced so many pieces that I ended up giving them their own subheadings. But there are also a couple of gorgeous new book covers (for Starfish and FFR) , a cool bit of fan art that could be a page ripped from a Starfish graphic novel, and a CGI rendition of βehemoth’s source code.  All in all, 26 new pieces of annotated art for your delectation, only a sampling of which is shown here.

Go have a look. After all, you can’t spend all your time on this one measly blog page. It just makes me feel stupid for spending all that time working on the others.

Posted in: art on ink, On the Road by Peter Watts 93 Comments

The Adorable Optimism of the IPCC.

They showed us why we were there: the dust zones, the drowned coastlines,
the weedy impoverished ecosystems choking to death on centuries of Human
effluent. They showed us archival video of the Koch lynchings,
which made us feel a little better but didn’t really change anything.

—”Hotshot”

People have noticed.

I got it in Lviv. I got it in an epic email interview with BiFrost. I get it in pubs and emails, and from one disapproving professor at Concordia who— clearly regretting having invited me into her classroom— asked “So why do you even get out of bed in the morning?”

“You once described yourself as an angry optimist,” Erwann Perchoc asked me a few weeks ago. “Is that still true?”

Perhaps the tone of my writing has changed over the years. It was always what some insist on calling “dark”— but perhaps the shadows have deepened. Even a dozen years ago, the backdrop of my stories— not the plot or the theme, mind you, just the context in which the story took place— might have been described as a forlorn fire alarm: Jesus Christ, people, can’t you see the cliff we’re headed for? We have to hit the brakes! Now, though— well, in recent years I’ve written at least three stories with happy endings. And the reason those endings are happy is because they end in murder and massacre.

It’s not that I’ve given up hope entirely. But perhaps my narrative emphasis has shifted away from Avoid the Cliff and closer to Make the Fuckers Pay. Hope— dims, as time runs out. Anger builds.

And now, nearly a hundred world-class scientists throw a report at our feet that proves something I’ve recognized intellectually for years, although not so consistently in my gut: I’ve been just as childishly, delusionally optimistic as the rest of you.

Bear with me, though. Read on. I have at least one more happy ending in me.

*

.

It’s been a couple of weeks now since the IPCC report came out. You know what it says.  If the whole damn species pulls together in a concerted effort “without historical precedent”— if we start right now, and never let up on the throttle— we just might be able to swing the needle back from Catastrophe to mere Disaster. If we cut carbon emissions by half over the next decade, eliminate them entirely by 2050; if the species cuts its meat and dairy consumption by 90%; if we invent new unicorn technologies for sucking carbon back out of the atmosphere (or  scale up extant prototype tech by a factor of two million in two years) — if we commit to these and other equally Herculean tasks, then we might just barely be able to keep global temperature from rising more than 1.5°C.[1] We’ll only lose 70-90% of the word’s remaining coral reefs (which are already down by about 50%, let’s not forget). Only 350 million more urban dwellers will be exposed to severe drought and “deadly heat” events. Only 130-140 million will be inundated. Global fire frequency will only increase by 38%. Fish stocks in low latitudes will be irreparably hammered, but it might be possible to save the higher-latitude populations. We’ll only lose a third of the permafrost. You get the idea.

We have twelve years to show results.

If we don’t pull all these things off— if, for example, we only succeed in meeting the flaccid 2°C aspirations of the Paris Accords— then we lose all the coral. We lose the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Greenland Ice Shelf (not that it isn’t already circling the bowl, of course). Twice as many people suffer “aggravated water scarcity” than at 1.5°C; 170% more of the population deals with fluvial flooding. The increase in global wildfire frequency passes 60% and keeps going. Marine fisheries crash pole to pole. The number of species that loses at least half their traditional habitat is 2-3 times higher than would have been the case at 1.5°C.  It goes on.

There’s no real point in worrying about a measly 2° increase, though, because on our current trajectory we’ll blow past 3° by century’s end (the Trump administration is predicting 4°, which is why they’re so busy dismantling whatever pitiful carbon-emission standards the US had already put into place; what’s the point of reducing profit margins if we’re headed straight for perdition no matter what we do?). We don’t really know what happens then. Methane clathrates released from a melting Arctic could turn the place into Venus, for all I know.

You probably know all this. You’ve had two weeks to internalize it; time to recoil, to internalize the numbers, to face facts.

To shrug, from what I can see. To go back to squabbling over gender pronouns, and whether science fiction has too many dystopias.

*

One of 43 reasons why that prof from Concordia doesn’t like me all that much.

Remember last year’s New York Magazine article by David Wallace-Wells? It came pretty close to outlining the fate we’ve made for ourselves, closer than any bureaucrat or politician has ever dared. Remember the pile-on that happened in its wake? Activists and allies all decryig the story as hyperbolic and defeatist? Remember the Hope Police insisting that we had to inspire, not doomsay?

Where are they now?

One of them is Michael Mann, Climate Science superstar. Back in 2017 he shat on Wallace-Wells with everyone else:  “There is no need to overstate the evidence, especially when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”  And now here he is, just a few days ago: admitting that even this stark doomsday report is “overly conservative“, that it understates the amount of warming that’s already occurred.  And Mann is still an optimist compared to, say, Prof. Jem Bendell, who argues that society is bound for inevitable collapse just a decade down the road and that we might as well start grieving now and avoid the rush. (He even wrote up a paper to that effect, but the policy journal he sent it to wouldn’t publish it until he rewrote it to be less “disheartening”.)

Still. Optimistic or not, this latest report is unprecedented by IPCC standards. It effectively offers, as The Tyee points out, a simple choice between Catastrophe and Disaster. It does, as a thoroughly-vindicated Wallace-Wells proclaims, give us “permission to freak out“.

So. Are we?

In terms of media reaction, the usual suspects say the usual things. Big Think and  Rolling Stone go straight down the middle, admit the sitrep is dire, express doubts that we’ll doing anything about it even now. David Suzuki— well, zero points for guessing where David Suzuki comes down. The Tech folks are talking about geoengineering again. The Guardian talks about food. Over at Medium, Daniel Estrada tries really hard to put a good spin on it, to work within the timeline of the IPCC Report and the US Election cycle to explore ways in which we might achieve the merely-disastrous Best Case— and then, halfway through, admits that he doesn’t really think any of it will happen, that this is merely a hopeful thought experiment, and in his heart of hearts he thinks we’re all well and truly fucked.

The dotted line is where we are now. Nowhere to go but up.

Over at the National Post— Canada’s answer to Fox News— some idiot named Kelly McParland blames the activists for everything, because they hectored and warned and complained for so long that who could blame the rest of us for tuning out? But perhaps the most telling reaction from the right wing comes courtesy of petro-shill Anthony Watts, who— unable to deal with the actual science— simply ran a cartoon showing IPCC authors whining for more money, alongside a guest editorial suggesting that even if it is all true, it would be way cheaper to just give everyone air conditioners.[2]

Of course, none of these folks wield any actual power. What they think doesn’t matter. What about the people who actually call the shots? How have the World’s Leaders responded to this latest 10-alarm fire, to this 12-year deadline?

Brazil is two days away from electing a far-right reactionary who has promised to quit the Paris Accords once elected. Germany— a world leader in environmental issues, not so long ago— reacted to the report with a profound “Meh”.  Australia‘s Energy Minister dismissed it as a distraction from the more-important goal of lowering energy prices for Australians. Back in August France‘s Environment Minister resigned in disgust over his own government’s inaction on climate change; that was before the report’s release, but has Macron had a come-to-Jesus moment in the meantime? Here in Canada, provincial premiers are taking the Feds to court over a measly carbon tax; the government itself permitted an “emergency session” right after the report came out, a parliamentary debate which— as far as I’ve been able to tell— accomplished exactly fuck-all beyond one side of the aisle yelling Think of the Children! while the other yelled Think of The Economy!

