Bright Eyes.

It was a window in the crudest possible sense: a solid pane of transparent alloy, set into the rear bulkhead.  You couldn’t zoom it or resize it or lay a tactical false-color overlay across its surface.  You couldn’t even turn it off, unless someone on the other side brought down the blast shield.  It was a clear, impenetrable hole in the ship:  a circular viewport into an alien terrarium where, out past the ghostly reflection of his own face, strange hyperbaric creatures built monstrous and incomprehensible edifices out of sand and coral.

Six of the monks were resting, suspended in medical cocoons like dormant grubs waiting out the winter.  The others moved purposeful as ants across a background full of shadows and the looming shapes of half-built machinery:  a jumbled cityscape of tanks and stacked ceramic superconductors and segments of pipe big enough to walk through. Brüks was pretty sure that the patchwork sphere coming together near the center of the hold was shaping up to be the fusion chamber.

Off to one side two of the Bicams huddled in whatever passed for conversation.  A glistening gelatinous orb floated between them.  They ended their communion as he watched; each in turn plunged hands into the sphere (water, Brüks realized: it’s just a blob of water) withdrew, dried off on a towel leashed to the bulkhead.  Their eyes twinkled like green stars in the gloom.

How had Moore put it?  Cognitive subspecies.  But the Colonel didn’t get it.  Neither did Leona; she’d shared her enthusiastic blindness with Brüks over breakfast that very morning, ticked off in hushed and reverent tones the snips and splices that had so improved her masters: No xenophobia, no confirmation biases, no Semmelweis reflex.  They don’t suffer from scope insensitivity. They’re immune to the inattentional blindness and hyperbolic discounting.  The Concorde Fallacy doesn’t even slow them down…

As if those were good things.

In a way, of course, they were.  All those gut feelings that kept the breed alive, right or wrong, on the Pleistocene savannah— and they were wrong, so much of the time.  Fossil feelings.  Better off without them, once you’d outgrown the savannah and decided that Truth mattered after all.  But humanity wasn’t defined by arms and legs and upright posture. Humanity evolved at the synapse as well as at the opposable thumb — and those gut feelings, right or wrong, were the very groundwork on which the whole damn clade had been built.  Capuchins felt empathy.  Chimps had an innate sense of fair play.  You could look into the eyes of any cat or dog and see a connection there, a legacy of common subroutines and shared emotions.

The Bicamerals had cut away all that kinship in the name of something their stunted progenitors called Truth, and replaced it with — something else.  They might look human, their cellular metabolism might lie dead on the Kleiber curve, but to merely call them a cognitive subspecies was denial to the point of delusion.  The wiring in those skulls wasn’t even mammalian any more.  A look into those sparkling eyes would show you nothing but—


Leona’s reflection bobbed upside-down next to his in the window.  He turned as she reached past and unhooked her pressure suit from its alcove. “Hey.”

“Everything’s still on track?”

“More or less.  I can’t keep track of all the parts but Beenish says we’ll be ready on time.”

His eyes wandered back to the window as she began to suit up.  “I didn’t know,” he said, too quietly.  As if afraid they’d hear him through the bulkhead.

“Know what?”

“How they work.  What they— are.”

“Really?” She paused, one leg halfway into the suit.  “I would’ve thought the eyes’d be a giveaway.”

“I just assumed that was for night vision.  Hell, I know people who retro fluorescent proteins as a fashion statement.”

“Yeah, now.  Back in the day they were—”

“Diagnostic markers.  I figured it out.”  After wondering why a bioweapon targeted on Bicamerals would have its roots in a cure for cancer.  “Doesn’t it bother you?”

The suit had swallowed her to the waist. “Why should it?”

“They— they’re tumors, Leona.  Literally.  Thinking tumors.”

“That’s a pretty gross oversimplication.”

“Maybe.”  He wasn’t clear on the details.  Hypomethylation, CpG islands, methylcytosine — black magic, all of it.  The precise and deliberate rape of certain methylating groups to turn interneurons cancerous, just so:  a hyperproliferation of dendrites, a synaptic superbloom that multiplied every circuit a thousandfold.  It was no joyful Baptism, as far as Brüks could tell.  There would be no ecstasy in that rebirth.  It was a breakneck overgrowth of weedy electricity that nearly killed its initiates outright, pulled circuits with sixty million years of residency out by the roots.

Leona was right:  the path was subtle and complex beyond human imagining, controlled with molecular precision, tamed by whatever drugs and dark arts the Bicams used to keep all that chaotic overgrowth from running rampant.  But when all the rites and incantations had been spoken, when the deed had been done and the patient sewn up, it all came down to one thing:

They’d turned their brains into cancer.

