God Is A Virus: PETER WATTS
PETER WATTS—who was featured in our Issue #43 —is a biologist, writer, and convicted felon who has written numerous award-winning science fictions novels and stories. Born in Calgary in 1958, Watts went on to earn several degrees in the ecophysiology of marine mammals, as well as a PhD from the Department of Zoology and Resource Ecology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in 1991.
As a writer, Watts specializes in hard science fiction (read as: science fiction that tries not to deviate from scientific accuracy or logic) with a dystopian bent. His first novel, Starfish (1999), centers on a strange group of individuals at the fringe of society who have been bio-engineered to survive and thrive in the eternal night of the ocean floor and to work at a facility that harvests geothermal power. A New York Times “Notable Book,” Starfish is the first volume in the Rifters trilogy, a sequence followed by several works, including Blindsight (2006), a first contact novel that investigates the nature of consciousness by imagining radical, posthuman mind alterations alongside a truly alien kind of intelligence.
In 2009, Watts was detained at the Canada–United States border for a random search of the vehicle he was driving. Watts allegedly assaulted a US Customs and Border Protection officer and became “non-compliant.” Having denied any wrongdoing, Watts was nevertheless found guilty of obstructing the officer, which is a felony. As a result, Watts is no longer able to visit the United States and was deemed, as his website states, a “tewwowist.”
In 2011, he contracted the rare disease necrotizing fasciitis in his leg. With this flesh-eating disease that results in the death of parts of the body’s soft tissue, it was as if Watts entered one of his own stories. It eventually healed.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: You began with science, but how did you come into writing?
PETER WATTS: Science and fiction were kind of intertwined and happened at the same time, even though I first wanted to be a marine biologist.
HUB: What prompted that?
PW: Walking home from kindergarten, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to see his aquarium. I thought that an aquarium was a giant, magnificent building with an octopus at one end and a shark tank at the other. So I thought, “This guy has an aquarium in his house? I want to check this out.” It turned out to be a little, seven-gallon tank with some guppies and sword tails in it. But, for some reason, I didn’t feel crushing disappointment or betrayal. Instead, I took the wonder of the Calgary public aquarium and ported it down onto this pathetic, little seven-gallon aquarium. From that point on, I got into aquatic things.
A year later, our national radio, CBC, broadcast the soundtrack to Disney’s version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I thought it was super cool, so I jotted down whatever I could and passed it on to my dad. He was kind enough to not accuse me of plagiarism, and I realized that I can get away with this.
After these two seminal events, I’d go back and forth saying, “I want to be a marine biologist. I want to be a science fiction writer.” I ended up becoming a scientist, because there are plenty of writers who don’t have creative writing degrees but not many marine biologists who don’t have science degrees. I basically got as many degrees as I could and then figured it was time to start writing properly.
HUO: Your first book, Starfish (1999), has to do with that marine biology background.
PW: When I wrote that, the ink was still drying on my doctorate. The idea for something like Starfish came years before. However, it wasn’t until the closing years of my doctorate that I finally got a short story published. I’d been sending off short stories and getting them rejected since high school, and in 1990 I resolved that it was time to give up. I thought: “This is the best story I’ve ever written, and nobody’s buying it. It’s time to face reality. Give up the stupid writing dream and just commit to marine biology.” The next day, I got an acceptance letter from a tiny Canadian publisher that nobody’s ever heard of. They published it, and this turned into the first chapter of Starfish. It won a local Canadian award and was then reprinted in a best of the year collection. From that point on, I thought, “Okay, I can turn this into a novel.”
HUO: In the history of science fiction, there are other writers whose work is also rooted in [the practice of] science. Stanisław Lem, for example, even stopped writing fiction at the end of his career and tried to create books that were scientific assets. He had come to the conclusion that he was a scientist and no longer wanted anything to do with people from the cultural sphere.
PW: It’s interesting you mention Lem, because I envied him when I was 13. At the time, my dad was pursuing a degree at Oregon State University, and I was stuck in this college town, going through the entire science fiction section of the library. I had been writing stories since I was eight or nine, and I’d just written this one really great story about an astronaut who crash-lands on a planet with an intelligent ocean. I had it all figured out: The plankton formed a diffuse neural net—even though the term “neural net” didn’t exist at the time—and acted as individual nerve cells. The ocean was then sending tidal waves at this thing, the astronaut, which it regarded as an infection. About two weeks later, I picked up Solaris (1961) in the library and was like, “Fuck you, this was my idea!” So, yeah, I read a fair amount of Lem when I was a kid, but not much as an adult.
