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Interview Peter Watts (VO) - 2012

Interview Peter Watts (VO) - 2012

ActuSF: The “Rifters” trilogy began with Starfish, which came from a novelette dating 1991. When you were writing it, did you already have this future novel in mind, or did the project come to you only afterwards, with the ambition to develop this theme further?

Peter Watts: I'd always had the idea of a novel, singular, in the back of my mind. I didn't originally plan on writing a sequel; the first draft of {Starfish} ends with Lenie Clarke crawling up onto the Pacific shoreline and dying there. But my publisher felt that such a downbeat ending would not go over well with US audiences, who demand triumphalism in their fiction as well as their politics (although down there, you have to wonder sometimes if there's any real difference ). So Lenie survived the end of {Starfish}: and that book did well enough that Tor offered me three times as much for the sequel.

ActuSF: Why did you choose rather terrible characters at first, some kind of psychotics we reject instead of feeling empathy?


Do you mean like Lenie Clarke, whose memories were — for purely economic reasons — altered without her knowledge or consent to make her think that her father had sexually abused her? Or Achilles Desjardins, perhaps: a man so moral that he refused to even engage in consensual sex because he was afraid that he might hurt someone, a man who only became a monster after someone else (again, with only the most ethical of motives) neurochemically stripped him of his conscience. Patricia Rowan, who signed an order that killed millions in order to save billions, and then stayed behind after the earthquake to help clean up the mess? Gerry Fischer, who'd been so fucked up in childhood that pedophilia was the only way he knew of expressing honest affection?  Ken Lubin, who suppressed his killer instinct by sheer force of will even {after} it had been taken off the leash? The vampire Jukka Sarasti, programmed by evolution to prey on humanity, who ended up sacrificing his own life for us instead?

You don't feel any empathy for these souls at all? Really?

ActuSF: No, you’re absolutely right. When I said “at first”, I was meaning that those characters could inspire antipathy in the beginning of the novels, but afterwards, with the evolution of the stories, we learn to feel real empathy for them… What do you think?

Peter Watts:
I think I would like to feel {less} empathy for my characters.  I'm not very good at doing villains.

The problem is, very few people wake up in the morning and ask themselves "How can I be an asshole today?" (Actually I get the sense that certain people on the Internet might do that, but it's only a subjective impression.) Everyone else has reasons for what they do. Everyone else either thinks they're doing the right thing, or can justify why they're doing the {wrong} thing just this once, or — at the very bottom of the barrel — at least feels some kind of regret that they lack the courage to do what's right.  Even your typical sociopathic two-year-old child — someone who isn't even cognitively equipped to feel proper empathy, who might blithely hit some other kid in the head with a rock just to get his hands on a coveted toy — probably feels a sense of justification for their actions. "I wanted to {play} with that Spiderman action figure, and he wasn't {letting} me!" We spend a lot of effort justifying ourselves to ourselves; as an author it's my job to get inside the heads of my characters, and when you do that it's hard not to feel sympathy for them.

I've only twice tried to actively villainize characters in my novels. Once I based a character on a duplicitous sleazeball from my academic past, someone I have utter contempt for in the real world; but despite my best efforts, I ended up having nothing but sympathy for the poor fictional bastard patterned off of him. I had to give him a backstory, I had to give him {reasons}; and when that happened I could kind of see why he'd turned out the way he did, and lost the heart to hold it against him. (In the novel, I mean. He's still an asshole in real life.).

The other time — and at the opposite extreme along the empathy scale — would be Achilles Desjardins, who started out as a profoundly moral individual until an engineered retrovirus neurochemically destroyed his conscience. By the end of the trilogy story he's a monster, and a lot of readers really hated parts of the last book on account of the sexual violence he perpetrates there. I'll admit I felt no great empathy for {him} at that point, even though his condition was entirely the result of someone else's manipulation; but I didn't feel any great aversion to him either. He no longer seemed real enough to care about one way or the other. He was just this cardboard monster who got off on rape and murder, without sufficient depth to justify honest hatred.

