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Backpack Decisions
"This one is perfect in every way, except that for some reason it's woven from a tungsten mesh, so it weighs 85 pounds and I'll need to carry it around on a hand cart." "That seems like a bad--" "BUT IT HAS THE PERFECT POCKET ARRANGEMENT!"
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Super Bowl Watch Party
It's going to be weird near the end of May when the screen goes blank for over 18 hours.
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Chicken Pox and Name Statistics
People with all six of those names agree that it's weird that we have teeth, when you think about it for too long. Just about everyone agrees on that, except—in a still-unexplained statistical anomaly—people named "Trevor."

Arc Weld

“Language is a virus from outer space”
—William S. Borroughs




Chest-thump to start off the year: Last year’s “ZeroS”, appearing in Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Wars, made it into a couple of Year’s Best collections: Neil Clarke’s Best Science Fiction of the Year (Vol. 3), and another one I hesitate to name because I don’t actually see it announced anywhere else just yet. So that’s cool.


But this is way cooler:

There’s this gene, Arc, active in our neurons. It’s essential for cognition and longterm memory in mammals; knockout mice who lack it can’t remember from one day to the next where they left the cheese. It looks and acts an awful lot like something called a gag— a “group-specific antigen”, something which codes for the core structural proteins of retroviruses. Like a gag, Arc codes for a protein that assembles into  capsids (basically, shuttles containing messenger RNA). These accumulate in the dendrites, cross the synaptic junction in little vesicles: a payload from one neuron to another.

Pastuzyn et al, of the University of Utah, have just shown that Arc is literally an infection: a tamed, repurposed virus that infected us a few hundred million years ago. Apparently it looks an awful lot like HIV. Pastuzyn et al speculate that Arc “may mediate intercellular signaling to control synaptic function”.

Memory is a virus. Or at least, memory depends on one.



Of course, everyone’s all over this. U of Utah trumpeted the accomplishment with a press release notable for, among other things, describing the most-junior contributor to this 13-author paper as the “senior” author. Newsweek picked up both the torch and the mistake, leading me to wonder if Kastalio Medrano is simply at the sloppy end of the scale or if it’s normal for “Science Writers” in popular magazines to not bother reading the paper they’re reporting on. (I mean, seriously, guys; the author list is right there under the title.) As far as I know I’m the first to quote Burroughs in this context (or to mention that Greg Bear played around a very similar premise in Darwin’s Radio), but when your work gets noticed by The Atlantic you know you’ve arrived.

Me, though, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that something which was once an infection is now such an integral part of our cognitive architecture. I can’t stop wondering what would happen if someone decided to reweaponise it.

The parts are still there, after all.  Arc builds its own capsid, loads it up with genetic material, hops from one cell to another. The genes being transported don’t even have to come from Arc:

“If viral RNA is not present, Gag encapsulates host RNA, and any single-stranded nucleic acid longer than 20-­30 nt can support capsid assembly … indicating a general propensity to bind abundant RNA.”

The delivery platform’s intact; indeed, the delivery platform is just as essential to its good role as it once was to its evil one. So what happens if you add a payload to that platform that, I dunno, fries intraneuronal machinery somehow?

I’ll tell you. You get a disease that spreads through the very act of thinking. The more you think, the more memories you lay down, the more the disease ravages you. The only way to slow its spread is to think as little as possible; the only way to save your intelligence is not to use it. Your only chance is to become willfully stupid.

Call it Ignorance is Bliss. Call it Donald’s Syndrome. Even call it a metaphor of some kind.

Me, I’m calling it a promising premise. The only real question is whether I’ll squander it now on a short story, or save it up for a few years and stick it into Omniscience.


(Thanks to Bahumat, btw, for showing me the link.)
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Fruit Collider
The most delicious exotic fruit discovered this way is the strawberry banana. Sadly, it's only stable in puree form, so it's currently limited to yogurt and smoothies, but they're building a massive collider in Europe to search for a strawberry banana that can be eaten whole.
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Campaign Fundraising Emails
The establishment doesn't take us seriously. You know who else they didn't take seriously? Hitler. I'll be like him, but a GOOD guy instead of...
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Night Sky
There's a mountain lion nearby, but it didn't notice you because it's reading Facebook.
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Ok, I've got it, just need to plug in my security key. Hmm, which way does the USB go? Nope, not that way. I'll just flip it and– OH JEEZ IT FELL INTO THE VENT.
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Scientific Paper Graph Quality
The worst are graphs with qualitative, vaguely-labeled axes and very little actual data.

