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.


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.


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.)






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.


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


Spoilers Follow. Spoilers for the movie “Annihilation”.

(The following review might also go down easier if you’ve read the book.)

The novel was a bit less literal about the whole "Annihilation" part.

The novel was a bit less literal about the whole “Annihilation” part.

I’ve always been amazed that Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy became a massive best-seller. Truth is, I’m kind of amazed it even made it past the small presses.

Don’t take this as a criticism of the novels. Take it, rather, as an indictment of the North American reading public. Vandermeer is, after all, one of the pioneers of New Weird:[1] literary, cryptic, unapologetically off-kilter. Have you read Southern Reach? Would you have expected it to climb to the top of a pile that holds up Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Dan Fucking Brown as role models?

The fact that it did fills me with wonder (Awesome! The genre made it without having to dumb down!), and hope (hey, if Southern Reach can own the bestseller lists, maybe I can too), and resentment (WTF? Annihilation is a household word and people say my stuff is too inaccessible for the mainstream market?). Then again, sneer as I might at readers of The da Vinci Code, at least those people are reading books. Most of us don’t even do that much.

Most of us go to the movies, though. So maybe the real test is whether a movie based on the book, a movie that respects the spirit of the book, can make it when thrown into the ring with Marvel and Pixar and LucasFilm and 20th-Century F— ah, let’s just keep it simple: with Disney.

As I write this, it doesn’t look good for “Annihilation” (the movie— henceforth distinguished from Annihilation, the novel). Box Office Mojo reports that it debuted at #4 (losing out to Peter Rabbit at #3)— which makes it a bomb, financially, but no worse than you could expect from a movie that test audiences found “too intellectual” and “too complicated”. That part actually gave me hope; that hope grew when director Alex Garland and producer Scott Rudin stood firm and told Paramount to fuck right off, when the studio wanted to make the film more “accessible”.

Paramount retaliated by cancelling plans for overseas theatrical distribution (except for China) and dumping those rights onto Netflix.  I didn’t care; all signs pointed to a good film, a smart film, and the fact that it was too confusing for your average Transformers fan only proved the point. A lot of people hated “2001” when it came out; “The Thing” nearly killed John Carpenter’s career. And unlike “The Thing” on first release, the critics love “Annihilation”: 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, 79% on Metacritic. One of the few exceptions was science fiction’s own Annalee Newitz , who thought it sucked.

I believe I may fall somewhere in between.

Garland’s movie perfectly evokes the weird, skin-crawling dream-fever I experienced while reading the book. You can feel the air pressing down like invisible treacle. You sense the things watching you from just out-of-frame, you wonder at the skewed strangeness of the things right before your eyes. The acting is top-notch, and the science— well, you don’t go into a movie about an expanding paradimensional soap-bubble-o’doom expecting a list of technical citations. But the movie is science-savvy enough to know when it’s breaking the rules— at least, the rules we talking apes have discovered up to this point— and I’m fine with that.

Actually, kudos to the physicist for even knowing what Hox genes are.

Actually, kudos to the physicist for even knowing what Hox genes are.

Case in point: strange natural scarecrows springing up in lawns and meadows, shrubbery spontaneously assuming humanoid shape. The physicist (not being a biologist) speculates that you’ll find human Hox genes in that foliage, because Hox genes are what tell the tissue how to arrange itself during development. It’s both reasonable (that is what Hox genes do) and wrong. (The plants are not growing, Ent-like, into solid humanoid shapes, as they would even in the unlikely event that the humanoid recipe had somehow been ported between Kingdoms. They’re just the usual tangle of vines and twigs and branches— simply confined, bonsai-like, to a human-shaped jar. There’s some tertiary metaprocess involved here). The biologist immediately responds: “literally not possible”— leaving us not with a scientific boner, but with a scientific mystery that happens to go unsolved (along with pretty much everything else in this movie, admittedly). The idea of genetic refraction— presented not just as mechanism but as metaphor, as literal visual ambiance— kind of appeals to me.

