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February, 2008 : Interview:

Interview with Peter Watts

Canadian writer Peter Watts is a marine biologist by training, having spent 20-plus years on both sides of the trenches in the marine-mammal research arena ("Marine mammal research is particularly prone to being 'whore science,' in the sense that the guys handing out the funding already know what results they want you to get," as he described it in a 2002 interview [1]). His SF short story A Niche won the Prix Aurora Award (a Canadian award) for best short fiction in English in 1992.

Watts made the wider SF world sit up and take notice with his first published novel, Starfish, the first of the Rifters books (there were eventually four volumes in all, and therein hangs a tale best told at Watts' web site). Last year's Blindsight, unrelated to the Rifters books, caused another stir, and British SF writer Charles Stross pegged it as a surefire Hugo nominee—a prediction that's come true.

J.G. Stinson: You've said that your Rifters books were more about examining people in your life at the time, and that Blindsight is more autobiographical. Were these approaches about the same in difficulty in terms of examining what were probably painful things, or was one more difficult than the other?

Peter Watts: First off, neither story was about those things—those things merely informed the characters of the poor bastards forced to live through my stories, since they had to have personalities of some sort and you're supposed to "write what you know." Even within those constraints, though, it's a tough question to answer. Lenie Clarke was based on a woman who'd been out of my life for years by the time I started writing Starfish, so there was an obvious distance to the thought experiment. I wrote Blindsight during the course of actually breaking up with someone; there were parts of that book where I basically bled out onto the page, I was so raw. (Although a number of people seem to find Blindsight lacking in character development compared to my other works—which either reflects careless reading on their part, or a profound lack of personality on mine. Probably the latter.) Obviously, writing in the midst of a devastating breakup was a lot tougher than writing in hindsight about a woman with whom I had been less tightly entangled to begin with. But was that the approach I took, or the timing? No way to know, short of putting Blindsight on hold for a decade or more.

JGS: Where did the title for Blindsight come from?

PW: Evidently it came from Robin Cook and about a half-dozen nonfiction authors who used the same title before I did, not that I realized it at the time. It's just that the clinical condition of blindsight—that state where the brain actually processes visual input but the conscious mind is unaware of being able to see—seemed to click on so many levels. It's a neuropathology that illuminates so many aspects of consciousness (in fact, a couple of those "Blindsight"-titled books are explicitly about consciousness); it's a perfect metaphor for Blindsight's thematic punchline on the nature of consciousness; and it's nice shorthand for Siri Keeton's whole way of dealing with the world.

It's also a damn sight catchier as a title than Dandelion, which I would have been stuck with if Blindsight hadn't come along.

JGS: Have you heard about the 2006 documentary of the same name? [The film is about 6 Tibetan teenagers, all blind and culturally and religiously isolated from their communites as a result, who learned to read Braille from Sabriye Tenberken, a blind German woman (the founder of the first school for the blind in Lhasa). They set out to climb Lhakpa Ri, a 23,000-foot peak on the north side of Mount Everest, led by experienced climber Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to "summit" (climb to the top of) Mount Everest and the first blind man to complete the Seven Summits—analagous to the tennis Grand Slam.]

PW: No. Figures. There's a movie called Maelstrom too, now that you mention it. And a character named Peter Watts in the TV series Millennium, which happened to be filming in Vancouver at exactly the same time I was living in Vancouver. Story of my life. Nobody ever lets me keep a monopoly on anything.

JGS: To continue the riff on your name, it's also the same as one of the bass players for the British glam-rock band Mott the Hoople, most popular during the 1970s (he was known as "Overend" Watts for a tumble he took over some band equipment). Do you have music playing in the background (besides Jethro Tull) when you write?

PW: I did not know that about Mott the Hoople. The only Peter Watts I know from that era is Pink Floyd's sound engineer, the guy who giggled maniacally on Dark Side of the Moon. In terms of background music, I used to listen constantly—Tull, Tory Amos, Rush, Zeppelin, Pre-Cheese-era Yes, REM, Radiohead—but not so much any more. I tend to like tunes that draw you in both lyrically and musically—but by definition, such tunes draw your attention away from the writing. Maybe I was better at dual-core processing in my younger days. More likely I just finally realized that I was tuning the music out of my conscious awareness anyway while writing, so what was the point? I still listen to music for inspiration (Porcupine Tree is a recent favorite), but that's an eyes-closed-get-lost kinda process without keyboard involvement. The only time music actively inspired my writing while I was writing, without intruding, would be Dead Can Dance's "Spleen and Ideal," which set the mood for my short story Nimbus.

JGS: Could you expand on your idea of why the sociopath might be the "winner" in the human evolutionary timeline?