A Christmas Carnivore.

I thought I’d give you graphics for Christmas. Pieces of fan art have been accumulating over the year, and— while a lot of it is truly impressive— I feel weird using a blog post to do nothing but highlight one piece of art.  Seems too easy, somehow. Blogs should be more— substantive.

And then you wake up one day and realize that you’ve got twenty pieces of art waiting to be posted.  That substantive enough for you?

First off, though: for those who don’t follow me on Facebook (and I salute you; Facebook’s the only social medium I’m on and I still feel vaguely dirty when I go there), the team at Blindsight.space recently released a 30-second teaser that really is spectacular. The only complaint I have is that I’ve seen some of the footage that didn’t make it into this cut, and I wish all of it was ready for prime time right now. Art and stills are fine, but there’s  nothing like  watching Charybdis cruising through Rorschach‘s tangled topography, or watching Theseus‘s hab module blow up. Go, if you haven’t yet. Marvel.

Sketches,  screen grabs, and other renderings have been posted in the galleries: two in the Rifters Gallery (under “Fan Art”), the rest in the Blindopraxia Gallery  (the Japanese Echopraxia covers under “Official Cover Art”, everything else under “Fan”). Scroll down on this page for a subset of the new acquisitions—  an oil painting, a bit of anthropology, a couple of screen grabs— even an animated anime gif— but if you want to check out the whole lot you’ll have to click on a couple of links. It’s worth it; there’s some nice stuff behind the front page.

As always, you can click the pic to embiggen it. Really I shouldn’t have to tell you by now.

Start with a Valerie triptych, all three by an artist going by the handle KeeNahMee: Echopraxia‘s vampire at three stages of her life. Upper left she’s still wearing the smartweave tunic of a Simon Fraser lab rat, although she appears to have just fed (you can tell by the subtle flushing of the cheeks), and is thus probably about to leave the campus to seek other opportunities.  Upper right she looks feral and eager and pretty much the way I imagined her throughout most of her trip down to Icarus, playing with her food.


Bottom, though, she’s back in the desert with Dan Brüks while the world burns around the horizon. As far as I know, no one has illustrated this part of the novel before; while I’m enraptured by all KeeNahMee’s art, I think this relatively simple sketch is my favorite.

Firefall, from the ground (that teaser I link to above shows a glimpse of the same event from orbit.) Courtesy of Blindsight.space.

Firefall, from the ground (that teaser I link to above shows a glimpse of the same event from orbit.) Courtesy of Blindsight.space.


A swarm of scramblers, Rorschach interior. This screen grab cannot do justice to the sight of that wall squirming as it does. As of this writing, this scene is not in the official released teaser, but I've seen the dailies. Wow. Blindsight.space.

A swarm of scramblers, Rorschach‘s interior. This screen grab cannot do justice to the sight of that wall squirming as it does. As of this writing, this scene is not in the official released teaser, but I’ve seen the dailies. Wow. Blindsight.space.


 A deep-sea duet, courtesy of Marek Paterczyk. This is one of my favorite rifters pictures ever.

A deep-sea duet, courtesy of Marek Paterczyk. This is one of my favorite rifters pictures ever.

"Canaury"'s animesque vision of a bloodbath on Theseus should actually be pulsing with a reddish alarm light. Unfortunately, my attempt to upload the gif into WordPress failed three times out of three, so if you want the full effect you'll have to go over to the gallery.

Canaury“‘s animesque vision of a bloodbath on Theseus should actually be pulsing with a reddish alarm light. Unfortunately, my attempt to upload the gif into WordPress failed three times out of three, so if you want the full effect you’ll have to see it in the gallery.

A couple more Valeries for you (Valerie really seems to be getting the love this year, doesn't she?) The sepia animesque one is by Ivan Yakushev; the inset is an actual oil painting by Janet Bruesselbach, based on a flesh and blood model (Marina Marchand). I think this may mean I've arrived.

A couple more Valeries for you (Valerie really seems to be getting the love this year, doesn’t she?) The sepia animesque one is by Ivan Yakushev; the inset is an actual oil painting by Janet Bruesselbach, based on a flesh and blood model (Marina Marchand). I think this may mean I’ve arrived.


This is anthropological and unprecedented: a side-by-side comparison of vampire and baseline-Human skulls. I don't know much about the artist except that she's from Russia, she reads Dawkins, and she goes by the handle Ekaterina. Also I suspect she is awesome. She says there are ten differences. I don't know if she's kidding.

