Collection Agency.

ad-astra-coverThis appears to be Collection Season. Over in Spain Ad Astra is just out (including a nicely unconventional introduction by Manuel de los Reyes, the translator of Blindsight); that’s the cover to the right, and I rather like the whole outer-space/inner-brain riff contained therein. Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the official release date for  Beyond the  Rift (which was what, last week?) Tachyon has been posting daily excerpts from the various stories in that collection. But since all those stories are reprints (albeit bound together in a single attractive skiffy package), most of the regulars on this ‘crawl will have seen them before.

But there is one original, never-before-posted piece in Beyond the Rift: “Are We There Yet?”, an extended essay that touches on the  lack of villains in my fiction, the abundance of villains in reality, and a number of things in between.  And since most of you have probably already seen the rest of the Rift, I thought I’d give you a taste of something you haven’t. So, enjoy:

I’m still quite a cheerful guy in person. Apparently people are surprised by this.

Especially now.

I’ve been asked if recent experience has altered my worldview, if my tango with the US justice system might birth even darker visions to come. I don’t think so. After all, it’s not as if I was unaware of this stuff before it happened to me; one or two journalists have even highlighted parallels between my real-life experiences and the things I’ve inflicted on fictional protagonists, as though my imaginings of police brutality were somehow prescient because they happened to occur in the future.

If anything, though, my perspective has brightened. I came out of it relatively unscathed, after all; I was convicted, but despite the prosecution’s best efforts I didn’t go to jail. I’m not welcome back in the US any time soon—maybe not ever—but at this point that’s more of a badge of honor than a professional impediment.

In a very real way, I won.

Most would not have. Most people, up against an enemy bureaucracy with deep pockets and only the most token accountability, would have been swallowed whole. There would have been surrender regardless of guilt; desperate plea-bargains to avoid crippling court costs. If the accused did somehow summon the audacity to fight back there would have been a lopsided battle and captivity and years of debt. Michigan bills you for your time behind bars: thirty bucks a day, as if you were staying at a fucking Motel 6, as though you’d chosen to bunk up for the room service and free cable. The longer you’re incarcerated, the higher the bill they shove in your face when you get out.

I’ve stopped getting those little yellow cards in the mail. Maybe they gave up, maybe they lost track of me when I moved, maybe the fact that I’m on the far side of an international boundary makes me not worth going after for the price of one measly night in the clink. Those poor bastards I shared beans and Kool-Aid with, though: no protective borders, no sanctuary, no breaks for them. A year in jail and they walk out ten thousand dollars in debt. And even they have it pretty damn easy next to a family friend whose activist husband was disappeared in Latin America, who was gang raped and gave birth in jail; conversations with such folk leave you a bit less inclined to whinge about the injustice of Michigan’s legal leg-hold traps.

I had so much help. Half the internet woke up on my behalf. Thanks to Dave Nickle and Cory Doctorow and Patrick Nielson Hayden and John Scalzi—thanks to all the myriad folk who boosted the signal and chipped in to my defense fund— I walked away no poorer than when it all began. I walked away heartened: look at all those friends I didn’t know I had. See how obviously corrupt the authorities were shown to be in the court of public opinion. See what outrage and anger can accomplish, when the rocks are kicked over and their undersides exposed to the light (Port Huron now posts signs warning travelers of upcoming exit searches; that’s something, at least). So many reasons for a white middle-class guy with influential friends to have hope.

And a lot of folks in this privileged demographic do seem to have hope. I once attended an event in which Cory Doctorow and China Miéville chatted about the inherent goodness of humanity, about their shared belief that the vast majority of people are decent and honorable. Another time I was the one on stage, debating Minister Faust on the subject of whether science fiction could be “a happy place,” and the same sentiment resurfaced: Minister attested that the vast majority of people he’d encountered were good folks. The problems we face as a species, he said—the intolerance, the short-sighted greed, the accelerating threats of climate change and strip-mined ecosystems and floating islands of immortal plastic garbage the size of the fucking Sargasso—are thanks to those few despots and sociopaths who sit atop the world’s power structures, shitting on the world for their own profit.

I concede the point, to some extent at least; even in the depths of the system arrayed against me, bright spots ignited where I least expected them. That one border guard who refused to fall in line with her fellows, who testified that she didn’t see me committing the acts of which I stood accused. The jurors who, having voted to convict, spoke out publicly on my behalf (one of them stood at my side during sentencing, in a show of support that netted her an extended ordeal of police harassment and home invasion). A judge who set me free with a small fine, admitting that I was the kind of guy he’d like to sit down and have a beer with.

