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 13 Comments

The Clipperton Conundrum

 

.

.

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 16 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.

.

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

Meta2

“Get used to disappointment.”
—The Dread Pirate Roberts

.

First, the PSA: Yeah, Freeze-Frame has evidently made the finals for the Campbell. Given its cohabitation with nine other worthy finalists, I’m not holding my breath. Realistically, I expect FFR will not win the Campbell a full day before it doesn’t win the Locus. On the plus side, it has already won something called the Nowa Fantastyka Award for Best Foreign Novel over in Poland, an honor of which my Polish publishers have, oddly, yet to inform me (I only found out about it while egosurfing). I’m told they took the trophy home, though.

The Poles. They never let me down.

But it is none of these things that I mainly write about today. Today I’m focusing on a whole other species of tribute, and it involves AI.

*

Back when I was doing research for “The Wisdom of Crowds”, I poked around amongst various articles on deep learning and textbots. These included Sam Gallagher’s recent Ars Technica piece, which introduced me to OpenAI’s GPT-2: a textbot which devours the souls of FDA reports and Clinton speeches and Amazon product reviews, and channels it all back into output running the gamut from uncanny—

According to a study published by the Institute of Medicine, an estimated 400,000 people die from transfusions every year, mostly due to an array of diseases, from HIV infection to Type 2 diabetes. At age 24, nearly 60 percent of these deaths are caused by transfusions, even though there is a significant genetic and physical impairment which results in over-fatal events such as heart attacks, stroke or stroke-related strokes.1

—to downright Trumpian—

GOAT DICK-IN-THE-BOY BOY

GREAT BOY

GREAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT- GOAT

GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT2

—to somewhere in between:

Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea and most closely aligned with the United States, has warned of an imminent U.S. attack. The test of a hydrogen bomb Thursday killed 13 people and injured several others in a Pyongyang explosion, the country’s state TV station reported.<|endoftext|>Coconut Cream

Put aside the false claims of H-bombs in Pyongyan et al. If stating falsehoods was enough to fail a Turing Test, you’d be able to count the entire sapient population of the Internet on your fingers and toes— and besides, the whole point of deepfakery is to sheathe lies in an aura of verisimilitude. Give a pass also to that Coconut-cream glitch and its kin, since the Ars Technica output was generated not by GPT-2 itself but by a lobotomized variant running a mere 117 million parameters; the fully-fledged program (which handles 1.5 billion parameters) isn’t nearly so likely to commit such obvious mistakes. (That’s the very reason why Ars didn’t have access to it, in fact: OpenAI has refused to release it because it’s too good, could too easily  be used for nefarious purposes.)

These deep-learning text-generating algos are getting asymptotically close to real-world iterations of Searle’s Chinese Room. So it was probably only a matter of time before someone, in an act of supreme metaness, applied one of them to Blindsight.

“Someone” turns out to be Cody Raskin, an astrophysicist working out of Lawrence Livermore. He fed Blindsight into a Google deep learning network and told it to write a sequel. Total output weighs in at almost 1400 words and is worth checking out in its entirety, but here are a few excerpts for the time-constrained:

I thought as Sarasti fell back on old tricks and countermeasures: I pushed out an arm from the shuttle and watched it slacken, the tendrils trailing like the tail of a fish behind the rack. I heard him grunt.

The shuttle was aloft now. It swung quickly down the spine and disappeared. A low clatter to one side had the echo of a thousand arms flexing before my gaze. A second slipped by, almost imperceptible, like the heartbeat of a mosquito on a wire.

One of the arms flared and split open. Rorschach resisted my reflexive gaze; I had to keep my gaze fixed on my post-capture host in order to register Rorschach moving around the drum like some sort of living insect.

“The idea that the brain doesn’t create information is an illusion. It’s like telling me that my eyes are not reflecting to my brain, and that’s not what it’s doing, which is to point out that there’s some subtle but significant difference between seeing and knowing.”

“You don’t think that’s exactly the kind of thing the brain determines, do you? Do you?” she said.

“I’m really going out on a limb here. The details come from the study of the behavior of the neurons, not from some fancy theoretical description of the brain.”

“How so?”

“Because when you watch what’s going on beneath the surface, the brain has to balance all of the sensory information, and when your eyes aren’t looking at the same thing over and over and over—well, that’s not so simple, is it?” She smiled at him. “It all looks very complicated to us, but what’s happening in the brain’s head is not that simple to the eyes. What’s interesting about the brain is that it doesn’t really know.”

“But it does.” Bates agreed. “The way you know is the way you do.”

