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 7 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 37 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

The Sulfide Solution. (Also, Who Sent Me All These Wombats?)

Before we get started: does anyone know anything about these?

IMG_3587

They appeared on my doorstep a few days ago, from Australia. No card, no clue. They’re pretty awesome, but they’re also a bit suspicious: I keep remembering that giant wooden rabbit rolling up to the door of the Frawnsh Castle in Holy Grail. Who knows what pathogens or circuitry could be lurking behind these endearing wooden beasties?

Anyone?

*

A paper came out in Aging last month, offered a bit of hope to those of us who don’t want to, you know, die. Eva Latorre et al have managed to “reverse aging” in human skin cells. I put that in quotes because it may not quite be true, despite the fact that one of the actual researchers used those words in a commentary on the subject; the actual paper states that the treatment

“has a senostatic, rather than a senolytic or a proliferation-inducing function in the majority of senescent cells in the culture.”

In other words, it doesn’t reboot old cells into full-on mitosis mode; just makes them more metabolically youthful (and the paper leaves open the possibility that maybe they would have started proliferating again but for the “higher mutational load” of older cells). So at the very least, we’ve got senescent cells acting young. They regain functions lost to age and entropy: notably, alternative splicing— that trick whereby a single gene gets repurposed in different sequences for the synthesis of multiple proteins— reattains its youthful vigor. If the process ports to other cell types, Latorre et al cautiously speculate that their technique

“may have therapeutic potential in the future for extension of health span and treatment of age-related diseases… treatment may be able to retard, as well as partially reverse senescence.”

We’re talking life extension here, folks. We’re talking another hopeful step on the road to immortality. And they did it all with hydrogen sulfide.

"Judge me by my size, do you?"

“Judge me by my size, do you? Humph! And well you do not! For my ally is The Farts!””

That surprised me. I’d always assumed H2S was a bad thing for us eukaryotes: poisonous, corrosive, and flammable, a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism that smells like farts[1]. But it turns out it exists in our own bodies, turns out we actually produce the stuff ourselves. It’s beneficial in small quantities; they call it a “gasotransmitter” (along with, believe it or not, carbon monoxide). Apparently H2S helps protect stressed cells from damage. It even has anticancer properties.

Naturally, the paper’s got a fair bit of attention in the popular science press. There’s one thing that none of those articles have mentioned, though. This is not the first time hydrogen sulfide has proven useful in a medical— even in a life-extension— context. Way back in 2005, Blackstone et al exposed mice to 80ppm H2S and reduced their metabolic rate by 90%, with no ill effects. So now we have a simple compound, endogenously produced, which is instrumental both in extending life and in suspending animation.

Or, if you want to be lurid about it, in conferring “immortality” and inducing an undead state.

Oh, you know who this guy is, don't you? From Danil Krivoruchko and his fellow geniuses over at Blindsight.space.

Oh, you know who this guy is, don’t you? From Danil Krivoruchko and his fellow geniuses over at Blindsight.space.

Back when I was writing Blindsight I didn’t put a lot of thought into the mechanism of vampire hibernation. There wasn’t any real need; everything from chipmunks to lungfish go dormant here in real life, so it’s not like I had to design a novel mechanism from the ground up. Just throw in a couple of offhand references to real-world hibernation peptides and leave it at that.

But this dumb, simple molecule—  one ess, two aitches— is looking so damn useful all of a sudden. We already have the pathways, the mechanisms are established— and there are implications to be considered. If vampires have ramped up their H2S pathways, it follows that they’ll have an abnormally high tolerance to sulfide toxicity. Maybe this even implies tolerance to CO and a bunch of other toxic gases. Vampires could be immune to chemical weapons.

This dumb little molecule is starting to inform elements of actual plot.

And I do have another book to write in this series…


[1] Technically, farts smell like H2S, but you know what I mean.

Posted in: biology, blindsight, Omniscience by Peter Watts 23 Comments

HemiHive, in Hiding

If you’ve been following my writing for any length of time, you’ll know how fascinated I am by Krista and Tatiana Hogan, of British Columbia. I’ve cited them in Echopraxia’s end notes, described them in online essays; if you caught my talk at Pyrkon last year you might remember me wittering on about them in my rejoinder to Elon Musk’s aspirations for “neural dust”.

