Challenging Destiny Challenging Destiny
New Fantasy & Science Fiction

Interview with Peter Watts

Here is our complete interview with Peter Watts. A slightly abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 19.


interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer

CD: You were hired at various times by the animal welfare movement, the US fishing industry, and the Canadian government. Each of these groups has a very different point of view. Which point of view did you identify with the most, or did you disagree with all of them?

PW: Given the choice of only those three, I would definitely lean towards the animal welfare movement. There's a distinction between "animal rights" and "animal welfare." As a biologist I've found it difficult to get behind the very concept of "rights," even "human rights." When you look at the way the universe works -- the way we evolved, the way our brains operate -- "human rights" seem like an artifact. Like growth economy, or organized religion. Interesting ideas to play with, but there's nothing inevitable or inherent about them. So I tend to shy away from "animal rights" in the same way as I tend to shy away from anything that's fundamentally faith-based or unprovable.

Animal welfare is a different issue. It's a bit more akin to conservation, and conservation is just good sense. It's life-support stuff. This doesn't mean I'm entirely happy with the strategies that animal-welfare types use sometimes. I can understand why they hug baby seals, why they get Loretta Swit out on the ice to spout her inanities. I understand that they're trying to appeal to Joe and Josephine Six-Pack, and those are the strategies that work. They could be cynical strategies, but they're effective ones. Still. If they're targeting that demographic, then they're not targeting mine.

I had some problems when I was working for a group called the International Marine Mammal Association, which was funded by IFAW (the International Fund for Animal Welfare). I once co-authored a documentary which had the dubious distinction of winning the Environment Canada Trophy for Best Documentary on the Environment, while at the same time being black-listed by the Feds for being anti-government propaganda. There were apparently cases of tourist stands in the Gaspé showing this film on their video screens, only to have gummint guys in low-brimmed hats and sunglasses show up saying, "You don't really want to show that here..."

I ran into lots of problems while writing it. This is when I was a postdoc at the University of Guelph. I almost quit the gig because I wasn't allowed to use terms like "Bambi Syndrome," which is perfectly legitimate shorthand for the fact that we mammals are programmed to go "Awww" at the sight of big eyes, high foreheads, little snub noses -- kittens, baby seals. This is an understandable mammalian response. I illustrated it by writing a scene where Loretta Swit is lying on the ice holding a baby harp seal. This was in the infancy of CGI but we had some money in the budget for morphing, so I was going to have this little seal pup morph into a giant banana slug -- the question being, of course, whether Loretta would be quite so eager to rescue helpless giant banana slugs. But I was told that this was tantamount to calling her a "nigger lover." "Bambi syndrome" equals "nigger lover" -- it's an incendiary term. So I definitely have problems with the strategies used on both sides of the fence.

There are certain types of science that are inherently "whore" science, where nobody is going to fund the research unless they have a political bottom line they want supported. As a result, you're not going to get funding unless you know your conclusions in advance. I've encountered a fair bit of whore science, so I'm cynical about both sides of the spectrum. But again, if I had to choose sides, I'd definitely come down on the side of conservation. How can you not? When you're in a spacesuit, the last thing you want to do is hack wires out of your life-support system in pursuit of better cable reception. It just doesn't make any sense.

CD: How did you make the transition between scientist and novelist?

PW: I got unemployed. I was working at the Marine Mammal Unit at UBC, studying the collapse of the Steller sea lion population. This is a population that has dropped by 80% over the space of 15 years. Nobody really knows why. Interestingly enough, the beginning of the collapse coincided with the expansion of the Pacific fishing industry into the Bering Sea in a big way. So obviously one of the prime suspects -- one of the hypotheses you've got to explore -- is that people are hoovering up all the fish. Basically everything that ate plankton in the Bering Sea was doing OK, everything that ate fish was not. The planktivorous whales were doing fine, the fish-eating whales were in trouble. Harbour seals collapsed even faster than Steller sea lions did. Fish-eating sea birds were collapsing. Whatever was going on, it seemed across the board to have something to do with dependence on fish.

So it only made sense to look at the fishing industry as a potential culprit. Now this consortium I was working for was getting 95% of its funding from the US fishing industry. The fishing industry itself did not put me under any pressure to change my results, or to come up with certain results; they didn’t have to, because the guy I was working for did all that for them. Which was a bit disappointing, because this was a guy I'd known for ten years and considered a friend. But now he's playing politics, and spinning our research, and misrepresenting the data. I started seeing my work distorted in the local media -- experimental artefacts presented as real results, premature and erroneous conclusions being drawn which (surprise, surprise) exonerated the fishing industry from any role in the Steller decline.