And these are the progressive jurisdictions. I probably don’t have to tell you about Donald Trump’s hilarious “Instinct for Science“, which apparently allows him to dismiss the IPCC’s findings as biased even as he makes clear that he doesn’t actually know what the IPCC is.

And what about the world’s real leaders, the 0.01% who actually hand out marching orders to these presidents and premiers and prime ministers? Turns out they’re retaining consultants to advise them on how to prevent their personal security forces from killing them, once civilization has collapsed and their money’s no good any more. It seems to be a lot more than mere thought experiment to these people: global societal collapse seems to be their default scenario. They call it “The Event.”

Why, it’s almost as though they knew what was coming before the IPCC even tendered their report.

*

To me, one of the most interesting facets of this whole clusterfuck is how eager everyone is to tell us that It’s Not Our Fault. “Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals“, the Guardian charges. “Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum“, claims Naomi Klein (who, in all fairness, I’ve admired ever since No Logo).  Over at Slate  Genevieve Guenther asks “Who Is the We in “We Are Causing Climate Change”?”, and saves us the trouble by answering herself:

Does it include the 735 million who, according to the World Bank, live on less than $2 a day? Does it include the approximately 5.5 billion people who, according to Oxfam, live on between $2 and $10 a day? Does it include the millions of people, all over the world (400,000 alone in the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City) doing whatever they can to lower their own emissions and counter the fossil-fuel industry?

GQ reassures us that “Billionaires are the Leading Cause of Climate Change“. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read that a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions.

To which I say, Bullshit. You’re all to fucking blame whether Naomi Klein wants to let you off the hook or not.

Not that I’m denying any of her arguments. They’re all true. We were certainly  told— by supposed allies like Greenpeace and the PIRGs, as well as more obviously-nefarious corporations and governments— that if we all just recycled and ate one meat-free meal a week, we’d be Doing Our Part to Save the Planet while BP and the Koch Brothers continued to rape the biosphere. Up here in Canada, the reigning Liberals— for all their noble rhetoric about fighting climate change— are still buying pipelines and forcing Tar Sands down our throats and subsidizing Big Oil to the tune of over three billion dollars a year; the Conservative Opposition won’t even pay mealy-mouth lip service to the issue. Down in the states both mainstream parties are sucking too hard on the corporate teat to do anything that might actually endanger the profits of their owners. Individual actions can’t fix things: the very scale of the problem guarantees that institutional responses have always been necessary. All of this is true.

But you know what, people? There were always alternatives. You could have voted for Sanders. You could have voted Green. You could have voted for Ralph fucking Nader, when he was running. Hell, am I the only one who remembers Jerry Brown’s abortive run at the presidency, back in 1980? I still remember his announcement, the Three Priorities he laid out for his administration:

  1. Protect the Environment
  2. Serve the People
  3. Explore the Universe

That’s a damned good mission statement if you ask me. All it got him was jokes from Johnny Carson about how Jerry Brown had locked up the Grey Whale vote, and jokes from everyone else that usually revolved around the fact he was fucking Linda Ronstadt.

Of course he didn’t have a chance. Of course voting for him, or Nader, or the Greens was “throwing away your vote”. None of them had a chance.

And that’s my fucking point. It’s not that no one had heard of these people. It’s not that you weren’t familiar with their platforms. You knew what they stood for and you wrote them off. You were told they were fringe, that they never stood a chance, so you went out and made it true. You voted en masse for the status quo and the corporate teat-sucklers. Now Darby and Klein and  Guenther trip over themselves to let you off the hook, to blame Capitalism and Neoliberalism and its stranglehold on the groupthink of modern politics— but how did you end up with leaders who so willingly abased themselves at that altar in the first place, you ignorant shit-heads? There were always alternatives, and you saw them, and you laughed.

Sure, the Neolibs conned you. Because you wanted to be conned.

Reap the whirlwind, you miserable fuckers. May your children choke on it.

*

So what’s left?

Every pundit on the planet is fond of pointing out that politicians can’t look beyond the next couple of election cycles— but twelve years is a couple of election cycles, more or less, and we’re still accelerating toward the cliff. Last weekend, The BUG and I talked about how we’d have to kill our cats before abandoning the house. We weren’t joking.

And yet— in my own way, I’m right with you in The Nile. I can still laugh at The BUG’s jokes. I still watch Netflix. I lie in bed with a sore back because Minion has been sitting on my chest for an hour and I don’t have the heart to disturb her. Sure, there are fewer insects, fewer frogs, less wildlife than I remember from childhood (more pigeons, at least. More raccoons)— but the ravine across the fence is still green, the sky still blue. The tag line on this ‘crawl remains as true as ever: I’m still In Love With the Moment, because I am not starving yet, because those I love are still doing okay, because all the birds have not quite come home to roost and there’s something so indescribably wondrous about being sapient, being able to look around and wonder at the universe.  There is still so much to love in the Moment.

But the second part of that line is even truer: I am scared shitless of the future. Because those birds are closer than even I allowed myself to think, and not so far from now I could be a skeleton in the background of a Mad Max movie.

The only hope I can see lies in Donald Trump.

Don’t worry. This isn’t one of those contrarian bits of agitprop designed to provoke a reaction. I’m dead serious.

But when I speak of hope, I’m not talking about the world. I’m talking about hope for my country. I’m talking about hope for my family. Hope for maybe an extra decade or two before the ceiling crashes in. That’s the limited, desperate, end-of-need hope I pin on Trump and his enablers.

Help us, Obi-Don. You’re our only hope.

Because what do you do when your family is starving and the guys next door have food? What does any country do when drought and famine and heat waves are decimating its taxpayers while the cooler, luckier land to the north  has enough— well, if not for all, at least for some? Will the governments of imploding regimes just sadly shake their heads, and—  wracked with remorse for their shortsightedness— resign themselves to well-deserved apocalypse?

Of course, Canada’s hardly immune from the unfolding catastrophe (anyone from Fort McMurray could tell you that much). But we’ll still be better off than the US. Smaller temperature jumps. Less agro impact. Hell, our growing season could actually improve in the short term— and there’s lots of room to move north with the isotherms, even if northern soils don’t hold a candle to what we’re used to. Sorry, Inuit. You lose again.

So, yeah. If your family is starving and the house next door has food, you break in. You invade. And if the US invaded us now, we wouldn’t stand a chance. They’d Spread Democracy north of the 49th without breaking a sweat, and our pathetic little armed forces wouldn’t be able to do a damned thing about it.  (Hell, the West Edmonton Mall used to have a bigger submarine fleet than the Canadian Navy; the only reason that’s not still true is because the Mall shut down their sub attraction in 2006.)

After a couple of terms of Trumpism, though, who knows?

The US is already at war with itself. It tears itself apart even as we speak: wagons circled, guns beyond counting all pointed inward. Trump and his ilk seem only too happy to spur  them on. Maybe, given enough time, they’ll waste all that ammo on each other.  Maybe that hypermilitary will be so busy guarding gated communities and mowing down protestors that they’ll forget to invade anyone else. Maybe— if Trump has his way— they’ll be so busy eating each other that by the time they remember us, they’ll have too many self-inflicted wounds to do much about it.

Maybe then we’ll have a fighting chance. Or maybe they’ll just leave us up here to die in peace, a few decades further down the road.

See? I told you I wasn’t out of happy endings.


[1] That’s global mean temperature, mind you. The Arctic’s already up by 3°C, and could blow past 4.5°C while the “mean” temperature is still languishing down at 1.5.

[2] No link from here, though; you can Google the site if you want. And good luck washing the stench off your fingertips.