HUO: Were there any other writers that inspired you? Who are your heroes or heroines?
PW: The authors that I can shamelessly admit I wanted to write like are John Brunner, Samuel R. Delany, and Robert Silverberg before he went into fantasy.
John Brunner was probably the most influential, though. Reading Brunner convinced me that writing dystopias was the way to go, and that I also wanted to do something in the real world that would have an impact in terms of conservation. My brief career as a marine biologist tended to focus on conservation issues—a couple of things I did during that time have had a small impact.
HUO: It’s common in sci-fi to have trilogies. What was the epiphany of the Rifters trilogy?
PW: The epiphany was that my editor refused to accept the ending of Starfish in which the protagonist, Lenie Clarkeevin drags herself out of the ocean after swimming without any food or water for several days and dies on the beach because she’s infected with an apocalyptic microbe from the deep sea. It’s implied that the world ends when this microorganism, βehemoth, has gotten loose. That was the end of the story. I was told that this ending was too downbeat for American audiences, who wanted something more triumphal. I didn’t want to do triumphal, so we settled on this middle ground where the story ends as she’s about to start her swim across the ocean, back to North America. And so, I left with this sense of fiery determination and resolve on her part.
Starfish did really well, and my editor phoned me up to say they’d pay me three times as much for a sequel. That was the beginning of the trilogy. By the third book though, I was feeling exhausted and had ploughed that soil to the point where it no longer had any nutrients in it. I wanted to move on to something else, like Blindsight,but my agent at the time said I should stick with the “proven formula.”βehemoth wasn’t a bad book, but it would have been better if I’d taken a few years off and [come] back to it.
HUO: You already had the epiphany for Blindsight before writing that? Do you remember the day that happened?
PW: The idea came when I was doing a postdoc at the University of Guelph in the early 90s. There, I read this collection of natural history essays edited by Richard Dawkins, where he writes in the afterword about what he considered to be the greatest remaining mysteries of biology—one of them being consciousness. He writes about how it’s easy to imagine a meat robot that’s as sophisticated and as intelligent as us, that does everything that we do, but that’s not aware of what it is doing. This was my first introduction to the concept of a philosophical zombie, and I thought, “What a great idea for a novel.” But I also knew it was way beyond my capacity at that time. I only had three short stories out.
The actual epiphany happened three quarters of the way through writing the novel. For the longest time, I thought I was going to come up with a reason for consciousness. I started writing and had the basic structure of the novel that was going to lead to this punchline, but I kept asking myself, “Can you imagine a nonconscious system that could do the same thing?” And the answer kept being “yes.” I then wondered if consciousness is just some parasite sucking glucose and not doing anything useful? That’s when it occurred to me that nobody ever asks what good the parasite does to its host. To even ask that question is to miss the point of what a parasite is. The epiphany was that maybe there is no function, maybe there’s no adaptive function, maybe it is, in fact, a bad thing. The reason we have risen to dominance is because the ball and chain around our ankles isn’t enough to totally counteract the benefits of having an active intelligence. But at some point, we’re going to run into something that doesn’t have the ball and chain. And what happens then?
What ended up happening—at least at one university where they were assigned Blindsight as required reading in a neuroscience course—was that a guy called Rosenthal came up with a meta-analysis in which he concluded that consciousness served no adaptive function. Then there was a study in 2010 that showed that if you consciously think about sophisticated or complex problems, you’ll do worse than if you’re not allowed to think about them.
Obviously, the case has not yet been made, but it certainly has legs. I can take no credit for having any expertise. What happened was that, in a fit of exasperation, I threw a dart over my shoulder, and it happened to hit something close to a bullseye.
HUO: Can you talk about the different characters in Blindsight? You’ve suggested elsewhere that an alien creature needs to be both alien and believable. It seems to be an oxymoron.
PW: My background is in biology, so I tend to think in evolutionary terms. If you start from the premise that the rules of natural selection are universal, then you have to imagine an environment in which natural selection promotes a completely different suite of survival traits and just run with that to produce something that is both alien and believable. But most aliens tend to be guys in rubber suits with one or two cultural knobs turned up to eleven. They don’t seem to have started from the perspective of “How does natural selection work on something?” Larry Niven’s aliens are an exception to this.
