Interview VO 2015 : Peter Watts for Echopraxia
de Peter Watts
aux éditions
Genre : Interview
Sous-genres :
  • Hard science

Auteurs : Peter Watts
Date de parution : juillet 2015 Inédit
Langue d'origine : Français
Type d'ouvrage : Interview mail
Titre en vo :

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Peter Watts répond à nos questions sur Echopraxie, le roman de Hard Science qui s’inscrit dans la même univers que celui de Vision aveugle, tous deux parus chez Fleuve éditions.

 ActuSF :  How did you come up with the idea of Echopraxia ? What did you want to do with this novel ?
Peter Watts : I wanted to do a few different things. There was the obvious loose end left dangling at the conclusion of Blindsight— i.e., what was happening back on Earth while Theseus was getting its ass kicked out in the Oort— and that seemed to be crying out for some kind of resolution. I wanted to deal with issues of transhumanism, which is a really tough assignment because I myself am not transhuman ; I’m just a regular doofus with a regular caveman brain, which means I’m about as likely to successfully describe a post-human mindset as a lemur would be if he tried to describe mine. It’s a fine line. If you describe posthuman behavior in a way that’s comprehensible to us baselines, then you’re not describing real post-humans because if you were, we wouldn’t be able to understand them ; but if you make them authentically incomprehensible, you risk writing an unsatisfying story in which nothing that happens makes any sense to us. You might as well just be dreaming random shit up and throwing it at the keyboard. It was a real balancing act, and I still don’t know if I pulled it off.
But the most important thing I wanted to do was put myself in an uncomfortable position. It’s too easy, as a writer, to play to your own preconceptions. It’s safe and it’s comfortable, but if you stay there too long you stagnate. So I wanted to force myself out of my own comfort zone, and I did that by basing Echopraxia on a premise I do not believe in— a premise I actually reject as intellectually stifling— and then defending that premise throughout the course of the novel.
I’m talking, of course, about the religious elements. But I see you’ve already asked about those a few questions down, so I’ll hold off on the details until I get there.
ActuSF : The book talks again about the infinite possibilities of life and biology. What is it that interest you so much in creating new lifeforms ?
Peter Watts : Well, to start with, there’s the obvious fact that I used to be a biologist— I actually aspired to be a biologist since I was somewhere around 7 or 8 years old— so that kind of thing is pretty much wired into me. More fundamentally, though, I’m a life form. So are you. What else are we going to write about ?
I know, I know ; all fiction is about "life" almost by definition, and you’re asking about alien lifeforms. But I’m not evading your question. If you read my stuff you’ll know that I treat Humans as a bunch of aliens in our own right. Echopraxia’s Bicamerals, for example, used controlled cancer genes to rewire their brains to the point where they’re not even mammalian any more. Then they took those alien brains and wired them together into a kind of hive that’s unprecedented in Human experience. They look like us, they move like us— their physiology, evolutionary lineage is pretty much identical to ours— but cognitively we have more in common with cats and dogs than we do with members of the Bicameral Order.
We can almost do that now. Another few decades, tops, before we can rewire ourselves to spec (assuming civilization itself doesn’t collapse in the meantime).
Life is— amazing. Life is these little eddies and backwaters in the flow of universal entropy, life is these pockets of complexity that literally slow down the unravelling of the universe by redirecting energy into the organization of matter. Philosophers and physiologists and high-school biology teachers have all struggled to define "life"— it reproduces, it metabolizes, it dies when you poke it with a stick— but it’s really much simpler than all those grocery lists would lead you to expect. Life is a gradient, not an either/or state. The further away you are from thermodynamic equilibrium, the more alive you are. And the more alive you are, the more you put the brakes on entropy. And there are so many different ways of doing that ; perhaps that’s what I find most fascinating. And maybe, if enough of us get alive enough, we can stop the universe from running down.
Well, not really. But maybe we can slow it down. Buy us a few billion more years.
ActuSF : May you please introduce to us your hero Daniel Bruks ?
Peter Watts : Dan Brüks is us : unaugmented, unenhanced, a baseline human neurologically indistinguishable from our caveman ancestors of twenty thousand years ago. He’s a stubbornly old-school biologist who insists on going out and collecting his data in the field even though most field samples have long-since been contaminated with genetic artefacts, even though all real biology has been computational for decades. He’s also at least partially responsible for the thousands of deaths that resulted when some not-very-nice people hacked one of his research projects— but I’m going to stay vague on those details because they figure prominently in the plot.
He’s also a bit of a reaction to certain fans who complained that Blindsight lacked a protagonist they could relate to : everyone in that book was so far removed from the human norm that a lot of readers found them inaccessible and unsympathetic. Okay then, thought I : here’s Dan Büks, baseline biologist. Relate to him. 
Of course, when you stick a baseline human amongst a bunch of post-humans, he’s going to have about as much of a grasp of what’s going on as a capuchin monkey would if you dropped him into the middle of a neurosciences conference. So Brüks spends most of the book hanging on by his fingernails, surrounded by beings who are always ten steps ahead, trying desperately to figure out what’s going on. And since he’s our point-of-view character, a lot of readers end up feeling understandably confused and frustrated (plus, although Brüks is certainly an understandable protagonist, he’s not a very nice one. In fact, in some ways he’s kind of a dick.)
There is a moral to be taken from this. You Can’t Please Everyone.