Not that Sarasti believed the story. But he knew a lot more now than he had then. That was perhaps even more important than his own ability. He was aware that I was listening; at least of what he said, of what he really had to say, he knew that I was watching.

But I always knew and was aware, and knew something.

I knew what I was thinking. And I knew what I was saying.

He had known the answer to that question for several hours, and he had had it all figured out for the other eleven, if I was being honest. He had known my feelings at that moment; he had known the consequences if I was right; he had also known precisely how long I would have to play the game; and at this point the consequences were so plain that I didn’t even have to guess them.

I knew that this was all for nothing—that Sarasti would just find another victim.

I never had a chance, though. I was so close. I was so goddamn far away.

I was at the bottom of the mountain.

I was sitting in this chair.

 

There are a few predictable reactions to all this. An inevitable contingent will hold that this AI-generated content is significantly better than the real sequel to Blindsight— and because I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that point of view, I suggest we all pause a moment to let those folks get that out of their system.

Another response is to be spooked out by the style. It really does rather sound like me; and there’s an undeniable lilt, a rhythm to words that somehow lulls you into thinking they make sense even when they don’t. Cody calls it a “jabberwocky” quality: “you get the sense that it’s saying something, and images are certainly formed in your mind, but you can’t quite pin down what’s actually happening.” It fascinates me, this sense of meaning without substance. I’d almost call it a metaphor for the answers career politicians give to sticky questions: glib, eloquent, somehow reassuring until you try to parse the actual meaning behind the words and fail to find any. But I can’t quite call it metaphor, because it seems too damn close to the mark for mere analogy. I suspect that speech-writers use pretty much the same algorithms these textbots do.

But what’s haunting me right now is temptation. Because while applying a Chinese Room to a book about Chinese Rooms is deliciously meta, we can push it further. I am, after all, plotting out a third and final volume in the Blindopraxia sequence— and at least part of that novel is likely to tangle with the dissolution of consciousness on the part of certain characters. It’s a process which might be well represented by the sort of stream-of-nonconsciousness put out by neural nets channeling the words of the conscious.

Right now I can’t think of anything cooler than getting an AI to generate at least some elements of Omniscience. I have no idea if I could make it work— logistically or thematically— but we’d need to come up with some new word for the result.

“Meta” would only get us halfway.


1 Based on text from an AT article on blood transfusions

2 Which was, allegedly, based on text from an actual Trump speech.

Posted in: AI/robotics, Omniscience, writing news by Peter Watts 31 Comments

The Hypersonic Weaponised Yogurt Award Nomination

 

Welcome to the Starfish Initiative

The green icon on the map represents the realtime location of an unmanned hypersonic glide vehicle carrying an explosive payload of 300 kilotons. You are one of a million participants randomly selected from the online community to choose its target. Use your keyboard, joystick, or saccadal interface to move the flashing white icon to the spot on the globe that you would choose for Ground Zero. The final target will be assigned based on a weighted bootstrap mode of all choices.

If you leave the voting pool a replacement will be randomly selected from the online community. If you change your mind and select a different target, your definitive vote will be based on a dialectical bootstrap mean of your combined choices. Target commit will occur in

6 h 59 m 59 sec
6 h 59 m 58 sec
6 h 59 m 57 sec
6 h 59 m 56 sec
.
.
.

I think the static is kind of a metaphor.

So begins my debut on the Slovenian literary stage— more specifically, my story “The Wisdom of Crowds” in the “Hypersonic Hyperstitions” issue of ŠUM, a theme issue released in conjunction with the Venice Biennale exhibition by Marko Peljhan.

The exhibition goes by the name “System 317”. It is constructed around the concept of hypersonic glide vehicles. The original pitch incorporated the lyrics to Alice Cooper’s “Space Pirates”. [Update 9/5/2019: The issue is available in its entirety here.]

Overall, the whole contraption looks utterly batshit, and I am pleased to be a part of it.

*

Šum is not the only venue where you’ll find recent work by me. That Toronto 2033 project I was telling you about a while back has been quietly releasing its component stories onto the web at the rate of one per month.  “Gut Feelings” is the latest to go up; as one or two of you have guessed from the promotional fiblet, this is that story about weaponised yogurt I’ve been mulling over since 2015.

I was a bit worried about potential legal action by Google, until I realized that if they were going to take any real action against the story, they would have done so before I even thought of writing it.

*

Also The Freeze Frame Revolution made the finals in the “Best Novella” category for this year’s Locus Awards.  There is, of course, no chance in hell that I’ll win: I’m up against not one but two of those insanely-popular Murderbot stories, for one thing. I can, however, take a grim sense of personal vindication from the fact that someone finally classified the fucking thing as a novella.

