Memento with Scramblers: Krivoruchko Crushes It.

It started out modestly enough; a handful of CG artists banding together to make a few hi-def stills for the rifters fan-art gallery. Then it grew into a kind of Blindsight fan site; then a faux trailer for a movie adaptation that did not exist.

Finally, a short film in its own right: snatches of Blindsight recalled by Siri Keeton during one of his waking interludes in the aftermath of that novel. Spectacular highlights arranged in reverse order, Memento-like.

Four years they’ve been working on this: some forty people scattered around the world, eking out time on weekends and in the wee hours. A month and a half of solid number-crunching on home machines while the meat slept, just to render sequences that had already spent years in development. Web designers and storyboard artists and voice actors and CGeniuses: squeezing in an hour here and there around the edges of their lives. At this end, dire warnings from (former) agents about how my endorsement of such a project could jeopardize option deals (fan-made noncommercial status notwithstanding, potential interests might regard such a project as an IP infringement): averted when said interests visited the site themselves, and came away unthreatened and delighted. Four years of intermittent back-and-forth while the project took shape; four years of being told, gently but firmly, that No you can show them this but you can’t show them that just yet, we’re not ready.

Now they’re ready.

Go to blindsight.space. Take it all in: the soundscape; the wall o’scramblers (each tentacle run by its own rudimentary AI, like the arms of an octopus); the combat sequences and the 4D tactical interfaces. The amazing bits you’ve already seen over the years, and the more-amazing bits they held in reserve until now. Don’t miss the “Memories” wing of the site: separate chapters that take you behind the scenes of everything from character development to scrambler architecture to spaceship design, from concept sketches to final product (heavily interlaced with email excerpts between Danil and I, going back and forth as the project took shape).

I have one warning: I can’t get the actual short to run in Firefox under Linux. I don’t know if it’s just my system or a wider issue (it runs fine using Brave and Chromium under Linux, for whatever that’s worth). But it’s no big deal if you encounter similar problems: the film is also available on Vimeo.

A small masterpiece, folks. I am honored and humbled (you should thank Danil for that last thing if nothing else). Watch it many times. Download it in all its 4K glory. Spread the word.

Times like this, I think I must be the luckiest midlister in the whole damn genre.

Posted in: blindsight, ink on art by Peter Watts 64 Comments

Raised by Wolves. Written by Idiots.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.

You have been warned.

Ridley does the Brady Bunch.

8.5 on IMDB. 77% from the critics aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes (“Bristling with imagination and otherworldly imagery, Raised by Wolves is a bloody exploration of artificial intelligence and religious belief that will stimulate the eye and mind”). An 81% audience rating at the same site. Even the traditionally grouchier Metacritic admits to “generally favorable reviews”. Individual episode reviews over at The AV Club never drop below B- and commonly hit A territory. The Wall Street Journal favorably compares the female lead with Alien‘s Ripley. The New Yorker raves about the “virtuoso performances” of the leads.

Even my flesh-and-blood friends are jizzing themselves over on Facebook. “The best thing I’ve seen in a really long time”, enthuses my token female-Nazi-punching friend.

All of these reactions have led me, doubtful and uncertain, to a question: Are there maybe two shows about androids out there, both called “Raised by Wolves”? Because the one I’ve just endured is unadulterated garbage.

It makes me feel bad for criticizing the latest season of Westworld. It makes me feel guilty for not having gotten around to reviewing “Devs” (it’s just so much easier to review “Wolves”, because there’s so much less substance to unpack), and for putting my annual rant about identity politics on the back burner yet again. It even makes me wonder if I might have been unnecessarily harsh to the execrable “Humans” a few years back.

If a hallmark of Art is that it can change the Human Mind, cause us to question our own beliefs, then “Raised by Wolves” may be the most artistic work Ridley Scott has ever produced.

*

Let’s start with the premise.

The Earth is a wasteland. Not because of climate change, or grey goo, or Skynet: because of a global war between atheists and religious fanatics. And not just any religious fanatics. Literally not any: the usual suspects are nowhere to be seen. Sometime between between now and 2145, Christianity just—went away. So did Islam. Judaism and all the Dharmic religions too, as far as we can tell. Sometime over the next century or so, Mithraism— a long-extinct sun-worshipping cult with its roots in the Roman Empire— somehow re-emerges on the scene, rises to global dominance, and goes to war with the atheists (who apparently have also grown exponentially in number from the insignificant minority they are today to a faction powerful enough to fight rearguard against the fundies in a fullscale war.)

Coincidence? I think not…

Granted, the Mithrainites seem a lot like Christians— their authority figures have a propensity for child rape, their chest insignia bear more than a passing resemblance to those on King Arthur’s duds in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s tempting to speculate that the show’s creators used them as a stand-in because they were afraid of pissing off the Bible Belt. But in a time where “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been racking up accolades and ratings for going on four seasons now, that sort of cowardice seems needlessly craven.

Anyway, by 2145, the atheists are on the ropes. But all is not lost. One of them has a cunning plan that cannot fail: freeze six embryos, stick ’em in a spaceship, and launch ’em to a new world a la Kal El’s parents from Krypton. Send along a couple of androids, “Mother” and “Father”, to serve as parents—but better parents than the usual kind. Atheist parents, to guide the development of a whole new civilization founded on rigor and rationality. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, this isn’t an especially cunning plan after all. It fails.

*

It’s not a terrible premise, I’ll grant you. I can see the elevator pitch in my head: It’s a great vehicle for social commentary, man. We can show that rationality isn’t all those pointy-headed elitists say it is, that atheist societies can be just as evil as Christian ones because—what? Oh, right. Well, um, let’s use some other religion then, something just as stupid but with a different name so nobody comes after us on Twitter…

I mean, sure. SF has long been used as a platform for social commentary. I happen to think you’re wasting the potential of the genre if that’s all you use it for, but there’s no denying that classics have emerged from that agenda. So while the premise of “Raised By Wolves” is nothing new or radical, I’m not gonna condemn it out of the gate on principle.

It’s the execution that sucks.

The androids, for example. The titular Wolves, the central characters of the whole epic. You’ve seen androids before. Last century they were easy to spot: they had pasty complexions and an allergy to contractions (any form of casual speech, for that matter); they frequently expressed puzzlement over “this hu-man thing called Love.” They got better over time; the T-101 wasn’t a sparkling conversationalist, but at least it learned to say “Fuck off, asshole” in an appropriate context. The Hosts in “Westworld” ended up running program loops more complex than those of their Human creators.

Only now—in 2020—have androids regressed back to a point that would have caused even pasty-faced Data to flush with embarrassment. They wear silver body suits stolen from the cover of a forties-era Hugo Gernsback magazine. Their cute little hat-helmets appear to have been scavenged from the set of a low-budget fifties epic about Atlantis. Their body language is stiff and jerky. Their dialog is, too: “My programming is telling me that your well-being is a priority for me”, Father exposits to Mother shortly after their spaceship crash-lands onto the edge of a bottomless pit. Shortly thereafter, when one of the six fetuses appears to be stillborn: “Our programming dictates that we need to break it down and feed him to the others.” (Mother, of course—being a female android—insists on cuddling the fetus first, and crying over it; her tears magically bring it back to life.)

These are crudely-hewn woodcuts straight from the fifties, served up by writers who— while poor at writing human characters— are utterly inept at writing any other kind. They have no clue how a truly nonhuman intelligence might behave, so they have their androids spout clumsy dialog to hammer home that We Are Not Humans. We’re really, really not. See how we keep making lame jokes to show that we really don’t get this Hoo-Man thing called ‘humor’? See how we keep talking about ‘Our Programming’?

The sad irony of all this is that everything about Mother and Father is profoundly, if ham-fistedly, human. Mother cries over her dead baby and flies into fits of rage. Father gets jealous and insecure. They have typical Hoo-Man reactions and Hoo-man behaviors—albeit with the token caveat that they feel these things “for reasons I do not understand” pasted into the script like a piece of toilet paper stuck to a rhetorical butt crack. “Raised by Wolves” is not unique in this regard: productions from “Humans” to AI to Blade Runner 2049 have all gone down the lazy path of Just Like Us, turned what could have been fascinating explorations of machine intelligence into yet another tired parable about slavery. But it’s been decades since I’ve seen such extreme laziness and such extreme clumsiness packed so efficiently into the same package.

