The Man Behind the Infodump: Denis Lynn, 1947-2018.

There’s a chapter three-quarters of the way through Maelstrom— “Mug Shot”, it’s called. It’s an executive summary of the apocalyptic microbe βehemoth.  It contains such gems as

βehemoth enters the cell via receptor-mediated endocytosis; once inside it breaks down the phagosomal membrane prior to lysis, using a 532-amino listeriolysin analog. βehemoth then competes with the host cell for nutrients. Host death can occur from any of a several dozen proximal causes including…

It goes on like that for almost four pages. Some might even say it stops the plot dead, but after two decades I still kinda like it. Maybe the issue it addresses would only ever occur to one reader in ten thousand— assuming I even had ten thousand readers— but that’s what makes this SF hard, right? Respect for the science. Respect for the fine print. Coming up with cell entry via receptor-mediated endocytosis (thanks to its Blachford genes, βehemoth can fool steroid receptors on the host cell membrane) is actually something to take pride in.

The Man, and one infinitesimal sliver of his legacy.

The man, and one infinitesimal sliver of his legacy.

Or it would be, if I’d come up with it myself. As it is, I have to thank a dude called Denis Lyn for making me even think about it in the first place.

Denis died a couple of weeks ago. Apparently he was collecting samples from a tide pool out on the west coast and a freak wave took him out, which makes no fucking sense whatsoever. He was 71.

Denis assumed a faculty position at the University of Guelph about the same time I arrived there as a student. Rumors kicking around the department said that just a few years earlier he’d been a real hippie— hair down to his ass, marched on Washington at the height of the Viet Nam protests. By the time I met him, though, the man was Dr. Ciliate: he went on to be President of the International Society of Protistologists, and Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology. He was an impossibly nice, generous, helpful guy, strangely out of place in a department loaded with backstabbers and infighters. (At least one online memorializer remarked that they’d never heard Denis utter an unkind word about anyone. I can’t say the same; down at the St. Andrews field course one summer, upon hearing that UoG’s widely reviled president Donald “Ducky” Forster had snuffed it, Denis raised his beer and softly toasted “Ding dong, the Duck is Dead!”. Honestly, though, that only made me like him more.)

I fell out of touch with him when I headed west to do my Ph.D. Fell out of touch with pretty much everyone else when political bullshit sent me screaming from academia entirely.  But Denis looked me up when the release of Starfish was imminent— a mutual friend had pointed him to the first home-built edition of this very website— and I, of course, didn’t hesitate to ask if I could pick his brain about the sequel. And of course he said yes. And his responses to my (frankly naïve) thoughts about my fake microbe were, well…

… what happens once the vesicle is internalized?  Usually, these vesicles are destined for the GERL pathway (Golgi, Endoplasmic Reticulum, Lysosome) and end up fusing with lysosomes and digestion occurs.  Can B subvert the signal molecules on the outside (=cytoplasmic side) of the vesicle so that the vesicles don’t fuse with lysosomes?  This would be a trick much like Toxoplasma uses to survive in the parasitiphorous vesicle…

…detailed.  The man also sent me a free copy of Lodish et al‘s Molecular Cell Biology— a real doorstop, 1400 pages. Twenty years later I still use it.

Denis’s last email to me was sent on January 21, 2002.  It ends: “P.S. I wouldn’t turn down a beer even in the daytime, but NOT BEFORE 1130h.”

I don’t remember if we ever had that beer. All I know is, that’s the last documented contact I had with him. After that he retired from Guelph, moved to the west coast, became an adjunct professor at UBC. And got killed, absurdly, by a stupid wave while sampling stupid mussels from a tide pool, leaving our species— by his absence— just a tiny bit more deserving of extinction.

I can’t claim to have ever been close to the man. That’s kind of my point, though; far as he was concerned I was just another dumb student passing through the system— ultimately, someone who didn’t even stay in the system— and still he bent over backward to lend a hand. He was that way to everyone. Now that he’s gone, I think it’s kind of cool that a teensy bit of his essence has been uploaded into Maelstrom.

And if you find that maudlin, well, I can just say fuck you. Because Denis Lynn never would.

Posted in: eulogy by Peter Watts 4 Comments

Three Interviews and a Book Launch

For those of you who didn’t already see this over on Facebook, or who haven’t noticed it on the inconspicuous little “Upcoming Appearances” list to the right: Freeze-Frame Revolution is getting an official launch at Toronto’s premiere SF bookstore, Bakka-Phoenix. The announcement on the BP site sets the launch to both June 6 and June 23rd. I’m assuming that first date is a typo (at least, if it isn’t, I’ve missed my own novella-launch so never mind). In either case the time is 3pm.

I will be there, as will various snacks and nonalcoholic beverages.  As will Ben Eldridge, the dude responsible for last year’s Space Vampires symposium at U of T, who has once again flown all the way from Australia to introduce me and possibly interview me and hopefully help me find a short excerpt to read which 1) I haven’t posted here,  and which 2) doesn’t give away too much of the plot. The man is insane. With a hundred more like him I could probably topple the US government.

Anyway: 84 Harbord Street, Toronto. 3pm. Bring your friends. Bribe your enemies. I’m always worried no one’s gonna show up at these things.

*

In related news, I’m doing a few interviews concurrent with this new release. A Q&A with Paul Semel recently went live over here: Paul appears to be an unusually perceptive and intelligent dude, as evidenced by his opening observation that I am a warm and caring person. I’ll be prepping for a Skype interview with Wired pretty much the moment I finish uploading this post. And just this morning I got the first of an ongoing series of questions from Erwann Perchoc over in France, for an interview in BiFrost so extensive and personal that it will apparently take months to conduct:

“When one reads your stories and novels, one might picture you as a misanthropic and aloof person. Having the pleasure to met you—though briefly—at Utopiales a few years back, I saw that it was only an impression. So, before delving into your works, I’d like to ask you a few questions about you in order to dispel this impression…

How was your childhood?”

I’m thinking maybe the set-up was ironic. Either that or “dispel” doesn’t mean what he thinks it means…

*

Finally: a question for my Russian readers.  Does anyone know what this Starfish cover hails from?

 

Is it a legit edition? Is it bootleg? I’m only familiar with cover art for one Russian Starfish and it’s, well, this:

russian-starfish

I have to admit the first illo is somewhat more evocative of the actual novel. I just don’t know if it’s real (although it definitely should be).

Anyone?

Posted in: art on ink, interviews, public interface by Peter Watts 16 Comments

The Freeze-Frame AMA.