Newitz seems to have missed this deliberate bit of ass-covering when she decries “Annihilation”‘s “painfully bad representations of how DNA works”. Or maybe she got it, but just didn’t buy it. Either way, I think she’s being too harsh. Obviously there’s more than DNA at work here; obviously we’re dealing with alien forces beyond our comprehension.  Kubrick didn’t provide technical specs on how the monolith worked, either— and for all the folks who had trouble with “2001” when it first came out, I don’t remember anyone complaining about that fact.

Which makes this a good spot to talk about the ending, which Vandermeer himself has compared to the end of “2001”. I am not convinced. No matter how opaque Kubrick’s ending might have seemed at first glance, there’s no question that it resolved the plot: a specific thing happened to finish the story, whether it was obvious or not. Kubrick did, after all, have hard-SF maestro Arthur C. Clarke riding shotgun, to keep him from venturing too deeply into the woo. They knew what they were doing, even if audiences didn’t.

Not so sure that’s the case here.

The ending Garland stapled onto the movie is utterly unrelated to anything in the novel. He really had no choice about that. The novel doesn’t even have an ending— at least, not one that leaves us any wiser about all the mysteries laid out in the preceding pages. The book doesn’t so much end as go on hiatus, which is something you can forgive in the first act of a trilogy.

Garland obviously had to stick something before the credits. I’m not entirely sure he knew what it was, though. You’ve got a scaled-down version of the interior of the derelict alien ship from Alien. You’ve got twinkly Human/energy metamorphosis a la “Star Trek: The Motionless Picture”. You’ve got that humanoid oil slick from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”‘s execrable “Evil Skin” episode. And you’ve got some kind of mirror-mode marionette that inexplicably mimics every move our lone survivor makes, while in the process becoming her “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” doppelganger— which isn’t really in keeping with anything we’ve seen in Area X up until now (the Shimmer refracts things, it doesn’t reflect them— this whole pod-person element just comes out of nowhere).

Garland’s a smart guy; I really liked “Ex Machina” (although maybe a bit less than most). He seems to be pretty scrupulous about thinking things through— or at least he learned to be, sometime after making “Sunshine”. But I can’t shake the feeling than in this case, he just grabbed a bunch of random stuff and mooshed it together, hoping against hope that we’d read profundity into chaos.

I have to wonder how much that ending changed the middle, how many vital elements of the novel were jettisoned solely because the movie had to converge on some arbitrary endpoint thumbtacked to Garland’s corkboard. Is that why we lost the inverted tower spiraling down into the earth, the weird mutated Crawler scratching its endless prose into those walls? Is that why we never found how just how massively corrupt the Southern Reach was, why the lies and deceptions and all those unacknowledged previous expeditions never made it into the script? Is that why the very name of the story was changed so utterly in meaning, even if every letter was left in place?

Again: Alex Garland is a smart guy. At this stage in his career, he might not even be capable of making a bad movie, and “Annihilation” is not one. “Annihilation” is, at the very least, a good movie; it is an undeniably beautiful movie. It is even a brave movie, a movie made in defiance of lazy viewers and nervous distributors. I think the ending keeps it from being a brilliant movie, but I can’t be sure after one viewing (I’ll have to catch it again on Netflix).

I can be sure of one thing, though:

“Annihilation” is not Annihilation.

Am I sick, or is this kind of beautiful?

Am I sick, or is this kind of beautiful?

[1] Although it’s been around long enough that we should probably be calling it “Middle-Aged Weird” by now.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 71 Comments

Arc Weld

“Language is a virus from outer space”
—William S. Borroughs




Chest-thump to start off the year: Last year’s “ZeroS”, appearing in Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Wars, made it into a couple of (late-breaking update: into three!) Year’s Best collections: Neil Clarke’s Best Science Fiction of the Year (Vol. 3), and another couple I hesitate to name because they don’t seem to have been announced yet. So that’s cool.


But this is way cooler:

There’s this gene, Arc, active in our neurons. It’s essential for cognition and longterm memory in mammals; knockout mice who lack it can’t remember from one day to the next where they left the cheese. It looks and acts an awful lot like something called a gag— a “group-specific antigen”, something which codes for the core structural proteins of retroviruses. Like a gag, Arc codes for a protein that assembles into  capsids (basically, shuttles containing messenger RNA). These accumulate in the dendrites, cross the synaptic junction in little vesicles: a payload from one neuron to another.

