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If we're not in pain, we're not alive
August 25, 2014 11:17 AM   Subscribe

You invest so much in it, don't you? It's what elevates you above the beasts of the field, it's what makes you special. Homo sapiens, you call yourself. Wise Man. Do you even know what it is, this consciousness you cite in your own exaltation? Do you even know what it's for?
Dr. Peter Watts is no stranger to MetaFilter. But look past his sardonic nuptials, heartbreaking eulogies, and agonizing run-ins with fascists (and fasciitis) and you'll find one of the most brilliant, compelling, and disquieting science fiction authors at work today. A marine biologist skilled at deep background research, his acclaimed 2006 novel Blindsight [full text] -- a cerebral "first contact" tale led by a diverse crew of bleeding-edge post-humans -- is diamond-hard and deeply horrifying, wringing profound existential dread from such abstruse concepts as the Chinese Room, the Philosophical Zombie, Chernoff faces, and the myriad quirks and blind spots that haunt the human mind. But Blindsight's last, shattering insight is not the end of the story -- along with crew/ship/"Firefall" notes, a blackly funny in-universe lecture on resurrecting sociopathic vampirism (PDF - prev.), and a rigorously-cited (and spoiler-laden) reference section, tomorrow will see the release of Dumbspeech State of Grace Echopraxia [website], the long-delayed "sidequel" depicting parallel events on Earth. Want more? Look inside for a guide to the rest of Watts' award-winning (and provocative) body of work.

[Note: Watts has made most of his work freely available in multiple formats on his website's Backlist page. His blog, The Crawl, has current info.]

Apart from Blindsight, Watts' best-known work is the "Rifters" trilogy, a grim epic about various bio-engineered anti-heroes struggling against lethal computer viruses and an ancient microbe that threatens to destroy a rapidly deteriorating world. Originally inspired by the short story "Home" [PDF], the completed trilogy is available in three free installments: MeFites may also be familiar with some of his more successful short fiction, including:
  • "The Island" [PDF] (previously) - A Hugo-winning 2009 novelette about the jaded human architects of cosmic gateways and their hopeful encounter with a vast and exotic intelligence. Also available as an audio podcast [.mp3] (@0:49:44).
  • "The Things" (previously) - A brilliant 2010 reinterpretation of John Carpenter's cult horror classic The Thing as told from the perspective of the film's shapeshifting alien. Likewise available as a full .mp3.
  • "Nimbus" [PDF] - (1994) A father tries to reconnect with his daughter in a world where the very atmosphere has become a sentient force bent on destroying humanity. Available as a full .mp3 (@0:31:42)
  • "Malak" [pdf] - The ethics of remote warfare are explored through a smart drone that develops its own agenda. Available as a full .mp3 (@0:35:12)
Other stories to dive into (all PDFs):
"Ambassador" - "Bethlehem" - "A Niche" - "Flesh Made Word" - "Bulk Food" - "Fractals" - "The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald" - "A Word for Heathens" - "Mayfly" - "Repeating the Past" - "Hillcrest V. Velikovsky"
You can also pick up one of his collections if you want several of his stories in one place: Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, The Island and Other Stories, and Beyond the Rift. You can also donate to his Niblet Memorial Kibble Fund to support his work (and cats).

Beyond novels and stories, his non-fiction forays (including several lectures) are equally worthwhile: Can't wait for Echopraxia? Here are some "fiblets" from the book, as collected in this post. See also "The Colonel," a free tie-in story hosted on Tor. The newly-redesigned Watts website features a number of background material teasers, as well:
Hive Minds - The Theseus Mission - Military Zombies - The Crown of Thorns - The Bicameral Threat
Bonus: Blindsight artwork, including downloadable dust jackets! Also, don't forget that Watts will be doing a Reddit AMA at 7PM EST on August 26th! You can check his user page for responses if you happen to miss it.
posted by Rhaomi (84 comments total) 204 users marked this as a favorite

 
Huh. So I was thinking of doing a post about Echopraxia. I am more than happy to get sniped by Rhaomi. Great post!

Lock-in and Echopraxia come out tomorrow. It's going to be a pretty good time.
posted by Lemurrhea at 11:19 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


[Full disclosure: I dropped Dr. Watts a line via his blog giving him a head's-up about this post a few days ago and offered a gift account if he wanted it. He's obviously a bit busy at the moment, but he might stop by to say hello when he gets the chance. Best behavior!]
posted by Rhaomi at 11:20 AM on August 25 [10 favorites]


Outstanding post.

Echofuckingpraxia
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:21 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Best behavior!

Yeah! None of you jerks should talk about ...er, suicide bombers, or feeding humans to killer whales, or how we are all unconscious organisms run by selfish votes of amoral million-year-old body parts, or necrotizing fasciitis. That would be unseemly!
posted by Lemurrhea at 11:26 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]


Or properly respecting authoritah
posted by whuppy at 11:27 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I read Blindsight based on encouraging recommendations either here or on Reddit earlier this year. It was the first book in some time that I honestly had trouble putting down at night. I'm excited to read the new stuff, thanks for the heads up!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:29 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I think the James Nicoll quote - "Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts." - that is on the old Rifters home page pretty much nails it.