There were also problems with the fact that we were keeping our sea lions at the Vancouver Aquarium. The aquarium would spend tens of thousands of dollars on campaigns advertising their involvement in "conservation through research" with endangered species, while at the same time telling us that they didn't have enough money to feed the animals, for example. So after 15 months of gritting my teeth, I said "fuck it" and quit.

And then I had no job.

I had been a wannabe writer ever since I was seven years old, so I figured I've got UI coming in for such-and-such a period of time -- let's write a book. That was when I wrote Starfish, and Starfish did pretty well. It didn't support me, but by that time I was also getting piece work for the Feds -- working with the Canadian Wildlife Service on statistical analyses, and so on.

I wouldn't say I never looked back, because I always look back, and I'm never happy with where I am. I'm always happier with where I was. And I don't look to the future because I think that'll be even worse. I've never regretting quitting the consortium -- I miss the science something awful, I miss the fieldwork, I miss the teaching. But I do not miss the political bullshit.

Anyway, that's how it started. And I've managed to keep going at it since 1998.

CD: Your SF has a close relationship with current science. How do you see that relationship between science fact and SF?

PW: I think it sucks. I'm coming to the conclusion that having too much knowledge of conventional science acts to straightjacket your imagination. William Gibson, who didn't know shit about computers when he wrote Neuromancer, changed the bloody field. (Granted, the tech heads didn't take his message to heart. Evidently he was saying "People, look at the horrible world we're heading for" and the computer guys said "Wow, we could build this." And they set about doing it.) In a number of cases, the most visionary work has been done by the people with the least expertise.

I think it's absolutely essential that you respect the scientific process, that you don't just throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks. But scientists who become SF writers are to some extent constrained. For one thing, we know too much about why this or that cool idea couldn't work, so our ability to imagine is hamstrung. For another, we're not really writing to the audience. We're writing to the guys at the back of Wednesday afternoon science seminars, who put up their hands not because they're curious about the world but because they want to be noticed by senior faculty. Scientists are raised to shoot holes in other people's ideas, and they're going to try to cover their asses when they write SF as well, and that tends to make us pedantic and boring.

We're also trained to be very bad writers. Someone actually did a study back in the nineties which they submitted to Science and Nature, and Science and Nature both turned him down -- unsurprisingly, because he concluded that the more prestigious the journal, the worse the quality of the writing. Clearly worded, precisely described papers tend to be looked down upon because you understand them. The reviewers will say, "Well, of course. That's clear, that's obvious. There's nothing special about that." But if somebody writes something so convoluted that it makes absolutely no sense, the immediate reaction is to say, "This guy's way beyond me. This guy's way smarter than I am." And so it gets into Science and Nature. Science has actually improved a lot lately. (I don't subscribe to Nature.) But in the mid-90s, this was an empirical finding.

In my case, I'm a marine biologist, and the marine biology that I put into my books is good, solid stuff (although I break the rules when I have to). But that's not what gets noticed. The stuff that people seemed to consider more "brilliant" was my AI riff in Maelstrom. I've even gotten fan mail from a guy working at the Lawrence Livermore Labs, who says my insights into genetic AI inspire him in his own work. (This is kind of scary when you think of what the Lawrence Livermore Lab actually does.) I've been cited on Slashdot occasionally, but nobody ever said, "My god, this guy's got a great grasp of marine biology." They only mention the AI and computer riffs, and I don't know shit about computer science.

On the other hand, the one story I wrote that was unabashed fantasy -- I did no research for it at all -- involved the premise that colonial electromagnetic bacteria in the clouds controlled Earth's weather patterns. I know nothing about meteorology. This entire story came to me while on the bus to Guelph, looking out at an approaching storm front. My girlfriend said, "Geez, those thunderheads look almost alive, don't they?" So I wrote this story called "Nimbus," the second story I ever got published. It was pure fantasy, this idea that the clouds are literally alive with these bugs. I threw in some references to chaos theory, because that was current back then, but that was just chrome.

"Nimbus" came out in 1992. And in 2001, CNN ran a story under the headline "Bugs in clouds control weather, scientists say." Israeli scientists are actually launching expeditions to scoop a dipnet through clouds, looking for these electromagnetic microbes. Again, I did no research for my story. I threw a dart over my shoulder and somehow happened to hit the bullseye. So bottom line, I think that to some extent scientific knowledge -- the bricks that constitute the education, the facts that you pile around yourself in the course of getting your degree -- is highly overrated when it comes to writing good SF. I think it holds you back.

CD: Is it becoming harder to write SF, because of change happening more quickly?

