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Interview de Peter Watts VO

Interview de Peter Watts VO

Actusf : How did you discover Science-fiction, and what drew you to write in that specific genre ?
Peter Watts : I discovered science fiction at the age of six, listening to a radio play of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (oddly enough, I discovered marine biology at about the same time).  I suppose I was drawn to it for the same reason kids of all ages might be: it was exotic, it was exciting, there were monsters with tentacles.  I was pretty much sold from that point on: most of the fiction I've read since has been of the sciency kind.  But my reasons for sticking with that genre have matured, even if my taste hasn't. Most fiction only deals with where the species is, or where it has been. Science fiction is the only genre big enough to play with where the species is going-- and since that's the part of the story we haven't seen yet, it's the part I'm most interested in.

Actusf : How did you come up  with an idea like Blindsight, your last book published in France ?
Peter Watts : Different elements arose independently, and at different times.  My thoughts on vampire biology sparked during a panel discussion at a con in Edmonton; scrambler anatomy grew out of a series of deliberate thought experiments undertaken to try and come up with an "alien" alien that fit the needs of the story.  A myriad details, from telematter streams to neurological disorders, I simply cadged from the technical literature (I generally spend a couple of hours each day just keeping up on the rss feeds from various science blogs and journals).

Actusf : But the central theme of the book, the functional utility of consciousness?
Peter Watts : I started thinking about that back in 1991, when reading Richard Dawkins' afterword to a collection of ecological essays whose title I forget. He cited consciousness as one of the remaining great mysteries; why would natural selection produce something like consciousness when it's perfectly easy to to imagine a creature capable of learning and reacting to its environment without ever "waking up", so to speak?  Of course, he was only articulating the venerable Zombie argument-- and as it turns out, we do most of *our* learning and reacting nonconciously too-- but this was the first time I'd been confronted with that question, and I've been thinking about it on and off ever since.  Blindsight was the closest thing to an answer I was able to come up with, as of 2005.

Actusf : How would you characterize your hero, Siri Keeton ?
Peter Watts : A fuck-up,  an emotional wreck, and the King of  Denial: someone so out of touch with his own feelings that he literally perceives them as belonging to other people.  And yet despite all this-- perhaps because of it-- he's pretty damn good at his job.  Better than even he knows.

It might not be wise to mention this, but there are certain elements of autobiography in that character.  Although I like to think I have a better set of social skills.

Actusf : How do you see  the aliens that you stage in the book ?
Peter Watts : On a purely descriptive level, the Scramblers are my attempt to create an alien life-form that is both justifiable biologically and at the same time *alien* to human sensibilities.  The aliens depicted in most science fiction works tend to follow a bimodal distribution; either you've got cryptic monoliths or energy-balls so far removed from humanity that they are forever incomprehensible by definition, or you've got a creature in a rubber suit that might as well *be* humanity with one or two cultural knobs cranked up to maximum (the "warrior race", the "logical race", and so on). I tried to build something in the valley between those peaks: intelligent but decentralised, living but agenetic, creatures so unlike us that a large part of their metabolic processes occur *outside* their bodies, in the intense magnetic fields of their natural environments.  And yet, I like to think that while their anatomy is utterly alien, it is still consistent with Darwinian processes as we understand them.

On a thematic level, though, the scramblers are something else entirely. They have all the advantages of high intelligence and none of the drawbacks. I don't want to go into too much detail on that-- it would spoil the surprise for anyone out there who still intends to read the book-- but it goes without saying that when something with none of the drawbacks encounters another thing with all the drawbacks (i.e., us), things won't end well for the latter group.

Actusf : Susan James has four personalities. How did you structure her character ?
Peter Watts : In four parts, not surprisingly.

Actusf : Did you make some research about shcizophrenia ?
Peter Watts : Not in this context.  "Schizophrenia" is actually a whole different malady than Multiple Personality Disorder, which is what the Gang of Four have. And while I did do some research into the technical lit on multiples (not the least being a couple of papers showing how the recent spike in MPD cases is little more than a fad, in which therapists basically jumped on a bandwagon and diagnosed everyone and their dog with MPD), the real insights came not from studies on multiples but from studies on normal brains. We are *all* multiples, in a sense; one of the more popular models of the mind posits that our brains run a series of competing parallel threads, all shouting for attention, and the thread that shouts loudest becomes "conscious".  In a more pedestrian sense, who hasn't argued with themselves at one time or another, while weighing the pros and cons of some issue? Clinical cases of multiple personality-- those that remain after you strip away the false diagnoses-- might simply be one extreme of a continuum on which we all exist.