Not entirely sure who gets the photo credit, but it's someone at the CBC so it's taxpayer-funded.

Not entirely sure who gets the photo credit, but it’s someone at the CBC so it’s taxpayer-funded.

Can you blame me? A pair of conjoined twins, fused at the brain? A unique cable of neurons— a thalamic bridge— wiring those brains together, the same way the corpus callosum connects the cerebral hemispheres in your own head? Two people who can see through each others eyes, feel and taste what the other does, share motor control of their limbs— most remarkably, communicate mind-to-mind without speaking? Is it any wonder that at least one neuroscientist has described the twins as “a new life form”?

If the Hogans don’t capture your imagination, you’re dead inside. I’ve been following those two from almost the day they were born in 2006 (the year Blindsight came out— and man, how that book could have changed if they’d been born just a few years earlier.) I’ve been trying to, anyway.

They don’t make it easy.

Bits and pieces trickle out now and then. Profiles in the New York Times and Macleans. Puff-piece documentaries from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, heavy on saccharine human-interest and cutesy music, light on science. Eleven years on, the public domain will tell you that Krista processes input from three legs and one arm, while Tatiana processes input from three arms and one leg. We know that they’re only halfway to being a true hive mind, because there are still two of them in there; the thalamic bridge carries lower bandwidth than a corpus callosum, and is located down in the basement with the sensory cables. (We can only speculate what kind of singular conscious being we’d be dealing with if the pipe had been fatter, mounted higher in the brain.) We know they share thoughts without speaking, conspire nonverbally to commit practical jokes for example (although not in complete silence; apparently a fair amount of giggling is involved). The twins call it “talking in our heads”. Back in 2013 one of their neurologists opined that “they haven’t yet shown us” whether they share thoughts as well as sensory experience, but neurons fire the same way whether they’re transmitting sensation or abstraction; given all the behavioral evidence I’d say the onus is on the naysayers to prove that thoughts aren’t being transmitted.

We know they’re diabetic and epileptic. We know they’re cognitively delayed. We know that their emotions are always in sync; whatever chemicals provoke joy or grief or anger cruise through that conjoined system without regard for which brain produced them. We know Krista likes ketchup and Tatiana doesn’t. We know— and if we don’t, you can be sure the documentarians at CBC will hammer the point home at least twice more before the next commercial break— that they’re God’s Little Fucking Miracles.

If you look closely at the video footage, you can glean a bit more. The twins never say “we”. I frequently heard one or the other refer to “my sister”, but if they ever referred to each other by name, that never made it into the broadcast edit. They sometimes refer to each other as “I”. They must have a really interesting sense of personal identity, at the very least.

But that’s about it. After eleven years, this is all we get.

We’re told about MRI scans, but we never get to see any actual results from one. (The most recent documentary, from just last year, shows the twins on their way to an MRI only to cut away before they get there; I mean, how do twins conjoined at a seventy-degree angle even fit into one of those machines?) There are plenty of Hogan references in the philosophical literature (for obvious reasons), and even the legal literature (for more obscure ones: one paper delves into how best to punish conjoined twins when only one of them has been convicted of committing a crime). They’re all over popular science and news sites. Some idiot with the Intelligent Design movement has even used the Hogans to try and put lipstick on the long-discredited pig of dualism (i.e., souls).

But actual neurological findings from these twins? Scientific papers? Google Scholar returns a single article, from a 2012 issue of the “University of British Columbia’s Undergraduate Journal of Psychology”— a student publication. Even that piece is mainly a review of craniopagus twins in the medical literature, with a couple of pages squeeing about How Much The Hogan Twins Can Teach Us tacked onto the end. A 2011 NYT article describes research showing that each twin can process visual signals from the other’s eyes, then admits that the results were not published. And that’s it.