I frequently rewatch the vampire powerpoint slideshow linked above - the extra-dry academic satire is almost painful... but in that good way, y'know.
posted by logicpunk at 11:33 AM on August 25


This post worked. I just hit download for the first book in the "Rifters" trilogy.
posted by Fizz at 11:34 AM on August 25


I've posted a few Watts stories here previously, but shied away from Malak as it was audio only - I have to say if you liked the others go listen to it now (or pick up an anthology with it in) because it is fantastic.
posted by Artw at 11:40 AM on August 25


Oh, man! Just yesterday I was at my old college library looking for Blindsight because some people on Twitter had jabbered excitedly about the sequel. They didn't have it, so this post has the best timing possible.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:42 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I stumbled across Blindsight via the Wikipedia Creative-Commons-licensed novels category a year or two ago after reading Accelerando (by MeFi's own cstross) and devoured it forthwith. Good stuff.
posted by XMLicious at 11:42 AM on August 25


I just reread Blindsight in preparation for Echopraxia. It's even better the second time, when you know what's going on and can focus on just how astonishingly weird and fucked up the story is. (Also, I guess I probably know more about human brains than I did in 2006). I can't wait to start Echopraxia!
posted by novalis_dt at 11:42 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Ooo, he wrote "The Things"! That was extraordinary. Thanks, Rhaomi, I'll definitely be reading more of his stuff now...
posted by rory at 11:47 AM on August 25


It's even better the second time

And the 4th!

I would strongly, strongly recommend Bulk Food. It is a mix of hilarious and offputting.
posted by Lemurrhea at 11:50 AM on August 25


Hey folks,

Thanks for the ego-boo (although a small paranoid part of me can't stop wondering what quickly-deleted comment prompted Rhaomi's "best behavior" remark).

I didn't realize that "Malak" was only available online in podcast form. I haz fixed that for you.
posted by Squidnapper at 12:00 PM on August 25 [59 favorites]


I read Blindsight (recommended by a staff member at San Francisco's excellent Borderlands Books) on a dive trip to Thailand. I'd like to think I could save Echopraxia for this winter's upcoming trip to the Caribbean, but I know myself too well.
posted by tftio at 12:02 PM on August 25


I have definitely enjoy Watts's writing. I reread Blindsight recently, and it was really interesting to try to figure out how much of Siri's perceptions are due to his sub-conscious premonitions about the scramblers, and how much are due to the scramblers themselves...

A Word for Heathens is another favorite, from the collection Beyond the Rift.

Can't wait for Echopraxia!
posted by rustcrumb at 12:02 PM on August 25


I picked up Starfish at a book sale last summer and enjoyed it. Now that I'm in Ontario, I can probably find the rest of the trilogy at my local library, no problem. Mental note to check that out made!
posted by Kitteh at 12:07 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I love Peter Watts. He's someone that I just stumbled across, and his books, dark as they are, fill me with joy. I need to reread Blindsight to get ready for Echopraxia.

Thanks squidnapper!
posted by OmieWise at 12:26 PM on August 25


I recommended Blindsight to two different friends; they each reached the conclusion of "I couldn't stop reading and this book makes me want to kill myself." One of them just posted that they can't wait until Echopraxia comes out.

Also, one of my favorite pieces is the one about cats and sausages that gets me crying every goddamn time.
posted by mikurski at 12:35 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


I have downloaded Blindsight and added it to my Kindle, and I look forward to exploring the work of an author I hadn't been aware of. Thanks, Rhaomi and Squidnapper!
posted by languagehat at 12:40 PM on August 25


"I couldn't stop reading and this book makes me want to kill myself."

Couldn't put it -or myself- down!
posted by hal9k at 12:41 PM on August 25 [6 favorites]


I wish Peter was a vampire who could write forever.
posted by kyp at 12:41 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Just read Malak now. Spoilers: it's also excellent.
posted by rustcrumb at 12:43 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I'll rant at arbitrary length to anyone who will stand still about how Watts is one of the best (and most criminally obscure) science fiction authors around so this post is a joy to see. Starfish grabbed me by the scruff of the neck a long time ago and I haven't shut up about him since. The brutal, bleak, Molochian worlds are just my cup of tea.
posted by Skorgu at 12:46 PM on August 25


[this is fucking amazing] Thanks, Rhaomi! And thanks to Dr. Watts for dropping by and offering Malak in readable form so quickly.

Bakka re-opened today, so I can ride out for my dead trees version of Echopraxia tomorrow -- yay!
posted by maudlin at 12:51 PM on August 25


Go read Malak. That is what you should be doing right now.
posted by figurant at 12:55 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Blindsight and Watts' notes led me to follow up on Thomas Metzinger's theories of consciousness. You can find him easily on the web, he's done several TEDx talks, but for more depth I'd recommend this UC Berkeley talk on his Being No One thesis. Humbling, perspective-altering stuff.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:58 PM on August 25 [7 favorites]


Oh, hell yes. Watts deserves to be a much, much bigger name than he seems to be, some of the most intelligent and imaginative fiction I've ever read. I'm pretty sure I first heard of him through metafilter, so thanks for that (whoever it was!) and thanks for this.

My only worry is that Blighdsight was soul-crushingly bleak; any word on whether I should book my friends' puppy for some extended nuzzling after reading Echopraxia?
posted by metaBugs at 1:00 PM on August 25


I've given print editions of Blindsight to a number of people. Print because not everyone I know is e-bookified but I really really like that book and feel like everyone with a brain should read it.

I fucking love the depiction of the 'aliens' I love the thoroughness of their weirdness. How completely strange they are and then how completely strange the humans have made themselves and then and then there are the vampires and and they're fucking great too because they are absolutely in no way sympathetic or relatable. They're, you know, interested mostly in killing humans! Ack! But they were once 'human'.