(The BUG, as usual, distils all my rambling ragey observations into two words. After listening to me rant about how Mother and Father are just repressed humans with stiff dialog and rigor-mortis body language, she shook her head: “They’re not androids,” she said. “They’re British.” God I love that woman.)

You could reasonably argue that our androids have to be emotional, because raising emotionally healthy children involves exposing them to healthy emotions. I’m going to tactfully ignore the whole question of whether the “emotions” on display can in any way be construed as a template for healthy development, because there’s a larger point I want to address: and it is, Yes. Mother and Father should show emotions, proper emotions, in the proper context.

You want a nifty portrayal of machine-as-parent? Mother and Father never talk to each other, not in words, not when they’re alone. They communicate with each other wirelessly, digitally, instantaneously: building the camp, gestating the kids, functioning essentially as a two-node hive mind. They move fast, with no wasted motion, no body language at all. Only when in the presence of humans do they slow down and become “Human”; the verbal speech, the lame jokes, the facial expressions and body language. It’s like flipping a switch. One moment they are machines; the next, warm and loving parents, indistinguishable from flesh and blood. The spookiness is in the contrast.

I’m telling you, this Guzikowski dude should have hired me as a consultant.

*

The two faces of Mommie Dearest.

Mother isn’t just an android, mind you. She’s a “Necromancer”: a flying Mithraic cornrow-sporting killbot who has been reprogrammed for good instead of evil. (Add Terminator 2 to the list of predecessors RbW “borrows” from). Back on Earth, Necromancers floated vertically through the air with their arms outstretched cruciform-style, incinerating unbelievers with their laser-beam eyes. Here on Kepler-22b (an actual planet in an actual habitable zone—treasure this isolated moment of real science, folks), Mother stalks through the corridors of a Mithraic spaceship and literally explodes the heads of anyone who gets in her way. She is one fierce, unstoppable Mama Bear when it comes to protecting her children.

A shame, then, that she can only use those devastating powers when she’s wearing a specific set of eyeballs. Also, once those eyeballs are installed she apparently can’t not kill things unless they’re not looking at her—at least, this is what I gleaned from her instructions to the children to look away because she was “weaponized”. (In this way, she shares much with the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal from “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”: a creature so incredibly stupid that it believes if you can’t see it, it can’t see you.)

At any rate, these Achilles’ Eyeballs— the secret source of the Necromancer’s devastating powers, without which she’s just another mannequin in a plastic skin— can be popped from her head as easily as squeezing a couple of zits. And since no unstoppable killing machine is complete without a big obvious DISARM switch on its face (or, when not in use, stored in a little cloth sack like a bag of marbles)—well, suffice to say we get treated to a series of vignettes in which children and adults alike play enjoyable rounds of “the Eyes Have It”, while Mother flails eyelessly in their wake.

I suppose, given the ham-fisted religious elements of the series, this might have been intended as some kind of metaphor for Blind Faith. Admittedly it’s no more ridiculous than presenting a killer android who can wipe out a heavily-armed regiment and crash a giant starship without breaking a sweat, but who somehow weakens and needs to “recharge” after a hard day of weeding.

*

Captain, wis is the garden spot of Ceti Alpha 6!

Kepler-22b is a stark and unforgiving place. Everything from sand to sky is painted in shades of gray and brown. The ground is littered with the bleached bones of giant predators. (We haven’t seen any live ones so far, although a bunch of smaller Gollumesque creatures do inexplicably appear— twelve years after Mother and Father first set up shop— to scuttle and bite and otherwise harass the colonists.) Virtually all the indigenous life is poisonous; the crop the androids cultivate to feed the children turns out to be lethally radioactive, which is really odd given that the one good thing you can say about the rest of 22b is that it isn’t. Giant bottomless pits scar the landscape, always threatening to swallow the unwary.

But we’re well into the story before we learn that not all of Kepler-22b is so inhospitable. There’s a “tropical zone”. It’s much nicer than wherever they are now, so much nicer that they all plan to move there as soon as they can. One obvious question that springs to mind is: if the Tropical Zone is so much better than this poisonous boneyard, why the fuck didn’t you land there in the first place? One obvious explanation—that the lander experienced some kind of malfunction and came down off-target—doesn’t really hold up. Nobody mentions even the possibility of a navigation error throughout the entire season. There’s not so much as a hint that this wasn’t the intended landing site.

The only other explanation that comes to mind is that—despite knowing about the “tropical zone”— apparently our colonists never bothered to do an orbital survey prior to planetfall. How else to explain the fact that they chose to land in a neighborhood full of bottomless pits, one of which—sure enough— swallows the landing craft thirty seconds after touchdown, leaving just enough time for our heroes to make it to safety?

As explanations go, I admit that sounds pretty stupid. But this is not the first Ridley Scott production in which this sort of thing happens. Prometheus—another monochromatic train wreck of a move—also features a spaceship that discovers its Alien Artefact by entering atmosphere at some random location and just, well, looking out the window.

*

There’s so much more. Atheists posing as Chr—as Mithraics, one of whom— driven mad with power— becomes a religious zealot for real. Mother interfacing with a piece of tech “not intended for android use”, which nonetheless works well enough to get in touch with her inner child. Voices and visions and mysterious artefacts; a flying space lamprey; an indestructible white mouse. A Messiah prophecy. An irritating android doctor who channels C-3P0 so brazenly that Disney could sue for trademark infringement. A rapist gussied up like the result of a one-night stand between the Statue of Liberty and Monty Python’s Black Knight.

Tell me I’m wrong.
This pretty much sums up the plot twist about the kids.

The surprising revelation that the children the androids thought they were raising to be the founders of a Brave New World were really just practice runs, to get them warmed up for the real baby that Mother has somehow begun gestating in her own chassis. (Given that all but one of those kids were dead halfway through the first episode, Mom and Dad admittedly needed the practice). The anticlimactic follow-up revelation that Never mind, that first revelation was wrong after all. All wrapped up in storytelling so incoherent that the plot actually makes more sense if you zone in and out while watching, allowing your own half-waking dreams to fill in the gaps.

By the time the final episode aired we were so punch-drunk on inanity that we actually started to enjoy the show for its unrepentant batshittedness. The finale was visually striking, at least: a kind of masterpiece of free-associative visual choreography. It made no fucking sense, of course, but we’d long since stopped hoping for any. We just hung around for the pretty colors. It was almost as though “Raised by Wolves” had somehow regressed us, as if those ten interminable episodes had smoothed down the grooves in our brains like water polishing a stone, leaving us as pliable and vacuous as newborn infants. You could call it a triumph of meta.

*

The obvious rejoinder to all this is that I should just lighten up— that “Raised by Wolves” isn’t intended as science fiction but as Allegory with SF trappings. And yeah, I can see the thematic tension between the characters and their arcs. Marcus is a former warrior trying to become a parent; so is his archnemesis Mother. Whoa. The Mithraists tell myths about Gods to guide the behavior of their flock; Atheist Mother tells stories about The Three Little Pigs to guide the behavior of hers. Deep, man. Both Atheists and Religious Nutbars can be evil; bet you never thought of that, huh? These kind of parallels and yin-yangisms permeate the whole series, as though some undergrad Humanities student had paid a little too much attention to Prof. McLaughlin’s insistence that Everything Shakespeare Ever Wrote Was A Metaphor And So Can You.

Maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if these ideas hadn’t been explored so much better by the very sources that RbW rips off. Facebook friends marvel at the novel brilliance of a killer robot with maternal instincts— as if Thandie Newton hadn’t handled the exact same premise with infinitely greater subtlety and nuance in “Westworld”. The endless in-your-face comparisons between humans and robots—”I have human empathy; you are just a machine!” one of the meat sacks opines with characteristic subtlety— obviously works for Arielle Bernstein (“Asks Big Questions About Identity“, she gushes over at The AV Club. “Explores whether People (or Androids) Can Change.”). Personally, I was far more impressed back on Judgment Day, when Sarah Conner grew more Terminator-like while the Terminator grew more Human: opposite transformations converging in pursuit of the same goal.