“I was so worked up about Luckett.” Brüks shook his head at his own stupidity.  “We just left him back there to die, you know, we left all of them— but he would have died anyway, wouldn’t he? As soon as he graduated.  Every synapse that ever made him what he was, the cancer would eat it all and replace it with something…”

“Something better,” Leona said.

“That’s a matter of opinion.”

“You make it sound so horrible,” she said. “But you know, you’ve gone through pretty much the same thing yourself and you don’t seem any the worse for it.”

He imagined coming apart.  He imagined every thread of conscious experience fraying and dissolving and being eaten away.  He imagined dying, while the body lived on.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“Sure you did.  When you were a baby.” Leona laid a gloved hand on his shoulder.  “We all start out with heads full of mush and random wiring; it’s the neural pruning afterward that shapes who we are.  It’s like, like sculpture.  You start with a block of granite, chip away the bits that don’t belong, end up with a work of art.  The Bicams just start over with a bigger block.”

“But it’s not you!”

“Enough of it is.”

“Sure, the memories stick.”  It was true enough.  Some things were spared:  thalamus and cerebellum, hippocampus and brain stem all left carefully unscathed by a holocaust with the most discriminating taste.  “Something else is remembering them.”

“Perhaps.”  She shrugged, a gesture barely visible under the suit. “If it’s God’s will.”

“Jesus Christ, Leona, will you stop saying that!  You’re way too smart for this.  There’s not the slightest shred of evidence—”

“Really.”  Her voice hardened.  “And what kind of evidence would be good enough for you, Dan?  Voices in the clouds?  Fiery letters in the sky proclaiming I Am The Lord Thy God You Insignificant Weasel?  Would you believe then, or would you just chalk everything up to hoaxes and hallucinations?”  She lowered the helmet over her head, yanked it counterclockwise until it clicked into place.  His fisheye reflection slid bulging across her faceplate as she turned.

She paused, hand on the latch.  Turned back.  Her face faded back into view as she dialed down the reflectivity.

“Sorry.  I get a little defensive sometimes.  It’s just, you know.  I’ve heard that argument a few times before.”

“What about you, Leona?” he asked softly.

“What about me?”

“You aspiring to the same fate?”

She eyed him sadly from the bowl of her helmet.  “It’s not like you think.  Really.” And passed on to some farther shore.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 7th, 2011 at 3:44 pm and is filed under Dumbspeech, fiblet. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

45 Responses to “Bright Eyes.”

  1. Ross

    So where do I sign up?

  2. ken

    Utterly compelling.

    In the context of this blog, our good Squiddie (can I call him Squiddie?) knows how to tease a story. He doesn’t say anything. No setup, no words of introduction. He grabs us by the short and curlies and shoves the paragraphs into our hands. It’s guerrilla marketing at its best.

    Needles to say, you’ve left me wanting more.

    I hate to dilute the moment, but is there any status on Echopraxia that you can share? Any chance that we might be able to order signed copies through this website?

    Now if you’ll excuse, my short and curlies are all in a bunch.

  3. demoscene val

    um, not to be a total boring dork, but can you cite some literature? puzzled monkey is puzzled.

  4. Trey

    Tease. I say that in the nicest sense of the word.

  5. gwern

    ‘Bicamerals’ is a reference to Julian Jayne’s _Origin of Consciousness_, I’m guessing.

  6. Tom Dullemond

    Where might I put these fistfuls of money for the rest of this, kind sir?

  7. Seruko
    delicious dollar bills,
    and a rap tap tapping of coins,
    but where and when it asks?

  8. Łukasz Fedorowicz
  9. Lidija

    Awesome. I love your concepts.

    Also, is this sentence missing part of a verb or am I just being dumb? “Hell, I know people who retro fluorescent proteins as a fashion statement.”

  10. Sebastian A

    “Retro” would seem to be the verb there. As in short for “retrofit” or “retro-something”.

    Oh, and brilliant. As always.

  11. Lanius

    Also, is this sentence missing part of a verb or am I just being dumb? “
    Just being dumb, I guess 😉

    S.S. that retro is shorthand for have re-written DNA in their own cells with help of retroviruses*…

    *though, cosmetic gene tinkering is a long way off. I doubt it’ll ever catch on, except maybe in places like Africa where people want to look pale for some unfathomable reason. Or America, where the fashion of making small tits into mid-sized pelicans is quite popular.