It makes me wonder if he read 'Solaris' by S.Lem and if he did if it was a translation other than the 'standard' English one which manages to shed about 100 pp from the original. The similarities are worth noting and make both books the richer for the way they reflect each other.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:06 PM on August 25


Great post, Rhaomi, thanks. Malak really is great. So's Starfish, especially if you like thinking about what undersea humanity might be like; Watts' biology is wonderful. And while Blindsight is one of the best alien contact stories I've ever read, I never got the hype about how awfully bleak and depressing it is. Anyone who's taken Intro to Philosophy of Mind has grappled with the notion that what we call consciousness is probably just an after-the-fact rationalization from the evolutionarily-useful narrative-loving part of our brains to make sense of our already-biologically-determined actions. It's a reasonable position.

And anyway, "the self is an illusion" doesn't have to be an unrelentingly bleak worldview. The fun part is what we do *after* we grok that possibility. Ride the goofball post-hoc narrative, I suppose.
posted by mediareport at 1:30 PM on August 25


Blindsight and Watts' notes led me to follow up on Thomas Metzinger's theories of consciousness.

There's some good intro stuff about Metzinger at the blog The Phantom Self:

Metzinger: Being No One
Metzinger on the Unreality of the Self
posted by mediareport at 1:34 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


a small paranoid part of me can't stop wondering what quickly-deleted comment prompted Rhaomi's "best behavior" remark

ASCII art of a Langford basilisk.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:43 PM on August 25 [17 favorites]


I, for one, am amazed and horrified at the imminent arrival of Blindsight II: Electric Nihiloo. I have edited the rest of my comment to eliminate spoilers, so read on!

Although I will miss the giant fucking [redacted] and the ingenious way they used [redacted] to penetrate [redacted] and encounter the [redacted]; and of course the pivotal question of whether [redacted] constitutes [redacted], or just blind [redacted]; and, by extension, the question of whether any of us are truly [redacted] or just simply acting out our own [redacted] [redacted].

So yeah, don't miss out on this, it's ABSOLUTELY [redacted].
posted by Mister_A at 2:16 PM on August 25 [4 favorites]


I just reread Blindsight and the Rifters trilogy. Watts' work is so good. I'm definitely going to have to read some of his short stories.
posted by yonega at 2:40 PM on August 25


One of the things I liked about The Island was how it addressed the problem of writing about a distant posthuman future when it's impossible to depict a posthuman perspective. To paraphrase John W. Campell, "You can't write that story. Neither can anyone else." It's rather clever how he gets around that, almost incidentally, while doing something else.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:51 PM on August 25


I just have to add that the new Rifters site is brilliant. It seemed a little sluggish earlier today (fans rushing the server, I guess), but it's brisk, gorgeous and highly functional now. Lots of new and tweaked content, too. (I sniffled a little over the expanded Niblet Memorial Kibble Fund page).

I do kind of miss the muted menace of the old home page (the audio seems to be playing substantially faster now, so the effect is lessened), but I can visit the original site whenever I feel that my will to embrace modern web technologies is ebbing.
posted by maudlin at 3:04 PM on August 25


Pre-ordered Echopraxia the instant I became aware of it. I was hoping someone would find a way to make a post about it, thanks Rahomi!
posted by sidereal at 3:38 PM on August 25


I read all the way to the end and thought Blindsight had some neat ideas. But (spoilers ahead) I felt in the end like Blindsight was the first draft of a very good novel, and my problem basically down to the vampires.

I've never seen the point of them in terms of the novel's exploration of unconscious intelligent lifeforms, since the AI and the post-human crew fill that slot nicely. They introduce so many questions, make it so hard to care about the society that turned itself over to them, and finally, fatally undercut the whole narrative. "Oops! Turns out all of this is pointless because while it was happening another unconscious intelligent race killed everyone".
posted by Grimgrin at 5:01 PM on August 25


Peter Watts : Sci-fi :: King's X : Rock
posted by gottabefunky at 7:40 PM on August 25


So I pre-ordered a physical copy of Echopraxia. I do not know why. So I might have to obtain an ebook too because can I wait?! Though amazon is pretty good about getting pre-order media to you on release day.

I got halfway thru the Rifters books and had to stop because I was engrossed but depressed. I did finally finish them and they were great and not quite as depressing as they seemed when I quit the first time. Almost uplifting.

Blindsight by contrast still sometimes keeps me up in the middle of the night ....
posted by R343L at 7:44 PM on August 25


I felt in the end like Blindsight was the first draft of a very good novel

I'd say more like second draft, but I kind of got that feeling as well. It was sort of like reading an extended thought experiment in philosophy of mind. It didn't manage to quite get out from under the massive ideas it was addressing. On the other hand, it managed to be a very entertaining read, which counts for a lot in my book.