Posted in: climate, politics, rant by Peter Watts 94 Comments

Step Function

A lot of disgruntlement hereabouts regarding Google’s smiley annexation of Toronto’s waterfront. A certain lack of transparency over who owns the panopticon being erected by Sidewalk Labs, who owns the data to be harvested from every footstep in the Quayside Zone. People quitting in protest; others patting us on the head, assuring us in kindly tones that it’s just too early in the process to worry about esoteric things like privacy.

As chance would have it I’ve recently written a story set in that very locale, on that very theme. I hesitate to provide details because as far as I can tell there’s been no official announcement and I don’t want to scoop the publishers. At the same time, the controversy appears to be especially hot right now— locally, at least— and I strive for topicality. So I’m going to sneak out a brief fiblet, to mark my territory while it’s worth marking.

Stay tuned.

Ghazali sighs. “I had a friend too, once. Deon Rizk.”

Her eyes flicker across some invisible datascape. “Our cops didn’t kill him.”

“Not your cops. Your apps. Google Fitness showed Dee running 15K four times a week. Google Fitness showed him doing thirty chin-ups at a stretch. Google fucking Fitness showed reflexes and fast-twitch muscle response consistent with a middleweight practitioner of Mixed Martial Arts. Oh, and apparently Google Assistant overheard him expressing anti-police sentiments, which was enough to disable his privacy settings under the ATA. So poor little Officer Neukamp feared for her life. Murdered Dee because he was— how’d she put it— assuming an aggressive posture. Didn’t even bother trotting out I thought his phone was a gun.”

Hancock doesn’t say anything for a few seconds. “I’m sorry. If I were in your shoes, I’d be pissed too.”

Ghazali snorts.

“What I wouldn’t have done,” Hancock continues, “is wait three years, then beat some random stranger to a pulp.”

“He works for Google.”

“Which makes him personally responsible for—”

“He knew what side he was choosing.”

That face. That stupid fucking Travis face. That stupid Google baseball cap. Oh, he chose sides all right. Guy signs up to work for the spooks and the suits and fucking ICE-9, you don’t let him walk because he’s only the janitor.

That rage.

“I see what you did there,” Hancock murmurs, and Ghazali almost responds before he realizes that she isn’t talking to him; she’s talking to her tablet, to the little coruscating false-color silhouette writhing there. Gamium data.

She’s talking to something in his brain.

But now she sets the tablet aside and meets his eyes. “And I’m sorry, but I still don’t buy it. That level of anger, that— fury— our algos are too good to have missed it. You’re not even a Quayside resident, you’re a third-order downstream variable and they still knew what you were going to order off that truck before you even thought about eating out.”

“They fucked up the satay,” Ghalazi reminds her.

And they shouldn’t have. That’s exactly my point. Any more than they should have let a human pressure cooker walk up to one of our people on a public street and hammer him into a coma. If you were going to go berserker you would have done it three years ago, and you didn’t. These things do not come out of nowhere, Marius. They are predictable.” There’s an intensity behind the smartspec eyeshine, an—anger, at any reality with the temerity to defy expectation…

Something thumps against the window. Ghazali turns, glimpses a small dark blur plastered for just an instant on the other side of the frosted glass.

“Bird.” Hancock says. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Bird?”

“The polarizing mesh messes with their magnetic sense or something. When we blank the windows.”

“Your ecofriendly miracle windows kill birds.”

She shrugs. “We’ve got half a dozen drones on collection duty. Send the bodies to FLAP for barcoding. Nothing gets wasted.”

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 9 Comments

A/Political (and a deferral on Doomsday)

(I should be writing about the latest Doomsday Report from the IPCC. It’s not often that such an august scientific body concludes that massive and devastating changes to the planet constitutes our best-case scenario, that even that best-case depends on the deployment of unicorn tech that hasn’t been developed yet. But there’s a lot to digest here. I’ll need some time to get my shit together.  Also, I’m waiting to see how the usual political suspects respond to a report that leaves so very little wiggle room.

So, while I’m doing that, here’s an extended director’s cut of a recent NF column.)

*

A reader review of The Freeze-Frame Revolution, grabbed off Amazon:

“An interesting idea and it is well developed. However, I almost gave it zero stars as 1/2 way into the novella Watts inexplicably begins to use idiotic “words” such as xe, xir, se and other such embarrassing verbal atrocities. This kind of PC wordsmithing/social engineering must be utterly destroyed root and branch. It is a verbal abomination. It is a giant middle finger to every literate person who speaks or reads the English language. I threw my copy in the trash. It was the only appropriate response.”

This is not the only review to take exception to my choice of pronouns, although it is perhaps the most vehement. Beyond the usual nitpicks about factual inaccuracy (nowhere does “xe” or “xir” appear anywhere in FFR), my immediate gut reaction to this is Fuck you, buddy. I imagine most of you would sympathize.

But at the same time, there are these reviews from the opposite end of the scale—

“there are so many more great ideas inside this novella. Take for example Kaden, who is referred to as ‘se’ and ‘hir’.” ;

“There are many examples of Watts’s inventive writing, perhaps most noticeably the use of the gender-neutral pronouns “se” and “hir” throughout the book”;

“there was some awesome diversity casually thrown into the storyline”

—and you might be a bit less sympathetic to see me say Fuck you, too.

Because I did not introduce “se” and “hir” to make any kind of political point. I wasn’t being politically correct, and I wasn’t trying to sneak in any pro-fluid diversity subtext. I used those terms because it’s a statistical certainty that out of a crew thirty thousand, some are going to live off the peaks of the bimodal distribution. It just makes sense to have a pronoun for that. To draw explicit attention to those pronouns— to cite it as “inventiveness” or a “great idea”— is like praising someone for describing a character’s height or eye color.

It gets worse. In his review of Blindsight, Resolute Reader remarks that

“In this future Earth many social problems have been solved (women are now on an equal footing socially and economically with men)…”

In fact, the subject of gender equality never passed through my mind when I was writing that book. Some of the cast were male; some were female; they had jobs. This is a remarkable scenario? (Others take a dimmer view of my gender portrayals; a couple of readers have grumbled that Sunday Ahzmundin doesn’t “seem particularly female” or “sound like a woman”. I’d be curious to know what “a woman” is supposed to sound like. Maybe, moving forward, I should insert a couple of “Goodness, Ah do declare“s into Sunday’s dialog.)

The gender stuff is only the tip of the iceberg, though. I’ve lost count of the people who assume I’m writing “about” environmental collapse, “about” the way the brain stem overrides the neocortex “about” free will.[1] (At least a few have grumpily wondered if I’m capable of writing “about” anything else.) I’ve been called everything from a flaming liberal to a full-on reactionary despite repeatedly denying that I write “about” any of this stuff. I do write stories in which environmental collapse and physics and human biology exist as elements— not because they’re the subject of the exercise, but because they’re an undeniable part of the world. It would be  unrealistic not to have these elements as part of the backdrop— so why assume that I’m writing about them? How many times have you heard someone say “Those Coen Brothers— man, couldn’t they just once give us a movie that wasn’t about cars? Every single movie they’ve ever made has cars in it!”

Almost a decade ago, “The Island” made offhanded reference to a mutiny which the Chimp put down when he “cut off our life support”. I never really thought much about the details at the time, but as the years went by it started to sink in that you can’t just “have a mutiny” under those conditions. Given the panoptical power imbalance aboard Eriophora, any uprising would have to take the definition of “conspiracy” to a whole new level. That’s why The Freeze-Frame Revolution exists, that’s what was in my mind when I was writing it: not “what does it mean” but “how would it work”?

And yet you’ve got this guy over here opining that FFR is

“centrally political. In spite of the obvious amenity of Chimp, more than of a tutelary State, it is a real Leviathan that we are talking about here. … It is power and cold state reason that Watts speaks of in this text.”