  12. Sheila

    The typical way to support an author’s authoryness is to buy books so that publishers will want to publish more. If you already have the books, give them to your friends or people whose will to live you want to quash.

    and to support Banana you can also give to his Niblet memorial fund.

    now back to fiblet comments.

    At first I was thinking bicams might be related to Siri’s surgery and prosthesis, but half his brain got scooped out due to a pathology not a normal. but his shipmate had multiple consciousnesses and the bicams might be related to those models.

  13. Sheila

    or the zombies. the later model than Siri’s dad.

  14. Ken Kennedy

    You’re such a tease, Watts.

  15. Jan


  16. Hljóðlegur

    Thank you kindly. 🙂

  17. Bastien

    I want it I want it I want it I want it I want it I want it I want it I want it I want it…

    Have mentioned that I want it? Because I do. I really want it.

  18. Paula

    Rockin’ good. Neurology makes great material for you, man.

  19. Peter D

    If I ever get a time machine I’m going to go back in time to right now and give myself a copy of this completed book (and also the plans for the time machine).

    Damn. Why does that NEVER work?

  20. demoscene val

    re gwern
    I see the Jayne reference, but the whole brain-eating cancer that makes them that way utterly puzzles me.

    It seems to come back to altruism and how somebody can’t buy it. (Then again, I’m not sure I always can either. )

    Interesting concept for posthumanism, I just want more on the mechanics of the replumbing. Thinking tumors . . . that doesn’t make sense. I get how tumors can modify brain function by pressing on various areas, but a brain that’s all tumor? New tissue that is all cancerous? I think either I’m misunderstanding or missing too much info.

    But it is just a fiblet, which is either a tease or an random amusement of an hour ‘s writing, I assume . . .

  21. Paul Kinsky

    @ demoscene val:

    It seems like the engineered cancer they use is as far removed from ‘wild’ cancer as an alcohol stove from a wildfire. It’s like using modified versions of the HIV viruses to cure diseases.

    And it’s an incredibly compelling idea: cancer is at its heart a creative force, and if that unrestrained replication could be harnessed it would be quite useful. Even as a software engineer with no deep understanding of biology it makes a kind of intuitive sense.

  22. Janbo


  23. AR

    Oh my, another “Transhumanism eats your soul” piece. I’d like to see the opposite, for once. I even suspect you might be the sort of author to do it, because it could be just as scary and depressing to certain types of reader if done right.

    A common thing in these sorts of stories, at least in their more pop-sci-fi incarnations, is how the human spirit or passion can overcome cold intelligence, even if augmented. Well, how about an enhancement program that augments the human spirit, as well? Everybody knows the sort of effect that passion can have on a person’s effective ability, and it may turn out to be one of the low-hanging fruit of mental engineering, to say nothing of sentimentalist motivation on the part of the engineers.

    Instead of a superhuman intelligence with dead eyes, would it perhaps be scarier, to certain types of reader, to have a superhuman intellect that is also more spirited, more passionate, and who experiences the most noble and inspiring emotions with an intensity and sincerity that is obvious to every social mammal around them?

    Then, humanity becomes obsolete no matter which direction you look at it from.

    Besides which, I don’t think we understand things well enough to say that the enhancements you describe would necessarily be wise. I didn’t remember what hyperbolic discounting was, so I looked it up and right there on Wikipedia is a derivation of the principle with the simple assumption of unknown risks, which is exactly the sort of thing that tends to get ignored in pop psychology and economics and which often, on a more careful analysis, prove the intuitive solution to be more correct than the counter-intuitive but logical-sounding explanation.

    I mean, what is the real world basis for using exponential discounting as the one true and reasonable form of time preference, anyway?

  24. Prosthetic Conscience


    “Instead of a superhuman intelligence with dead eyes, would it perhaps be scarier, to certain types of reader, to have a superhuman intellect that is also more spirited, more passionate, and who experiences the most noble and inspiring emotions with an intensity and sincerity that is obvious to every social mammal around them?”

    I think the Culture’s Minds can fairly be said to be more spirited, more passionate, and more full of noble and inspiring emotions than their primate fellows. They’re scary to a certain class of science fiction reader, because they don’t leave room for humans to be the star of the story. Also, I think said readers have a fantasy of dominance and power over others that the Culture doesn’t really accommodate.

  25. Peter Watts

    @Val: I’m taking a much less misonchorhynist view of cancer here, along the line of Davies & Lineweaver’s interpretation (I blogged about it here).

    @AR: how did you get “Transhumanism eats your soul”? How did you even get “dead eyes”? This excerpt only shows you these guys briefly, from a distance; you don’t hear what they’re saying, or see the expressions on their faces. For all you know they could be exchanging pornographic limericks.