It manages to sit just about about at Intro to Philosophy of Mind, which makes it accessible to people like me (who only took aforementioned class in philosophy) and slightly mind-blowing to people who didn't. It's quite an achievement in that way.
posted by BungaDunga at 8:33 PM on August 25


Blindsight is absolutely one of the best novels I have ever read. I'm delighted and terrified to read Echopraxia. There's a reason that the SF magazine I help run went with Peter Watts for our opening salvo.
posted by 256 at 9:03 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


The violence and the torture porn aspect of last book in the Rifters series (Behemoth: Seppuku) got to be too much for me. Still intend on reading Blindsight this year, though.
posted by Auden at 9:40 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


[spoilers ahead]

mediareport: "And while Blindsight is one of the best alien contact stories I've ever read, I never got the hype about how awfully bleak and depressing it is. Anyone who's taken Intro to Philosophy of Mind has grappled with the notion that what we call consciousness is probably just an after-the-fact rationalization from the evolutionarily-useful narrative-loving part of our brains to make sense of our already-biologically-determined actions. It's a reasonable position."

It's not so much the consciousness-as-freak-accident concept that's bleak, but the obvious corollary that every other form of intelligent life in the universe is a soulless, amoral killing machine. It's like classic Lovecraft, but instead of ghastly tentacles and impossible angles, the alien quality is in the very foundation of awareness. A fragile humanity, "flightless birds lauding our own mastery over some remote island," surrounded by countless machinelike superintelligences utterly incapable of art, empathy, introspection, and love.

It reminds me of this assessment of a vacuum metastability event, a theory that the local universe resides in a high-energy bubble that could catastrophically collapse into a lower-energy state, obliterating everything and rewriting the laws of physics:
The possibility that we are living in a false vacuum has never been a cheering one to contemplate. Vacuum decay is the ultimate ecological catastrophe; in the new vacuum there are new constants of nature; after vacuum decay, not only is life as we know it impossible, so is chemistry as we know it. However, one could always draw stoic comfort from the possibility that perhaps in the course of time the new vacuum would sustain, if not life as we know it, at least some structures capable of knowing joy. This possibility has now been eliminated.
Grimgrin: "I've never seen the point of [the vampires] in terms of the novel's exploration of unconscious intelligent lifeforms, since the AI and the post-human crew fill that slot nicely. They introduce so many questions, make it so hard to care about the society that turned itself over to them, and finally, fatally undercut the whole narrative. "Oops! Turns out all of this is pointless because while it was happening another unconscious intelligent race killed everyone"."

In addition to being clever exercises in neurobiological what-if-ery (and a killer plot twist at the end), I think the vampires functioned as an in-universe example of the philosophical zombie. They help introduce the alien qualities that the Scramblers ultimately embody more fully -- they look like humans, act (sort of) like humans, and are nearly the same biologically, but lack conscious awareness and as a result far exceed humans in terms of ruthless intelligence. The rest of the Theseus crew are beyond baseline human, but apart from Siri (to an extent) they are all still capable of empathy, love, and other essential human qualities. They're augmented, eccentric, almost incomprehensible without Siri's synthesizing, but they are still human at heart. The vampires are emphatically not.

When it comes to unsatisfying plot twists, I was more disappointed in the last-minute revelation of who was really in charge of the mission the whole time. It made Sarasti, one of the most intriguing characters in the book, feel in retrospect like a non-entity (pun intended). Or maybe that was the point?

BungaDunga: "It was sort of like reading an extended thought experiment in philosophy of mind. It didn't manage to quite get out from under the massive ideas it was addressing. "

On the contrary, I think it did a fantastic job of building a compelling story amidst the flood of ambitious ideas. There were moments of real pathos throughout -- Siri trying and failing to say goodbye to Chelsea, the final whistling-in-the-dark message from his father, the pride and angst of the Gang of Four. I also fell in love with the structure and style -- the pitch-perfect epigrams, the magnetic, confident, delightfully self-aware voice, the slow revelation of when and where the narrative was coming from. It's also full of such striking imagery -- imagine Rorshach's electrified obsidian structure, Heaven's idyllic stained-glass simulations, Sarasti's predatory eyes, his shrieking statistical holograms. If I could turn any science fiction book into a faithfully-adapted movie, it would be this one.

Ninja edit: (Also, thanks so much to Dr. Watts for dropping by, and thanks to cortex for swapping in the official "Malak" PDF he provided!)
posted by Rhaomi at 10:13 PM on August 25 [5 favorites]


I was more disappointed in the last-minute revelation of who was really in charge of the mission the whole time. It made Sarasti, one of the most intriguing characters in the book, feel in retrospect like a non-entity (pun intended). Or maybe that was the point?

Sarasti was still at least recognizable, comprehensible. He might have been a soulless killing machine, but his ancestors were our ancestors. But - and for the sake of spoilers, let's call it the Puppeteer - is nothing like us. Is operating on a plane so far above us we can't even comprehend the questions it's supplying the answers to, much less the answers themselves. Remember when Keeton remarks that Sarasti comes up with these inhumanly accurate assessments of time remaining, probability to detection, etc? Maybe that was him, or maybe ...

From the excerpts I've read of Echopraxia, it looks like the hives are going to be the big unknown. Shades of Ted Chiang's The Evolution of Human Science. How could you combat something that knows to how to counter your strategy, before you have yourself determined it?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:22 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I'm not entirely sure how to feel about it, in the end. It didn't feel like a cop-out, exactly -- it was made clear that vampires are frighteningly intelligent, so changing the provenance of his predictions doesn't take too much away from the vampire concept. And the "Puppeteer" isn't that far removed from what the vampires are doing, anyway; there are a few passages earlier in the book talking about their exploits, and while they're just as incomprehensible as the vampires, they're coming from the same basic place (lack of consciousness equalling unfettered superintelligence). I was more bummed by the idea that everything we thought we knew about Sarasti, and by extension the rest of the vampires, was in some sense a lie.