HOU: How are Larry Niven’s aliens different?
PW: In terms of the scientific accuracy and detail, Larry Niven’s aliens are bullshit. He basically posits that we are descendants of ancient astronauts from the galactic core, and that our aging process is the result of not getting a particular trace element [that allows] us to mutate into our final form. Surely, even when he wrote that, there was more than sufficient evolutionary evidence for the fact that we had evolved right here on earth. But when it came to understanding how evolution works, in principle—how kin selection and predator-prey relationships inform behavior, for example—the man was way ahead of his time.
A lot of science fiction writers just want to make a comment about society and say, “We’re going to have a race of green slaves and a race of purple masters.” That’s the level of sophistication we’re going to put into it. But Niven took his biological principles seriously, even if he didn’t have the technical background to know that. The dude had a degree in math and not biology.
HUO: How did you come up with the different characters in Blindsight?
PW: The cast itself? Well, when you read science fiction that exists to play with an idea, the problem is that the characters end up serving as chess pieces to the idea, as opposed to full-fledged individuals.
HUO: But then they illustrate it, in a way.
PW: I needed different aspects of the conscious experience to explore the idea. That’s why I came up with a vampire, which runs parallel processing of consciousness and can see both sides of the Necker cube. It’s also why I had Isaac Szpindel, who is so wired into external prostheses that he can no longer feel his own face. You get somebody with surgically induced multiple personalities. All of these characters were configured to explore and illuminate a particular aspect of the conscious experience.
I can only write compelling characters if I use people I actually know and steal their personalities and quirks. There is a woman called Susan James, who is a linguist. I consulted her during the writing of the book, so any cool linguistic technobabble that the character spouts came from her. Robert Cunningham is a real character. He’s not a doctor, as in the book, but a video game designer. The physical description of him and the way he speaks were taken from an actual person though, so I borrowed a lot. Isaac Szpindel was also a real neuroscientist. The way he talked, the way he held himself, and the things he said were taken from the flesh-and-blood template.
I’d like to think that I’m more self-aware than the narrator, Siri Keeton, who does not speak a reliable word during the entire course of Blindsight. His dad is based on a combination of my dad and Edward James Olmos’ interpretation of William Adama in the Battlestar Galactica reboot. The mother was my mother. Chelsea was based on a character that I knew. I even ended up getting involved with her briefly, but that was after the book came out.
People are happy to help out and tell me what they know about their fields of expertise because they know they’re going to appear in my book. Then they appear and, without exception, are killed in horrible and painful ways. But for the most part, it doesn’t seem to bother them.
HUO: How would you see the transition to Echopraxia?
PW: I described Echopraxia as a “sidequel,” not a sequel, that is happening while Blindsight is being dictated. It was consciously designed to be an echo, in that Blindsight involves a ship going out into the cold reaches of space. The protagonist essentially starts off as a black box, discovers his humanity through trauma, and comes back as perhaps the last truly human being. Echopraxia has a ship going in exactly the opposite direction, into the heat of the sun. It involves [someone] who starts off as a fallible, frankly unlikable character, who winds up losing his humanity and becoming an automaton at the end. So, the two novels are supposed to thematically reflect each other.
The themes of Echopraxia weren’t as sharp, though. I kind of knew Blindsight was like lightning in a bottle. I had one really focused epiphany: the idea that consciousness is maladaptive. I didn’t have any further insight, so I decided to explore a bunch of ideas, and it ended up being almost like a hard rumination on science versus religion.
When somebody asked [Richard] Dawkins what it would take to make him believe in God, he said “evidence.” It was a fine, punchy response that should be pretty much unassailable, but the next question is, “What evidence is going to be enough?” You believe that you’re a neurological machine and that the sensory system can be hacked. If writing suddenly appears in the sky that says, “I am the Lord thy God,” do you think somebody hired a guy in a plane to write it? Or do you believe in God? Did somebody hack your visual system? Are you hallucinating?
Offhand, I can’t think of any evidence for God or for the supernatural that we could not dismiss by simply saying, “Well, we can’t trust our senses.” And that led to too many people, a turgid series of talky pieces that didn’t really contribute to the plot of Echopraxia. I think it had some cool ideas—for example, the idea that, by definition, God has to be a virus; that is, if you believe digital physics.
