The Understated, Underrated Genius of Counterpart.

 

There was a time when I lamented the cheesiness of televised science fiction. Sure, Star Trek and Babylon 5 played with cool ideas—  ideas you wouldn’t encounter anywhere else on the broadcast landscape— but why, when recommending them to the uninitiated, did I always have to start with “If you can look past the acting/writing/production values…”?  It was like some Faustian deal: we’ll give you your Big Ideas, but by God, you’ll cringe at the way we dole them out…

Of course, that was before the rebirth of Battlestar Galactica and Westworld. It was before The Handmaid’s Tale transcended not just genre but Television itself, erupted into the real world as protesters marched down the streets of Washington DC in white hoods and red cloaks. It was before Game of Thrones won more Emmy Awards than any other show in the history of television.

And it was before an obscure little show called Counterpart lived and died and left scarcely a ripple. It is Counterpart I mourn today: one of the most underrated, understated SF series in recent memory.

You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it. You can be even be forgiven if you have heard of it— watched it, even— and never realized it was SF. The dialog, the acting, the sets— nothing about that show so much as whispered SF except the premise. In this way Counterpart shares a lot with Ronald Moore’s Galactica reboot. Moore explicitly wanted to make  “science fiction for people who hate science fiction”: something that would sneak under your guard and let you think you were watching a drama set on a present-day aircraft carrier until some unexpected FX shot gave it all away with its starfields and spaceships. Parts of Counterpart‘s world  looked downright retro (another parallel with BSG), for reasons which only gradually emerged over time.

 

The premise: back in eighties-era Berlin, a supercollider mishap splits our timeline into two parallels, Alpha and Prime.  A bridge exists in the sub-basement where the experiment went awry: a portal between  worlds. People go back and forth. There are no special effects, no cheesy CGI lightning or ripply Stargate water-disks. There’s a booth where you get your visa from a bored civil servant; a flight of stairs leading down into the tunnel. You walk through that dingy neutral zone and emerge into a parallel universe. It’s all very hush-hush; only a few in either timeline know of the existence of the other.

You are never allowed to make contact with your alternate self— your “other”, in the series’ vernacular. That’s assuming your other is even alive— because, of course, those two universes diverged over time. Not much, not at first; for a decade or so, their histories were almost identical. Then Prime was struck with some kind of superflu pandemic, while Alpha sailed on serenely unscathed.

At which point things diverged really fast. Earth Prime lost 7% of its population; their efforts combating the superflu put them miles ahead of Alpha in terms of medical research and expertise, but languishing in other areas. Prime still uses old-fashioned monochrome cathode-ray displays while Alpha races ahead with flatscreens and iPads. Now we understand why Alpha operatives leave their smart phones behind when crossing timelines, why even showing such technology to visitors from the other world is a violation of protocol; Earth Prime never developed the smart phone. We come to understand why there’s so much security at the crossing, so much distrust between worlds, why this show feels so much like a cold-war drama even beyond the obvious symbolism of its Berlin setting. Where did that superflu come from, after all? Why did it affect one timeline and not the other? Are both sides already in a state of war, undeclared?

The beautiful irony, of course, is that the people running the UN’s “Office of Interchange” aren’t suspicious of foreigners or aliens or incompatible ideologies; the timelines, after all, are parallel. These people literally do not trust themselves. There’s some seriously warped commentary on Human Nature right there.

All of what I’ve described is backstory. All of it has gone down before the first episode even begins; we get to fill in the pieces retrospectively, over the course of twenty compelling episodes. The series proper begins with Howard Silk: a bureaucrat in a dead-end job, someone so low on the totem pole that even after thirty years at the Office of Interchange he still doesn’t know exactly what he does there. It begins when he meets his other self— a supremely self-assured, ultracompetent field agent equally at home— and equally lethal— in both worlds. And it continues with an exploration of how such utterly different people could have emerged from a common starting point.

J.K. Simmons— the actor playing the Howards— is a one-man master class in understatement. He doesn’t have to speak a word and you know which iteration you’re watching by the tension in his shoulders, the way he holds himself. The body language is simultaneously subtle and unmistakable. And the scripts do something similar, convey epic divergence in the lowest of keys. Who would have thought that history could hinge so irrevocably on whether or not some middle-aged man gave his daughter a cassette tape of popular music? I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a nuanced exploration of Butterfly Effects.

While you won’t find any special effects in Counterpart, you will find terrorist attacks and germ warfare, violinists and assassins (big surprise, they’re the same person); massacres and love stories. High-energy physics. Gulags and realpolitik and broken people in broken marriages. Science fiction, after all, isn’t just about change. It’s about the impact of that change on people and society, and in that sense— while the genre has frequently been both described as “the literature of ideas” and derided as “the literature of cardboard characters”— you can make a case that SF without good characterizations fails in its mission almost by definition. Counterpart most definitely does not fail as SF.

It failed as a TV show, though. A couple of months ago, its creators announced that Counterpart is dead after a mere two seasons. It just couldn’t attract enough viewers, out of all the people on two Earths. And I think that’s a shame; Counterpart was more than just SF for people who hate SF.

It was SF for people who love the stuff, too.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 23 Comments

Meta2

“Get used to disappointment.”
—The Dread Pirate Roberts

.

First, the PSA: Yeah, Freeze-Frame has evidently made the finals for the Campbell. Given its cohabitation with nine other worthy finalists, I’m not holding my breath. Realistically, I expect FFR will not win the Campbell a full day before it doesn’t win the Locus. On the plus side, it has already won something called the Nowa Fantastyka Award for Best Foreign Novel over in Poland, an honor of which my Polish publishers have, oddly, yet to inform me (I only found out about it while egosurfing). I’m told they took the trophy home, though.

The Poles. They never let me down.

But it is none of these things that I mainly write about today. Today I’m focusing on a whole other species of tribute, and it involves AI.

*

Back when I was doing research for “The Wisdom of Crowds”, I poked around amongst various articles on deep learning and textbots. These included Sam Gallagher’s recent Ars Technica piece, which introduced me to OpenAI’s GPT-2: a textbot which devours the souls of FDA reports and Clinton speeches and Amazon product reviews, and channels it all back into output running the gamut from uncanny—

According to a study published by the Institute of Medicine, an estimated 400,000 people die from transfusions every year, mostly due to an array of diseases, from HIV infection to Type 2 diabetes. At age 24, nearly 60 percent of these deaths are caused by transfusions, even though there is a significant genetic and physical impairment which results in over-fatal events such as heart attacks, stroke or stroke-related strokes.1

—to downright Trumpian—

GOAT DICK-IN-THE-BOY BOY

GREAT BOY

GREAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT- GOAT

GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT-GOAT2

—to somewhere in between:

Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea and most closely aligned with the United States, has warned of an imminent U.S. attack. The test of a hydrogen bomb Thursday killed 13 people and injured several others in a Pyongyang explosion, the country’s state TV station reported.<|endoftext|>Coconut Cream

Put aside the false claims of H-bombs in Pyongyan et al. If stating falsehoods was enough to fail a Turing Test, you’d be able to count the entire sapient population of the Internet on your fingers and toes— and besides, the whole point of deepfakery is to sheathe lies in an aura of verisimilitude. Give a pass also to that Coconut-cream glitch and its kin, since the Ars Technica output was generated not by GPT-2 itself but by a lobotomized variant running a mere 117 million parameters; the fully-fledged program (which handles 1.5 billion parameters) isn’t nearly so likely to commit such obvious mistakes. (That’s the very reason why Ars didn’t have access to it, in fact: OpenAI has refused to release it because it’s too good, could too easily  be used for nefarious purposes.)

These deep-learning text-generating algos are getting asymptotically close to real-world iterations of Searle’s Chinese Room. So it was probably only a matter of time before someone, in an act of supreme metaness, applied one of them to Blindsight.

“Someone” turns out to be Cody Raskin, an astrophysicist working out of Lawrence Livermore. He fed Blindsight into a Google deep learning network and told it to write a sequel. Total output weighs in at almost 1400 words and is worth checking out in its entirety, but here are a few excerpts for the time-constrained:

I thought as Sarasti fell back on old tricks and countermeasures: I pushed out an arm from the shuttle and watched it slacken, the tendrils trailing like the tail of a fish behind the rack. I heard him grunt.

The shuttle was aloft now. It swung quickly down the spine and disappeared. A low clatter to one side had the echo of a thousand arms flexing before my gaze. A second slipped by, almost imperceptible, like the heartbeat of a mosquito on a wire.

One of the arms flared and split open. Rorschach resisted my reflexive gaze; I had to keep my gaze fixed on my post-capture host in order to register Rorschach moving around the drum like some sort of living insect.

“The idea that the brain doesn’t create information is an illusion. It’s like telling me that my eyes are not reflecting to my brain, and that’s not what it’s doing, which is to point out that there’s some subtle but significant difference between seeing and knowing.”

“You don’t think that’s exactly the kind of thing the brain determines, do you? Do you?” she said.

“I’m really going out on a limb here. The details come from the study of the behavior of the neurons, not from some fancy theoretical description of the brain.”

“How so?”

“Because when you watch what’s going on beneath the surface, the brain has to balance all of the sensory information, and when your eyes aren’t looking at the same thing over and over and over—well, that’s not so simple, is it?” She smiled at him. “It all looks very complicated to us, but what’s happening in the brain’s head is not that simple to the eyes. What’s interesting about the brain is that it doesn’t really know.”

“But it does.” Bates agreed. “The way you know is the way you do.”

Not that Sarasti believed the story. But he knew a lot more now than he had then. That was perhaps even more important than his own ability. He was aware that I was listening; at least of what he said, of what he really had to say, he knew that I was watching.

But I always knew and was aware, and knew something.

I knew what I was thinking. And I knew what I was saying.

He had known the answer to that question for several hours, and he had had it all figured out for the other eleven, if I was being honest. He had known my feelings at that moment; he had known the consequences if I was right; he had also known precisely how long I would have to play the game; and at this point the consequences were so plain that I didn’t even have to guess them.

I knew that this was all for nothing—that Sarasti would just find another victim.

I never had a chance, though. I was so close. I was so goddamn far away.

I was at the bottom of the mountain.

I was sitting in this chair.