PW: Sociopaths, by definition, lack conscience. This frees them to do things that ethical folks are constrained from; it gives them a larger utility belt, lets them pull out an actual screwdriver while the rest of us are making do with a dime turned on edge. A sociopath will find it much easier to behave ethically (if it furthers their interests) than an ethical person will find it to behave sociopathically. That confers a major competitive advantage.

Until recently, the drawback for the sociopath was that word would get around; if you live in a tribe with a hundred members, it doesn't take long to learn that everyone who trusted that charming dude down the lane ended up paying for it. These days, though, the potential tribe is a few billion strong. A sociopath can get in, wreak havoc, and make off with the loot; he'll never work in that office again, but there's an endless supply of offices that don't know his rep. And while modern mass-communications technology can be used to spread warnings about such people, such tech is just as amenable to use by the sociopaths themselves to further their own agendas—again, without the constraints that the ethics-afflicted would labor under. You need only look at the current political administration to see which side wins in such a contest.

By the way, while I've been playing around with this sociopathy-as-adaptation riff for several books now, I'm hardly the only one whistling that tune. At least a few actual experts are starting to suggest similar things (for example Marnie Rice, a psychologist who works with sexual offenders in Ontario).

JGS: Any ideas on how they'd reproduce—as in birthing tanks, etc.?

PW: Your garden-variety psychopath breeds pretty much the same way the rest of us do—he just does it more often, with a greater number of partners, and with far less in the way of follow-up nurture. It's a classic fuck-'em-forget-'em strategy. To cite Rice again, psychopaths have way more kids than the rest of us, and even the extreme end of that spectrum—psychopathic rapists—tend to target women of child-bearing age, not kids or seniors. Sounds like a successful reproductive strategy to me.

Admittedly there's always the question of how reliable these data are, because they're gleaned largely through interviews and surveys and people tend to misreport when queried about their own sexual behaviors. Still. The idea of a sexually profligate psychopath makes perfect evolutionary sense, so I suspect there's something to it.

JGS: Has anyone tried to corner you on your idea that there are no altruists? How did you arrive at this conclusion?

PW: "No altruists in Darwin's universe." Catchy line, that. Far more appealing than "Altruists may exist, for a variety of social or developmental reasons, but they get weeded out of the population as fast as they arise," which is a more accurate formulation. And one I stand behind.

Let's start with other species, then move closer to home. There are many cases of apparent altruism throughout the animal kingdom: mother ducks caring for the offspring of another female, or a squirrel putting itself at risk by conspicuously raising an alarm call when it sees a predator—even, sometimes, when there are no blood relatives around. But when you look closely, selfish motives always seem to lurk at the heart of these behaviors. The mother duck has kidnapped a rival's ducklings, and keeps them as a buffer zone around her own kids so that predators will be more likely to eat the rival's children. The squirrel only raises the alarm call when it sees an aerial predator, one diving down from above who would be confused by the panic-stricken squirrel stampede that results from the alarm call. It uses the other animals as distractions (try keeping your eye on one ping-pong ball out of a hundred in constant motion). In other cases, when the squirrel spies an approaching ground-based predator who would not be able to see most of the stampede—and hence, would not be confused by it—the squirrel quietly slips away and leaves the other squirrels to their fate. And let's not forget "reciprocal altruism" (I scratch your back, you scratch mine), or the ubiquitous "kin selection"—that's "motherhood issues," to you hominids—in which we endlessly celebrate the anything-but-altruistic behavior of parents who are doing nothing but protecting their own genes.

"Oh, but those are just animals," you say, and point out the virtuous altruistic charity of human beings who turn the other cheek, give up their lives for their fellow man, and/or fly planes into buildings—because they've been promised a big honking payoff in the afterlife. How many followers would the Jesus meme have picked up if it had implored people to walk the second mile, give all they have to the poor, suffer for righteousness sake—and at the end of it all, they'd end up in hell regardless? How often do people really put themselves at a disadvantage with no expectation of any reward?

Forget about the stats showing that we kill our foster children orders of magnitude more often than we kill our biological kids. Forget about the paper [requires registration—ed.] that came out in Science a couple of years back, showing how Al Qaeda uses kin selection principles to promote self-sacrifice. Forget Haldane's famous quip that he would gladly lay down his life for two brothers or eight cousins. Just perform this one little thought experiment: you're on the Titanic, after the iceberg has hit. Who's more likely to send the greatest number of genes to the next generation: the altruist who gives his life jacket to a stranger and goes down with the ship, or the selfish asshole who takes it and lives to breed another day?

So, yeah. Maybe there are altruists, but they don't last long. And yes, people have tried to corner me on this position. Generally the same people who insist that evolution is bunkum and God did the whole thing in seven days.

JGS: Did you know you're on a website that purportedly lists celebrity atheists?

PW: I did know that, actually—came across it while ego-surfing in search of worshipers. I like their logo.