Actusf : The high density of the novel is rather striking . It is very compact, full to the brim with ideas considering it has relatively few pages.How do you work?
Peter Watts : Pretty much the way I described the process when writing Blindight, a few questions back.  I try to keep abreast of the latest science news -- I keep my eye on everything from technical journals like "Science" and "Nature" down to pop-sci rags like "New Scientist" and "Discover", with a healthy dose of science blogs thrown in to point me at more obscure findings I might otherwise miss -- and that takes a couple of hours every day.

That's just background effort, to keep me broadly up to date.  When it comes to a specific project, I start with some theme, idea, or character type that I want to explore; my daily trawl through the world of online science then starts to skew towards items that are relevant  to that theme.  I pore over pdfs that I might have only skimmed before; I follow their links and references deeper into the field.  At the same time, my overall research gives me bits and pieces of ambience-- elements of science and technology that, while perhaps not central to my story, still help to inform a plausible backdrop for the future I'm building. (My rifters books, for example, were not *about* climate change by ay means-- but I certainly had to know something about climate change in order to plausibly describe the world of 2050).

Then I think about fitting all those pieces together.  I run a lot; frequently I spend those mindless pavement-pounding kilometers trying to figure out some plot point or other, dictating ideas into a voice-recorder as they occur to me.  I hang out with other writers, buy them beers in exchange for the chance to bounce ideas off of them.  I consult experts on the bits I'm fuzzy on.  Several of Blindsight's characters are named for real-world personalities whose advice helped me shape them.

And I keep changing things.  Right up to the last minute.  It's not uncommon for me to change the trajectory of a whole novel based on some late-breaking piece of research I run into right up to the copy-edit stage.

Actusf : Let's talk about Rifter's Trilogy. These three novels are available for free on line. Why ? Did it have an impact on the sales of these novels on the bookstore shelves ? Or on the sales of the next books?
Peter Watts : I didn't set any of the rifters books free until they were out of print (or at least, out of print the first time around; two of them have since been rereleased as trade paperbacks).  I have no idea whether the Creative Commons release impacted the trade editions at all, but I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case simply because releasing one's work for free tends to get noticed, and the attendant publicity may have put me on the map for folks who would otherwise never have heard of me.

On the other hand, I set Blindsight free just a month or two after its commercial release date-- and as a result of the publicity that move garnered, hardcover sales tripled the very next week.  I have no doubt that putting Blindsight into the Creative Commons saved it, commercially. I'm pretty sure that Tor had written it off as dead on arrival before it even hit the shelves-- they certainly weren't prepared  for the demand that materialised when the word got out, and for quite some time the Creative Commons edition was the only way that many people who'd heard about the book could actually *read* it.  It simply wasn't available in a lot of bookstores.  It was that giveaway that got the word out, primed the pump so to speak.  None of what's happened since-- the translations, the award nominations, Blindsight's appearance as a textbook in philosophy and neuropsyche courses-- none of that would have happened if large numbers of people hadn't had a chance to read the book.  And it was the CC edition that gave them that chance.

Actusf : How would you describe the universe depicted in  Rifter'sTrilogy to the French readers?
Peter Watts : Dark.  Deep, literally.  And, if I can toot my horn a bit, more plausible than most. (Although I'm continually surprised by how much *faster* the world changes in reality than it does in my books;  things that I was predicting for decades down the road are already happening, at least in rudimentary form.)

Actusf : What are your projects for the future ? What are you currently working on ?
Peter Watts : I have a few novels outlined and ready to write, but none have sold yet so I don't want to go on too much about them.  I'm also doing some video-game work, but I signed a nondisclosure agreement so I'm not *allowed* to go on about that.  Suffice to say, at the moment I'm not especially optimistic about my future as a novellist.  My previous publisher screwed me over to the point that I don't especially want to work with them again, and --  while there's no shortage of interest in my work over on your side of the Atlantic -- interest from North American publishers doesn't seem especially strong.  I find this surprising, given how well Blindsight did both domestically and overseas.  It could just be the state of a shitty market in the wake of a global economic meltdown-- I know of a number of other authors who are having trouble placing their books these days-- or it could be something more political.  I can't really say at this point.   When I can, though, you can bet I will.

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