PW: Definitely. Back in the old days, when Asimov was writing all those stories about a tidally-locked Mercury, he got 20 good years out of those stories before they staledated. In contrast, I wrote a story called "The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald" that was the hardest, most rigorous SF I'd ever written -- absolutely cutting-edge when I wrote it -- and the theory underlying it had already been disproven by the time it appeared in print.

CD: You said that facts hold you back, so then does it matter that progress is increasing?

PW: I think you've got two different issues to deal with here. In the first place, SF isn't supposed to predict the future. Rigorous SF is a thought experiment that says, "This is the premise. What are the consequences of that premise?" Not "Is this plausible?", but rather "Assume this is the case. What follows from that?" On that basis, stories don't date, because they're always just thought experiments. 1984 remains relevant, The Sheep Look Up remains relevant, and 2001 remains relevant. Even though everyone's saying, "Here we are in 2004. Where's the monolith? Where's HAL?" That's not the point. (Although granted, writing a novel with a year in the title is like money in the bank. My next novel should be called 2005 ½.)

The bigger issue is, if Vernor Vinge's right, we are headed for a Singularity within our lifetimes. Assuming that Moore's Law doesn't hit a wall, assuming it holds, we'll soon reach a point where the next generation will have as much in common with the last as we'd have with a planet full of gerbils. At which point it becomes physically impossible to describe a post-Singularity society for a modern audience. That is very constraining. I've been disappointed with the solutions or workarounds that have been presented so far, which often boil down to the Singularity's happened, but a bunch of us have been left behind surrounded by these weird autonomous post-Singularity bits of technology and it's kind of scary. That's great, but the Singularity hasn't happened to the story's protagonist. Another workaround is to say The human brain would go crazy if it actually experienced the Singularity, so we're going to put simulations of our guys into a pop can, and we're going to simulate a conventional world for them to inhabit, complete with bars (very much like this one). We're all being simulated, we're all in the matrix, because our minds would simply be blown if they let us off the leash. Which, again, is a cheat. We're not seeing past the Singularity, we're seeing ourselves in a nature preserve.

I don't know if anyone has written a legitimate post-Singularity story, with the possible exception of "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov -- and even that had to wait for the Singularity to happen at the end of the time itself. But all the other stories I've read seem to dance around the incomprehensibility of what happens next. They always avoid it somehow. Granted, I don't know what else they could do. It still pisses me off.

CD: How do you see the alarmist strain in SF, when the writer is trying to warn about something -- does it work?

PW: The tome that immediately springs to mind isn't SF at all, it's Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Cautionary tales work, and they don't have to be fictional. Unsafe at Any Speed did something. The Sheep Look Up changed my life -- but I in turn didn't change anyone else's. I'm still sitting here drinking beer, living an unsustainable lifestyle. 1984 didn't prevent hanging chads from putting Bush in the White House. William Gibson's cautionary tale actually got people to embrace dystopia. In that context, I guess you'd have to say yes, cautionary tales do have an impact. They accelerate our trajectory towards the nihilistic endpoint.

CD: What do you see as the biggest agent of change in society?

PW: I'm not a huge Heinlein fan, but I think the biggest agent of change is violence. The fact that we can now shut down civilization through the use of trojans and worms as opposed to shoulder-fired nukes doesn't really change the fundamental fact that strong people basically beat the crap out of weak people -- given that the definition of strength is context-dependent, of course -- and they therefore get to make the rules.

CD: When you wrote "A Niche," which is in Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, did you know what the larger story of Starfish was going to be?

PW: "A Niche" was a second run at an earlier story I'd written in 1984 that basically had the same setting, but didn't really have much of a story behind it. (Analog said, "It's got a really great setting but it's depressing -- can you bring in some clowns at the end?" I still haven't sold any stories to those guys.) I had the context. The environment had been percolating in my mind for some time, and I knew there was a bigger world there. But when I wrote "A Niche" I had definitely not worked out the larger plot elements of the story: the idea of the refugee strips, the idea of Behemoth. All that stuff came later. Basically, what catalyzed "A Niche" was that I was coming out of this bitter relationship with a woman who is personified in Lenie Clarke. To some extent she was a cipher to me. I tried to superimpose my own speculations behind that mask. I happened to have this trunk-dwelling story hanging around, containing a spooky context and a bioluminescent mermaid -- so I put the two of them together, and that was a lucky conjunction. But at the time I wrote it, I had no master plan. I just really wanted to publish a story.

CD: When you were writing Starfish, did you have the subsequent volumes in mind?

PW: Not really. As originally written, Lenie died at the end of Starfish. She dragged herself onto the beach, released Behemoth into the world, and that was the end of it. My editor, David G. Hartwell, said that that would be too negative for American audiences. It might sell in Canada, but selling in Canada is like selling in Arkansas. So he wanted something a little more ambiguous. Something a little more "clench your fist and be triumphant."

I had originally introduced Behemoth as a MacGuffin. The basic premise of Starfish is that Western civilization is built on the backs of its outcasts. The people who make the actual discoveries -- who invent the microwave ovens, who make the breakthroughs in cancer -- they're the obsessive-compulsives, the ones who are driven to prove themselves to dads who will never accept them because they didn't become a lawyer or whatever. Those people who have healthy, well-balanced lives, who take their weekends off, they never get as far because they're not so driven. It's the people who are totally fucked in the head that make the difference. But these are also the people that we never invite to our parties.

So I basically literalized that. In Starfish we've got a lot of basket cases and we're going to literally put their hand on the knife switch that runs the power grid. What happens? Logically, the system is going to have so many shackles on such people that they'll be utterly impotent, utterly controlled. So every ending I tried out had the rifters getting squashed like bugs every time they tried to stand up for themselves. That's just the way it happens in the real world. So I had to introduce some contrivance that at least gave them a fighting chance.

Behemoth does that. It allows this one loser of a woman to destroy the world. Starfish thus becomes a revenge fantasy, a tale that celebrates the healing power of revenge. (By the way, the latest scientific studies show that we are in fact hardwired for revenge -- that it does stimulate the pleasure centres of our brain. This is one of those things that everybody's known but nobody proved until it came out about six months ago.)

My original take on Starfish was that it was a little like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest except not nearly as popular. The message is, you can win against the system, you can kill Nurse Ratched -- it might kill you, but you'll at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you've gone to your grave with your teeth in your enemy's throat. That's how I wrote it, but apparently that's not a commercial or a popular view, so I had to leave her alive.

Okay, so she's alive. What now? She can't just wander back onshore, because in Starfish I established there were these refugee zones. How does she get past those? Something had to happen, but it wasn't going to be simple because I had previously described all these conditions which I never thought I was going to have to deal with. Starfish was my first novel, remember. It was a one-set scene, a microcosm. I didn't have to worry about what was going on in the world outside. And now, thanks to David Hartwell, I did.

So I was playing around with these ideas, and finally he called me. I'd sent him an outline and followed it up with an email saying, "Throw away the outline. It sucks." He phoned me up and said, "Get off your ass. We'll pay you three times what we paid you for Starfish. Just write something." That's how it turned into a series.

And that series is ending now with Behemoth. I would have liked to have more time to write Behemoth. The book I'm working on now, Blindsight, was what I'd wanted to write first because it had been kicking around in my head since 1993 when I read a quote by Dawkins that made me think, "Yeah, what is consciousness for, anyway? What good is it?" Sure, there was more to tell in the Rifters story, but I was a little bit tired of it. But my agent (who I've since fired) said, "No, you've got to go with the Rifters story, because it's got the momentum behind it. It's a proven series." In hindsight it probably wasn't the best advice to follow.

CD: In terms of your own alarmist fiction, or the way that you've tried to identify ways that our society could go downhill, what is the main problem you see?

PW: My hackles rise at the term "alarmist." How would you react to the argument that I write almost childishly naïve and optimistic fiction? I think in a sense I'm almost too optimistic. Yes, the world that I portray is falling down around the protagonists' ears. But that's happening now, in real life. There's an inertia to huge systems. Big ships turn slowly. The things that are happening now, even if we stop doing them tomorrow, are still going to have massive ramifications into the 22nd century. So the damage is done. Any credible extrapolation will show a world in disarray and chaos, simply because the inertia of the system is already there. Given that, I can't pretend the present never happened. We all know it did.

But how do the people in my books act? Do you see anybody in my books starting a war to line the pockets of their industry buddies? Do you see anybody in my books who is a racist? Do you see anybody in my books who invokes God or Allah or some invisible purple hamster that lives up your butt to justify jihad or genocide?

My character Patricia Rowan was frequently cited by the reviewers as the heartless bureaucrat, the baddie. She authorized the deaths of thousands -- to save millions. She authorized the deaths of millions -- to save billions. I have actually been accused of having characters in my books that are too rational, too decent. They do horrible things, but these things are forced on them. They've either been horribly abused, or they have an enormous responsibility. What you've got with my books is my hopeful view that people 50 years from now will be stuck with our legacy, but they will have grown somehow. These people are better than we are. They behave rationally, they do horrible things because they don't have many choices -- but they try to choose the lesser of the available evils.

Now I don't think people will act like that. I think people will continue to act pretty much the way they act now. I don't even think the promise of genetically redesigning ourselves is going to help. We could write jealousy and greed and the rape instinct and capitalism and communism -- we could write them all right out of the human genotype. There's a story in the Toronto Star today about a guy who's discovered a gene which he says is responsible for religious belief. It's something that generates monoamines, or rather codes for monoamine production. We could edit that out -- we could be freed of the religious impulse. But I don't think we'll do that, because we're programmed to protect the self. And the self is this twisted 400 million-year-old thing that uses prejudice and racism and sexual violence and unmitigated greed as a survival strategy. If you take those things away from us, it's committing a kind of suicide, it's turning us into something else. And although I think it would turn us into something better, we're programmed for self-preservation. Even if we have the technology to become better people right at the molecular level, we'll pass it up because it will seem like, "Gad dang it, that just ain't natural. It's like those faggots wanting to get married." We will reject it for no rational reason, but for basic gut reasons. Which is basically why we do everything.

I've been characterized as a guy who looks at the world through lead-lined glasses. I have been characterized as this sort of nihilist and misanthrope and so on. I suppose there's some truth in that, but I honestly think that I'm not being cynical and I'm not being pessimistic. I think that things could be a lot worse than the way I portray them.

CD: Where does SF fit in, if there's such inertia in how the world is going? Why are we telling stories about the future?

PW: Maybe it's artificial to categorize every story that takes place in the future as SF -- as it would be to say, for example, that everything that takes place in the present is a situation comedy or a medical drama. If you took an episode of ER that showed a wall calendar putting the date at April 23, 2007 -- would that make it SF?

There are different reasons for telling stories, and when you're sitting down to write one you figure out which context is most appropriate. I'm an SF writer but I don't ever say, "I want to write a SF story. Now what can I come up with that involves spaceships?" Rather, I say, "What the hell is consciousness for?" Or, "Suppose racism is hard-wired into us the same way that mother love is?" Or, "Suppose clouds are alive?" It's a thought experiment. I want to tell a story exploring an idea.

Now, what genre are such stories going to fit into? Am I going to write a historical romance about intelligent clouds? The fact is, mainstream realist fiction simply isn't big enough to contain some of the ideas that SF plays around with. So you're almost drawn against your own will into writing speculative fiction.

By the same token, there is a lot of stuff -- take the Honor Harrington series -- in which we're talking historical adventure, even though it's set in the future. Weber explicitly chose the name Honor Harrington because its initials evoked Horatio Hornblower. So you've got giant space battles, but it's not about the future per sé -- it's just an escapist story. That series is not, as far as I know, exploring radical scientific or social premises. So if you describe SF as "any tale that takes place in the future," then it's probably dumb to suggest that science fiction has a single "goal." Because there's a whole bunch of reasons for telling futuristic stories. I tend to write for one of those reasons, but there are all sorts of other perfectly legitimate ones. Frank Herbert was writing about the oil crisis (among other things) when he did Dune. That certainly doesn't make his work any less relevant -- I think his stuff's brilliant.

CD: What are you working on now?

PW: I'm working on a book called Blindsight. Most of the story takes place in deep space. Blindsight is a first-contact story dealing with the evolutionary significance of consciousness. One of the characters is a reconstructed vampire, a cannibalistic Human subspecies that died out with the rise of Euclidean architecture. We found enough of their genes in the bloodlines of sociopaths and high-functioning autistics to resurrect them. We brought them back because they've got these incredibly cool analytical pattern-matching abilities -- but we also have them hooked on anti-Euclidean drugs to avoid spazzing out when they see intersecting right angles.

Another one of the characters is a linguist whose brain has been surgically partitioned into autonomous chunks -- surgically-induced multiple personality syndrome, so that she can have a series of onboard parallel-processing modules. There's a biologist whose motor strip has been so massively interfaced with teleoperated equipment that much of the coordination of his physical body has been lost (he tremors a lot because there's just not enough room on the motor strip to handle both his body and his teleoperators).

The protagonist is a character who had half his brain removed when he was a child. He had a particularly devastating form of epilepsy, and a radical hemispherectomy was the only way to keep the seizures from killing him. This form of epilepsy involves an electrical storm bouncing back and forth across the corpus callosum, producing a positive feedback loop in the brain. So they removed half. Such operations actually happen today, by the way.

Anyway, our protagonist grows up convinced that he is not what his parents say he is. His parents killed their only child, because they cut out half his brain. There was personality in that half. The other half had to make up the slack, had to totally rewire itself -- and what identity could possibly survive that kind of neurological violence? So this character grows up feeling that he is essentially a pod person that has grown up in the body of a dead boy, and he has this enormous survivor guilt syndrome.

Anyway, these characters go off and meet aliens, and explore the theme of consciousness along the way. And perhaps the most disturbing possibility I explore is that consciousness -- as distinct from intelligence, which is a whole other phenomenon -- actually isn't necessary in an evolutionary sense, and may in fact be a bad thing. Everything from driving a car to playing a piano to scientific Eureka moments seem to occur primarily on the nonconscious level, and the conscious part of the mind simply gets an executive summary after all the heavy lifting's been done. Even something as simple as the decision to wiggle your finger is a nonconscious process, in the sense that the relevant motor nerves have been fired up a full half-second before the conscious self "decides" to move. So obviously, that decision wasn't a decision at all; effect does not precede cause. Something else made that decision, and if that other thing is conscious, we don't have access to it.

We say we're intelligent, we're conscious, and that's why we rule the nest. But those primitive egg-laying mammals in Australia? They ruled the nest too, until the bunny rabbits washed up on shore. They didn't rule the nest because they were superior; but because they were isolated. They had no real competition. So. We Humans are highly intelligent, and maybe that's enough to overcome the drawback of being conscious at the same time. But there's absolutely no reason why you can't postulate an organism that's every bit as intelligent as we are, but nonconscious. And when those guys wash up on the Australian shores, we are toast.

That's basically the premise of the book. And the biggest problem is going to be selling people on the idea that consciousness and intelligence are not inextricably linked. Things can learn, things can develop technology, things can communicate without necessarily having to be self-aware. I'm 60 000 words into it. Parts of it rock, parts of it suck. I've put bits and pieces of it up on the web site if you want to check it out.

Consciousness seems to be an idea whose time has come in SF. Rob Sawyer's coming out with a consciousness riff of his own. Karl Schroeder, in Permanence, dealt with the idea a little bit. I have a lot of respect for Karl. I think the character development sucks in his novels, but his conceptual inventions are brilliant. The man is far more erudite than anybody has a right to be without a formal science background. So I have a lot of respect for the man's intellect -- but his riff on consciousness sucked the one-eyed purple trouser eel. He equated consciousness with intelligence, and then described intelligence as a symptom of maladaptation. If you were truly adapted to your environment, Permanence says, you'd need no artifice, no intelligence to help you survive. Sure, stupid alligators disappear when smart people drain their swamps -- but people are only doing that because they're ill-adapted to swamps, and when the swamps come back, so will the alligators. It's a lame, fallacious argument. Nothing comes back after it's been wiped out.

But my point is not to rag on Karl. My point is that a number of authors are coming out with consciousness riffs, and I'm sure most of them will outsell me. Any one of Rob Sawyer's books is going to outsell me by orders of mag. Nonetheless -- if I can pull this off, which I may not -- my consciousness riff is going to be the better book. Assuming the finished product looks anything like the image in my head (which could, admittedly, be just an internally generated simulation that is not being updated by reality).

CD: So you came at the story not from "I'm going to create an alien race" but more along the lines of exploring consciousness?

PW: That was the theme. Although it's true, I also wanted to design an alien. I'm a little tired of humanoid aliens. You can forgive it in Star Trek and limited-budget stuff that has to use human actors. But I like the idea of alien aliens. I recognize that the laws of natural selection are probably universal, so you're not going to have aliens with absurd anatomy and behaviour just because they're "alien." There will be inherent universal motives -- replication, persistence. Replication is really a way to achieve persistence; the parts wear out after a while, so you have to replicate. But that's just one way of persisting. If you can come up with an alien that doesn't reproduce but regenerates, an immortal alien if you will, it could be fundamentally different from us. But at the same time, it will still follow the rules of natural selection.

I'm trying to kill two birds with one stone. I'm sick and tired of throwing some heavy acne on a guy's forehead and calling him an alien. If I'm going to have an alien he's going to be a really cool alien. My aliens don't even have genes; most of their metabolism is mediated externally, by magnetic fields. At the same time the characters in Blindsight are "human" but every one of them -- the vampire, the linguist, the pod person -- they each highlight consciousness from a different perspective. The issue is raised that some or all of these characters may in fact not be conscious. How do you tell? An automaton would want to blend in. Natural selection would promote crypsis. For all we know, you're just a meat puppet -- processing information through a number of algorithms, responding intelligently, but not aware in any conscious sense.

CD: In terms of how different SF stories have used aliens, like having a workaround with the Singularity, some stories have a workaround for why aliens do certain things. Like in the Alien movies, where the parasite has adapted to take stuff from our genetic structure.

PW: I was impressed by that. Sometimes you see something in a movie that you like and it doesn't really make a lot of sense, so you decide to retrofit it yourself, in your own head, to see if you can come up with a rational explanation. I always thought at the end of Alien, "It's just a guy in a suit with a bunch of fence pickets on his back. Big honking deal." And then I thought, "This is an alien gestating inside a body. It doesn't really know what kind of environment it's going to come out into, but it knows that its host has adapted to that environment, so it's going to take its lead from the host. It's going to model itself after the host." And I just thought I was being really clever, saving Ridley Scott's ass. But then I got the Alien Quadrilogy. There's this scene in the original version of Alien3 where the alien incubated inside an ox, and on the commentary track the director said, "The alien takes its lead from the host. We thought an alien based on an ox would just look too dumb for words." So they were working along those lines right from the start. In his own commentary for Alien, Ridley Scott says, "Of course it looks like a guy in a suit. That was the whole point. It had patterned itself to match the host."

Now all they have to do is explain how an alien the size of a banana could turn into an alien the size of a linebacker without eating anything. If they can do that, they'll sell me on the series.

CD: You mentioned that you wanted to write for a long time. Can you tell us about the first story you wrote?

PW: You're probably talking to the first author who actually gets worse with practise. Empirically I can prove that. Also -- and this is something I'm quite proud of -- everybody has stories about sending off thousands of submissions and getting rejected by all of them, but how many people have you interviewed that can claim to have been rejected by markets they never even submitted to?

I'd been writing stories since I was a little kid, but it wasn't until Grad school that that I actually sent something out, a story called "Refugee." It got rejected by Analog -- and I never sent it to Analog. I sent it to George Scithers at Asimov's, because I didn't think it was rigorous enough for Analog. And it got rejected by Analog. Scithers liked it enough to pass it along to Schmidt. I guess they had different response times, so all of a sudden I get this rejection letter from Analog. "George Scithers passed ‘Refugee' along to me. Several really intriguing ideas, neatly woven together, engagingly told, but the ending does seem awfully futile." Already I was becoming known as a downer. "I too just had to write to tell you that we're also not going to buy it. Not only does the protagonist get squashed like a bug at the end, but it's really kind of difficult to see why he would even bother trying to survive in that kind of environment. However, we're really interested in seeing more of your work." Shortly thereafter I got a rejection letter from Scithers saying, "This is really nice but we need clowns at the end."

OK, so now Schmidt's my man. Everything I wrote after that I sent straight to Analog. And I got constant personalized rejections. "The micro-writing in this is really intriguing." "When I read it four times, I realized it actually had a good story, but it took me four times to get it. Not buying it, but this is what's wrong with it, this is how to fix it." "'Ambassador' nearly made it. Strong narrative drive, but I found the ending unnecessarily ugly. Can you bring in some clowns?" Again with the clowns.

This all happened through the better part of a decade. Just a couple of years ago I dug out all my Analog rejections, and I noticed a pattern. They were all getting shorter, more and more terse. Finally I got a letter from Analog: "Dear submitter: We regret to say that we are currently overstocked on stories of this sort at this time." And that story was "A Niche."

There were mitigating circumstances. A week after I'd sent "A Niche" off, this movie came out called Deepstar Six. Big toothy things, bottom of the ocean, guys living in an undersea habitat. And then Roger Corman came out with Lords of the Deep. And then Leviathan came out, and then The Abyss came out. Two weeks after The Abyss came out I got that form rejection from Schmidt. I don't know if he really thought that "A Niche" sucked, or if he just opened the story, read the first paragraph, and thought, "Not another Abyss rip-off. We've got so many of these."

At any rate I decided I could at least recoup the cost of my printer ribbon, so I sent it off to Tesseracts. Then I forgot about it. Almost a year to the day after I sent it off I was talking to a friend of mine on the phone and I said, "It's time for me to grow up. I'm obviously not going to make it as a writer. Fuck it. I'm never going to write SF again in my life. From now on I'm going to concentrate on science."

The next day, I got a contract from Tesseracts. I spent about twice as much as they paid me on a celebratory meal in a fine restaurant. So I still didn't recoup the cost of my printer ribbon, but I was at that point a published author. The person I was with at the time made a colour photocopy of the advance cheque, and I've still got it hanging on my wall. That story got reprinted about four or five times. It's my one hit single.

CD: Is there anyone you would consider an influence on your writing?

PW: John Brunner, first and foremost. In terms of sheer prose style, Robert Silverberg, back before he went fantasy. Books like Dying Inside, The Feast of St. Dionysus. Even with second-rate Silverberg like Tower of Glass, the prose is gorgeous. He prefigured Jurassic Park with "Our Lady of the Sauropods." I haven't read anything the man has written since the 1980's. But when I was growing up, it was like, "My god, a new Silverberg al -- " I was about to say "album," because that was kind of the way I thought about it.

Samuel R. Delany. I am one of perhaps 10 people in the world who consider Dhalgren a masterpiece. I still don't know what the hell is going on in it. I read Karl (Schroeder)'s take on it, about it being a city in the throes of a semiotic crisis. That actually made me go and look up the word "semiotic" in the dictionary. I don't know if I agree with him, but I don't have a better hypothesis to put forward. All I know is, you read Delany and you are immersed.

I liked Harlan Ellison's attitude, not necessarily always his prose.

William Gibson, of course. Although he seems to only have one story to tell. I'm one of the few who doesn't think Neuromancer was his best novel. I think Count Zero was better, for some reason. He tells one story very well. I haven't read Pattern Recognition, which I understand is a return to form. But after Idoru, I kind of thought he's still technically proficient but it's a little like Rush after the fourth album. Extremely good, but we've all heard it before.

If you look closely you can see a major Snow Crash influence in Maelstrom. And it was actually a Snow Crash influence in Starfish, but Hartwell told me to cut that section out and I ended up sticking it in Maelstrom instead. Stephenson's "deliverator" sequence inspired my "64 Megs" chapters, with that virtual organism bopping and evolving around the net. I was reading Snow Crash at the time, and it was not so much the concept but just the sheer energy of the writing that made me think, "I've got to write like that."

Of course, everybody finds those particular parts of Maelstrom utterly opaque.

CD: In this issue is a column on the SF of Ursula K. LeGuin.

PW: LeGuin's interesting. The novel of hers I remember most strongly is The Dispossessed. I loved The Left Hand of Darkness. I haven't read any of her outright fantasy. Her psycho-fables I liked -- "The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas" I thought was a wonderful story. The Lathe of Heaven, a flawed work in the sense that it doesn't hang together logically. It's not a rigorous work but it's a really interesting exploration of a theme. But The Dispossessed sticks with me. I'm a little bit disappointed because I went into it thinking she'd be giving us a blueprint for an anarchist society. And we've seen so many lame-ass politicians saying, "We can't do this, we can't do that… that would be anarchy!" And here was somebody who was going to show what happens when you explicitly base a society on that. But she didn't do it. She told us that there was an anarchistic society, that when people do things that piss off large numbers of other people they get the shit kicked out of them and they have to leave town. That sounds pretty much like small town America to me. Ask any Dixie Chick. Le Guin's a beautiful stylist, and highly intelligent, and comes from a scientific background. (Although some people with pickles up their ass might decry anthropology as not being a "true" science.) She's got interesting and important things to say. I know a few academics who especially like The Dispossessed, because its portrayal of academia's response to radical ideas resonates with them. Le Guin seems to know that stuff inside out.

CD: Have you gotten any interesting reader feedback for your novels?

PW: Some of it's almost obsessive. If you look at my web site, there's something about "angst-ridden blogging teenage girls." That was not really a joke. It's very cool -- especially when you're in your late 40's and have no job -- it's very cool to be told that you've got someone like Lenie Clarke right. There are people with some pretty raw histories who say that I somehow nailed the affect, that I somehow got what goes on in their heads. I consider myself just a poseur; I've heard some pretty scary stories, but I've never lived them myself. So to have people who have lived through that stuff tell me that my speculations are anywhere close to legitimate is an honour.

On the other hand, when they start lying in wait for you at 2:00 a.m. in hotel lobbies, that can be a bit creepy.

That's not the only kind of response I get, of course. I've already mentioned that I get occasional kind words from science types, and I've gotten fan mail from other SF writers. But some of the most helpful stuff just comes from the ranks of the readers. I've gotten into some really rewarding correspondences with folks who, for the most part, I've never actually met. I know from a Darwinian perspective that doesn't matter as much as, say, sales figures do. But for every lame-ass royalty statement that leaves me depressed, all it takes is one e-mail -- "Hey, did you think about this?" Or, "How could he eat outside without the pressure flattening his duodenum?" -- to make it seem worth the trouble again. It matters. It keeps you going.

I know how stupid, how uneconomic that sounds. But screw it. This morning I got an email from a guy who said he hadn't been so rabidly interested in somebody's writing since Gibson or Stephenson or Robinson. I'm nowhere near that good, but it's not bad company to be in.


Last modified: November 14, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Peter Watts


Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #19 | Interviews