Pastuzyn et al, of the University of Utah, have just shown that Arc is literally an infection: a tamed, repurposed virus that infected us a few hundred million years ago. Apparently it looks an awful lot like HIV. Pastuzyn et al speculate that Arc “may mediate intercellular signaling to control synaptic function”.

Memory is a virus. Or at least, memory depends on one.



Of course, everyone’s all over this. U of Utah trumpeted the accomplishment with a press release notable for, among other things, describing the most-junior contributor to this 13-author paper as the “senior” author. Newsweek picked up both the torch and the mistake, leading me to wonder if Kastalio Medrano is simply at the sloppy end of the scale or if it’s normal for “Science Writers” in popular magazines to not bother reading the paper they’re reporting on. (I mean, seriously, guys; the author list is right there under the title.) As far as I know I’m the first to quote Burroughs in this context (or to mention that Greg Bear played around a very similar premise in Darwin’s Radio), but when your work gets noticed by The Atlantic you know you’ve arrived.

Me, though, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that something which was once an infection is now such an integral part of our cognitive architecture. I can’t stop wondering what would happen if someone decided to reweaponise it.

The parts are still there, after all.  Arc builds its own capsid, loads it up with genetic material, hops from one cell to another. The genes being transported don’t even have to come from Arc:

“If viral RNA is not present, Gag encapsulates host RNA, and any single-stranded nucleic acid longer than 20-­30 nt can support capsid assembly … indicating a general propensity to bind abundant RNA.”

The delivery platform’s intact; indeed, the delivery platform is just as essential to its good role as it once was to its evil one. So what happens if you add a payload to that platform that, I dunno, fries intraneuronal machinery somehow?

I’ll tell you. You get a disease that spreads through the very act of thinking. The more you think, the more memories you lay down, the more the disease ravages you. The only way to slow its spread is to think as little as possible; the only way to save your intelligence is not to use it. Your only chance is to become willfully stupid.

Call it Ignorance is Bliss. Call it Donald’s Syndrome. Even call it a metaphor of some kind.

Me, I’m calling it a promising premise. The only real question is whether I’ll squander it now on a short story, or save it up for a few years and stick it into Omniscience.


(Thanks to Bahumat, btw, for showing me the link.)
Posted in: biology, neuro by Peter Watts 63 Comments

A Christmas Carnivore.

I thought I’d give you graphics for Christmas. Pieces of fan art have been accumulating over the year, and— while a lot of it is truly impressive— I feel weird using a blog post to do nothing but highlight one piece of art.  Seems too easy, somehow. Blogs should be more— substantive.

And then you wake up one day and realize that you’ve got twenty pieces of art waiting to be posted.  That substantive enough for you?

First off, though: for those who don’t follow me on Facebook (and I salute you; Facebook’s the only social medium I’m on and I still feel vaguely dirty when I go there), the team at Blindsight.space recently released a 30-second teaser that really is spectacular. The only complaint I have is that I’ve seen some of the footage that didn’t make it into this cut, and I wish all of it was ready for prime time right now. Art and stills are fine, but there’s  nothing like  watching Charybdis cruising through Rorschach‘s tangled topography, or watching Theseus‘s hab module blow up. Go, if you haven’t yet. Marvel.

Sketches,  screen grabs, and other renderings have been posted in the galleries: two in the Rifters Gallery (under “Fan Art”), the rest in the Blindopraxia Gallery  (the Japanese Echopraxia covers under “Official Cover Art”, everything else under “Fan”). Scroll down on this page for a subset of the new acquisitions—  an oil painting, a bit of anthropology, a couple of screen grabs— even an animated anime gif— but if you want to check out the whole lot you’ll have to click on a couple of links. It’s worth it; there’s some nice stuff behind the front page.

As always, you can click the pic to embiggen it. Really I shouldn’t have to tell you by now.

Start with a Valerie triptych, all three by an artist going by the handle KeeNahMee: Echopraxia‘s vampire at three stages of her life. Upper left she’s still wearing the smartweave tunic of a Simon Fraser lab rat, although she appears to have just fed (you can tell by the subtle flushing of the cheeks), and is thus probably about to leave the campus to seek other opportunities.  Upper right she looks feral and eager and pretty much the way I imagined her throughout most of her trip down to Icarus, playing with her food.