*

And finally, an admission of regret.  We live in a time when disembodied brains are being brought back to life after hours of oxygen deprivation, and the only reason they didn’t return to full consciousness may have been because they’d been preemptively saturated with synaptic inhibitors. We live in a world where human genes, injected into monkeys, appear to have uplifted them (or at least improved their performance on memory tests). We live in a world where the discovery that neurons emit remotely detectable radio signals opens up whole new vistas for brain-computer interfaces, where a week can’t seem to pass without some august group of experts pointing out that we’re about to wipe out a million species.

I would much prefer to fill these pixels exploring the ramifications of such developments.  I keep intending to get back to crunchy science. But then some other gig or deadline pops up and squashes whatever time I may have set aside for any kind of thoughtful analysis. I make more money, which is always good, but you get left with a grab-bag of half-assed Squid PR and a jpeg or two.

I’m heading west next week for a late-breaking game gig. Who knows? When I get back, I may have time to post something real.

Gratuitous jpeg #6372: Echopraxia comes out in Ukrainian.

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 26 Comments

Peter Watts is an Angry Sentient Tumor.

I especially like the “Slippery Surface” motif. Although “Thin Ice” might have been even better…

So that’s the title they went with.

My suggestion was simply “Revenge Fantasies”, but apparently in the #MeToo era such a phrase, in isolation, is too evocative of “revenge porn”. I believe the whole sentient tumor thing was originally coined by Analee Newitz.

As titles go, I admit that it rocks.

I’m surprised to be bringing this up so early. I don’t even know what the collection is going to contain— Tachyon gave me a ballpark word count and I sent them over twice that, leaving them to decide what makes the cut. But given its sudden appearance on Amazon (complete with a handful of skill-testing questions), I guess I can talk about it.

So here it is.

Peter Watts is an Angry Sentient Tumor: Revenge Fantasies and Essays

is pretty much what it sounds like. A few months back Tachyon‘s Jacob Weisman pitched me the idea of an essay collection. My initial reaction was, I suspect, similar to yours: In God’s name, why?  My essays are already available; I’ve been writing them on this very ‘crawl for somewhere around 15 years now. I’ve been writing them for Nowa Fantastyka over in Poland. I’ve even done occasional prestige gigs at places like Aeon and The Daily (generally when someone far hotter than me is struck with flesh-eating disease, and the media needs a memoir from someone who isn’t currently in a medically-induced coma). Hell, even my lectures are sprinkled online here and there.

But apparently Freeze-Frame Revolution continues to do well (so they tell me, anyway), and so did Beyond the Rift in its day (which also packaged old wine in new bottles to good effect, now that I think of it). So Tachyon is interested in keeping me out there. And if John Scalzi can get away with anthologizing his blog posts, why not me? (I’m a lot less virtuous than Scalzi, of course. Hopefully at least some will regard that not as a bug, but a feature.)

So now you know as much as I do: a collection of rants and essays, potentially ranging from climate change to colonoscopies to cats, but really, who knows? Amazon pigeonholes it under  “Science Essays & Commentary”, “Science Fiction & Fantasy Literary Criticism”, and “Science Fiction History & Criticism”. Tachyon pegs its length at 288 pages. You can combine a lot of different modules into a box that size; I’ve even asked them to leave open the possibility of including pieces I haven’t written yet.  Or even second-edition rewrites of older posts, to keep them current (anyone interested in my second-season take on Westworld, now’s the time to speak up).

Hell. If we get desperate you might read these words again in a year or so, posing as an Introduction.

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 23 Comments

Late Notice, Long Distance

I’ve been head down lately: writing a story to accompany an upcoming art installation on Hypersonic Glide Vehicles, gearing up for a class talk at York University, and— weighing most heavily— preparing for a symposium/workshop over in Hungary, under the auspices of the Institute for Advanced Studies, Köszeg (iASK for short). The title of the whole shindig is “Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Science Fiction: Coping with a Complex Future“. It kicks off with a one-day symposium in which a physicist, a biologist, a couple of social scientists and an SF writer walk into a bar and take turns monopolizing a podium[1]. (I appear to have the first slot: working title is “Delusional Optimism at the End of the World”.) Afterward, the lot of us sit around and have a panel discussion.

No connection with Apple, as far as I know.

Of course, it’s Hungary. If none of you make it, I won’t hold it against you. I’ve been told, though, that the symposium is going to be streamed. I don’t know any details, but if you’ve got nothing better to do on a Saturday, you might want to look into that.