I guess it really depends on the nature of the relationship between him and his master; it's obviously more... direct at the end, but I'd feel better about it if it were just "taking orders" up until that point. Sarasti was so primal and visceral -- his bloody "lesson" and the attendant lecture towards the end is the novel's high point, IMHO -- so it's both intriguing and a little frustrating to imagine projecting all those unique qualities to a totally different source.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:36 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


flightless birds lauding our own mastery over some remote island

It's been a few years since I last read Blindsight, and I didn't have the right metaphor to wrap around the concept, but that's exactly where the bleakness of the story lies.

On a more low-brow note, among many other things it's totally a gothic horror novel. How can anyone have a problem with vampires in a gothic horror novel?
posted by figurant at 10:38 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


This comment has spoilers for Blindsight and, to an extent, the Rifters trilogy.

I agree completely with Rhaomi's comment about the bleakness of Blindsight. It's not about consciousness being an illusion, it's consciousness being an aberration. The thing that makes us special, our soul and sense of self, is not just extremely rare, it's also a massive liability that means we'll certainly be wiped out when we bump up against a species without that flaw. The vampires and the universe at large are more alien and more fundamentally hostile than we'd thought: we're doomed, and anyone we could imagine calling "friend" is doomed too. Similar ideas come up in Rifters (mostly in the middle book, I think?), as we meet characters whose empathy/conscience has been deliberately dampened so they can unflinchingly do exactly the right thing for the utilitarian "greater good". It's not about the awful things they do, it's about Watts convincing us that suppressing our humanity like this might be the best course: truly necessary evil, performed with the most pure intentions and cold statistics to back it up.

Showing the reader a monster is one thing, but turning the reader into a monster is a better trick.
posted by metaBugs at 4:31 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I was reading a certain scene in Blindsight at my bus stop when a very small spider walked across the inside of my glasses and I emitted a very loud scream. Great book.
posted by mikelynch at 4:41 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I guess it really depends on the nature of the relationship between him and his master; it's obviously more... direct at the end, but I'd feel better about it if it were just "taking orders" up until that point.

Spoilers ahead:

You're in luck, then— that's pretty much what happened. The, er— okay, let's go with puppet-master— only took direct control once Sarasti's own brain started seizing uncontrollably— and even then, it could only do that after mulching the relevant parts of Siri's brain using one of Bates's hijacked drones.

Also it made for a really cute riff on the old "undead" thing.
posted by Squidnapper at 5:38 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


I meant mulching Sarasti's brain in that last post, of course. Not Siri's. Argh.

Is there anyway to edit these things, post-post? After the 5-minute limit has expired?
posted by Squidnapper at 7:12 AM on August 26


I've had Blindsight on my kindle for a couple of months. This post made me move it to the top of the "read this next" line.
posted by DigDoug at 7:17 AM on August 26


You can use the contact form, buried in the bottom right-hand corner of the page, to request the Staff to do it for you.

Thanks for the journies, Dr. Watts. I'm really looking forward to Sunflowers too. I keep trying to get my marine biologist / cetacean specialist wife to read "Bulk Food."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:19 AM on August 26


Wow, I read "The Island" on the train yesterday and today. These are written with such style and attention to detail. It's impressive, and it scratches my itch for scientific detail in speculative writing.

Such a good post. Many, many thanks.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:25 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Half-way through the first "Rifter" trilogy, Starfish and wow....just wow. Mr. Watts makes me think quite a bit of Richard Morgan. Fast paced, a bit grim, full of tech that is well explained but not overly detailed to the point of distracting.

I'm so glad this post was made. I was just at that point of needing a new book/series.

Thanks.
posted by Fizz at 12:35 PM on August 26


TOR: Echopraxia: The Latest Attempt by Peter Watts to Stomp Your Assumptions to Death
Watts’s novels blow the mind pretty much on every page, but what I also noticed about this one is that his writing style is getting ever more elastic and beautiful. (I’ve written about this in a revisit to his first book, Starfish.) Every word has been tuned and polished: there’s a perfectionism at work here, a refusal to write a novel that’s merely as good as the last one if something better can be wrung from cutting edge science and the English language. There is some real tour de force writing in this book.
...
Fifth and last, it’s often good to wrap up a novel like this with a drink. Quite a strong one.
Something bitter and bracing, perhaps.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:42 PM on August 26


The AMA in Reddit is on right now, if you didn't notice the link in the FPP.
posted by sidereal at 5:23 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


Great post. Blindsight is one of my favorite SF novels of recent memory. I've read it three times now and I enjoy it more each time. I'm 20% through Echopraxia and I'm fuckin psyched I don't have to work tomorrow. I spent as much time wiki-spelunking the ideas in Blindsight as I did reading it.

I'm always so happy when I find an author as good as Watts (sorry to refer to you in the third person, Peter, if you're reading this), because I can just tell they are going to keep getting better.
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:15 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: wiki-spelunking the ideas
posted by Fizz at 7:10 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I'm in the middle of Blindsight right now. Really liking it so far. I thought the vampire thing would turn me off, but it really fits without feeling like how The Matrix tried to make ghosts, werewolves, etc. science-y.

I'm also a fan of well done genre fiction. I don't know exactly what you call the "a bunch of weirdos and jerks go on a long, sub-light space voyage of enormous importance" genre, but the novel does it really well while simultaneously subverting it in subtle ways.