Last-minute Editorial Update: It’s actually happening at noon. Which is 44 minutes from when I’m typing this.

I suppose I should have mentioned that sooner…

*

I’m doing another one of these Reddit AMA thingies next Wednesday.  Prior to that event, I’m supposed to post some kind of evidence that I am not, for example, Hilary Clinton who has seized Peter Watts’s online identity in an attempt to damage his credibility with false posts.

Hopefully this will suffice:

PW-AMA

If not, here’s the introductory passage I dashed off while dabbing Polysporin on my many cuts and bruises:

I’m Peter Watts. This is my second run at one of these AMA things (the first was back in 2014). Tachyon set this up to promote The Freeze-Frame Revolution, but that’s only one novella set in a larger sequence so you might want to wander a bit further afield. For example, I have a complex relationship with raccoons. I am a convicted tewwowist in the State of Michigan. I have a big scar on my right leg. I am part of a team working on a Norwegian Metal Science Opera about sending marbled lungfish to Mars, and the co-discoverer of Dark energy keeps screwing up my autocannibalism scene by inventing radical new spaceflight technology.

Really, the field is wide open. So.

AMA.WR.

Now that it’s all on the official record, I’ll forward it to Reddit so they’ll know I’m serious.  Or at least, who I say I am.  Then, I guess, we wait until Wednesday.

See you then.

Posted in: interviews, public interface by Peter Watts 20 Comments

Beijing.

My small, timid act of defiance.

Eight thousand kilometers out of Beijing, I already know I’m in China.

The intercom welcomes me to CA962 while the plane’s still taxiing out onto the runway in Frankfurt: “I am the head of the security detachment for this flight. I and my staff have been charged with keeping order. You may suffer detention, sanction, expulsion, and even criminal prosecution if you do any of the following things: Smoke. Grab the seats or the overhead compartments. Interfere in any way with the staff of the airplane. I and my staff will do our duty conscientiously.”

The weird thing is, the guy speaks with an Australian accent.

*

The Hotel. Not bad.

The Hotel. Not bad.

No problem at Customs, unless you count the fact that they fingerprint me on two separate occasions. Evidently the machine confirms that my prints haven’t changed any time in the past 34 minutes. The driver who meets me doesn’t speak English, and that’s fine by me; by this time I’ve been up for nearly forty hours, and would be a shitty conversationalist anyway. Beijing, at first look, seems pretty much like every other big city I’ve visited over the past few years, once you factor out the traffic signs. Same vehicles. Same trees. Same Golden Arches. Maybe a higher proportion of Asians.

My eyes start stinging twenty minutes into the ride— Beijing used to have the worst air of any city on the planet, until Delhi stole the crown back in 2016— but I think that’s probably psychosomatic; they’re fine again by the time I reach the hotel.

*

The Venue.

The Venue.

*

The weekend is an equal mix of chaos and excitement.  For all the glitches, I would do it again.

Vera. I still don't know her last name. (That's Crystal Huff in the background.)

Vera. I still don’t know her last name. (That’s Crystal Huff in the background.)

I will try not to gush.

Vera, one of the con’s top-level commanders, tells me early on that APSFCon is expecting maybe 300 attendees. I am both impressed and dismayed; they’ve shipped in somewhere around a hundred official guests. This is gonna be the highest panelist:audience ratio in recorded history. Also maybe some kind of tax writeoff.

At the Friday Preparty, they announce they’ve sold 1500 tickets. Before noon on the first day, 2000. By the time the guards kick us out of the Science Museum on Sunday afternoon, the number being bandied about is somewhere on the high side of 4000.

I don’t know whether that refers to unique individuals or simply clicks of the turnstile (i.e., someone attending on both Saturday and Sunday would be counted twice). Either way, we’re talking an order of magnitude more attendees than expected. Given the strain that must have put on the network, I’m not gonna complain that their wi-fi’s spotty.

I may complain about a couple of other things here and there. But it’s worth noting that this is FAA’s first-ever stab at running a con. For all the chaos and missed connections, I’ve seen more venerable cons run less smoothly.

*

I believe this may be a form of veneration.

I believe this may be a form of veneration.

*

The guests are from everywhere. I even know some of them.

Nikolai, from St. Petersburg, surprises me in the Green Room. You remember Nikolai; he’s the guy who talked his publishers into letting him translate Blindsight into Russian, then got fired when they actually had a chance to read Blindsight, and then got rehired by those same publishers after Blindsight was a hit and the publishers came crawling back to him on bended knee.

He’s not here. Turns out he has nothing to do with this story after all. I got him mixed up with an Estonian economist who was also in St. Petersburg at the time, and who looked kinda the same, and who I assumed was the same on account of the hugs and the fact that he remembered cheap plastic chairs collapsing under my ass. (The previous three sentences have been inserted post-hoc after the real Nikolai read this post and wondered why he couldn’t remember ever having been to Beijing.)

I meet another Russian, for real this time. Katerina, who tells me that we are entwined in history. Back when I was in St. Petersburg, I provided the theme for a local writing contest: “It’s only dark when the lights are on.”  (I do not remember doing this, but the line sounds familiar and I don’t want to call Katerina a liar.) Katerina wrote the winning entry. “Untilted”, it’s called. Its English translation appeared in Apex just last November.

Volodymyr. Me. Blindsight.

I am impressed. Small world. I think forward a couple of weeks, to a time when I will want to read “Untilted” for myself but will have to wait because I have to finish some fucking blog post. I imagine that I will feel somewhat resentful.

Canada is well represented: Derek Künsken, Eric Choi, Gillian Clinton all provide familiar company to tribally shelter with at mealtimes. Others, from other lands, I get to meet for the first time: Crystal Huff (US), Chiara Cigarini (Italy). Cheri Huang and Matt Kimberley, of the Science Museum group in the UK. My Ukrainian publishers have sent someone down too, dude called Volodymyr, with the Ukrainian Blindsight prototype and a bunch of bookplates to sign.

The legendary Terry Bisson and me, listening to a German dude insisting that Quantum Mechanics is wrong and the real story is in “Before the Big Bang”, a book by a guy named Sternglass.

I get to meet Terry Bisson. You know the guy: he wrote “Bears Discover Fire”, and the brilliant “They’re Made Out of Meat”. But did you know he also wrote the “Official Junior Novelization” of Alien: Resurrection?  (Did you even know there was an official junior novelization of Alien Resurrection?) Did you know he was one of the activists credited with catalyzing the student peace movement after a trip to the White House in ’61?