 

There are a few predictable reactions to all this. An inevitable contingent will hold that this AI-generated content is significantly better than the real sequel to Blindsight— and because I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that point of view, I suggest we all pause a moment to let those folks get that out of their system.

Another response is to be spooked out by the style. It really does rather sound like me; and there’s an undeniable lilt, a rhythm to words that somehow lulls you into thinking they make sense even when they don’t. Cody calls it a “jabberwocky” quality: “you get the sense that it’s saying something, and images are certainly formed in your mind, but you can’t quite pin down what’s actually happening.” It fascinates me, this sense of meaning without substance. I’d almost call it a metaphor for the answers career politicians give to sticky questions: glib, eloquent, somehow reassuring until you try to parse the actual meaning behind the words and fail to find any. But I can’t quite call it metaphor, because it seems too damn close to the mark for mere analogy. I suspect that speech-writers use pretty much the same algorithms these textbots do.

But what’s haunting me right now is temptation. Because while applying a Chinese Room to a book about Chinese Rooms is deliciously meta, we can push it further. I am, after all, plotting out a third and final volume in the Blindopraxia sequence— and at least part of that novel is likely to tangle with the dissolution of consciousness on the part of certain characters. It’s a process which might be well represented by the sort of stream-of-nonconsciousness put out by neural nets channeling the words of the conscious.

Right now I can’t think of anything cooler than getting an AI to generate at least some elements of Omniscience. I have no idea if I could make it work— logistically or thematically— but we’d need to come up with some new word for the result.

“Meta” would only get us halfway.


1 Based on text from an AT article on blood transfusions

2 Which was, allegedly, based on text from an actual Trump speech.

Posted in: AI/robotics, Omniscience, writing news by Peter Watts 31 Comments

The Hypersonic Weaponised Yogurt Award Nomination

 

Welcome to the Starfish Initiative

The green icon on the map represents the realtime location of an unmanned hypersonic glide vehicle carrying an explosive payload of 300 kilotons. You are one of a million participants randomly selected from the online community to choose its target. Use your keyboard, joystick, or saccadal interface to move the flashing white icon to the spot on the globe that you would choose for Ground Zero. The final target will be assigned based on a weighted bootstrap mode of all choices.

If you leave the voting pool a replacement will be randomly selected from the online community. If you change your mind and select a different target, your definitive vote will be based on a dialectical bootstrap mean of your combined choices. Target commit will occur in

6 h 59 m 59 sec
6 h 59 m 58 sec
6 h 59 m 57 sec
6 h 59 m 56 sec
.
.
.

I think the static is kind of a metaphor.

So begins my debut on the Slovenian literary stage— more specifically, my story “The Wisdom of Crowds” in the “Hypersonic Hyperstitions” issue of ŠUM, a theme issue released in conjunction with the Venice Biennale exhibition by Marko Peljhan.

The exhibition goes by the name “System 317”. It is constructed around the concept of hypersonic glide vehicles. The original pitch incorporated the lyrics to Alice Cooper’s “Space Pirates”. [Update 9/5/2019: The issue is available in its entirety here.]

Overall, the whole contraption looks utterly batshit, and I am pleased to be a part of it.

*

Šum is not the only venue where you’ll find recent work by me. That Toronto 2033 project I was telling you about a while back has been quietly releasing its component stories onto the web at the rate of one per month.  “Gut Feelings” is the latest to go up; as one or two of you have guessed from the promotional fiblet, this is that story about weaponised yogurt I’ve been mulling over since 2015.

I was a bit worried about potential legal action by Google, until I realized that if they were going to take any real action against the story, they would have done so before I even thought of writing it.

*

Also The Freeze Frame Revolution made the finals in the “Best Novella” category for this year’s Locus Awards.  There is, of course, no chance in hell that I’ll win: I’m up against not one but two of those insanely-popular Murderbot stories, for one thing. I can, however, take a grim sense of personal vindication from the fact that someone finally classified the fucking thing as a novella.

*

And finally, an admission of regret.  We live in a time when disembodied brains are being brought back to life after hours of oxygen deprivation, and the only reason they didn’t return to full consciousness may have been because they’d been preemptively saturated with synaptic inhibitors. We live in a world where human genes, injected into monkeys, appear to have uplifted them (or at least improved their performance on memory tests). We live in a world where the discovery that neurons emit remotely detectable radio signals opens up whole new vistas for brain-computer interfaces, where a week can’t seem to pass without some august group of experts pointing out that we’re about to wipe out a million species.

I would much prefer to fill these pixels exploring the ramifications of such developments.  I keep intending to get back to crunchy science. But then some other gig or deadline pops up and squashes whatever time I may have set aside for any kind of thoughtful analysis. I make more money, which is always good, but you get left with a grab-bag of half-assed Squid PR and a jpeg or two.

I’m heading west next week for a late-breaking game gig. Who knows? When I get back, I may have time to post something real.

Gratuitous jpeg #6372: Echopraxia comes out in Ukrainian.

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 26 Comments

Peter Watts is an Angry Sentient Tumor.

I especially like the “Slippery Surface” motif. Although “Thin Ice” might have been even better…

So that’s the title they went with.

My suggestion was simply “Revenge Fantasies”, but apparently in the #MeToo era such a phrase, in isolation, is too evocative of “revenge porn”. I believe the whole sentient tumor thing was originally coined by Analee Newitz.

As titles go, I admit that it rocks.

I’m surprised to be bringing this up so early. I don’t even know what the collection is going to contain— Tachyon gave me a ballpark word count and I sent them over twice that, leaving them to decide what makes the cut. But given its sudden appearance on Amazon (complete with a handful of skill-testing questions), I guess I can talk about it.

So here it is.

Peter Watts is an Angry Sentient Tumor: Revenge Fantasies and Essays

is pretty much what it sounds like. A few months back Tachyon‘s Jacob Weisman pitched me the idea of an essay collection. My initial reaction was, I suspect, similar to yours: In God’s name, why?  My essays are already available; I’ve been writing them on this very ‘crawl for somewhere around 15 years now. I’ve been writing them for Nowa Fantastyka over in Poland. I’ve even done occasional prestige gigs at places like Aeon and The Daily (generally when someone far hotter than me is struck with flesh-eating disease, and the media needs a memoir from someone who isn’t currently in a medically-induced coma). Hell, even my lectures are sprinkled online here and there.

But apparently Freeze-Frame Revolution continues to do well (so they tell me, anyway), and so did Beyond the Rift in its day (which also packaged old wine in new bottles to good effect, now that I think of it). So Tachyon is interested in keeping me out there. And if John Scalzi can get away with anthologizing his blog posts, why not me? (I’m a lot less virtuous than Scalzi, of course. Hopefully at least some will regard that not as a bug, but a feature.)

So now you know as much as I do: a collection of rants and essays, potentially ranging from climate change to colonoscopies to cats, but really, who knows? Amazon pigeonholes it under  “Science Essays & Commentary”, “Science Fiction & Fantasy Literary Criticism”, and “Science Fiction History & Criticism”. Tachyon pegs its length at 288 pages. You can combine a lot of different modules into a box that size; I’ve even asked them to leave open the possibility of including pieces I haven’t written yet.  Or even second-edition rewrites of older posts, to keep them current (anyone interested in my second-season take on Westworld, now’s the time to speak up).

Hell. If we get desperate you might read these words again in a year or so, posing as an Introduction.

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 23 Comments

Late Notice, Long Distance

I’ve been head down lately: writing a story to accompany an upcoming art installation on Hypersonic Glide Vehicles, gearing up for a class talk at York University, and— weighing most heavily— preparing for a symposium/workshop over in Hungary, under the auspices of the Institute for Advanced Studies, Köszeg (iASK for short). The title of the whole shindig is “Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Science Fiction: Coping with a Complex Future“. It kicks off with a one-day symposium in which a physicist, a biologist, a couple of social scientists and an SF writer walk into a bar and take turns monopolizing a podium[1]. (I appear to have the first slot: working title is “Delusional Optimism at the End of the World”.) Afterward, the lot of us sit around and have a panel discussion.

No connection with Apple, as far as I know.

Of course, it’s Hungary. If none of you make it, I won’t hold it against you. I’ve been told, though, that the symposium is going to be streamed. I don’t know any details, but if you’ve got nothing better to do on a Saturday, you might want to look into that.

There’s also a two-day writing workshop. April 8-9. I’m running that one on my own. I’ve never done one of those before. I suppose I should probably get started on that.

Oh, and for those of you checking out the flyer— no, I have not lost the beard or started dying my hair. The organizers just opted for a ten-year-old picture, instead of the more-current shots I sent.

Maybe they just don’t like cats.


[1] Don’t be fooled by the rudimentary poster or the preliminary schedule; I am, indeed, only one of five participants and I am, in fact, giving a talk in the morning.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 14 Comments

The Gong Show.

Refreshing honesty. I still think I’ll stay away from their health supplements, though.

Dateline — MidAtlantic. The BUG and I are crossing the ocean in an airbus that’s been painted a lurid mix of purple and pink— call it pinple— whose in-flight menus are refreshingly honest and whose vomit bags are volumetrically calibrated from “pan flute music” to “our competitor’s prices”. The uniforms of the flight attendants are straightforward pink. It’s like flying across the ocean in a giant pitcher of purple Kool-Aid, attended by sapient blobs of bubble gum, and— while I always insist on bulkhead seats or better on transoceanic jaunts— I can’t help but notice that the legroom is adequate even in Economy.

The Airline is WOW, out of Iceland. It might almost be a glimpse of one of the “Optimistic Futures” we’re supposed to map out when we touch down in Germany, if not for the fact that the company is on the verge of bankruptcy and might go under before our return flight.

*

Futurism— “product-testing the future”, “strategic foresight”, whatever you want to call it— seems to be big business these days. Everywhere you look corporations are scooping up science-fiction writers for keynote addresses or “consulting retreats”. Colleges offer actual goddamn degrees in the stuff; Toronto’s own OCAD University peddles a degree in something called “Strategic Foresight and Innovation”. (It’s telling that this sfnal exercise in futurism exists in an arts college which— as far as I can tell— offers no science courses in its curriculum. Why, it’s almost as if science doesn’t play any significant role in shaping the future. Or getting paid to talk about it, at least.)