ActuSF : Except for Daniel, all humans in your novel are genetically or surgically improved. What do you think of transhumanism ?
Peter Watts : I don’t think I know enough about the social movement to express a competent opinion. My take on the process itself is that regardless of the speed at which technology improves (and that speed is little short of breakneck ; we already have brain implants that can be used to port memories from one individual to another, in rats at least), the adoption rate of any augmentation tech is likely to plateau well before we reach true post-humanism. I mean, sure, everyone wants to live forever, leap tall buildings, and factor prime numbers in their heads— but that’s just optimizing what we already are, not changing us into something new. Even if you upload your mind into an immortal android body— and even if you buy into the questionable premise that such a process actually does make "you" immortal, rather than granting immortality to some copy that gets to go off and explore the universe while you continue to rot away and die— it’s still your mind, thinking your thoughts and feeling your emotions. The essence of you has not changed, even if you’ve inserted yourself into a tougher chassis. Cognitively, emotionally, you’re still human.
Trans- and post-humanism, by definition, means not being human any more ; it means turning into something else. That’s where you have to go if you want to transcend the limitations of human thought, to be able to think in entirely new ways and solve problems intractable to Pleistocene cognition. And I expect there’s going to be a lot of visceral resistance to that. We come with hardwired survival imperatives that have been honed over several billion years of evolution, and the gut can’t really tell the difference between "turning into something completely different" vs. "dying". In fact, you might be hard-pressed to argue that there is a difference : transforming into a new identity necessarily involves destroying the current one, and it’s the current one that we’re wired to protect.
A quick thought experiment might make the point better. Say someone asks you "How would you like to be able to run 100kph, and lift automobiles, have sex as often as you like and live a thousand years ?" Most of us would sign up in a second. Now suppose some other guy comes along and asks "Say, how would you like to be tranformed into a giant tentacled banana-slug with a dozen eyes and a five-digit IQ ? Oh, and of course, you’d have to give up your puny human perspective for one more suited to hyperintelligent multi-eyed invertebrates." 
I suspect far fewer would go for that second alternative— most would actively recoil at the prospect, on the grounds that Dadburnit, Martha, that just ain’t natural !— but that degree of fundamental change is closer to what true post-humanism would entail.
All that said, though, I think that visceral resistance to change won’t keep us in stasis forever. Radical augmentation might prove to be the only way to save the lives of some accident victims, for example ; people might be a lot likely to opt for transformation if the only alternative is certain death. Other folks— potential suicides, child abusers, outcasts and folks demonised by whatever society they live in— might find their baseline lives so miserable that the banana-slug option might seem like a step up. And transformation may just sneak up on us incrementally— a prosthetic sense here, an implant there, and over time all those little changes could result in a profound cognitive transformation so gradual we don’t even notice it. Again, assuming civilization doesn’t simply collapse in the meantime.
Still. There’s something perversely appealing about the idea that child molesters might be Homo novae’s early adopters…
ActuSF : At the beginning of the book, the hero find himself confronted with zombies. How did you approach the subject of the living dead which is nowadays so maintream in movies or in literature ?
Peter Watts : I approached the subject not from the shambling, brain-eating zombie of pop culture, but the philosophical zombie of the cognitive sciences : simply, a non-conscious being. Most of the zombies in the novel are military in origin : corticohypothalmic implants allow soldiers to shut down their self-awareness during combat. This both makes them better fighters— reflexes and tactical decision-making all happen a lot faster once the bottleneck of conscious awareness is removed— and less prone to fits of post-combat remorse and PTSD. (You’re not nearly as likely to be guilt-ridden over mistakenly gunning down a village full of innocent civillians if you don’t remember doing that, if the conscious "you" wasn’t even online when it happened).
The other kind of Echopraxian zombie is not really shown, just described and briefly glimpsed near the end of the book. Those zombies are more like the Walking Dead variety, albeit a lot faster : victims of a virus engineered to eat away the circuitry of conscious thought, to reduce sapient human beings back down to the reptilian feed/flee/fight/fuck behavioral suite. They are, essentially, the mass-destruction hand-grenades of the late 21rst Century : designed not to kill outright, but to leave thousands of victims alive and in need of care and/or containment. Drop one of those biobombs in the middle of a city, and the government is going to have its hands so full dealing with the outbreak that they won’t be able to deal with whatever other nefarious plans you have up your sleeve.
In neither case, though, did I introduce zombies to hop on the Walking Dead bandwagon : I was using them as a delivery platform for ongoing thought experiments on the role of consciousness on cognition. But if I happen to pick up a few Walking Dead fans along ther way, I won’t complain. 
ActuSF : He is trapped in a religious community which takes him into space. Did you want to confront science with religion ?
