An X-Prize for Irony.



You may have heard of these things called “X Prizes”: big cash awards, handed out by the non-profit Xprize Foundation to encourage advances in everything from spaceflight to genomics to undersea exploration. It’s run by some pretty big names; Craig Venter may ring a bell with some of you. Or Ray Kurzweil. Or, um, Arianna Huffington.

Together, they want to save the world.

It’s obviously a pretty optimistic endeavor. “The benefit of humanity” shows up twice in a  mission statement of only 15 lines. The email I received last night, encouraging me to help spread the word about their new advisory body, suggested use of the phrase “chart a path toward a positive future”.

Given all this, you have to wonder why they’d want me anywhere near their clubhouse. Maybe they haven’t read any of my stuff. Maybe they’ve got me mixed up with some other Peter Watts. I asked the person who recruited me about that. She said I had the right sense of humor.

So there I am, second shelf from the bottom: part of X-Prize’s “Science Fiction Advisory Council“, up there with sixty-odd other SF writers, film-makers, and scientists, most of whom are of far greater stature than I. I’m told we hail from nine countries; that among us we have 13 doctorates, 44 Hugos, 28 Nebulas (Nebulae?), 35 Locuses, 10 John W. Campbells, six Arthur C. Clarkes, six British Science Fiction Association Awards, and one Academy Award. Looking beyond all that chrome I see a collection of colleagues, friends, personal heroes, and benefactors (you may know Straczynski from B5; I also know him for the massive donation he made to my legal defense back in 2010). I see a large number of people I’d love to hang out with over beers (and only one or two that I wouldn’t). It’s an august group, and I’m proud to be part of it.

One thing that makes me cringe a bit is my bio note. It’s self-aggrandizing. I wrote it years ago, in deference to some agency or application that demanded extreme tub-thumpery. I freshened it up and sent it off to the X-Prize people in case they, too, demanded Ultimate Pimpage— but I also submitted another bio which, as I told them, “has much less of a stick up its ass, and would be the one I’d choose if I had my druthers.”

The dude told me it was the best email he’d received all day. But they went with the ass-stick anyway.

I submit the other below. Because it’s better.  Just so you know.

Peter Watts spent the first two decades of his adult life as a marine biologist. After fleeing academia for science fiction, he became known for the habit of appending technical bibliographies onto his novels; this both confers a veneer of credibility and covers his ass against nitpickers. Described by the Globe & Mail as “one of the very best [hard-sf writers] alive”, the overall effect of his prose is perhaps best summed up by critic James Nicoll: “Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts”.

Watts’ debut novel (Starfish) was a New York Times Notable Book, while his fourth (Blindsight)— a rumination on the utility of consciousness which has become a required text in undergraduate courses ranging from philosophy to neuroscience— was a finalist for numerous North American genre awards, winning exactly none of them. (It did, however, win a shitload of awards overseas, which suggests that his translators may be better writers than he is.) His shorter work has also picked up trophies in a variety of jurisdictions, notably a Shirley Jackson (possibly due to fan sympathy over nearly dying of flesh-eating disease in 2011) and a Hugo (possibly due to fan outrage over an altercation with US border guards in 2009). The latter incident resulted in Watts being barred from entering the US— not getting on the ground fast enough after being punched in the face by border guards is a “felony” under Michigan statutes— but especially these days, he can’t honestly say he misses the place all that much.

Watts’s work is available in 20 languages. He and his cat, Banana (since deceased) have both appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. A few years ago he briefly returned to science with a postdoc in molecular genetics, but he really sucked at it.

Now I sit back and wait for the conference calls with James Cameron.


This entry was posted on Friday, June 2nd, 2017 at 8:17 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

15 Responses to “An X-Prize for Irony.”

  1. Vithren

    Well, the recruiter was not wrong. You do have the right sense of humor for this timeline and world.

  2. Yukon Val

    Commencing muppet arm flail

  3. proudinjun

    Good deal, Big Guy. Hope you have the opportunity to have those beers.

  4. Greggles

    You have many wonderful people to collaborate with, and I look forward to your discussions with David Brin! Will Auntie Entity be moderating?

    On a more positive note, congratulations on the recognition that this conveys. (Or something less awkwardly phrased)

    I think you deserve to engage in a fully public act of preening.

  5. Deseret

    “Yeah, whatever Watt’s came up with and wrote that lead to catastrophe in his books, let’s…let’s not do that.”


  6. Omer

    Nebulae, Loci?

  7. Peter Watts

    Greggles: You have many wonderful people to collaborate with, and I look forward to your discussions with David Brin! Will Auntie Entity be moderating?

    Oh, right. Let me amend: two or three that I wouldn’t want to have beers with.

    Omer: Nebulae, Loci?

    Locii. Or Loki.

    Let’s just hope they don’t rescind the invite after reading my blog post. It’s happened before.

  8. Mr Non-Entity

    In a field fraught with polyannas who see nothing but blue skies forever, a little well-reasoned glumness might be the only thing saving the futurians from rushing headlong over a cliff, so to speak, in their irrational exuberance. You, sir, and a few others on that list, are there to speak out towards preventing the next “commoditized debt obligations” or real-estate tranching schemes, albeit in science or perhaps urban-planning, rather than in real-estate finance. Sometimes people don’t care for the gloomy drizzle on their campfire, so to speak, but everyone welcomes a deluge on a forest fire. Emergency brakes are a great thing, as is a solid understanding of vexing puzzles in Altruism such as the “trolley problem”. I think they’ve made some great choices and you are one of them.

  9. Greggles

    Peter Watts: Oh, right.Let me amend: two or three that I wouldn’t want to have beers with.

    Alcohol is definitely contraindicated for that encounter. Lithium would be best for at least one of the participants.

  10. Michael Luder-Rosefield

    Oh, I don’t know — what better way to steer towards a better future than point out all the best directions to avoid like the plague?

    Although, having seen Tomorrowland, I think Brad Bird might disagree.

  11. Hank Roberts

    What comes to mind is that Bradbury line about writing — not to predict the future but to prevent it.

    Also noted:

  12. Hank Roberts

    “The group’s first project will be a collaboration with Japan’s All Nippon Airways, Seat14C, which the foundation calls a ‘digital science fiction anthology featuring original stories by members of the advisory council, told from the perspectives of passengers onboard a fictional ANA flight from Tokyo to San Francisco who mysteriously find themselves transported 20 years in the future.'”

  13. DA

    Wow, congrats on the great opportunity! That’s some august company.

    It’s bittersweet in a way. I remember the good old days before Blindsight when I picked a copy of Starfish off a public library shelf, and it struck such a chord with me that I fired off an email to the author (only time I’ve ever done that ), with a question about peristalsis in Rifters when their digestive tracks were compressed. Lo and behold the author had the poor sense to actually respond with a thoughtful reply, and I became a loyal reader (more importantly, *purchaser*) for life. The ‘Crawl was much more primitive back then, Dr. Watts still had free run of the continent, and I could fire off the most wonderful hipsterized condescension to people when they asked what kind of science fiction authors I liked to read ( “Oh, I’m sure you haven’t heard of them.”)

    Now this aging ‘Crawlster has to share Dr. Watts with the Futurati, Hollywood, and worst of all, Facebook . Still, I’m happy for the sake of his own personal fortunes.

  14. Gary Flood

    Why leave out your great contribution to the adult movie world (niche market)?

  15. Hank Roberts

    … cricket … cricket … cricket …