Interview with Peter Watts

We are delighted to announce that Fata Libelli will be publishing a short anthology of stories by Peter Watts next November. Watts is a marine biologist and a respected hard sci-fi author whose writings delve into the issues of consciousness, intelligence and life.

He kindly accepted to answer some of our questions (which were a LOT at the end) about three main subjects: what does it mean to be alive and conscious, what does he think about the future and the future of science-fiction writing, and how is his life as a writer. You can read the original interview in English below of follow this link to read it in Spanish.

An image capturing the spirit of the first part of the interview

Part I — It’s alive!

Fata Libelli: As a prominent explorer on the issues of intelligence and sentience, and also a marine biologist by trade, I have to ask… are we going to start communicating with dolphins or whales any time soon?

Peter Watts: I wish. John Lilly’s Navy research was one of the seminal influences that got me into cetacean intelligence back when I was in high school, back before I discovered what a brain-addled druggie the man was.

That said, though, the very concept of “communication” — by which we too-often mean “language” — carries with it a certain anthropocentric prejudice. Language, after all, is a workaround: a way of distilling sensory and emotional data into shorthand, placeholders that stand in for the real thing. It might not have quite so much utility for an echolocating species whose members can actually paint those pictures first-hand. Why develop some clunky symbol for “fish” when you can simply beam the acoustic profile of a herring directly into the melon of your buddy? Why develop a vocabulary for “sad” or “happy” when your conspecifics can read your emotional state directly by scanning the acoustic profiles of your sinuses and vascular system? No one familiar with the varied and complex hunting strategies of killer whales would deny that they were intelligent; but whether those creatures would communicate in any way that we terrestrial apes could wrap our heads around is a whole other question.

FL: OK, now seriously, the quest for communication with animals, aliens and artificial intelligences is omnipresent in your narrative (‘The Island’, Blindsight, ‘Bulk Food’…). Do you think this kind of communication could be ever possible, even at a very basic level?

PW: I certainly wouldn’t rule it out in principle, but whether it would work in any given instance has to be parsed on a case-by-case basis. Species which evolved along similar trajectories would be more likely to have compatible mindsets and compatible communications protocols; species whose evolution diverged significantly from ours might not have enough points of common reference to meet us halfway.

It’s been argued that intelligent species could us math and the hard sciences — physics, chemistry — as a kind of “universal touchstone” for communication, since we’ve all presumably evolved in the same physical universe and would have to be aware of the same basic principles before we could (for example) even build a radio to try and talk over. That’s plausible, but I don’t think it’s inevitable. Our understanding of the universe is inevitably tied to our perception of the universe— and even on this planet, those perceptions are mediated by fleshy sense receptors that are riddled with imperfections and design flaws, and which are remarkably easy to fool. Given how unreliable our own senses can be, I wouldn’t bet on an alien’s worldview necessarily having a lot in common with our own.

FL: Your aliens have been widely praised for looking genuinely different, not just like green humanoids. Sometimes, those aliens are so weird (no genes, no cephalisation, hive minds instead of individual selves) that even the main characters have trouble identifying them as living beings. Is there a basic definition of ‘life’ suitable for humans, aliens and IAs?

PW: Up until recently, Dawkins’s definition would have done just fine: Life is information, shaped by natural selection. Of course, that means that computer viruses have the potential to qualify as life forms, not just metaphorically but literally. I can live with that. A-life can meet Darwin’s criteria as well as any other kind.

The problem now is that we’re actually in the process of creating synthetic life — squishy bugs with real genes and metabolic processes — pretty much from scratch. Those things are undeniably alive, yet were not shaped by natural selection. You could make an analogous case for any conscious AIs not derived via genetic algorithm.

Darwin coined the term “natural selection” to distinguish it from the “artificial selection” that characterises things like the breeding of dogs and pigeons. So perhaps tweaking Dawkins definition to “Information, shaped by natural or artificial selection” might be enough to cover the synthetics coming up through the ranks.

Or maybe it’s time to give up on defining life in terms of the way it was derived, or what it’s made of, and concentrate instead on what it does. How about defining life as any complex of structured energy pathways that restricts entropy increase below some threshold rate?

FL: Some of your stories tend to call into question the notion that ‘consciousness’ is the supreme summit of evolution. You frequently quote Richard Dawkins (and the zombie argument) as the source of this idea that sentience may not be functionally useful. Could you please elaborate a little on this idea? Can we really have intelligent behaviour and learning without consciousness?