Hell, look at me: I’m hardly on SF’s A-list and my presence on the X-Prize Foundation’s Advisory Council is only the tip of the iceberg. Next month I’ll be in Hungary, teaching a workshop on the use of science fiction as a tool for “Coping with a Complex Future”. A few years back I was invited onto the Futurists’ Board of something called “The Lifeboat Foundation” (which I accepted, even though that whole organization seems largely moribund— the board contains an absolute shitload of science fiction authors), and some very sketchy-sounding Russian outfit called “Earth 2050” (which I didn’t, because they kept avoiding direct answers to my questions). I continue to give guest lectures, generally along strategic-foresighty lines, at colleges and universities. I’ve even been asked to talk about “The Future of Humanity” at an auto show in Shanghai a few months down the road, although I expect I’ll have to decline (not only do I already have a lot on my plate, but they seem to be arresting a lot of Canadians over there lately).

Then there’s “Designing Tomorrow”, which the BUG and I are about to join along with an international cadre of futurists at an undisclosed location.

*

Still jetlagged, we are bussed to a lakeside retreat an hour north of Berlin, innocent of infrastructural services like grocery stores or gas stations. There are a couple of local bars but the organizers warn us away, describing them as examples of “present-day dystopias”.

The meals are catered by anonymous servers whose faces remain forever unseen. There is a sauna and three kitchens; the east wall of one of them is virtually hidden behind a scree of beer and munchies.

Uri— the dude we met at Utopia last year, and an organizer of the current shindig— has brought a great tin gong. He hangs it in the conference room, and bashes it to summon us unto duty.

Uri, Geraldine, Eden. I’m pretty sure these were the main organizational masterminds.

*

This woman prints houses out of sand.

We are surrounded by overachievers. Uri and Eden and Katharina (all from Utopia) are the only familiar faces, but the assembled crack team of experts also includes seven curators of various galleries, conferences, and festivals; seven writers; seven assorted entrepreneurs (start-up founders/VPs, CEOs, etc); five artists and design specialists; three architects; two game designers; three “digital consultants”; three human rights activists; one cyber-security expert; a playwright; an art theorist; and a Senior Fellow with Mozilla. That’s 41 callings crammed into a measly 18 participants, for anyone who’s counting— and that doesn’t include some of the more arcane skills on display, like “media activist” or “SF Evangelist” or even “former marine biologist”.

One participant runs a lottery-based Basic-Income project; another does amazing things with sand and silicon, designs and 3D-prints houses using only local materials. There’s a VR maestro building a story about dead grandmothers in the Internet of Things; one of the Human Rights Activists is working on a PhD on ethics and AI.

Apparently we’re here to help save the world.

Chronocartographers.

*

Don’t laugh. The subtext is ubiquitous: mandatory upbeats run through most of these events like candy-coated blood poisoning, ever since Neal Stephenson internalized the accusation that Science Fiction was to blame for the sorry state of the space program— you remember, because we weren’t being inspirational enough— and booted the whole Optimistic SF movement into high gear. The years since have been sprinkled with Sunshine anthologies and editorials hectoring us to Stop Writing Dystopias And Write About Solutions— as though solutions haven’t been staring us in the face for decades, as though it weren’t obvious what we could do to avoid catastrophe. (Stop breeding, for one thing; how long does it take to get a fucking vasectomy?) What the haranguers are really demanding is easy solutions, magical ways to save the world without having to reduce their own comfy standard of living[1] and their own rutting proliferation. They’re not peddling optimism so much as denial.

This desperate upbeatiness has found its way into the think tanks. The guys at the Shanghai auto show want my talk to “provok[e] people to think and act towards a better future”. The whole X-Prize initiative is explicitly founded on the belief that Technology Can Save Us. Uri told me up front that “We want to create visions for desirable tomorrows”, before admitting that he was struggling with that imperative himself.

These are worthy sentiments, of course. Noble, even. Who doesn’t want to strive for a better future? Who wouldn’t work whatever optimistic angles they could find? Does anyone think that those of us in the doomsayers camp are here because we want to be?

By the same token, though, I’m not entirely sure why Uri— why anyone familiar with my work— would want to include me in such an exercise in the first place. Maybe he needs an outgroup to anchor the discussion. Maybe he wants to force me to think outside my own box, expand my horizons a bit; I could do with a bit of that, I have to admit.

Maybe he doesn’t really want me there at all. Maybe, given his druthers, he’d have just invited Caitlin, but he didn’t want to leave me feeling left out.

*

In direct contrast with what you read in the accompanying text, here Eden is talking about EVE Online.

Eden lays out two sets of tools: Fore/Back-casting and Four Futures. Fore/backcasting is pretty much what it sounds like: Instead of starting at the present and following the trend data into the future— a methodology that, given the available indicators, is pretty much guaranteed to serve up Hell On Earth— you instead start with the future you desire, and back-cast to the present. We want a society that’s entirely carbon-neutral by 2050? Okay, what would the world have to look like in 2049 to make that attainable? 2045? 2040? At the same time you also take the more conventional approach of moving forward from the present in similar increments, but with your desirable endpoint in mind: what kind of changes can one reasonably project over the next year, the next five, that would head us in the right direction?

I feel a mild shock of recognition; in principle, backcasting is identical to a kind of back-to-front ecological modeling I learned about back in grad school. I’m a little embarrassed that in my focus on crafting plausible futures, I’d forgotten such an obvious method for trying to map out better ones.

The tricky part, of course, is what happens when fore- and back-casting run into each other in the middle. The tricky part is in stitching them together. Eden’s been down this road before; during past workshops, forecast and backcast have been so incompatible that the participants have resorted to invoking a convenient apocalypse to wipe clean the forecast slate, allowing the happier backcast to emerge from the ashes. Eden has grown uncomfortable that so many paths to Utopia seem to lead through seven-digit death tolls; this time, he tells us, we can’t use global disaster to stitch our timeline together. This time we have to assume that civilization persists as it improves.

The Four Futures approach— taken from a book by Peter Frase— is new to me. You imagine the futures of two things— say, “the future of networks” and “the future of capitalism”. Plot one along the x-axis (from “everything partitioned” to “everything networked”), the other along the y (“capitalism dismantled” to “hypercapitalism ubiquitous”). You now have a 2-dimensional space split into 4 quadrants, which you can use to explore various scenarios (“a hypercapitalist world with minimal telecom networking”).

Of course, a measly 2-variable interaction is pretty simplistic. You could add as many other variables as you like, along as many orthogonal axes as you can keep track of. But given the way our brains work, that’s not likely to be too many; and two variables are still enough to explore some pretty interesting and unexpected interactions, while being easy to plot on graph paper.

To prepare for the Four Futures exercise, Uri has asked each of us to come up with at least three plotable “futures”. Scribbled onto Post-It notes, they accumulate on the windowpane: The Future of Gender, The Future of AI, the Future of Empathy. The Futures of Nation-States and Space Exploration and Privacy— even, in a very cool backflip, The Future of the Past (which questions the degree to which everything from memories to historical records can be edited). Split into pairs, we each pick two futures to work on. We’re forbidden from selecting our own suggestions.

I’ve suggested “The Future of Climate Change” and “The Future of Pathogens”, among others. Nobody chooses them.

I am sad.

*

Scenarios in progress.

This is the scenario I wish I’d been in. (The Future of Capitalism crossed with The Future of Gaming, in case you were wondering.)

Team BUG

The scenarios we do come up with range from whimsical to dystopian to whimsically-dystopian. Imagine a corporation-approved robot cat for company on long space voyages, which dispenses narcotics from its space-anus and records your every move for the corporate database. (That was The BUG’s group.) Imagine the UN replaced by an API, a reformed open-source Facebook for which clicking “I agree” on the User Agreement is an official part of coming-of-age and citizenship ceremonies. Imagine wallpapering your room with a representation of your own genetic code; imagine an identity-stealing drone drifting past your window, reading that personal art and reverse-engineering the code it was based on. Imagine a society so diffused across the solar system that actual face-to-face meetings are rare high-status events commemorated by the exchange of physical DNA samples. Imagine those samples incorporated into facial photophores— like the ones on deep-sea fish— coded to flicker in certain sequences when they encounter kin; imagine those handshaking protocols coded to provoke dopamine cascades to enhance social cohesion. Someone learning to hack those protocols, using optogenetic trickery to make everyone she meets trust and adore her implicitly.

Fernanda, from Brazil by way of Ireland by way of Berlin. I spent most of the workshop thinking this was some kind of orchid.

No shortage of imagination in this group. Even our off-duty time keeps us hopping; we have wine-suffused evening tete-a-tetes on everything from Galaxy Quest to the ethics of self-aware masochistic sexbots.

And yet, none of our scenarios so much as hint at the rising ocean in the room.

Of course, when you’ve been explicitly told to aspire to positive outcomes, there’s going to be a natural inclination to avoid the nasty shit. Eden has told us to eschew apocalypse— and admittedly, kicking over the game board is the easy way out, a failure of imagination: arbitrarily grabbing a new hand rather than playing the hand you’re dealt. I can see why he wants us to put in a bit more effort.

Still. There’s a huge difference between eschewing a convenient fictitious apocalypse and ignoring an inconvenient real one. The first just forces you to work harder at the whole futurist schtick: the second constitutes wilful ignorance of a real-world catastrophe that’s already baked into the timeline.

To put it another way: If we know that an asteroid is on course to smash into the Earth five years from now, what’s the use of any twenty-year forecast, however inventive, however positive, that doesn’t address that threat? Are we really so far down the road to perdition that the only way to conjure a positive future is to ignore reality?

*

For a while I’m paired with a very nice person whom I literally can’t understand. Her words make sense on a sentence level, but their underlying meanings seem predicated on axioms I can’t quite figure out. When it comes time to present our preliminary findings I suggest that she take the lead, because I don’t think I can do justice to her perspective. Instead, she gives me our notes and, as I stumble through them, throws herself into some kind of interpretive dance in the middle of the floor.

She finds me at least as frustrating as I find her. We come to loggerheads over whether a desired outcome can be achieved without re-engineering Human Nature itself. I tell her about studies on cheaters and altruists; exasperated, she tells me that “science is just another belief system”, and reminds me that she’s a trained philosopher.

We were encouraged to go for walks in the nearby woods, although people who wandered down this path never came back. More beer for the rest of us.