Of course, that was one of the points I was trying to make:  there are certain circuits vital to the state we think of as "Humanity", and if you strip them away what's left cannot be regarded as Human. By the end of the story the moral being had basically turned into a walking Id with the world's highest security clearance, and that's entirely consistent with the themes I was exploring and the arc of the character. But while I think the character succeeds if you look down across his entire arc, I think he fails there at the end because he{ is} so one-dimensional. Even if the whole point is that Humanity can be {undone} — even if Desjardin's descended final state makes perfect sense — there must be some better way to paint that portrait than by going into mustache-twirling territory. I just wasn't a good enough writer to figure out what it was. I'm probably still not, although I'd have to sit down and revisit the story in depth to know for sure.

ActuSF: You seem interested in psychology, which plays a very important part in your novels. Do you think that this discipline is a key for human society, so that if we could deeply understand the human psyche, we could make a lot of progress?

Peter Watts: Not so much psychology (or even psychiatry) as those fields currently exist; they haven't even settled on the kind of underlying model that's essential to any mature science. You've got Jungians and Freudians and Klineans and Skinnerians all jostling around in the same profession — it's as though Lamarckism and Creationism and Darwinism were all trying to coexist under the banner of "biology". It's not a science until you've at least got a common set of ground rules.

But once those handwavey disciplines get subsumed by the rigorous study of {neurology} — a process which is happening even as we speak — then yes. Rigorous insight into how the mind works is absolutely essential for progress, insofar as almost everything we thought we knew about ourselves is proving to be wrong. We do not reason ourselves towards decisions; we make decisions emotionally, and then look for reasonable-looking rationales to justify our gut-level judgments. Most of our decision-making doesn't even occur at a conscious level; and recent findings in brain science pretty much put the lie to the whole concept of free will, so any legal/judicial system based on notions of personal culpability is bogus.  Sometimes it seems that everything that {feels} right to us turns out to be empirically wrong.  Recognizing that paradox, incorporating it into our social and legal systems, is (I think) essential to building a sane society.

ActuSF: Both in “Starfish” or “Blindsight”, your characters are isolated from the outside world. If you made this narrative choice of the seclusion in submarine or spatial environment, is it because you want to analyze better its repercussion on the psychology of the characters?

Peter Watts: I suppose it makes sense, that such issues could be most effectively explored in a microcosm; a controlled thought-experiment, with extraneous variables stripped away. But even if that hadn't been the case, I couldn't have done it any other way: any tale involving travel past the edge of the solar system, or life at the bottom of the ocean, isolates its characters from the rest of civilization almost by definition. I didn't consciously set out to do that as an exercise in psychological deconstruction; I'm just fascinated by the deep sea and deep space, and the isolation came along as a useful and welcome side-effect. (Of course, I suppose that begs the question of why I'm so fond of such isolating environment in the first place...)

ActuSF: Do you think that isolation can reveal the inner truth of a human being? Or, on the contrary, do you mean it changes him, and allows an adaptation to a situation which seems unnatural to us?

Peter Watts: I don't believe that those two things {are} contrary. We are complex systems who interact with a variety of different environments and {all} of them change us, to some extent. I behave differently at a funeral than I do at a research lab or while scuba diving, but that doesn't change who I am.

Isolation is just another environmental state. It may make us pull out some behavioral tool that we don't otherwise use — the revealed "inner truth" you mentioned — and if we've not seen that tool before, it might tell us something new about ourselves. But then, so would throwing someone unexpectedly into a stormy sea, or confronting someone with a mugger in a back alley somewhere. In all cases, the operative word is {stress}.  Suddenly the system is confronted with a challenge that pushes it into unknown territory — and yes, if the challenge is sufficiently profound, the discovery you make about yourself could change you forever. But it's not isolation {per sé}; that causes such transformation; it's {any} stress that pushes the individual past their previous limits (which is why I like to populate my stories with people removed from the norm; the extremes are where the system's behavior is most enlightening.)

ActuSF: You raise the question of artificial intelligence, with the "intelligent frosts", and quote in appendix both the works of Masuo Aizawa and Charles Thorpe on neuronal networks. Do you believe that in the future, it will get possible for the human race to create real "artificial brains"? Don’t you think that its complexity, and our misunderstanding about it, will always restrain the resemblances between IA and human intelligence?