PW: We already do. Most of your intelligent behaviour and learning is nonconscious. Driving a motor vehicle, for example, is an intelligent learned behaviour; but do you actually cogitate on all the turns and course corrections and traffic signs that inform your passage across a city? Don’t athletes and artists and performers of all stripes report that the best way to screw up a performance is to think about it consciously? Hell, recent papers in peer-reviewed journals have actually reported that thinking consciously about a problem actually degrades the resulting decision. (My favorite example is a case in which a local guy here in the Greater Toronto Area in Ontario actually drove across town, killed somebody, drove back home and got into bed — all in his sleep, without any flicker of consciousness whatsoever.)

Peter en su discurso de bienvenida al calamar supremo

Peter welcoming the squid overlords as he accepts an award (source).

FL: Some of your stories investigate the disturbing concept of ‘hive mind’ as opposed to the notion of individual personality. In a recent lecture you suggested that our growing dependency on the Internet and the increasingly speed by which we can access it may lead us to develop a sort of ‘external cognition’ similar in some ways to a group mind: instead of storing and processing information in our own memory, we instantly get access to a common repository of knowledge. What would that mean to us as individuals?

PW: As I harped on in that same lecture, I think it comes down to the bandwidth and the latency of the connection. It’s a matter of (not much) time before we’ve developed an interface that allows direct transfer of information between a human brain and some external source (either another meat brain or perhaps just a distributed database somewhere); if you keep the bandwidth of that connection low enough, you’ve just got a really nifty database with an internal interface. If, however, the components of that system communicate as quickly as the hemispheres of our own brains talk back and forth — if you end up with the millisecond-scale firing synchrony that seems to characterize conscious thought in human beings — then I suspect that the question “what would that mean to us as individuals” would become meaningless. We would no longer be individuals. We would be components of a larger entity, lobes in some greater brain — in the same way that isolated brain hemispheres, each with their own distinct personality, fuse into a singular awareness when connected.

FL: In Blindsight‘s final notes you mention Metzinger’s Being No One and its ‘World Zero Hypothesis’ as a source of some of your ideas for the book. A work that, in your own words (I quote) ‘addresses the real question that keeps us staring at the ceiling at 3 A.M.’ Can you dumb it down a bit for the less academically abled of us?

PW: No. Fortunately I don’t have to, because Metzinger himself has already dumbed it down for the rest of us in a much more accessible book called The Ego Tunnel, which I would recommend for far more than its frank advocacy of recreational hallucinogenics.

If I remember the context of that quote, though, one of the insights that Being No One successfully imparted to me was why consciousness will always be subjectively intractable to the conscious self. In order to get a handle of a phenomenon, you have to be able to look at it from the outside; to properly observe consciousness you must step outside consciousness. Which means adding another analytical layer, a new observer to watch the old one. At that point consciousness collapses down to just another local variable — but now there’s some other conscious thing looking at it, and it can’t be observed in turn because there’s nothing outside of it to look in. Consciousness will always remain intractable to itself, because the outermost layer of the onion is never available for inspection. We can pile up neural correlates and firing rates until the cows come home, but the reason why we feel conscious may forever be beyond our grasp by reason of infinite regress.

That may not be the most profound insight in the world, and doubtless Metzinger wasn’t the first one to share it. But that was one of the points in his book where something just clicked, where I understood something I hadn’t understood before.

Whether that’s a testament to Metzinger’s brilliance or an indictment of my own stupidity I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

Part II — The world of tomorrow

FL: Blindsight tells the story of a very peculiar bunch of astronauts who are sent on a mission to investigate an intelligent extraterrestrial entity. How is the society that financed the ship Theseus? What is the political/economic state of affairs in 2080’s world?

PW: I imagined a world on the cusp of post-scarcity— increasing numbers of people are checking into Heaven (which, once you get past a certain economy of scale, greatly reduces the cost of keeping them around), birth rates are plummeting (thanks to the advent of virtual sex that surpasses the real thing), and the antimatter cracking technology realized in the Icarus array promises virtually unlimited clean energy for those who choose to remain up and active. But we’re not quite there yet, which means that building a bleeding-edge megaproject like Theseus on short notice is still enough to put the world’s governments back into deficit spending mode when the Fireflies deliver their wakeup call.