Bottom, though, she’s back in the desert with Dan Brüks while the world burns around the horizon. As far as I know, no one has illustrated this part of the novel before; while I’m enraptured by all KeeNahMee’s art, I think this relatively simple sketch is my favorite.

Firefall, from the ground (that teaser I link to above shows a glimpse of the same event from orbit.) Courtesy of Blindsight.space.

Firefall, from the ground (that teaser I link to above shows a glimpse of the same event from orbit.) Courtesy of Blindsight.space.


A swarm of scramblers, Rorschach interior. This screen grab cannot do justice to the sight of that wall squirming as it does. As of this writing, this scene is not in the official released teaser, but I've seen the dailies. Wow. Blindsight.space.

A swarm of scramblers, Rorschach‘s interior. This screen grab cannot do justice to the sight of that wall squirming as it does. As of this writing, this scene is not in the official released teaser, but I’ve seen the dailies. Wow. Blindsight.space.


 A deep-sea duet, courtesy of Marek Paterczyk. This is one of my favorite rifters pictures ever.

A deep-sea duet, courtesy of Marek Paterczyk. This is one of my favorite rifters pictures ever.

"Canaury"'s animesque vision of a bloodbath on Theseus should actually be pulsing with a reddish alarm light. Unfortunately, my attempt to upload the gif into WordPress failed three times out of three, so if you want the full effect you'll have to go over to the gallery.

Canaury“‘s animesque vision of a bloodbath on Theseus should actually be pulsing with a reddish alarm light. Unfortunately, my attempt to upload the gif into WordPress failed three times out of three, so if you want the full effect you’ll have to see it in the gallery.

A couple more Valeries for you (Valerie really seems to be getting the love this year, doesn't she?) The sepia animesque one is by Ivan Yakushev; the inset is an actual oil painting by Janet Bruesselbach, based on a flesh and blood model (Marina Marchand). I think this may mean I've arrived.

A couple more Valeries for you (Valerie really seems to be getting the love this year, doesn’t she?) The sepia animesque one is by Ivan Yakushev; the inset is an actual oil painting by Janet Bruesselbach, based on a flesh and blood model (Marina Marchand). I think this may mean I’ve arrived.


This is anthropological and unprecedented: a side-by-side comparison of vampire and baseline-Human skulls. I don't know much about the artist except that she's from Russia, she reads Dawkins, and she goes by the handle Ekaterina. Also I suspect she is awesome. She says there are ten differences. I don't know if she's kidding.

This is anthropological and unprecedented: a side-by-side comparison of vampire and baseline-Human skulls. I don’t know much about the artist except that she’s from Russia, she reads Dawkins, and she goes by the handle Ekaterina. Also I suspect she is awesome.

She says there are ten differences. I don’t know if she’s kidding.


So there you have it— or at least half of it, with links to the rest. Looking back, it’s a bit, well, Valerie-heavy, isn’t it? A certain preponderance of predators and bloodbaths. Then again, this is that time of year: when the predatory prey on the gullible, when the bloodsuckers come for your money and your brains. Really, vampires fit right in at Yuletide.

Why do you think Santa wears red?

Posted in: art on ink by Peter Watts 22 Comments

Denying Dystopia: The Hope Police in Fact and Fiction

I recently read Terri Favro’s upcoming book on the history and future of robotics, sent to me by a publisher hungry for blurbs. It’s a fun read— I had no trouble obliging them—  but I couldn’t avoid an almost oppressive sense of— well, of optimism hanging over the whole thing. Favro states outright, for example, that she’s decided to love the Internet of Things; those who eye it with suspicion she compares to old fogies who stick with their clunky coal-burning furnace and knob-and-tube wiring as the rest of the world moves into a bright sunny future. She praises algorithms that analyze your behavior and autonomously order retail goods on your behalf, just in case you’re not consuming enough on your own: “We’ll be giving up our privacy, but gaining the surprise and delight that comes with something new always waiting for us at the door” she gushes (sliding past the surprise and delight we’ll feel when our Visa bill loads up with purchases we never made). “How many of us can resist the lure of the new?” Favro does pay lip service to the potential hackability of this  Internet of Things— concedes that her networked fridge might be compromised, for example—  but goes on to say  “…to do what, exactly? Replace my lactose-free low-fat milk with table cream? Sabotage my diet by substituting chocolate for rapini?”

