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Hugo Author, Peter Watts on Scary Science Fiction, Villains and Open Source

September 12, 2016       Meaningful Life
Peter Watts!
The Hugo-winning, Canadian
marine biologist and novelist
on Horror and Science Fiction

Peter Watts is a 2010 Hugo award-winning, science fiction writer from Canada who has gained critical acclaim for his brand of techno-thriller (as book review sites describe his novels), space horror novels as well as his futuristic dystopian books. 

His Hugo-nominated, Blindsight is a science fiction book that has been included in the reading list of Berkeley University and other schools for their lit classes (and also for a couple of philosophy and neurology classes, believe it or not).  His novelette, The Island, won the Hugo in 2010.  Watts is a PhD. marine biologist, who has toiled for several years for studying marine mammals before deciding to write science fiction for a living.  Watts is much beloved by fellow geeks who also work in hard science or engineering careers and these people were among his first readers.

Peter is a very opinionated geek himself, who may rub people the wrong way when he talks about his writing's poetics, or his unfortunate brush-in with U.S. Border Police in 2009. But he is a very intelligent and engaging author and we were very blessed to get the chance to talk to him about the good stuff--horror and science fiction. 

We also discuss his incredible decision to make almost half of his published work, available for free as Creative Commons, Open Source reading on the web--which tripled the sales of his space horror masterpiece--Blindsight.

REACH:  Greetings! Really happy we were able to get through and have this interview with a renowned science-fiction horror writer like you. 

Peter Watts:  Thank you.  Although I would not describe myself as a science-fiction horror writer.  I'd argue that whatever horrific elements appear in my writing, they emerge organically from the science parts.



REACH:  What is your writing process like?  Do you outline obsessively or do your write out of inspiration and let the writing lead you where the story is supposed to go? 

Peter Watts:  I outline obsessively.  The problem is, after finishing two thirds of the novel, I often discover that my obsessive outline is fatally flawed in some way: I didn't realize that "Thing A" in Chapter 2 contradicts "Thing B" in Chapter 6, so suddenly the whole plan falls apart. 

At which point I have to just scrap everything and start flying by the seat of my pants.

REACH:  Do you work off imagery too--assigning an image or scene for each chapter that will be the highlight of that part of the novel that progresses into more vivid and haunting visual cues?

Peter Watts:  Sometimes.  Starfish, which came out in 1999, had its genesis in a vision that got stuck in my head back in the mid-eighties: a black-clad mermaid with empty eyes, hovering above a rift-vent seabed.  I had no idea what it meant, at the time.

REACH: Is storytelling more important to you or is the literary aspect of having a story mean something the more valuable reading experience for you as a writer? 

Peter Watts:  I don't know exactly what you're saying here. But I generally regard my fiction as a kind of thought experiment, a way to explore the ramifications of certain ideas. (This may not be an entirely good thing when it comes to reader enjoyment; if I focused more on character-based storytelling, my stuff would probably be more accessible.  I'm trying to work on that.)

REACH:  Do you write a project in one sitting or do you accumulate notes and drafts over the course of travels and put them together when you feel the work syncs at the perfect moment?

Peter Watts:  Oh Jesus. I don't think I've ever written a story in one sitting.  Hell, sometimes it takes me eight years.

REACH:  Do you listen to any background music while you write your science fiction and techno-thrillers to get into the mood?  What's on your play list right now that is different from the time you wrote your first 2 novels?  What does your writer workplace look like? 


Image Credit: Peter Watts  used with permission
This is the writer workplace of our favorite
space-horror writer, Peter Watts.


Peter Watts:  I used to listen to music constantly while writing (in fact, the acknowledgements sections of my earlier books contain shout-outs to the likes of Jethro Tull and REM).  These days, not so much. At some point I realized that either the music distracted me from writing (I'm not a big fan of ambient stuff; I prefer music with interesting lyrics, which almost by definition encourages you to stop writing and pay attention), or I got so deeply into The Zone that I wouldn't hear the music at all;  the playlist would finish and I'd have had no idea what I'd just been listening to.