FL: What are your thoughts on the current privatization of space race? Do you find it positive? More of a failure of the public sector? Something in-between?

PW: I suppose that as long as we get off our asses and just get out there already, I don’t have especially strong feelings as to how we do that. I confess to a slight personal and selfish bias towards privatization simply because a profit-driven, passenger-based business model is one that would be more likely to get someone like me into space. (Granted, it would increase my odds from one-in-a-billion to one-in-a-million, but I’ll take what I can get). Also, the usual down side of privatization — the negative impact that short-term economics tends to inflict on the environment — isn’t so much of an issue when your “environment” is hard vacuum.

FL: Do you think deep sea research will be subjected to the same process of privatisation? Or there are less economic incentives underwater to attract big companies?

PW: Two words: polymetallic sulphides. Back when I was writing my very first novel, I was eyeing commercial exploitation of the seabed and even introduced it as a minor plot element. I could even point to the occasional peer-reviewed scientific paper to back that up — but in the decade since, not a whole lot seems to have happened on that front.

Not to worry. I was in Norway last year, and had a chance to chat with a guy who’d actually discovered a number of hydrothermal rift communities in the North Atlantic, and who is thus far more tapped in to the real-world facets of this issue than I’ll ever be. I asked him about deep-sea mining in international waters; he says we’re “right on the edge” of that technology taking off big time.

He did not seem happy about it. I think he fears for the survival of abyssal ecosystems when they stand in the way of commercial enterprise. I don’t think any sane person would be able to disagree with him.

FL: Imagine for a second that you’re an optimistic realist…

PW: I am an optimistic realist. Or rather, I’m an unrealistic optimist. My invented worlds do not contain religious fundamentalists who fly planes into buildings, or politicians who start wars under false pretences to line the pockets of their buddies in the fossil fuel industry. What could be more unrealistically optimistic?

FL: … What is your favourite flavour of Singularity? One you would be comfortable living in?

PW: I think maybe Hans Moravec’s vision of incremental replacement; swap out your brain one neuron at a time, make the upload so incremental that you never notice the change. It’s the only way I can think of that avoids the death/rebirth aspect that the gut finds so scary. (I mean, seriously: would you submit to a destructive brain scan that tears you apart synapse-by-synapse, knowing only that some entity with your memories and your sense of “self” would end up inhabiting a robot body or an online network somewhere? If a clone held a gun to your head and said “I’m going to kill you now but don’t worry, I have all the same neural pathways as you so you’ll live on in me”, would you take any comfort from that?)

FL: According to some authors and critics like William Gibson and Paul Kincaid, among others, writing science fiction nowadays is becoming increasingly difficult because our present world changes so quickly that any attempt to talk about the future is doomed to be out of date by the time a book is released. Do you agree that keeping up the pace with technological and scientific innovations is an issue for science fiction?

PW: Oh God, yes. Back in my rifters books I predicted a bunch of stuff — internet weather systems, deep-sea ecotourism, that sort of thing — that I figured could plausibly happen within the following forty years. And those things started popping up in the real world in months rather than decades. The hardest, most rigorous piece of short SF I ever wrote — it even had a partial differential embedded in the damn thing — went from being cutting-edge when it sold to completely obsolete by the time it saw print. Asimov and his buddies never had that problem. They could write a whole raft of stories set on a tidally-locked Mercury and it would be decades before anyone proved them wrong.

Lucky for us that science fiction isn’t actually about predicting the future, eh?

FL: In relation to the previous question, do you think science fiction’s main goal is to accurately predict the future? Or rather to freely speculate about technical development and its consequences?

PW: That second thing. Predicting the future is a fool’s errand; reality has way too many variables. Sure, you can point to dozens of SFnal predictions that came true in the fullness of time. You can also point to thousands that didn’t. You throw a million darts at the future and a few are going hit the bullseye through random chance alone.

I don’t think science has ever really been about seriously predicting the future; what it does is present a series of possible futures, alternate scenarios that might follow in the wake of some seminal event. Science fiction does not so much make predictions as ask questions. It does not say “This will come to pass”; it says “Suppose it did; then what?”

Part III — More about you

FL: Scientific academic writing tend to be stiff and cautious while science fiction can display the weirdest ideas, and maybe lure people into reading real science. So, for you, are both writings complementary to each other? Or are they rather irreconcilable approaches to the same subjects?