And over here on Infinite Text:

“I do have a tendency to read into social criticisms as hidden between the lines of every work, but in all seriousness Watts wrote a book here that is really fun and sprinkled with philosophical questions.”

That last bit, there: “a tendency to read into social criticisms as hidden between the lines of every work”. Is that all that’s at work here? Fiction as Rorschach blot, always a political act but only to political readers? I like to think my stories emerge from the data: Here is the science— these are the ramifications— this is the tale to illustrate them. Sometimes the result may look ideological but that doesn’t mean it is, not if it was derived empirically.

“The Things”— one of my most popular stories— is, among other things, a commentary on the missionary impulse. That makes it political pretty much by definition. And yet it didn’t start that way; it started as a piece of unabashed fanfic, informed by a paper I’d read on intrasomatic cellular competition. I was two thirds of the way through writing the damn thing before the missionary angle even occurred to me. It just— emerged from the plot, without deliberate intent.

Is it political? Ideological? Empirical? Can a story be “political” if it’s derived speculempirically? Can a story be apolitical, ever?

If so, how do you tell?

*

Maybe it has to do with set-up.

Consider “The Screwfly Solution”, by Alice Sheldon; a short story in which unseen aliens use ecofriendly pest-control techniques to wipe out Humanity. They edit the intertwined pathways of sex and violence in the Human brain, amping up male misogyny to the point where— using the justification offered by a fundamentalist religious cult— we simply kill all the women.

Now consider Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: social and political instability allow religious extremists to take over the US government and reshape society according to fundamentalist, Old-Testament rules in which women fare very poorly.

Both tales have been hailed as feminist masterpieces. Both are chilling and compelling (the plausibility with which the gynocidal imperative is gradually justified and accepted as a societal norm is one reason I regard Screwfly as one of the finest biological-SF stories ever written). And both, I daresay, were written to make a political point.

But only Handmaid’s had to be. It’s hard to see how that novel could have come into existence by any means other than Atwood thinking Someone should really point out where this whole fundamentalism thing leads. In contrast, I can see— at least in theory— how “The Screwfly Solution” could have arisen by asking a completely apolitical question: Aliens want to take over the planet without damaging the biosphere. How might they do that?

Compare also the recent TV series “Humans” and “Westworld”. Both deal with AI and consciousness— but the world of “Humans” seems configured solely to hammer home the tired, utterly safe political point that Slavery Is Wrong. Westworld covers so much more than that, because Westworld is an actual rumination on consciousness and free will (they even brought neuroscientist David Eagleman on board as an adviser). It doesn’t create a world that’s designed to force a predetermined conclusion; it creates a world that asks questions, lets the conclusions emerge from them.

Ursula Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness— hailed as feminist because of its exploration of gender roles in a gender-fluid society. But that exploration doesn’t emerge from an overtly political starting point (“Patriarchy Is Bad”) but rather from a biological question: What would society look like if Humans were sequential hermaphrodites, like oysters or clownfish? It’s a much more interesting kernel to build a story around— and while it lends itself to political commentary, it isn’t rooted in it. (Le Guin herself seemed pretty contemptuous of “message stories” in general.)

The difference, I think, comes down not so much to what a given story says, but to how it gets there: does it interrogate, or does it preach? Do political conclusions emerge from the plot or are they built into the premise, as intrinsic and unavoidable as gravity?

Does the story follow the data to a (possibly political) conclusion, or does it start with the conclusion and cherry-pick the data to get there?

I’m not entirely sure. I think the first approach carries way more potential for surprise and enlightenment, while the second merely reinforces pre-existing bias— but only an idiot would pretend that we don’t all come with bias preinstalled. Maybe the difference is, some of us are better than others at hiding that fact. Maybe this whole rigorously-objective argument is just an eloquent retcon to defend my own bias against preachy stories, and to deny that I’d ever let such cooties infest my own work even if appearances say otherwise.

I expect my thinking on this subject will evolve over time. In the meantime, though, I’d implore you not to project too much ideology onto my writing, no matter how tempting it may seem. I have political opinions, for sure, but I don’t write to force them on you.

Matter of fact, the stories I’ve written have actually challenged my own political opinions once or twice.

I consider that a good sign.


[1] Despite the fact that in the end notes to Echopraxia, I explicity state “I don‘t have much to say about [free will] because the arguments seem so clear-cut as to be almost uninteresting.”

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 44 Comments

The Lviv International Book Forum: Huge Hearts, Tiny Bods.

Blessed Lyubochka of the Shuriken, the Ukrainian saint who was martyred by ninjas in 1645.

The first thing that occurs to me when I arrive— well, the second thing, after wondering about all the little plumes of smoke rising from the surrounding countryside (which nobody in Lviv seems to know anything about)— is Hey, this place really reminds me of Poland.

Lviv actually used to be part of Poland, back between The Wars. Stanislaw Lem was born here. Lviv also largely avoided damage during WW2, meaning that— unlike, say, Kyiv, which got hammered to the ground and rebuilt in Chunky Soviet— all those picturesque houses and buildings have survived more or less unscathed to this very day.

(Most of them, anyway; I’m told that Lviv suffered only a single bomb strike during the whole war. Nobody I asked to was able to explain exactly how that happened. Did some Luftwaffe pilot get lost, somehow, and think he was bombing London? Did someone go rogue, decide to leave formation and fly to Lviv to bomb the house of a former landlord? How the hell does one lousy bomb find its lonesome way all the way to Lviv?)

Ukrainian theology has in some ways diverged from canonical Christian belief. In this representation of The Second Coming, the Archangel Gabriel jams on a double bass.

Anyway, I take it as a good sign. They liked me in Poland; maybe they’ll like me here as well. And the fact that Lem was born there can’t hurt. Lemly places take well to me. Maybe it’s because his own unique way of hammering home the futility of existence softens people up for my own, more light-hearted stylings.

 *

I share the ride in from the airport with a dude name of Igor Pomerantsev: Russian-born ex-pat, poet, sonic wizard and broadcaster who’s currently based in England. He’s also a guest of the Festival; they’ve put us up in the same hotel. We chat over breakfast a couple of times across the ensuing days. He’s a fascinating guy. Doesn’t like Russia much, which is understandable given that he was arrested by the KGB back in the seventies. His wife produces documentaries; his son is an author and journalist and something of an expert on Putin’s “post-modern dictatorship”. Family get-togethers must be something to behold.

*

Maria, who kept me on course. I think she’s in Poland now.

My liaison is Maria Kalmykova, a woman who has somehow managed to squeeze a stint as a Festival volunteer in between trips to Hungary and Poland and too many internships and university applications to count. She is awesome. First night out she takes me on a walking tour of the neighborhood. We speak of chocolate, the inherent corruption of Ukraine politics, and her family from Crimea (including a grandmother who’s still down there).

Another Angel of the Apocalypse. This one slammed into me on roller skates and would not let go until I paid her $5CAD. Perhaps she’ll put it toward dental care.

She is only the first; the war comes up a lot over the next few days. (I’m generally the one to broach the subject— hesitantly, at first, but nobody seems to mind talking about it.) It’s bloody surreal: a literary festival in a gorgeous, tranquil city in a nation undergoing armed invasion on two fronts[1] while everyone else— all those countries who swore up and down that if only Ukraine would disarm, they’d be there to pitch in if anyone ever tried to mess— just shrug and look the other way. There are so many disconnects here I have a hard time wrapping my head around them. Serhiy and Anastasia (whom you’ll meet in a moment) introduce me to the term “hybrid war“.

I keep asking, without much hope, if there’s a chance Kyiv might have squirreled a few nukes away in a basement somewhere, just in case. I’m no big fan of nuclear brinksmanship, but at least it might make a government or two a bit less inclined to leave these people twisting in the wind once they got what they wanted.