Days later, during the think-tank postmortem, one of the Human rights activists suggests that these events might benefit from having scientists on board. She does it in strangely grudging tones, though, adds “even though scientists are a pain in the ass” and that their discussions are always so “completely apolitical”. I chip in that our survival— and more importantly, the survival of the millions of species we’re dragging down the toilet with us— ultimately comes down to the laws of Physics, and Physics doesn’t care about politics.

She asks me later if I’ve read The Three-Body Problem, lets out a small whoop when I admit that I have. “I knew it! I knew when you made that comment about physics, you had to have been influenced by that book.”

Well, no. I’ve known about physics pretty much since high school. And I have to wonder about any mindset that regards the primacy of physics as such an alien concept that it could only have come from the depths of a nihilistic science fiction novel. But I am starting to see a pattern; of the eighteen people gathered here, I think I’m the only one with a degree in science. All these other polymaths— curators, activists, artists and architects— their careers center around people. The challenges they face are largely, essentially political; the solutions are political too. Their whole lives come down to negotiations, to meetings in middles. Such insights would have been invaluable back before things got this bad, back when What Has To Be Done could still fit into the set of What’s Politically Doable. But now the cascades and feedback loops have kicked in; now we’ve got to deal with Physics, and Physics does not play politics.

When your life has been spent putting people front and center, putting human welfare and happiness above all, is it any wonder that you might want to look away from a scenario in which Humans get what they deserve? Everyone in this room is looking for a desirable future. I may be the only one who defines that as a future without us.

*

I have no idea. Missed this entirely. They were just there one morning.

We gather one last time to figure out next steps. This was a pilot project; the expectation is that it will become an ongoing affair, with an ever-shifting pool of contributors. Some see future manifestos, handed to People of Influence who might make a difference. I myself have always been sceptical of the whole SF Changes The World narrative. I don’t think we have nearly as much influence as some want to think. The examples most often cited strike me as either trivial (Star Trek inspired the Flip Phone!) or ominously cherry-picked (would Reagan have really listened to those SF writers urging him to implement SDI if it hadn’t been just the kind of thing he wanted to do anyway?)

Others set their sights somewhat lower, would be perfectly content to produce a modest document stocked in libraries, something that might inspire the next generation given that the current one seems such a writeoff. (But do we have time to wait for another generation? Haven’t we just awakened to find ourselves already in the end game?)

Ultimately, we converge on some kind of document affiliated with a website which interweaves fiction and the science that inspires it: a site in constant motion, bits of journalism and literature feeding off each other, sharing the splash page for a while before some more-current work takes their place and relegates them to the archives. The crew had already started on implementation before the bus even rolled away.

I don’t think any of it will save the world, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. I’d do it again in a second, for utterly selfish reasons: recent friendships renewed, new ones made. New tools acquired, not just for workshops but for my own writing; you can be damn sure I’ll be incorporating these tricks into my own work, going forward. And who knows? Maybe someone with a bit of influence will take notice. Maybe, if our ideas are good enough, they’ll catch on.

The Departure Lounge. WOW really pulls out all the stops.

If not, maybe the Extinction Rebellion has a chance. Hopefully they’ve got more steam than the Occupy movement. Hopefully they won’t be crushed so easily.

In the meantime, the stone that Adam Etzion first threw at me back in 2013 keeps right on skipping, in apparent defiance of nonnegotiable physics. Skip: we go to Tel Aviv and discover Utopia. Skip: I make contact with the good folks at One Hamsa. Skip: Uri invites us to design tomorrows in Berlin. And now, impossibly, yet another Skip: Shalev Moran (who I met here) and Mushon Zer-Aviv (who we met in Israel) are taking their Speculative Tourism gig on the road, and expect to be landing in Toronto sometime over the next month. Our turn to play host for a change; if the cats don’t win them over, maybe the raccoons will be out by then.

Who knows where that stone lands next?


Postscriptual Note:

You’ll have noticed the ‘crawl’s been pretty quiet lately, on account of all this unexpected prep and travel. It will continue to be quiet for the next few weeks, on account of more prep and more travel (at least one trip to Hungary, probably another to Bergen, maybe— just maybe— a bounce dive to Shanghai in between). Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me; I’m probably not dead.

[1] All that said, the assignment isn’t impossible. Even I have written the occasional story about happy endings and world-saving technology. why, one of them is right here, in case you’ve forgotten.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 32 Comments

Flyswatter

Something reaches down and lifts Cyclopterus like a toy in a bathtub.

Inertia pushes Galik into his seat. The vessel tilts, nose down: slides fast-forward as though surfing some invisible wave. Moreno curses and grabs the stick as Cyclopterus threatens to turn, to tumble.

Wipe out…

In the next moment everything is calm as glass again.

Neither speaks for a moment.

“That was one hell of a thermocline,” Galik remarks.

“Pycnocline,” Moreno says automatically. “And we passed it a thousand meters ago. That was— something else.”

“Seaquake?”

She leans forward, interrogates the board. “Sylvie‘s transponder isn’t talking.” She conjures up a keyboard, starts typing. Out past the hull, the metronome chirp of the sonar segues into full-throated orchestra.

“Technical glitch?” Galik wonders.

“Dunno.”

“Can’t you just call them up?”

“What do you think I’m doing?”

Acoustic modems, he remembers. They can handle analog voice comms under normal conditions— but what’s normal, with Nāmaka churning up the Devil’s own background noise? Down here, the pros use text.

But judging by the look on Moreno’s face, that’s not working either.

She drags her finger along a slider on the dash; the pointillist seabed drops away around some invisible axis as the transducers swing their line-of-sight from Down to Up. Static and confusion rotate into view; the distant surface returns a blizzard of silver pixels to swamp the screen. Moreno fiddles with the focus and the maelstrom smears away. Closer, deeper features stutter into focus. Moreno sucks breath between clenched teeth.

Far overhead, something has grabbed the thermo— the pycnocline as though it were a vast carpet, and shaken it. The resulting waveform rears up through the water column, a fold of cold dense water rising into the euphotic zone like a submarine tsunami. It iterates across the display in majestic stop-motion, its progress updating with each ping.

It must be almost a thousand meters, crest-to-trough.

It’s already passed by, marching east. Patches of static swirl and dissipate in its wake, clustered echoes whose outlines shuffle and spread in jerky increments. Galik doesn’t know what they are. Maybe remnants of the Garbage Patch, its dismembered fragments still cluttering up the ocean years after Nāmaka tore it apart. Maybe just bubbles and swirling cavitation. Maybe even schools of fish; there are still supposed to be a few of those around, here and there.

“What—” he begins.

“Shut up.” Moreno’s face is bloodless. “This is bad.”

“How bad?”

Shut up and let me think!

Her visor’s back down. She plays the panel. Scale bars squeeze and stretch like rubber on the dash. Topography rotates and zooms, forward, aft; midwater wrinkles blur into focus and out again as Moreno alters the range. Her whispered fuck fuck fuck serves up a disquieting counterpoint to the pinging of the transducers.

“I can’t find Sylvie,” she admits at last, softly. “Not all of her, anyway. Maybe some pieces bearing eighty-seven. Swept way off-station.”

Galik waits.

“She was ninety meters down.” Moreno takes a deep breath. “The tip of that— thing reaches up to fifty. Must’ve slapped them like a fucking flyswatter.”

“But what was it?”

“I don’t know. Never seen anything like it before. Almost like some kind of monster seiche.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s like—when the pycnocline sloshes back and forth. Standing wave. But the strong ones, they’re just in lakes and seas. Basins with walls the wave can bounce against.”

“Pacific’s a basin. Pacific’s got walls.”

“Pacific’s fucking huge. I mean sure, ocean seiches go on world tours sometimes, but they’re slow. Stretch the mixing layer a few meters over a few years. Maybe kickstart an El Niño now and then. Nothing like this.”

“There was nothing like Nāmaka ten years ago either.”

“Yeah.”

“Hurricanes can’t even dissipate any more, so much heat in the oceans. Maybe it’s amping your seiches too.”

“Dunno. Maybe.”

“Maybe they’re even feeding off each other. Nothing’s linear any more, it’s all tipping points and—”

“I don’t know, I said. None of that shit matters right now.” She slides her visor up, eyes a red handle protruding from the ceiling. A tiny metallic hiccough and a soft bloop carry through the hull after she yanks it. Something flashes on the dash.

“Emergency buoy?”

Moreno nods, downs visor, grabs the joystick.

“Shouldn’t we, you know. Make a recording? Send details?”

“It’s in there already. Dive logs, telemetry, even cabin chatter. Beacon stores it all automatically.” The corner of her mouth tightens. “You’re in there too, if that helps. Sub commandeered by NMI, prospecting dive. Maybe they’ll move faster, knowing one of their errand boys is in danger.”

She edges the stick forward and to port. Cyclopterus banks.

Galik checks the depth gauge. “Down?”

“You think anyone’s gonna fly a rescue mission through Namāka? You think I’d be crazy enough to surface even if they did?”

“No, but—”

“Any rescue’s gonna come in from the side. And since you wouldn’t have dragged Sylvia all the way over from the Cafe if there’d been anyone closer, I’m assuming it’s gonna have to come from further out, right?”

After a moment, he nods.

“Could be days before help arrives even if our signal does manage to cut through the shit,” Moreno tells him. “And I for one don’t feel like holding my breath for a week.”

Galik swallows. “I thought these things made their own O2. From seawater.”

“Lack of seawater isn’t the problem. Need battery power to run the electrolysis rig.”

He glances at their bearing; Moreno has brought them around so they’re following in the wake of the superseiche.

“You’re going after the Earle.”

Her jaw clenches visibly. “I’m going after what’s left. With any luck, some of the fuel cells are still intact.”

“Any chance of survivors?” Most habs come with emergency pods, hard-shelled refugia for the meat in case of catastrophe. Assuming the meat has enough advance warning to get to them, of course.

She doesn’t answer. Maybe she’s not allowing herself to hope.

“I’m— I’m sorry about this,” Galik manages. “I can’t imagine what—”

Cowled Moreno hunches over the controls. “Shut up and let me drive.”

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 29 Comments

Sunflowers, Hamsters, and Elderberries: Bifrost Does Watts.

“Peter Watts: The Future of Chocolate”. If I’m reading that right.

