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IamA Science Fiction Author named Peter Watts. I am not any of those other Peter Wattses. AMA, within reason.

Aug 26th 2014 by The-Squidnapper • 16 Questions • 173 Points

MeFi etiquette apparently dictates that I start this thing with IamA. Let's start with an IamNot instead.

I am not Naomi Watts's dad. I was not Pink Floyd's road manager back in the sixties. I never had anything to do with Mott the Hoople. I am not the bald guy from Millenium. I am not the @peter_watts who's all over twitter from some secret base in London, or the other one who takes pictures. I do not make wine (although I convert more than my share to urine). If I were Peter Watts the biblical scholar I might possibly kill myself.

I am definitely not the Peter Watts from Upper Dicker, whose collection of child porn got him all over the news way back in 2004, on the very same day that I told all my friends to google my name because Wired.com quoted me at length in one of their articles that happened to go up on that date. Even though I am the same age as him. I am not that Peter Watts.

IamA science fiction writer and former biologist, is what I am. I am significantly more cheerful than most people seem to expect. I am here to answer your questions this very evening at 7pm EDT, but you may want to post now and avoid the rush (especially since some folks out there might still think I'm the pedophile from Upper Dicker).

I am also an announcer of sorts, here to tell you that the people going by the handles "/u/mrtherussian", "/u/cjv89", and "/u/TheGreat-Zarquon" have won signed copies of my latest novel, Echopraxia. (I suppose I should get going on that.) Echopraxia was released today, and the reviews so far have been pretty glowing; I expect them to get worse over time, though.

You could ask me about that, if you like.

(Oh, right. They demand "proof" that I'm who I say I am, so: proof.)

Q:

Hi Dr. Watts -- big fan! I was the one who put together this in-depth guide to your work the other day for anybody unfamiliar -- thanks for dropping by in the comments!

I was curious about the names you chose in Blindsight -- they seem split between the fairly ordinary (Susan James, Amanda Bates, Jim Moore) and the unconventional (Siri Keeton, Isaac Szpindel, Jukka Sarasti). What made you decide on these names? Do they have any deeper meaning?

edit: Heh -- for anybody wondering, the "MeFi" in Dr. Watts' OP is referring to MetaFilter, the community blog I posted that guide to and invited him to visit yesterday. This is Reddit, man -- don't cross the streams!

A:

Hey Jordan.

You get dibs because of all the work you did on that link farm. I especially liked the juxtaposition of "fasciitis" and "fascist".

I tuckerise a lot of characters. I take people out for beer and pick their brains, and then stick them into the novel they've informed to die a horrible death. Susan James is a real person, with a background in linguistics. Isaac Szpindel is a real neuroscientist. Jim Moore was some dude who won a contest-- I've never met him, but he still exists.

Siri Keeton, OTOH, came to me in a dream. And Jukka was the name of a friend of my first known overseas fan, in Finland; I was looking for a name with overtones of icy albino psychopathy, so who better than the Finns? (Actually, the Norwegians-- but I didn't have any Norwegian connections back then.) Little did I know that every third male in that blasted country is named "Jukka". When I did my book signings, I ran into so many Jukkas in the first five minutes that I thought either a) the whole damn con was yanking my chain, or b) Blindsight had been so influential that half the male population had had their names legally changed.

Rule of thumb, if the name seems unremarkable, it's probably the name of an actually human being. Otherwise I hallucinated it.


Q:

Hi! I've read Blindsight about 3 or 4 times and there's still one thing i'm not completely clear on. How do the scramblers relate to Rorschach ? Is the 'ship' the alien organism and are the scramblers a sort of hyper intelligent white blood cells. Or are the scramblers the aliens and Rorschach is their space ship. Or are they all one big greasy ecosystem extending their slimy tendrils across the stars ?

A:

Imagine you are Siri Keeton: Imagine I am Robert Cunningham.