Looking foward to reading this thread after I finish the book!
posted by spaltavian at 8:59 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Argh. I booked a solid chunk of time last night to dig into Echopraxia, so that a friend and I can talk about it on the weekend. The Kobo site where I bought it doesn't provide a download link, and after calling them today, I find out that their non-DRM books need to be downloaded through the official Kobo app.

I managed to sort it out now, thankfully, but goddamn you Kobo. And goodbye tonight's free time!
posted by Lemurrhea at 9:31 AM on August 27


Oh, yay! Rereading Blindsight now, excited about Echopraxia, largely convinced I'm actually a Chinese Room! Thank you for the lovely novel, Mr. Watts!
posted by Greg Nog at 12:46 PM on August 27


Oh, also: I very much agree with Rhaomi's wish for Blindsight to be turned into a movie; for a story so focused on concepts, there's SO much interesting imagery going on. I'd be curious if anyone else found themselves fantasy-casting Blindsight in their heads while reading it.
posted by Greg Nog at 1:53 PM on August 27


I love how he started off the introduction to the AMA with "MeFi etiquette apparently dictates that I start this thing with IamA..."

Also, this story from same made me LOL:
I am definitely not the Peter Watts from Upper Dicker, whose collection of child porn got him all over the news way back in 2004, on the very same day that I told all my friends to google my name because Wired.com quoted me at length in one of their articles that happened to go up on that date. Even though I am the same age as him. I am not that Peter Watts.
He was also kind enough to answer my question about character names:
I tuckerise a lot of characters. I take people out for beer and pick their brains, and then stick them into the novel they've informed to die a horrible death. Susan James is a real person, with a background in linguistics. Isaac Szpindel is a real neuroscientist. Jim Moore was some dude who won a contest-- I've never met him, but he still exists.

Siri Keeton, OTOH, came to me in a dream. And Jukka was the name of a friend of my first known overseas fan, in Finland; I was looking for a name with overtones of icy albino psychopathy, so who better than the Finns? (Actually, the Norwegians-- but I didn't have any Norwegian connections back then.) Little did I know that every third male in that blasted country is named "Jukka". When I did my book signings, I ran into so many Jukkas in the first five minutes that I thought either a) the whole damn con was yanking my chain, or b) Blindsight had been so influential that half the male population had had their names legally changed.

Rule of thumb, if the name seems unremarkable, it's probably the name of an actually human being. Otherwise I hallucinated it.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:09 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Finished Blindsight, thoroughly enjoyed it. One of the few times in fiction I encountered aliens that actually seemed alien, in mind as well as form. The way the Scramblers avoid detection is creepy and awesome.

I don't think the end of the novel really undermined Sarasti. On the way back home, Keeton does state there was some ambiguity in the relationship between Captain and Sarasti; we don't know how much was dictated by Captain and how much was collaborative.

Also, the fact that Jukka would accept orders from a machine underscores how his sociopathy keeps from allowing an ego to get in the way. Jukka's a purer intelligence than the humans, not just a superior one. This is one of the central issues in the novel, the pitfalls of mediating perception through consciousness.

So Sarasti probably did contribute to the plan when called for (Keeton still calls him one of the "real" players in the final pages), but was completely fine letting a superior intelligence call the shots when logical.

metaBugs: it's also a massive liability that means we'll certainly be wiped out when we bump up against a species without that flaw.

Not just other species, even. There's a reason the last variable in the Drake Equation is the length of time a transmitting civilization can last. I think one of the implications of Blindsight is that our consciousness can do a grand job wiping us out even without help from Rorschach.
posted by spaltavian at 10:12 AM on August 28


In case you missed it, there's a nicely formatted version of the Reddit Q&A up on TopIAmA.com. It doesn't include all the answers, though, since he went the extra mile of trying to answer (almost) every question even days after the post went up; check his recent comments for the latest.

Also, what do folks think of the sequel so far? I'm struggling through it at the moment -- due to having to work eight days straight, nothing to do with the book itself -- but I'd love to come back and see what people thought about it once they've finished.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:32 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Just finished Blindsight. I really liked it. Despite the afterword in which Watts lays out his scientific and philosophical inspirations, part of me wants to believe the real germ of the novel was the silly shaggy-dog-story pun toward the end.

Oh, also: I very much agree with Rhaomi's wish for Blindsight to be turned into a movie; for a story so focused on concepts, there's SO much interesting imagery going on. I'd be curious if anyone else found themselves fantasy-casting Blindsight in their heads while reading it.

Can anyone think of whom they'd cast as the Gang? Even if you had a really good impressionist, I fear the character would glide right along the edge of ridiculousness when viewed from a camera and not from Siri Keeton's weird brain.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:23 PM on August 30 [1 favorite]


Tatiana Maslany.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:34 PM on August 30 [2 favorites]


Just finished Echopraxia. Not quite as "accidentally stayed up to 2:30 reading it" as it's predecessor, but close. Worthy continuation of the story; somehow even bleaker.
posted by spaltavian at 3:59 PM on August 30


About to start Echopraxia. Is there a good Blindsight plot recap somewhere? It's been some time and I don't really remember latter parts of the book that well.
posted by desultory_banyan at 4:02 AM on August 31


Can anyone think of whom they'd cast as the Gang?

or Anna Torv!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:17 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


YES: Anna Torv
NO: Eliza Dushku
posted by Artw at 11:22 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Is there a good Blindsight plot recap somewhere? It's been some time and I don't really remember latter parts of the book that well.