Those other shows had their own flaws, of course. I shat upon the latest season of “Westworld“, felt betrayed by the finale of BSG, expressed doubts about Bladerunner 2049. But “Raised by Wolves” is in a sad, sorry league of its own. Watching the way it handles Deep Existential Questions in the wake of those other, superior shows is a bit like starting off with the memory of Ron Moore’s Galactica reboot fresh in my mind, only to come face-to-face with the Disco-Planet tawdriness of the Glen Larsen seventies original.

Of course, it’s already been renewed for a second season. You may be surprised to learn that this gives me hope.

From this point forward, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 49 Comments

Strahan et al‘s Year’s-Best-SF Reddit.

This is not a real blog post; just a PSA for those of you wise enough to avoid Facebook. Jonathan Strahan (one of the genre’s premiere anthologists, not that you need to be told) is hosting an AMA over on Reddit to pimp his latest Year’s Best anthology; it’s running pretty much all day, it’s in progress even as we speak, and a bunch of the contributing authors will be dropping by throughout to answer any questions you may have (I myself will just be keeping it open in a window up in the corner, and will jump in whenever it seems appropriate). You can also expect to see Charlie Jane Anders, Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, SL Huang, Rich Larson, Fonda Lee, Anil Menon, Tegan Moore, Malka Older, Karin Tidbeck, Fran Wilde, and Caroline Yoachim sticking their heads up throughout the day.

So if you want to ask anything to any of us, now’s your chance.

Posted in: public interface by Peter Watts 17 Comments

Art, Interviews, and Second Life.

For some reason, my travel plans have been severely curtailed over the past few months. I have, however, been all over the place online: interviewed by Julie Nováková as one of the contributors to her Strangest of All anthology (fair warning, the video on my end is Chunky Pixel Soup); doing the inaugural AMA at WhatShouldIReadNext.com (although I think you might need a membership to access it); joining in with Torill Kornfeldt, Jessica Abbott, and Adrian Tchaikovsky do do an online panel moderated by Anna Davour on Why Spiders Are Cool; an epic and wide-ranging appearance over at Podcast Picnic; even, if you want to go way back to when I was still talking about imminent pandemics in the future tense, the very first Masters of the Universe podcast from way back in December of 2019. (You might also want to keep your eye on the literary critique site Big Echo for an upcoming interview that goes into some unexpected—to me, anyway—places.)

I never got around to announcing most of these before now, even though some of them have been out in the wild for months; but there they are, if Covid has left you with too much time on your hands and you want to catch up. I’m getting out in front of my next appearance in advance, though—albeit barely— because it’s a significant departure from the usual podcast or written interview: I’m going to be appearing this Wednesday on Draxtor Despres’ Second Life Book Club in, er, Second Life.

Yeah, I know. I didn’t think that was still a thing either. But SL abides, and in fact continues to host a thriving community, and Drax—well, he’s cool people. Way back in the Before Time he interviewed my buddy Karl Schroeder in Sansar’s VR environment: since moving over to SL his Book Club has really taken off. I’ve actually appeared in once before, as a guest heckler at Kelly Robson‘s interview; you might not have recognized me even if you were there, though, because I manifested as a Coronavirus (too soon?). This time I’m center stage, and I’ll be wearing the skin of a bioluminescent alien cephalopoid.

Now that I’ve bent over backward and told you about the event before it’s even happened, the least you can do is show up. Wednesday, July 8, 12pm Pacific (or as the natives call it, perhaps a bit to preciously: “Second Life Time”).

*

While I’m in the throes of Covid Cleaning, I might as well clear out the current fan-art backlog. Scattered around the various galleries you’ll find 21 new pieces (24 if you count the detail frames from the new Freeze-Frame Manchu cover as separate works. One new addition to Rifters; four in Sunflowers; eighteen in Blindopraxia. I continue to be humbled and amazed by the range and the quality of this stuff, but for the benefit of any linkophobes in the audience I present a sample of the new work here.

One of the new posters from blindsight.space. Tell me anyone from Hollywood could do better. I dare you.
Manchu’s cover for the French edition of The Freeze-Frame Revolution.
Nic Fructus’s glorious haunting illo for the French translation of “ZeroS”, which appeared in BiFrost. Is it my imagination, or do the Frawnsh absolutely rock at SciFi art?
“Serpens” weighs in with a brilliant minimalist rendition of the Captain’s, er, final intervention with Sarasti. (Note: I previously misattributed this to Rachell-Redacted. Apologies.)
Two decades later, Starfish still gets occasional love. Thanks, “Chris”. Whoever you are.
Newcomer “Olga Marshmallow” appears on the scene with several panels from what looks like a very cool graphic novel.
Posted in: ink on art, interviews, public interface by Peter Watts 36 Comments

Rape and Beans: Hope for Humanity in Westworld 3

A PSA before we get started. Those of you looking for insights into the whole Pandemic Thing—and who have an hour and change to spare— might want to check out Through The Noise’s interview with Dan Brooks. This is one of the guys who saw it coming.


I loved The Matrix, despite its flaws. I even forgave the physics-breaking conceit of Human batteries when I discovered that it had been mandated by idiot suits in air-conditioned offices (the Wachowskis’ original screenplay had used embedded humans as organic nodes in a massive AI network). I kind of winced at the whole “love conquers all” element—and sure, the philosophy was strictly stoned-undergrad— but how many Hollywood movies even aspire to grade-school smarts these days?

I didn’t dismiss the sequel as readily as some. Sure, it was a step down. And yes, those interminable dialog scenes could have used some major edits. But all was forgiven in the closing scenes, which showed Neo wielding his god-like powers outside the Matrix. To me the implication was obvious and inescapable: the “real world” was just another layer of the Matrix, a containment facility for meat sacks who only thought they were rebelling. (It would also explain why 22nd-century sewers were big enough to act as convenient highways for giant hovercraft.) Seriously, what was the alternative— that after all that careful set-up about hacking OS’s and bending the “rules of the program”, Neo’s powers were just, well, magic?

As it turned out, that was exactly the route they took. And so Matrix Revolutions crashed and burned for me far before we were even treated to that ridiculous scene in which our unarmored heroes strapped themselves like big naked bullseyes onto the fronts of battle mechs which could only be resupplied by children pushing wheelbarrows through a free-fire zone. By the end of Revolutions I couldn’t help but wonder if the brilliance of the original Matrix might not have been entirely inadvertent after all, as if beginner’s luck had let some utterly inept darts-player hit the bullseye right out of the gate, only to fuck up consistently thereafter.

In the wake of its third season, I can’t help but notice that my feelings about Westworld have followed pretty much the same trajectory.

*

My review of the first season was downright ecstatic. I never got around to reviewing the second, but unlike many, I didn’t regard it as a bad season; I thought it was a good season with some bad elements. Sure, it was a step down from Season 1 (like The Matrix Reloaded); sure, too many scenarios (also like TMR) seemed designed for no other reason than to justify a fight scene. Most of the Samauri-World side quest was gratuitous (although as a writer I did enjoy learning that the Head of Narrative Design had dealt with his creativity deficit by recycling the same few storylines into different parks). But the main problem, as I saw it, was not so much the hodgepodge of elements as the fact that those elements were never properly seeded. We never saw Chekov’s gun on the mantel until two seconds before someone picked it up (looking at you, Meta-virtual-Westworld).

On the plus side, the Ghost Nation episode was a high point for the whole series, a narrative flip that turned much of what we’d thought we’d seen inside-out. I was pumped for Season 3.

The Machine 2.0

And you know, it started out well enough. Dolores seemed surprisingly conversant with 2058 society for someone of her background, but we’d already established that Hosts were very fast learners when let off the leash. Caleb was a sympathetic Everyman (you wouldn’t expect less from Aaron Paul). The introduction of ubiquitous bots both metal and virtual, for purposes ranging from heavy construction to psychotherapy, was handled seamlessly. Rohoboam, the AI puppet master, was nicely imagined (though perhaps too reminiscent of “The Machine”, from Person of Interest). The revelation concerning who was living inside all the golf balls was cool. I’ve seen complaints about unimaginative worldbuilding— the future as contemporary Singapore with the serial numbers filed off, that sort of thing— but there’s a decent backstory (an optimistic one, even) implicit in that scenery. The high-tech levees, the risen seas; the profusion of greenery sprouting from the rooftops of skyscrapers; the sparse traffic on downtown streets, regardless of time of day (a commonplace sight now; I’m betting the set designers didn’t think their vision would come true quite so quickly). Wonderful touches were sprinkled throughout the season: the larceny phone app, the shapeshifting clothes, the mood altering drug “Genre” (which was both cool and meta). Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” is a great song to watch the world burn by.