  26. demoscene Val

    @Prosthetic Conscience
    I dunno, I’ve been marinating in a lot of Culture stuff lately and Banks seems to me to write them as ordinary humans, just humans who have more possibilities open to them . . .
    Now the machines in the Culture, on the other hand . . .

    haha on the limericks. Also, thinking of cancer as undiffed cells that can develop into whatever they need to survive is interesting . . . I find myself thinking of recent stem cell research as well, which I have read by dint of having to type it up (Dragon Naturally Speaking ain’t there yet, hence I earn part of my bread by being the typing pool). *wry* Thanks for the link to the Davies

    I find myself thinking just a little bit of a far less science-grounded story by Ray Bradbury (coz he was always more fantastical and lyrical anyway) I read as a kid which got me wondering about me and my cells and which was which back then . . . aha, and I googled a synopsis:

  27. Anonymous

    to have a superhuman intellect that is also more spirited, more passionate, and who experiences the most noble and inspiring emotions with an intensity and sincerity that is obvious to every social mammal around them?

  28. salmundo

    to have a superhuman intellect that is also more spirited, more passionate, and who experiences the most noble and inspiring emotions with an intensity and sincerity that is obvious to every social mammal around them?
    Speaking as a social mammal who has spent the last 30 years working in a psychiatric hospital, the description above struck a familiar chord.
    A significant subset of the patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my care have left me with the sense of being somewhere on the road toward that sort of entity. Granted with a few bugs to work out but thanks to the charisma and hyperactive libidos common to many such folk the traits involved will likely continue being tweaked into the unforeseeable future .

  29. Waldheri

    I think the cancer and the bicamerals are both aspects of the same thing. I remember Peter posting about a paper by Davies & Lineweaver that speculates about cancer being an early stage in the evolution of life (Metazoa 1.0, it was called). The bicamerals lack consciousness in the Jaynesian view, and experience auditory verbal hallucinations which might tie in with the whole God thing.

  30. herewiss13

    ” No xenophobia, no confirmation biases, no Semmelweis reflex. They don’t suffer from scope insensitivity. They’re immune to the inattentional blindness and hyperbolic discounting. The Concorde Fallacy doesn’t even slow them down…”

    One line of dialogue, three trips to Wikipedia. 😉

  31. Lynn

    These bicamerals sound creepy as hell. I have to wonder though, how do you change a human’s cognitive wiring to the point it no longer qualifies as mammalian?

  32. Chinedum Ofoegbu (razorsmile)

    I want to read this so bad. So bad.

  33. fvngvs

    [drools] Mmmmm…..fiiblets….[/drool]

    And back to the Bicameral conversation:
    Hell, for even just freedom from the Concorde Fallacy (not to mention the rest) I’d sign up for the conversion process. Damn the cancer; if a man can finally think straight, it’s got to be a win.

  34. ken

    >” No xenophobia, no confirmation biases, no Semmelweis reflex. They don’t suffer from scope insensitivity. They’re immune to the inattentional blindness and hyperbolic discounting. The Concorde Fallacy doesn’t even slow them down…”

    One line of dialogue, three trips to Wikipedia.<

    I'm ashamed to say how many trips it took for me (more than three). I'm starting to wonder if Echopraxia is a book I should read on the Kindle, so I can have quick access to Wikipedia and Google.

    Still, I love it. I feel that any book by Peter Watts makes me a little smarter. I can use all the help I can get.

  35. Barry

    A comment on “the typical way to support an author”…

    Let’s generalize. They typical way to support an author is to ensure that its creativity is financially rewarded. Seeing to it that some publisher gets 90% of said reward is entirely optional. With Watts in particular, the publisher didn’t even help many of us find his work.

    I would be much happier sending the author the full retil price of a paperback in exchange for a text file (unless he objects, of course, nothing here is to suggest disrespect for his rights). I care that he keeps writing. Whether some larger business keeps pulping trees… I care much less.

    The book exists now, right? I propose an experiment. Start taking bids. Tell everyone to send you a propose price, and then start sending text files… One hundred per day, to the

  36. Barry

    … Stupid phone… Continuing…

    Hundred highest bidders in order. Maybe start doing a thousand per day when the numbers work. You hold the sole option to limit release as you see fit. Like the publisher model of hardback followed by paperback… Only more explicit and flexible, with your fans understanding that the proceeds of the price discrimination go directly to the creator.

    I’ll start – I’d personally pay $50 for an advance copy today. Anyone else want to put some numbers down? Let’s prove to him that dealing with a publisher is entirely obsolete.