PW: In my own case, I’ve always regarded SF and science as flip sides of the same coin: in both cases you start with a question, and follow the data. The advantages of fiction are that you don’t need formal training in your subject, you’re free to deal with issues of more cosmic scale, and you don’t have to fellate government funding bodies to keep yourself in business. The advantage of real science is that you can generally make a pretty good living at it, you’re more likely to be “right” in your (more modest) conclusions, and you don’t have to fellate publishers and a fickle readership to keep yourself in business. Thought experiments versus real ones.

But that’s just how I write science fiction. There are other genre writers out there that start from character rather than idea, and in many ways those authors kick my ass. The reader gets invested in a complex character, has a more profoundly satisfying experience as a result. But starting from ideas as I do, my characters are always in danger of getting stalled at the didactic-mouthpiece level.

Detalle de cubierta de Thomas Pringle

Detail from Thomas Pringle‘s cover

FL: It seems that your short stories are a very successful field-test for your subsequent longer works — for example, ‘The Island’ includes many themes that will later be explored in Blindsight, and Starfish reintroduced the character and story we find in ‘A Niche’. However, is there something unique about short stories? Something that you can’t express in longer form works?

PW: Actually, Blindsight predated “The Island” by a number of years— although I do take your point, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it. Novels and short stories are definitely different species and occupy different niches (see what I did there?); shorts are great for one-liner ideas that pack a punch, but lack the substance to fill a longer work (although ironically, I’ve found that it actually takes me a lot longer to write a thousand words of short story than it does to write a thousand words of novel, simply because you have to be so much more efficient at the shorter length. It’s a tougher packing job.) And yes, sometimes elements of my short stories later find their way into a novel.

I have my doubts about your “field-test” hypothesis, though. I would never have tried out the central themes of Blindsight at short-story length, simply because they require too much set-up. And I can only remember a single instance when I explicitly thought Hey, I think I’ll try out this idea as a short and maybe it’ll turn into a novel (guess which one).

I generally go into each project, big or small, armed with ideas specific to that tale. I wrote “The Island”, for example, as an explicit challenge to the hokey old “ancient stargate” chestnut (which has always struck me as a tad too convenient, as tropes go)— and while I was at it, why not throw in this idea about live Dyson Spheres that I’d been playing with? I wrote “The Things” — well, obviously as a piece of fanfic about one of my favorite movies, but also as a thought experiment exploring the kind of biology and mentality that might inform a true shapeshifter. The missionary-mentality allegory just emerged spontaneously halfway through writing, so I layered it in. I never intended these to act as continued reflections on stuff I’d previously written about; they were each intended to stand alone.

And yet, you’re not the only one to draw this conclusion. I’m bemused (and maybe a little frustrated) at the number of times I’ve read something along the lines of, Oh, here’s Peter Watts going back to the same old nihilistic themes about a cold and indifferent universe. I think what may be happening is a conflation of “story/theme” with “outlook”. I view the world in a certain way, and of course that informs the stories I write. For example, I’m a biologist; any aliens I invent will be the result of some kind of evolutionary process, not a product of Special Creation. But that doesn’t mean that those stories are written around the theme of “Creationism is stupid”. It’s just part of the background, the accepted worldview, and has nothing to do with the story per sé. You might as well claim any TV police procedural is about automotive mechanics because cars appear in literally every episode.

FL: Your books are available online on your website under a Creative Commons license. It is a brave but not very common decision. Did you do it as way of self-promotion, as a vindication of free culture or as something in-between?

PW: In my case it was none of those things: it was basically a hail-Mary act I fell back on once it became obvious that Blindsight was going to tank commercially. My publisher had pretty much written it off as Dead on Arrival, one of the two major book distributor chains in North America decided not to preorder any copies — and even when the buzz started and sales started climbing, Tor held off on committing to another print run. The upshot was, there was this book out there getting killer reviews, but which nobody could actually buy because so few copies had been printed (Blindsight was actually the #1 bestseller at a couple of specialty bookstores for a few weeks running, based entirely on back-orders— there was no physical stock to sell.)

At that point I figured the only two scenarios were a) the book tanks commercially, and nobody reads it, or b) the book tanks commercially, but everybody can read it if they want because I give it away on my website. I never even considered a scenario in which Blindsight actually made money; there just didn’t seem to be any evidence for that.