You’re unlikely to learn any of these things from the horse’s mouth, because from what I can tell Terry Bisson is too humble and self-effacing to blow his own horn. (I had to do a bit of Google-stalking to figure that stuff out.) This is a man, I think, who is bigger than his reputation. It is an honor to hang out with him.

This is Ben Hawker's business card, with all the personal stuff blurred. Just to prove that I met him.

This is Ben Hawker’s business card, with all the personal stuff blurred. Just to prove that I met him.

There are also people who seem to know me by my reputation. There’s a whole Kiwi contingent here representing Weta workshop, and one of them tells me that Blindsight  went through  that company “like a virus”. I think he means that in a good way, but nobody from New Zealand has crashed through my door with bags of cash so maybe not.  (I also learn that Weta is not, as I’d always assumed WETA, an acronym. Apparently it’s named for a giant cricket.)

For my part, meeting the people who build those kind of FX for a living was like meeting a bunch of astronauts.

*

The gallery.

The gallery.

*

They warned us, in big all-caps emails, before we ever left our native lands: when in Beijing, never put tap water in your mouth. Not even to brush your teeth. They were quite specific about that.

Nanites.

*

mudpuppy

*

I spent a fair amount of time with my legs crossed.

In Beijing, I spent a fair amount of time with my legs crossed.

You know how Amazon and Microsoft and Google tell you they have to spy on you all the time so they can serve you better? How voice recognition is such a complex and multithreaded exercise that it can’t possibly fit into an Alexa or Cortana, that the only way those little devices can respond to your commands is if they send everything you say back to Redmond or Silicon Valley, where banks of proprietary superservers do the heavy lifting?

This is bullshit. I know this, because of the party favor APSFCon has put into my attendee bag.

Right next to the author badge and the program and the map: a tiny matte-black 2001 monolith, maybe a little longer than a pack of cigarettes, maybe half as wide, thick as a cellphone. One button says “ABC”, the other says something in Chinese. Speak in English while pressing ABC: once you release the button, the box translates what you said into spoken Chinese.  Press the Chinese button and speak in that language, and the box speaks to you in English.

I try it out on “There are no cats on Baffin Isle”. The cylinder hears “There are no cats on bath, in aisle”, which is pretty damn good given the phonetic ambiguity of that line. Other, more conventional sentences are translated flawlessly. I loan this magic box to Eric and Gillian, who will be tootling around the countryside after the con; they report afterward that it was a “lifesaver”.

Totally self-contained. No internet connection required.  And so cheap that the con was literally giving them away.

If something that size can pull off two-way realtime translation between languages as different as English and Chinese, don’t try to tell me that Cortana has to outsource “Play Add Violence, medium volume” to the fucking Cloud.

*

eyeball

*

Of course, given that level of proficiency, you’d expect some kind of translation during the actual panels. We’ve all been assured ahead of time that translation would be provided, either by flesh-and-blood translators or via “realtime AI”.

These are the spikes driven through the tail of the buried dragon which provides Beijing's energy. So it will not escape. Really.

These giant spikes have been driven through the tail of the buried dragon which provides Beijing’s energy, to keep it from escaping.
Really.

I discover later that that did happen on the first two floors. My panels— including the one at which I was supposed to give a twenty-five twenty seven minute talk on delusional optimism aliens— are on the 5th floor. For some reason, apparently, people are just kinda expected to be able to understand English once the elevator takes them past a certain altitude. My slides are bilingual— Chinese front and center for the audience, English smaller and subordinate and meant mainly to let me keep track of my own progress— but my talk consists of more than just reading out the text on the slides (many of which don’t even have text).

The talk itself has been kind of a train wreck from the moment of its inception. I was originally told they wanted 20-25 minutes on “anything you like, as long as it’s not politics or religion in the real world”. So I prepared a talk on the evolution of Delusional Optimism in our species, to be given during the “World in Upheaval” session (which they later changed to “The World is Changing” because— as I may have mentioned in a previous post— they thought it would be “more optimistic”). It was only about a week before departure that they posted the con schedule online, at which point I discovered there was no “World is Changing” panel any more, and that I was instead giving a talk in the “Meeting the Alien” session. So I threw away the first talk and prepared another one from scratch: “The End of Need: Cognitive Trends in Starfaring Species”. (Probably the most upbeat talk I’ve ever given, insofar as it serves as a kind of counterpoint to Cixin Liu’s “Dark Forest” model.  Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime.)

“End of Need” is running pretty smoothly in my head right up until about an hour before showtime, which is when I discover that they expect me to talk not for twenty minutes, but for seven. There is no way to make my argument in seven minutes, even with an hour’s advance notice. There is no explanation for why I have to talk for seven minutes, even when I show them all the back-and-forth emails in which they told me to talk for twenty.

And, lest we forget, there is no translator.

Always start with a pander.

Grimly, I buckle down and talk. For twenty minutes. In English. I cannot tell whether the standing-room-only audience is rapt or merely stone-faced. The guy after me talks for ten, reading off his prepared notes. He too is speaking English, but with such a heavy Indian accent that even I can’t understand most of what he says. God help the audience.

I feel a little better for a moment: at least I had snazzy slides. But then the panel is  over, and the other two people sitting with us have had no chance to speak at all, and I feel awful again.

*

One of the very few selfie-type shots I would be willing to share. If I had even taken it. (In fact, Jane Yang did.)

One of the very few selfie-type shots I would be willing to share, if I had even taken it. (In fact, Jane Yang did.)

The fans cheer me up.

I’m not even expecting anyone to know who I am; I’ve only had one novel and one short story published in China, after all. But I end up signing a lot of books, in several languages. A couple of people even bring copies of Firefall.

There are selfies. Beijingian selfie-takers seem disproportionately fond of photo apps that lay cat noses or rabbit ears onto their subjects’ faces. They seem even fonder of these apps than the Japanese were back in Kawasaki. I lose track of the number of pictures that festoon me with whiskers and pointy ears and twitchy pink noses. I hope that if any of these get out, nobody thinks I am, or have ever been, a Furry.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

*

Almost all the fans are awesome. Almost. There’s the inevitable in-your-face guy who wants me to agree that Echopraxia isn’t as good as Blindsight (I do), and tells me that I will never truly succeed as a writer because my ideas are too difficult, and that puts people off, and I should make them simpler like he does. (I tell him I will try.)

Meanwhile, in a distant land…

Someone else takes offense at Blindsight‘s (not entirely original) suggestion that free will is an illusion.  He’s a novelist himself, he says, so he knows: how could beings without free will possibly invent dramatic and compelling fictional characters who live and breathe on the page the way they do?