There’s also a two-day writing workshop. April 8-9. I’m running that one on my own. I’ve never done one of those before. I suppose I should probably get started on that.

Oh, and for those of you checking out the flyer— no, I have not lost the beard or started dying my hair. The organizers just opted for a ten-year-old picture, instead of the more-current shots I sent.

Maybe they just don’t like cats.


[1] Don’t be fooled by the rudimentary poster or the preliminary schedule; I am, indeed, only one of five participants and I am, in fact, giving a talk in the morning.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 14 Comments

The Gong Show.

Refreshing honesty. I still think I’ll stay away from their health supplements, though.

Dateline — MidAtlantic. The BUG and I are crossing the ocean in an airbus that’s been painted a lurid mix of purple and pink— call it pinple— whose in-flight menus are refreshingly honest and whose vomit bags are volumetrically calibrated from “pan flute music” to “our competitor’s prices”. The uniforms of the flight attendants are straightforward pink. It’s like flying across the ocean in a giant pitcher of purple Kool-Aid, attended by sapient blobs of bubble gum, and— while I always insist on bulkhead seats or better on transoceanic jaunts— I can’t help but notice that the legroom is adequate even in Economy.

The Airline is WOW, out of Iceland. It might almost be a glimpse of one of the “Optimistic Futures” we’re supposed to map out when we touch down in Germany, if not for the fact that the company is on the verge of bankruptcy and might go under before our return flight.

*

Futurism— “product-testing the future”, “strategic foresight”, whatever you want to call it— seems to be big business these days. Everywhere you look corporations are scooping up science-fiction writers for keynote addresses or “consulting retreats”. Colleges offer actual goddamn degrees in the stuff; Toronto’s own OCAD University peddles a degree in something called “Strategic Foresight and Innovation”. (It’s telling that this sfnal exercise in futurism exists in an arts college which— as far as I can tell— offers no science courses in its curriculum. Why, it’s almost as if science doesn’t play any significant role in shaping the future. Or getting paid to talk about it, at least.)

Hell, look at me: I’m hardly on SF’s A-list and my presence on the X-Prize Foundation’s Advisory Council is only the tip of the iceberg. Next month I’ll be in Hungary, teaching a workshop on the use of science fiction as a tool for “Coping with a Complex Future”. A few years back I was invited onto the Futurists’ Board of something called “The Lifeboat Foundation” (which I accepted, even though that whole organization seems largely moribund— the board contains an absolute shitload of science fiction authors), and some very sketchy-sounding Russian outfit called “Earth 2050” (which I didn’t, because they kept avoiding direct answers to my questions). I continue to give guest lectures, generally along strategic-foresighty lines, at colleges and universities. I’ve even been asked to talk about “The Future of Humanity” at an auto show in Shanghai a few months down the road, although I expect I’ll have to decline (not only do I already have a lot on my plate, but they seem to be arresting a lot of Canadians over there lately).

Then there’s “Designing Tomorrow”, which the BUG and I are about to join along with an international cadre of futurists at an undisclosed location.

*

Still jetlagged, we are bussed to a lakeside retreat an hour north of Berlin, innocent of infrastructural services like grocery stores or gas stations. There are a couple of local bars but the organizers warn us away, describing them as examples of “present-day dystopias”.

The meals are catered by anonymous servers whose faces remain forever unseen. There is a sauna and three kitchens; the east wall of one of them is virtually hidden behind a scree of beer and munchies.

Uri— the dude we met at Utopia last year, and an organizer of the current shindig— has brought a great tin gong. He hangs it in the conference room, and bashes it to summon us unto duty.

Uri, Geraldine, Eden. I’m pretty sure these were the main organizational masterminds.

*

This woman prints houses out of sand.

We are surrounded by overachievers. Uri and Eden and Katharina (all from Utopia) are the only familiar faces, but the assembled crack team of experts also includes seven curators of various galleries, conferences, and festivals; seven writers; seven assorted entrepreneurs (start-up founders/VPs, CEOs, etc); five artists and design specialists; three architects; two game designers; three “digital consultants”; three human rights activists; one cyber-security expert; a playwright; an art theorist; and a Senior Fellow with Mozilla. That’s 41 callings crammed into a measly 18 participants, for anyone who’s counting— and that doesn’t include some of the more arcane skills on display, like “media activist” or “SF Evangelist” or even “former marine biologist”.

One participant runs a lottery-based Basic-Income project; another does amazing things with sand and silicon, designs and 3D-prints houses using only local materials. There’s a VR maestro building a story about dead grandmothers in the Internet of Things; one of the Human Rights Activists is working on a PhD on ethics and AI.