Maybe, yeah. Or maybe your insurance company might come snooping around in the hopes your eating habits might give them an excuse to reject that claim for medical treatments you might have avoided if you’d “lived more responsibly”. Maybe some botnet will talk your fridge and a million others into cranking up their internal temperatures to 20ºC during the day, then bringing them all back down to a nice innocuous 5º just before you get home from work. (Salmonella in just a few percent of those affected could overwhelm hospitals and take out our medical response capacity overnight.) And while Favro at least admits to the danger of Evil Russian Hackers, she never once mentions that our own governments will in all likelihood be rooting around in our fridges and TVs and smart bulbs, cruising the Internet Of Things while whistling that perennial favorite If You Got Nothin’ to Hide You Got Nothin’ to Fear

Nor should we forget that old chestnut from Blue Lives Murder: “I had to shoot him, Your Honor. I feared for my life. It’s true the suspect was unarmed at the time, but he’s well over six feet tall and according to his Samsung Health app he lifted weights and ran 20K three times a week…”

That’s just a few ways your wired appliances can hurt you personally. We haven’t scratched the potential damage to wider targets. What’s to stop them from getting conscripted into an appliance-based botnet like, for example,  the one that took out KrebsOnSecurity last year?

I’m not trying to shit on Favro; as I said, I enjoyed the book. But it did get me thinking about bigger pictures, and this recent demand for brighter prognoses.  These days it seems as if everyone and their dog is demanding we stick our fingers in our ears, squeeze our eyes tight shut, and whistle a happy tune while the mountainside collapses on top of us.

In a sense this is nothing new. Denial is a ubiquitous part of human nature. One of the things science fiction has traditionally done has been get in our faces, hold our eyelids open and force us to look at the road ahead. That’s a big reason I was drawn to the field in the first place.

So how come some of the most strident demands to Lighten the Hell Up are coming from inside science fiction itself?


It started slow. Remember back at the beginning of the decade, when the president of Arizona State University told Neal Stephenson that the sorry state of the space program was our fault? Science fiction wasn’t bold and optimistic like it used to be, apparently. It had stopped Dreaming Big. The rocket scientists weren’t inspired because we weren’t being sufficiently inspirational.

Are we saving the world yet?

Are we saving the world yet?

I’ve always found that argument a bit tenuous, but Stephenson took it to heart. Booted up “Project Hieroglyph“, a big shiny movement devoted to chasing dystopia down into the cellar and replacing it with upbeat, optimistic science fiction that could Change The World. The fruit of that labor was Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future; a number of my friends can be found within its pages, although for some reason I was not approached for a contribution. (No problem— I got my shot just this year when Kathryn Cramer, the coeditor of H:SaVfaBF, let me write my own piece of optiskif for the X-Prize’s Seat 14C.)

A few grumbled (Ramez Naam struck back in Slate in defense of dystopias). Others dug in their heels: You don’t need to squint very hard to figure out Michal Solana’s  take-home message in “Stop Writing Dystopian Fiction – It’s Making Us All Fear Technology“. That appeared in Wired back in 2014, but the bandwagon rolls on still. Just this year, writing in Clarkesworld, my dear friend Kelly Robson put her foot down: “No more dystopias [italics hers]. What we need is near- and mid-future stories that show an array of trajectories out of the gloomy toilet bowl we’re spiraling.”

There’s something telling about that edict, insofar as it explicitly admits that yes, we are indeed circling the drain. We’re all on that same page, at least. But what the hope police[1] seem to be converging on is, You don’t get to give us bad news unless you can also tell us how to make it good. Don’t you dare deliver a diagnosis of cancer unless you’ve got a cure stashed up your sleeve, because otherwise you’re just being a downer.