Peter Watts :  More to the point, perhaps, I wanted to confront myself with religion. As an adult I’ve always been a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, and (like many of my breed) I’ve taken some pleasure in mocking those superstitious nutbars who believe that an invisible sky fairy is going to send them to Space Disneyland when they die. But a central tenet of empirical science involves recognizing the possiblility that we can be wrong about anything, that our most cherished worldviews are subject to disproof in the face of enough evidence. And it’s too easy for writers to play it safe, get into a rut ; if you want to do anything new, you’ve got to move beyond your comfort zone. 
There’s not much that makes me more uncomfortable than the thought that all those religious nutbars might be right after all. At the same time, living as we do in a world where all evidence is perceived through imperfect senses and flawed cognitive processes, it becomes trivially easy to dismiss any "evidence" that might favor their position. if God Itself appeared to me in all Its glory, and carved flaming letters across the heavens, it would still be more parsimonious for me to write it off as a hoax or a hallucination than it would be to accept it at face value. If some cosmologist reported an artefact in the mathematical structure of the universe— some clue that pointed to an intelligent creator— even then, if I believed her analysis (which would be an act of faith right there), I’d probably just push things back a step : okay, so this reality is a construct. That only means we’re living in The Matrix or some kind of simulation coded by a grad student in the real universe outside this one. But there’s still no evidence that any kind of God created that outer reality. 
In other words, there’s no evidence that would convince me that I’m wrong about the whole God thing— and that ability to dismiss any opposing point of view, regardless of the evidence, is a hallmark of the fundamentalist mindset. Which makes me, I guess, a kind of fundamentalist. 
So Echopraxia starts from the premise that beings much smarter than us have decided that God actually exists, using methods that leave conventional Science back in the dust with astrology and the reading of tea leaves. The premise of Echopraxia is one that I actively reject— and yet, while trying to work within that mindset, I have to face the possibility that I’m just as close-minded as the nutbars I deride. So what I’ve tried to do is write the first Faith-based Hard-SF novel. 
It certainly succeeded in dragging me out of my comfort zone. Whether it succeeded as a novel— whether, in my attempt to stretch myself, I ended up landing flat on my face— is up to the readers to decide.
ActuSF : Early reviews talk about a Hard Science novel. What is for you the place of science in your writer’s imagination ? Do scientific discoveries give you ideas for your novels ?
Peter Watts :  Often, yes (in fact, recent findings about the way our gut bacteria reprogram our brains has inspired a story I’m writing in which a new kind of genetically engineered yoghurt causes people to violently attack anyone sporting the logo of a certain unpopular telecommunications company). Just as frequently, though, the plot will need to take a certain turn for dramatic reasons, and I go searching through the archives looking for a scientific rationale to justify that turn. It works both ways.
In both cases, though, the risk is that the story will stale-date quickly. Cutting-edge science doesn’t stay cutting-edge very long, and indeed a number of exciting "discoveries" end up being false alarms in the long run. The more rigorously you adhere to plausible scientific extrapolation, the more likely your story is to be rendered irrelevant by real-world developments. Perhaps the most rigorous SF story I ever wrote— the only story of mine that actually quoted an honest-to-God equation from a real cosmologist— went from bleeding-edge to outdated between the time it sold and the time it actually appeared in print.
Sometimes I envy the fantasy crowd.
ActuSF : Which place does this novel takes in your Firefall serie ?
Peter Watts : Technically Echopraxia isn’t so much a sequel to Blindsight as a "sidequel", because the events overlap in time ; while the events recounted in Blindsight predate those of Echopraxia, Blindsight’s narrative frame (Siri recounting those events in fits and starts, as he slowly slowly returns to Earth) is contemporaneous. Siri’s still out there as Echopraxia unfolds. He’s still reciting Blindsight. We don’t know how far he’s got by the time Echopraxia ends, but we know that he— or something, at any rate— is heading for Earth.
Incidentally, I’m not especially fond of "Firefall series" as a label ; my UK publishers started using that term, and it seems to have stuck. The name of the folder I keep all these stories in is "The Consciousnundrum", which I kind of like even though (or perhaps because) it sounds so dumb when spoken aloud. It’s a contraction of "Consciousness Conundrum".
ActuSF : What are your projects ? On what are you currently working ?
Peter Watts : My "plans", sadly, don’t match up with my "current activities" as much as I’d like. The plan is to write a near-future technothriller called Intelligent Design, set maybe 10-15 years hence in a world of global warming, sentient stock markets, and genetically-engineered giant squid. After that, I want to write the concluding volume of the Consciousnundrum, in which (among other things) Siri and his dad finally get back together ; the working title is Omniscience. Around the edges of that I want to put out a few shorter works, including more installments of the Sunflowers cycle (which includes, so far, "Hotshot", "Giants, and "The Island").
That’s what I want to do. For the moment, though, I’ll just be happy if I can get the unanswered e-mails in my In-Box back down into the two-digit range. 

Jérôme Vincent