Apparently we’re here to help save the world.

Chronocartographers.

*

Don’t laugh. The subtext is ubiquitous: mandatory upbeats run through most of these events like candy-coated blood poisoning, ever since Neal Stephenson internalized the accusation that Science Fiction was to blame for the sorry state of the space program— you remember, because we weren’t being inspirational enough— and booted the whole Optimistic SF movement into high gear. The years since have been sprinkled with Sunshine anthologies and editorials hectoring us to Stop Writing Dystopias And Write About Solutions— as though solutions haven’t been staring us in the face for decades, as though it weren’t obvious what we could do to avoid catastrophe. (Stop breeding, for one thing; how long does it take to get a fucking vasectomy?) What the haranguers are really demanding is easy solutions, magical ways to save the world without having to reduce their own comfy standard of living[1] and their own rutting proliferation. They’re not peddling optimism so much as denial.

This desperate upbeatiness has found its way into the think tanks. The guys at the Shanghai auto show want my talk to “provok[e] people to think and act towards a better future”. The whole X-Prize initiative is explicitly founded on the belief that Technology Can Save Us. Uri told me up front that “We want to create visions for desirable tomorrows”, before admitting that he was struggling with that imperative himself.

These are worthy sentiments, of course. Noble, even. Who doesn’t want to strive for a better future? Who wouldn’t work whatever optimistic angles they could find? Does anyone think that those of us in the doomsayers camp are here because we want to be?

By the same token, though, I’m not entirely sure why Uri— why anyone familiar with my work— would want to include me in such an exercise in the first place. Maybe he needs an outgroup to anchor the discussion. Maybe he wants to force me to think outside my own box, expand my horizons a bit; I could do with a bit of that, I have to admit.

Maybe he doesn’t really want me there at all. Maybe, given his druthers, he’d have just invited Caitlin, but he didn’t want to leave me feeling left out.

*

In direct contrast with what you read in the accompanying text, here Eden is talking about EVE Online.

Eden lays out two sets of tools: Fore/Back-casting and Four Futures. Fore/backcasting is pretty much what it sounds like: Instead of starting at the present and following the trend data into the future— a methodology that, given the available indicators, is pretty much guaranteed to serve up Hell On Earth— you instead start with the future you desire, and back-cast to the present. We want a society that’s entirely carbon-neutral by 2050? Okay, what would the world have to look like in 2049 to make that attainable? 2045? 2040? At the same time you also take the more conventional approach of moving forward from the present in similar increments, but with your desirable endpoint in mind: what kind of changes can one reasonably project over the next year, the next five, that would head us in the right direction?

I feel a mild shock of recognition; in principle, backcasting is identical to a kind of back-to-front ecological modeling I learned about back in grad school. I’m a little embarrassed that in my focus on crafting plausible futures, I’d forgotten such an obvious method for trying to map out better ones.

The tricky part, of course, is what happens when fore- and back-casting run into each other in the middle. The tricky part is in stitching them together. Eden’s been down this road before; during past workshops, forecast and backcast have been so incompatible that the participants have resorted to invoking a convenient apocalypse to wipe clean the forecast slate, allowing the happier backcast to emerge from the ashes. Eden has grown uncomfortable that so many paths to Utopia seem to lead through seven-digit death tolls; this time, he tells us, we can’t use global disaster to stitch our timeline together. This time we have to assume that civilization persists as it improves.

The Four Futures approach— taken from a book by Peter Frase— is new to me. You imagine the futures of two things— say, “the future of networks” and “the future of capitalism”. Plot one along the x-axis (from “everything partitioned” to “everything networked”), the other along the y (“capitalism dismantled” to “hypercapitalism ubiquitous”). You now have a 2-dimensional space split into 4 quadrants, which you can use to explore various scenarios (“a hypercapitalist world with minimal telecom networking”).

Of course, a measly 2-variable interaction is pretty simplistic. You could add as many other variables as you like, along as many orthogonal axes as you can keep track of. But given the way our brains work, that’s not likely to be too many; and two variables are still enough to explore some pretty interesting and unexpected interactions, while being easy to plot on graph paper.

To prepare for the Four Futures exercise, Uri has asked each of us to come up with at least three plotable “futures”. Scribbled onto Post-It notes, they accumulate on the windowpane: The Future of Gender, The Future of AI, the Future of Empathy. The Futures of Nation-States and Space Exploration and Privacy— even, in a very cool backflip, The Future of the Past (which questions the degree to which everything from memories to historical records can be edited). Split into pairs, we each pick two futures to work on. We’re forbidden from selecting our own suggestions.