This is anthropological and unprecedented: a side-by-side comparison of vampire and baseline-Human skulls. I don’t know much about the artist except that she’s from Russia, she reads Dawkins, and she goes by the handle Ekaterina. Also I suspect she is awesome.

She says there are ten differences. I don’t know if she’s kidding.


So there you have it— or at least half of it, with links to the rest. Looking back, it’s a bit, well, Valerie-heavy, isn’t it? A certain preponderance of predators and bloodbaths. Then again, this is that time of year: when the predatory prey on the gullible, when the bloodsuckers come for your money and your brains. Really, vampires fit right in at Yuletide.

Why do you think Santa wears red?

Denying Dystopia: The Hope Police in Fact and Fiction

I recently read Terri Favro’s upcoming book on the history and future of robotics, sent to me by a publisher hungry for blurbs. It’s a fun read— I had no trouble obliging them—  but I couldn’t avoid an almost oppressive sense of— well, of optimism hanging over the whole thing. Favro states outright, for example, that she’s decided to love the Internet of Things; those who eye it with suspicion she compares to old fogies who stick with their clunky coal-burning furnace and knob-and-tube wiring as the rest of the world moves into a bright sunny future. She praises algorithms that analyze your behavior and autonomously order retail goods on your behalf, just in case you’re not consuming enough on your own: “We’ll be giving up our privacy, but gaining the surprise and delight that comes with something new always waiting for us at the door” she gushes (sliding past the surprise and delight we’ll feel when our Visa bill loads up with purchases we never made). “How many of us can resist the lure of the new?” Favro does pay lip service to the potential hackability of this  Internet of Things— concedes that her networked fridge might be compromised, for example—  but goes on to say  “…to do what, exactly? Replace my lactose-free low-fat milk with table cream? Sabotage my diet by substituting chocolate for rapini?”

Maybe, yeah. Or maybe your insurance company might come snooping around in the hopes your eating habits might give them an excuse to reject that claim for medical treatments you might have avoided if you’d “lived more responsibly”. Maybe some botnet will talk your fridge and a million others into cranking up their internal temperatures to 20ºC during the day, then bringing them all back down to a nice innocuous 5º just before you get home from work. (Salmonella in just a few percent of those affected could overwhelm hospitals and take out our medical response capacity overnight.) And while Favro at least admits to the danger of Evil Russian Hackers, she never once mentions that our own governments will in all likelihood be rooting around in our fridges and TVs and smart bulbs, cruising the Internet Of Things while whistling that perennial favorite If You Got Nothin’ to Hide You Got Nothin’ to Fear

Nor should we forget that old chestnut from Blue Lives Murder: “I had to shoot him, Your Honor. I feared for my life. It’s true the suspect was unarmed at the time, but he’s well over six feet tall and according to his Samsung Health app he lifted weights and ran 20K three times a week…”

That’s just a few ways your wired appliances can hurt you personally. We haven’t scratched the potential damage to wider targets. What’s to stop them from getting conscripted into an appliance-based botnet like, for example,  the one that took out KrebsOnSecurity last year?

I’m not trying to shit on Favro; as I said, I enjoyed the book. But it did get me thinking about bigger pictures, and this recent demand for brighter prognoses.  These days it seems as if everyone and their dog is demanding we stick our fingers in our ears, squeeze our eyes tight shut, and whistle a happy tune while the mountainside collapses on top of us.

In a sense this is nothing new. Denial is a ubiquitous part of human nature. One of the things science fiction has traditionally done has been get in our faces, hold our eyelids open and force us to look at the road ahead. That’s a big reason I was drawn to the field in the first place.

So how come some of the most strident demands to Lighten the Hell Up are coming from inside science fiction itself?


It started slow. Remember back at the beginning of the decade, when the president of Arizona State University told Neal Stephenson that the sorry state of the space program was our fault? Science fiction wasn’t bold and optimistic like it used to be, apparently. It had stopped Dreaming Big. The rocket scientists weren’t inspired because we weren’t being sufficiently inspirational.

Are we saving the world yet?

Are we saving the world yet?

I’ve always found that argument a bit tenuous, but Stephenson took it to heart. Booted up “Project Hieroglyph“, a big shiny movement devoted to chasing dystopia down into the cellar and replacing it with upbeat, optimistic science fiction that could Change The World. The fruit of that labor was Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future; a number of my friends can be found within its pages, although for some reason I was not approached for a contribution. (No problem— I got my shot just this year when Kathryn Cramer, the coeditor of H:SaVfaBF, let me write my own piece of optiskif for the X-Prize’s Seat 14C.)