Peter Watts: I think it depends on how the AI is derived. So much of what we are — every fear, desire, emotional response — has its origin in brain structures that evolved over millions of years. Absent those structures, I'm skeptical that an AI would experience those reactions; I don't buy the Terminator scenario in which Skynet feels threatened and acts to preserve its own existence because Skynet, however intelligent it might be, doesn't have a limbic system and thus wouldn't fear for its life the way an evolved organism would. Intelligence, even self-awareness, doesn't necessarily imply an agenda of any sort.

The exception to this would be the brute-force brain-emulation experiments currently underway in Sweden and (if I recall correctly) under the auspices of IBM: projects which map brain structure down to the synaptic level and then build a software model of that map. Last time I checked they were still just modeling isolated columns on neurons, but the ultimate goal is to build a whole-brain simulation— and presumably that product {would} have a brain stem, or at least its electronic equivalent. Would it wake up? Who knows? We don't even know how {we} experience self-awareness. But if it was a good model, then by definition it would behave in a way similar to the original— and {now} you're talking about an AI with wants and needs.

I can't wait to see how that one turns out.

ActuSF: You are interested in the human being, in our peculiarities. In the “Rifters” trilogy as well as in Blindsight, your characters aren’t completely human anymore. Implants and genetic manipulations kind of adapt them to their environment. What do you wish to investigate or demonstrate through these speculations? According to you, what defines the human being? Do you think that the mankind such as we know it is brought to disappear?

Peter Watts: I think we fall victim to imprecise language here. When you say "Human", do you mean "person"? Genetics is a common way of deriving taxonomy, which I suspect underlies your question:  my rifters have been genetically modified, so does that make them less "human"? Even we baseline humans are chimeras. We come with Neanderthal DNA built into us; hell, a good ten percent of our cellular DNA comes from {viruses}.  So to suggest that the insertion of a few deep-sea fish genes would make us less "human" seems arbitrary to me.

Of course, our definitions of humanity have always been arbitrary. That's what allows anti-choice movement to define as "murder" the destruction of a ball of cells that doesn't even have a nervous system, then go off and chow down on a Sunday roast carved from a creature capable of fear and pain and anxiety and familial attachment, raised in a box too small to turn around in. The either/or distinction that allows such people to sleep at night is that one is "human"; the other isn't.  It's a definition that causes more problems than it solves, in my opinion.

When most of us say "human", though, we mean "person"; and by {that} we mean something with a certain level of cognitive and emotional complexity. A growing number of biologists believe that all the larger primates should be classified as "persons" under the law because they meet such criteria, and I agree. (A petition raising support for the "personhood" of cetaceans was also making the rounds at the recent AAAS conference in Vancouver, for that matter.) The flip side of that coin is the small number of creatures who are genetically human, but who lack any sort of cognitive awareness whatsoever — I'm talking about the clinically brain-dead — and I would {not} classify those as "persons".

As to whether or not Humanity is likely to "disappear", I assume you're asking whether or not we'll engineer ourselves out of existence — the whole transhumanist thing — not whether we'll simply kill ourselves off through sheer brainstem stupidity (which is not, in my opinion, an insignificant possibility). I don't know. There's a lot of talk about singularities these days, the bootstrapping of the human intellect, technological transcendence into some exalted post-human state. I'm skeptical that many people would actually embrace that option even if it were offered, because we're programmed on a pretty fundamental level to protect the self. Sure, everybody wants to rock more at being what they already are: everybody wants better health, better pheromones, longer life, more vitality. Everybody covets some ideal of the current human state. But that's an ideal with a built-in ceiling; at some point we're going to hit the limits of the model, and the only way to truly transcend that is to leave that model behind and become something else.

Now, tell me the difference between transforming into something completely different, and, well, dying? Everyone might covet a sexy immortal robot (human) body, so long as it's human; even a nonhuman one, as long as you still feel like yourself inside it. But the whole point of transcendence is, you {don't} feel like yourself any more. You're {not} yourself. You're something really, radically different. A lot more people want to be built like an Olympic gymnast than would want to be built like a giant blue-skinned banana slug stippled with a dozen eyes. I think most of us recoil from any transformation on the latter scale, because the brain stem knows that just ain't {natural}. The brain stem knows that true transcendence equals suicide. So I think that even if the opportunity arises, our own neurobiology is going to put the brakes on widespread adoption.