I’ve suggested “The Future of Climate Change” and “The Future of Pathogens”, among others. Nobody chooses them.

I am sad.

*

Scenarios in progress.

This is the scenario I wish I’d been in. (The Future of Capitalism crossed with The Future of Gaming, in case you were wondering.)

Team BUG

The scenarios we do come up with range from whimsical to dystopian to whimsically-dystopian. Imagine a corporation-approved robot cat for company on long space voyages, which dispenses narcotics from its space-anus and records your every move for the corporate database. (That was The BUG’s group.) Imagine the UN replaced by an API, a reformed open-source Facebook for which clicking “I agree” on the User Agreement is an official part of coming-of-age and citizenship ceremonies. Imagine wallpapering your room with a representation of your own genetic code; imagine an identity-stealing drone drifting past your window, reading that personal art and reverse-engineering the code it was based on. Imagine a society so diffused across the solar system that actual face-to-face meetings are rare high-status events commemorated by the exchange of physical DNA samples. Imagine those samples incorporated into facial photophores— like the ones on deep-sea fish— coded to flicker in certain sequences when they encounter kin; imagine those handshaking protocols coded to provoke dopamine cascades to enhance social cohesion. Someone learning to hack those protocols, using optogenetic trickery to make everyone she meets trust and adore her implicitly.

Fernanda, from Brazil by way of Ireland by way of Berlin. I spent most of the workshop thinking this was some kind of orchid.

No shortage of imagination in this group. Even our off-duty time keeps us hopping; we have wine-suffused evening tete-a-tetes on everything from Galaxy Quest to the ethics of self-aware masochistic sexbots.

And yet, none of our scenarios so much as hint at the rising ocean in the room.

Of course, when you’ve been explicitly told to aspire to positive outcomes, there’s going to be a natural inclination to avoid the nasty shit. Eden has told us to eschew apocalypse— and admittedly, kicking over the game board is the easy way out, a failure of imagination: arbitrarily grabbing a new hand rather than playing the hand you’re dealt. I can see why he wants us to put in a bit more effort.

Still. There’s a huge difference between eschewing a convenient fictitious apocalypse and ignoring an inconvenient real one. The first just forces you to work harder at the whole futurist schtick: the second constitutes wilful ignorance of a real-world catastrophe that’s already baked into the timeline.

To put it another way: If we know that an asteroid is on course to smash into the Earth five years from now, what’s the use of any twenty-year forecast, however inventive, however positive, that doesn’t address that threat? Are we really so far down the road to perdition that the only way to conjure a positive future is to ignore reality?

*

For a while I’m paired with a very nice person whom I literally can’t understand. Her words make sense on a sentence level, but their underlying meanings seem predicated on axioms I can’t quite figure out. When it comes time to present our preliminary findings I suggest that she take the lead, because I don’t think I can do justice to her perspective. Instead, she gives me our notes and, as I stumble through them, throws herself into some kind of interpretive dance in the middle of the floor.

She finds me at least as frustrating as I find her. We come to loggerheads over whether a desired outcome can be achieved without re-engineering Human Nature itself. I tell her about studies on cheaters and altruists; exasperated, she tells me that “science is just another belief system”, and reminds me that she’s a trained philosopher.

We were encouraged to go for walks in the nearby woods, although people who wandered down this path never came back. More beer for the rest of us.

Days later, during the think-tank postmortem, one of the Human rights activists suggests that these events might benefit from having scientists on board. She does it in strangely grudging tones, though, adds “even though scientists are a pain in the ass” and that their discussions are always so “completely apolitical”. I chip in that our survival— and more importantly, the survival of the millions of species we’re dragging down the toilet with us— ultimately comes down to the laws of Physics, and Physics doesn’t care about politics.

She asks me later if I’ve read The Three-Body Problem, lets out a small whoop when I admit that I have. “I knew it! I knew when you made that comment about physics, you had to have been influenced by that book.”

Well, no. I’ve known about physics pretty much since high school. And I have to wonder about any mindset that regards the primacy of physics as such an alien concept that it could only have come from the depths of a nihilistic science fiction novel. But I am starting to see a pattern; of the eighteen people gathered here, I think I’m the only one with a degree in science. All these other polymaths— curators, activists, artists and architects— their careers center around people. The challenges they face are largely, essentially political; the solutions are political too. Their whole lives come down to negotiations, to meetings in middles. Such insights would have been invaluable back before things got this bad, back when What Has To Be Done could still fit into the set of What’s Politically Doable. But now the cascades and feedback loops have kicked in; now we’ve got to deal with Physics, and Physics does not play politics.