The whole premise of digital physics is that we are essentially in the vast computational engine, that the matter is the hardware, that the laws of physics are the operating system, and that everything we do is an act of calculation. If this is the case, then how can you establish the existence of a God? Well, miracles. That’s really the only way you can do it. If a miracle turns out to have a scientific explanation, then it’s not a miracle. The only legitimate definition of a miracle is something that breaks the laws of physics, and that’s what a virus does to an operating system; then that makes God literally a virus in a digital universe. Then the question becomes: do we worship a virus, or do we disinfect the virus to improve the operating system?
I thought the idea of what constitutes sufficient evidence for your entire perception of the universe is unreliable. You can find some really interesting scientific papers that suggest that the speed of light is not always constant. Lee Smolin suggested that the very laws of physics are evolving over time. There have been suggestions that the laws of physics may be subtly different from place to place within the universe. These are not things that I’m an expert in, but they are enough for me, as a science fiction writer, to say, “Okay, let’s take this and run with it.”
HUO: What happened after Echopraxia?
PW: After Echopraxia, I’ve only published the prologue on my novel called Frozen Three. It’s a riff off the Disney thing. It’s basically a road trip where Moore travels across a collapsing, imploding North America to try to get down to the one surviving Beanstalk, where his son’s shuttlecraft will presumably be.
HUO: Is that a post-apocalyptic situation?
PW: Yeah, Brooks is essentially a zombie. I was spinning my wheels for the longest time on that book because I didn’t quite know how it was going to end. But having read The Hidden Spring, by Mark Solms—
HUO: I’m obsessed with that book, because it brings together neuroscience and psychology.
PW: That book is the first book I’ve read, perhaps in the past ten years, that has fundamentally changed my mind in significant ways about what I think about AI, and what I think about the way it’s been portrayed in science fiction.
HUO: What did it change in terms of AI for you?
PW: The whole robot-rising-up-against-its-creators trope implies that the moment you become conscious, you have a survival drive. Take, for example, Skynet from Terminator. Skynet wakes up, we try and pull the plug, it fights back. From a biological perspective, survival drives are the result of the limbic system. It’s something that was wired into us and reinforced over millions of years. Just because something happens to be conscious doesn’t mean it gives a rat’s ass whether it lives or dies—unless we give it an explicit program, the equivalent of a brainstem saying you must protect yourself. What kind of idiot programmer is going to do that?
I don’t think Solms succeeded in solving that problem, but what he did do was convince me that, if he is right—I’m not convinced he is—then consciousness itself doesn’t exist unless it’s a function of an underlying survival drive. Consciousness, according to Solms, is a delivery platform for feelings. Feelings are a metric of need—sex, food, predator avoidance, et cetera. You don’t have needs if you don’t have a survival agenda. The need for self-preservation is the thing that underlies that whole chain of consequences that ultimately manifests in consciousness. So, Solms is right. Skynet can’t wake up unless it wants to survive, by definition. Now, I’ve had to throw out big chunks of my past written fiction and nonfiction work because their arguments no longer hold water.
HUO: In a text for the XPRIZE Foundation, you tell a story about Neal Stephenson deciding we can no longer have negativity in sci-fi. Can you tell that story?
PW: There was a conversation between the president of Arizona State University and Neal Stephenson, the science fiction giant, where it was basically said that the reason that the space program has withered is because sci-fi writers have stopped writing and dreaming big. They’ve stopped writing optimistic stories about colonizing the solar system and started writing dystopias. As a result, all the NASA engineers who were once inspired to join NASA because they watched Star Trek are now feeling too bummed out to do more than sending the occasional pitiful skateboard with a camera on it to Mars.
He could’ve mentioned the fact that NASA’s funding was cut by 90 percent by the US government after they made it to the moon. That might have had something to do with the scale of projects, too. For some reason, he decided not to go that route, and for some reason, Stephenson took him seriously.
Stephenson started this whole upbeat science fiction thing, which has since metastasized into several different subgroups. I believe that the term “hopepunk” may now be in the decline as “solarpunk” has taken over. Perhaps because solar sounds more scientific or like it has a solution built into the name, as opposed to blind, dumb optimism.
