Sunday, September 18, 2011

SpecFic Colloquium Blog: Peter Watts

Modern mythologies, you say.

Forget the usual suspects. Forget gods and yeti and the other, more overt fantasies that clog bookstore shelves where hard-SF used to be back in better days. Forget Lost and X-Files (ah, I see you have already—good, good). At least try to forget that absurd paradigm that places "people of faith"—those who worship magical sky fairies and believe they'll go to Space Disneyland when they die—on an exalted rung of the human hierarchy, rather than sending them off for therapy with the other nutbars. Forget the good ol' days the good ol' boys from the Tea Party reminisce about: the times before gummint regulation strangled Murrikan innovation with all those nanny-state laws about clean water and child labor, back when Mexicans stayed on the right side of the border and every nigger knew his place.

Forget "Change We Can Believe In". The only change you can really believe in takes place in very small increments, takes thousands of generations to get noticed, and was pegged by a dude called Darwin back in 1859.

They're all worthy myths, if by "myth" you mean a fictional construct that resonates so strongly the gut just knows it speaks to some metaphorical Truth even if its factual claims are batshit crazy. They all benefit someone, somewhere; some even increase the reproductive fitness of whole societies (generally by uniting those societies in a bloodthirsty campaign to eradicate the competition, but nobody said fitness was pretty). Still, in the grand scheme of things, they're pretty small potatoes. Religion may be ubiquitous across the planet, but the fact that believers keep killing each other over whether the messiah wants us to cast away our sandals or gather sandals together suggests a certain lack of commonality. Lost and The Obama Administration stopped resonating the moment it became obvious they didn't have a clue what they were doing, and their appeal was always pretty limited anyway.

You want to dig your teeth into a real myth? Something that has 100% market penetration across the whole damn species, a myth as powerful now as it was before we even were a species? Here's one: the myth that there isn't a big honking hole in the middle of your visual field.

Here's another myth: the sky is blue. In fact the sky is colorless; there's actually no such thing as color outside the imaginations of human minds.

And another: that you have even the slightest control over your own actions, that you are anything but mech made of meat.

The fact is, pretty much everything we perceive is a myth; it feels real, we know it's real, and the fact that our gut "knowledge" happens to contradict the laws of physics gives us way less trouble than it really should.

I'll be going into this a bit on October 15th. I'd invite you to join me — even reassure you that the whole talk won't be a complete downer, that I plan on leavening the nihilism with the occasional joke — but really, there'd be no point.

I have no more influence over your actions than you do.


The 2nd Toronto SpecFic Colloquium will take place on Saturday October 15, 2011 at the Toronto Underground Cinema (186 Spadina Avenue). Register now at


Peter Watts ( is an awkward hybrid of biologist, science-fiction author, and (according to Homeland Security) tewwowist. Described by the Globe & Mail as one of the best hard-sf authors alive, his work has been translated into a dozen languages. His first novel (Starfish) was a NY Times Notable Book, while his sixth (Blindsight)— a philosophical rumination on the nature of consciousness with an unhealthy focus on space vampires — has become a core text in such diverse undergraduate courses as "The Philosophy of Mind" and "Introduction to Neuropsychology". It also made the final ballot for a shitload of domestic genre awards including the Hugo, winning exactly none of them (although it has, for some reason, won multiple awards overseas). This may reflect a certain critical divide regarding Watts' work in general; his bipartite novel behemoth, for example, was praised by Publishers Weekly as an "adrenaline-charged fusion of Clarke's The Deep Range and Gibson's Neuromancer" and simultaneously decried by Kirkus as "utterly repellent … horrific porn". (Watts happily embraces the truth of both views.)

Watts' 2009 novelette "The Island" was reprinted a dozen times and finally won the damn Hugo, possibly because fandom wanted to give DHS the finger. "The Things" seems to be racking up the hits as well: an unabashed piece of fanfic which is nonetheless sitting in several Best-of-Year collections, and has already won a couple of awards. His most recent novel (Crysis: Legion) once again transcends boundaries, elevating the Video Game Tie-In to the giddy status of "not-horrible potboiler." (His sidequel to Blindsight is currently overdue.) Both Watts and his cat have appeared in the prestigious journal Nature.

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