  37. sheila

    Barry, in fact I have sent money to the niblet fund for the equivalent of what I would have paid for ebooks on amazon. I was giddy with my new kindle and the joy of being able to carry backpacks of books in such a small footprint.

    But I’m not going to pretend I understand the utility of paying an author directly versus rewarding the entire system. I am erring on the side of buying books in a store since that is the ecosystem our host is working within.

  38. Sheila

    Ps. I’d gladly pay someone to do all of the the things I don’t enjoy. I wonder if Peter enjoys typesetting more than creating content?

  39. ken

    @Barry –

    I support your suggestion and would love to be a part of something like this.


    Publishers have a thing with first publication rights. They want to be the first to get the book in print and sell it for cold hard cash. I don’t know if your suggestion falls in conflict with that arrangement (e.g. the author taking bids and releasing an uncorrected proof into the hands of consumers).

    I know that Peter has released all of his books for free under a Creative Commons license, but I’m not sure if his current contract with this publisher restricts him from doing so.

    There might be some legal loopholes we can jump through to get around this, but it’s up to the man himself to give us the full story.

  40. Peter Watts

    I’m allowed to publish “up to half” of Echopraxia as a CC release. I fought for the whole thing — and the guy at Tor actually admitted up front that the CC release had been the only thing that had saved Blindsight, commercially (not that he could deny it — he was already on record as having said as much on an online SF forum). The difference, they say, is in the exponential growth of e-book readers in the meantime. They feel that free releases would kill their sales. (I think Cory still gets to go CC, but Cory makes his own rules.)

    As for Barry’s suggestion, I’m well aware that traditional publishing is, at best, heading for the iceberg and is more likely already taking on water. I am exploring alternatives, and starting to turn down business-as-usual offers — like for example, how does a publisher justify grabbing 80% of the royalties from an electronic product with zero printing, storage, and distribution costs? A product I can generate myself at home? Way I see it, e-rights are an area in which publishers simply don’t have anything to bring to the table whatsoever — yet they insist on grabbing the lion’s share of those proceeds, and refuse any deal in which they don’t get e-rights. Telling these people to fuck off is an increasingly viable option.

    However, as far as Echopraxia goes, that book is under contract. I could get away with handing some copies around to “beta readers”, but to embark on any kind of large-scale financial transactions at this point would put me in breach. Also, Barry, believe me: you don’t want this book in its current state. It’s getting there, but it’s not ready and I’m not gonna show it around to anyone but my editor (and I only showed it to him reluctantly, to meet a deadline) until no parts of it embarrass me.

    Still, that’s today. I have other books in me, and other gigs, and I am cautiously hopeful that future endeavors won’t involve my balls in anyone’s vice. And in the meantime, it’s damn good to know that my fan base, while small, is enthusiastic enough to make some of these alternatives look doable.

    Thank you all.

  41. Sheila

    Thanks for weighing in, I wasn’t sure we’d hear from you.

    I’m willing to pay directly to authors, but given that you get value from your editor do I give your editor money as well? How do they make a living?

    — like for example, how does a publisher justify grabbing 80% of the royalties from an electronic product with zero printing, storage, and distribution costs?

    Not true, though I am not certain how much data persistence should actually cost a content provider.

    Where I work we can pay on order of 70K a year to persist data for an ecommerce site. and on a smaller scale, at home we have a raid array. It’s failing and replacements will cost around $1000 due to flooding in Thailand. for my own use I also pay for various services that have storage along with. amazon s3, amazon cloud drive, amazon personal docs, google docs, dropbox

    if I was running an ecommerce book site, I would do due diligence to make sure that readers could retrieve their purchases 24/7 for hopefully the lifetime of my site.

    webscription does a nice job of allowing me to download anything I’ve ever purchased from them. I really like them. I go out of my way to book ebooks from those guys. I’ve had a few 404s from them, but nothing dire yet. I wonder how much effort they need to take to be able to allow people to constantly have access to their inventory?

  42. Sheila

    btw, reiterating, I would pay you directly for content, but I am also not willing to say that storing content is free.

  43. Brian Prince

    Only half? Then I guess I’ll take the consonants.

  44. Sheila

    Brian Prince, oh I am completely tickled by your comment.

    which leads me to suggest…

    We should be able to submit functions for him to run against the text so that we get our own customized halves.

    Do the rights specify that the half has to be contiguous?

  45. Michael

    well I of course have no idea about the contractual details that allow you to post the fiblets at all, but you _could_ put a flattr button on those (or, as a default, on all blog posts).

    It’s a service that people I know have had good experience with.