Peter Watts Interview

Hi there,

Here is the Q&A William Lexner (Stego) and I did with Peter Watts, author of Blindsight. I'm almost done with the novel, so you can expect a book review soon.

Watts doesn't pull any punches in this interview, making this something you probably should read, even if you have never heard of the author. Candid doesn't begin to describe him!;-)



- For the benefit of those of us new to your work, without giving too much away, give us a taste of the story that is BLINDSIGHT.

If you want a one-line precise, Blindsight uses the conventions of a first-contact tale to explore the nature and significance of sentience. But I can do better than that-- the whole damn novel's posted on my website, here Or if you're just looking for a taste of cinematic atmosphere, go here Poke around a bit. The site's still under construction - I haven't finished the alien necropsy page yet, for one thing - but there's more than enough to give you a sense of the book.
Ah, hell. I may not have finished the necropsy page, but as a bonus for your readers, here's a picture of one of my aliens (see first image at the top of the post)

- I was able to catch a part of your rant against the dustjacket art for BLINDSIGHT at Readercon.

Okay, this is a bit disturbing, since as far as I can remember the only times I talked about that were at a private book-signing session in the Clarkesworld suite (with only two other people present) and at my reading (which was scarcely better attended). So unless this rant of which you speak was just a part of an conversation overheard at a urinal somewhere, I really am a nutjob. With senile dementia.

- What exactly was it about the original art that upset you to the point of having so many alternate covers created?

Right off the bat I want to make two points First, the artist, Thomas Pringle, has scads of talent and I really like his stuff (his Blindsight concept sketches that Tor didn't use -- which I recycled for the alternates -- are just gorgeous). Secondly, while I have had my share of problems with Tor over the years, the one thing they never ever dropped the ball on -- prior to Blindsight -- was cover art. No one could ask for better covers than the ones Bruce Jensen conjured up for my rifters books. So I'm slagging neither the artist nor the overall performance of Tor's art department here.Further, I even liked the concept sketch that the final cover was based on -- it wasn't my favorite of the dozen or so that Thomas submitted to Tor, but it was my favorite of the three that Tor passed on to me. In fact, here it is, below left, in all its dark gloomy glory: (see second image at the top of the post)

And here's what they did to it: (see third image at the top of the post)

Nothing at all against the concept, even if it does give away a bit more than I'd like about the McGuffin. But the execution, boys and girls. The layout. It sucks the one-eyed purple trouser eel. The spaceship, originally a dark ominous contraption that evoked the hardware of 2001 or Alien, has inexplicably morphed into some brightly-lit Buck-Rogers corkscrew with wings. It has the texture and detail of a pencil sketch imported from an entirely different illustration-- the lighting isn't even consistent with the rest of the image. The red border, the Exorcist-pea-soup color of the lettering-- the word "lurid" comes to mind. And the blurbage-- for some reason, every blurb on the cover raved about some book other than Blindsight, which to me (speaking as an sf reader here, not a writer) is always cause for suspicion. This is especially puzzling because I know that Tor had some really kick-ass Blindsight-specific quotes in hand, and I've never received a satisfactory answer as to why at least one or two them weren't used.

So. Cover art and blurbs, which I'm given to understand comprise two of the three primary variables upon which retail chains base their purchasing decisions (the third being author's previous sales figures, which can't be tweaked retroactively short of time travel and/or fraud, and which in my case were evidently pretty dismal). Is it any wonder that one of the two biggest book chains in the country chose not to preorder any copies?

Now I should point out that a few people have told me that they don't mind the official cover at all, and one or two (not even connected with the industry) opine that the official cover is actually better than any of my alternates. But that seems to be the opinion of a small minority. And when I saw the sketches that Tor opted not to use, I just about cried. They were great. They conveyed loneliness, they conveyed carnage, they conveyed darkness and light and haunting mystery, and it just seemed that they all put a more evocative face on my words than did the official jacket. So, with the artist's permission, I did the alternates (which also come with relevant blurbage)

(BTW, if any of you are interested in how I envisioned Theseus when I wrote the book, check out There, you'll find a full-frontal-nudity annotated shot. (Fully clothed, as in the book, Theseus wears a carapace that makes it look a lot less interesting to the geeky eye.) It's based on one of Pringle's sketches, although I've radically changed the morphology of that ship to reflect my mind's eye.)

- And for the collectors out there, are these alternate covers still available?

Infinitely available. There are half a dozen alternates (seven if you could the featureless black "Smell The Glove" homage) Just go to .and download whichever jpegs you want. They're formatted to print at the correct size, although you're on your own when it comes to finding a piece of paper 20" long. I got a bunch of laminated copies done at the local Staples and I gotta say they look pretty good.