Eleven years after the birth of the most neurologically remarkable, philosophically mind-blowing, transhumanistically-relevant being on the planet, we have nothing but pop-sci puff pieces and squishy documentaries to show for it. Are we really supposed to believe that in over a decade no one has done the studies, collected the data, gained any insights about literal brain-to-brain communication, beyond these fuzzy generalities?

I for one don’t buy that for a second. These neuroscientists smiling at us from the screen— Douglas Cochrane, Juliette Hukin— they know what they’ve got. Maybe they’ve discovered something so horrific about the nature of Humanity that they’re afraid to reveal it, for fear of outrage and widespread panic. That would be cool.

More likely, though, they’re just biding their time; sitting on an ever-growing trove of data that will redefine and quantify the very nature of what it is to be a sapient being. They’re just not going to share it with the rest of us until they’ve finished polishing their Nobel acceptance speeches. Maybe I can’t blame them. Maybe I’d even do the same in their place.

Still. The wait is driving me crazy.

And if any of you are on the inside, I’d kill for a glimpse of an MRI.

Posted in: neuro, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 65 Comments

Extinction and the Reset Button

 

 

I’ve just finished reading The Re-origin of Species, by Torill Kornfeldt (2016 in the original Swedish). The English translation is just barely out in Australia and the UK; here in North America it’s slated for a November release. (I scored an early copy from a publisher eager for blurbs.) Re-origin is about the burgeoning de-extinction— well, movement seems too coherent a term for what appears to be a few dozen labs scattered around the world, more often than not operating on shoestrings budgets and shoehorned in around the edges of other more respectable projects, laboring towards goals that range from transmuting chickens into velociraptors all the way over to inundating parking lots with bird shit. Maybe cause. Maybe revolution.

Anyway, it’s a good book. It was easy to blurb. I learned a lot of new stuff, and was reminded about a lot of old stuff— because as it happens, I wrote a column for Nowa Fantastyka on this very subject, way back in 2014. Strangely I can’t find it anywhere on the ‘crawl; I don’t think I ever recycled it here.

Until now.

 

The Reset Button

(A Nowa Fantastyka remix, now with Recent Insights!)

Resurrection is a wonderful thing in video games.  No matter how many zombies eat your brains, no matter how many skyscrapers fall on you, no matter how many times the Big Daddy smacks you across the room with skeleton-shattering force, you’re always back in the game for the price of a 30-second reload and the few minutes since your last save. Sure, it may make you a bit reckless— you end up taking chances and trying insane Hail-Mary strategies you’d never risk in real life— but it’s only a game, right?  And what’s the alternative: being cautious, being careful? Acting as though one life is all you’ll ever have? Give me backups, every time. When immersed in a video game, the Reset button is a godsend.

In real life, maybe not so much.

It’s been nearly thirty years since Gregory Benford first advocated the collection of DNA from the world’s endangered species, a genetic Noah’s Ark to serve as a fallback measure for those inevitable and myriad cases when conservation didn’t work (or more likely, when it wasn’t even attempted). It may have seemed fringe then— the essay actually appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction— but these days, so-called “de-extinction” is all over the news. We’re bringing back the mammoth and the passenger pigeon  (something like them, anyway). We’ve already resurrected the Pyrenean ibex— for seven minutes at least, before its collapsed lungs caused it to suffocate in agony. England’s Frozen Ark project is on track to store DNA samples from twenty thousand of the world’s most endangered animals; Norway maintains a vast underground seed vault to do the same for crops. The New York Times had an extensive profile of the whole de-extinction thing in their Sunday Edition a few years back. De-extinction is all over TEDx.

As you might imagine, the very premise is controversial (back in 2014 PLoS Biology reviewed the debate swirling around the subject; it swirls still[1]). Proponents point out the myriad sins that can be undone, the vital ecological nodes that can be restored. The dodo, the sabre-tooth cat, all those species we’ve wiped out over the centuries: brought back not from the brink, but from the very grave. Detractors point to items on their own lists: the thing that comes back won’t be the same as the thing that went away, for one thing. The need to gestate the resurrectee within the womb of a related (non-extinct) creature introduces a host of developmental complications; the injection of its nuclear DNA into the egg of a living relative means that its mitochondrial DNA will belong to the extant mother, not the extinct father. We wouldn’t be bringing back the dead, some argue; we’d be creating some new hybrid of extinct and extant, some bastard fusion never before seen on the planet.