When your life has been spent putting people front and center, putting human welfare and happiness above all, is it any wonder that you might want to look away from a scenario in which Humans get what they deserve? Everyone in this room is looking for a desirable future. I may be the only one who defines that as a future without us.

*

I have no idea. Missed this entirely. They were just there one morning.

We gather one last time to figure out next steps. This was a pilot project; the expectation is that it will become an ongoing affair, with an ever-shifting pool of contributors. Some see future manifestos, handed to People of Influence who might make a difference. I myself have always been sceptical of the whole SF Changes The World narrative. I don’t think we have nearly as much influence as some want to think. The examples most often cited strike me as either trivial (Star Trek inspired the Flip Phone!) or ominously cherry-picked (would Reagan have really listened to those SF writers urging him to implement SDI if it hadn’t been just the kind of thing he wanted to do anyway?)

Others set their sights somewhat lower, would be perfectly content to produce a modest document stocked in libraries, something that might inspire the next generation given that the current one seems such a writeoff. (But do we have time to wait for another generation? Haven’t we just awakened to find ourselves already in the end game?)

Ultimately, we converge on some kind of document affiliated with a website which interweaves fiction and the science that inspires it: a site in constant motion, bits of journalism and literature feeding off each other, sharing the splash page for a while before some more-current work takes their place and relegates them to the archives. The crew had already started on implementation before the bus even rolled away.

I don’t think any of it will save the world, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. I’d do it again in a second, for utterly selfish reasons: recent friendships renewed, new ones made. New tools acquired, not just for workshops but for my own writing; you can be damn sure I’ll be incorporating these tricks into my own work, going forward. And who knows? Maybe someone with a bit of influence will take notice. Maybe, if our ideas are good enough, they’ll catch on.

The Departure Lounge. WOW really pulls out all the stops.

If not, maybe the Extinction Rebellion has a chance. Hopefully they’ve got more steam than the Occupy movement. Hopefully they won’t be crushed so easily.

In the meantime, the stone that Adam Etzion first threw at me back in 2013 keeps right on skipping, in apparent defiance of nonnegotiable physics. Skip: we go to Tel Aviv and discover Utopia. Skip: I make contact with the good folks at One Hamsa. Skip: Uri invites us to design tomorrows in Berlin. And now, impossibly, yet another Skip: Shalev Moran (who I met here) and Mushon Zer-Aviv (who we met in Israel) are taking their Speculative Tourism gig on the road, and expect to be landing in Toronto sometime over the next month. Our turn to play host for a change; if the cats don’t win them over, maybe the raccoons will be out by then.

Who knows where that stone lands next?


Postscriptual Note:

You’ll have noticed the ‘crawl’s been pretty quiet lately, on account of all this unexpected prep and travel. It will continue to be quiet for the next few weeks, on account of more prep and more travel (at least one trip to Hungary, probably another to Bergen, maybe— just maybe— a bounce dive to Shanghai in between). Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me; I’m probably not dead.

[1] All that said, the assignment isn’t impossible. Even I have written the occasional story about happy endings and world-saving technology. why, one of them is right here, in case you’ve forgotten.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 32 Comments

Flyswatter

Something reaches down and lifts Cyclopterus like a toy in a bathtub.

Inertia pushes Galik into his seat. The vessel tilts, nose down: slides fast-forward as though surfing some invisible wave. Moreno curses and grabs the stick as Cyclopterus threatens to turn, to tumble.

Wipe out…

In the next moment everything is calm as glass again.

Neither speaks for a moment.

“That was one hell of a thermocline,” Galik remarks.

“Pycnocline,” Moreno says automatically. “And we passed it a thousand meters ago. That was— something else.”

“Seaquake?”

She leans forward, interrogates the board. “Sylvie‘s transponder isn’t talking.” She conjures up a keyboard, starts typing. Out past the hull, the metronome chirp of the sonar segues into full-throated orchestra.

“Technical glitch?” Galik wonders.

“Dunno.”

“Can’t you just call them up?”

“What do you think I’m doing?”

Acoustic modems, he remembers. They can handle analog voice comms under normal conditions— but what’s normal, with Nāmaka churning up the Devil’s own background noise? Down here, the pros use text.

But judging by the look on Moreno’s face, that’s not working either.

She drags her finger along a slider on the dash; the pointillist seabed drops away around some invisible axis as the transducers swing their line-of-sight from Down to Up. Static and confusion rotate into view; the distant surface returns a blizzard of silver pixels to swamp the screen. Moreno fiddles with the focus and the maelstrom smears away. Closer, deeper features stutter into focus. Moreno sucks breath between clenched teeth.

