He’s a crank too. But I’ll get to that.
First let me tell you about his brilliant novel Blindsight.
I first heard of it two days ago in this article in io9′s Mad Science blog, Six scientists tell us about the most accurate science fiction in their fields. Terry Johnson, a bioengineer at UC Berkeley, volunteered the following:
I thought that Peter Watts’ Blindsight did a great job of reinventing vampires as an extinct subspecies of humanity. Humanity pieces together what the vampire genome must have been and then resurrects them using genetic engineering.
As Johnson’s endorsement would suggest, Watts has obviously put a lot of thought into his scientific account of vampirism. In the novel’s detailed Notes and References it’s explained that vampires acquired their “Crucifix Glitch” as a result of
a cross-wiring of normally-distinct receptor arrays in the visual cortex, resulting in grand mal-like feedback seizures whenever the arrays processing vertical and horizontal stimuli fired simultaneously across a sufficiently large arc of the visual field. Since intersecting right angles are virtually nonexistent in nature, natural selection did not weed out the Glitch until H. sapiens sapiens developed Euclidean architecture; by then, the trait had become fixed across H. sapiens vampiris via genetic drift, and – suddenly denied access to its prey – the entire subspecies went extinct shortly after the dawn of recorded history.
The novel’s main vampire character counteracts the effects of the Crucifix Glitch by injecting himself with “anti-Euclideans”, drugs that alter his brain chemistry so that he can glance at the rungs of a ladder without foaming at the mouth.
The funny thing is, it turns out Blindsight isn’t about resurrected vampires as much as it is about brain chemistry. Particularly, it’s about the nature of consciousness. What does it mean to be self-aware? Does self-awareness necessarily correlate with intelligence? Is it even an adaptive advantage, when so many species get along just fine without it? The vampires play a crucial but only a small role in Watts’ exploration of these questions.
All that, and aliens too! Blindsight is a top-drawer example of the subgenre ably taxonomized by an Amazon reviewer named Conrad J. Obregon:
There is a sub-genre of science fiction that I like to think of as the alien-encounter procedural. Among its most famous of members is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. Humans meet a new species of alien and must figure out what procedures to follow to make some kind of contact. Emphasis is on the technology of contact, with suspense created by the unknown nature of the aliens.
But forget about the literary antecedents. Forget about the science. The main thing is, Blindsight is a hell of a lot of fun. I scanned the opening pages after supper on Thursday, with the intention of maybe putting it next on my reading pile. Suddenly it was midnight, and I had to force myself to stop reading so I wouldn’t be a zombie at work the next day. I sped through the remaining hundred pages in a few hours on Friday night, stopping only once to use the bathroom.
Go read it. Thank me later.
Blindsight (and other novels and stories) are available on Peter Watts’ website for free download under a Creative Commons license.
I’m glad I read Blindsight before I read Peter Watts’ blog. Because based on his blog, I’ve concluded that he’s kind of a jerk. If I’d known that in advance, I might not have read the novel.
Watts was in the news recently. Last December he had a scuffle with US border guards during an “exit search” while trying to cross back into his (and my) native Canada at Port Huron, Michigan. From his blog:
If you buy into the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics, there must be a parallel universe in which I crossed the US/Canada border without incident last Tuesday. In some other dimension, I was not waved over by a cluster of border guards who swarmed my car like army ants for no apparent reason; or perhaps they did, and I simply kept my eyes downcast and refrained from asking questions.
Along some other timeline, I did not get out of the car to ask what was going on. I did not repeat that question when refused an answer and told to get back into the vehicle. In that other timeline I was not punched in the face, pepper-sprayed, shit-kicked, handcuffed, thrown wet and half-naked into a holding cell for three fucking hours, thrown into an even colder jail cell overnight, arraigned, and charged with assaulting a federal officer, all without access to legal representation (although they did try to get me to waive my Miranda rights. Twice.).
(I have no reason to disbelieve the above account of the incident. Although one of the border guards alleged that Watts choked him, that claim was apparently discredited in the trial. Here are more details of Watts’ arrest and eventual conviction; in the end he was fined a couple thousand dollars and banned from entering the States.)
I’ve driven across the Canada-US border a bunch of times since 2001. (Including, I think, at least once at Port Huron.) I’ve crossed into the US from Mexico twice. On several occasions I was stopped while driving alone on south Texas secondary highways by border agents who pawed through my luggage for traces of heroin or Mexicans. Through all these interactions, American authorities were unerringly friendly, even when obliged to shunt my vehicle to a side lane for more detailed disarraying of my underwear.
So when I read about Peter Watts’ experience, I wondered, Have I just been lucky? Or was Watts especially unlucky?
Then I read this anecdote from a recent appearance at a sci-fi convention in Toronto:
At some point I – as is my wont – used the word “fucking” as an adjective.
Exhibit A sat in the front row, two sprogs in tow (one 5-10, one possible preteen – my expertise in the age-determination of human larvae is not all it could be). She took strong exception: “Could we keep this PG? There are children in the audience, and if I hear that again I’m out of here.”
I explained that the word “fuck” has a 900-year history, throughout most of which it was considered completely inoffensive. “It only became offensive 100-200 years ago, when a bunch of bible-thumping prudes who couldn’t get laid decided to stigmatize anything with an orifice.” Sadly, this cut no ice: “Well, I find it offensive.”
Watts soon let fly another PG-13 adjective, and the woman gathered her sprogs and huffed out. This led to an encounter between the author and four convention organizers who reprimanded him for, basically, being a jerk.