- On your website, you provide additional information and background for your novels on a scale that is positively Tolkienian. Your passion in the work is evident, but I'm curious as to what inspires you to go above and beyond what most authors do. What is driving you to provide this resource?

I really, really don't like conventional forms of self-promotion. While I love hanging around with people at cons, I tend to avoid doing signings, launches, and readings because I'm always afraid that nobody's going to show up. So online promotion's pretty much the only other option.

A lot of author websites are just that-- they promote the author, they jump up and down and thump their chests and shout out "Look at Me! Buy My Books!" It is to cringe-- and I'm not being all smug and superior here, because I too crave fame and adulation. I'm as much of an attention-slut as anyone in this business (or I would be, if more people paid attention), but although I am a needy sonofabitch, I don't want to look like one. So what do you do if you want to draw people to your website, but you don't want to make yourself look like a narcissist?

Well, if you're not going to promote yourself, the only other thing to promote is the material. So that's what I do. I build a little parallel environment, an immersive thing that plays it straight and tries to make you forget that you're even talking about a book, written by a professional liar. I want the site to feel more documentary than fictive, which is why I present it in the form of confidential memoes and surveillance telemetry excerpts and so on. And when you do that-- when your goal is to induce the sense that the surfer is actually spying on a real future-- then you can't afford to intrude as an author and point to yourself, because that shatters the illusion. (Although I do have one wing of the site - "The Real World" -- which is more conventionally All About Me.)

Overall, I think it's a pretty innovative approach. The only down side is that, judging by my hit counts, it doesn't actually work.

- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write BLINDSIGHT in the first place?

A throwaway line in an afterword by Richard Dawkins, from an early-nineties anthology of ecological and evolutionary essays collected into a light blue trade paperback with a picture of a wasp's nest on the front. I do not remember the name of the book, and I can't find it on Amazon (at least, not under "Dawkins").

Anyway, he was winding down the book, and mentioning all the things we still didn't know about life, and consciousness was on the list: "We don't know what it's good for," he remarked (I'm paraphrasinig here); "one can certainly imagine a meat robot, shaped by natural selection, that behaves exactly the way we do." Of course, he was just rehashing the classic Zombie argument, but this was the first time I'd ever encountered it and it kind of got into my brain and festered. For over ten fucking years it festered. And if I've made any contribution to the field at all, it's that perhaps I'm the first one to give up. (SPOILER ALERT: skip the rest of this answer if you don't want to read Blindsight's thematic punchline.) Everyone else is still looking for some reason for self-awareness to exist, some adaptive advantage that it confers. And I really, really hope they're right, but I can't think of one. And you know, in evolution, not everything is adaptive. Most mutations are neutral or deleterious. So maybe there is no advantage, maybe it's a fluke, maybe it's actually maladaptive and on the way out. I suspect a lot of people might be haunted by that possibility. I think I'm the first one to openly fart at the funeral, though.

- Were there any perceived conventions of the scifi genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write BLINDSIGHT?

Well, I was a little tired of aliens, both literary and cinematic, that basically seem to be humans in rubber suits with one or two cultural knobs cranked to eleven. On the other hand, it's a bit too easy to throw a big black slab at the audience and say "There's no point in even trying to understand the aliens because they're, you know, alien". If something evolved in Darwin's universe, it's damn well going to adhere to certain natural laws, and that makes it tractable. So I wasn't so much breaking a convention as I was treading the razor's edge between two conventions. I tried to ensure that everything was deeply weird-- life without genes, intelligence without conventional cephalisation-- but nothing was unjustifiable.

And of course there are the vampires. That was just a kind of intellectual wank for my own amusement: I wanted to see if I could take one of the most absurd and unjustifiable creatures ever to spring from myth, and plausibly handwave a scientific justification for all those absurd elements. Again, I wasn't really shattering a convention (although I was definitely poking it with a stick and laughing at its discomfort); I was reinforcing the standard mythology using biological rationales. I didn't know if I'd be able to pull it off until I came up with the Crucifix Glitch; after that it was, Hah! Bring it on!

- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?

Well, I think my prose generallly kicks ass. And I'm more than decent at thought experiments. Characterization, maybe not so much. I'm kind of like the Rush of character development: I do one or two things really well, but I know my limits. My characters are always quite human, but they're not very humane. And I've been told that here in the real world, at least one or two people are.

I'd kill to have characters as heartfelt as Elisabeth Bear's, for example.

- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a Hugo Award? Why, exactly?