Looks like dangerous seas up ahead. I know! Let’s erase all the reefs from our nautical charts![2]


Inherent in this attitude is the belief that science fiction matters, that it can influence the trajectory of real life, that We Have The Power To Change the Future and With Great Power Goes Great Responsibility— so if we serve up an unending diet of crushing dystopias people will lose all hope, melt into whimpering puddles of flop sweat, and grow too paralyzed to fix anything. Because the World takes us so very seriously. Because if we do not tell tales of hope, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when the ceiling crashes in.

I’ve always been a bit gobsmacked by the arrogance of that view.

I’m not saying that SF has never proven inspirational in real life. NASA is infested with scientists and engineers who were weaned on Star Trek. Gibson informed the future as much as he imagined it. Hell, we wouldn’t have the glorious legacy of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative if a bunch of Real SF Writers hadn’t snuck into the White House and inspired the Gipper with hi-tech tales of space-based missile shields and ion cannons. I’m not denying any of that.

What I’m saying is that none of those things inspired people to change. It merely justified their inclination to keep on doing what they’d always wanted to. Science fiction is like the Bible that way: it’s big enough, and messy enough, to let you cherry-pick “inspiration” for pretty much any paradigm that turns your crank. Hell, you can even use SF to justify a society based on incest (check out the works of Theodore Sturgeon if you don’t believe me). That’s one of the reasons I like the genre; you can go anywhere.

You want to convince me that SF can change the world? Show me the timeline where we headed off overpopulation because people read Stand on Zanzibar. Show me a world where the existence of Nineteen Eighty-Four prevented the US and Britain from routinely surveilling their citizens. Show me a place where ‘Murrica read The Handmaid’s Tale and whispered in horrified tones: “Holy shit, we really gotta dial back our religious fundamentalism.”

It’s no accomplishment to inspire people to do things they already want to. You want to lay claim to being part of Team Worldchanger, show me a time when you inspired people to do something they didn’t want to. Show me a time you changed society’s mind.

Ray Bradbury tried to imagine such a world, once— late in his career when he’d gone soft, when hard-edged masterpieces like “Skeleton” and  “The Small Assassin” were lost to history and all he had left in him were mushy stories about Laurel and Hardy, or time-travelers who used their technology to go back and make Herman Melville feel better about his writing career. This particular story was called “The Toynbee Convector”, and it was about a guy who saved the world by lying to it. He told everyone that he’d built a time machine, gone into the Future, and seen that It Was Good: we’d cleaned up the planet, saved the whales, eliminated poverty and overpopulation. And in this upbeat science fiction story, people didn’t say Great: well, since we know everything’s gonna be okay anyhow, we might as well keep sitting on our asses, snarfing pork rinds until Utopia comes calling. No, they rolled up their sleeves, and by golly they set about making that future happen. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a story more willfully blind to Human Nature.

If you’re looking for ways in which science fiction can inspire, here’s something the hope police may have forgotten to mention: if downbeat stories inspire despair and paralysis, it’s at least as likely that upbeat stories inspire complacency. Yeah, I know the planet’s warming and the icecaps are melting and we’re wiping out sixty species a day, but I’m sure we’ll muddle through somehow. We’re a resourceful species when the chips are down. Someone will come up with something. I read it in a book by Kim Stanley Robinson.


In fact, Kim Stanley Robinson is a good example. He’s no misty-eyed Utopian by any stretch, but he’s certainly more hopeful in his imaginings than the Atwoods and Brunners of the world. He recently pointed to the Paris Agreement as a “hopeful sign“:

It was a historical moment that will go down in any competent world history … That moment when the United Nation member states said, “We have to put a price on carbon. We have to go beyond capitalism and regulate our entire economy and our technological base in order to keep the planet alive.”

Surely I can’t be the only one who sees the oxymoron in “put a price on carbon … go beyond capitalism”. The moment you affix a monetary value to carbon you’re subsuming it into capitalism. You’re turning it into just another commodity to be bought and sold.

Don't worry! Be happy!

Don’t worry! Be happy!