Here's a ROT-13 version (translator). Warning to non-readers who want a quick spoiler: this relatively short summary makes the story sound like a confused mess, but the genius of this book is how it packs so many crazy plot twists and engaging ideas into an entirely lucid and compulsively readable climax. Please don't ruin a masterpiece of science fiction for yourself by learning the ending like this.

Gur Gurfrhf perj pncgherf frireny fgnesvfu-yvxr nyvraf sebz gur fgnefuvc Ebefpunpu (bar qrnq naq gjb nyvir) juvpu gurl pnyy Fpenzoyref. Na nhgbcfl pbhcyrq jvgu gbegher-onfrq rkcrevzragngvba ba gur fheivibef erirnyf gung gur Fpenzoyref ner sevtugravatyl vagryyvtrag -- rira zber fb guna uhznavgl'f inhagrq Inzcverf naq Dhnagvpny NVf -- ohg gurl hggreyl ynpx gur pncnpvgl sbe pbafpvbhfarff. Gurl ner abg njner bs gurve bja gubhtugf, unir ab vagrevbe zragny yvsr be genva bs gubhtug, naq qb abg rira erpbtavmr gurzfryirf nf vaqvivqhnyf, ohg gurl pna nanylmr naq fbyir vaperqvoyl pbzcyrk ceboyrzf naq rkrphgr oevyyvnag fgengrtvrf ba gur syl.

Nf gur perj vf cebprffvat guvf fubpxvat arjf, Fnenfgv (gur Inzcver pbzznaqre) pnyyf Fvev (gur aneengbe) gb uvf dhnegref. Qhevat n oevrs rkpunatr, Fnenfgv fhqqrayl fgnof Fvev va gur unaq naq oheaf uvf onpx. Qnmrq naq synvyvat, Fvev gevrf gb rfpncr juvyr Fnenfgv nqinaprf gur obbx'f pyvznpgvp nethzrag:

Uhzna-fglyr frys-njnerarff vf abg whfg haarprffnel sbe vagryyvtrapr, vg vf n frevbhf *unaqvpnc*. Vg jnfgrf vaperqvoyr cebprffvat cbjre ba vzcenpgvpny raqrnibef yvxr neg, zhfvp, ybir, frys-ersyrpgvba, naq rira onfvp zbzrag-gb-zbzrag frys-njnerarff. Gur fhcrevagryyvtrag naq aba-pbafpvbhf Inzcver fhofcrpvrf, sbe vafgnapr, vf ribyhgvbanevyl fhcrevbe gb uhznaf va rirel erfcrpg -- gur bayl ernfba gurl qvq abg gevhzcu vf orpnhfr bs n qvrgnel dhvex gung znqr gurz qrcraqrag ba uhznaf sbe sbbq, naq yngre n arhebybtvpny tyvgpu gung znqr gurz qvr ng gur fvtug bs evtug natyrf (urapr gur pehpvsvk zlgu). Fpenzoyref naq Inzcverf ner gur abez va gur havirefr -- bayl ba Rnegu qbrf pbafpvbhfarff, frys-njnerarff, naq phygher rkvfg.

Fnenfgv qvq guvf gb Fvev va beqre gb znxr uvz uhzna. Rire fvapr uvf puvyqubbq, jura unys uvf oenva jnf fpbbcrq bhg naq erjverq gb pher uvf rcvyrcfl, Fvev oryvrirq uvzfrys gb or n pbyqyl ybtvpny flagurfvfg, n "Puvarfr Ebbz" gung pbhyq qrpbqr naq znavchyngr uhzna orunivbe jvgubhg npghnyyl haqrefgnaqvat vg. Fnenfgv fnj guebhtu guvf frys-qryhfvba, naq genhzngvmrq uvz va beqre gb qrfgebl uvf cflpubybtvpny frys-qrsrafr zrpunavfzf, uvf gbbyf sbe qravny gung unq znqr Fvev srry yvxr fhpu n pbby naq qvfcnffvbangr bofreire bs gur zvffvba rira juvyr ur jnf cebwrpgvat uvf bja srryvatf nyy bire gur erfg bs gur perj. Jvgubhg gurfr vyyhfvbaf, ur jbhyq or noyr gb znxr n zber cnffvbangr, nhguragvp, naq pbaivapvat pnfr nobhg gur snpgf bs gur zvffvba gb gur crbcyr onpx ba Rnegu.

Gurfrhf vf fhqqrayl nggnpxrq ol Ebefpunpu, juvpu znantrf gb serr gur xvqanccrq fpenzoyref naq ernofbeo gurve npdhverq xabjyrqtr bs gur uhznaf. Nf vg cercnerf n svany nggnpx, Fnenfgv ernqvrf Fvev sbe uvf rfpncr -- ohg ur'f fhqqrayl ybpxrq bhg bs pbageby bs gur fuvc (juvpu ortvaf qvivat gbjneqf Ebefpunpu) naq fhssref n sngny frvmher qhr gb gnzcrerq nagv-frvmher zrqvpngvba. Jr yngre svaq bhg gur raqtnzr bs gur zvffvba jnf orvat hajvggvatyl fnobgntrq ol n punbgvp crefbanyvgl vzcynagrq ol Ebefpunpu jvguva Gur Tnat, jub, funggrerq ol gur eriryngvbaf bs gur cbvagyrffarff bs pbafpvbhfarff, fcvxrq Fnenfgv'f zrqf naq pbzznaqrrerq gur pbageby ebbz va n qrfcrengr, snvyrq nggrzcg gb rfpncr gur ubeebe.