NYT bestseller This has nothing to do with literary snobbishness (Christ knows I have to put up with enough of that shit here in Canada, what with a literary establishment that won't even look at a story unless it's about the lonely young daughter of a distant father, coming to terms with her burgeoning lesbianism on the misty and windswept shores of the Canadian Pacific. I mean, give me a fucking break.) The simple truth is, I got cats to feed, and rent to pay, and while I'd certain take any accolade anyone wanted to shove in my face, a NYT bestseller simply implies more bucks in the bank.

Unless it doesn't. In which case I'd go for the Hugo.

- In all honesty, I must admit to never having heard of your work prior to BLINDSIGHT, yet you have a few novels in your backlist. Can you tell us why we should pick up your earlier work?

The best reason for reading my stuff was perhaps best summed up by James Nicoll, who once said: "Whenever I feel my will to live becoming too strong, I read some Peter Watts". Other than that, I got nothing.

- Other than BLINDSIGHT, which of your works do you believe to be your strongest?

That depends what you're looking for. In my experience, people who aren't habitual readers of sf tend to prefer Starfish: it's heavy on ambience and angst and environment. It's moody, and you can kind of ease into it without too much background. Maelstrom, on the other hand, tends to appeal more to hardcore tech-heads: it's jam-packed with ideas, it hits the ground running, and it has a much denser feel than its predecessor. A lot of people who clapped politely for Starfish stood up and cheered for the sequel; conversely, a lot of people who loved Starfish felt completely clobbered by Maelstrom, and couldn't get into it.

If you've got a fetish for conspicuous consumption, Behemoth is definitely your choice. You get to pay twice for the same novel.

- The fact that you have your own website is an indication that interaction with your readers is important to you as an author. How special is it to have the chance to interact directly with your fans?

Sometimes it's the only thing that keeps me going. Interactions with publishers and agents tend to be more frustrating than encourageing. And given my royalties, there's no way I'm in this for the money.

It's actually one of the coolest things about being an author: people who are way cooler than you look you up and want to buy you beers (in fact, I'm nursing a bit of a hangover from one such an event even as I type). If I ever need the services of a private eye, a criminal lawyer, or a black-ops military computer dude- or if I need a Porsche serviced- I now know where to go.

Of course, the downside is the occasional stalker who lurks in the lobby of the Holiday Inn waiting for you at 2am. And no matter how interesting one's correspondence with fans can be, they tend to devour all your time. (Which is why I've owed certain e-mails for six months or more. To those people-- you know who you are-- er, sorry.)

- Are you surprised by what little support you receive from the Canadian media? Writers like Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker rank among the best speculative fiction authors out there, yet you Canucks appear to get very little recognition in your own country.

Yeah, well you know what they say about a prophet in their own land.

Actually, there are pockets of support: John Burns at the Georgia Straight isn't shy about noticing my stuff; Douglas Barbour gets pro-sf pieces into the Edmonton Journal now and then; and of course, Spider Robinson sings the genre's praises whenever he can in the Globe and Mail. Even the official Canadian Literary Establishment pay tribute in their own peculiar way, generally by grabbing ideas the genre has been playing with for decades and repackaging them as "real" literature. I was quite impressed, for example, to read that Margaret Atwood had singlehandedly pioneered the idea of a biotech dystopia Oryx & Crake. (Although I should add that I am quite a fan of Atwood's prose, and to give the devil her due she does seem to have become a bit less strident with that I-don't-write-sf-because my-stuff-is-good schtick that she was so fond of a few years back. If only the same could be said for the Canada Council.)

Fuck 'em. You want Canadian sf, read On Spec.

- A lot has been said on the subject of online reviewers vs print reviewers these last few months. Many people in the industry still don't hold online reviewers in high esteem, while others appear to grudgingly agree that a few of them are legitimate. What's your take on the topic?

I haven't been following that debate. My sense, though, is that if there's a significant difference between online and print reviewers, it's one of clarity as opposed to substance. I have read supremely articulate and insightful reviews on personal blogs; I have read extremely shallow and inattentive reviews in mainstream print. But insights aside, I think the print reviewers tend to be better at the actual craft of writing. This only makes sense, since you have to pass at least some sort of rudimentary journalistic muster before you get a print column; any doof with a freebie Livejournal account can be an online reviewer. (And indeed, some of the most articulate online reviews I've read hail from people with roots in print)

- Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.