Of course, people commit suicide all the time. Some people's lives are so miserable that death is a step up. And then there are others who've been bitten by the Heaven meme, are somehow convinced that they're going to go to Space Disneyland when they die; and some of {those} think the fastest way to get there is to take as many heathens with them when they check out. {That} might be your early-adopter demographic for the Singularity.

I can't wait to see how {that} one turns out, too.

ActuSF: By reading your novels, we do feel that Man is only a drop of water in the wide biological life, and that human race has developed through evolution… but also chance. But we are on borrowed time, aren’t we? According to you, the human race is too presumptuous, and sometimes forgets the easily broken balance which allows us to live on Earth?

Peter Watts:
The idea of a presumptuous Humanity getting too big for its britches is hardly original with me; Icarus has me beat by a few thousand years for starters, not to mention Adam and Eve. And I wouldn't describe that idea as any kind of central theme to my work in any event; my stuff would be pretty derivative if that's all there was to it. (Maybe my stuff {is} derivative, but if so I'd submit it's for different reasons.) Human presumption is definitely a given in my work, but so is Human language and Human bipedalism; they're all part of what make us what we are, but they're not the fundamental theme of my stories. The closest you could get would be, perhaps, that I sometimes use my fiction to explore {why} we are presumptuous (in evolutionary terms) and some of the consequences thereof; but I would never include "It's about the folly of human presumption!" in the elevator pitch for any of my novels.

ActuSF: In the “Rifters” trilogy as in “Blindsight” and in your short story “The Thing”, it is the unknown form of life which gets the upper hand over the human race: Why?

Peter Watts:
The flippant answer is that there are too many happy endings in fiction, and I'm just doing my part to redress the imbalance. The anal-retentive answer is that you don't {know} that the other lifeform wins; both Humans and nonhumans are still alive at the end of both stories (although of course, when writing "The Things" I had to stay true to the film it was based on, so the ending wasn't really my decision). But the honest answer is, I don't start with those endings in mind. To me, storytelling is kind of a thought experiment: {here is the premise, what are the consequences?} I explore the plot elements, I examine the options, I follow the data. It just so happens than given most of the places I start from, the data point down.

ActuSF: The term of vampire, which is obviously in the center of “Blindsight” as one of the characters is a vampire, also appears in Starfish, when Yves Scanlon, the psychiatrist, calls the occupants of the Beebe station vampires. Where does this fascination for vampires come from?

Peter Watts: I'd deny that I have such a fascination. I certainly don't follow the vampire literature (I've read Anne Rice's first novel, and Matheson's {I am Legend}— also I liked {Buffy the Vampire Slayer}, but that's about it). Vampire imagery made perfect sense in {Starfish}, when Scanlon found himself surrounded by pale eyeless creatures who shunned the light and lacked (to him, anyway) humanity; and I originally wasn't even planning on having vampires in {Blindsight} at all. Those vamps had their origin at an SF convention I'd attended years earlier. Someone had stuck me on a panel about vampires, a subject which I — with all my rigorous hard-sf pretensions — had no knowledge of, and even less interest. So I started playing around with possible biological mechanisms for various vampire tropes, really more out of self-defense than anything, and suddenly struck gold with the whole Crucifix Glitch conceit.

But even then, I was halfway through sketching out Blindsight's plot before I realized that a hard-sf vampire would serve as a great illustration of some the points I was playing around with in regards to consciousness. So it's not as though I decided I really, really wanted to write about vampires; I was writing about something else entirely, and the vampire trope just happened to be a useful tool.

Of course, as a useful tool it proved to be so fun that another vampire figures prominently in the sidequel as well. So I may have created a monster. If you'll pardon the expression.

ActuSF: You use notions of marine biology, and other elements related to diverse scientific domains. Moreover, at the end of your novels, you specify scientific references. Is it important for you, through your fictions, to pass on to the readers your passion for sciences and to lead them to know more, to dig further the subject?