A few grumbled (Ramez Naam struck back in Slate in defense of dystopias). Others dug in their heels: You don’t need to squint very hard to figure out Michal Solana’s  take-home message in “Stop Writing Dystopian Fiction – It’s Making Us All Fear Technology“. That appeared in Wired back in 2014, but the bandwagon rolls on still. Just this year, writing in Clarkesworld, my dear friend Kelly Robson put her foot down: “No more dystopias [italics hers]. What we need is near- and mid-future stories that show an array of trajectories out of the gloomy toilet bowl we’re spiraling.”

There’s something telling about that edict, insofar as it explicitly admits that yes, we are indeed circling the drain. We’re all on that same page, at least. But what the hope police[1] seem to be converging on is, You don’t get to give us bad news unless you can also tell us how to make it good. Don’t you dare deliver a diagnosis of cancer unless you’ve got a cure stashed up your sleeve, because otherwise you’re just being a downer.

Looks like dangerous seas up ahead. I know! Let’s erase all the reefs from our nautical charts![2]


Inherent in this attitude is the belief that science fiction matters, that it can influence the trajectory of real life, that We Have The Power To Change the Future and With Great Power Goes Great Responsibility— so if we serve up an unending diet of crushing dystopias people will lose all hope, melt into whimpering puddles of flop sweat, and grow too paralyzed to fix anything. Because the World takes us so very seriously. Because if we do not tell tales of hope, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when the ceiling crashes in.

I’ve always been a bit gobsmacked by the arrogance of that view.

I’m not saying that SF has never proven inspirational in real life. NASA is infested with scientists and engineers who were weaned on Star Trek. Gibson informed the future as much as he imagined it. Hell, we wouldn’t have the glorious legacy of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative if a bunch of Real SF Writers hadn’t snuck into the White House and inspired the Gipper with hi-tech tales of space-based missile shields and ion cannons. I’m not denying any of that.

What I’m saying is that none of those things inspired people to change. It merely justified their inclination to keep on doing what they’d always wanted to. Science fiction is like the Bible that way: it’s big enough, and messy enough, to let you cherry-pick “inspiration” for pretty much any paradigm that turns your crank. Hell, you can even use SF to justify a society based on incest (check out the works of Theodore Sturgeon if you don’t believe me). That’s one of the reasons I like the genre; you can go anywhere.

You want to convince me that SF can change the world? Show me the timeline where we headed off overpopulation because people read Stand on Zanzibar. Show me a world where the existence of Nineteen Eighty-Four prevented the US and Britain from routinely surveilling their citizens. Show me a place where ‘Murrica read The Handmaid’s Tale and whispered in horrified tones: “Holy shit, we really gotta dial back our religious fundamentalism.”

It’s no accomplishment to inspire people to do things they already want to. You want to lay claim to being part of Team Worldchanger, show me a time when you inspired people to do something they didn’t want to. Show me a time you changed society’s mind.

Ray Bradbury tried to imagine such a world, once— late in his career when he’d gone soft, when hard-edged masterpieces like “Skeleton” and  “The Small Assassin” were lost to history and all he had left in him were mushy stories about Laurel and Hardy, or time-travelers who used their technology to go back and make Herman Melville feel better about his writing career. This particular story was called “The Toynbee Convector”, and it was about a guy who saved the world by lying to it. He told everyone that he’d built a time machine, gone into the Future, and seen that It Was Good: we’d cleaned up the planet, saved the whales, eliminated poverty and overpopulation. And in this upbeat science fiction story, people didn’t say Great: well, since we know everything’s gonna be okay anyhow, we might as well keep sitting on our asses, snarfing pork rinds until Utopia comes calling. No, they rolled up their sleeves, and by golly they set about making that future happen. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a story more willfully blind to Human Nature.

If you’re looking for ways in which science fiction can inspire, here’s something the hope police may have forgotten to mention: if downbeat stories inspire despair and paralysis, it’s at least as likely that upbeat stories inspire complacency. Yeah, I know the planet’s warming and the icecaps are melting and we’re wiping out sixty species a day, but I’m sure we’ll muddle through somehow. We’re a resourceful species when the chips are down. Someone will come up with something. I read it in a book by Kim Stanley Robinson.