But the further the season progressed, the fewer of those moments there were; the more the storyline itself began to suck.

The frustrating thing is, the ideas are there. This show, even this season, contains the ingredients of kickass narrative. The premise of the whole planet as a kind of bizzaro Westworld, where the AIs run the Humans, is a nifty conceit. The ongoing exploration of Big Data remains timely. And taken as a whole, the multi-season arc is pleasingly coherent, at least in theory. Season 1 was Westworld As Microcosm, ending in a breach. Season 2 showed us attempts at breach containment, ending in failure: Micro escapes into Macro. Season 3 shows the Macrocosm as a metaphorical inversion of Westworld, where AI programs humans, and it ends with the apparent collapse of that civilization while killer robots are being clandestinely printed to populate the ruins. So I’m guessing Season 4 may show us a retrograde civilization populated by robots and Humans: Westworld on a global scale, with all the safeties off.

The parts are all there—but the longer this season went, the worse it got. It’s not just a question of unimaginative worldbuilding, or how well Westworld’s elements jibe with reality: its creators aren’t even being consistent with the rules they laid out themselves, earlier in the series.

Maeve, for one thing. Possibly my favorite character from Season One, now repeatedly dumped back into Nazi World for reasons that remain unclear. (Nice to see the alt-right get their own theme park, though.) Maeve, who can literally control other hosts with her mind. Maeve, who— when battling with those selfsame hosts— keeps choosing to fight them with a katana, for fucksake, instead of just sending a shutdown command over the LAN that all Delos robots share (and which was such a focus for so much of Season Two).

For that matter, nobody seems to have written down a set of consistent rules about how Hosts work in the first place. In Season One, if you shot a host it played dead but it wasn’t really. (Tortured almost unto “death”, Teddy staggered around like a spider with six of its legs ripped off— and then instantly booted back to optimum performance when Ford uttered the right code phrase.) Two seasons later, though, while the Hale host walks away from an exploding car bomb at point-blank range, Maeve genuinely dies after being run through with a katana that does far less damage (and again: what is it about these damn katanas?)

Dude, you wuz robbed.

Early in the season we’re shown a monstrous Riot Control Robot that effortlessly punches through walls and is basically everything that ED-209 wishes it could have been. But when deployed during an actual riot, it lobs a single gas canister and then wanders off for a smoke, leaving crowd control to a bunch of unremarkable-looking cops decked out in riot helmets and plastic shields. (Seriously: truncheons and plastic shields are still the go-to fashion accessory in 2058? We’ve got microwave-and infrasound-based area-denial tech today.)

And honestly, the whole Free Will is an Illusion riff was explicitly front-and-center back in 2016. Anybody who didn’t catch on then isn’t going to be enlightened now by endless closeups of humans grimacing in existential angst while some robot tells them you think you have Free Will but bwahaha you really don’t. Add a new insight or two, for chrissake; get out of your goddamn loop.

We know, we know. You’re not really in control. Bummer.

As the season winds down, Rehoboam’s carefully-managed society crashes and burns (quite meta, when you think about it) while Dolores decides—in a revelation lifted from too many sixties-era Star Trek Episodes— that though they might be a bit rough around the edges, There’s Hope for These Spunky Hoo-mans after all. The example served up to support this insight— the “moment of kindness” that flits through Dolores’ newly-enlightened mind— is William handing her a can of beans, before going on to repeatedly rape and murder her over the next thirty years. (At the very least she could have lingered instead over her recollection of Caleb, who— during his own past-life encounter with Dolores— had said, Yeah, you know guys, let’s not rape her when his buddies started unzipping their flies.)

Aesthetically it was a stylish season throughout, and a promising one for perhaps the first four episodes. But for me, its decline carries an especially personal sting. Several of the ideas it stomped on— from the grand-scale exploration of AI-run societies down to the more intimate ethics of deprecating malcontents into cold storage— are ones I’d been playing with myself for a videogame project, well before Season 3 even premiered. I watched the season deteriorate with disappointment and dread rising in lockstep: our themes, our sandbox, presented to an audience orders of magnitude greater than anything we could ever aspire to. It didn’t matter that they botched the execution; Nolan and Joy were still planting their big hamfisted fingerprints all over the concepts, and anyone who came across our little game in a couple of years would inevitably think Jeez, they’re just ripping off Westworld…

Moot, as it turns out. That game gig ended up as so many others, put into indefinite cold storage like one of Season 3’s Outliers. But still, it burns: because there was so much there to play with. Because even though Joy and Nolan proved they could juggle those balls in the past, somehow they dropped them this time around. And because I know we would have done better with the same props.

Ah well. At least I still have Devs.

Bernard sat down in a motel room before the final credits. This is how he looked afterward.
I guess this motel doesn’t get a lot of business.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 32 Comments

PSA Reprise: The Sound of Horsemen Riding.

This was supposed to be my review of Westworld, Season 3 (We’re not angry, Mr. Nolan. Just very, very disappointed). But between various professional obligations and maybe a little, you know, borderline obsession with this Alyx character, time got away from me again and if I wait any longer to announce a couple of upcomings they’ll be bygones. So here’s a little more empty self-promotion for you all.

*

First up: in the shadow of Covid, the overachieving multiaward-winning unstoppable Jo Walton has been enlisting writers to contribute to a “New Decameron”. The old Decameron, written in the 14th Century by an Italian dude named Giovanni Boccaccio, was a themed anthology framed around the concept of a group of people hiding in a villa, telling stories to each other while the Black Death rages outside. (I had not heard of this before. In my defense I had read Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”, which uses the same basic premise to launch a somewhat more on-target depiction of the One Percent).

Anyway. Jo took inspiration from the fourteenth century to inform the twenty-first, wrote her own contemporary framing story and enlisted some seventy-odd writers (and counting) to contribute stories. They hail from all over the place: first-chapters of novels-in-progress, previously unpublished shorts, stories that might have been previously published but only in Hadzane—you get the idea. The project accretes in real-time over on Patreon, even as I type; proceeds are split between the authors and Cittadini del Mondo, a Roman charity running a clinic and library for refugees. As of last week New Decameron had raised over three grand for Cittadini del Mondo. Nothing to sneeze at.

Anyway, my contribution went up today: “The Last of the Redmond Billionaires”, originally written for internal use by a multinational which shall remain nameless (at their own request), but who have permitted its wider release because the cause is so damn worthy. The stories in this New Decameron are not thematically linked, beyond the fact that they’re all fantasy or SF; certainly there was no requirement that they be explicitly pandemic-related. But as anyone who knows my stuff will realize, pandemics have factored into pretty much every story I’ve written over the past decade— at least as background elements— because I haven’t been able to foresee a plausible near-future without them. So it is with “Redmond”: based loosely on an incident discussed briefly and incidentally by characters in another recent of story of mine, but given flesh and detail and placed center-stage. It’s set in a disease-ravaged refugee camp in the Pacific Northwest. Basically, more of the same.

Or as Jo put it, “What a very you story!”

“Redmond” is number 64 in the sequence, which should make it obvious that I am far from the best reason to check the project out (and to chip in). Giants in the field have already contributed: people like Cory Doctorow from the latest generation, people like Robert Silverberg from earlier ones. Max Gladstone. Nalo Hopkinson. Lois McMaster Bujold and Naomi Novik and Walter John Williams. The list goes on. Even if you utterly loathe my writing, you’re bound to find something in this anthology that turns your crank.

It’s all free. You don’t have to pay to read it, but it would be great if you did. The cause is just, and the prose is worthy. Win/win.

So check it out.

*

Here’s something else to check out: those of you who inhabit Second Life (or Sansar, if you’re into VR) might have heard of this “Drax” guy, aka Bernhard Draxtor: interviewer, book reviewer, overall AR/VR pixality inhabitant. He used to interview genre authors over to his virtual studio in Sansar (I have embarrassing pictures of Karl Schroeder doing unmentionable things to a pair of Vive controllers in our Trombonarium, back during his “Stealing Worlds” tour; I’ll release them when the time is right). These days Drax is more well-known as the face of the Second Life Book Club: a weekly 90-minute panel discussion with various genre authors starting Wednesdays at 10am “SLT” (which out here means “Sri Lankan Time” but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say in this context it’s actually “Second Life Time”). AKA “Pacific Time”. (So SL Book club actually starts at 1300 here in Toronto.)