I try to explain that the ability to write fiction doesn’t have any bearing on the question of free will one way or the other; the fact that something makes a choice doesn’t mean it wasn’t just following a deterministic decision tree, no matter how complex.  “But how do you explain all the people in History who stood up to tyranny if there’s no free will?” he asks.

Reasoned discourse having failed, I resort to punching him in the nose. That seems to do the trick.

*

By an odd coincidence, the woman who is taking me to my next press interview is called “Punch”.

*

Why, yes. Rick & Morty is quite popular over here. Why do you ask?

Why, yes. Rick & Morty is quite popular over here. Why do you ask?

*

Robin Williams is revered as a god over here.

Robin Williams is revered as a god over here.

Vera keeps gently herding me toward WeChat: that gummint-surveilled, unencrypted, ranked-even-lower-than-Facebook-and-Google-in-terms-of-privacy-protection Chinese chat app that scored a perfect 0 out of 11 on Amnesty International’s protect-the-innocent scale. Get a WeChat account and you can talk in realtime with the other guests! Get late-breaking news! Find out which gate the bus leaves from so you won’t get left behind!

I demur. I think I might be the only guest who does. Vera agrees to use email in my case. I feel like I’m being a pain in the ass. But seriously; doesn’t she know? Doesn’t it bother her?

And yet the whole security-state-surveillance thing seems somewhat grayer here than I’d expected. The concomm warned all us foreigners about the Great Firewall before we ever arrived; if you want to access Twitter or Facebook or Google you should install a VPN, the email said. I asked a few folks upon my arrival: you’re not worried about getting into trouble, openly advising people to circumvent government censorship? But it’s no big secret. VPNs aren’t even banned in China, probably because the authorities know such a law would be unenforceable anyway (although granted, that hasn’t stopped the United Arab Emirates). There’s no eyes-down Orwellian keep-your-mouth-shut attitude here that I can see; people on street level have no compunctions at all about political grumbling.

Katerina, on the right, won a contest. Olya, on the left, feels safe here.

Katerina, on the right, owes her success as a writer entirely to me. Olya, on the left, feels safe in Beijing.

And not all of it is grumbling. I meet a charming expatriate, name of Olya (hangs around with Katerina, of writing-contest fame) who swears that she feels safer in Beijing than she ever did growing up in her native— I want to say, Moldova? Back home she’d get assaulted on her own doorstep in broad daylight; here in Beijing, she feels completely safe walking outside alone, night or day. She swears by the place.

I think of a brilliant little dichotomy from The Handmaid’s Tale: “There is freedom to, and there is freedom from.” (I also think: Well, yeah. Moldova’s not exactly the highest bar to clear.) Still. I take her point.

Tibet’s another surprise, apparently. Turns out some Tibetans actually approve of the Chinese presence. Back in pre-invasion days it would take days to get to the hospital if you were sick; now you can drive the distance in a half-hour. I’m reminded of Reg’s rhetorical challenge in The Life of Brian: “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

One thing you don't see a lot of in the Museum of Science and Technology is rowdy behaviour...

One thing you don’t see a lot of in the Museum of Science and Technology is rowdy behaviour…

And the biggest surprise of all: you know that dystopian Social Credit program China is busy implementing, to be fully installed by 2020? That creepy metric that restricts your ability to travel, or to get into the best restaurants, or to get your kids into decent schools if you bad-talk Big Brother? The metric that punishes you the same way if you even hang around with people who do any of that stuff? Black Mirror made flesh?

I ask maybe four or five Beijingians about that over the weekend. None of them have heard of it.

“Where did you hear about this?” one of them asks me. “A tabloid? Was it credible?”

Wired,” I remember. “New York Times. A lot of places.”

“Well we’ve got a kind of automated credit-rating system. It looks at things like criminal record and bank account. But that’s just to let people know if you can afford a house, that sort of thing.”

I’m not quite sure how to parse this. I like to think I’m properly skeptical of the received Wisdom of the Mainstream, but I’ve read so much about this pernicious Orwellian system— from so many highly-regarded sources (even the more skeptical of which are distinctly disapproving)— that it’s difficult to dismiss it all as western propaganda. But it also seems that the whole point of any system based on intimidation is lost if the people caught up in it don’t even know it exists— and the folks I’m talking to seem in no way cowed or shy about expressing their own political opinions. (Later, Cixin Liu reinforces this: tells me there’s just as much ideological diversity on the streets of China as there is in the west.)

Phocoena (left) and Forcipiger. They fight crime.

Phocoena (left) and Forcipiger. They fight crime.

“So you can post anti-government sentiments online, no problem?” I ask one of the women who interviews me on Friday night. “Sure,” she says. “The post would probably get deleted, but no one would come after me or anything.” Which is not to say that people with actual influence enjoy the same immunity. Souhon SciFan criticizes Beijing and her post is quietly deleted; Souhon journo does the same thing and she might not show up for work the next day. This, too, is openly admitted.

I ask my interviewer what happens if I blog this; could it come back and bite her in the ass? She shrugs. It’s cool, she says. Blogging’s fine. “Just don’t use our real names,” Forcipiger advises, and Phocoena— our translator— concurs.

*

I might have mentioned that Cixin Liu is also in attendance at this shindig.  Vera intuits that I wouldn’t object to the chance to say hello. Maybe it’s because I started off my talk with a slide interrogating the Dark Forest model; maybe she just noticed the three big honking trade paperbacks I’ve been lugging around in my backpack, on the off chance. She sets up a conversation: just me, my man Cixin, a translator, and maybe a dozen people trying to look inconspicuous as they mill around in the hotel lobby, just within earshot.

I pepper him with questions about Remembrance of Earth’s Past, and his views on Human nature. (Like f’rinstance: once aware of the Trisolaran fleet, his characters immediately swing into action meeting a threat that won’t materialize for another four centuries. Here in the real world, climate change is already wreaking havoc on the planet and half the powers that be don’t even admit there’s anything wrong.  I wonder if the difference might come down to the fact that Liu lives in  a nation where the leadership can actually mandate long-term change on a dime, without having to pander to any of those short-sighted electoral distractions that keep others from looking more than a few months ahead.)

Cixin Liu does not shy away from political questions. The more political the better, he says. So I tell him that one of the things I found heartening about The Three Body Problem was the first chapter, set during the days of the Cultural Revolution. It was a pretty scathing indictment of what happens when you elevate political ideology above science, and when I first read it I thought hmmm: if he can be so openly critical of such an attitude and still be lauded as a hero, things must have loosened up over there.