In fact, Kim Stanley Robinson is a good example. He’s no misty-eyed Utopian by any stretch, but he’s certainly more hopeful in his imaginings than the Atwoods and Brunners of the world. He recently pointed to the Paris Agreement as a “hopeful sign“:

It was a historical moment that will go down in any competent world history … That moment when the United Nation member states said, “We have to put a price on carbon. We have to go beyond capitalism and regulate our entire economy and our technological base in order to keep the planet alive.”

Surely I can’t be the only one who sees the oxymoron in “put a price on carbon … go beyond capitalism”. The moment you affix a monetary value to carbon you’re subsuming it into capitalism. You’re turning it into just another commodity to be bought and sold.

Don't worry! Be happy!

Don’t worry! Be happy!

Granted, this is better than pretending it doesn’t exist (I believe “externalities” is the term economists use when they want to ignore something completely). And Robinson is no fan of conventional economics: he dismissed the field as “pseudoscience” at Readercon a few years back, which was heartening even if it is so obvious you shouldn’t have to keep coming out and saying it. But the moment you put a price on carbon, it’s only a matter of time before some asshole shows up with a checkbook and says “OK— here’s your price, paid in full. Now fuck off while I continue to destroy the world in time for the next quarterly report.” Putting a price on carbon is the exact opposite of moving beyond capitalism; it’s extending capitalism into new and more dangerous realms.

Citing such developments as positive makes me a bit queasy.

I got the same kind of feeling when everyone dog-piled all over David Wallace-Wells “The Uninhabitable Earth” in New York Magazine this past summer. Wallace-Wells’ bottom line was that even the bad news you’ve heard about climate change is a soft-sell, that things are even worse than the experts are admitting, that in all likelihood large parts of the planet will be uninhabitable for humans by the end of this century.

It took about three hours for the yay-sayers to start weighing in, tearing down that gloomy-Gus perspective. They tried to pick holes in the science, although ultimately they had to admit that there weren’t many. The main complaint was that Wallace-Wells always assumes the worst-case scenario— and really, things probably won’t get that bad. Even Michel Mann, one of Climate Change’s biggest rock stars, weighed in: “There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.” This turned out to be the most common criticism: not that the article was necessarily wrong overall, but that it was just too depressing, too defeatist. Have to give people hope, you know. Have to stop being all doom-and-gloom and start inspiring instead.

I have a few problems with this. First: Sorry, but when you’re driving for the edge of a cliff with your foot literally on the gas, I don’t think “inspiration” is what we should be going for. We should be going for sheer pants-pissing terror at the prospect of what happens when we go over that cliff. I humbly suggest that that might prove a better motivator.

Further, describing the worst-case scenario isn’t unreasonable when the observed data keep converging on something even worse. Science, by nature, is conservative; a result isn’t even considered statistically significant below a probability of at least 95%, often 99%. Global systems are full of complexity and noise, things that degrade statistical significance even in the presence of real effects— so scientific publications, almost by definition, tend to understate risk.

Which might explain why, once we were finally able to collect field data to weigh against decades of computer projections, the best news was that observed CO2 emissions were only tracking the predicted worst-case scenario. Ice-cap melting and sea-level rise were worse than the predicted worst-case— and from what I can tell this is pretty typical. (I’ve been checking in on the relevant papers in Science and Nature since before the turn of the century, and I can remember maybe two papers in all that time that said Hey, this variable actually isn’t as bad as we thought!)

So saying that Wallace-Wells takes the worst-case scenario isn’t a criticism. It’s an endorsement. If anything, the man understates our predicament. Which made it a bit troubling to see even Ramez Naam— defender of dystopian fiction— weighing in against the New York piece. Calling it “bleak” and “misleading”, he accused Wallace-Wells of “underestimat[ing] Human ingenuity” and “exaggerat[ing] impacts”. He spoke of trend lines for anticipated temperature rise bending down, not up— and of course, he lamented the hopeless tone of the article which would, he felt, make it psychologically harder to take action.

I’m not sure where Ramez got his trend data— it doesn’t seem entirely consistent with what those Copenhagen folks had to say a few years back— but even if he’s right, it’s a little like saying Yes, we may be a hundred meters away from running into that iceberg, but over the past couple of hours we’ve actually managed to change course by three whole degrees! Progress! At this rate we’ll be able to miss the iceberg entirely in just another three or four kilometers!