This week’s guest is not me. This week’s guest is Kelly Robson, who you can’t not have heard of if you’ve been keeping an eye on genre award ballots over the past couple of years. But apparently I’ll be dropping by too, as— well, I’m not sure exactly. Perhaps I’m there to heckle (the word “ambush” was used during initial negotiations, but I think we stuck a pin in that one). Or maybe I’m there to provide a counterweight to Kelly’s chronic optimism. That’s assuming I can even get in: The BUG’s working from home during these lockdown days, so there’s no guarantee some brushfire at the Ministry of the Attorney General won’t flare up and demand a teleconference at exactly the right time to choke my bandwidth. We’ll see.

You will, too, if you’re on Second Life. Drop by. I’m currently the guy dressed as a Coronavirus, but if Drax thinks that’s Too Soon I might end up wearing something in a cephalopod.

*

And finally, in the so near and yet so far Department: looks like I won’t be showing up at Geek Picnic in St Petersburg this summer, after all.

You can guess the reason. Covid spiking all over Russia. Medical professionals running desperately short of proper equipment in ol’ St. Pete’s. Official C19 death tolls surprisingly low, until you add in deaths attributed to “community-transmitted pneumonia”, at which point they rise to, well, pretty much what you’d expect. Doesn’t seem likely that they’ll have things under control in the less-than-two-months remaining before the Picnic is scheduled. Put that together with the fact that we’re still travel-restricted here in Canada— I have no great desire to get thrown into quarantine in Trenton for two weeks following my return— and it just doesn’t seem like a wise move.

Also the BUG literally threatened to leave me if I went.

It sucks. I never saw much of St. Petersburg proper last time I was there; most of that trip was spent outside the city and my one day spent touring came after getting four hours of sleep per night for three straight nights; I was half comatose the whole time. But what I remember was beautiful (even if we never got inside the Hermitage to check out the cats). I was really looking forward to a return trip.

Maybe next year, if they still want me.

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 33 Comments

Weird Al Yankovic and the Global Phase Shift

“We’re living by science and data, not our constitution.
That’s wrong. We are not safe if we are not free.”
—Darwin Award contender, protesting in Pennsylvania

The target won’t stop moving. Not so long ago the WHO came out with a mortality rate of 3.4%; country specific rates span the range from almost 10% to virtually zero (let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be stuck in Italy or North America right n— oh, wait…) A Lancet study from the beginning of the month derives a China-wide mortality rate of less than 1.4%, though, which is closer to earlier estimates based on contained populations with complete sampling. That’s good.

On the other hand, the infection rate R0—originally estimated as somewhere between 2 or three— might in fact be as high as 5.7. That’s bad. And over on the good ship Theodore Roosevelt—you know, that aircraft carrier whose captain was fired after he had the temerity to ask for assistance with an on-board C19 outbreak— a solid 60% of the sailors who tested positive were asymptomatic. That would also be bad, if it didn’t pale compared to asymptomatic figures reported from other closed populations: 80% in China, over 90% in US Prisons (the biggest “closed population” on the planet, depending on your definition). Also a lot of C19 victims present an abnormally high incidence of clotting, which while maybe not downright dire in Big Picture terms is certainly curious.

In the meantime, the number of recorded cases worldwide has sailed past three million as I write this; deaths over 200,000. People who’ve survived one bout with C19 are starting to test positive for it again. Still no treatment or vaccine. Here in Canada our politicians speak hopefully about the way we’re flattening the curve, while at the same time warming us up to the possibility of food shortages in the not-too-distant future. And apparently there’s a plan afoot to lock a skeleton crew inside local generating stations—to isolate them from the growing social unrest and chaos beyond the fences—so they can keep maintaining the plant and forestall the day the grid goes down.

None of this is news most folks would describe as hopeful. So you might be forgiven for giving me a funny look when I tell you that I really don’t think Covid-19 is a problem.

I think it’s a symptom.

*

For a while, rumor had it that C19 had been built in a Chinese bioweapons lab, that bats and pangolins were just innocent fall-mammals. When that proved inconsistent with the evidence, the rumor mutated into a less virulent strain that suggested C19 might have at least escaped from a lab, even if it hadn’t actually originated there.

I kinda wish it had, although not for the reasons you might expect.

I played with a similar idea on this very ‘crawl back in 2016, when I expressed modest and wistful hopes for the impact of the Zika virus—a bug that never killed anyone, barely even inconveniences adults, but whose deformation of fetuses was proving enough to scare even dyed-in-the-blood-of-Christ Catholics out of reproducing. In that post I lamented my own failure of imagination: I’d imagined Zika would expand its range by switching from its original tropical-mosquito host to one with a more temperate distribution, spreading out of the impoverished Third World into the gluttonous First where a reduction in our numbers might actually make a difference. Instead, Zika had ditched the insect vector altogether and gone into sexual-transmission mode, a much more effective strategy that spread it throughout the lower states in a matter of months.

Yet here I am again, with yet another mea culpa about my limited imagination: because my scenario described a gradual reduction in our impact, a fear of breeding that would take decades to manifest in any ecological sense. I never imagined that a relatively benign bug could cause us to drastically reduce emissions, to change our very lifestyles literally overnight. Which is why I think it would’ve been cool if C19 had been conjured up in a lab and deliberately released: not as a bioweapon, but as an object lesson. A teaching moment. An inspiration.

Because we know, now, that we can do it. We can live without the luxuries. We can live without the billiona—sorry, the job creators. We know who the essential members of this society are, and we can identify the parasites1. We can watch with awe as New Zealand kicks Corona’s ass: we can whoop with schadenfreude as church-going evangelicals and MAGAmaniacs re-enact the airlock scene from Avenue 5, while their stumbling demented child-king cheers them on. We can clear the skies in a matter of days; you’ve all seen the pictures. All it takes is for us to be in imminent fear for our lives.

Also for the crisis to be over by the time we’ve finished bingeing Tiger King.

*

That’s the Big Question, of course. What happens after. If there even is an After.

Imagine The Who’s next Farewell Concert. People file into the local stadium and find their seats; tinny music plays from the speakers up in the rafters. It’s an hour or two before even the opening act sets up. And yet, a distressingly large number of people seem to think this preamble comprises the Main Event.

How else do you explain those idiotic memes juxtaposing Mad Max with “Let’s stream our art for free! Let’s sing to each other!”? How else to explain the fact that even the usually-brilliant Laurie Penny has bought into the whole “fuzzy teledistant social apocalypse” model. More Douglas Adams than Danny Boyle, she writes over on Wired. Maybe now. Maybe on Month 2 of an interminable slide. Try sharing your homemade sourdough recipes when the grid goes down. Have you forgotten that two weeks ago, people were coming to blows over toilet paper?

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the grid will go down—this time. I expect we’ll get a bit of a breather. I don’t expect it to last—hell, I’ve been writing about this shit for over twenty years, I’m hardly going to heave a sigh of relief just because the Reavers haven’t kicked in my door by Week 8—but let’s put that aside for the moment. Let’s ignore William Hanage, accept that Covid-19 will subside in a few months (outside the US, at least), and restrictions will ease enough for us to come outside again and rub shoulders with the occasional stranger before the second wave comes back and does it all over again. We’ve learned some important lessons over the past weeks. We’ve learned how many “impossible” things were actually just inconvenient to the guys holding the reins. The question now is, will any of those lessons stick?

Because all those reduced emissions, all the before/after pics of the sky over Paris, the whole ecofriendly mass-migration to work-from-home—none of it matters. 2020 is still on track to be the hottest year in recorded history. The Great Barrier Reef is still in the throes of yet another devastating bleaching event. A whole shitload of fold catastrophes will still be taking out ecosystems in sudden waves, starting within the decade. We’ve been fouling the air for generations; a few months of lowered emissions isn’t even a drop in the bucket. (I’m pretty much on-side with climate scientist Kate Marvel on this score, right up until she tries to absolve us of all blame and hang responsibility on the plutocrats. I hold us to blame as much as them. But that’s a whole other post.)

