Skip to main content

The Optimism of Peter Watts

Horror infuses the familiar with dread. Read Peter Straub, Stephen King or Algernon Blackwood, and become alarmed by the commonplace. Cars become monsters, the family dog is a killing machine and an island filled with willow trees becomes an avatar of cosmic horror.

Science Fiction, on the other hand, is about making the unfamiliar real. The best of the genre take concepts like first contact with aliens, the fusion of man and machine and time travel and make them plausible, inevitable even. Speculative fiction authors in general aspire, I would argue, to a mantle of pronogniticator, a seer of the possibilities.

So, hopefully you can see that these genre are often in opposition. They haven't always been, of course. HP Lovecraft famously mined the intersections of horror and science fiction for his Mythos stories. Tales of astronauts fighting tentacled alien creatures became so stereotypical that by the Silver Era that entire class of story was known simply as BEM (Bug-Eyed Monsters).

I've become interested recently in Peter Watts, a writer notable for the Rifter series as well as "Blindsight." Watts seems to walk the divide between science fiction and horror better than anyone active right now. Blindsight is a book depicting a society approaching or already in a singularity-type event. Computers exhibit functional sentience, a linguist in the story surgically divides her head into seven distinct personalities, ships are able to beam anti-matter through a quantum entanglement device. Everything is meticulously footnoted and explained so that the full scope of Watts' pessimism becomes clear. Watts paints a world where the dreams of Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, Ray Kurzweil become real and he then carefully dismantles any hope that would be a good thing.

In our technophilic present, what could be more authentically horror than picking apart the faith we have in our own machines? Watts does go further than that though.

Blindsight is essentially a first-contact story but one between two different sets of aliens. The obvious aliens are the Scramblers, beings capable of traveling across space in orbit around cold stars programmed for their needs. Watts paints a chilling picture of immense intelligence expressed without any actual sentience. Then there are the humans. On the ship Theseus sent by the feckless authorities of earth, are the aforementioned multiple personality linguist, a cyborg so dependent on protheses he can't even feel his own finger tips without intervention, and a pacifist warrior. Then there's the vampire.

As I have said before, such diligent pessimism is enormously appealing to me. While in my own life things have had a tendency to work out for the best, I think I am pretty lucky. There is no statistical bias towards happy endings. In fact, quite the opposite.

But the gothic despondency of Kafka never really sat well with me either. Taking as an assumption that nothing will ever work or that entropy can never be side-stepped is to deny the existence of life itself. Life is incredibly improbable and yet it has persisted on Earth for billions of years, steadily gaining complexity and sophistication.

Watts' fiction occupies a very lucid, very narrow space between optimism and pessimism. A widely repeated quote about him comes from reviewer James Nicoll: "Whenever my will to live grows too strong, I read Peter Watts." It's a funny epigram and I see his point, but upon reflection, I'm not sure I agree with it. Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," is depressing. That's a novel-length vivisection of the concept of hope. Watts' novels aspire for dystopia but get tangled up in the small, improbable victories of his characters. The narrator of "Blindsight" is a man who had half of his brain removed to stop life-threatening seizures. The process left him incapable of empathy but empowered to interpret others through the 'topology' of their gestures and behaviors. As something of a spoiler, even this character, by the end of the story, experiences catharsis and growth.

Don't get me wrong, "Blindsight" is not upbeat but it is resolutely human-centric. Even while describing a vast and indifferent universe, he can't help but lean close to a single human voice and listen to what it says.

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Review of I Wish I Was Like You by S.P. Miskowski

Even 23 years later, I remember 1994 and Kurt Cobain's death. I experienced that moment as a kind of inside out personal crisis. I felt ashamed by his death. As though his exit in someway indicted my own teenage miseries. "I wish I was like you," goes the verse in 'All Apologies,' "Easily amused." I felt as though a check I hadn't remembered writing had just been cashed. 

SP Miskowski's book, named after the first half of that line, is in the words of another reviewer, a novel that shouldn't work. The narrator is unlikeable, unreliable, and dead. The plot is almost entirely told as a flashback and long sections of the novel concern the inner processes of the writer. The daily grind to summon up enough self-esteem to carry a sentence to its logical conclusion is a real struggle, people, but it ain't exactly riveting.

But the thing is, this novel works. It is one of the best things I've read all year and a real achievement in weird ficti…

"A Breath from the Sky" Story Announcement!

I am thrilled to share the news my story, "Promontory," will appear in an upcoming anthology of unusual possession stories published by the incredible Martian Migraine Press. The anthology, "A Breath from the Sky,"puts together a classic H.P. Lovecraft tale and twenty other atypical stories of possession. Judging from the cover and the list of impressive authors, I'm anticipating pure awesomeness. "Promontory" is a possession story and one of my more overtly horror tales, so I'm overjoyed that it found a host, er, home here. I am sharing the Table of Contents below, as well as a link to the announcement on the Martian Migraine website to provide a sense of what this collection will be about. The cover is amazing, the other authors selected for the collection are amazing, and I have to say, having a story appear alongside a classic tale like HP's "Colour Out of Space," feels pretty darn amazing. I hope to provide more information abou…

In Defense of Brevity

As a writer of short speculative fiction, I am also a reader. I was a reader first and my love of the genre leads me to want to write short fiction. I think one of the most important things a writer can do is read contemporary's work. If nothing else, you're likely to be entertained - there's a great amount of stupendous short fiction available out there for exactly nothing. But it also tends to helps to develop craft. 
Long-time readers of this blog know I write up recommendations of a few short stories each month I really enjoyed. "Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper by Carl Wiens" was my favorite story of the year. The first line of this story pretty much sums it up: "The time traveler set up a studio apartment in Abraham Lincoln’s skull in the frozen moment before Booth’s bullet burst through and rewired history," but I also enjoyed "The Girl Who Escaped from Hell" By Rahul Kanakia and "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies," by Brooke Bol…