Far overhead, something has grabbed the thermo— the pycnocline as though it were a vast carpet, and shaken it. The resulting waveform rears up through the water column, a fold of cold dense water rising into the euphotic zone like a submarine tsunami. It iterates across the display in majestic stop-motion, its progress updating with each ping.

It must be almost a thousand meters, crest-to-trough.

It’s already passed by, marching east. Patches of static swirl and dissipate in its wake, clustered echoes whose outlines shuffle and spread in jerky increments. Galik doesn’t know what they are. Maybe remnants of the Garbage Patch, its dismembered fragments still cluttering up the ocean years after Nāmaka tore it apart. Maybe just bubbles and swirling cavitation. Maybe even schools of fish; there are still supposed to be a few of those around, here and there.

“What—” he begins.

“Shut up.” Moreno’s face is bloodless. “This is bad.”

“How bad?”

Shut up and let me think!

Her visor’s back down. She plays the panel. Scale bars squeeze and stretch like rubber on the dash. Topography rotates and zooms, forward, aft; midwater wrinkles blur into focus and out again as Moreno alters the range. Her whispered fuck fuck fuck serves up a disquieting counterpoint to the pinging of the transducers.

“I can’t find Sylvie,” she admits at last, softly. “Not all of her, anyway. Maybe some pieces bearing eighty-seven. Swept way off-station.”

Galik waits.

“She was ninety meters down.” Moreno takes a deep breath. “The tip of that— thing reaches up to fifty. Must’ve slapped them like a fucking flyswatter.”

“But what was it?”

“I don’t know. Never seen anything like it before. Almost like some kind of monster seiche.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s like—when the pycnocline sloshes back and forth. Standing wave. But the strong ones, they’re just in lakes and seas. Basins with walls the wave can bounce against.”

“Pacific’s a basin. Pacific’s got walls.”

“Pacific’s fucking huge. I mean sure, ocean seiches go on world tours sometimes, but they’re slow. Stretch the mixing layer a few meters over a few years. Maybe kickstart an El Niño now and then. Nothing like this.”

“There was nothing like Nāmaka ten years ago either.”

“Yeah.”

“Hurricanes can’t even dissipate any more, so much heat in the oceans. Maybe it’s amping your seiches too.”

“Dunno. Maybe.”

“Maybe they’re even feeding off each other. Nothing’s linear any more, it’s all tipping points and—”

“I don’t know, I said. None of that shit matters right now.” She slides her visor up, eyes a red handle protruding from the ceiling. A tiny metallic hiccough and a soft bloop carry through the hull after she yanks it. Something flashes on the dash.

“Emergency buoy?”

Moreno nods, downs visor, grabs the joystick.

“Shouldn’t we, you know. Make a recording? Send details?”

“It’s in there already. Dive logs, telemetry, even cabin chatter. Beacon stores it all automatically.” The corner of her mouth tightens. “You’re in there too, if that helps. Sub commandeered by NMI, prospecting dive. Maybe they’ll move faster, knowing one of their errand boys is in danger.”

She edges the stick forward and to port. Cyclopterus banks.

Galik checks the depth gauge. “Down?”

“You think anyone’s gonna fly a rescue mission through Namāka? You think I’d be crazy enough to surface even if they did?”

“No, but—”

“Any rescue’s gonna come in from the side. And since you wouldn’t have dragged Sylvia all the way over from the Cafe if there’d been anyone closer, I’m assuming it’s gonna have to come from further out, right?”

After a moment, he nods.

“Could be days before help arrives even if our signal does manage to cut through the shit,” Moreno tells him. “And I for one don’t feel like holding my breath for a week.”

Galik swallows. “I thought these things made their own O2. From seawater.”

“Lack of seawater isn’t the problem. Need battery power to run the electrolysis rig.”

He glances at their bearing; Moreno has brought them around so they’re following in the wake of the superseiche.

“You’re going after the Earle.”

Her jaw clenches visibly. “I’m going after what’s left. With any luck, some of the fuel cells are still intact.”

“Any chance of survivors?” Most habs come with emergency pods, hard-shelled refugia for the meat in case of catastrophe. Assuming the meat has enough advance warning to get to them, of course.

She doesn’t answer. Maybe she’s not allowing herself to hope.

“I’m— I’m sorry about this,” Galik manages. “I can’t imagine what—”

Cowled Moreno hunches over the controls. “Shut up and let me drive.”

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 29 Comments