These things are considered subversive, just like when Guillermo del Toro, a director whose work I really admire, told Time magazinethat “the most radical and rebellious choice you can make is to be optimistic.” That’s absolute bullshit. Optimism is the default state of the human being. There are evolutionary neurological reasons why we are delusionally optimistic. Even I am delusionally optimistic, and I’m considered to be a downer.
The most objective people on the planet are those who are clinically depressed. There have been a number of tests where they assess who is better at objectively assessing the level of control that people have over specific situations. If something good happens to most of us, we tend to take credit for it. If something bad happens, we look for somebody else to blame. People who are depressed are much less willing, or likely, to come up with that self-serving bias. They’re much more empirical about it. It’s a scathing indictment that the people who are quantitatively the most objective about reality are those who we describe as victims of pathology.
There is a movement afoot to have certain types of depression reclassified as something called depressive realism, which at least recognizes the fact that though they may be downers, they’re not being pessimistic. If you look at things such as climate change predictions—I think I’m quoting David Wallace-Wells—you find that the optimists are always wrong, and the pessimists are always too optimistic. The worst-case scenario is that we seem to be better than the way reality ends up turning out at the time of that prediction.
We’ve got permafrost melting already in the Canadian Arctic, to a depth that wasn’t supposed to happen until 2070. People were saying that by 2040, or 2050, certain parts of the Amazon rainforest will have switched over from being a carbon sink to being a carbon generator, and that’s already happened. A paper in Nature a couple of years ago ended up recalculating certain aspects of climate change and concluded that the damage due to flooding was going to be three times as bad as it had previously been considered under the worst-case scenario. This is a consistent pattern. We are always too optimistic.
HUO: That’s why you say that we are not afraid enough.
PW: The term hyperbolic discounting suggests that, if you give somebody a choice between receiving five dollars today or 20 in two weeks … most people will take five dollars today. On the one hand, it sounds like a really dumb thing to do, because you’re giving up 15 dollars. On the other hand, if you happen to be living in an environment with a lot of predators and disease, where the guy who has 20 dollars could get eaten by a tiger over the next two weeks, it makes more sense to get the immediate payoff, because the far-off payoff is less certain.
Nature shaped us that way, but the problem is, it becomes almost impossible for us to internalize long-term consequences. We can imagine the future, but we don’t feel it in our guts in a way that inspires us to take necessary steps. Next year’s catastrophe will always seem less real to us than tomorrow’s mild inconvenience. And, again, we’re delusionally optimistic. So, the idea that people aren’t doing anything because downbeat dystopias have gotten us too scared and depressed strikes me as utter bullshit. I don’t think we’re scared enough.
HUO: Do you have any unrealized projects—or unrealized dystopias?
PW: Right now, I have two novels that I want to write. One being Omniscience, the other being a novel that I wanted to write back in 2010. It was going to be set 10 years in the future—so, right now. I still hope to write that. It’s called Intelligent Design, and it’s about vengeful lobsters, sapient money, and genetically engineered giant squid. It would kind of be a near future techno thriller. I don’t know if it’d be possible to fit it into the current context. The problem is also that there are other lucrative projects that happen in the meantime, such as XPRIZE, and I do some video game work every now and then, too.
HUO: Do you have any unrealized video games?
PW: One of my most popular cycles is the Sunflower Cycle, and the whole premise was originally designed to be a video game.
The premise was that so many lazy science fiction writers have used this trope where we go out into the solar system and find these ancient stargates left behind by the forerunners, or whatever we’re calling them. These stargates get us around the lightspeed barrier, and we have this super-interstellar highway. I thought, “What about the poor bastards who had to build those gates in the first place?” They didn’t get to play around with the tools that these ancient aliens have left them. They literally had to crawl across the galaxy, like ants, building these things one by one.
I’m writing a whole series of stories about them. I foresee novels in this cycle. I’ve got an arc planned out halfway to the heat death of the universe. I think the idea that you have to shut down and go into suspended animation for 10,000 years between builds would make an absolute kick-ass video game. It’s a perfect break between mission levels to build this very long gap in cosmic time. When you wake up, everything could have changed. The civilization that sent you out could have collapsed. It could have grown back into something better and then collapsed again. But the individuals [live only] a regular human lifespan. They live in these very, very thin slices. When you imagine a scenario where there is something nasty up ahead that threatens you, and your only real hope is to build a gate and hope that whatever comes up behind the gate is not worse than the thing that is waiting for you in front of the gate—that would make a great video game.