*

Believe it or not, I almost had opportunity to raise such issues with the President of Ukraine himself— or at least, in his hearing. Throughout most of August through to early September, I faced the prospect of giving a short speech at the Festival’s Opening Ceremonies. The president was going to be in attendance. They even gave me a subject to speak on: “The Cost of Freedom”. (It wasn’t a customized selection: it was the overarching theme of the whole Festival.)

Despite my willingness to embrace Ukrainian culture, I had little desire to sample whatever this establishment was serving.

I asked for guidance, admitted that the prospect of blowing into town and lecturing about “the cost of freedom” to a populace that was in the midst of a literal armed invasion seemed a bit, well, presumptuous. Not hearing back, I decided to run with it: after all, “the cost of freedom” is open to interpretation. My chosen interpretation involved interrogating the question of what it would cost to free the biosphere of the devastating impact of 7.6 billion primates who can’t keep it in their pants. The cost, clearly, would be the eradication of those primates. I decided to spend my 8-10 minutes advocating for the extinction of Humanity.

As it turned out, though, the Office of the President decided that they didn’t want their leader exposed to any speakers they hadn’t selected themselves. On September 8 I was told that I was off the list. It was a relief. Honestly. Even though I’m sure my talk would’ve gone over really well.

Igor speaks at the opening ceremonies, even if I don’t. Good call.

*

Bodyguards, rocket fuel, and (inset) Hideous Arm of Eyeball Infestation.

I never do get to meet the president. I do get to meet the mayor of Lviv and his wife, though, briefly. I’m in the midst of an interview — more precisely, helping a journalism student with his homework— when a gang of thuggish-looking dudes bursts into the coffee shop and tells me that Blindsight has just won some sort of Special Best-of-Festival Award. I almost refuse to go with them— one of these guys has eyeballs tattooed all over his arm, and I’ve always feared the concept of eyeballs sprouting randomly from human flesh— but one of the other guys is my publisher, so I figured he’s just hired a couple of bodyguards to protect his newly-award-winning author. They drag me to a place full of arches and columns and smooth jazz, blue-lit like some dreamy undersea grotto. The party is hosted by the mayor’s wife; I shake hands with her and her spouse, exchange brief platitudes, and realize that there’s an open bar at the other end of the room.

It doesn’t work any way you look at it.

This is also where I meet Lina Kwitka, a woman with the word “Power” tattooed on her chest in Braille. I have a hard time unpacking this. Only blind people will be able to read that, by running their fingers along Lina’s chest. Except it’s not really in Braille, because there are no raised surfaces; it’s just ink. So blind people won’t be able to read it after all. And they’d need a sighted person to even tell them there’s something there not to read in the first place. You need to be both Blind and Sighted to make sense of this. It’s either a very subtle call-out to my novel, or Lina just likes mocking the blind. Not wanting to appear egotistical, I accuse her of the latter.

The bodyguards introduce me to something they call “rocket fuel”.

*

Ambiance.

*

Maria has to be nice to me. It’s her job. It’s not anyone else’s; but everyone else steps up anyway. I swear, I pay for maybe two drinks the whole time I’m in Lviv.

They fed me acid and took me to a graveyard. Draw your own conclusions.

Serhiy and Anastasia— both translators, Serhiy recently recareered as an artist— take me out to dinner one night, drag me to a big honking graveyard the next day. Sometime around there they also introduce me to something they call “Peppered Coffee”; more accurately described as “coffee-tinged battery acid designed to give you a sore throat for a period of 90 minutes”. They say it’s a “traditional Ukraine Thing”. None of the folks I ask about this subsequently— and I ask a lot of them— have ever heard of the stuff. Maybe the “tradition” S&A are referring to is the punking of tourists.

There’s the man known only as “Toad Bird”, who introduces me to a veritable Buckaroo-Banzai team of friends (a cryptographer! a biologist! a geometric modeller of information systems! a Customs broker!)— and also to the one undeniably horrible element of my Ukraine experience.

Team Toadbird: stalking the night, and stumbling into it.

Pork ears. The horriblest thing about Ukraine. Imagine thin slices of kneecap, garnished with silicon.

Gen and me. Yes, that’s a hard hat. Be patient. It’ll all make sense eventually.

There’s Gen (Eugenie, if we’re being formal). She tails me for a couple of blocks on Day 1, watching me get increasingly lost as I try to find the location of some future panel. I see her from the corner of my eye. I’m actually a bit nervous by the time she pounces in and introduces herself. She’s a fan. She just kind of recognized me on the street. She helps get me where I’m going. We hang out.

There are Official Festival Parties in addition to these more impromptu get-togethers. I skip most of them, even the one with “Playboy” in the title. I go online instead, and chat with The BUG.

I’m told, by someone who attended the Playboy Party, that I made the right decision.

*

The Festival itself is huge, twenty-two thousand strong. Ground Zero is a compound with a three-story building and a massive courtyard, jam-packed with dealers’ kiosks. But tendrils extend throughout the downtown core: to parks, to cinemas, even to the courtyards of financial institutions.

Four days of this.

I never quite get over the fact that anyone even knows who I am, given that the Ukrainian edition of Blindsight wasn’t even released until the Forum itself. I’m told the Russian translation is popular; also that the war is good for business, because Ukrainian anger over the invasion has inspired resurgent interest in homegrown publishing. People who already read the book in Russian are likely to buy it again in Ukrainian just to support the local industry. It’s a pretty thin silver lining, but I’ll take it.

For whatever reason, I end up signing a lot of books.

Giant, hypertrophied hearts, these folks. But surprisingly modest in height. I mean, just look at them!

Okay, well, maybe except for this guy.

*

As chance would have it, Dan Brooks— the evolutionary biologist I mention now and again on this ‘crawl— was in Ukraine a few months back, addressing the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences on the threat of emerging infectious diseases in a warming world. The Academy couldn’t afford to pick up his tab; Dan had to travel at his own expense.

.

I’ve been looking for an opportunity to rail against this, against any system that treats a midlist SF writer to an all-expense paid trip with little boxed chocolates on his pillow each night yet can’t afford to support an acclaimed scientist speaking on matters of global import. Before I have a chance to splooge my virtue-signals in public, though, I meet this guy to the right: Roman Waschuk, Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine. He has a book for me to sign and some insight to go with it. Turns out the Festival didn’t pay my expenses after all; my own government did. The Festival approached the Canadian Embassy, told them they wanted me in Lviv; and— as Roman remarked— “We figure it can’t just be All Atwood All the Time.”

Meanwhile, in a distant land…

It kind of blows me away that my own government would support me thus. Prophets are supposed to be without honor in their own country, after all (and that’s certainly been my experience at the con level). But here’s Ambassador Waschuk: not only hanging around for the panel, but describing it afterward on Twitter as an exploration of “hardcore sci-fi epistemology and neuropsychology issues”. Not the sort of terminology I expected from a professional diplomat.

I am impressed. I hope he enjoyed the discussion.

*

I know I did.

Stalkers, while occasionally in evidence, were easily detected.

The thing about these panels is, you never know who you’re going to get. The dude asking me the pointed questions turns out not to be just your garden-variety fanboy, but a Professor of Philosophy of Mind. The guy on the other side of me— the one I’m starting to look askance at, because his remarks have an almost religious tinge to them— turns out to be a practicing neuropsychiatrist. (One of his patients is terrified of going to sleep, because he’s convinced that life ends when the continuity of consciousness is broken, and whatever wakes up the next day won’t be him— just some other being in the same chassis. I’ve been wanting to write a story based on that very premise for years, but I’ve never been able to come up with an actual plot past the basic set-up of patient-holds-therapist-at-gunpoint-and-demands-drugs-to-keep-him-awake.)

How do you translate “Hey, man, have you ever looked at your hand? I mean, really looked at it?” into Ukrainian?