That ship may have sailed. There was a time, not so long ago, when science fiction was the only literature capable of containing some of the grander and scarier possibilities waiting down the road. When you're the only literature capable of plotting a course through the future, you damn well deserve respect. (When it comes to real-world relevance, a story about the ethics of cloning is certainly going to kick the shit out of yet another dreary coming-of-age tale set in post-World-War-Two Ireland.) But more and more of those worldchanging elements are imminent now, or even passe. We've already got clones and gengineering. We've got rudimentary nanotech, proof-of-principle invisibility cloaks, melting icecaps, underwater resorts under construction, AI that some people describe as "conscious", and - just maybe - working prototype FTL inside a decade. The fact that you or I may be supremely sceptical of some of these claims doesn't matter - the point is that these undeniably sfnal concepts are being discussed in mainstream media as serious news stories. You don't have to postulate new technology to write science fiction any more. You don't have to step outside the present day. The fundamental role of speculative fiction is to address the question "What if things were different?". Well, here we are, in the twenty-first century. And things are different. And Bruce Sterling and William Gibson are writing mainstream novels that happen to feel exactly like sf.

So what does this leave us? It leaves us nerd-rapture singularity stories - which will either staledate in a decade or two (if the Kurzweillians are wrong) or will become irrelevant along with everything else during the Great PostHuman Uplift (if they're not). It leaves us with far-future Roman Empires in Space. It leaves us with thought experiments about the shape life might take elsewhere in the universe. What it won't leave us with is any monoply on the relevant, world-changing ideas that science fiction has always hung its hat on.

Don't get me wrong. Science fiction deserved respect. It deserves respect. But perhaps it's tougher now to make the case that the world needs something explicitly called science fiction, because so many of these issues can now be explored in mainstream fiction. And Time Magazine will always have a way bigger audience than Analog.

(I hope I'm wrong about this, by the way. I would welcome rebuttal. I rather like this particular ghetto.)

- What can you tell us of your upcoming projects?

This implies that there are going to be any.

I'm actually pretty burned out after Blindsight -- not so much the writing per sé, but the whole business life of the midlist writer. Blindsight has been getting amazing reviews. People keep talking about it as a potential award-winner (and it might have been, if Worldcon wasn't scheduled for Japan in '07). And yet, seven major publishers turned it down flat, and the eighth - well, let's just say the cover art was the tip of the iceberg. When I started down this road I would sit at my keyboard, wired with excitement, thinking about how best to explore an idea. Now, I sit and wonder how many of those explorations will get mutilated because the market has changed again and the bean-counters only concern with "story" is whether the paper it's printed on will retail for less than $24.95. (And to preempt those who might think I'm just another whiney author with an inflated sense of the deathlessness of his prose; even my editor has choked on these constraiints. He was forced to ask me to cut four thousand words from Blindsight while at the same time admitting that he couldn't see any way to do that without compromising the story. And that was after I'd already cut several K from the submitted draft. And that was after submitting a draft that was ten thousand words shorter than the contract called for, because my previous novel got split in half for being too long and I wanted to make sure that never happened again.)

So, yes. There may be other projects. I still have novels incubating in my head - I'm even playing with the idea of a faux-documentary coffee-table book called "Proceedings of the First Biennial Conference on the Evolutionary and Biology of Vampires", although Tor has told me they aren't interested. But for the moment, at least, the fun has gone out of it.

Many thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions. We wish you continued success in your writing career and best of luck with BLINDSIGHT.

Thanks. I think I'll go kill myself now.

10 commentaires:

Konrad said...

You (or Peter) misspelled James Nicoll.

Patrick said...

Thanks for the "heads up."

Sir Thursday said...

Nice to see an author spend so much effort on a questionnaire. His website and this really make me like the guy.

Sir Thursday

Chris Hyland said...

I feel quite sorry for the guy. Seems like he's been pissed about with a lot, to say the least.

banzai cat said...

Well, I liked his stuff ever since I first picked up Starfish. After all, who doesn't like underwater SF? With all this hullaballo, am certainly saving my money to buy a hardbound copy of Blindsight despite my aversion to the 'hard' editions.

*says a fan from the other end of the world*

silvercream said...

Santa Claus was kind enough to give me a copy for Christmas. Look very much forward to reading this one

James Blish said...

Does Watts mean 7 major *retailers* turned down Blindsight? I thought TOR was his publisher?

Patrick said...

I believe Peter means it was turned down by 7 publishers before Tor bought the rights.

James Nicoll said...

"Does Watts mean 7 major *retailers* turned down Blindsight? I thought TOR was his publisher?"

Yes, but after the book is printed you have to get it out where readers can encounter it.

Book chains track sales trends of individual authors fairly closely and if memory serves, Watts got burned by Tor's decision (made for rational reasons) to cut one of his books in two. If the sales on an author's later books trend down, some chains will see that as evidence that demand for the author is in a death spiral and decline to order the books at all. I'm pretty sure Barnes and Noble passed on BLINDSIGHT and that's a huge % of American book sales lost right there.

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