But that was then and this was now, according to what some fans have told me; they’ve claimed that Liu’s trilogy, ten years old now, would have a tough getting published in China today because of the recent change in leadership. Apparently there’s been some backsliding. This new, welcoming environment for SF in China is not quite what it’s cracked up to be. (I’ve been told, for example, that time travel stories are frowned upon by an administration that doesn’t want its citizens reflecting upon— alternatives to the way things turned out.)

Liu rejects this out of hand. Says not only that he wouldn’t have any trouble getting Three Body published today, but that things weren’t even quite so rosy ten years ago. The initial Chinese release of Three Body did not open with the Cultural Revolution chapter; they buried that in the middle of the book, framed as a flashback, because they figured the censors wouldn’t bother to read that far.

Eh? Ehhhhh!?!

Eh? Eh!?!

If I’m really interested in stories that get up governmental noses, he points me to Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing”, which won the 2016 Hugo (and which, once again, I might have already read if I wasn’t writing up this damn blog post). Apparently certain higher-ups did object to that one— and the Chinese government is definitely hardline by Canadian standards. But even their brazenly-named “Department of Censorship” has limited power to squash undesirable material, not least because it frequently falls afoul of other departments with different agendas. Apparently that’s how “Folding Beijing” got away. (The tale reminded me of a time in my own past, when a documentary I’d had a hand in writing won the Environment Canada trophy for “Best Film on the Environment”  while simultaneously being decried by another branch of the same government as “Anti-Canadian Propaganda”.)

And yes, he has read Blindsight. Even claims to have enjoyed it. Wondered how the hell I came up with the whole vampire thing.

I suppress a squee, ask him which book of the Remembrance trilogy is his favorite. Death’s End, he tells me. That’s the one he wrote purely as a fan, the one he wrote unconstrained by any commercial or market considerations, the story he told just because he wanted to and thought it was cool. Not wanting to impose, I haul out only that third volume and ask him to sign it.

He insists on signing the others as well. I don’t object too strenuously.

*

The whole reprobate crew.

The whole reprobate crew.

*

I’m not even back home— still in Bergen, recovering from Fish to Mars— when I get an invitation for a repeat visit.

This time it’s Danzhai, which I’m told is quite different from Beijing.  This time it’s a workshop, not a con; I spend a few all-expense-paid days participating in an SF workshop, then write a 10-15K novelette “inspired by” those experiences. I can pick my time: June, July, or August.

But this time, I have to say no.  The summer’s already spoken for, and I’m headed to Ukraine in the fall. Even if I squeezed in the trip, there’s no way I could put together a novelette in the two months following. I’m glad to have been asked, though, and a little relieved; I honestly wasn’t sure what kind of impression I’d made. Unless Danhai is a good place to dispose of bodies, though, I guess I pulled it off.

I only told them no for this year. Maybe they’ll have an opening in 2019.

 

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 22 Comments

Just So You Know.

My destination. Just maybe, my doom.

My destination. Just maybe, my doom.

Yeah, pretty quiet here lately. Those of you insecure and craven enough to be on Facebook (like, for example, me) might know it’s because I worked for a few weeks on this talk about the evolution of delusional optimism in Homo sapiens, to give at this weekend’s Asia-Pacific SF Con in Beijing. It was originally supposed to lead into a panel called “The World is Changing” (which had originally been called “A World in Upheaval”, only they changed it because— wait for it— they wanted it to sound “more optimistic”). Except last Tuesday I discovered that whole panel had been scrapped, and all along the organizers had been expecting me to talk about Extraterrestrial Intelligence instead.

So I’ve spent most of the past week desperately trying to build a new talk around a bit of fevered inspiration that struck me while I was on the toilet at 3a.m. It’s called “The End of Need: Cognitive Trends in Star-Faring Species”. It’s about evolving past natural selection. It’s, um, upbeat. Or hopeful. Or at least not completely nihilistic (I’m not especially familiar with the words that describe things at that end of the scale). It kind of hinges on survival instincts being tautological, and how there’s no real reason for them.

It’s more of an improv thought experiment than a rigorous argument— and I probably don’t buy it myself— but that’s okay. They say it’s good to get out of your comfort zone now and then, right?

Anyway, I’m dashing this off in the Departures Lounge, just before embarking on a 21-hour flight to the opposite side of the world. I’ll hopefully be in Beijing until the 21st, at which point I depart for Bergen and the World Cliffhanger premiere of Fish To Mars from the 22nd to the 24th.  Sometime during that interval I also have to finish a story for Spacing Magazine that’s due in two weeks (I finally found a plot to hang my weaponized yoghurt idea off of). Probably won’t be blogging much during any of that time.

After that, though, I’m just going to breathe. And lie around. And play video games for a solid month.

Because I will have earned it.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 41 Comments

Opera and Inspiration

An assortment of news:

Publisher’s Weekly gave a starred review to Freeze-Frame Revolution, and also listed it among 2018’s Best Summer Reads. Of course, Publisher’s Weekly also gave a starred review to βehemoth, so some of you might want to factor that into your equation…

 

The Inspirational Listsicle

About two years ago, I was first approached by Jonathan Cowie from the “Science Fiction Science Fact Concatenation“, an SF site run by scientists and engineers. They were seeking out soulmates— i.e., scientist/engineers-turned-SF authors— in the hopes that such folks would be willing to write a brief essay about the Top Ten Twentieth Century Scientists Who Had Inspired Them. I had proved myself worthy, Jonathan said, and asked me to join them at their court in Camelot.

I leaned on my sword and said nothing.

More accurately, I said Sure, but I was kind of busy at the moment and it might take a while. Jonathan assured me that there was no hurry; SFF Concatenation was doing this to commemorate their tenth anniversary in 2017, so I had almost a full year. I figured that should be plenty of time.

Ahem.

Every few months since, Jonathan sent a polite email, saying they were still interested, and that there was still no hurry. After I missed their 10th anniversary there was even less hurry, and yet they were still interested. And I kept saying, Sure, still up for it, and I kept pleading the heaviness of my workload, but in fact my delinquency was at least partly due to the fact that I was having a really tough time finding ten 20th-century scientists who I could describe as personally “inspirational”— at least in the revelatory, shaft-of-dusty-sunlight-through-the-stain-glass-window sense. I mean, sure, I loved the way Feynman cut through the bullshit at the Challenger hearings when NASA kept trying to obfuscate about that damned O-ring, but did that really qualify?