This may have been the point at which I realized I was talking to Gene Piletsky, Professor of Philosophy of Mind. Can you see the dawning fear in my eyes?

Let me emphasize: this is not a science fiction convention. This is not one of those specialty events where’d you expect to rub shoulders with fellow science nerds. This is a big-tent-all-genres literary forum/festival, with 1,200 writers and 22,000 visitors in attendance— and yet they stuck me in the ring with actual academics and practicing MDs. It was almost like being back in academia again.

The Minstrel Below the Gallery. Cue breathy flute.

I basically just shut up and listened for this one. Shame I don’t understand Ukrainian.

They’ve put me on five panels. One is basically All About Me, a kind of coming-out interview run by my publishers (who’ve done an exquisite job on the book, in case you haven’t noticed. Have you seen that crisp, clean, dare-I-say literary cover?). One is about Post-Humanism; another, about the impact of branding on society (the commercial-trademark kind, not the seared-flesh kind). One’s on the history and trajectory of the SF genre here in Ukraine: I mainly just sit and listen to that one, obviously, learn some really interesting stuff about the Soviet influence on the local writing scene. Finally, we wind up with an hour on Consciousness Theory and the Nature of Mind; that’s the one Ambassador Washcuk shows up for.

When the last panel’s over I’m relieved and exhilarated and ready to unwind. Gen helps out by introducing me to a local hangout that kicks every coffee shop you’ve ever experienced right in the gonads. It’s not even a coffee shop, according to the signage; it’s a coffee mine. They give you a hard hat as you descend.

You should watch the following clip to the end. It’s dark at first, but believe me: it gets bright near the end— right after the Turnstile of Erect Penises— when some eight-year-old nearly gets immolated. When we all do.

 

*

That award I mentioned— it turns out to be real. The certificate is solid enough, and very classy— wax seal and everything— but the award does not appear to be juried. The winners are chosen by the President of the Festival— and even scrolling down to the bottom of the Official Announcement Page, it’s not clear to me whether “Sleepiness” won against twelve other finalists (including works by Hemingway and Hans Christian Andersen), or if there were just 13 Special Awards handed out. Probably that second thing; either that or there’s some genre category in which a science fiction novel can go head to head against both “Transformation Processes in the Financial Sector of the National Economy” and “Structure and dynamics of geophysical fields in Western Antarctica”.

I turn to the wording on the plaque itself, run it through the camera function of Google Translate. Results are, well, inconclusive:

Google Translate’s camera function. Still a few bugs in the system. I hope.

*

Svitlana Taratorina. Lose the smile and the book, add a couple of prosthetic blades, you can totally see the resemblance.

There are interviews, ranging from fanzines to webcasts to one strange old guy who accosts me through a translator and says something about how the fate of the Earth is in my hands before he gets hustled off into the night and is never seen again. After one panel I’m interviewed by the assassin from “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, sans blades; I find out later she’s a fellow author, her own first novel dropped at this very event.

Another interview— with Justina Dobush— goes delightfully off the rails when I discover that she’s ambidextrous. She says that, when in ambi mode, she can hold two thoughts in her head at the same time. How does that work, I wonder. Assuming she’s not a split personality (in which case each conscious thought stream would be its own identity), there must be a third layer— a container to hold both processes, an overarching perspective that can look down on both thoughts without being either. It hurts my head.

We spend the back half of the interview talking about drugs and writing. I don’t always know what Justina is saying, but I love the way she puts words together while saying it. (I especially like her thoughts about punching people.)

*

This is my publisher, Олексій Жупанський. Still trying to figure out how to pronounce that. Mostly I just say “Dude!”

This trip is unsurpassed for Swag.

There’s the usual Forum t-shirt, of course. There are a couple of bonus tees from my publisher (the Big Brother shirt reminds me that I’ve just moved my website to a host called “1984.com” and a passer-by says “Oh, those guys are terrible. Lost all our data, didn’t make backups.” Great.) But Serhiy also gifts me with one of his own Aliens-themed creations (which, though cool, is also a bit surprising, because the man eats breathes and lives “John Carpenter’s The Thing”).

And this…this is my translator, Остап Українець. Although he would be equally comfortable with “Ostap Ukrainets”.

My new friends have friends. One of Gen’s is Екатерина Шелыгина (which allegedly translates as “Kate Murphy”, although I remain skeptical), and she crafts artifacts out of sea glass. She has sent me an extremely cool hinged egg, which— in deference to our shared love of cats— I believe I will keep stocked with catnip. Sometime during the Toad Bird Night of Pork-Eared Debauchery I pick up a ceremonial scented Lviv candle and a floppy purple-red cat.

But Gene Piletsky— the Professor of Philosophy of Mind— passes along the coolest gift I’ve ever been able to fit in my pocket: an astrolabe hand-crafted by one— I want to say, Vsevolod Buravchenko[2]?— ostensibly in payment for all the freebies he’s downloaded from my Backlist page over the years. This thing is not just beautiful, it’s solid: you could use it to smash in someone’s skull and it wouldn’t suffer a scratch.

*

Many Lvivian toilets can only be accessed via underground catacombs. Somehow, they make it work.

Maria sees me to the airport. Our taxi passes electric trolleys pulled from the pages of a children’s book I once owned on trains of Europe, back in the nineteen sixties. I am amazed and impressed that they’re still running— imagining them, perhaps, as ancient alien machines humming smoothly without repair or maintenance, millennia after installation— but Maria wishes they’d just fucking get replaced already. Apparently they don’t hum smoothly, after a measly fifty years. Apparently they break down in the boons, and Central Dispatch can’t find them.

Lviv seems pretty idyllic to some tourist who blows in for a few days, all expenses paid. To the people who live here, maybe not so much. It’s not just the invasion. Apparently a lot of Ukrainians sneak across the border into Poland, undocumented, seeking work. They only take jobs that the Poles won’t do anyway, Maria says. Anyway, she’s doing okay: she’s smart, she never stops, she’s got a scholarship that’s enough for her to get by on.

$50 USD, she says. I think she means per month.

LOT flight LO766 out of Lviv is delayed an hour and a half (the running joke, apparently, is that LOT stands for “Later, Or Tomorrow”). I miss my connecting flight in Warsaw (which turns out to be the only Warsaw LOT flight that actually leaves on time the whole day). They put me up in the Marriott across the street. That’s okay. I could use a quiet night alone to just process the preceding week.

When I finally make it back into the air, some woman with a baby tucked under her arm tries to open the emergency exit, ten thousand meters up, mistaking the hatch for a fold-down diaper-changing table. There’s no real danger. Pressure differential would keep the hatch sealed tight even if we don’t ultimately dissuade her with our shouts and gesticulations.

From a narrative standpoint it’s a shame: that would’ve been a hell of a way to end the story. Instead, I make it back home alive and unharmed, only to read that a bunch of neo-Nazis in Lviv, armed with knives and hammers, beat up a group of left-wing activists while I was reveling in literature and fine companionship across town.

You just can’t get away from this shit.

I saw at least three publicity stills of me at the Festival. All were black and white, all taken prior to 2014. None were the current picture I actually sent for PR purposes, which you can see upper right. The only reasonable conclusion is that nobody thought anyone would want to buy a book by anyone who looks like I do now.


[1] Three, if you count cyberattacks.

[2] I want to say this because it’s the name of a recent Facebook Friend with pictures of astrolabes all over his timeline, so it’s a good bet. But the artifact itself is unsigned, and I’ve forgotten the name Gene told me.

The Split-brain Universe

An extended Nowa Fantaskyka remix.

The year is 1982. I read Isaac Asimov’s newly-published Foundation’s Edge with a sinking heart. Here is the one of Hard-SF’s Holy Trinity writing— with a straight face, as far as I can tell— about the “consciousness” of rocks and trees and doors, for Chrissakes. Isaac, what happened? I wonder. Conscious rocks? Are you going senile?

