Saturday, November 17, 2012

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.


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