G42: Your scifi is mostly dark and scary – do you really think the ”out there” will be nasty when we start exploring it? Or did you feel like balancing the over-positive ratio in this genre in general? Actually, what do you think real space exploration will be like?
PW: Honestly, I’m increasingly skeptical that we ever will seriously start exploring it. We seem far more interested in turning on each other, shitting where we eat, and tearing our own life support system apart so that a few plutocrats won’t have to sacrifice their profit margins. I think we’ll be doing pretty well if advanced technology is still the norm on this planet by the end of the century, much less anywhere else.
I’d also argue that the „over-positivity” in our genre really isn’t that unique: our whole damn species is wired for delusional optimism. It’s adaptive; natural selection promotes hope even when there’s no basis for it. It’s why we have such a hard time getting worked up about climate change, no matter how high the mountains of evidence become. We just don’t believe in our guts that things are really that bad. (Turns out the people with the most objective view of local reality are—wait for it—the „clinically depressed”. We literally describe the people with the most realistic worldviews as victims of a pathology. It’s hard to think of a more telling indictment of the Human mindset.)
But moving past all that—if we ever do get „out there”, I don’t think the things we run into will by and large be „nasty”. Certainly, parts of the universe might be (the living bits, for example), but on the whole I think the „out there” will treat us with— indifference.
G42: In some of your writings you tend towards military scifi and seem to understand the military mind very well, even though you were not a soldier in real life. How come?
PW: Actually, I wouldn’t claim to understand the military mind all that well. I do have a few fans and friends with military backgrounds, and when I write a story containing military elements, I run it by them to try and weed out any egregious boners—but those are their insights, not mine. (This, tangentially, is one of the coolest things about my job: I cross paths with a whole wide range of people who are far smarter than me about a whole wide range of specialties—neuroscience, laser tech, molecular genetics—and they’re generally quite happy to help me out of any conceptual corners I paint myself into. A few years back I had a disastrous and short-lived relationship with the guys behind the „Person of Interest” series—they briefly wanted me to write a tie-in novel—and when that crashed and burned, the ex-Special-Forces soldier they employed as their own resident expert reached out to me and introduced himself. Turns out he’s a very cool guy with all sorts of stuff in his brain worth picking.)
G42: Do you have a literary obsession, or ideal? Something you keep writing about, or strive for, or feel scifi really must write about? Or do you just write for fun (if what happens in your books might be called, very loosely, fun)?
PW: Not in the dogmatic, Everyone must do this or it’s not science fiction sense, if that’s what you’re asking. I mean yeah, I do tend toward the harder end of the spectrum—not too many SF authors have technical bibliographies at the ends of their novels—but that’s just me. I’m pretty skeptical of the whole hard/soft SF spectrum even in principle; I suspect that whether a story is considered „hard” or „soft” is more a function of the reader’s background than the author’s expertise. (And I loathe the ideological underpinnings of the so-called „Mundane SF” movement, which I regard as profoundly unscientific.)
I do tend to find myself writing about things like consciousness and the neurology of human behavior more than most. Partly that’s my scientific background, partly that’s because I kinda fell into the whole neuro field with Blindsight and haven’t yet dug my way out, partly it’s because I’m most fascinated by the things I don’t really have a clue about—and the fact that meat can wake up when you trickle electricity through it is right up there with the Mysteries of the Ages. But if I haven’t yet stopped writing about those things, it’s not because I don’t think other subjects are worth exploring. It just means I myself haven’t mined out that particular vein of ore yet.
G42: We’re from Romania, the country where Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” takes place (in our Transylvania), so surely you expected this: why the vampires? I must admit that, except the said novel, I have never read anything un-ridiculous with vampires. Except “Blindsight”. And also that I, and probably many, did not expect them both in scifi and in the good guys team. So, how and why did you come up with scifi vampires?
PW: The sad truth is that way back around the turn of the millennium, some idiot convention organizer in Edmonton put me on a panel about vampires. I knew nothing about vampires. I couldn’t have cared less about vampires. I do not know what I did to piss that person off so much that they would force me to sit with four other people rhapsodizing about Buffy for an hour.
What I did know something about was biology. So, making the best of a bad situation, I started trying to come up with semi-plausible biological rationales for various vampire characteristics. It wasn’t easy—when you get right down to it, vampires are amongst the most absurd mythical creatures out there, biologically—but when I came up with the idea of the Crucifix Glitch (a neurological mechanism which not only explained the vampiric aversion to crosses, but also explained why that aversion would drive them extinct in modern times) I figured I was onto something. Even if I got nothing but crickets from the other panel members when I shared my brilliant insights.
For years I didn’t know what to do with those insights, though. I considered writing a coffee-table, faux-non-fiction book purporting to be „The Proceedings of the Second Biennial Conference on the Evolution and Biology of Vampires”, but everyone thought that was a terrible idea and it never went anywhere. It was only when I was writing Blindsight—developing characters with an eye to the various types of consciousness they might represent—that I realized there was a conceptual niche—a hole, you might say—in my cast of characters, and a vampire might fit in there quite nicely.
The rest, as they say, is history.
G42: You’ve been around Eastern Europe – have you also read any East-European scifi? If so, who, what? And what did you think about it?
PW: Only Lem. And most of that—Solaris,The Cyberiad—I read way back in my teens, so I’m certain a lot of it went over my head. (I’m currently reading Fiasco—which is to say, I started it a year ago and got a hundred pages in before some deadline forced me to put it on the back burner, and I fully intend to get back to it once I’ve finished the titles on my current list.) As for what I thought of it: even as a teenager, I knew I was reading something special. The man’s ideas were unflinching.
Incidentally, I’ve been to two countries now—Poland and Ukraine—which lay claim to Lem, by virtue of shifting international boundaries post-World-War-2. I don’t suppose Romania would like to enter a claim?
G42: By the way, what does Peter Watts read when he is not writing? Whose books do you enjoy most now, and whose influenced you enough to make you choose scifi in the beginning?
PW: Let me tell you the single thing I resent most about working full time as a writer: I barely get to read for pleasure any more. Back in high school I ploughed through several books a week: today, I’m just now closing in on the end of China Miéville’s Kraken, which came out when? 2010? Most of the rest of my reading time goes into slogging through boring scientific papers, or novels thrust under my nose for blurbing purposes, or beta reading manuscripts for people who are trying hard but really aren’t there yet. (Also, I must guiltily admit, playing video games. Skyrim is a whole new experience in VR.)
I would love to read more Miéville (I’ve only read three or four of his books); nobody writes prose the way he does. I read Richard Morgan when I want to get down into the gutter. Cory Doctorow gets a bit didactic sometimes, but is never boring and always relevant (well, maybe his magic realist book about the guy whose father was a mountain and whose mother was a washing machine wasn’t especially relevant, but it was never boring)—although I haven’t read his more recent stuff.
And I have two big bookcases, each over two meters high, jammed full of books I have bought and want to read and just haven’t got around to yet. Seriously, if I had a million dollars, I’d just put all work on hold and spend a solid year catching up on those.
As for authors who inspired me when I was just starting out—not just the authors I enjoyed reading (who were too numerous to count) but the authors I wanted to write like, the authors I tried to emulate—those are easy. John Brunner. Samuel Delany. Robert Silverberg (before he went all fantasy). Ray Bradbury. William Gibson. And maybe Larry Niven—not for his prose, which was never great, but for his aliens. (Too bad the man devolved into a climate change denier when he got old.)
G42: What’s coming next? What is scifi Peter Watts preparing us right now?
PW: Right now, Peter Watts is preparing you answers to this interview. Don’t push your luck.