No, as it turned out. Asimov had simply discovered physical panpsychism: a school of thought that holds that everything— rocks, trees, electrons, even Donald Trump— is conscious to some degree. The panpsychics regard consciousness as an intrinsic property of matter, like mass and charge and spin. It’s an ancient belief— its roots go all the way back to ancient Greece—but it has recently found new life among consciousness researchers. Asimov was simply ahead of his time.

I’ve always regarded panpsychism as an audacious cop-out. Hanging a sign that says “intrinsic” on one of Nature’s biggest mysteries doesn’t solve anything; it merely sweeps it under the rug. Turns out, though, that I’d never really met audacious before. Not until I read “The Universe in Consciousness” by Bernardo Kastrup, in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Kastrup goes panpsychism one better. He’s not saying that all matter is conscious. He’s saying that all matter is consciousness— that consciousness is all there is, and matter is just one of its manifestations. “Nothing exists outside or independent of cosmic consciousness,” he writes. “The perceivable cosmos is in consciousness, as opposed to being conscious.” Oh, and he also says the whole universe suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder.

It reads like some kind of flaky New Age metaphor. He means it literally, though.

He calls it science.

*

Just as plausible, apparently.

Even on a purely local level, there are reasons to be skeptical of MPS (or DID, as it’s known today: Dissociative Identity Disorder). DID diagnoses tend to spike in the wake of new movies or books about multiple personalities, for example. Many cases don’t show themselves until after the subject has spent time in therapy— generally for some other issue entirely— only to have the alters emerge following nudges and leading questions from therapists whose critical and methodological credentials might not be so rigorous as one would like. And there is the— shall we say questionable nature of certain alternate personalities themselves. One case in the literature reported an alter that identified as a German Shepherd. Another identified— don’t ask me how— as a lobster. (I know what you’re thinking, but this was years before the ascension of Jordan Peterson in the public consciousness.)

When you put this all together with the fact that even normal conscious processes seem to act like a kind of noisy parliament— that we all, to some extent, “talk to ourselves”, all have different facets to our personalities— it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the whole thing didn’t boil down to a bunch of overactive imaginations, being coached by people who really should have known better. Psychic CosPlaying, if you will. This interpretation is popular enough to have its own formal title: the Sociocognitive Model.

There could be a sort of psychiatric Sturgeon’s Law at play here, though; the fact that 90% of such studies are crap doesn’t necessarily mean that all of them are. Brain scans of “possessed” DID bodies show distinctly different profiles than those of professional actors trained to merely behave as though they were: the parts of the brain that lit up in actors are associated with imagination and empathy, while those lighting up in DID patients are involved with stress and fear responses. I’m not entirely convinced— can actors, knowingly faking a condition, really stand in for delusional people who sincerely believe in their affliction? Still, the stats are strong; and it’s hard to argue with a different study in which the visual centers of a sighted person’s brain apparently shut down in a sighted person when a “blind” alter took the controls.

Also let’s not forget the whole split-brain phenomenon. We know that different selves can exist simultaneously within a single brain, at least if it’s been partitioned in some way.

This is the premise upon which Kastrup bases his model of Reality Itself.

*

You’ve probably heard of quantum entanglement. Kastrup argues that entangled systems form a single, integrated, and above all irreducible system. Also that, since everything is ultimately entangled to something else, the entire inanimate universe is “one indivisible whole”, as irreducible as a quark. He argues— let me quote him here directly, so you won’t think I’m making this up—

“that the sole ontological primitive there is is cosmic phenomenal consciousness … Nothing exists outside or independent of cosmic consciousness. Under this interpretation one should say that the cosmos is constituted by phenomenality, as opposed to bearing phenomenality. In other words, here the perceivable cosmos is in consciousness, as opposed to being conscious.”

Why would he invoke such an apparently loopy argument? How are we any further ahead in understanding our consciousness by positing that the universe itself is built from the stuff? Kastrup is trying to reconcile the “combination problem” of bottom-up panpsychism: even if you accept that every particle contains a primitive conscious “essence”, you’re still stuck with explaining how those rudiments combine to form the self-reflective sapience of complex objects like ourselves. Kastrup’s answer is to start at the other end. Instead of positing that consciousness emerges from the very small and working up to sentient beings, why not posit that it’s a property of the universe as a whole and work down?

Well, for one thing, because now you’ve got the opposite problem: rather than having to explain how little particles of proto-consciousness combine to form true sapience, now you have to explain how some universal ubermind splits into separate entities (i.e., if we’re all part of the same cosmic consciousness, why can’t I read your mind? Why do you and I even exist as distinct beings?)

This is where DID comes in. Kastrup claims that the same processes that give rise to multiple personalities in humans also occur at the level of the whole Universe, that all of inanimate “reality” consists of Thought, and its animate components— cats, earthworms, anything existing within a bounded metabolism— are encysted bits of consciousness isolated from the Cosmic Self:

“We, as well as all other living organisms, are but dissociated alters of cosmic consciousness, surrounded by its thoughts. The inanimate world we see around us is the revealed appearance of these thoughts. The living organisms we share the world with are the revealed appearances of other dissociated alters.”

And what about Reality before the emergence of living organisms?

“I submit that, before its first alter [i.e., separate conscious entity] ever formed, the only phenomenal contents of cosmic consciousness were thoughts.”

In case you’re wondering (and you damn well should be): yes, the Journal of Consciousness Studies is peer-reviewed. Respectable, even. Heavy hitters like David Chalmers and Daniel Dennet appear in its pages. And Kastrup doesn’t just pull claims out of his ass; he cites authorities from Augusto to von Neumann to back up his quantum/cosmic entanglement riff, for example. Personally, I’m not convinced— I think I see inconsistencies in his reasoning— but not being a physicist, what would I know? I haven’t read the authorities he cites, and wouldn’t understand them if I did. This Universal Split-Brain thing reads like Philip K. Dick on a bad day; then again, couldn’t you say the same about Schrödinger’s Cat, or the Many Worlds hypothesis?

Still, reading Kastrup’s paper, I have to keep reminding myself: Peer-reviewed. Respectable. Daniel Dennet.

Of course, repeat that too often and it starts to sound like a religious incantation.

*

To an SF writer, this is obviously a gold mine.

Kastrup’s model is epic creation myth: a formless thinking void, creating sentient beings In Its Image. The idea that Thou Art God (Stranger in a Strange Land, anyone?), that God is everywhere— that part of the paradigm reads like it was lifted beat-for-beat out of the Abrahamic religions. The idea that “The world is imagined” seems lifted from the Dharmic ones.

The roads we might travel from this starting point! Here’s just one: at our local Earthbound scale of reality DID is classed as a pathology, something to be cured. The patient is healthy only when their alters have been reintegrated. Does this scale up? Is the entire universe, as it currently exists, somehow “sick”? Is the reintegration of fragmented alters the only way to cure it, can the Universe only be restored to health only by resorbing all sentient beings back into some primordial pool of Being? Are we the disease, and our eradication the cure?

You may remember that I’m planning to write a concluding volume to the trilogy begun with Blindsight and continued in Echopraxia. I had my own thoughts as to how that story would conclude— but I have to say, Kastrup’s paper has opened doors I never considered before.

It just seems so off-the-wall that— peer-reviewed or not— I don’t know if I could ever sell it in a Hard-SF novel.

…Aaaand We’re Back.

You may  have noticed some breakage here at rifters.com over the past week or so: little black diamonds where punctuation should be, graphics failing to load, broken fonts and formats on some of the Blindopraxia pages.  I think the whole site may have vanished briefly, although I can’t be sure.