All because Peter Watts just had to say the word “shit-kicking”. Now, how would a non-jerk have responded to this situation? Being one, I can tell you: with an inward eye roll, a deferential head nod (calibrated to convey a shade of irony without being overtly offensive), and a mental note to sprinkle some sugar on the salty language.
I don’t think this is a symptom of undue servility. It’s just a sense of proportion. No-one should be forced to kowtow for the mere maintenance of social harmony. But in the absence of overt coercion, when the stakes are so comically small – we make a slight bow.
Watts doesn’t bow. When someone waves a sceptre in his direction, he hops up, grabs the sceptre, and, well…jerks. That’s when coercive methods are applied. Authorities are summoned. Things spiral.
It’s worth mentioning that Watts is a bit of a crank, too. (This is another way of saying he lacks a sense of proportion.) He’s the kind of crank who writes about how we live in a “soft dictatorship“. Who posts a picture of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper with rifle crosshairs superimposed over his forehead. Who composes measured passages like,
British Petroleum – a criminal corporation with countless infractions and convictions already notched onto its bedpost – is already a serial murderer. It kills entire ecosystems as we speak, ruins countless lives. If any of us little people tried to repay even a fraction of that in kind the whole weight of governments and armies would try to squash us flat. I know first-hand the righteous outrage that inflames such cocksuckers when anyone tries to do to them the merest fraction of what they do to us on a daily basis. We all know the overwhelming force that would be brought to bear on the “anarchists” and “criminals” who dared to “take the law into their own hands”.
(In a comment below his original post, he clarifies that he’s “not advocating anything”.)
None of the foregoing is necessarily relevant. His arrest in Port Huron predates all the above comments; perhaps the incident radicalized him. Anyway, I know people who say even more intemperate things, yet are nevertheless meek and mild when approached by folks in uniform.
But if you’re the kind of guy who believes things like the above, and you’re a jerk to boot, is it a surprise when you get into a tussle with authorities?
I’m not minimizing the injustice of what Watts went through. No-one should be punched in the face, or pepper-sprayed, or prosecuted, let alone threatened with two years in jail in a foreign country, just for being a jerk.
I’m just saying I can picture how it happened. Border guards surround Watts’ vehicle. Instead of quietly rolling his eyes, the author – a big guy, not a weedy Carl Sagan type – jumps out to protest. A guard politely but firmly orders him back into the car. Watts mutters something ill-advised. The guard barks an order. Events spiral. Pepper is dispersed.
Now, we need border guards. (Not as much as they think we need them, but still.) They protect us from people far more dangerous than Peter Watts. But there aren’t many such dangerous people around, so the border guards have a lot of time on their hands. They use this time to peer up our tailpipes, to poke suspicious fingers into our shaving kits, and occasionally to pull over some random Canadian because something about his posture or haircut looks suspicious.
It would be better if border guards were astute enough to display a sense of proportion when dealing with jerks like Peter Watts. But they’re not always that astute.
Some of them, in fact, are real jerks.
Update, April 1 2013: I’ve had a few critical comments on this post, like the guy who today accused me of “attacking” Watts over the 2009 border incident. I was going to defend myself, but on reflection, maybe those commenters have a fair point.
As I’ve now said repeatedly, I believe Watts’s description of what happened that day. Of course I wasn’t there. But the prosecutors’ scenario, where a middle-aged science-fiction writer physically assaults a group of border guards, strikes me as less plausible than Watts’s version, where he was merely slow to obey the guards’ instructions and they monstrously overreacted.
My argument was only that people with cranky and combative personalities (like Watts, as he has frequently exhibited on his blog) are more likely to get into scrapes like these. Conflict-averse weenies like me, when confronted with seemingly capricious displays of authority, rather than assume we are being unjustly handled, will pause to consider the possibility that there are factors at play which we don’t understand. On the few occasions when I have indignantly trumpeted my sense of victimization, I’ve always come to realize on reflection that I was getting worked up over nothing. I have no idea why US Customs would suddenly start conducting “exit searches”, like the one Watts was subjected to while trying to leave the USA. It strikes me as pretty absurd. But if I were pulled aside for such a search, I would sit in the car meditating on the absurdity, rather than leaping out to yap at the guards about it. Which is probably why I’ve never been punched by a border guard.
There’s something to be said for an attitude of quiet deference. It makes for a polite and law-abiding society, such as we have customarily enjoyed here in Canada. But there’s also something to be said for getting up in the faces of authority figures when they start bossing us around. If we sanction cops bashing the skulls of those who ask tough questions – even those who ask quite rudely – we will soon find ourselves living in a society where even polite questions are forbidden. A certain amount of jerkiness is necessary to keep us from subsiding into authoritarianism. So, although I frequently deplore his opinions, I’m grateful to Watts for being a jerk on my behalf.
The role of the jerk-by-proxy is to get worked up over things the rest of us let slide. Nine times out of ten he makes himself look like an ass, and the rest of us steer wide and avoid eye contact while he stands on a street corner haranguing a weary cop over some wholly imaginary outrage. Occasionally, inevitably, our jerk-by-proxy pushes a cop or a judge too far, gets clapped in handcuffs, poked in the eye with a baton, hauled off to court. That means the jerk is doing his job. That’s not the time to cavil about what an uncouth fellow he is. That’s when you leap to the ramparts on his behalf.
I felt like by praising Watts’s book, while doing nothing to conceal my annoyance with the opinions expressed on his blog, I was doing him justice. But the events called for a bit more indulgence. I cavilled when I should have leapt. So I suppose I deserve some abuse from Watts’s defenders. As penance I’ve chipped in $20 to the tip jar on Watts’s website.