My solution, ultimately, was to cite not Ten Inspirational Scientists, but rather Ten Scientific Inspirations. That widened the net enough to let me include German philosophers and French explorers. The damn really broke when I realized that nobody said my scientific inspirations had to be famous. Didn’t matter if any of you had even heard of them. If I owed my doctorate to the fact that some dick on  my committee said I should be “throwing bombs for Greenpeace” and I set out to prove him wrong, you gonna tell me that wasn’t inspirational?

Anyhow, it’s up now, only two years late. Most of those described therein— well, six out of ten— aren’t even dead yet.

 

When Science Makes You Wanna Scream Like An Opera

The Engineer (not to be confused with the subject of the Ian Anderson song of the same name).

The Engineer (not to be confused with the subject of the Ian Anderson song of the same name).

I’ve talked about this before— hinted here, gone into a bit more detail here. For want of any third-party collaboration you could be forgiving for wondering if I was making the whole thing up. Which is why I’m pleased to announce that the official Fish To Mars website is live and taking visitors. A few rooms are still under construction, but most of it’s pretty slick: character bios, story lines, librettos, real-world science. There’s even a trailer.

The opera kinda-sorta premieres next month in Bergen, May 22-24 (the BUG and I expect to be in the audience). I say kinda-sorta because it’s only 45 minutes long and ends on a cliffhanger. The full-scale opera, spanning the time from the late Devonian up to maybe five hundred thousand years from now, won’t be ready until 2020. Assuming the Funding Gods are willing.

Anyway, for those of you wondering what the hell I’ve been doing all this time instead of getting off my ass and writing the next novel, this is part of the answer. Check it out.

vlcsnap-2018-04-26-14h22m06s090

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 67 Comments

“A Quiet Place”: UNCWISHes and Dream Logic.

This column spoils John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place”. (Not to worry, though. The screenwriters got there first.)

You

Have

Been

Warned.

 

A monster movie hailed as serious drama. Ninety-five percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “Deeply affecting.” “A superb exercise in understated terror”. “A bold experiment in fear.” And to top it all off, it’s the beloved brainchild of  the beloved “Jim”. You know, from The Office.

I really wanted to like this one.

A curiously misleading promotional poster, I think.

A curiously misleading promotional poster, I think.

I did, too, at first. The layered, multidimensional, never-quite-silence of the movie’s soundscape grabs you from the first scene. The sight of the Abbott Family creeping through the aftermath of whatever wiped out the rest of us effectively builds suspense and curiosity. And the rapid, ruthless, richly-deserved extermination of that noisy snot-nosed too-stupid-to-live larva had me cheering inside: Yes! Consequences! I thought. No last-second rescue! The little fucker gets what he deserved![1]

Five minutes in— wholesome ‘Murrican nuclear family focus notwithstanding— you knew this was no Spielberg movie.

But the further we got into “A Quiet Place” the less goddamned sense it made.

I’m not talking about obvious things like the fact we never find out where the monsters come from. Another Weyland-Yutani PR fiasco, vermin escaped from the bilge of a visiting UFO— I’m willing to accept their unexplained appearance as a basic conceit of the movie. (Although given the amount of time we spend lovingly panning over whiteboards and old newspapers, it wouldn’t have killed them to at least headline a theory or two.) I’m talking about contradictions and inconsistencies that sink the plot, if not the whole damn premise. I’m not talking about just suspending disbelief, I’m talking about (as someone once said in reference to one of my own novels) breaking its neck and hanging it until it’s dead.

Like f’rinstance:

  • These nightmare creatures have such incredibly good hearing that they can hear rusty hinges creaking outside in a grain silo 500 meters away— and yet somehow they can’t hear a baby crying three meters away in the same room.
  • Kids. Look down. Just look down.

    Kids. Look down. Just look down.

    They can rip a gaping hole through the corrugated steel wall of a grain silo (silently enough to avoid alerting the children trapped inside, so as to not deprive us of an upcoming jump scare), but can’t get into the cab of a Ford pick-up with the windows rolled up.

  • Or maybe that ragged, torn hole in the silo was there all along in plain view, and the children trapped inside were just too dumb to notice until it was filled by a nightmare creature.
  • Anybody living in a depopulated post-apocalyptic landscape patrolled by unkillable nightmare creatures with incredibly sensitive hearing would actually choose to have a baby in the first place, counting on a couple of mattresses to keep the sound down. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more mindlessly strident pro-life message outside of the GOP.
  • A mother who does choose to pup under those conditions— and who then finds herself holding a crying baby in the basement while an unkillable nightmare creature with incredibly sensitive hearing stalks around upstairs— chooses not to offer a nipple to that baby (I mean, why else do babies cry?), but instead hands it off to her twelve-year-old to deal with. (I admit I thought she was being pretty clever at first— way to go, Evelyn, you’re getting rid of the squawling infant and the annoying adolescent in one unkillable-nightmare-creature bite!— but no. It was just bad writing.)
  • These unkillable nightmare creature with incredibly acute hearing (can we just call them UNCWISHes from now on?) aren’t magic— there’s no reason to think they can scale sheer walls or punch through the walls of a reinforced bunker, and we know that they can’t hear softer sounds masked by louder ones— but the Abbotts stay for over a year in their toothpick-and-clapboard farmhouse rather than moving to more solid digs (of which surely there can’t be any shortage, the rest of Humanity being dead and all). Or even setting up camp next to a noisy waterfall.
  • Everyone else is as stupid as the Abbotts. We know there are at least a few other survivors out there— we see their rooftop bonfires in the distance early in the movie, shining like low-budget Torches o’Gondor— and they don’t seem to have moved on either. And if people have been able to stick it out this long in farmhouses, surely others must have been lucky enough to be inside reinforced, UNCWISH-proof structures (what about those deep-rock missile silos in the Rockies, for example?), which leads one to conclude that there must be other pockets or survivors with access to broadcast technology. Why hasn’t Lee Abbott been able to raise any of them on the radio? And speaking of Lee Abbott…
  • Lee Abbott is a dick. Why else would he ban his deaf daughter from his basement lab, where he divides his time between checking the shortwave and trying to improvise a replacement for her broken hearing aid? At one point she explicitly demands to know why she’s not allowed downstairs, and gets no answer. Turns out, there at the very end, the only reason he wouldn’t let her downstairs is because that’s also where he kept the collection of newspaper headlines and whiteboard scribblings he used to try and figure out how to defeat these damned UNCWISHes, and once she lays eyes on that trove it takes her about thirty seconds to figure out what her Dad couldn’t in over a year. And you don’t want her doing that until the very last moment. (Okay, so Lee Abbott is a dumb dick.)
  • Everybody else on the planet is even dumber than the Abbotts. Because nobody, anywhere, apparently wondered if a blind predator who relied on incredibly sensitive hearing might not be vulnerable to acoustic attacks. On the whole fucking planet, no scientists, no Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, no soldiers or back-yard tinkerers or hearing-aid makers ever thought Hey, maybe we can jam them up with sound until fifteen-year-old Regan Abbott starts twiddling the dials more than a year after Armaggeddon? No helicopter gunships ever hung in the sky, safely out of UNCWISH jumping range, blaring out infrasonics alongside Ride of the Valkyries?
  • Oh, and look! Turns out once they open their faces at you, you can just take ’em down with shotguns! Maybe we should have tried shooting into those giant soft-looking tuba-sized earholes they kept flapping open while they were hunting us…
This scene, I will admit, kicked ass.