Granted, this is better than pretending it doesn’t exist (I believe “externalities” is the term economists use when they want to ignore something completely). And Robinson is no fan of conventional economics: he dismissed the field as “pseudoscience” at Readercon a few years back, which was heartening even if it is so obvious you shouldn’t have to keep coming out and saying it. But the moment you put a price on carbon, it’s only a matter of time before some asshole shows up with a checkbook and says “OK— here’s your price, paid in full. Now fuck off while I continue to destroy the world in time for the next quarterly report.” Putting a price on carbon is the exact opposite of moving beyond capitalism; it’s extending capitalism into new and more dangerous realms.

Citing such developments as positive makes me a bit queasy.

I got the same kind of feeling when everyone dog-piled all over David Wallace-Wells “The Uninhabitable Earth” in New York Magazine this past summer. Wallace-Wells’ bottom line was that even the bad news you’ve heard about climate change is a soft-sell, that things are even worse than the experts are admitting, that in all likelihood large parts of the planet will be uninhabitable for humans by the end of this century.

It took about three hours for the yay-sayers to start weighing in, tearing down that gloomy-Gus perspective. They tried to pick holes in the science, although ultimately they had to admit that there weren’t many. The main complaint was that Wallace-Wells always assumes the worst-case scenario— and really, things probably won’t get that bad. Even Michel Mann, one of Climate Change’s biggest rock stars, weighed in: “There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.” This turned out to be the most common criticism: not that the article was necessarily wrong overall, but that it was just too depressing, too defeatist. Have to give people hope, you know. Have to stop being all doom-and-gloom and start inspiring instead.

I have a few problems with this. First: Sorry, but when you’re driving for the edge of a cliff with your foot literally on the gas, I don’t think “inspiration” is what we should be going for. We should be going for sheer pants-pissing terror at the prospect of what happens when we go over that cliff. I humbly suggest that that might prove a better motivator.

Further, describing the worst-case scenario isn’t unreasonable when the observed data keep converging on something even worse. Science, by nature, is conservative; a result isn’t even considered statistically significant below a probability of at least 95%, often 99%. Global systems are full of complexity and noise, things that degrade statistical significance even in the presence of real effects— so scientific publications, almost by definition, tend to understate risk.

Which might explain why, once we were finally able to collect field data to weigh against decades of computer projections, the best news was that observed CO2 emissions were only tracking the predicted worst-case scenario. Ice-cap melting and sea-level rise were worse than the predicted worst-case— and from what I can tell this is pretty typical. (I’ve been checking in on the relevant papers in Science and Nature since before the turn of the century, and I can remember maybe two papers in all that time that said Hey, this variable actually isn’t as bad as we thought!)

So saying that Wallace-Wells takes the worst-case scenario isn’t a criticism. It’s an endorsement. If anything, the man understates our predicament. Which made it a bit troubling to see even Ramez Naam— defender of dystopian fiction— weighing in against the New York piece. Calling it “bleak” and “misleading”, he accused Wallace-Wells of “underestimat[ing] Human ingenuity” and “exaggerat[ing] impacts”. He spoke of trend lines for anticipated temperature rise bending down, not up— and of course, he lamented the hopeless tone of the article which would, he felt, make it psychologically harder to take action.

I’m not sure where Ramez got his trend data— it doesn’t seem entirely consistent with what those Copenhagen folks had to say a few years back— but even if he’s right, it’s a little like saying Yes, we may be a hundred meters away from running into that iceberg, but over the past couple of hours we’ve actually managed to change course by three whole degrees! Progress! At this rate we’ll be able to miss the iceberg entirely in just another three or four kilometers!


I don’t mean to pick on Ramez, any more than on Favro— having recently hung out with him, I can attest that he is one smart and awesome dude. But. Try this scenario on for size:

You’re in your living room, watching Netflix. You look out the window and see a great honking boulder plunging down the hill, mere seconds from smashing your home to kindling. Do you:

  1. Crumple into a ball of weeping despair and wait for the end;
  2. Keep watching Stranger Things because that boulder is just a Chinese hoax;
  3. Wait for someone to inspire you to action with tales of a hopeful future; or
  4. Run like hell, even though it means abandoning your giant flatscreen TV?

This underscores, I believe, a potential flaw in the worldview of the hope police. It may be that despair and hopelessness reduce us into inaction— but it may also be true that we simply aren’t scared enough.  You can thank our old friend Hyperbolic Discounting for that: the future is never all that real to us, not down in the gut where we set our priorities. Catastrophe in ten years is less real than discomfort today. So we put off the necessary steps. We slide towards apocalypse because we can’t be bothered to get off the couch.  The problem is not that we are paralyzed with despair; the problem, more likely, is that we haven’t really internalized what’s in store for us. The problem is that our species is already delusionally optimistic by nature.

Not all of us, mind you. Some folks perceive their contextual status with relative accuracy: they’re better than the rest of us at figuring out how much control they really have over local events, for example. They’re better at assessing their own performance at assigned tasks. Most of us tend to take credit for the good things that happen to us, while blaming something else for the bad. But some folks, faced with the same scenarios, apportion blame and credit without that self-serving bias.

We call these people “clinically depressed”. We regard them as a bunch of unmotivated Debbie Downers who always look on the dark side— even though their worldview is empirically more accurate than the self-serving ego-boosts the rest of us experience.

Judged on that basis, chances are that even most dystopias are too optimistic. Telling us that we need to be more optimistic is like telling an already-drunk driver to have another mickey for the road. More hope and sunshine may be the last thing we need; just maybe, what we need is to catch sight of that boulder crashing down the hill, and to believe it. Maybe that might be enough to get us moving.


The distribution isn’t a clean bimodal. Sure, there’s a clump of us here at the Grim Dystopia end of the scale, and another clump way over there at the Power of Positive Thinking. But there’s this other place between those poles, a place that mixes light and dark. A place whose citizens say You may not like it but it’s gonna happen anyway, so why not just settle back and enjoy the ride?

I see it when Terri Favro waves away the implications of smart homes that drain our savings into the coffers of retailers we never met in exchange for products we never asked for, with a shrug and a cheery  “How many of us can resist the lure of the new?” I see it when I read articles in Wired that rail against our ongoing loss of privacy, only to finally admit “We are not going to retreat from the cloud… We live there now.” Or that more recent piece— just a couple of months back— which begins with ominous descriptions of China’s truly pernicious Social Scoring program, segues into it’s-not-all-bad Territory (Hey, at least it’s more transparent than our own No-Fly Lists), and finishes off with the not-so-subtle implication that it’ll probably happen here too before long, so we might as well get used to it.

It’s almost as though some Invisible Hand were drawing us in by expressing our worst fears, validating them to engender trust— and then gently herding us toward passive acceptance of the inevitable. “We’ll be giving up our privacy, but gaining the surprise and delight that comes with something new always waiting for us at the door!” Can’t ask for more than that.

Not unless you want to end up on the wrong kind of list, anyway.


These aren’t huge leaps.  Inspiration Not Despair segues into Look on the Bright Side which circles ever closer to Accept and Acquiesce.  There are, after all, a lot of interests who don’t want us to believe in that boulder crashing down the hill— and if said boulder becomes ever-harder to deny, then at least they can try to convince us that it really isn’t so bad, that we’ll learn to like the boulder even if ends up squashing a few things we used to value.  There’s always a bright side. The planet may be warming, but it’s not warming as fast! Just another few kilometers and we’ll be past that iceberg! See, we’ve even put a price on carbon!

Of course, if you really need to blame someone, look no further than those naysayers over in the corner; they’re the ones who didn’t Dream Big. They’re the ones who failed to Inspire the rest of us. Don’t blame us when the boulder squashes you flat; blame them, for “making us all fear technology”. Blame them, for failing to “show an array of trajectories out of the gloomy toilet bowl we’re spiraling”.

In fact, why wait until the boulder actually hits?

Blame them now, and avoid the rush.


[1] To borrow a brilliant term from David Roberts, whose piece in Vox ably defends Wallace-Wells’ prognosis.

[2] If you want a cinematic example of this mindset, check out  Roberto Benigni’s insipid 1997 film “Life is Beautiful“, whose take-home message is that the best way to ensure your child’s survival in a Nazi death camp is to trick him into thinking that it’s all just an elaborate game and nothing can possibly hurt him.

Posted in: climate, eco, In praise of biocide by Peter Watts 74 Comments