Peter Watts: I'd like to say yes. I'd like to say that I regard my books as bait to lure people into learning more about {real science}, and I could probably get away with it; after all, {Blindsight} has been used as a core text in university courses on philosophy and neuroscience, and I know that the rifters trilogy has inspired at least one or two real-life scientists in their own work. And certainly there've been a number of readers who've written in telling me they've followed this or that reference, and have discovered a whole new interest (occasionally to the point of doing graduate theses on something they discovered via my work). All this gratifies me no end, and I'm pleased to have been a force for knowledge in the world. It's deeply ironic that my fiction has proven far more educational on matters of science, to far more people, than my actual scientific publications ever were.

I suspect, though, that my bibliographies may have more to do with the fact that, back in academia, you have to cover your ass against the nitpickers who are always trying to get ahead by shitting all over everyone else's research. You develop a reflex that employs references as a shield: {Hey, I've got a paper in} Nature {that says I'm right and you're wrong, so take it up with those guys you pathetic loser}.

Also, bundling annotated real-world references with your novels is a pretty cool exercise in branding, and sets me apart from the crowd.

ActuSF: Having read ‘Starfish’, we have a vision a little bit different of the deepwater submarine life. It seems even stranger to us! Abyssal zones are amongst the most unrecognized territories on our planet, the only places which remain really unexplored. Do you think that big scientific discoveries remain to come in these mysterious waters? Do you believe that a more detailed exploration of this environment is possible for Mankind? Or are the conditions too extreme there and these submarine pits too difficult to access for our current technologies?

Peter Watts:
I'm actually a little piqued at how {much} research has been done in the deep sea in recent years. Back in the eighties, when I first started playing around with the ideas that ultimately manifested as {Starfish}, the discovery of hydrothermal vents was still only a few years old. Put that together with the crushing inaccessibility of the abyssal environment and William Beebe's claims of giant dragonfish seen from the port of his bathysphere back in the thirties, and I figured I could posit anything I wanted down there without worrying that real discoveries would catch me up. That sense of smugness lasted about thirty minutes; all of a sudden everyone and their dog is setting up remote networks of seabed sensors and sniffing around Juan de Fuca with tethered ROVs. I had to relocate the setting for {Starfish} twice, because real science kept going down to the spots I'd chosen and {not} finding any giant fish. Hell, back around 2000 I came across an online ad for deep-sea submarine jaunts for ecotourists — something I'd predicted in {Starfish}, of course, but I was expecting that to happen a few decades down the road, not the year after the damn book came out! And the pace of discovery has only accelerated in more recent years; wasn't it just last month that they discovered a whole new kind of rift community down around Anterctica, biologically distinct from anything previously known? By now, someone's probably set up a Starbucks franchise down there.

ActuSF: The “Rifters” trilogy is your first novel work, but reached us in French translation only ten years after its creation. Could you rewrite this story today, what would you change, skip or complete? Do you think that all the approached themes still are current issues? What discoveries made after its writing would allow you to develop your speculations, especially about IA and evolution?

Peter Watts: Huh. Good question.

I'm gratified that a lot of the basic biology holds up — in fact, in the years since {Starfish} came out they've discovered new makes and models of microbes that live deep in the seabed, and which metabolize sulfur in ways that would be consistent with something like behemoth. And the whole field of meaty computers has really taken off. We've got neuron cultures running flight simulators and robots in the lab now; so "head cheeses" aren't just increasingly plausible, they actually exist in rudimentary form today. Likewise with the digital weather systems I postulated in {Maelstrom}; it turns out the internet has storms, has had them for years now.

Of course, I'm no great prophet; I didn't predict any of this stuff on my own, I just read enough of the tech literature to see what was coming down the pipe and then extrapolated a bit. But I seem to have seriously miscalculated the timescale; everything from head cheeses to deep-sea ecotourism is happening a lot faster than I expected it to. So perhaps the single biggest change I would inflict on the rifters story would be to set it somewhat closer to the present — 2020, 2025 tops. Because at the rate things are going now, all the stuff you see in {Starfish} will be years obsolete by the time 2050 rolls around.