It's a meaningless question. Were do you draw the line between organism and environment? The thousands of mitochondria paying rent in the least of your cells are arguably organisms in their own right; they just need the intracellular environment to survive. Your mammalian body is the same; it's "self-contained", has its own replicative machinery (although not nearly so self-sufficient as the replicative machinery of your mitochondria), but requires an external biosphere to survive. How do we justify calling ourselves "individuals", while reducing our mitochondria to "organelles"?

It's nesting Russian dolls all the way out. Any internally-consistent definition of "individual" recedes toward the horizon until you basically have to call the whole biosphere a single entity (not that I buy into that Gaia Earth-mother bullshit, mind you). And Rorschach? It was mere kilometers across.

Scramblers are every bit as much "individuals" as you are. As mitochondria are.

When you can snatch this pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.


Q:

I'll say it at the outset: Blindsight hit me on a gut level more than anything I've read in years. Yes, the characters and plotting were great, but that's not it.

The central thesis that consciousness is an aberration and evolutionary dead-end is what got to me. You argued the point very well.

So, my question is this: do you believe that? If so, could you expand on the idea? If not...well played!

If there's a similar central theme to Echopraxia, how could it be summed up?

A:

So, my question is this: do you believe that?

I didn't when I wrote the damn thing. I just couldn't think of anything that an intelligent agent needed consciousness for, and it finally occurred to me that the idea of consciousness as a maladaptive side-effect was an awesome punchline for an SF story. I pretty much knew that about two weeks after release, some actual neuroscientist would condescendingly point out something that had never occured to me (because I generally don't know what the fuck I'm talking about), and that would be that.

Since then, though, the evidence for the spandrel interpretation has only grown stronger. There are actual peer-reviewed papers out there arguing for the nonessentiality of consciousness. I may have blindly tossed a dart over my shoulder and, purely by accident, hit the bullseye.

If there's a similar central theme to Echopraxia, how could it be summed up?

Less than a day after release, and you're already asking for the Cliff's notes?

I think not.


Q:

In light of your unfortunate encounter with US authorities, do you have any advice for those of us in Ferguson? (Isn't it nice? I don't have to explain where Ferguson is any more.)

A:

Okay, this is good one to finish the night off with. Because it's gonna go over like a lead balloon.

I don't know if I'd call this "advice" so much as a thought experiment-- but it occurs to me that cops (from whatever jurisdiction) can afford to be pretty blase about killing us civilians because they are so rarely held to any serious account. Put simply, they don't pay much of a price for murder.

Suppose they did?

It's well-known among the game-theory crowd that the most effective long-term strategy is simple tit-for-tat: give the other payer the benefit of the doubt in transactions until the other player screws you, then screw them back. It's the Old Testament edict of an eye for an eye, but with SCIENCE!

Apply that to Ferguson. Hell, apply it to Toronto or Vancouver. Suppose that every time a cop killed one of us, one of us killed a cop. Not the cop, not the shooter, but some other cop, at random. Suddenly, all their shouting about "due process" (which never seems to apply when they're gunning kids down in the street, but which always seems to get raised at strident deciblage when the next-of-kin have the temerity to get outraged at said shooting) means nothing. Suddenly, every time one of yours kills one of ours, you could be next.

The ol' Blue Wall of Silence might crumble pretty fast when every time your partner kills someone, you might have to pay with your life. In a world of optimal tit-for-tat, unthinking loyalty to the badge isn't the thing that keeps you unaccountable: it's the thing that could get you killed. Why, the police might even start policing themselves faced with such a prospect.

Of course it's not fair. Your denying due process. You're killing an innocent human being who, in all likelihood, had nothing to do with the murder you're reacting to. (You have to: the actual shooter will be too well-protected.) It's not justice-- but then, it's not meant to be. And it's not like we have any kind of justice now.

Sure, it's a revenge fantasy. But it's more than that.

And if we scrupulously abided by the algorithm, it might even be effective.

Good night.