Ongrf (gur fbyqvre) cercf ure qebarf sbe gur svany nffnhyg, juvyr bar bs gurz nccneragyl xvyyf gur frvmvat Fnenfgv. Gheaf bhg vg'f gur jbex bs gur fuvc'f NV, Gur Pncgnva, qbvat na vzcebzcgh uneqjver gb Fnenfgv'f oenva gb olcnff gur frvmherf naq trg ba jvgu gur cyna. Vg erirnyf gung vg jnf va punetr bs gur zvffvba gur jubyr gvzr, tvivat beqref gb Fnenfgv, naq uvq guvf snpg orpnhfr uhznaf qvfyvxr gur vqrn bs orvat beqrerq ol pbzchgref. Vg ynhapurf Fvev onpx gbjneqf Rnegu va na rfpncr cbq, gura penfurf Gurfrhf vagb Ebefpunpu, hfvat fgberq nagvznggre gb naavuvyngr gurz obgu.

Zrnajuvyr, Fvev vf ba n qrpnqrf-ybat iblntr onpx ubzr, njnxravat sebz pelbfyrrc ng vagreinyf gb ercnve veenqvngrq pryyf naq qvpgngr na batbvat nppbhag bs gur zvffvba (v.r., gur ragvergl bs gur obbx, juvpu unf orra aneengrq ol Fvev gur jubyr gvzr). Jr yrnea gung va gur pbhefr bs gurfr njnxravatf, arjf sebz Rnegu unf tebja vapernfvatyl tevz -- enqvb punggre (vapyhqvat sebz Pby. Wvz Zbber, Fvev'f zvyvgnel sngure naq n punenpgre va gur frdhry Rpubcenkvn) fhttrfgf Inzcverf unir bhgfznegrq gurve nagv-frvmher qeht fnsrthneqf naq bireguebja uhznavgl, penfuvat gur Urnira fvzhyngvba, xvyyvat zvyyvbaf (ovyyvbaf?), naq erqhpvat gur fheivibef gb pnggyr. Ng ybat ynfg, gur thneqvnaf bs pbafpvbhfarff unir orra gbccyrq ol gur napvrag cerqngbef gurl fghcvqyl erivirq sebz gur qrnq, naq abj Fvev -- cbffvoyl gur ynfg pbafpvbhf orvat va gur havirefr -- vf ergheavat gb na Rnegu nf svezyl va gur tevc bs haguvaxvat znpuvaryvxr fhcrevagryyvtrapr nf nal bgure pvivyvmrq cynarg va rkvfgrapr.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:10 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Giants, a short story set on the same ship as The Island [PDF] is republished on Clarkesworld.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:31 PM on September 4 [4 favorites]


Loved The Island and Giants and I want more of the same. In fact I think I'd be very happy if he even reused the same basic plot and characterizations, the same conflict and themes, and introduced a new wacky alien lifeform and astronomical mileau each time. It'd be like Krazy Kat. Hmmm...

- The Chimp : Krazy Kat
- A mutineer : Ignatz Mouse
- A loyalist : Offissa Pupp
- Where/Whenever the Eriophora is : Coconino County

Okay, that's probably makes no sense, but looking at just the first part of the list makes me think that one of the next tales ought to be somehow from The Chimp's POV.
posted by wobh at 1:48 PM on September 6


Welp, I've finally finished this. And thanks, Chapters. If you aren't going to compete with Amazon on price it would be great if you could compete on convenience but I guess we're somehow beyond such mundane concerns.

My initial reactions aren't going to be very coherent without some time to reflect, and probably a reread with Wikipedia to hand. I will say that it's a subtler bit of revelation than Blindsight. It doesn't have the same remarkable insights about consciousness to throw in your face, which Watts freely cops to in the footnotes. The footnotes, by the way, continue to be exceptional. If any other fiction author backs up their prose with this kind of guilty rigour I would very much like to know about it.

If you liked Blindsight you'll definitely enjoy this. If you like utterly terrifying vampires (named Valerie) you'll like this. And if you like stories that kick you in the solar plexus with the last few paragraphs, this is right up your alley.

I look forward to the threatened near-future techno-thriller about a marine biologist.
posted by figurant at 10:58 PM on September 12


Oh, and between Blindsight and Echopraxia we have two brilliant takes on different techniques to narrate a trans/post-human world to a definitely baseline-human audience. Siri Keeton couches the reality in metaphor, simplification and careful executive summary. Bruks (I can't figure out how to get my phone to do the umlauts properly) just doesn't know what the fuck is going on half the time (although he knows more than he thinks). Fundamental insights that I suspect not to many people have call to worry about, let alone find solutions for.
posted by figurant at 11:27 PM on September 12


Holy crap, this is great. Thank you.
posted by salix at 5:31 PM on September 19




oh god the halloween costume
posted by figurant at 8:44 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]


That is quite the thing.
posted by Artw at 11:57 PM on September 19


Any reader could tell you his favorite phrase is clearly "press-ganged."
posted by Rhaomi at 1:45 AM on September 20


Quick note before the thread closes: Echopraxia isn't burning up the charts, but if you read and enjoyed it you can help boost it a bit more by leaving an Amazon review (or Goodreads, if you use that).

You can also support the author (and his grizzled band of cats) more directly via the Memorial Kibble Fund.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:22 PM on September 24


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