Reasons to hope. The anger remains, though, even if all those other folks are right about the goodness of grassroots humanity. Especially if they’re right; because what do you call a world of decent folks ground beneath the boot-heels of despots and sociopaths if not dystopia? You can trot out your folksy tales of good hearts and personal redemption, your small hopeful candles flickering down at street level; I can’t help noticing the darkness pressing down from overhead, the global dysfunction that throws the world on its side despite the angels of our better natures. I don’t even entirely believe in those angels, not really, not even down here in the happy realm of the little people. Zimbardo and Milgram didn’t create thugs and torturers with their infamous experiments; they merely uncovered them. And it’s not just psychos and sickos who level the forests and flush their shit into the ocean and fire up their dinosaur-burning SUVs for a two-block drive to the local Target. Those plastic islands in the Pacific have grass roots all over them.

Down in the basement, my anger never goes away; and that’s informative in a way you might not expect, because I don’t believe true misanthropes generally feel that way. Bitter, sure. Cynical, deeply. But angry?

You may not think much of tapeworms, but you don’t generally get mad at them. You might wipe cancer off the face of the earth if you could, but not because the thought of cancer leaves you spluttering with rage. You don’t blame something for doing what it does, what it’s always done, what you expect it to do.

You only get mad if you expected better.


This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday November 27 2013at 06:11 pm , filed under fiblet, writing news . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

36 Responses to “Collection Agency.”

  1. Wait, you’re banned from the US? That sucks, I was wondering if you’d ever attend some event here in NY

  2. It helps alot that you’re a tall, clean-cut, and handsome white male. Why, in some parallel universe, they could have put you in a suit and plopped you in front of a bookcase so you could explain on TV how current rates of fishing are perfectly sustainable. So you were constantly firing off cues to the judge and jury that you were in-group, and that you couldn’t possibly be responsible for the things you were accused of. Why, it must be nothing more than a terrible misunderstanding.

    Now imagine if you were black, or latino, or native. You wouldn’t have stood a chance.

    People *can* be decent to others. It’s just that there are so many of us that we simply can’t deal with the 150 or so fellow members of our tribe as predicted by Dunbar. So we’re forced to fall back on other cues: race, religion, language, kin, all these silly parochial definitions.. Would I dump a barrel of toxic waste on my cousin’s house? Hell no. Would I dump a barrel of toxic waste on the house just down the road? No, they’re just like us. Would I dump a barrel of toxic waste on an island inhabited by people who don’t look like me? Ehhhh.

  3. “You only get mad if you expected better.”


    And the anger really never does go away, does it?

    Best of luck. If you come up with any good ideas on improving the situation, I’d love to hear them. For me, thirty years of martial training has taught me to live with, accept, and even constructively redirect anger. But it hasn’t made it any more fun, you know? Hasn’t touched the reasons that the anger is there. So like I said, if you ever get any brainwaves on how to fix this shit, count on my support.

    Until then, I’ll probably be on my hillside, practicing.

  4. Hear, hear.

    In many ways, the world would be more tolerable if we were able to concede that, by and large, most people are self-interested assholes. We would be able to say “well, *of course* X happened – that’s just how people are,” and congratulate ourselves on being among the empathetic few. Life in the context of a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ is nasty, brutish, and short – but consistent and predictable in a way that validates callousness. It is much more challenging to live in a world of trust, solidarity, mutuality – and inequality. Such a world invites us to *do something* about injustice.

    On a different note, I read this and immediately thought of Blindsight:

  5. Yeah I sent the judge a letter asking him to think of the next dude to get victimized by the little tinpot dictators after he let you go.

  6. So, the question I pose is when to quit? When is it time to say “Fuck it, I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired?” You do the right thing, you become a target. You rear up against injustice, or discrimination, or unethical practices in the workplace, or local government, and all you get is heartache and ridicule. The powers that be will harass you and throw you in jail. Not because you did something illegal, but because you dared to question them or show them in an unflattering light. They hit you in the wallet, cutting hours based on ethnicity and disabilities inflicted on you while serving your country, making it impossible for you to provide for your family. They put you under a microscope, dissecting the very personal aspects of your life, and throw it out there for the whole world to see, trying to humiliate you into submission. When do I stop fighting? When I breathe my last breath. I’m proud of what I did for you, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. And, yes, I do expect better.

  7. The answer my friends, is…fucking fight back anyway. The best defense that the powers that be have is that the level of corruption and incompetence is so high that it’s practically unbelievable. Make people believe it.