Q:

Hello, Mr Watts.

What made you choose the nature of consciousness as a focal point in the BlindSight universe? You can see your biology influence, specifically marine, in the crafting of the aliens, but what made you delve into the mind?

And this isn't a question, but just wanted to say I've been recommending your books to friends of mine who enjoy hard sci fi. I hope your audience grows.

A:

What made you choose the nature of consciousness as a focal point in the BlindSight universe? You can see your biology influence, specifically marine, in the crafting of the aliens, but what made you delve into the mind?

Back in the early nineties I read an essay by Dawkins-- it was actually the afterword to a collection of essays on evolutionary ecology whose name I've forgotten-- in which he mentioned, almost offhandedly, that the functional utility of consciousness was one of the great outstanding biological mysteries, that it was trivially easy to imagine an intelligent agent that could do everything we could without being conscious so what was consciousness good for, in the evolutionary sense?

He obviously wasn't the first person to ask that question, but he was the first person to ask it within my eyeshot-- and once posed, I felt embarrassed that that question had never occurred to me before then. It seemed obvious, a huge dark mystery at the center of our very existence. I wouldn't say I started obsessing on it necessarily, but from then on the question was always there, niggling away in the back of my mind.

Eventually I got off my ass and wrote a book about it.


Q:

Hi Peter! What is your favourite marine mammal and what things do you think humans could learn from these animals?

A:

Killer whale, I'd have to say. Those guys are not only smart-- they utilize coordinate diving to generate directed waves that tip seals off of ice floes-- but they're culturally diverse, to boot.

I don't know what we could learn from them, beyond the awesome insights you can glean from studying any species. Our morphologies are so different that any insights considered profound or essential to one species would probably be utterly irrelevant to the other.

If I could, though, I'd ask them what's up with that cultural antagonism between the transients and the residents off the Pacific Northwest.


Q:

The offshore group engaging in divide-and-conquer.

A:

Twenty-minute Warning here, folks: I'll be signing off at 9:30 (so, yes, 20 minutes for those of you in different time-zones) to have dinner and get caught up on back episodes of "The Strain" and "Extant". So there's obviously no way I'm gonna get through all these questions tonight.

But if I don't get around to answering yours by then, take heart. I'll come back here over the next few days and try and answer the rest. So unless I've already answered a similar question from someone else (or unless you just ask a real goofball question), I will get around to you. Just not tonight. Be patient.

Okay. Time for a few more...


Q:

He posted in there a few times already. But yea, would love to see more of him there.

A:

Okay people, I'm out of here. Thanks for the questions: I'll try to get to the unanswered ones over the next few days. Assuming the admins haven't banned me by then.

It was fun.


Q:

Loved the story about asking your friends to google your name. I imagine them saying, "So old Peter is suddenly internet famous, eh?... WTF!?!"

What happened with that really nasty flesh eating disease?

A:

What happened with that really nasty flesh eating disease?

It's dead. I'm alive. To quote Walter White, I won.

I've got a vagina-shaped scar the size of fucking Australia on my right calf, though. Sometimes I tell people it was from a shark attack.


Q:

Peter, thanks so much for doing this AMA! By the way, I love your new website.

First of all, what made you decide to return to the Blindsight plot/universe for Echopraxia?

Also, I love the darker side of your stories--they're almost like scifi horror. Were there any authors/movies/etc that influenced this aspect of your fiction?

A:

Peter, thanks so much for doing this AMA! By the way, I love your new website.

It is nice, isn't it? Just wish we'd got the new gallery up and running. September, at this point.

First of all, what made you decide to return to the Blindsight plot/universe for Echopraxia?

My agent. I actually wanted to write a near-future techno-thriller about genetically-engineered giant squid, and in the wake of Behemoth's tankage I was especially leery of revisiting any well without enough time to recharge my creative batteries. But I laid out five potential projects for the man, and he opined that what-was-then-called "State of Grace" was head and shoulders above the others.