So I took the least horrible of those two options, and set Blindsight free. While I was at it, I did the same thing to the rest of my backlist. And a weird thing happened: hardcover sales tripled the next week. Since then, Blindsight’s gone on to translation in 17 or 18 languages, has gone through multiple reprints, got nominated for a shitload of awards (even winning a few overseas), and — oddly enough — become a required text for university courses as varied as Philosophy and Neuropsychology. I’m convinced that none of that would have happened if I hadn’t resorted to a Creative Commons release. Paradoxically, giving Blindsight away — or more precisely, the publicity resulting from that act — was what finally let it succeed.

FL: Some experts affirm that self-publishing and social networking have made publishers redundant while others declare that they still offer valuable services for professional authors. What are your thoughts about digital publishing and the expansion of e-books?

PW: I’m open to everything and convinced by nothing. Traditional publishing still plays a legitimate gatekeeper role for readers — self-publishing is a standards-free crap-shoot, and at the very least a book from a professional house involves the services of an editor and a proof-reader. On the other hand, I know of one guy with no professional writing credits to his name, who self-publishes all his stuff on Amazon— and he consistently makes a few hundred dollars a month, with no name and no reputation to speak of. So someone‘s buying that self-published stuff.

All that said, I resent the current houses now almost on principle. They saw the e-writing on the tablet and decided there was no way to avoid increasing the royalty rates they gave their authors, but they appear to have pulled that increase out of their asses and whittled it down to make it as small as possible. 25% author royalty for an e-book? Better than the 6-12% we get for paper, but I can build a perfectly professional e-version of my books at home on my laptop, with about an hour’s self-training. I have, on occasion, asked people in the industry why they’re entitled to three-quarters of the proceeds from a product that has negligible storage and shipping costs, takes up zero space in a warehouse, and which I can build on my own in a weekend. The answer has always amounted to “because we say so”.

I don’t think that’s an especially good answer. Worse, I think it belays an underlying contempt of industry for its midlist authors. And so I will be looking very carefully at what I choose to do once my current contract has been fulfilled. I may try for another traditional contract, I may self-publish, I may crowdsource or I may drop out of conventional narrative altogether. I’m unlikely, however, to stay within an industry that treats me as its bitch. The balance of power between authors and publishers is changing— and while I might sell only a tenth as many books on my own as I would with Tor, I’d also make ten times as much per book.

As I say, no definitive decisions yet. But e-publishing changes everything; the asteroid is lighting up the horizon, and one thing even Big Publishing agrees on is that they don’t want to be dinosaurs any more. Maybe, if they evolve fast enough, they can turn into birds before the shock wave hits. If not, welcome to the Age of Mammals.

De Tom Gauld

By Tom Gauld. Again. Yes, we love this guy.

FL: At present your are finishing Echopraxia, a book about what happened on Earth during Blindsight. Can you advance something about its main themes?

PW: In some ways Echopraxia is likely to be a more accessible book than Blindsight was: for one thing, it’s told from the point-of-view of a baseline Human, not the augmented pseudo-autistic protagonist of the earlier book. He should be easier for contemporary readers to relate to, even though he’s a bit of an asshole. Siri Keeton’s dad, who we met briefly in the other book, is also a major character this time around. And yes, we do find out what’s going on with the vampires — and there’s one particular line of dialog that, if you’re paying attention, might just turn all of Blindsight inside-out in retrospect.

In terms of new themes, though, I’m trying to get a little bit out of my comfort zone this time around. Given my background in science I’ve generally been pretty dismissive of religious beliefs of any stripe — if you believe, without any evidence, in some invisible sky fairy (no matter whether you call it God, Allah, Yahweh or Vishnu), you’ve lost me. Science works, bitches; religion has yet to cure a single disease or engineer a single gene.

Science works. So, to get outside my comfort zone, I’m positing a religious order that works better— one in which chants and prayers and speaking in tongues somehow end up producing insights and discoveries that science never could, because empirical science can’t penetrate below the Planck Length. And by the way, what about miracles? By definition, miracles violate the laws of physics. If we know God by Its miracles, then God is breaking the operating system of the universe; God is a virus lurking in the substructure of reality. In which case, maybe the best way to deal with God is not to worship it, but to disinfect it.

Not that I believe any of this, of course. I haven’t “found God” or anything like that. This is just another thought experiment, another example of me saying not This is but What if.

Still, I thought of Blindsight as pure what-if, too, back when I was writing it. I had no idea how much evidence was piling up to bring it ever closer to this-is. So you never know.

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!