Others point out that ecosystems which have equilibriated to some new state might be thrown out of kilter all over again by the reintroduction of long-absent species (how would the Arctic respond to the reappearance of thousands of woolly mammoths stomping across the tundra?). And what about the ethics of bringing something back using techniques which only work in once in a while? What about the suffering and death inflicted upon all those also-rans who die convulsing at birth because their parts didn’t link up the right way? And perhaps the most profound misgiving: if extinction isn’t forever, why even worry about it? If we wipe something out, we can just hit the reset button; bring it back again.

I’m not convinced by the Hybrid objection. The point of de-extinction is not to recreate a pristine snapshot of the past, but to restore functional ecological relationships; if an elephant-mammoth hybrid occupies the same niche as a purebred mammoth once did, who cares about racial purity? And the Ethics Argument seems legitimate only in terms of the current state-of-the-art, which is bound to improve. Arguing that we shouldn’t ever use these techniques because they cause pain and suffering today is tantamount to arguing against cell phones because you can’t fit a rotary dialer into your pocket.

As for the disruptive effect of of reintroducing old species into extant ecosystems— well, that’s actually the point of the exercise. Extant ecosystems— impoverished, weedy— could benefit from a bit of disruption. Adding predators to a system changes the behavior of the herbivores, motivates them to avoid some areas and frequent others; this allows the untouched patches to go their own way, increasing the overall dimensionality of the habitat. Massive storms of resurrected passenger pigeons would process and redistribute seeds and nutrients all over the place (including your windshield, but we all have to make sacrifices). Mammoths— get this— mammoths would knock over trees, keep forests in check, and allow more productive steppe-lands to make a comeback. (Out in Siberia, even as we speak— according to Kornfeldt’s book— Soviet biologists are joyriding around in an old armored Soviet personnel carrier, bashing into trees as a kind of ecological mammoth-surrogate.)

Multiply by 300,000. Save the planet.

Multiply by 300,000. Save the planet.

The most mind-boggling ecological justification for bringing back mammoths, though, has to be the claim that they could help mitigate climate change. We’re in for a world of hurt when the carbon currently locked in the melting permafrost gets out, you see; and one way to slow that melting is to reduce the insulative effect of the snow that shelters the ground from the bitter cold of Arctic winters. And one way to do that is— wait for it— trample the snow flat under the piledriver feet of thousands upon thousands of mammoths, resurgent upon the Arctic landscapes of Canada and Russia.

(Hey, I’m not saying I buy it. I’m just saying people have put it out there. Apparently they’ve even run the numbers.)

The Reset Argument carries more weight for me— but not because of some video-game scenario where we boot up endless backups to keep things humming along. My fear is the exact opposite— because at some point, extinction won’t be such a big deal any more. So we’ve wiped out another species. So what? Just squirt a dab of DNA from the dearly departed into an egg from a close relative, roll the stone away, command Lazarus to come forth. As one of Blindsight‘s epigraphs puts it: “Species used to go extinct.  Now they go on hiatus.” Nothing dies forever. We can bring it back again, any time we feel like it.

Just not today.

The economy’s a bit weak right now, you see. The mortgage bubble looks like it might burst again; wouldn’t want to start something and then run out of funding halfway through, would we? Or maybe we should wait until we know a bit more about how climate change is going to rearrange our coastlines— no point in bringing back the Florida panther if its habitat is going to be wiped out by rising sea levels anyway. But no problems, no hurry; we have the technology. We’ll get around to it. Eventually.

Here in the real world, I fear, the natural tendency to restore from backup will be the exact opposite of what it is in Fallout or Witcher 3. It’s not that we’ll hit the Reset button too often. It’s that— complacent and comfortable in the knowledge that it’s always there— we won’t use it at all.


 

[1] Be sure to read the comments, in which the scientist Powledge takes her shots at fires back a few of his own.

Posted in: biology, In praise of biocide by Peter Watts 12 Comments