And here we are.

Also, I love the darker side of your stories--they're almost like scifi horror. Were there any authors/movies/etc that influenced this aspect of your fiction?

The manbdatory answer here is Lovecraft-- but honestly, I haven't read any Lovecraft since high school, and even then only a handful of stories. I liked the Alien movies well enough, but they weren't especially influential on my own writing. If I dig deep enough, and if I'm brutally honest, I'll admit that Rorschach may have had its genesis in the space-Rastaferian tree-ship from "Buckaroo Banzai: Adventures Across the Eighth Dimension".

No, really.


Q:

Hi Dr. Watts. What would you call the most likely, and/or most personally interesting candidate for the Great Filter?

A:

Tough one. Being all tough-guy nihilist, it's tempting to say self-extermination is likely to be the most ubiquitous candidate. Assuming Darwin's rules apply throughout the cosmos, then natural selection will always promote what works in the moment with no thought to the future-- so any evolved intelligent species will be burdened with a legacy of self-gratification and selfish-gene baggage.

On the other hand, even the most far-sighted and ecologically sane species is gonna go down in an instant if a big enough comet hits their homeworld. And rocks and ice seem pretty ubiquitous out there too.


Q:

Which of your books or stories would you be most interested to see adapted as a film or miniseries? Are there any particular directors or film styles that you think would fit your style of philosophical SF?

A:

I think the rifters books would make decent movies. They're shallower than the Consciousnundrum books, but by that very token they'd be easier to adapt without screwing up completely. The only way Blindsight would ever get adapted by Hollywood is if you cut out all the function-of-consciousness stuff-- and then you've basically got Alien, except all the crew members are Ash.

I think my Sunflower Cycle stories would make for an awesome video game franchise. In fact, that's how I originally conceived them.


Q:

Hello Dr. watts! two questions:

what was the biggest challenge you faced when writing Echopraxia?

the cover art for your books, are you involved in that at all? choosing artists, choosing motif, how involved are you in the process?

(also, i need you to notice my username. i have waited three years. notice it.)

A:

what was the biggest challenge you faced when writing Echopraxia?

Not having it wither and disappear in Blindsight's shadow. I still don't know if I've met it or not.

the cover art for your books, are you involved in that at all? choosing artists, choosing motif, how involved are you in the process?

Depends on the publisher. Tor has a pretty explicit policy of excluding us mid-listers from every aspect of production after we hand in the manuscript--basically, if you do anything beyond shutting up and going away you run the risk of being a "difficult author"-- and that extends to the cover art as much as the trailers or the promotion. I was very lucky with the cover art for the rifters books (although the jacket text was another issue), but with Blindsight they showed me a series of sketches, one of which I chose-- and then they changed that art into something entirely different (and to my mind, much suckier). Nobody from Tor has ever offered me any input into choosing the actual artist.

Then again, neither have any of the other publishers I've dealt with (and I'm out in 18 languages, so I've dealt with a few). However, in my experience overseas publishers have been far more willing to include the author in cover-art decisions than Tor ever was. They've routinely based their cover art on my own ship designs, for example. I don't know if the difference is national or corporate, but that's what I've observed. And you know what they say about a prophet in his own country.

Hey! The raccoons are here, demanding to be fed! (I'm typing this on our front porch. This tough gang of raccoons sakes us down for kibble every night around this time. Last night, at 2am, we found one of them in our living room.)


Q:

thank you kindly for your answers!

A:

(also, i need you to notice my username. i have waited three years. notice it.)

Not only do I notice it here, but I have noticed it elsewhere around the internet. You are truly a staunch advocate. But I tend not to interact with my people in public, preferring to mingle incognito. Also there's the whole observer-effect/douchy-touchy author thing to worry about.)


Q:

What kind of questions would you consider not "within reason?"

A:

Well, this one, for starters...


Q:

Are you going to answer a question?

A:

No.