ActuSF: At the end of “Rifters”, dices are not completely cast, in particular as for the future of the human race. What can you say to us on what waits for us with “Behemoth”?

Peter Watts:
My fear is that disappointment awaits you; {Behemoth} was my tankiest book (for any of a number of possible reasons, ranging from literary quality to the fact that the original publishers decided to split it into two volumes on release, forcing readers to get one novel for the price of two). In terms of the actual plot, though, we jump ahead five years after the events of {Rifteurs}; both the rifters and the corpses have been hiding at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean all that time, forced into an uneasy truce by their shared fear of what's been happening back on shore all this time. Then something happens to shatter that fragile balance; things fall apart in Atlantis. And Lenie Clarke heads back to land, to confront the mess she's made. As you might expect, things don't go well.

Also, it's not much of a spoiler to reveal that Clarke and Patricia Rowan have, strangely, become fast friends in the interim.

ActuSF: Are you interested in a big screen version of the rifters’ trilogy?

Peter Watts:
More interested than any actual moviemakers seem to be, sadly. There've been occasional nibbles over the years — including one from one of the juniors on the{ South Park} team, oddly enough — but none of them ever got the money stage. Maybe some day.

ActuSF: Music seems quite important to you, as you quoted a "soundtrack" for the writing of your novels (Jethro Tull, Sarah McLachlan, Ian Anderson, REM …). Do these sounds help you concentrate when you’re alone facing a blank screen? Do they help you imagine more easily the universe you want to bring to life?

Peter Watts: I used to listen to music all the time when I wrote; and there's at least one short story that I composed entirely to the strains of a Dead Can Dance album. But one day I noticed that either the music was distracting me from my writing, or that I'd tune it out completely and only notice it by its absence when the CD ended (this was in the days before mp3s). Either way, it wasn't contributing to the process; so I stopped mixing music and writing years ago. Maybe I'm just getting old.

I still slap the headphones on whenever I'm on the go, though, and frequently when working out.

ActuSF: You’ve often been consulted by the video game industry, in order to conceive sci-fi universes (Crysis 2 recently). What does this kind of collaboration bring you from the creative point of view?

Peter Watts: The Crysis gig wasn't really a collaboration so much as a {translation}: me trying to convert the essence of a video game into a novel, while frantically trying to keep up with all the changes the game was undergoing during production. It wasn't my world, it was Crytek's. It wasn't my story, it was Richard Morgan's (great guy, by the way). My job might best have been described as trying to show that world, and that story, through the fractured lens of a Peter Watts worldview.

You might think that the whole experience would be anathema to a novelist — someone used to creating his own worlds and his own stories, forced to fit into this universe built by committee. But you know what? I really liked it. It was a different{ kind} of challenge: like being tasked with retelling an action movie entirely in iambic pentameter. The end product might not be {art} by a long stretch, but the fact that you can pull it off at all is something to be proud of. And I really liked being able to interrogate some of the standard video-game tropes — things that make a game fun to play but don't make any scientific sense (like, for example, the very idea that an antagonistic alien species capable of casually hopping between star system wouldn't have just squashed us flat before the opening credits even rolled) — and rationalize them in a way that seemed plausible. I'd do it again.

ActuSF: What are your next projects?

Peter Watts: One would be a near-future technothriller (working title "Intelligent Design") that involves genetically engineered giant squid in a melting Canadian arctic; another might be to bang out a few more installments of the story cycle I began with "The Island". The third I'm not allowed to talk about yet.

ActuSF: Last but not least, the most important question: why did you put a cat’s picture rather than your portrait in “the author" section of your Website? (short precision, if we spend the mouse on this pic, it’s your real face that appears!) Were you a cat in a previous life, either are you a “were-cat” since a strange scientific experiment inoculated to you one feline gene?

Peter Watts: Three reasons: first, it's a bit of a reaction against the standard posed author head shot, many of which come across to me as artsy and pretentious. Secondly, it's well known that pictures of cats sell books.

Finally, Banana is {way} more charismatic than me. Even the picture of the real me that pops up on mouse-over is about six years out of date. I'm much craggier these days.

{This interview in tribute to [Banana->http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=2814], passed away , and who has had a beautiful "Life Sausage"}

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