Basically, the conjunction of some crappy customer service from my previous ISP (Dreamhost) and what looks to be Canada’s imminent caving on a trade deal that not only builds on all the worst aspects of NAFTA, but also bundles the worst elements of the (back from the dead) TPP, finally inspired me to get off my ass and move this site offshore. I’m kind of ashamed it took me this long.

It’s been untenable for a while now, what with the 5-Eyes policy of you spy on our people and we’ll spy on yours to get around domestic privacy legislation.  But the news filtering out from NAFTA suggests that while Canada bitches and moans about Dairy and sunset Clauses, nobody’s raising a peep about IP rules that w0uld essentially give corporations US-style carte blanche to shut down any site, even in Canada, that they don’t like. (To cite one example: “Notice and Takedown” provisions allow corporations to force the removal of websites merely accused of copyright violation, no evidence required.  A number of activist sites— including OpenMedia and the Electronic Frontier Foundationwere recently hit by DMCA takedown notices alleging that they hosted illegal copies of songs by an Australian musician whose work did not, needless to say, actually appear anywhere on the targeted sites. What does appear on those sites is a lot of editorializing and campaigning against things like NAFTA and the DCMA. It is tiredly ironic that their efforts to fight censorship are being censored using the very techniques they’re trying to raise the alarm about.)

Obviously, North America is no place to run a website if you want the option of speaking either freely or privately.  The EU isn’t looking much better.

Iceland, though.

Here’s a country that has freedom from censorship embedded in its constitution. A country that actually jailed its bankers after the Crash of ’08. A country almost entirely energy self-sufficient (well, except for its fishing fleet), a country with the greenest carbon footprint on the planet, the third-safest nation on the globe for data storage and privacy (after Switzerland and Singapore).

It’s also the place I’d like to end up when global civilization collapses.  I have no actual strategy to move me or my family there just yet, but at least I can move rifters.com. So that’s what I’ve done: moved to the Icelandic hosting service called (please God let it be ironic) 1984.

It hasn’t been a seamless transition. Things got broken during the move; a few things still are. I’m gonna be poking around backstage for a while yet, trying to figure out how the <h1> tag on the Sotala and MilZomb pages got screwed up when they worked just fine back in California. Gremlins may have been involved. But for the most part, we’re up and running again, away from the grubby little paws of Trumps and Trudeaus.

Thunder Thighs, my ass. This is gorgeous.

This is basically a test post to make sure everything’s running as well as I hope. If you’ve made it through all the house-keeping, though, here’s a very cool picture to reward your patience: the cover art for the Polish edition of Freeze-Frame Revolution, by an entity going by the name of Dark Crayon. It is amazing.  I loved it on first sight, and continue to love it even after The BUG remarked that it looked as though Sunday Ahzmundin was being squeezed between Giant Thunder Thighs. Even that could not stop me from loving it.

Also I think I may have misconfigured Google Analytics back in North America. I’m not using it here (another long-overdue transition), but according to the stats on this new 1984 board I’ve been underestimating my web traffic by an order of magnitude.

I should be less humble.

Late-breaking Update [0900 EST]: sometime since “qa” left their lonely comment, it has apparently become impossible to post comments on the ‘crawl. I have no idea what the problem is— at least, I haven’t touched anything backstage in the interim. I’ve reached out to tech support. In the meantime, if any of you have thhe time and inclination, how about trying to post a test comment, and— assuming it fails— dropping me a line via the Contact link to mention the symptoms?

Still a few bugs in the system. Thank you for your patience.

Posted in: public interface by Peter Watts 25 Comments

Heads Up/Periscope Down.

Hey Mammals.

Just to let you know, rifters.com may be going dark in the near future, hopefully not for very long. If we’re lucky, you won’t even notice it.

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 7 Comments

N.K. Jemisin, Alpha Gal

 

 

…and picking right up from where we left off last week, some of you may remember an ancient post about the Lone Star Tick, whose bite can provoke a fatal hyperallergenic reaction to “alpha-gal” (galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose for the pedants in the audience), a monosaccharide found only in the meat of nonprimate mammals. You may remember cool scenarios in which vegan terrorists gengineer this reaction into biting insects of all sorts, spreading it worldwide and forcing human meat-eaters to choose between giving up meat or eating each other (basically, win-win either way). And if you are lovers of the opera, you may even remember this poster off to the right, a PSA I put together as one of the world-building elements of “Fish To Mars”.

All ancient history now. But alpha gal is the gift that keeps on giving. Just last month, The New York Times published an update on this tick-borne malady (cleverly illustrated with emoji-faces built out of veal cutlets and sausages) which made an interesting claim indeed:

“OUR DISTANT ANCESTORS once made alpha-gal. Understanding why humans don’t could shed light on the meat-allergy mystery Like other mammals, South American monkeys produce alpha-gal. Only Old World monkeys and apes (and humans) have lost the ability to make the sugar. Hence scientists deduce that the change most likely happened after New and Old World primates diverged from each other around 40 million years ago. One explanation for the disappearance of alpha-gal is that it was driven by some catastrophe, a deadly infection that afflicted Old World primates, perhaps, and as a result maybe these distant relatives of ours stopped being able to produce the sugar because doing so conferred an evolutionary advantage. The mutation that eliminated alpha-gal could have improved a primate’s ability to fight off an infection by enabling its immune system to more easily distinguish between its own body and some pathogen with alpha-gal.”

…and I can’t help thinking Hey, didn’t Blindopraxia’s vampires and their protocadherin dependency end up at the same point, but for opposite reasons? Both vampires and a post-tickular Humanity resort to eating fellow primates— but one does so because no other prey contains a vital substance, while the other does so because all other prey contain a toxic substance.

It’s almost too symmetrical.

So now, I’m thinking we might have an origin story for vampires. Maybe what bootstrapped the subspecies was an epidemic, something like this postulated alpha-gal pathogen but more recent. Something that knocked out protocadherin synthesis in a small, isolated population of hominins, most of which— having survived the epidemic— found themselves dying off for lack of that necessary protein.  All but a few dispersers, who made it out of their isolated refuge and back into the mainstream where their unsuspecting cousins bred and fed, all unsuspecting…

Don’t really know yet how that might fit into the overall plot. Just starting to think about it. Maybe no more than a bit of background ambiance, throwaway background for readers to geek out over if so inclined. Or maybe something more— because once you know how vampires originally got made, you’re one step closer to being able to unmake them…

Apparently there's also a sequel...

Apparently there’s also a sequel…

Or I might just try to resurrect my idea for the big glossy hardcover Coffee Table Book— The Proceedings of the Second Biennial Conference on the Biology and Evolution of Vampires— that I always wanted to pattern after that big best-selling tome on the natural history of Gnomes that was all the rage back in the seventies. The book that has, so far at least, never failed to make agents and editors alike roll their eyes and tell me to fuck off when I pitch it to them…

*

Some of you are probably wondering how N.K. Jemisin fits into all of this.

She doesn’t exactly. Not into the vampire stuff anyway, although I suppose if you were given to terrible puns you could call her an Alpha Gal in her own right (what with three consecutive Best-Novel Hugos and all). But she is the editor of the 2018 Edition of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, and she did think enough of “ZeroS” to include it in that volume. And HMH let us off the leash just yesterday, and encouraged us to announce it to all and sundry. So, as a postscript, that is what I’m doing.

 

 

That’s four best-of-year collections “ZeroS” has made it into, which is nice by any standards. At the same time, the other three are edited by folks I’ve known and dealt with in the past. So it’s especially nice to have made it onto Jemisin’s radar— and if I might drop one more name, it’s also humbling to end up in the same Table of Contents as Samuel Delany.

I’ve been trying to write like that guy since I was a teenager.

Posted in: biology, Omniscience, writing news by Peter Watts 19 Comments