  8. Y’know, a night in a Motel 6 costs a lot more than $30 these days.

  9. The problems we face as a species, he said—the intolerance, the short-sighted greed, the accelerating threats of climate change and strip-mined ecosystems and floating islands of immortal plastic garbage the size of the fucking Sargasso—are thanks to those few despots and sociopaths who sit atop the world’s power structures, shitting on the world for their own profit.

    That’s wildly optimistic.

    That’s not all true.

    There’s also human short-sightedness. How do you explain to a Tanzian guy who is running a condom-for-hire business that he has to close down his lucrative business because condoms weren’t designed to be re-used and even if they still look fine .. and so on. He maintains the campaigners are ‘out to destroy him’ and his condoms are perfectly sound. He sounds very sure of that.

    Most people in America would be better off if they weren’t importing almost everything from China – there’s be a great amount of jobs created to make up for lost imports and so on.

    But people would be, at least in the short run, materially poorer.

    The whole idea is politically and economically suicidal – preventing import of Chinese crap which is only that cheap because China is an autocratic regime that is fucking over it’s workforce and destroying the environment like there’s no tomorrow. In Beijing the air is so polluted you need a gas mask to avoid shortening your life expectancy.

    Anyway, US and other countries have already ‘exported’ a lot of their polluting but crucial industries to China – so it’s economically impossible too, because Chinese retaliation would be very damaging.

  10. @ Y:

  11. Hispanic Business editor lists BtR among top 100 books to buy as holiday gifts (in fact, 2nd book mentioned):

  12. @Whoever

    Armies are generally polluting. Czechoslovakia is still paying for environmental cleanup around former Soviet bases – the geniuses had leaky fuel stores and there’s often groundwater contamination..

  13. Congratulations on the publication of “Ad Astra”.

    I only pop in to drop a link, so I hope I won’t get the boot from the spam filter.

    The thing is only vaguely related, but I though it might interest you. It appears that a woman from Canada was denied the entry to the U.S. after Homeland Security Dept. got access to what supposed to be her private medical data and discovered that she’s been hospitalised for clinical depression two years ago. “Threat to the property, safety or welfare’’. Yeah, I’m sure she is, riding on her wheelchair like that (she’s paraplegic).

  14. @Y:

    Yes, but who has the biggest one?

  15. Who the hell cares about the DoD?

    The biggest problem we have is corporations, not the military – and the fact that corporate behavior, that is selfish rationalism with one goal which is money can make organisation of ordinary, non-sociopathic people behave in a sociopathic manner – because the organisation and it’s goals demand it.

    Corporations and their endless drive for gov’t handouts is what caused the growth of defense spending post 9/11 and is also what drives the surveillance state.

    Remember that guy Snowden? He wasn’t NSA – he was a contractor. US gov’t is contracting out much of it’s intelligence related work. Ya think no one ever lobbied for that to happen?

  16. Thought we were talking pollution. They are the biggest polluter. More than Koch, for example. So for pollution I think we do need to “give a fuck” about what DoD is doing.

    And I don’t know why you’re jumping to some (incorrect) conclusions regarding what I think about the military-intelligence-security-surveillance-energy-prison-food-education-banking-Congressional-Judicial-Executive-industrial-media complex.

  17. Thought we were talking pollution. They are the biggest polluter.

    Who cares which American is the fattest? Except the Guiness book of records, no one, really. They’re the ‘biggest’ simply because the federal gov’t is so big.

    I’m more interested in explaining why I think people who claim it’s all just ‘sociopaths’ doing the bad thing are wildly optimistic.

    Sociopaths exist on a spectrum, and for the non-violent ones, it’s impossible to clearly delineate them from the rest of humanity. Ever heard the story of why exactly Germans gassed Jews in WWII?

    Himmler was once shown an execution of a couple of hundred civilians and noted the distress of the soldiers doing the shootings and demanded an alternate solution.. so someone else, no doubt you can find the name, came up with the carbon monoxide & truck solution.

    None of these people were sociopathic. They even believed they were doing the right thing..

    he short-sighted greed, the accelerating threats of climate change and strip-mined ecosystems and floating islands of immortal plastic garbage the size of the fucking Sargasso

    ..those all problems as old as humanity itself. There are still people clinging to the theory climate change, not human predation did all ancient American megafauna in ..

  18. “I’m more interested in explaining why I think people who claim it’s all just ‘sociopaths’ doing the bad thing are wildly optimistic.”