I don’t mean to pick on Ramez, any more than on Favro— having recently hung out with him, I can attest that he is one smart and awesome dude. But. Try this scenario on for size:

You’re in your living room, watching Netflix. You look out the window and see a great honking boulder plunging down the hill, mere seconds from smashing your home to kindling. Do you:

  1. Crumple into a ball of weeping despair and wait for the end;
  2. Keep watching Stranger Things because that boulder is just a Chinese hoax;
  3. Wait for someone to inspire you to action with tales of a hopeful future; or
  4. Run like hell, even though it means abandoning your giant flatscreen TV?

This underscores, I believe, a potential flaw in the worldview of the hope police. It may be that despair and hopelessness reduce us into inaction— but it may also be true that we simply aren’t scared enough.  You can thank our old friend Hyperbolic Discounting for that: the future is never all that real to us, not down in the gut where we set our priorities. Catastrophe in ten years is less real than discomfort today. So we put off the necessary steps. We slide towards apocalypse because we can’t be bothered to get off the couch.  The problem is not that we are paralyzed with despair; the problem, more likely, is that we haven’t really internalized what’s in store for us. The problem is that our species is already delusionally optimistic by nature.

Not all of us, mind you. Some folks perceive their contextual status with relative accuracy: they’re better than the rest of us at figuring out how much control they really have over local events, for example. They’re better at assessing their own performance at assigned tasks. Most of us tend to take credit for the good things that happen to us, while blaming something else for the bad. But some folks, faced with the same scenarios, apportion blame and credit without that self-serving bias.

We call these people “clinically depressed”. We regard them as a bunch of unmotivated Debbie Downers who always look on the dark side— even though their worldview is empirically more accurate than the self-serving ego-boosts the rest of us experience.

Judged on that basis, chances are that even most dystopias are too optimistic. Telling us that we need to be more optimistic is like telling an already-drunk driver to have another mickey for the road. More hope and sunshine may be the last thing we need; just maybe, what we need is to catch sight of that boulder crashing down the hill, and to believe it. Maybe that might be enough to get us moving.


The distribution isn’t a clean bimodal. Sure, there’s a clump of us here at the Grim Dystopia end of the scale, and another clump way over there at the Power of Positive Thinking. But there’s this other place between those poles, a place that mixes light and dark. A place whose citizens say You may not like it but it’s gonna happen anyway, so why not just settle back and enjoy the ride?

I see it when Terri Favro waves away the implications of smart homes that drain our savings into the coffers of retailers we never met in exchange for products we never asked for, with a shrug and a cheery  “How many of us can resist the lure of the new?” I see it when I read articles in Wired that rail against our ongoing loss of privacy, only to finally admit “We are not going to retreat from the cloud… We live there now.” Or that more recent piece— just a couple of months back— which begins with ominous descriptions of China’s truly pernicious Social Scoring program, segues into it’s-not-all-bad Territory (Hey, at least it’s more transparent than our own No-Fly Lists), and finishes off with the not-so-subtle implication that it’ll probably happen here too before long, so we might as well get used to it.

It’s almost as though some Invisible Hand were drawing us in by expressing our worst fears, validating them to engender trust— and then gently herding us toward passive acceptance of the inevitable. “We’ll be giving up our privacy, but gaining the surprise and delight that comes with something new always waiting for us at the door!” Can’t ask for more than that.

Not unless you want to end up on the wrong kind of list, anyway.


These aren’t huge leaps.  Inspiration Not Despair segues into Look on the Bright Side which circles ever closer to Accept and Acquiesce.  There are, after all, a lot of interests who don’t want us to believe in that boulder crashing down the hill— and if said boulder becomes ever-harder to deny, then at least they can try to convince us that it really isn’t so bad, that we’ll learn to like the boulder even if ends up squashing a few things we used to value.  There’s always a bright side. The planet may be warming, but it’s not warming as fast! Just another few kilometers and we’ll be past that iceberg! See, we’ve even put a price on carbon!

Of course, if you really need to blame someone, look no further than those naysayers over in the corner; they’re the ones who didn’t Dream Big. They’re the ones who failed to Inspire the rest of us. Don’t blame us when the boulder squashes you flat; blame them, for “making us all fear technology”. Blame them, for failing to “show an array of trajectories out of the gloomy toilet bowl we’re spiraling”.

In fact, why wait until the boulder actually hits?

Blame them now, and avoid the rush.


[1] To borrow a brilliant term from David Roberts, whose piece in Vox ably defends Wallace-Wells’ prognosis.