JGS: You don't exactly have the reputation of a purveyor of happy endings. Have you ever tried writing any "straight" horror fiction, or is the SF pull too strong?

PW: I was actually surprised to see how many people described Blindsight as "Lovecraftian," so maybe I'm already halfway there. But a downbeat ending is hardly the diagnostic characteristic of horror fiction; that would apply more to the domain of Tragedy, although of course bummer endings crop up in every genre, even comedy (if you count Dr. Strangelove or Brazil).

Horror is honorable, horror is primal: horror exists to bypass the upper brain entirely and scare the shit out of your limbic system, and if you can do that—regardless of whether you're writing in the horror genre or not—you've accomplished something worthwhile. Elements of my storytelling aspire to evoke some sort of dread in my readers (and no, smartasses, I am not talking about a dread induced by the mere prospect of having to read my stuff). But that's not primarily why I write. I write to ask "what if?", not to shout "Boo!" —and while shouting "Boo!" might further the thought experiment, it doesn't replace the thought experiment.

That said, though, I've got nothing against horror. There's no reason why I couldn't conscript ideas in the service of dread instead of the other way around. I just haven't been inspired to yet.

JGS: Have you ever tried to write something with a lighter tone? If so, what happened?

PW: I have tried. It sucked. The ending seemed forced and contrived, as if a passel of Care Bears had been stapled inelegantly onto the back end of 1984, or happy footage from Kubrick's The Shining got grafted onto the end of Blade Runner.

I don't know why this should be. It's not a schtick or an affectation, I swear. I have nothing against uplifting endings, and I'd gladly write one myself if it were consistent with the subject matter. But stories are a form of thought experiment to me: I don't write to put forth a predetermined political viewpoint (although some might find that surprising); I write to try and figure stuff out. The research behind the story, the telling of it—these are the data and the methodology, and you have to go where the data lead or you're cheating. And for some reason, the subjects I explore always seem to contain data that point down.

Don't know why. Maybe it's because we live in a vast, indifferent, and heartless universe. But I could be wrong.

JGS: How's the post-doc in molecular genetics coming along?

PW: I suck at it. And it's completely stalled my education. I used to read fairly widely in the tech literature; I fell behind from the day I started the PD, because I had so much catching up to do in this new field. Except, I never really did catch up; the things I was supposed to be doing kept changing, to the point where I never really got a chance to follow through on anything. And the bits I have ended up focusing on—I'm just not very good at them.

On the other hand, it's been a damn sight more lucrative than writing science fiction ever was.

JGS: Your collaboration with Derryl Murphy on the short story Mayfly has garnered some notice (final ballot for the 2006 Prix Aurora Award for a short work in English). Who else would you like to collaborate with in fiction (up to five names)?

PW: I'm not at all good at collaboration. Can I instead name five people I'd like to kill and steal their moves?

JGS: By all means, do.

PW: Elizabeth Bear, for the humanity of her characters. Cory Doctorow, for his relentless and educated optimism in the face of reality. John Brunner, even though he's dead, for the depth and breadth of his research, for his realpolitick, and for the astonishing degree of control he brought to blizzards of information. Samuel Delany, for his prose. And maybe Ted Chiang. Or Greg Egan. Just to see if I could keep up. It's far too short a list, you know. I could go on for three times the length, easily.

JGS: What's the most surprising response you've received from a scientist who's read your work, and why did it surprise you?

PW: I've heard a fair bit from scientists, ranging from a retired biochemist who objected to the frequent appearance of "fuck" in my characters' dialog to a fisheries biologist who argued that the evolution of Blindsight's vampires implies group selection. Most "surprising" response? The runner-up might be the guy from the Lawrence Livermore Labs who told me that the ideas explored in my books had inspired him in his own work (which is potentially kind of scary, given the stuff that goes on down there).

But the winner, hands-down, would have to be a dual-class bioinformatician/molecular geneticist who brought Maelstrom to his Bible studies group.

JGS: Telemedicine (diagnosis and/or surgery by remote) is used in your Rifters novels; it's not a new concept, but most other instances aren't as closely detailed as yours. Were you aware that Starfish has been cited in more than one article on the Zeus robotic surgical system, which is being used in a NASA project called NEEMO to determine its viability for use in performing some kinds of surgical operations on astronauts aboard the International Space Station?

PW: I did know that. These Technovelgy guys prey on my insecurity. They've posted nearly a dozen articles citing shiny tech that appears in Starfish, and then one piece on Internet Evolution from Maelstrom, and then nothing at all from any of my other books. It's almost like they regard me as this author who wrote one good book, and then sucked ever after. They frighten me.

JGS: Blindsight has been nominated for this year's (2007) Hugo awards (for best novel). What's your reaction to this?

PW: Kind of a grim, fatalistic satisfaction. I don't expect to win (there's a poll on who should win that has me way out in front over at SF Signal, but I'm willing to bet that none of the 68 respondents hail from Japan). Then again, I never expected to make the finals either. The fact that I have is nice vindication, given how little faith the industry had in this book coming out the gate. Maybe now I can get a decent agent.

JGS: Have you started your next book yet?

PW: Finished it, in fact. It's a sequel to Blindsight; it's called Dumbspeak. It's told entirely from the point of view of the scramblers. 385 blank pages. I'll be heading out to Staples to buy the final draft this weekend.

JGS: You're a self-confessed cynic and cantankerous to boot. What makes you laugh?

PW: Not to go all politician on you here, but I don't accept the premise of your question. I'm not a cynic—if I was, I wouldn't be so continually cantankerous when my naïve expectations of honorable behavior get dashed against the rocks of reality. I'm way more idealistic than any good Darwinian has any right to be. I'm almost stupidly idealistic, and more—I could name a couple of people who'd describe me as downright romantic. Honest. But getting back to your actual question. What makes me laugh. Hmmm...Your Brains, by Jonathan Coulton. Cat-cat interactions. George W. Bush attempting to formulate a coherent sentence. The Daily Show. Creationists. Chelsea Polk's speech patterns. The Colbert Report. The immolation of Dick Cheney. "South Park" (more often than not). People who argue about what "hard SF" is. Did I mention cats?

Works Referenced

1. "Into the Future's Briny Deep: An Interview with Peter Watts," Inscriptions Magazine, Vol. 5, Issue 14, April 8, 2002

Copyright © 2008, Janine Stinson. All Rights Reserved.

About Janine Stinson

J.G. Stinson has been reading science fiction, fantasy, and horror for 40+ years. Her reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, the Broadsheet and SF Site, among others. Her essay "The Human As Other in the Science Fiction Novels of C. J. Cherryh" was published in The Cherryh Odyssey (edited by Edward Carmien, Borgo Press/Wildside Press, 2004).


Feb 19, 03:59 by IROSF
Have something to say about Peter Watts or this interview?

The article can be found here.
Feb 19, 20:47 by Alison Cuyler
I am intrigued by the idea of sociopaths becoming evolutionarily successful. I just watched the movie "Jumper" in which there was a mass amount of said sociopathic behavior. Jumpers are people who have a mutation allowing them to "jump" anywhere in the world (as long as they have been there before). Of course, when young people find they have this ability (well, let's not limit this to young people--many people in general) they use if for their own advantage, robbing banks or any other items that are desired--leading to a very comfortable life. They are able to live outside the rules--and quite successfully, too. However, the sociopathic behavior moves on from there: women are more easily loved and left, trucks and buses are jumped with the jumpers, then smashed or rolled, no thought for the people caught inside. The idea of accountability (or lack of with such an ability) was repeatedly mentioned, though one would think at some point the characters (or at least the one that says he is "different" and will not use his ability for "evil") there would be some learning from all the sociopathic behavior. There isn't, at least in this installment.

That being said, I can see that jumpers would come out on top, especially with the world being so big that they can easily get lost in it. The paladins chasing them (a group that through history has followed and eliminated jumpers) might have something else to say about that, and in this context are attempting to control evolution so perhaps us "normal" humans don't end up with the short end of the stick (at least that would be the evolutionary reason--the paladins claim that it is an abomination to have such a god-like ability and it must be eliminated). I can't help but wonder if the using of jumping for evil that the paladins refer to is that consequence-less, sociopathic behavior which even the main character is guilty of, and he is not really different from the other jumpers after all.
Sep 7, 14:54 by Janine Stinson
Emlymom, I think you're on the right track. "Jumpers" does have a lot of sociopathic characters -- but they're not all Jumpers. The Paladin called Roland (Samuel L. Jackson) exhibits sociopathic tendencies. He believes he has a mandate from a divine power to stop Jumpers permanently. Once his team captures a Jumper, in one nastily memorable scene, Roland uses a large knife to kill the Jumper, and he looks rather happy doing it.

David Rice (Hayden Christianson) is not, imo, sociopathic; he feels remorse for what he feels he's forced to do (rob banks to support himself, as he sees it, because his ability to teleport makes him a permanent outcast from society). He leaves behind apology notes. There is a hint that he attempts to repay those from whom he stole, though it's never explicitly shown, afaik. Sociopaths, by definition, have no sense of moral responsibility and no social conscience. If Rice was a sociopath, he wouldn't leave the notes, and he'd be doing a lot more damage.

As to the question of whether sociopaths would come out on top in the evolutionary sense, I disagree. I think humans developed cooperative behaviors because they increased the survival rate for a larger number of humans, thus serving the need for a diverse gene pool. Sociopaths, not having the moral responsibility/social conscience switch turned on, are opting themselves out of these benefits. If only sociopaths were left in the world, they wouldn't last long; they'd be killing each other.

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