    Stanford prison experiment. It is sociopaths, or the extremely selfish, responsible in the sense that It happens because social dominators/authority figures say it’s okay and provide falsehoods to make it easier on those with a conscience but lacking in courage, skepticism of power, and/or the right kind of intelligence to figure out the big picture.

    But let me throw in, not all sociopaths do this. It’s a certain breed.

  19. Locus magazine, December issue contains a review of BtR. Appears to be print only, mentioned in the ToC:

  20. Is finding pornography of children on an NSA or Pentagon contractor’s computer an indication of corruption or incompetency? It seems a very effective way of socially silencing or defeating a potential whistleblower by ‘discovering’ the evidence, especially given accusing someone of sexual perversity has been a tactic the powerful used for some time to discredit their threats or rivals. Given our nation is built on a fantasy version of the Roman empire, it’s no wonder we still have our Caligulas, real and imaginative.

  21. @Charles R:

    You know, you’re probably correct. A lot of very unhappy NSA employees according to Snowden and Greenwald. Could very well be someone thought they might be trouble down the line. There’s also a contractor trying to sell services for predicting future whistleblowers, so the need and desire would seem to follow the theory.

  22. Charles R,

    It’s trivially easy for NSA to make someone’s computer access the internet and look for child porn. They can mask running processes, they do have lists of sites visited by pedophiles – so a trojan that would download CP and make it look plausible.. what better way of getting rid of people?

    Every prosecution of people for such images should require proof that the accused is in fact aroused by children, which is problematic in the US – where the technique of

    is seen as dubious – even though it’s about the only somewhat reliable way of measuring arousal in males.

    Given our nation is built on a fantasy version of the Roman empire

    …what? Nope. It borrowed a few institutions from the Roman republic, not the Roman empire.

  23. Anger is indeed proof you’re not a cynic : cynics don’t care, and more often than not those labelled thusly are misdiagnosed hopeless optimists.

    We mammals are lazy as a rule, and we typically only move our arses if we’re prompted to action by a strong attractor (bacon, sex, shiny things), of if staying where we presently lay gets too uncomfortable.

    Speaking only for myself (and excluding those things one only does ‘for the bacon’), I do stuff out of either curiosity (how would that work ?), sometimes inspiration (this is so cool ! I want in !), but mostly, primarily and primally, out of anger and frustration (seriously ? Will somebody fucking do something !? …alrite, I’m it.)

    Caring strongly, and getting worked up about stuff that really matters (even if only to you) is what leads people to accomplish things most would lack the impetus and stamina to see through : I strongly suspect you wouldn’t find the drive to write what you write if not as a way to cope or negotiate with the constant pelting of cold disappointment the state of play inflicts upon your gooey, cuddly core.

  24. Now they’re just pulling our legs. Right…?

    Giant octopus grabbing globe logo with “Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach” on rocket set to place NRO payload into space:

  25. I will readily concede that much of The Way Things Are Done is awful. My challenge to you is to point out a time when things were better. My sense is you can’t, because we live at the best and most just moment in human history.

    Twenty years ago, there would have been no account of your run in with ICE to contradict the official version. There might have been a small bit in the local paper “Canadian author hospitalized after assaulting customs agent”, and that would have been it. The fact that the rest of us can now hear about your case and there is independent video evidence in itselfforces the cops to behave better. Greater availability of information makes the world appear less just, but become more just.

  26. @Heedless:

    Are you at all familiar with CISPA, SOPA, PIPA and now the bypass of those failed attempts to police the Internet in order to prevent the very thing you are lauding, the TPP (which may also do things like kill generic meds, sorry, Canada).

    And that’s without diving into just how much worse things are. Ten years ago, it might not have happened at all.

  27. @whoever Yeah I have some familiarity with CISPA, SOPA, and co. They are very much First World Problems. Campaigning against TPP beats the hell out of worrying if you’re going to contract polio or tuberculosis.

    “How much worse things are” ? Read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature. There are always incidents, but the world wide trend is positive.

  28. A quote from my other favorite authour, Steven Erikson. Seems all too appropriate:

    Fiddler snorted. “Sapper, listen to me. It’s easy to listen and even easier to hear wrongly, so pay attention. I’m no wise man, but in my life I’ve learned that knowing something–seeing it clearly–offers no real excuse for giving up on it. And when you put what you see into words, give ’em to somebody else, that ain’t no invitation neither. Being optimistic’s worthless if it means ignoring the suffering of this world. Worse than worthless. It’s bloody evil. And being pessimistic, well, that’s just the first step on that path, and it’s a path that might take you down Hood’s road, or it takes you to a place where you can settle into doing what you can, hold fast in your fight against that suffering. And that’s an honest place, Cuttle.”