In an inexplicable yet welcome bit of ego-boo, the current issue of the French Magazine BiFrost (#93) is infested with stuff about (and in a couple of cases, by) me. “ZeroS” is in there, in French. So’s my afterword from Beyond the Rift. There’s some kind of reader’s guide to the Sunflowers Cycle, and an annotated Watts bibliography.  Bottom line, if you don’t like Peter Watts, you’re gonna want to spend your money elsewhere. You could almost call it a Peter Watts Theme Issue.

The issue’s most epic piece of Wattsian content, though, is a massive 18,000-word interview between me and Erwann Perchoc. “Interview” might not even be the right word, in fact; most e-interviews I’ve done have consisted of answering a static list of prearranged questions, with the occasional followup for clarification. This was more of an extended conversation over beers: Erwann would send a question, sit back while I answered it, then send me a gentle reminder when I hadn’t actually done that after a few days. There was no immutable list of boxes to tick off. Each new question was informed by the previous answers. We took some interesting side roads, dove down the occasional rabbit hole before rejoining the main drag. Sure, some of my answers are rehashes you’ve read a few times before; you have to cover the bases. But I also fielded a lot of questions no one had asked in twenty years of author interviews. (Nobody, for example, has ever delved much into my family background. I never really expected them to; family background is generally pretty boring. It was only after answering Erwann’s questions on the subject that I realized that fucked-up and dysfunctional could actually be pretty interesting.)

It was six solid months in the making.

According to Instagram the BiFrost folks are licking stamps and folding envelopes as I type. So this seems like a good time to boost the signal, and to give Anglophones a taste of what they’re missing. It’s a pretty small taste— I’ve got 18,000 words to sample from, remember— but I’m guessing you’ll still encounter a few flavors you haven’t met before.

 

On Childhood:

I was born in 1958 on the Canadian prairies— Calgary, Alberta— the youngest of three brothers. According to David, the eldest (and creepiest) of those— and the only other member of my family who hasn’t died yet— my own birth was preceded by a miscarriage named “Celeste”, who somehow realized while still in the womb that she was about to be born into a toxic family environment and decided to avoid the whole thing by self-aborting. I, apparently, was the next soul in line, so I ended up being born in her place. Thanks a whole fucking lot, Celeste.

While I’ve been able to independently confirm the existence of two miscarriages throughout my mother’s reproductive history, I have to admit I’ve had no direct contact with this alleged fetus-spirit “Celeste”. Said elder brother claims to have been in touch with her on and off over the years; apparently she would talk to him by forming letters in the smoke rising from burning incense, which David would then dutifully transcribe into an old Hitachi laptop. I had one chance to test his claims, when I found myself trapped in his cabin outside Edmonton during the winter of 1991. I told David that I was going to go into the bathroom and do something behind closed doors; Celeste could use her magic smoke to tell him what that was. When I came out again, David informed me that Celeste had in fact seen me in there, but there were some things decorum dictated she not share even with him.

I remain unconvinced.

 

On my mother:

My mother? Let me tell you about my mother…

 

Clock of the Long Now:

Based on what little I know about that project, I think it’s cool, geeky, and fun. As to its long-term global benefit, though, I can only look to the Long Now’s own stated source of inspiration: “Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment.”

Because of course, when those photos of Earth from space made it into the public consciousness, all of Humanity immediately came together, forgot their petty differences, looked in horror at the damage they’d wrought, and set about fixing it with all possible haste and effort. And that is why we have no environmental problems today.

I fully expect the Long Now Clock to have every bit as much of an impact.

 

On Hallowe’en Costumes:

Suffering for your Art.

That was the most painful Hallowe’en costume I ever made. I carved the dorsal spines out of reinforced styrofoam and then duct-taped them to my naked back. Various veins and tendrils, same thing. Then I spray-painted my body black. The esophagus actually extended and retracted: It was a gussied-up vacuum-cleaner hose with a set of novelty vampire teeth stuck on the end, fastened to the main costume with internal rubber bands to keep it retracted. I could make it shoot out by yanking on a cord down by my waist, and when it reached maximum extension, the monofilament attached to the teeth would run out of slack and snap the jaws shut.

I’m told it was pretty impressive (this was back in 1986, just a couple months after Aliens came out; there were no professional xenomorph costumes yet, you had to make your own from scratch). Unfortunately I was inside it the whole night; I could barely even see what was in front of me.

My date came loaded with a chest-burster. A spring-loaded Slinky layered in flesh-colored latex, that would jump out from her cleavage when she tripped the trigger.

I was in pain for days afterward. The black paint beaded on my body hair and would not come off in the shower, so my whole body was effectively covered in tiny velcro hooks. Wear a sweater to class the next day, try to take it off afterward, and it was like ripping off a bandaid that covered your entire torso.

Totally worth it, though.

 

Caitely-wu Puddington Muzzwump BUG IV:

Writing-wise, I’ve definitely got the better end of the deal. Caitlin (aka The BUG, aka Caitely-wu Puddington Muzzwump BUG IV) has a grasp of character and plot structure that I can only envy. She’s not only an author, she also teaches Creative Writing (in addition to her day job in the Ontario government) so she’s had a lot of experience in whipping substandard manuscripts into shape. I can hand her a story that I know isn’t working and she’ll not only diagnose the problem, more often than not she’ll prescribe a solution. My narrative arcs have become a lot more organic since I climbed onto The BUG’s shoulders. My characters are more consistent, more humane. And if I should run a story past her that she can’t find major fault with, I know I’ve got a winner indeed. I trust her instincts more than my own.

Why, she even helped me write this answer.

 

Advice to Readers:

Get yourselves sterilized. If enough of us did that (or even just the males), we could solve the problem inside a generation.

 

There you go. Somewhere around 5% of the whole epic.

If you want the rest, go learn French.

Posted in: ink on art, interviews by Peter Watts 15 Comments

The Weakest Link.

I first wrote the following back in 2014, one of my columns for Nowa Fantastyka.  Such columns— generally a longer version of them, actually, since the NF pieces are limited to 6K characters including spaces—  often make it onto the ‘crawl eventually.  Apparently, though, “The Weakest Link” never did these past four years. It would still be languishing forgotten in the Polish archives if not for the fact that  a) Nestor asked my opinion of “The Last of Us” on this very blog, a few days back, and b) the hugely-anticipated sequel should be coming out Any Time Now, so a four-year-old column might not be so much dusty as retrospective.

Besides, it’s not really about a single game anyway. It’s about all of them.

It’s about the Future of Fiction:


I’ve been writing video games for almost as long as I’ve been publishing novels. You can be forgiven for not knowing that; nothing written in my gaming capacity has ever made it to production[1]. The usual course of events goes something like this: I work with a talented development team to serve up a kick-ass proposal. Over the following few months, the rest of the team disappears, one by one, under mysterious circumstances. Finally I get an email from some new Executive Producer I’ve never heard of, who praises my “terrific” work and tells me he’ll be in touch if they ever need my services again.

They never do. Nothing I’ve worked on has ever made it to market unmutilated; characters flattened to cardboard, innovative aliens  reduced to evil yoghurt, all subtlety and nuance and interpersonal conflict flensed away before, ultimately, being jettisoned altogether.

And yet, after nearly two decades of false starts and dashed hopes, I still maintain that the future of fiction is interactive. Language, after all, is a workaround; one can marvel at the eloquence with which words might evoke the beauty of the setting sun, but no abstract scribbles of pixels-on-plasma could ever compete with the direct sensory perception of an actual sunset.  This is what’s on offer by visual media of all stripes: the ability to convey exactly, with no doubt, no interpolation, no need to guess— what an alien world looks like, what your protagonist actually sees and hears (and before long, smells and tastes and feels as well).

Add interactivity— the potential to not just read about heroes but to be them— and how could any mere novel compete? Written fiction was always a compromise, an artifact of the state of the art. Now that art has advanced to an immersive state that invites its aficionados to help invent the narrative instead of just observing it.

Of course, for all the brilliance of games like Half-life and Bioshock, the flexibility of the narrative is an illusion. You don’t really invent the story; you just  find your way through a preprogrammed maze, shooting aliens and mutants along the way. And while sandbox worlds like Skyrim and Fallout certainly deliver the feel of an open-ended, off-the-rails environment, isn’t it a bit unrealistic that people you were supposed to meet outside the castle at midnight are still waiting there to pick up the story, uncomplaining, even after you’ve ignored them for six months? Doesn’t Lydia’s conversational range look a bit limited after, oh, five minutes?[2]

Just bumps in the road, thought I. They’d be smoothed out soon enough. For now it wasn’t possible to code realistic narrative complexity into a game that fit into the average Playstation, but surely all those constraints would recede further towards the horizon with every iteration of Moore’s Law. In another ten or fifteen years we’d have games that you could really play instead of just solve; characters who’d live and breathe and evolve dynamically, in meaningful response to the actions of the player.

If you haven’t played this, you really have to. Even though you never really will.

It took a game in which characters actually did live and breathe and evolve to make me see the folly of that belief. I’m talking about The Last of Us.

On first glance, The Last of Us looks like just another generic post-apocalyptic survival shooter. Civilization has collapsed. There are zombies. Mortal injuries are magically patched up in mere seconds by “health kits” cobbled together from rags and bottles of alcohol. You scavenge a variety of weapons during your travels across a shattered landscape; if something moves, you shoot it. Yawn.

On second glance, it’s fucking brilliant.

To start with, the zombies aren’t zombies: they’re victims of a mutated strain of Cordiceps, a real-world fungus that does, in fact, rewire the behavioral pathways of its victims. Good people turn out to be bad; bad people turn out to be ambivalent. Cannibals and child-killers and sociopaths all have their reasons. The moral dilemmas are real and profound, and the relationship between the two protagonists is so nuanced, so beautifully realized in the voice-acting and the mo-cap, that it literally brought me to tears a time or two. And nothing brings me to tears, except the death of a cat.

Only a video game so perfectly balanced, so emotionally involving, could convince me that video games will never be so perfectly balanced and so emotionally involving.

All that wonderful character development, you see— all those jeweled moments that exposed the depth of Ellie’s soul, of Joel’s torment— aren’t part of the game. They’re cut-scenes, unplayable, noninteractive. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game with such extended cinematic interludes. Sometimes it takes control in the middle of fight, to ensure it plays out the way it’s supposed to.  Sometimes the whole damn fight is a spectator sport, start to finish.  (Sometimes I think they go overboard. At one point you lose the game if a secondary character gets killed— a character who dies anyway, during the cinematic that immediately follows.)

These are human beings, you see, not Gordon-Freeman one-size-fits-all templates into which any player might pour themselves. They’re damaged creatures with their own personalities and their own demons. And because they’re fully-realized characters, we can’t be trusted to inhabit them. Oh, sometimes we’re granted a token nod to participation at vital moments— a prompt to trigger a bit of preprogrammed dialog, or the choice of whether to walk or run during the course of a conversation— but all that really does is rub our noses in how irrelevant our participation really is to the story being told. We can’t touch their souls; all we can do is move the arms and legs of these characters during those shoot-and-sneak intervals that come down to basic animal-instinct survival.

And how else could it be? How could anyone entrust such complex creations to any doofus who slaps down forty bucks at the local games counter? How many players would be able to conjure up, on the fly, dialog worthy of these protagonists— even when Moore’s Law makes that a feasible option? How many could be trusted to keep their actions consistent with motives and memories that have twenty years of tortured history behind them?

It’s not the technology, it’s the player. We’re the weak link. We always will be.

Video games can be art.  The Last of Us proves it better than any other title in recent memory; but the only way it could do that was to stop being a game. It had to turn back into a mere story.

And that’s why I’ve changed my mind. Interactive may be the future of pop culture, but it’s not the future of fiction. Dungeons & Dragons is a whole lot of fun to play, but a bunch of role-players making shit up as they go along are never going to craft the kind of intricately-plotted stories, the nuanced characters, the careful foreshadowing and layers of meaning that characterize the best fiction. I actually feel kind of stupid for not having realized that all along. The tech may get magical. The tech might get self-aware, for all I know. But until someone upgrades the players, we old-school novelists will still have jobs.

They just won’t pay very well.


[1] Well, except for Crysis: Legion, I suppose, but that wasn’t me. I was just channeling Richard Morgan.

[2] Let me just insert a reminder that the only reason I do not cite the amazing Witcher 3 here is because it hadn’t yet been released when I wrote this column.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 40 Comments

Time Dilation in Tel Aviv.

.

None of the following events should have happened, by rights. I should never have even made it to Tel Aviv, but for some vestige of Baptist Guilt.

 

Why, I’ve Got Friends I Haven’t Even Used Yet

I currently have nearly 250 unanswered emails in my In-Box. Some are links and bulletins concerning cool bits of science I haven’t got around to reading but I will someday I swear I will. Others are personal missives from friends trying to arrange a get-together over the holidays, or pleas from Ekos to fill out an online survey concerning Canadian Attitudes to the Theological Implications of Quahog Reproductive Strategies.

Many are fan emails. Some are just bits of generic praise or condemnation, which I can answer in a sentence or two. Others contain links or essays, and even the sane ones tend to languish because I can’t really answer those until I’ve read an associated 15,000 words of science or political opinion. Some ask for advice on matters personal and professional, which more often than not I’m incompetent to answer.

I try, though. Even though I frequently resent the implicit demands on my time; I don’t know these people, after all, and it sometimes takes hours to craft an appropriate response. Don’t they know I have over 200 fucking emails in my In-Box? Don’t they know I’m struggling to meet the deadlines I’ve already got?

But I try. Because a lot of the mail is heartfelt, and the mere fact I’ve received it in the first place means that these people have some kind of faith (or at least hope) that I have useful insights to offer. I try, not because I think they’re right, but because I don’t want to look like an asshole. Because I don’t want to let someone down after they’ve reached out to me. Because, although I’ve long-since renounced my Baptist upbringing, the programming remains burned into the firmware: If you’ve done this to the least of my brethren, so also have you done it unto me.

So when someone wrote me in 2012, sharing their uncertainty as to whether they should pursue a career in science or art, I saw a younger version of myself and shared what I could. When someone else asked my opinion on their premise for a video game, I gave it— even though my own experience told me they’d never get the fucking thing off the ground, because that industry is way too conservative to risk a triple-A budget on anything that gives off the slightest whiff of originality. In both cases my response prompted others, a correspondence that eventually petered out, as such things do. I went on to feeling guilty about other emails I hadn’t answered.

Sometime in the intervening years one of those guys got involved with the Utopia Film Festival in Tel Aviv. The other left his gig at Ubisoft, came home to Israel, and booted up his own studio with a handful of friends. Out of the blue, I’m invited to Tel Aviv. Out of the blue, I’m invited to tour this startup across town.

Out of the blue, I get a chance to meet cool people, learn new things and unlearn others, visit an ancient and achingly-beautiful part of the world I never thought I’d get to. I feel like the guy who gave a lift to the ragged stranger hitchhiking at the side of the road, only to find out five years later he’d helped out Howard Hughes.

This happens more often than you might think. It’s a whole new, purely Darwinian reason to not blow off your fans when they take the time to write to you. But I don’t think the effort:payoff ratio has ever been so high as it was in this city that literally took its name from a Utopian novel.

 

.

Future History

We fly in via Warsaw, under cover of night. Tel Aviv looks positively synaptic. Adam and Eden meet us at the airport and we mutually rejoice over the latest findings of corruption leveled at Netanyahu and his wife.  They drive us to a funky little boutique hotel with an art gallery for a lobby, a rooftop garden that supplies produce to their restaurant, and complimentary welcome cocktails that we can take up to our suite.

Schindler’s Lift. Get it?

We’ve been up for thirty hours or more. We crash.

Next morning we go down to the restaurant, expecting the usual self-serve table of buns and scrambled eggs and cold cuts simmering endlessly under heat lamps next to an empty coffee machine. We get table service and a menu fit for someone in training for a half-marathon. We meet the first of countless Tel Avivian cats, a ginger stray waiting patiently for his morning feed out on the patio. He has a nicked ear: a tag to mark him as an alumnus of the local neuter/release program. (Tel Avivians love their cats; every day as the markets close, shopkeepers put out their leftovers in little piles for the feline hordes. Already I want to move here.)

.

We have all day to explore before my first event: we wander the streets of Jaffa, an ancient seaport which has apparently been occupied for the past 9500 years (putting it disturbingly close to the end of the last Ice Age). These days it’s home to levitating peach trees and giant anthropomorphized egg plants (the plaque tags it as the whale that ate Jonah— I’m pretty sure the dude was escaping to Tarsus when Yahweh caught up with him, though, and speaking as a former marine mammalogist this statue doesn’t look anything like any whale I’ve ever seen). There are beggars. There are massive rococo fountains. There are mosques and churches and synagogues. Fortunately there are also a million cats. There is wifi.

The horse is ancient. I believe the Giant Pep-O-Mint Life Saver of Salvation is of more recent provenance.

Seriously, nobody’s gonna convince me this is a whale. A sapient potato, maybe. A smug spermatozoan, in a pinch.

The Cumming of the Lord.

Much of the architecture of Old Jaffa was inspired by the works of Roger Dean.

 

I’m not entirely sure what all these totems represent, but I want this in my back yard.

JaffAviv is like some chaotic mix of mythic paradise and epic dystopia. With very open-concept toilet facilities.

The Fireside Chat, with audience numbers slowly crawling up into the respectabe range.

I’m slotted for an underground Q&A, in a museum-cum-archaeological dig. I cringe as it approaches: I’m no kind of name in Israel. I’ve had one novel and one novelette translated into Hebrew and both of those went out of print years ago.  I figure I’ll be damned lucky if four people show up, but when four people do show up I heave no great sigh of relief. Fortunately people keep trickling in throughout the hour; by the time we hit the halfway mark there must be 20, 25 people in the audience. It’s not Poland, but it’s way better than I was expecting.

“Storytelling the Future”, which deked immediately into a full-on discussion of dystopia. As you can tell from the logo. L to R: Eden Kupermintz, Mushon Zer-Aviv, me, Aya Korem, Katharina Dermühl.

The next event is a panel on the general subject of how we use our art to describe the future. I share the stage with Mushon Zer-Aviv, a dude who’s developed a form of future-prototyping called Speculative Tourism; Aya Korem, an Israeli singer/songwriter who’s here thanks to her latest SF concept album and its accompanying graphic novel; and Katharina Dermühl, who cofounded an organization to work with refugees and asylum-seekers. Eden moderates; the panel rocks. But all the way through, I’m vaguely miffed because there’s this VR demonstration going on elsewhere in the festival, and I’m missing it.

It turns out okay, though. In fact, the whole VR thing turns out better than I could have ever imagined.

You go through this tiny inconspicuous door, into this indoor cave that used to be a Tel Avivian tax office but was then abandoned. During the day, it’s a variety of shops. At night the lights come out. I swear, it’s the closest real life will ever come to Fallout 4’s Diamond City. (Also, you totally have to read the menu.)

It’s common knowledge that everyone here has military training; being in the army is just a part of growing up in Israel. And yet, I’m continually surprised by that renewed realization, almost every time I meet someone. It doesn’t matter whether I’m meeting a teacher, or a filmmaker, or a musician; every hand I shake is attached to an artillery operator, or a tank instructor, or a combat specialist. Every gentle film buff I meet can probably strip down an automatic weapon and put it back together again blindfolded. They all probably know about eight different ways to kill me barehanded.

It’s a good thing they seem to like me.

 

On the Rubbing of Elbows

Uri Aviv takes a palfie. Behind him are Katharina Dermühl, Omri Amirav-Drori, me, and Colin Trevorrow (who, if you squint, you you can just make out comparing me to Ian Malcolm in his head).

Mainly a film festival, right? By rights a written-word guy like me shouldn’t even be here. But here I am anyway, sitting on a panel leading into a special screening of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, with biotech entrepreneur Omri Amirav-Drori to my right and Colin Trevorrow, director of the Jurassic World movies, to my left. We’ve convened to explore ways in which biology might offer some hope for the future. This is all going down in the newly-opened Tel Aviv Museum of Natural History, down the stairs from an infographic that increments, in real time, the estimated number of species that have gone extinct just this year. It’s already on the high side of 120,000; this, among other things, leaves me a bit dubious of Omri’s free-market exhortations about extinction rates (“You talk about species going extinct, we can create new species!”).

Not exactly cause for hope.

Maybe a bit too much of the panel consists of me and Omri arguing about capitalism and apocalypse, but Colin seems amused by the whole thing. Describes me as the incarnation of Ian Malcolm. He says this a couple of times over the course of the evening, and I smile and nod and feel like an ignorant doofus because while the name sounds awfully familiar, I can’t remember who Ian Malcolm actually is. I envision some present-day incarnation of Rachel Carson or Sylvia Earle; I feel profoundly inadequate that someone with my scientific background could have forgotten a person of such stature. It isn’t until the next day I remember that Ian Malcolm was just the Park-bashing mathematician in the original Jurassic Park.

The Spanish Ambassador’s pool is bigger than our house. We paced it.

My inadvertent channeling of Crichton’s character pays off big-time, though. Colin thinks enough of the exchange to invite Omri and me into the fold for a couple of hours of consulting, which basically consists of getting paid to sit around opining about Jurassic movies both past and upcoming (no details; the NDAs involved are almost as arcane as those you’d find in the video game industry). Omri, en route to Senegal the moment the panel ends, can’t make it; so I end up jamming with cybersecurity specialist Keren Elazari instead.

Director Isaac Ezban and The BUG. We hit it off.

This sort of thing happens all week. Hiding behind the BUG during some shindig at the Spanish Ambassador’s residence, we run into a guy wearing a Westworld Maze t-shirt— turns out he directed a movie that some Netflix algorithm keeps haranguing me to watch. (“The Similars”— also “The Incident”, which I also haven’t seen. They’re both on the list now.) I show up for my “Storytelling the Future” panel and discover the person I’m sitting next to is an activist pop star who not only took her record label all the way to Israel’s Supreme Court— and won—but also pioneered federal legislation to protect the rights of artists against predatory record companies. (My only regret of the whole week was that we never found the time to take Aya and her partner up on their offer of beers.) Even the mandatory lunch with a Festival sponsor got me a free t-shirt and an argument about consciousness and determinism. (“Are you for the revolution, or against it?” Yanki Margalit wants to know when we first meet. I hedge: that really kind of depends on what we’re revolting against. “Violence against women!” he pronounces. Which seems to me like way too self-evident a thing to require an outright revolt; surely the vast majority of people are already against that, right? It would be kind of like staging a revolution against genocide, or environmental destr— ohhhhhhh)

He never even mentions his private space program.

Not sure about the t-shirts Yanki handed out. The whole clenched-fist-punching-an-icon-of-femaleness might be open to interpretation.

 

A Debt to Incompetence

A quick digression back to the Tel Aviv Museum of Natural History for a moment: state of the art, brand spanking new, home to everything from dinosaur bones to Brazilian Hissing Cockroaches.

Also to one of the most embarrassing yet vital naturalist legacies  you might imagine.

Father Ernst Schmitz was a priest and amateur naturalist, active in the late eighteen/early nineteen hundreds. He was perhaps the only person with a deep and devoted interest to Middle-East fauna at that time, and he scrupulously collected and stuffed specimens of everything he could get his hands on.

Unfortunately, passion does not necessarily map onto skill. This dude’s taxidermy chops were terrible, which is odd given how much he practiced. I mean, just look at these lifelike poses:

Not that this has anything to do with the festival, mind you. I just think it’s heartening to know that no matter how bad you are at something, you can still achieve a measure of immortality just so long as no one else occupies the same niche.

 

The door to the Bat Cave. Note the booby trap.

The Stuff of Which Reality Is Made

I’ve never been to CERN. It’s on my bucket list.

I’ve hung out with a piece of the Large Hadron Collider, though. It’s lying around in Adam’s dad’s basement. Or at least, the basement of his lab. As chance would have it, Erez Etzion is the Chair of Particle Physics at Tel Aviv  University and a CERN physicist, and— despite my repeated insistence that I don’t know nearly enough about that stuff to even ask a competent question— he opens a couple of hours in his schedule.

I get a quick yet fascinating tutorial in subatomic physics (I get to ask him about the “Fat Universe” model, although I remain unclear on quark flavors) before we head downstairs into the basement. The door to the lab is counterweighted with a soda can filled with some unidentified fluid. I’m not sure whether it’s a booby trap or just some kind of arcane latching mechanism; either option seems disappointingly Newtonian.

Inside, though, are CERN shells.

Like a single scale from some quantum serpent god.

Think of CERN’s ATLAS assembly and you’re most likely to envision something that looks like God’s Own Spark Plug, fifty meters long, threaded onto a particle-accelerating torus almost 30km across (turns out there are a few smaller torii linked in as well, but let’s not make this  more complicated than it has to be). All the particle-smashing, black-hole-creating, potential-universe-destroying stuff happens in the heart of that plug; but the particles created thereby fly off every which way, proliferating and speciating and decaying at a range of distances from the initial collisions. So ATLAS is sheathed in a concentric series of detectors packed with mixtures of exotic gas, or steel, or lead, depending on what kind of particle each is trying to stop.

Adam and his Dad.

I’m a bit too intimidated/uneducated/starstruck to be sure in hindsight, but I’m pretty sure that the slabs Prof. Etzion keeps in his basement are muon detectors, designed right here on campus. They look entirely unremarkable; they wouldn’t look out of place next to a motorbike and stacks of old porn in a Scarborough garage. (I’d imagined clean rooms and hepafilters and hazmat suits.)  Think of them as space-shuttle reentry tiles; unremarkable in isolation, but absolutely mission-critical when linked together by the thousands.

Prof. Etzion is primarily a Standard-Model man, but he’s not above slumming it with off-the shelf components. He builds cosmic-ray detectors out of repurposed Plasma TV screens, for example. I want to poke around, see if I can maybe dig up a flux capacitor, but we have a panel over at the Natural History Museum.

I have no idea what any of this stuff means.

 

The Rapture

The first time I experienced VR was in the nineteen nineties. You’d put a small bathtub on your head and find yourself in a wireframe environment populated by geometric solids and fellow players rendered as polygonal, roughly-humanoid shapes who jerked and flickered whenever you moved your head.  You would shoot pixels at each other.

The modest, shoeless geniuses of One Hamsa. L to R: Michael Dagan, Assaf Ronen, Dave Levy, me, Ofer Reichman.

In the process of losing my “VRginity”. Blame Dave Levy for the pun.

The second time I experience VR is in 2018, in the offices of an Israeli start-up called One Hamsa. They are fans, apparently; I exchanged some emails with one of the cofounders back when he was working at Ubisoft. They’ve spent a couple of hours watching me eat mixed nuts, then reluctantly eating some themselves when I wondered out loud why nobody else was eating these nuts and what they knew that I didn’t. We’ve discovered a lot of common ground (not the least of which is an enduring love for “Star Control 2”, a nineties-era videogame involving— amongst other things—  screenplay-writing pterodactyls, blobular aliens whose idea of a practical joke is to instigate religious wars among other species, and a hypercapitalist civilization that literally throws its crewmembers into the fuel converters for an extra boost during space combat). One Hamsa has exactly one game on the market: a kind of space racketball arcade game called Racket: Nx. Big whoop, think I as I adjust the visor across my eyes. You want to impress me with VR? Gimme Skyrim. Gimme Bioshock. Gimme—

I just grabbed these off the internet. They don’t come close to coming close to doing it justice.

And then they boot it up, and I am Born Again.

I am standing on a circular platform, Earth hanging off my left shoulder. Stars everywhere. Diaphanous nebulae. I turn my head as fast as I can without giving myself whiplash: no frame drop. No response lag. No screen-door effect.  I am there, I am standing in Outer Space and it goes on forever in every direction.

After a while I remember to breathe.

I barely scratch the surface of the game itself; I’ve received no instruction, I don’t know anything about the tractor-beam option or the strategic order in which one is supposed to pick targets. All I know is my right hand is a massive paddle that looks like a cross between a radio telescope and a waffle iron; I am in the center of a spherical arena build of interlocking hexagons; and the Devil’s own Rollerball is shooting toward me, streaming fire in its wake. I swing wildly, connect; it ricochets off hexagons, transforming and replicating and shattering them on impact, comes back at me from behind. I fend it off again. Somehow I’m racking up a score.

There’s a strategy element to all this, and a multiplayer mode but I don’t know about that: I’m just smashing things. Eventually I smash enough of them and the arena shatters like a mirror— drops away in hexagonal fragments and I am standing on the surface of the fucking sun. The photosphere boils beneath my feet, a vast seething expanse of convection cells; solar prominences arc overhead. The feeling borders on religious awe. I have just spent maybe five minutes at  Level 1, set (I can only assume) to Dead Easy mode.

By the time I take off the gear I am a convert. No wonder this thing pulls down a 98% on Steam. No wonder those tech-companies-whose-names-I-forget chose this game to showcase their new audio warez. We have talked, One Hamsa and I, about the possibility of collaboration on their current project— a game with significantly deeper themes than Space Racketball— and I would be utterly on board for such a partnership. But whether that happens or not, I cannot wait to get home and research VR systems. I cannot wait to wait for Boxing Day when the prices go down, so I can spend the money Colin Trevorrow paid me. I cannot wait to convert the Trombonarium into a gamespace, to move the dining-room table and chairs and bookshelves and plants off into the kitchen or someplace to make room for my own alternate universe. Whether I get to claim it all as a business expense almost seems beside the point.  I would buy all this stuff, and wreak such havoc on our home and marriage, just for this one game.

When I find out that Skyrim is available in VR, I don’t stop jizzing for an hour and a half.

 

A Place Where Even Artists Do Not Go

The city had been called Tel Aviv.  Central Station rose high into the atmosphere  in the south of the city, bordered in by the webwork of silenced old highways. The station’s roof rose too high to see, serving the stratospheric vehicles and rose from and landed on its machine-smooth surface. elevators like bullets shot up and down the station and, down below, in the fierce Mediterranean sun, around the space port a bustling market heaved with commerce, visitors and residents, and the usual assortment of pickpockets and identity thieves.

—Lavie Tidhar, Central Station

Really, you’ve got to click on this to embiggen the gory and glorious details.

Central Station exists, as it turns out. Lavie Tidhar just slapped a spaceport on top.  In real life it was supposed to be the central transportation hub for all of Israel, a hive not only of transport but of commerce. The bus station part, grafted onto a pre-existing train station, took decades to complete—  including years spent derelict and incomplete when the money ran out.

Given Tidhar’s description, I’ve been expecting a bustling market heaving with commerce— and there is in fact a chaotic and tawdry sort of strip mall crowding a couple of ground-level floors between the actual bus platforms and the Lower Reaches. There are religious outposts— we found a synagogue near the top of the Inhabited Levels and a derelict Christian doorway down in the Forbidden Zone— but the religious iconography that most obviously rules over the Inhabited Levels are the Golden Arches.

It’s not much of a Kingdom, though. Almost three quarters of this monstrous edifice are deserted.

The actual bus bays occupy the uppermost levels, in an area festooned with all manner of graffiti. (Entry into the bays is an unexpectedly one-way affair: you push the door outward onto the platform, and only when it swings closed behind you do you realize that there are no knobs on the outside. There’s no way back in unless some kind or careless soul opens it again from inside and allows you to sneak past.) Even these occupied zones have an air of dereliction about them— water puddles on the floor, stray cats haunt the corners— but at least there’s a semi-bustling human presence. The further down you go, though— beneath the strip-mall chaos near ground level— the more deserted the place becomes. One retail outlet shines forlornly from a rank of abandoned neighbors. One fluorescent tube that works flickers alongside five that don’t. Every now and then, down some abandoned wing, a double-bolted door is festooned with intricate carvings and symbols.

Box office. No theater.

We find a box office for a cineplex, but no actual cinemas to go with it. We find social amphitheatres that look like they were designed by the guys who did the sets for Space:1999; the chairs there look like they’ve never known a human ass. Apparently people hold raves down here (we see none), and phantom druggies haunt the levels to shoot up (we see one). Most startling and creepy and compelling are the “squatter art installations”, courtesy of anonymous artistes who have occupied abandoned storefronts and filled them with bright nightmare visions: giant crocheted eyeballs dangling from ligament and artery; balaclava’d child-angels playing with giant bloodworms; decapitated baby heads on poles.

We keep going down. We descend into, as Adam puts it, “the places even artists do not go”, places even he hasn’t gone, where the walls are bare concrete and the few lights that work glow dimly behind a generation’s accumulation of spiderwebs. We find a bomb shelter. We find a colony of bats, easily ten times the size of the pissant bats we have in Canada: these have bodies big as fat pigeons. We find a locked door with the bolts rusted shut, in an alcove where the concrete itself is crumbling to ruin; and a strange hoop-shaped antennae mounted on the wall beside, as if any EM radiation could ever make it this deep.

Halfway to the Earth’s mantle, we find a gender-neutral urinal.

Possibly unclear on the concept.

Longer Lines than Disneyland

The New Jerusalem.

I missed the official tour of Old Jerusalem because it was booked across from my appointment with Prof. Etzion. So Adam drives the BUG and me there the next day, gives us our own personalized walkthrough. We visit the Wailing Wall and get into a small amount of trouble from a very pleasant dude hailing from Cleveland, who tells us we’re not supposed to take pictures of the Wall on religious holidays. (We get off easy; apparently there are parts of Jerusalem dominated by Orthodox gangs who throw rocks at women unwise enough to pass through their turf wearing pants.) We shop down cramped alleyways lined by little stalls hawking ancient traditional wares by Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger. We watch Adam buy and consume an authentic Jewish bagel the approximate size and shape of a 400m running track. We hike along cat-haunted rooftops while Jewish and Muslim criers call their respective flocks to worship—

—it’s haunting and discordant and I can’t help but be reminded of bullfrogs calling in a spring pond, competing for mates. We spy a Christian VR Experience stall— locked up, from what I can tell—   nestled below ground level between excavated columns of Roman architecture. We pass through an incongruously-modest little archway and find ourselves in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: a kind of Christian Theme Park which claims to contain the site of the Crucifixion, the morgue slab where Jesus was embalmed/”prepared” (depending on your interpretation), and the tomb in which his body was buried, only to be stolen by grave robbers in the hopes it might have magical properties.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christian Territories. You know, the people who follow that guy who told them to sell all they had and give it to the poor.

 

The guide insists that this is the exact spot where Jesus was crucified. Ohhhkay.

Most of these people are just abasing themselves. That guy with the little plastic boxes, he’s taking samples.

Nobody seems to find it odd that all these sites are so conveniently close to each other— each basically an amusement-park lineup away from the others. In fact, the authenticity of the morgue slab is so thoroughly embraced by those in attendance that many of them prostrate themselves against it, speaking in tongues. Others mop at the slab with cloths, as if to wipe up some bit of divine Christly essence that might yet persist after two thousand years. I see one man collecting samples into a series of tiny white plastic sample containers, for all the world like those I used to embed decalcified bone fragments in wax for microtoming back in grad school. Perhaps he’s hoping to clone the Son of God back from residual flakes of epithelium. I wonder if he’ll be disappointed when all he reconstructs is a clone of one of the myriad believers who drooled and sweated on this totem earlier the same day.

The Old (and bits of newish) Jerusalem. This is more like it.

Islam’s Dome of the Rock shines like a beacon over on the far side of the Wailing Wall, but we don’t visit. The BUG and I would have no issues getting over there; Adam, a Jew, might run into trouble.

Is it just me, or is the whole stormy-sky/Wailing-Wall combination a bit reminiscent of Mordor?

Which brings us, I guess, to

 

The Elephant on the Blog.

Ask your host if he can arrange passage for you into the West Bank, droid said at one point. See what happens. It’s the kind of challenge you take half-seriously at best— go to Canada’s Travel Advisory web pages and try to find a border with Israel that doesn’t come equipped with huge red exclamation points and DO NOT TRAVEL warnings in big red letters— but I ask anyway, while we spelunk Central Station. I also ask about Gaza, given what I’ve heard about the wall turrets there.[1]

“We could go,” Adam says after a moment. “It would feel intrusive, exploiting my status as an Israeli to go uninvited, basically to gawk, into areas where people don’t have nearly as much freedom to move. But I could reach out to my Palestinian friends, see if we could set something up.”

To any who might be reaching out to tick off the Some of my best friends are square on an Ideological Bingo card: Adam met these particular Palestinian friends through his mother’s work in an Israeli/Palestinian alliance called Road to Recovery. They carpool sick and injured Palestinians (mainly kids) past Israeli bottlenecks so they can get medical care unavailable in the occupied territories, so they don’t die waiting to get through a checkpoint. I doubt that any of the people Adam calls friend are token;  I haven’t know the man for long, but I’ve rarely met anyone so thoughtful.

In fact, if anything, he bends over almost too far backward for balance. He prefaces his answer to pretty much every hot-button question with “Obviously this is just my interpretation”. He’ll channel the enemy, relate their accusations of injustice and atrocity past and present, admit: “— and they’re not wrong”, before going on to explain how much wrong there is to go around on all sides. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who so scrupulously recognizes their own biases and gives so much credit to their opposition. All in a context almost guaranteed to raise Us-vs.-Them thinking to steroid-infused hyperOlympian levels.

Aforementioned hipster soft-drink bar. Possible fetus skulls in jars to the right.

We spend a fair amount of time with Adam and his friend Eden, talking over hole-in-the-wall hummus or sipping hipster drinks that seem to contain fetus skulls at the bottom of the glass. I’m not stupid enough to claim that I’m anywhere near to understanding the cesspit of conflicting agendas that have plagued this part of the world for so many centuries, but I think I’ve learned a little more about certain bits and pieces. (The Right of Return, to cite just one case-in-point. Maybe you’ve seen demonstrations of displaced Palestinians, waving the keys they’ve kept to family homes from which they were banished to make way for Israeli occupiers. They’re not wrong. Another not-wrong way of looking at it is that some of them left in the first place on the advice of Arab armies in surrounding countries, who told them they should leave for their own safety but that they’d be able to move right back in again just as soon as those armies had killed off all the Jews. You can see how certain Jews, yet unkilled, might be less than sympathetic to subsequent claims that Hey, we had a deal! Turns out even war crimes can have nuance.)

Adam was the man who invited us to Israel; he’s the guy who showed us around Jerusalem, and hung out with us, and talked to us the most. He met us at the airport, and, ten minutes after shaking hands, stated outright that the treatment of Palestinians was “basically apartheid” (contradicting any number of extranational voices who’ve insisted that comparisons to apartheid are off base). But he’s hardly unique in Tel Aviv; literally everyone we spoke to about the subject was adamantly opposed to the Israeli occupation.

These are the people we’re supposed to boycott? People like Uri, who tells me “I don’t consider myself an Israeli. I consider myself a Tel Avivian.” People like Eden, who matter-of-factly excoriates the Israeli government for its treatment of the Palestinians? Like Katharina from Berlin, who has dedicated her life to working with refugees and sees no dissonance in being here? Like Adam, called a traitor by his own countrymen for supporting Combatants for Peace and demonstrating in support of fallen Palestinians on Memorial Day? People who themselves have been boycotting West Bank businesses for years?

These are the people I’m supposed to renounce, in support of a campaign that doesn’t even have the support of the Palestinian President?

We never do make it to the West Bank. Too much to do, too little time. But the option’s there, and if I ever make it back I hope to take them up on it. If we can figure out a way to do so without  gawking.

 

Exodus.

We leave on the morning of the 10th. They send a cab; one of the organizers was supposed to give us a lift but there was a dead-dog party after the closing ceremonies and if I had to guess, I’d say she’s probably got the mother of all hangovers. We say goodbye to the funky hotel and the swarms of cats and the cycads and the hanging gardens. Security asks us more questions going out than coming in, which means our interrogation lasts all of thirty seconds. We fly across the Med in broad daylight, and follow our progress across the birthplace of civilization on Google Maps.

I check my In Box. I have emails to answer.

 

Epilog

Yeah, right. Like I’m going to finish off a blog post set in one of the most cat-friendly cities on the planet without showing you any Israeli cats. Here is a small sample.

 


[1] Looks like the smart gun report was either erroneous or I misunderstood it, by the way, unless they upgraded their hardware within the past year. One of the folks I speak to on this trip has seen the bunkers where Israeli soldiers teleop the wall guns. Apparently Humans remain in the loop. Whether this makes things worse or better is left as an exercise for the reader.

 

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 25 Comments