This scene, I will admit, kicked ass.

Some of these gaffes are so glaring that I’m half-convinced I must have dozed off at a crucial moment and missed some important bit of exposition. (I don’t think I did, though— and that uncertainty isn’t great enough to make me pay for a second viewing.) It’s as though Krasinski, having never seen an “Alien” movie, woke up from a scary dream about fearsome eyeless creatures with big teeth and thought Man, if only I could make a movie that evoked that sense of dread. And he did—the movie works, on that purely visceral level. It really does. The childbirth scene had me on the edge of my seat as much as anyone else.

But it’s also as though, if anyone during production asked Yeah, but what are the actual rules? How does this work?, Krasinski said Who cares? This is a movie about family! Think of the children!

At which point logic went pretty much the way it usually does, when someone says that.

Turns out it was just more Spielberg after all.


[1] I will confess, however, that I felt really bad when the raccoon bought it.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 46 Comments

Minor Revelations

So much to reveal.

Sadly, most of it is either embargoed, and/or so rife with typos that I’m holding off on the link until they’re fixed. What’s left is, I suppose, one of those “cover reveals” people tend to inflate out of all proportion these days— understandably, since that’s the closest your average midlister comes to actual promotion any more— except this cover, or at least a pretty close facsimile, has already long-since been unveiled to anyone who’s been over to the relevant Amazon page.

There are a couple of other things to reveal, though, about The Freeze-Frame Revolution.

Not sure why they went with that generic io9 quote, though. It's from, like, 2014 or something.

Not sure why they went with that generic io9 quote, though. It’s from, like, 2014 or something.

There’s the back cover, for one thing. You’ll notice actual blurbs from some pretty big names (or at least, you will if you have very good eyesight, a very large monitor, or if you just click on the graphic to enlarge).  To my immense relief they continue to trickle in even now; as usual, I’ve stuck the lot of them over on the Pull Quotes page. As of yesterday there were fourteen, only four of which hail from personal friends.

Authors are rarely the most reliable judges of their own work, but based on these advance squees I’m gonna guess that either FFR is a pretty good novella, or that  Tachyon has a lot of dirt on a lot of people. (I will, for now at least, refrain from interpreting Paul Levinson’s blurb to mean that one of the things that makes FFR “one of [my] best” is the fact that it’s “short”.)

Maybe not their best song, but the album as a whole is, I think, seriously underrated.

Maybe not their best song, but the album as a whole is, I think, seriously underrated.

.

.

There’s also the section breaks. Freeze-Frame is broken into six large chapter-like things, and Tachyon has graced each with its own title page. Each is simple, each is evocative, each is perfectly suited to the ambiance of the pages that follow. The one on display here steals its name from an old Jethro Tull song, because you can’t copyright song titles. (Although I’m pretty sure ol’ Ian wouldn’t mind; he was cool with me quoting actual lyrics back in Blindsight. Sometimes I still sleep with his one-sentence, manually-typed letter under my pillow.)

I have to hand it to Tachyon; they’ve done a bang-up job on a project that, for all its modest size, cost them way more time, effort, and money than you’d expect for a trade-paper novella. Even the basic printing costs were unusually high, for reasons  which are apparent on almost every page.

There’s a reason for that. But you’ll have to work it out for yourselves.

raw-ensmallened

Posted in: Sunflowers by Peter Watts 36 Comments

Riding the Tiger: or, Flirting with the Antivaxxers.

[PreProda: Yeah, after some really enlightening discussion in the Comments section, I’m walking back about 90% of this post. But I’m leaving it posted both because the comments are so interesting, and as a kind of historical artefact to remind me of what happens when I don’t take the time to think things through.]

[Proda: OK, now I’m having third thoughts, since a big chunk of the following argument derives from a) a discussion conducted over too many beers and b) my apparently-erroneous belief that flu vaccines have grown less effective over time. In fact, they apparently were never very effective. For details, check out the mea culpa down in Comment 43.


 

I’m having second thoughts about vaccination. [Update: But not just vaccination. See coda.]

Not because of autism or mercury or any of that Gwyneth Paltrow bullshit. Not even because I think vaccination is a bad idea— at this stage at least, we pretty much have to stick with the programs.

I am wondering, though, if it might have been a bad idea to have started down this road in the first place.

It all comes down to beers and budworms.

Beers. I had lunch the other day with my favorite Cassandra and fictionalized antihero, Dan Brooks. He drops through every now and then in the course of his travels, usually bearing bad news. This time was no different; we talked about the future, and the increasing statistical likelihood that by mid-century we’ll have lost both half the world’s species and half the world’s human population (not that one of those things is any great loss). We talked about Cape Town, and Lincoln, and LA— all those places where local water wars are just around the corner. The imminent draining of the Great Lakes to water the gardens of millionaires in Palm Springs. The near-ubiquitous use of mouth guards by climate-change scientists. And by the way, have you heard the news? Cholera’s moved back into Canada.

Dan’s an evolutionary biologist. He takes the long view. (When I pointed out the obvious fact that only a few weedy, super-resilient species are likely to survive the Anthropocene, he shrugged and said “So what? Recovery after every major extinction event starts with only a few weedy species, and they’re always enough to get us back up to high biodiversity in only ten or twenty million years.”) He’s also a parasitologist: comfortable talking about epidemiology, the parameter values of the rolling pandemics that’ll start hollowing out our urban centers sometime in the next ten or twenty years. My own background (putting aside the marine mammal thing) is more along the lines of general ecology— so when Dan started talking about outbreaks and countermeasures it was ecology, not epidemiology, that clicked.