    “Its the place, Fiddler,” said Brys, “where heroes are found.”

    But the sergeant shook his head. “That don’t matter one way or the other. It might end up being as dark as the deepest valley at the bottom of your ocean, Commander Beddict. You do what you do, because seeing true doesn’t always arrive in a burst of light. Sometimes what you see is black as a pit, and it just fools you into thinking that you’re blind. You’re not. You’re the opposite of blind.”

  29. @ Heedless Hugh

    “Campaigning against TPP beats the hell out of worrying if you’re going to contract polio or tuberculosis.”

    There’s far worse in the arsenals of those who think it’s their job to snatch up every last liter of whatever-it-is and silence those who might object without worrying about whatever Mother Nature herself is brewing.

  30. I consider myself an optimist, not heedless.

    I find that people shrieking “how much worse things are” tend to be under 20 or haven’t read much history. Charlie Stross expressed a vision of the near future much better than I could do here:

  31. I consider myself an optimist (and frequently note that Watts is as well). I totally get that life is more convenient for many people. The biggest advance is efficiency. Fewer people are doing the work that used to take more of them. Problem: what do you do with the rest when the.multinational propaganda machine says it’s because they’re lazy or the wrong color, etc. and people believe that because mass lying has also come a long way (baby!) ?

    I think maybe even Huxley was as well when he suggested we might wind up loving our slavery. If you love it, have adapted to liking the view of desolation (something Pete suggested recently), then is it bad?

    Thanks for the Stross link, I’ll check it out.

  32. Ok. Re: Charlie Stross’ vision of the future. Preamble: have immense respect for him and consider him one of the greats and am happy to, should our paths cross before 2061, keep my mouth shut about it until then to his face.

    I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve already got some issues as I see the problem. And I think maybe this helps me to understand where our views diverge. One, he glosses over our energy problem. That’s great that in the future we’ll have those things as a species. Issue is, how did we get there? It’s big picture that (by design because it’s about the future) ignores the impediments we have to those things now.

    The second is around an issue that came up recently about cable boxes being used for in-house surveillance. If the whole home is networked, I suppose it’s fine if the refrigerator sends ME a grocery list while I’m at the store. What is not okay is if the washing machine is also notifying Globochem that I’m THINKING about switching to Umbrella Corp.’s brand of tofu-cream, or planning on voting some other way, or–worse–is actually planting those ideas in my head based without my knowledge and consent based on which paid the networking outfit the most this week. With the conveniences we enjoy comes the tools for power and manipulation as well. Without privacy-invading DNA/psych testing of everyone and mandatory gene/drug therapy of anyone with the desire to lord our advances over others, how are we going to get to the ST-like utopia? I live in the now, so concerns over getting there are as close to my mind as where I’d like to see it go.

    Great point by Stross on pros/cons of democracy. Peaceful transfers of power, but shoddy long-term planning.

  33. Really enjoyed Blindsight and am cranking through Beyond the Rift. Was wondering if you knew why Starfish is not available via iBooks? Maelstrom and Behemot are there for purchase…

    I know I can download them from here, and that’s laudable, but I’m happy to pay for the pleasure and iBooks just works for me.


  34. Without privacy-invading DNA/psych testing of everyone and mandatory gene/drug therapy of anyone with the desire to lord our advances over others, how are we going to get to the ST-like utopia? I live in the now, so concerns over getting there are as close to my mind as where I’d like to see it go.

    Utopia means ‘no-place’. You can’t have utopia, just as you can’t have equality of chances and equality of outcomes, for example. Unless everyone is born and raised to be equally capable, which would only be possible in a society of clones I think.

    We could do a lot better if psychopathic people were all tagged and held to higher standards of conduct. They have a hard time conforming to social norms as it is, if everyone knew them to be what they are they’d have an easier time of fitting in and not doing stupid stuff.

    And there’s a test for that, I believe. Fear response is abnormal in psychopaths.

    Preamble: have immense respect for him and consider him one of the greats and am happy to, should our paths cross before 2061, keep my mouth shut about it until then to his face.

    I don’t think he’s going to live beyond 2035. He’s an overweight person with health issues (high blood pressure, iirc) and a sedentary lifestyle.

  35. Re: Charlie’s problems: in the age of frack you we’ll frack when and where we frackin’ please you frackers!, I’d be thinking of putting some distance between me and a currently dormant rift to the gooey center.

  36. Locus published their nice review of BtR: