Interview: Peter Watts
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu.com Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTPWatts
Date: October 2006 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu: So, let me get this straight. After having Starfish rejected by the Russians because it was too dark, you decided to lighten things up with a novel about a deep space mission run by a super-genius vampire, a cyborg with body image issues, a military commander who was kept as a POW (by her own side) and a partially lobotomized reporter to explain how every one else feels. And the story starts off with the narrator stuck in an escape pod going nowhere good. This is your idea of lightening things up? (By the way, Blindsight is a terrific book.)
Peter Watts: I don't understand. You don't find these elements cheerful? How can that be? I mean, super-genius vampires! Cyborgs! Life Lessons! What's not to like?
SFRevu: You're a marine biologist. And now you're writing (quite credibly, I admit) about deep space missions and first contact situations. Isn't this something of a change of gears?
Peter: That would assume that I knew what I was talking about back when I was writing the underwater stuff.
I wouldn't agree that the gears have changed all that much, though. Even the rifters books veered pretty far from the realm of marine biology; I poked around in everything from computer science to neurology to psionics. In fact, my speculations in those areas provoked more interest among readers than did the marine biology, which presumably is my forté.
Certainly in Blindsight I'm exploring different settings, and taking on different areas of science, but a lot of the thematic elements— free will, determinism, what life is, what we are— these persist. One way that Blindsight might truly represent a shift would be in the realm of character development. Some elements of the rifters books were an attempt to examine certain real-world characters in my life—a biographical thought-experiment, if you will. In contrast, Blindsight contains more elements of autobiography.
SFRevu: What is it you like about writing about Sociopaths and Vampires? What led you to evolutionary biology (though I still prefer sociobiology) and the development of your characters and the world they live in?
I've actually only written about one vampire, and that was at least partly an exercise to see if I could plausibly handwave my way through the myth. I've written about sociopaths more often because they are the quintessential pod people, creatures who look like us, talk like us, but aren't us. Or rather, they are us tweaked, us with a few ganglia nudged out of alignment. Neurologically, their incapacity for empathy almost makes them a separate species— and I wonder if they might be the only ones left standing when the dust settles.
I've known one or two in my time. I may have even been romantically involved with one for a while (a borderline-sociopathic masochist—is there such a thing?). There's something pure about the sociopathic mindset, something Darwinian that I find hard to begrudge even though these people will will inevitably fuck you over the moment it serves their own interests. They're simply wired differently, and you don't blame a frog for jumping (although granted, you still shoot a rabid dog when it poses a threat). So I wonder if, in evolutionary terms, sociopathy isn't so much pathology as adaptation. Certainly sociopaths seem preadapted for success in contemporary corporate culture (hell, they may have created contemporary corporate culture). At the very least this would explain a lot about the current political administration.
As to my path to evolutionary psychology — where I come from (which would be Canada), it's not unusual to take an evolutionary perspective on human behavior. In fact, speaking as a biologist, anybody who doesn't do so has got some serious denial issues. Time and again we see the same behaviors across a range of species, and we are not so unique as you might think.
When biologists report that male lions preferentially kill the offspring of other males, we nod, unsurprised, and let Animal Planet tell us about inclusive fitness and kin selection. When biologists report that people are more likely to kill our foster children than our natural ones, we grow outraged at the very implication that we share so much in common with mere animals. Is it a coincidence that after sex, we men tend to cuddle our partners just long enough for our sperm to reach the ovum, and then get bored? Is it coincidence that the same pattern was documented years ago in buffalo? Is there really no connection between spousal abuse in men and the conditions under which male sticklebacks assault their mates? Is it mere coincidence that one of our most venerable courtship rituals involves presenting severed plant genitalia to our targets? Did it surprise you to learn that spiders offer gift-wrapped precopulatory bribes to potential mates?
We have much bigger brains than sticklebacks, of course. We self-model, and metamodel— that's one of the intrinsically Human behaviors I explore in Blindsight. But one thing we don't generally use our big brains for is to control our instincts; instead, we make excuses for them, tart the same old spider and stickleback behaviors up in fancy new big-brained rationales. We're not fighting over resources, we're spreading democracy. We're not killing competitors, we're following God's plan.
Biology, in other words, underlays all character development. This is not where I end the development of my characters, of course. It's where I start. But beginnings are important things, and here in Darwin's universe one thing's true right out of the starting gate: there are no altruists.
SFRevu: Why did you come up with your own take on Vampires? Don't you know there's a whole canon of lore out there you're flying in the face of? Are the townsfolk annoyed at you for not making them sexy and tormented? Is that a mob with torches outside?
Peter: Nah. That's just the collection agency.
But in fact, I'm not flying in the face of the lore at all. The whole point of the exercise would have been lost if I'd simply dismissed the classics and made up a new creature to suit my own purposes. The real challenge was to accept the myth as gospel-- even though it's utterly absurd biologically-- and retrofit plausible mechanisms onto its components. So I haven't done away with the aversion to crosses, or the undead state— I've validated them. The mob should be thanking me.
SFRevu: I loved the presentation you gave at Readercon on the backstory for your vampires. One of the interesting things was the way people (really smart, thoughtful people) came up after your talk to add their ideas to the whole. Have you thought about creating a Vampire Wiki for your species?
Peter: Was it you who suggested that, after the talk? It's a very cool idea, and if I knew anything about creating Wikis it would definitely be on the agenda. Given the number of ideas that surfaced during the ten minutes we were all just milling about in the aftermath, I'm guessing such a forum could expand very rapidly.
One somewhat lower-tech idea I've been playing with is to put out a faux-documentary volume entitled Proceedings of the First Biennial Conference on the Biology and Evolution of Vampires, of which the Readercon presentation would be the first chapter. I mean, hell— if a coffee-table field guide to gnomes can be a best-seller (and it was, a couple of decades ago), why not a satirical-yet-rigorous treatise on vampire biology? A Wiki could be an invaluable precursor to such an exercise.
At this point it's moot. Tor rejected the book idea when I pitched it, and since every other publisher of note turned down Blindsight flat (if my former agent is to be believed), there's unlikely to be much interest in a tie-in.
So who knows. Maybe a Wiki's the way to go after all.
SFRevu: By the way, the talk was so good I left with elevated fight or flight responses and wasn't safe to be around for the next half hour.
Peter: Me too— except in my case, it was because the laptop with all my slides on it crashed and burned thirty minutes before the talk was supposed to start. (Thanks again for the loaner.)
SFRevu: Last Vampire question. Honest. At the end of Blindsight, you leave open the possibility that the Earth's Vampire population has gotten out of control. Will we be revisiting this world anytime soon? Do we get to find out what happens to Siri?
Peter: I refer you to the last line of the story.
SFRevu: How do I ask this? Hmm. Your characters seem to suffer. A lot.
Peter: Or at least, depending on how you read the subtext, they act as if they're suffering.
SFRevu: Do you think happiness is not a normal state? What about your characters -- will they ever achieve happiness?
Peter: Kenny and Lenie kind of did, at the end of the rifters books. I was always worried I'd sold out and grafted a Hollywood Happy Ending onto that series.
The problem with happiness is, once achieved, you acclimate to it. Things that used to make you happy don't quite cut it after a while: your brain calibrates its happiness thermostat to some more ambitious threshold. Happiness is, therefore, transient by neurological definition. Enough is never enough for long.
We're funny that way.
SFRevu: I get the feeling that you don't think the human condition is actually a romp in Disneyland. Do you think we're living in a fantasy world?
Peter: One third of the US adult population rejects evolution outright. Almost half of the US adult population cannot correctly tell you how long it takes the earth to complete an orbit of the sun, even when the question is presented in multiple-choice format. A vast majority adhere to religious superstitions that, empirically, make belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy look downright plausible in comparison-- and yet rather than treating religion as maladaptive behaviour, we elevate the religious to the point where they receive get-out-of-jail-free cards for everything from parking tickets to pedophilia. And you'd be amazed how many folks continue to deny such in-your-face realities as anthropogenic climate change.
Do I think we're living in a fantasy land? How can I possibly think anything else?
SFRevu: What has surprised you most about your readership and their response to your novels?
Peter: What surprised me most about my readership (although it might not have surprised anyone else) is their low numbers. What surprised me about their reaction is that they seem most enthusiastic over elements of my stories in which I have the least expertise. I do get the expected pats on the back about my evocation of undersea environments, but what really seemed to prick up people's ears was my take on distributed AIs and digital evolution in the Internet. My name has been whispered on Slashdot occasionally in this regard. At least a couple of undergraduate research papers have been done on my wild-ass speculations. I used to hear from a comp-sci guy out at the Lawrence Livermore labs, who evidently found my insights relevant to his own work (whatever that was). And yet, I don't know squat about AI or computer science: I simply applied biological principles to digital systems (following Dawkins's musings that life is information, shaped by natural selection). I don't even think that's an especially original or radical thought, but it seemed to strike nonbiologists as a bolt from the blue.
SFRevu: Well, at least you're not alone. Gibson wrote Neuromancer before he had a clue, and for my money things went downhill in direct proportion to hoe much he got fed about the whole thing.
Peter:Maybe the old saw is wrong: really, you should write what you don't know.
SFRevu: What got you hooked on reading? Do you remember the first SF you read?
Peter: Didn't read it. Heard it: a radio-play adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, on CBC radio, one Calgary morning when I was perhaps six or seven years old. I listened to it, and then I sat down and wrote the story out myself on 3-ring binder paper. Verne's classic novel distilled down to two and half pages of infantile scribblings. (I could have taught the Reader's Digest Condensed Book people a thing or two.) I don't know if it hooked me on reading, writing, or science fiction, but it sure as hell introduced me to the pleasures of plagiarism.
SFRevu: Who were the writers that turned you on before you started writing yourself?
Peter: (I'm going to read this as "before you started getting published", since I had few if any literary influences at seven years of age.)
John Brunner, for world-building, and attitude, and rigor. The Sheep Look Up changed my life, and has informed my outlook since the day I began it. For sheer gorgeous jewelled prose, Samuel Delaney, Robert Silverberg (before he went all fantasy on us), and early Bradbury (of "Skeleton" and "Small Assassin" vintage, not the sentimental stuff he wrote later on). Harlan Ellison, for his commentaries and introductions more than his stories themselves. William Gibson, for giving us hope that there was life in the old girl yet.
Alfred Bester, for inventing cyberpunk (along with Delaney, perhaps) years before it had a trendy name. The Stars My Destination was the first truly adult SF I ever read. I received it as a hand-me-down when I was ten, from a man disfigured— I almost said tattooed— in a fire set by his own family. At the time I was too young to even know that he was disfigured; he was just this cool friend of my older brother, and the weather systems of scar tissue that swirled across his body were not deformities but features, no more worthy of comment than brown hair or blue eyes. It was only with increasing maturity that I learned I should have been repulsed.
SFRevu: Are you part of any writing groups? Do you have any writer friends to hang out with, and if so do you all think the same big thoughts?
Peter: For a couple of years I was in a writing group with Bob Boyczuk, Laurie Channer, Brent Hayward, and Nalo Hopkinson. Nalo's probably the only one you've heard of, although they all do things with their prose that I wish I could. Most of us still hang out and we occasionally critique each other's stuff, but the formal meetings fell apart a few years ago.
More recently I've been part of an annual week-long writer's reatreat at a local island hideaway. Nalo, Bob and Laurie have passed through that group as well, among many others (including Cory Doctorow, of whom you've heard, and John McDaid, whom you might not have because he only seems to write one thing a year, but whom you should have because that one thing is always brilliant.) I've skipped the past couple of years of that too, sadly, although I still like to think of myself as a member.
Karl Schroeder's a guy who is far smarter than anyone without a few postgraduate degrees under his belt has any right to be. Very inventive guy, whom I've been trying to hate for years, but to no avail. Not only do we argue over lunch about the ideas in our books, we argue ideas through our books. Profs. Dan Brooks and Deborah McLennan at the University of Toronto— they write biological tomes, not science-fictional ones, but they're writers, and we hang out, and the ideas ricochet. (I actually get a lot of inspiration from various scientist buddies of mine, most of whom you'll find acknowledged in the endnotes to my books even though they're not writers in the sense you mean here.)
That leaves Dave Nickle, city hall journo and horror writer (who, ironically, gets queasy at the sight of bloody pus shooting through my cracked toenail during our early morning runs). I probably bat more ideas around with him than I do with anyone else, because, you know, what else are you going to talk about three times a week at six-thirty in the morning, running (okay—hobbling) along the half-paved roads of the Leslie Street Spit?
SFRevu: What are the last five books you read?
Peter: Oh, Jesus. Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder. Carnivale by Elisabeth Bear. Molecular Evolution: A Phylogenetic Approach by Page & Holmes. Luck and Death at the Edge of the World by Nas Hedron and The Mirrored Heavens by Dave Williams (Don't look for those last two— they're still in progress).
Last five movies?
Much easier, even though you've caught me just coming off the back of six weeks of field research so I missed pretty much all the August/September releases. A Scanner Darkly. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. An Inconvenient Truth. Brick. Snakes on a Plane.
Hey. You didn't say they had to be good movies.
SFRevu: What are you reading now?
Peter: Voices from the Street, a PK Dick realist novel dating from 1952, which is only now about to be published. Scott Bakker's Neuropath, also in press. Miéville's The Scar. Wolfram's A New Kind of Science. Brooks and McLennan's The Nature of Diversity. Gourevich's "We regret to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families". PKD's Man in the High Castle. Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate. Charlie Stross's Accellerando, Coupland's—
OK, here's the thing. Some of these books I've been "reading" for two or three years now. I started The Scar back in 2003, got halfway through, loved it— but had to put it down when other pressing obligations imposed. I have, literally, two solid meters of books on my "to-read" shelf, and I'm at least partway through perhaps a quarter of them— but I honestly can't remember the last book I finished purely for pleasure, and frankly, that pisses me off.
Don't misunderstand: Karl's stuff kicks ass, and I truly do hate Elisabeth Bear for her talent, but their books came into my hands as tasks— Tor wanted blurbs, Ursabelle wanted feedback— and as tasks, they had deadlines that needed to be met. My own deadlines loom large in that mix as well: books and journal articles I read to inform my own writing, or in the course of my own scientific research (I'm currently doing a postdoc in molecular genetics). And when these obligations have been discharged, what time is left to read the remaining wealth of words? I'm a speculative fiction writer, for chrissakes, who hasn't finished The Scar. Who's only just started Accellerando. Who has just barely cracked open The Man in the High Castle, and that only because a very nice bookseller I met at Readercon sent me a copy. I'm a fucking poser, is what I am. Back when I just a geek fanboy in high school, I went through a book every day or two. Now I'm a bona-fide professional in the field, and I can't even keep up with the must-reads of five years ago.
Of course, it doesn't help that whatever free time I do have is spent obsessively watching Battlestar Galactica on DVD. Especially the scenes with Katee Sackhoff.
SFRevu: I read that your books are under a CC license as are the books of Cory Doctorow. Could you explain what that means and how does it help or hinder your publication or sales?
Peter: The essence of Creative Commons is that you basically free your art. Fiction, tunes, what have you— they're all made available with far fewer restrictions than conventional business models could ever contemplate. Perhaps you're willing to give away your songs, but you don't want anyone messing with the recordings. Perhaps you're entirely copacetic with third-party mashups and remixes. Maybe you don't mind not-for-profit distribution, but draw the line at other people making money from the sweat of your brow. Whatever. Just state your terms in the CC license, and set your work free. Of course, enforcement of whatever terms you have imposed is going to be a problem, but as I understand it the whole arrangement is essentially a glorified honor system anyway.
I think that going CC helped Cory immensely, because he came with a huge built-in online fan base, and he was one of the very first to put his money where his metaphors were. When Cory did it, it was news, and whatever losses he took on direct sales he more than made up in terms of enhanced profile. I, on the other hand, am way more obscure: I don't think that giving away my stuff online makes much difference one way or another, because my baseline sales are so much closer to the x-axis that there's less wiggle room to start with. (You can't have less than zero sales.) So, by that very token, why not? I keep getting e-mails from people who say they want to read my books, but can't find them. So to them I reply, here they are. Enjoy. And poke around the rest of my website while you're at it, because I've spent a lot of time trying to make it cool without sinking to self-aggrandising tubthumpery, and I really do think it turned out rather nicely.
Now in terms of actually making a living — and I've said this before— I think CC is a terrific idea for the next twenty minutes or so. Giving away one's stuff online is kind of a bait-and-switch strategy. Readers start off thinking they're getting something for free, and then two hours in their eyeballs fall out from pixel burn or they realise that printing out the whole damn novel is going to cost them a new toner cartridge anyway. Hopefully, by then they're hooked on the story so they fork over the bucks for a proper treeware edition. This works as long as reading print-on-paper is easier on the eyes than reading pixels-on-plasma, but as soon as that imbalance changes— and given recent developments in electronic paper technology, I'd say we're pretty much there— I suspect the model will collapse. Most people are unlikely to spend hard-earned resources paying for a product they can have for free.
(I suspect that won't matter to Cory, by the way. The man's a goddamn genius; he'll be happily pioneering the Next Big Thing while the rest of us are sinking into the tarpits with Smilodon.)
SFRevu: You started out to be a scientist and ended up a writer or hybrid scientist/writer. How has your life been different than what you'd imagined?
Peter: It's been much less lucrative than I'd hoped. On the other hand, I seem to be ageing a lot more slowly than those who've gone the tenure/house/kids route. I'll be a better-looking dumpster-diver at fifty than most of these guys at thirty-five. I figure it's probably the lack of offspring; from what I've seen, parents age faster than the rest of us.
SFRevu: What turned you on to science? You may not be old enough to remember, but there were a number of cool National Geographic articles with the Outer and Inner Space Programs that turned me on when I was a kid. Did you have similar experiences? Which seemed cooler to you? Have either panned out the way you hoped when you were younger?
Peter: Oh, I remember. Cousteau's elegant Conshelf experiments in underwater living: Ed Link's and the US Navy's less elegant attempts to play catch-up. I was all over those. I spent a third of my childhood designing my own underwater habitats, whole networks of inverted garbage bags holding pockets of air, weighted down by rocks. Never built them, of course. I grew up on the prairies, which is not exactly a practical environment for hands-on underwater exploration. (Just as well, of course. It never occured to this starry-eyed nine-year-old how quickly a cubic meter of trapped air would split a Glad Bag when you separated it from the surface. Archimedes Principle was completely beyond me.)
Of course, the space race was in full bloom then too. I thought space travel was cool, but the ocean was cooler. Easier to get to, for one thing. And we already knew there were alien creatures down there...
SFRevu: What are your favorite publications (online or off) for science/technology news? What sites do you think should be checked daily for the newest information?
Peter: I'm not really competent to answer this question, because I'm far from up to date on the newest information. I subscribe to Science, which is certainly cutting-edge in the staid and conventional sense. Nature is probably better, though: better written, slightly more likely to have publish skiffy-relevant research (they even publish actual science fiction semi-regularly). The Public Library of Science journals are even better, online, and completely free (although they are bona fide technical journals, so they presuppose a certain scientific background). New Scientist puts them all to shame in terms of accessible articles with cool SFnal elements, but you know what sources consistently catch make unawares? The blogs. Time and again, the first place I find out about some exciting new discovery is somewhere like PostHuman Blues, or Memetherapy, or Variable Gravitas Content. They're certainly not primary sources, and the quality of the links can vary, but when I go to the website for Science or Nature I go out of a sense of obligation: Well, I'd better try and keep up-to-date. When I go to these other places, I go with a sense of excitement: what weird shit has Mac Tonnies unearthed today?
Of course, the flip side is that while the blogs may be more exciting, they can veer a bit into woo-woo territory (not necessarily a bad thing for an SF writer, mind you). Perhaps the best balance between the two might be the superblogs: Slashdot, and Boingboing. Even if the latter directory did get kicked off of Time Magazine's "coolest sites" list this year by CuteOverload.com.
Not much in this answer that everyone doesn't already know, I realise. But then again, I've already admitted I'm not competent to answer it.
SFRevu: What 's your next book about and when will it be done?
Peter: A "next" book presupposes the success of the current one, and there's no guarantee (your welcome and favorable review notwithstanding) that Blindsight won't tank. My own editor once described it as "not very reader-friendly". A friend and colleague—whose literary opinions I value highly— went from describing it as a "breakout novel" (when he'd heard the premise) to "must reading for anyone planning to sit on a neurology-of-consciousness panel at a major sf convention" (when he'd actually read the book). And don't forget that Tor passed on the vampire-biology tie-in. So my feeling is that this particular title isn't expected to do especially well. It was great to see such positive advance blurbs from other writers— when Charlie Stross publicly mentions your novel in the same breath with the word "Hugo" it's hard not to feel a twinge of hope— but none of those blurbs ended up on the actual book, so the impact on sales may not amount to much. And when it comes right down to it, sales is what counts.
All that said, though, I have been kicking around a few ideas, ranging from the topical—
SFRevu: Gee. Now I'm depressed. I'd better go read Blindsight again to cheer me up. Anyway, thanks for talking to us.
Peter Watts: You're welcome.