[2] If you want a cinematic example of this mindset, check out  Roberto Benigni’s insipid 1997 film “Life is Beautiful“, whose take-home message is that the best way to ensure your child’s survival in a Nazi death camp is to trick him into thinking that it’s all just an elaborate game and nothing can possibly hurt him.

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How to Make Friends
No, wait, come back! I want to be friends at you!

After Party

20171110_150026 copy

You know I was worried about this. A symposium thrown together with only four weeks’ notice? A general-audience section that starts in the middle of a work day? A Saturday— the time when a general audience might be most inclined to show up— given over to dry dusty academic talks with “paratextual” in their titles? And above all: me? Really? Anybody or their dog is going to show up to listen to people drone on about an obscure midlist SF writer who’s never been within lightyears of a bestseller list?

I knew it was bound to fail— but when people are flying in from Michigan and Chicago and fucking Australia to attend, what kind of a dick would I be if I said Nah, I can’t be bothered to take a twenty-minute subway ride? So I gritted my teeth, and made the journey. Scheduled a haircut just an hour before, so at least I’d look a little less like Rick Sanchez.

And the lady cutting my hair told me about her parents, left homeless when Hurricane Maria crawled overtop Dominica and just sat there, sandblasting that island down to the bedrock, for four days. Told me that at least now she knew her family wasn’t dead (she’d had a month to wonder about that) but that cell and internet were still out so she still hadn’t had a chance to talk to them directly.

Coming out of that haircut, the number of people who might or might not show up in Room 100 of the Jackman Building suddenly seemed a lot less important than it had been. I showed up at “Space Vampires and the Future of ‘I'” reality-checked, and significantly less self-absorbed. And you know what?

It was a pretty great time.

I'd asked for a box of Kleenex. The BUG asked, as a joke, for a bottlef Jamesons and a bowl of m&ms with all the green ones taken out. Guess which one of our requests got granted.

I’d asked for a box of Kleenex. The BUG asked, as a joke, for a bottle of Jamesons and a bowl of m&ms with all the green ones taken out. Guess which one of our requests got granted.

Attendance was, in fact, pretty much what you’d expect for an obscure midlist SF writer  who’d never been within lightyears of a bestseller— maybe 25 people showed up on Friday, 20ish on Saturday. Then again, in my experience those are perfectly decent numbers for a parallel track in your average academic conference encompassing a wide range of obscure subjects; it’s pretty damn good for the sole track of a symposium covering a single obscure subject. Friday’s readings and roundtable went great (and those in attendance got to hear a story never before unveiled and quite possibly never to be unveiled again, since it is ultimately owned by Rupert Murdoch and I may never get the rights back).  Saturday’s academic track wouldn’t have been an academic track without the usual technical glitches— our sole options for experiencing Ed Keller’s prerecorded talk came down to audio sans video or vice versa, and  Devin Oxman’s Braille software crapped out halfway through his presentation on multilevel selection and fractal narratives— but everyone managed to circumvent those rocks in the road with nary a stumble.

You could have just said so off the top.

You could have just said so off the top.


I found out what “paratextual” means, just in time to run into its sibling terms “epitextual” and “peritextual”. I stumbled upon an ongoing controversy over whether my oeuvre is rightly adjectivised as “Watts’ work” or “Watts’s work” (which, as debates go, is a welcome departure from the Watts-is-a-closeted-pedophile riff that surfaced briefly when someone on the Internet decided I’d portrayed Gary Fischer too sympathetically in Starfish, or the Watts-is-a-racist thread that emerged when someone else counted up the surnames in Blindsight and decided that too many of them were white). And during the Friday evening pub break up over at the Duke of York— an event whose success can best be measured by the fact that most of us were hung over for much of Saturday— I learned that at least one prominent Quebec scholar rejects the claim that I am a Canadian author.

I’m still trying to figure that one out. Insights gratefully accepted.

"Even prior to vasodilation, it was easily this big." Not Jamesons and cat wine in background.

“Even prior to vasodilation, it was easily this big.” Note Jameson and cat wine in background.

Also the perks! Homemade cookies*! Crabapple jelly! A giant bottle of Jameson, and 750 ml of Pinot Grigio in a cat-shaped bottle! A fan who flew in all the way from— I want to say, Chicago?— and who turned out to have spent four years running sonar and weapons systems on a nuclear sub! (Oh yes, I’ll be picking his brain for the next novel. You can put money on it.) Not to mention that Let’s-Call-Him-Ray gave me a very cool angle on how Titan could destroy the global economy using weaponized blockchains.