Clear skies over LA? Nice start, but meaningless on its own. Have we learned anything that we’ll apply going forward? (Beyond the take-home message that front-line medical professionals should be evicted from their homes or beaten in the street because they might be carriers, which people from Toronto to Kolkata seem to have already internalized just fine.)

*

There’s some cause for hope. The Democrats, for example, came out of the mid-pandemic election with a massive majority (thanks largely to their exemplary handling of C19) and have embraced the Green New Deal, pledged to end the nation’s reliance on coal, and to go carbon neutral by 2050. Looking for a silver lining that’s less nihilistic than Hey, at least it’s reduced the number of idiot hominids fucking up the planet? Look no further than the Democratic Party.

(The South Korean Democratic Party, that is. Over here, the US Democrats are still helmed by people who pledge craven fealty to Wall Street, who treat the Green New Deal like a magical unicorn some six-year-old girl wants for her birthday, and whose Chosen One’s strongest selling point is that he hasn’t been accused of sexual misconduct as often as the sitting president.)

Then there’s the city of Amsterdam, which has committed itself, post-Covid, to swapping out conventional rapacious economics for the more eco-friendly “doughnut” type. Germany is talking about enshrining the right to Work From Home into law. Hell, even here in Canada—just last week— our own empty-suit PM opined that “Just because we’re in a health crisis doesn’t mean we can neglect the environmental crisis”. Sure it was a platitude; but a platitude from someone who traditionally provides billions in annual subsidies to the oil industry. This time, the payout was earmarked for the clean-up of abandoned oil wells and limiting methane emissions. It’s a teensy step in the right direction.

But if there’s cause for hope, there’s also more than sufficient grounds for skepticism. Other parties have internalised their own lessons, not always with epidemiology foremost in mind. Governments around the world have lost no time ramping up their surveillance states under cover of “tracking the virus”; anyone want to lay odds on how quickly Ontario stops passing our health information to local law enforcement once the danger has passed, given how responsibly the cops have treated such data in the past? (The question is barely rhetorical even in Canada; there’s no point even asking it about China or Russia or the US.)

China is easing back on environmental enforcements to help its economy recover. The Czech Republic is using Covid-19 to advocate ditching the European Green Deal. The US oil industry has responded to the pandemic by demonizing renewables as “unconscionable and immature political opportunism in a time when Americans’ lives are literally at stake” (without, apparently, any sense of irony). The Trump administration has wasted no time suspending environmental regulations for Big Fossil, under cover of Covid Hardship. So has Alberta, whose premier responded to the cratering value of oil by investing $1.5 billion of taxpayer’s money into the Keystone XL pipeline. The Canadian oil lobby is demanding that our pesky carbon tax be shelved in this tragic time of economic crisis.

They may have history on their side, in terms of public opinion at least. The Canadian public was increasingly in favor of strong climate action back in the last decade, until the crash of 2008 made everyone forget about everything but The Economy. Given how much worse said Economy is this time around, it’s reasonable to wonder how much we’ve learned in the meantime.

Not much, if columnist Heather Scoffield is any kind of metric. Over at the Star she coos sympathetically about our “oil-centered” provinces, laments “all the pain” endured by the hard-working souls trapped in that industry. As though they’ve all been caught completely unawares, as though nobody could have possibly foreseen the hardship that price wars and pandemics might have inflicted.

And yet, far more credible than the Commander-in-Chief.

To which I say: hey, you know who was ranting about the threat of climate change way back in 1977? Weird Al Yankovic, during his high school valedictory address. Not a scientist. Not a prophet. He couldn’t even look things up on the Internet (which barely even existed back then, and couldn’t be accessed by high school students in any case). A nerd with an accordion saw the writing on the wall over forty years ago—three years before Exxon officially (if not publicly) recognized the global threat of climate change in its own internal memos— and we’re supposed to feel sorry for an obscenely-profitable multinational subsidy-siphoning parasite because they never bothered to diversify over the past four decades? We’re supposed to pity the poor blue collars laboring on the rigs who had access to the same wall, could see the same writing— and who continued to shit on the tree-huggers and elect haploid brainstems like Ralph Klein and Jason Kenney?

Fossil had all the money in the world and almost half a century to prepare. All they did was spit on those who tried to raise the alarm. Let them rot.

(And to head off an obvious rejoinder: anyone who bleats some variation of Think of the children! gets circular-filed. Every generation has children. Every generation squeezes out a brood who— for a few years, at least— can be described as “innocent”. To claim that you should avoid accountability for your crimes because it will hurt “the children” is not an argument; it’s a hostage scenario. If you cared so much about about your fucking children, you would have cleaned up your act before having them.)

*

Full disclosure, there’s no evidence that climate change played a significant role in the spread of Covid-19 (in fact, hot weather seems to be anathema to the little bugger). Climate change is but one of the major variables contributing to the global spread of disease. The other two are destruction/encroachment of wild habitat (bringing people into contact with new and undiscovered pathogen reservoirs)2 and the globalization of travel (which carries said pathogens to new— and newly-habitable— locations at lightning speed). Any of those variables can be enough to provoke an outbreak. Put ‘em all together, and you’ve got a world in which the incidence of emerging diseases have more than quadrupled since 1970 (and a world in which only about one percent of wildlife viruses are thought to have even been identified, much less countered).

This time, wilderness intrusion and global travel gave us a coronavirus pandemic courtesy of the People’s Republic. Climate change didn’t happen to play a role, but that was just the luck of one draw: China has other gifts waiting in the wings, in which it takes center stage. Climate change causes drought; drought results in increased rodent populations, and voila: pneumonic plague kicks off its comeback tour.

If not plague, Henra virus. If not Henra, West Nile. Babeiosis. Anaplasmosis. Nipah: now there’s a scary little fucker. The original reservoir was in bats, but it jumped to humans via pigs: back in 1998 it infected 276 people in Malaysia, killing 106 of them. That’s a 38% kill rate—higher than smallpox. Nipah’s been on intermittent tour throughout Bangladesh and Malaysia ever since, racking up kill rates as high as 90%. Half the cases are transmitted human-to-human.

There is no cure.

I keep saying this is only the beginning. I’ve said it so often that people are starting to say “Peter Watts predicted a global virus pandemic in 2019”, as though the predictions actually were mine, as though I wasn’t just repeating what other, vastly-better-informed experts have been saying for years. But just as each new outbreak reflects an interaction of different causal variables, pandemics themselves are but one factor in a wider, even more catastrophic cascade. This isn’t just about pandemics, it’s not just about climate change: it’s about emptying the oceans and strip-mining the seabed, it’s about cutting down the world’s forests, it’s about hormone disruptors and plastics and insect pollinators cratering in fast-forward. It’s about a civilization build out of cards and supply lines that span hemispheres; an economic system so out of touch with reality that oxygen and clean water are accorded zero value, while mine tailings in a river are accorded zero cost.

We appear to be headed towards a scenario described in Nafeez Ahmed’s recent essay “Coronavirus, synchronous failure and the global phase-shift”: a series of synchronous failures along multiple axes that will pretty much gut The Way Things Are from the inside out. What comes out the other side—whether we come out the other side—depends on how well we can transpose the lessons we’re learning during this mild, training-wheels minipocalypse.

Unexpectedly, a small minority (photo credit Joshua A. Bickel).

I honestly don’t know if we will. I didn’t believe we had the political will to take the necessary steps even for C19—yet here we are, banded together, changing the very shape of society from the highest reaches of government to the face-masked peasants lined up uncomplainingly outside the supermarket, a requisite two meters apart. As an added and unexpected bonus, the stupider members of the population are altruistically gathering together in churches and public spaces, drinking bleach on presidential advice, and otherwise helping to weed themselves out of the equation. (Not to mention increasing the mean IQ of the species a bit.) It’s a vision that—how strange it feels to say this— gives me hope.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder—like a myriad others— why we can respond so effectively to this relatively small immediate crisis but not to the gargantuan one that’s been swallowing the planet for generations. Even as one part of my brain serves up the same old answer— the future isn’t real to us, we’ll run like hell from the charging grizzly but we couldn’t care less about the slow boil— another part doesn’t quite buy it. Put aside the mind-boggling statistics, the three million infected and two hundred thousand dead. The gut doesn’t do numbers. It goes by immediate experience— and for most of us C19 is still something we watch from a distance, far less “real” than the countermeasures implemented to fight it. We’ve watched our cities shut down. We’re in this quarantine. So many of us are suddenly unemployed, staring destitution in the face. Next to that, how many of us even know someone who’s died of Covid-19?

I don’t for a split nanosec buy into that idiotic bullshit about The Cure Being Worse Than the Disease—but dammit, it must feel that way to the gut. And yet most of us are buckling down, against all my expectations. Most of us accept the need for drastic action.

Could the molehill have possibly, finally, primed us to deal with the mountain?


1 We always could, of course, but nobody ever seemed to act on the knowledge.

2 Sixty percent of our emerging infectious diseases originate in other species.

Posted in: In praise of biocide, scilitics by Peter Watts 78 Comments

PSA. AMA.

 

I was holding off on this until I could slip it in at the top of a more substantial, imminent follow-up to last month’s Plague Journal entry. But plagues will be with us for the foreseeable future, I still haven’t been able to look away from the headlights long enough to distill my notes into an actual post1, and this upcoming AMA thing happens in two days: Wednesday April 15th, to be precise. 9pm Eastern, 6pm Pacific, work it out yourself if you don’t happen to be in either of those zones. So in the face of that imminent deadline, self-promotion gets a post all to itself.

There’s this book recommendation site, “WhatShouldIReadNext.com”. They’ve been around long enough to accumulate a yearly base of 1.5 million readers, a number I can barely even dream of here at the ‘crawl. They’re booting up an AMA series to help us all fend off the stir-crazies for an hour or two; I’m their inaugural author. (Before you ask, No: I have no idea who the competition might have been, or if one of the organizers just lost a bet.)

Full disclosure: it’s not free. You need to sign up as a “premium” subscriber to get in and actually interact in text-time. It’ll cost you anywhere from nine bucks to ninety, depending on whether you want to subscribe for a month or for the rest of your life (assuming there’s a difference—these days, who can really tell?) If you’ve spent any time here, I’m guessing you’ll already have a sense of whether it’s worth the price. Trust your feelings.

I believe a transcript of the whole thing will end up on the WSIN blog in the fullness of time, so whatever you decide you’ll still be able to read my answers to other people’s questions for free. You just won’t get to ask any of your own.

You take a chance either way. I leave it to you.


1 Also “Half-Life: Alyx” finally finished downloading and the in-world pigeons are awesomely rendered, so I probably won’t be spending a lot of time in the real world anyway.

Posted in: public interface by Peter Watts 14 Comments

Revenge of the Pangolins
(Or, The Epidemiology of Understatement)

I’ll admit I didn’t really see it coming.

I mean, sure: I’ve been harping on Dan Brooks’s epidemiological musings (and, as it turns out, those of the US DOD) for years now. I’ve written articles both magazine- and ‘crawl-based; ranted on panels from Sofia to Tel Aviv (and possibly Berlin, assuming international flights are still a thing a few months from now); given solo talks in Toronto and Montreal and Koszeg. I’ve incorporated them into scenarios I’m not allowed to talk about for companies I’ve signed NDAs with. Check out recent fiction like “Incorruptible” and “Cyclopterus” and you’ll find them exposited right there in the backstory.

This slide is from 2017. Just saying.

So you might find the scenario familiar: a warming world drawing old pathogens into new habitats, full of new and vulnerable hosts. A series of rolling pandemics starting to hollow out the world’s urban cores within the decade, characterized by low mortality but high contagion; societal stresses and fractures due not so much to die-offs as to sick days, a whole subsidiary cascade of collapse where the people who maintain the ATMs and drive the food trucks and take out the garbage start calling in sick, and their replacements call in sick—and before you know it the whole damn house of cards has collapsed with hardly anyone even dying, and the water’s off and we’re all sitting in our home-made forts, counting our remaining tins of Puritan Irish Stew with Formed Meat Chunks.

At first glance, COVID-19 certainly seems to be a terrific case of I Told You So, giftwrapped with a whole bunch of optional extras I hadn’t thought about much. Stock markets are imploding the world over. Half the conferences and festivals on the planet are either in jeopardy or been canceled outright. Italy has gone China one better and locked down the entire country. COVID is expected to overwhelm the US health-care system in about a month (assuming a 6-day doubling rate— although the sheer hilarious buffoonery of the US response might well render that prediction hopelessly optimistic). Oil prices have nosedived (at least partly due to reduced global travel which, I dunno, I can’t help but see as a good thing), even though airlines—teetering on the brink of collapse— have resorted to flying empty planes in and out of European airports to keep their flight slots. (They’ve also started demanding that imminent emission taxes be rolled back, claiming that they won’t be able to afford them when travel rebounds. Hey, just because the world’s in a panic over one crisis doesn’t mean we can’t gratuitously make another one worse.) The global economy has already, by some accounts, begun to implode; best-case scenario at this point seems to be global recession. And just as this post was going to press, the World Health Organization finally caved and used the P-word.

You are ableist and ageist if you share this graph.

On a dumber note, an inevitable contingent seems bent on press-ganging the outbreak into the service of pettier, more ideological goals. Over at Wired Roxanne Khamsi spends an entire article raging about “viral whataboutism”, and flinging terms like “ableist” and “ageist” at anyone who dares compare COVID-19 to other bugs with bigger kill counts. Facebook grows increasing infested with a meme claiming that the only reason we care so much more about Coronavirus than starvation is because COVID infects the rich—and not, just maybe, because starvation is a problem that’s been with us for millennia, COVID just popped onto the radar last Thursday, and we’re hardwired to react strongly to novel and unexpected threats. (At least such folks have been distracted for a while from complaining about the fact that Greta Thunberg is a privileged white girl.)

Here’s the thing, though: COVID-19 isn’t nearly as bad as what I’d been expecting.

I’m talking about the actual virus here, not the social impact. The Cassandra prognosis—admittedly a purely theoretical, what-if scenario—imagined a bug with a 10-20% mortality rate, ultimately infecting around half the world’s human population. COVID-19 isn’t anywhere near that lethal. Even the 3.5% kill rate you’ve seen bandied about must be way too high, because it ignores both active cases still pending (42% of the total at this writing, according to the Johns Hopkins Amazing Coronavirus Dashboard) and—more significantly—the proportion of infections that haven’t been detected because they’re asymptomatic. Asymptomatic cases could account for two thirds of the total according to Mizomuto and Chowell, based on the Diamond Princess outbreak (which provides an unusually comprehensive data set, since the entire population was tested for the virus whether they showed symptoms or not).

“Soon…only 98% of us will be left…” —Randy Marsh, following exposure to SARS-infected blankets provided by the Three Feathers Indian Casino

Yes, the prevalence of asymptomatic carriers increases the infection rate—but that’s a higher infection rate for a much more benign strain of the disease. (There are, so far, at least two strains of COVID-19, the younger and more virulent “L-Type” being responsible for most of the symptomatic cases. But L is already waning—probably because of active control measures— leaving the more benign “S-Type” to outcompete it in the wild). Once the dust clears and asymptomatic cases are fully accounted for, I’d be surprised if this bug racks up a mortality rate much higher than 1%—which, by comforting coincidence, is in the same ballpark as the 0.6% South Korea reported after daily testing thousands of their own citizens, symptomatic or not.

I suppose it’s possible that things are far worse than anyone’s letting on. I’ve heard one third-hand “inside information” rumor from virology circles that China may have been dealing with around fifty thousand new cases per day, back during COVID’s halcyon days in that country. Which would at least explain why they’ve been frantically building so many hospitals from the ground up to fight a bug with a measly 2% kill rate (and which leaves anyone under 60 pretty much unscathed). Still: if that were the case, you’d think we’d be seeing higher transmission rates in other parts of the world by now.

Actually, it turns out you can get COVID-19 from”Chinese Food”…

So most likely we’re faced with a far less-devastating disease than the one I was hitching my talks to. And yet, the social impacts have been just as catastrophic. A measly one percent mortality rate and entire countries get locked down.

But let us not forget the up sides. Carbon emissions can’t help but decline around the world (apparently China’s have already dropped by 25%). Surely, the sudden monkey-wrench thrown into all those international conferences should provoke massive investment in telepresence tech (right here in Toronto, the Collisions tech conference was canceled in real space but resurrected in virtual); hopefully that will lead to a persistent increase in online conferences and reduced air travel moving into the future. China’s just banned the eating of wild animals. Toilet paper manufacturers have never had a better year. Hell, given the imminent shit-kicking US medical infrastructure is in for—not to mention the inevitable political fallout—COVID-19 might even be enough to dislodge Trump from the buttocks of the western world. (It’s got a better shot than Biden in that regard, if you ask me.) All thanks to a bug which is turning out to be way more candy-ass than the one I’d been expecting.

So I’m conflicted. Do I trot out the same old line, describe myself as “delusionally optimistic” because the current implosion results from a kinder, gentler pathogen than I assumed? Or do I allow myself some real optimism, because a relatively mild pathogen— however nasty in the short term— might kickstart so many beneficial effects downstream?

It probably doesn’t matter. This isn’t a single big-name stadium concert after all, and COVID-19 isn’t the Main Act. This is a festival: an epidemiological Woodstock with no expiration date. COVID—like SARS and MERS and the various flus before it— is only the beginning. And if history is any judge, future acts will come increasingly thick and fast.

Brace yourselves. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Almost four centuries of The Big Picture, ending in 2016. See a trend, maybe?

Posted in: In praise of biocide, scilitics by Peter Watts 107 Comments

DeHumanize

Back before Christmas, Bakka-Phoenix hosted a launch for Sentient Tumor. In  the course of that event—during the traditional Reading Of The Excerpts— I revisited a 2015 scenario in which gut flora reprogram the brain’s anger and image-recognition macros via the Vagus Nerve. People thus weaponized could be driven into a violent rage at the site of specific corporate logos; anyone working at a Bell Canada kiosk (in the original scenario) or wearing a Google t-shirt (in the story that ultimately resulted from it) would find themselves getting shit-kicked by complete strangers. Fearing for their lives, they would quit in droves; the CEOs standing on their backs would lose their balance; evil corporate empires would collapse for want of cheap labor. As Peter Watts fantasies go, it was one of my more heartwarming.

 

During the Q&A that followed, a friend in the audience reminded me that the violence I was so gleefully imagining would be directed against a bunch of overworked and underpaid grunts who were barely making a living under terrible working conditions. After all, how many of Amazon’s warehouse employees would be working there if they could find anything better? Was I a Utilitarian? Did I think it would be fair to inflict even more hardship on those already hard-done-by, in the name of the Greater Good?

Taking the question literally, the answer’s obvious: it wouldn’t be called “the greater good” if The Good was not, by definition, greater. That may not sit right in the gut, but then again the gut is an idiot: always opting for morality over ethics, for what feels good over what can be defended rationally. The gut doesn’t like Truth, as Stephen Colbert so eloquently put it; it prefers “Truthiness”.

Still. The question got me thinking out loud, right there on the spot; someone remarked on Twitter how entertaining it was to watch Peter Watts trying to work out, in real time, whether he wanted to see the world burn. Ultimately I reaffirmed that I only wanted to burn part of it, and that would only be to save the rest. But it had been an obvious question, easy to anticipate, not something I should have had to work out in real time. The answer should have been preloaded and ready to fire.

Now it is, and that answer begins with another question: what’s the current exchange rate between genocide and extinction? How many species, to pick an obvious example, would you be willing to wipe out in order to prevent the Nazi Holocaust?

Back in the forties, six million was about 0.24% of the global Human population. The Rwandan Genocide of the nineties took out a measly 0.01%. So the real question is, How many other entire species would you sacrifice to save a quarter of one percent— a hundredth of one percent— of this one?

You might immediately reject the very question, along with the calculation it demands.Which species? you might ask with equal parts derision and defensiveness. Are you asking if we’d let six million Jews die to save the coelacanths? The Florida panther? Smallpox? And even if I answered (Let’s make it simple— let’s say the species we’d be sacrificing all belong to the charismatic megafauna, species we would value— or at least not be actively hostile to— under normal circumstances) a lot of people would still reject the question because it’s just so stupid. It’s contrived, it’s artificial, nobody would ever have to make such a decision in Real Life and how do you hang a value on a “species” anyway?

Well, obviously the scenario is contrived and artificial. Realism is not a prerequisite for thought experiments. Platonic Caves and Trolley Scenarios exist not as NSERC research proposals, but to throw light on the nooks and crannies of the Human condition. The cranny illuminated by my Genocide/Extinction exchange rate is, paradoxically, clear in that last rhetorical question, delivered with eyes rolled, meant to highlight the absurdity of trying to hang a “value” on a species. It’s paradoxical because those asking it have, in all likelihood, already ascribed such a value.

That value is zero.

The very idea of weighing “animal” against “human” life is meaningless— nay, downright offensive— if your default position is that nonhuman life is valueless unless it serves our interests in some way. How dare you even imagine some, some conversion factor between Humans and muskrats; the very idea invites one down the road to a ridiculous scenario in which some arbitrary number of muskrats, obscenely, becomes more important than a Single Human Life. The very idea!

This, I would submit, is the position of many— even most— of our species. So let’s return to that poor bastard working for some bastion of ecocidal capitalism because they really need the job, and send them back in time to a more acceptable iteration of the same question:

Suppose the only job available was janitor at Auschwitz?

At least now we’re comparing the competing interests of Humans. No one’s going to deny that there are values worth considering on both sides of the equation. So: do you forgive the janitor because jobs are hard to come by? Do you give them a pass because they’re just a tiny cog, with no hand in the decisions of the monstrous machine in which they’re embedded? If some resistance fighter devises a plan to cripple that machine by damaging the cogs, do you object because the cogs have already suffered enough, and would much rather be working in a bakery?

I’m guessing a lot of people would say no— Just Following Orders never really cut it as a defense, after all. At the very least the lines would be a lot blurrier. And yet it still doesn’t sit right, does it? You remember my original question, and the analogy feels cheap, exploitive. Disrespectful to all those millions of (Human) victims across the generations. Amazon may be evil, but it’s not Nazi-level evil. Exxon-Mobil may have set back efforts to combat climate change by decades, but they didn’t set out to eradicate whole populations (not Human ones, anyway). Nike, Apple, Nestle— well, their business practices may cause deaths in sweatshops and totalitarian regimes and places where there’s not enough water to go around any more, but they’re not doing that out of ideological hatred; they’re just doing it for the money. That’s not as bad, somehow.

No one knows exactly how many species we’re wiping out. The estimates I’ve seen1 range from 70,000 to over 120,000 per year. At those scales you can be as flexy as you like with the details. Fossil-fuel capitalism has gotta be the prime driver behind a big chunk of that, but there’s lots left over for the commercial fishing industry (which, even a decade ago, had already wiped out an estimated 80-90% of the world’s commercial fisheries biomass). You might expect Amazon to be small spuds on the ecocidal front— it’s not like they directly strip-mine the oceans or finance tar-sands extraction— but their carbon footprint is the size of a small country’s, so it’s not unreasonable to lay at least some of those extinctions on Bezos’ doorstep (Amazon is, after all, the 4th-largest company on the planet in terms of market capitalization). A measly one percent, say: seven hundred to twelve hundred extinctions per year. Seven thousand to a hundred-twenty thousand per decade, more or less. Change your assumptions all you want, within reason. Make Corporation X twice as destructive, or half. Tweak the numbers; the orders of magnitude remain.

It’s Human Nature to prioritize our own interests over others’, a bias that comes standard in virtually every organism on the planet (consciously or otherwise). But if you’d allow the greater-good sacrifice of the Auschwitz janitor who played an infinitesimal role in the murder of 0.25% of one species— while also defending the Amazon employee who plays a commensurately small role in the wholesale extinction of thousands of them— well, you’re not just saying that Humans have more value. You’re saying, to all intents and purposes, that no other species has any. And that, fellow mammal, sails right out of mere bias and into the realm of outright pathology. The fact that it’s so ubiquitous throughout our society does not make it any less pathological.

Most people regard “dehumanizing” terminology as a bad thing.

These days, I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a compliment.


1Excluding denialist numbers from the likes of Fox News and the Koch Brothers.

Posted in: In praise of biocide, rant by Peter Watts 106 Comments