“You’re talking about the spruce budworm,” I said.

A quick backgrounder for those who weren’t around in the back half of the Twentieth Century: the spruce budworm is a kind of caterpillar that wreaked havoc on coniferous forests throughout eastern Canada from the sixties at least through the eighties (it may be wreaking still for all I know, but I unfriended the little beggars once I left grad school). The logging industry of the time, as is the wont of logging industrialists everywhere, responded to the infestation by spraying the shit out of the forests with chemical insecticides. The budworm (as is the wont of fast-breeding life-forms everywhere) counter-responded in three ways:

  1. Most of them died.
  2. The few who didn’t bred back an army of Mk-2 budworms who weren’t quite as easily impressed by malathion.
  3. They cranked up their reproductive rate to compensate for increased mortality.

Before long we were faced with a budworm population that we could keep sort of under control, but only if we never stopped spraying. What had once been a purely intermittent event was now a continual, low-level outbreak kept barely in check by pesticides. The moment we let up on the chemicals, those resistant, faster-breeding budworms would tear through the forest like a billion little chainsaws.

What Dan made me consider was the proposition that mass-vaccination programs have done pretty much the same thing to us.

For generations now, we’ve been vaccinating ourselves against (for example) the flu. It used to work really well; vaccination is just a way of programming the immune system with a target-lock for invaders, and it’s pretty easy to do that when all the invaders have a common immunological profile:

Innocent, naive virus.

Innocent, naive virus.

Of course, the moment you do that, you’ve provoked a Red Queen scenario. The flu doesn’t just sit there like a candyass: you target that peak long enough, it’ll diversify:

Experienced, world-weary, 5th-degree-black-belt-don't-fuck-with-me virus.

Experienced, world-weary, 5th-degree-black-belt-don’t-fuck-with-me virus.

This is how you go from Praise Be It’s A Miracle Everyone Should Get This!  to Well, this year’s vaccine is only about 20% effective but you should get a flu shot anyway because we don’t know what else to recommend. At the same time, vaccination has been protecting people with weak immune systems, people who would otherwise have died. (Of course that’s what we’ve been doing; that’s the whole damn point of vaccination programs.) But since we’ve so greatly reduced the selection pressure that would otherwise weed out the immunological weaklings, vaccinated populations have, over time, become inherently less resistant genetically to the bugs that vaccines protect them against. We’ve outsourced our immune response to the pharmaceutical industry.

Tl;dr? We’ve been making the disease stronger while making ourselves weaker at the same time. It’s the spruce budworm all over again.

And now, like the spruce budworm, we don’t dare stop vaccinating. We’ve built such a tough suite of microbial motherfuckers that if we ever take our foot off the gas, they’ll tear through us like a brush fire. In terms of disease resistance, our genetic load is now far far higher than it would have been if we’d just let nature take its course a hundred years ago. Dan calls it riding the tiger—except we’re talking about a tiger that’s been pumped full of steroids since cub-hood, and a rider that’s turned into a 98-lb weakling in the meantime. It’s only a matter of time before that damn cat throws us off and has us for dinner.

I’m guessing this is partly where the rolling-pandemics-in-ten-years thing comes from. I don’t know what we can do about it at this point. I suppose we could try a CRISPR fix— engineer genetic resistance back into our species before it’s too late. But I don’t know how easy it’ll be to scale that (relatively new) technology up to species-wide deployment.

I suspect Dan’s right. Nature will take care of the problem as it always has. Although there’s one sliver of hope I might summon:

Far as I know, we still have spruce forests in New Brunswick.


Coda: On second thought, I probably shouldn’t have limited this argument to vaccination; I should have explicitly included drug-based countermeasures as well.  They’re different approaches— one targets the invader, the other reprograms the immune system— but in both cases, the next generation favors those who get around the countermeasures (either by being resistant to the drug, or having a shape that differs from the target profile programmed by the vaccine). Different tools, but same principle. That’s the point I’m making. I’m not actually confused about the difference between drugs and vaccines.

It’s just that drug-resistant diseases are old news, hardly worth the alarm. The idea that vaccines are subject to the same processes is one of those things that seems obvious in hindsight, but I’d never thought about it before.

Posted in: biology, evolution, In praise of biocide by Peter Watts 100 Comments

Object Lesson

Baird Stoller never even pretended to be on our side. Aki Sok did her best, then took her lumps when it wasn’t good enough. Ekanga Mosko was a whole other thing. Recruited, committed, trusted with the secrets of the sanctum—then caught copying specs down in the Glade, loading himself up with secrets to buy his way back into the Chimp’s good graces after miraculously coming back from the dead.

Lian didn’t kill him. Didn’t deprecate him either. Waste of good coffin space, she said. She found a small inescapable crevice in some remote corner of the Glade where the gravitic tug-o-war was enough to pull your guts out through your inner ears. She ran a line from an irrigation pipe, set it to bleed a continuous trickle down the rock face. Hooked a portable food processor up to an outsize amino tank, parked it on the lip of the precipice, set it to drop protein bricks into the gap at regular intervals. Woke up every few years just to keep it stocked.

 

 

Mosko spent the rest of his life in that crevice. Maybe his stomach acclimated to the nausea before his brain turned to pudding, before he lost the ability even to beg, before he devolved into a mindless mewling thing covered in sores and compulsively licking the rocks to slake his endless thirst. Maybe he only lasted a few months. Maybe he lived for decades, died alone while the rest of us slept our immortal sleep, mummified and crumbled to dust and finally vanished altogether between one of my heartbeats and the next. An object lesson, way past its best-before date.

That’s the story I heard, anyway. I slept through the whole time frame, from recruitment to betrayal to dissolution. I found the crevice—found a crevice, anyway—but the plumbing and the processor had long since been retired, if they’d ever even existed. For all I knew Kaden had just been yanking my chain about the whole thing, got some of hir buddies in on the joke for added verisimilitude. A joke. A warning. That would be just hir style.

There had been an Ekanga Mosko listed on the manifest. Astrophysics specialist. Different tribe, but Eri definitely shipped out with meat of that name on board. The official record said he’d died when a bit of bad shielding had failed around the outer core: a blast of lethal radiation, an emergency vent to spare the rest of the level from contamination.

Of course I asked Lian about it. She laughed and laughed. “I’d have to be pretty damn good to plant evidence that far down without getting burned to ash, wouldn’t you say?”

She never actually denied it, though.

Posted in: fiblet, Sunflowers by Peter Watts 23 Comments