I think the last album I consciously played while writing was something from Nine Inch Nails.  Probably "Year Zero" (which is not a bad piece of dystopian SF in its own right).

I still listen to music while running, though; and I think hard on my writing during those times as well. So music and the writing process do still coexist to some extent,  along the trails of Taylor Creek Park.



REACH:  Being a cult-favorite, science-fiction horror writer and becoming a "poster-boy" for scary, dystopian science fiction in the past decade, you have been hailed for making cyberpunk (supposedly dead) riveting again and even more visceral than Gibson and Walter John Williams-era, neural net stories in space.... 

Peter Watts:  Really?  Who has hailed me thus? This is the first I've heard about me scoring such a reputation.  Are you sure you're not confusing me with someone else?   Maybe, William Gibson or Walter John Williams?

REACH:  What ideas did you want to explore in each of your initial novels from Starfish to the Hugo-nominated Blindsight and Echopraxia?

Peter Watts:  Seriously? You want me to go through half a dozen novels (seven, if you count βehemoth as two) and tell you what ideas I was exploring in each of them? Especially since each novel explores a bunch of ideas?

Dude, that's what the endnotes are for.

REACH:  The Rorschach is one of the most scary-beautiful, "big-strange-object-in-space" that has been created in the science fiction canon.  It reminds us of the Independence Day mothership crossed with the creepy, haunted spaceship in the movie "Event Horizon." But with ghosts instead of alien invaders.  What other ideas came together to inspire you to write this spectacular death trap in the void?  Do you believe that supernatural themes can work real well in a science fiction thriller?  You've had a video feature on vampires on You Tube--do you work biology-science tropes into your supernatural fiction constructs as a writer?

Peter Watts:  I'd argue that I don't do supernatural constructs. The things I find scariest about my writing are real: the idea that meat can wake up if you put the right kind of electricity through it, for example. Every one of us knows this from first-hand experience— consciousness is a ubiquitous, everyday event— and yet we have no idea how it works.

We are biological machines inhabited by ghosts, and they're not fictional and they're not supernatural.  We don't know what they are. Honestly, the thing that really scares the shit out of me (beyond the imminent ecological collapse of the earth, of course) is the working of our own brains.

As for Blindsight's vampires and Echopraxia's zombies— they may be out there, but they're not supernatural. Every one of their aspects is explained in biological terms. I've given the names of supernatural entities because that's what people would call them if they ever manifested in real life. 

(This is something I could never figure out about the show "The Walking Dead", by the way. Here's a world in which the dead rise and start chowing down on the living, and we call them walkers, or biters, or rotters— but nobody ever calls them zombies, which is the very first word that should come to mind.  What's up with that?) 

REACH:  You write from the world view of a subversive scribe who weaves the worlds in your stories as oppressive hegemonies ripe for collapse or decaying environments where survival is almost impossible unless the hero eschews established norms and forges on with his own moral compass. 

As a writer who got into a situation where Big Brother is a real threat to life and property, you can more than describe the horror of getting stomped on by overreaching authority structures that are inherently going to degenerate.  Is the subersive or the underdog or the lost cause as a fictional conceit work best to amplify the suspense or horror in storytelling as well as be a goldmine for playing with the human psyche as you write character? 

Peter Watts:  My nasty experiences at the US border didn't really inspire my perspective on North American realpolitick— they only confirmed it. I was writing about evil thugs with badges a solid decade before any of them came down on me personally. 

It took no great insight.  The hypermilitarization of law enforcement, the criminalization of any civilian response short of immediate and unthinking compliance with every command, should be obvious to anyone who follows the news.  But thugs with badges aren't very interesting characters, either narratively or thematically.  Some people get off on throwing their weight around; most of them aren't very bright. 'Twas ever thus. 

To me, the more interesting characters are those higher up the chain of command: the people who design policy, set wheels in motion, decide who lives and who dies in the Big Picture. And some of those people are simply sociopathic assholes too, no doubt about it— and once again, those people aren't very interesting narratively. 

The interesting higher-ups are those who actually believe, who can actually argue, that they're doing the right thing; that it is necessary to kill a thousand people now to save ten thousand later. These are not people on simple, self-gratifying power trips; these are people who act like monsters from the outside, but only because Humanity has fucked things up so thoroughly, for so long, that no good options remain.

Every remaining decision is a bad one, and someone has to make it.

Once such character was Patricia Rowan, in my Rifters trilogy. I've lost count of the reviews I've read which describe her as a "heartless bureaucrat", or a "murderous sociopath".  Either those reviewers didn't read the text carefully, or I failed in writing it— because I've always regarded Patricia Rowan as one of the more heroic characters in that saga.

(Lenie Clarke, the primary protagonist, actually behaved far more like a typical villain.  Not many people seemed to notice that, either.)

So I don't know if I'd agree that the "heroes" of my fiction are necessarily "the subversive or the underdog" (although some of them certainly are). I think the thing my characters really have in common is that— underdog, overdog, subversive or conformist— they're all pushed past their limits in one way or another. 

And that's where all the interesting stuff happens in any system, of course. You don't find out how an ecosystem responds to stress by never stressing it.  You don't find out who a human is by letting them sit on the couch watching TV all day. You find out who they are by throwing them into a lifeboat with ten other people, and only enough food for five.  Yeah, you find out who people are then real fast.





REACH:   You've been featured in talks about privacy rights and have been advocating a Darwinian mindset of scorched earth--disengaging with the grid and having a kill switch when the grid or the "Gorilla" puts one in a dire situation. 

Peter Watts:  Well, more accurately, I gave one such talk.  And then David Brin shat all over it.

REACH:  How does this pervade into your other fiction--aside from the Behemoth superbug--as a thematic conceit?  Does your writing also espouse personal politics the way China Mieville weaves his socio-Marxist leanings into his writing--not as explicit allegories but as a mindset flavor for readers to enjoy?

Peter Watts: That's a harder question than it seems. Certainly my writing has a particular perspective— that we are evolved biological creatures, and our behavior is inevitably influenced by a few billion years of legacy circuits.

Many people disagree with that, to the point of finding it downright offensive. Anyone who believes that humans are Special, that we have Free Will and "souls" (whatever those are) and are made in some god's image— which is to say, most of the species— would probably regard my writing as "political" because it reflects a worldview they disagree with.

I, on the other hand, just consider it biologically informed.  To me, it's like ensuring that your writing doesn't misrepresent the laws of physics: that's not politics, it's empiricism.

But most people don't think that way.  So most people would probably disagree.



REACH:  From where do you base your characters' behavioral and unique personalities? You've mentioned in a French interview that you use them as voices for an ideal and use drama to illustrate emotional fallouts. 


Video Credit:  Actusf Site You Tube  Utopiales 2013

Peter Watts:  Have I? I don't remember that interview.  (REACH--from a French interview in Utopiales 2013, see video above)

REACH:  Do you use your personal biological science learning to define character behaviors as hero? Predator?  Prey?  Malicious villain?  Or do you spin off characters you've known from favorite stories--like a Romulan from Star Trek as a nefarious schemer with a straight face?

Peter Watts:  I'm honestly not quite sure what you're asking here.  For what it's worth, I once read an article that described me as one of the poster boys for something called "hard-character SF"— that being this new kind of SF (I think Greg Egan and Ted Chiang were also mentioned as practitioners) that does not eschew character development, but which uses neurology and evolution as guides for defining characters.  Or something like that.

The only one of my character I ever knowingly ripped off from a TV show was Siri Keeton's dad in Blindsight.  I borrowed part of his personality from Edward James Olmos's portrayal of Adama in the "Battlestar Galactica" reboot.

REACH:  How do you explore the inherent horror of the dystopian, apocalyptic and sucicide mission stories you've so far put together?  This is me picking your brains for horror tropes--

Peter Watts:  But that's not the way I do it! I don't sit down and say, Hmmm, how can I introduce more horror elements into this dystopian narrative?  I sit down and say Hmmm, what if this thing were true? What would be the consequences? How would it change things?  And then I follow that path. Like I said before: thought experiment.

Oh, occasionally I'll tweak some details because they're nicely resonant with horror tropes— giving vampires a neurological basis for their aversion to crosses, that sort of thing— but that's just me having a bit of fun with the reader, playing a game of  Let's see how many classic vampire traits I can justify biologically. That's more for amusement than horror.  When it comes to the truly, existentially horrific aspects of my writing?

I don't set out to do those at all. I just follow the data, and report back on where they lead.

REACH:   You've mentioned Gene Wolfe as one of your most revered authors....

Peter Watts:  Really?  When?  (Interviewer's note:  Peter mentioned in one interview that he was not worthy to be cast in the same light as writers like Gene Wolfe, so I read that as him revering Gene as one of the best sci-fi scribes--in the same way that when anyone says--you're the next Wayne Gretzky--a rookie phenom would say he wasn't worthy to be assigned in the same shoes as Gretzky.)

I haven't actually read much Gene Wolfe, just the occasional short story (although I do have The Shadow of the Torturer on my bookshelf, waiting to be read). I know the man is a giant, and I'm a little ashamed I've not read more of his stuff, but I simply haven't read enough of his material to claim bona fide reverence.

Again, are you sure you're not mixing me up with someone else?

REACH:  ....Who else strikes you as an amazing science fiction author whom fans of the genre must discover and read?  Are Michael Moorcock and China Mieville good stuff for you for horror-infused science fiction guilty pleasures?  Elric of Melnibone lives in a very scary-strange otherworld while Embassytown in my opinion should have won China another Hugo.

Peter Watts: 
China Miéville for sure (although if you're looking for "horror-infused", I'd go for his Bas-Lag books over Embassytown).

Haven't read enough Moorcock to judge (I loved Behold the Man, wasn't as impressed with the Jerry Cornelius stuff I read— although I was very young, so it may have just gone over my head).

Dave Nickle—an author who really should be more widely-known—is very good at suffusing his SF with creepy horror elements. In fact, he's known primarily as a horror writer, not as a science fiction writer. But books like Eutopia and Rasputin's Bastards are clearly SFnal in terms of rationale and plotting.  (Eutopia is actually a cool riff on parasites and the biological origins of the religious impulse, even though it reads like pure Cronenbergian body-horror).

Richard Morgan is also able to kick you in the teeth with horror scenarios when he feels like it (anyone who's read the first few chapters of Black Man will know what I'm talking about).

REACH:   I have been thinking of writing open-source horror novels for a while and I was floored by the fact that you actually assigned your first 4 novels as open source available and this also helped save Blindisght from obscurity and even tripled sales of your Hugo-nominated  novel.  I want to know if this happened prior to your 2009 event with the U.S. Border patrol or after?  Are you on a watchlist for championing open source publications as a legit marketing option for fiction? 

Peter Watts: Blindsight came out in 2006; I was assaulted at the border in December 2009, a solid three years later. (And half a year after that I won a Hugo, which I suspect I may only have won because of fan sympathy/outrage over the border incident.)

And yeah, I'm on a watchlist— but I was on a watchlist even before 2009 (at least, during border crossings extending as far back as the mid-nineties, US authorities seemed to know a lot more about me than they should have.)

Now, of course, I'm banned from the US; but that's for insufficient servility, not for championing the Creative Commons.  And maybe for publicly advocating the assassination of sitting politicians on my blog.

REACH:  More power to you sir and I pray you get blessed ten-fold more for breaking ground on science fiction and on successfully marketing science fiction as open source material for fans.  Nobody believes giving away free reading is a legit marketing option for fiction—everybody thinks its crazy when I mention it.

I hope you can visit Manila soon and promote your books here as many Filipino geeks are fond of good, hard science fiction with horror tropes (aka Event Horizon).

Readers can check out the author's blog at rifters.com and download his Starfish trilogy and the critically acclaimed, Blindsight novel as free Open Source PDFs on this link.  The Open Source license allows you to print copies of the novels off a home printer for your own personal reading for FREE.

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