The presenters. And one imposter.

The presenters, and one imposter. From left to right: Ransom, Johnstone, Oxman, Unicorn Squid, Weiss, Grace, Eldridge, Wall, Braun.

They’re talking about doing it again sometime. I remain skeptical. I’m still basically dumbfounded that they even did it once. To that end, I have to thank everyone who came, and everyone who presented: Dr. Michele Braun, from Mount Royal University; Dr. Dominick Grace, of Brescia University College; Devin Oxman, of Concordia; Dr. Amy Ransom, from Central Michigan University; (soon-to-be-Dr.) Clare Wall and (has-always been) Dr. Allan Weiss, both of York University; and Dr. Ed Keller, from Parsons The New School for Design. And especially to Dr. Michael Johnstone, of the University of Toronto, for being the logistical shock troop that established the local beachhead; and Ben Eldridge of the University of Sydney, who— in less than a month— put the whole thing together from the other side of the world. Ben is a seriously misguided individual who has for some reason based his entire doctoral thesis (“Fiction, Science & Discursive Power: Peter Watts’ Functionally Generative Linguistic Paroxysms”) on the “use and abuse of language through Watts’ oeuvre”.  Sometimes my head tends to swell when I survey the number  of academic papers that have been written about my work over the years; it deflates back down to size when I realize that about half of them have been written by this one dude.

Thank you all, so very much. Even if the thing you created was not, perhaps, best described as a symposium after all.

Really, it was more of a party.


This is from Ben’s talk on one of my stories. Not entirely sure what the guy down in the corner is doing. I’m afraid it might be meta.


*Technically for the BUG, but I don’t have to tell you who ate most of them.

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Temperature Preferences
There's a supposed Mark Twain quote, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." It isn't really by Mark Twain, but I don't know who said it—I just know they've never been to McMurdo Station.
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Nightmare Email Feature
"...just got back and didn't see your message until just now. Sorry! -- TIME THIS MESSAGE SAT HALF-FINISHED IN DRAFTS FOLDER: 3 days, 2 hours, 45 minutes."
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Twitter Verification
When we started distributing special status tokens that signify which people are important enough to join an elite group, we never could have imagined we might be creating some problems down the line.
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A �
If you want in on the fun, map a key on your keyboard to the sequence U+0041 U+0020 U+FFFD (or U+0021 U+0020 U+FFFD for the exclamation point version), and then no update can never take this away from you.

Kevin II: The ReKevining (or, The Cat Came Back).

Actually, the cat never left. It was Kevin who came back, drawn by a cat he could not live without, a cat who lived alone with him on the surface of the sun, a cat who, he sometimes insisted, was the only real being in the universe apart from himself. We know this because he told us, because he yelled it at the paramedics and the cops and the social workers.

What, you think the story ended back here? Kevin came back: god, fire-starter, lost soul, Madonna fan, raving psychotic. Voice in the night; even when we weren’t out there in the rain trying to talk him down, the nights we lay in the dark staring at the ceiling outnumbered those we slept through.

Things have calmed down over the past few days. Finally, Kevin and Blueberry seem to be warm and dry and in no immediate danger. But it’s been— eventful.

I related the front end of the story back on Oct 16. Today, Caitlin brings you up to date over on her blog, with insight and eloquence I can only aspire to. It’s not a comprehensive history, to be sure; she doesn’t mention the time Kevin appeared in our bedroom, for one thing. She downplays her own relentless research into his past in search of some key to his present— the sister she tracked down (a roboticist at Amazon), the acquaintance who pulled away after Kevin started insisting that Madonna was sending him secret messages with her eyes.  The reappearance of Littler Cop, who told us that Kevin was a crackhead and could well be dangerous no matter what we thought. So many individual encounters escape mention. It’s a record of fragments and impressions, and really, that’s the best way to tell this story; looking back, fragments and impressions is how memory serves up the recent past to me as well. Maybe it’s just lack of sleep.

So look upon her works, ye middlers, and despair. But also take hope: the ending of this tale, if not happy, is at least hopeful.

Which is probably why I could never have written it myself.

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Your problem is so terrible, I worry that, if I help you, I risk drawing the attention of whatever god of technology inflicted it on you.
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Defensive Profile
NO DRAMA ZONE -> If I've made you sad, you'd better not tell me, because I am TERRIFIED of that situation and have NO IDEA how to handle it.
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