An interview with Peter Watts – Part 2

More of our conversation with the author of ‘Blindsight’.

After a bit of a delay, we’re finally ready to present part 2 or our interview with the brilliant science fiction writer Peter Watts. Here we talk about aliens, underwater species, oceanic secrets, humanity’s prospects for the future and whether being a pessimist is a proper way of life.

To refresh your memories of part 1, click here.

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Part interview, part friendly chat in the park.

Something that I admired about ‘Blindsight’ are the unique aliens you invented. As a marine biologist, you probably took inspiration from species that actually exists?

Yeah (laughs).

Can you tell me more about that?

There are over 2000 species of brittle stars and I think they all look disgusting. Peter Watts gets inspired by them for the scramblers.

Brittle stars. They are related to starfish, sea cucumbers, that kind of thing. They look like little pentagons with sorta bony segmented arms that have little spines sticking out of them. All sort of in a flat plain, the spines all stick out laterally, they don’t stick out the top. They crawl around and they eat off the ground and they sorta scramble in this single plain. They don’t seem to have a lot of flexibility, you see them literally scramble along the bottom of the tank or the ocean with these five… weird… legs, each of which looks like a cross between a backbone and a snake, it’s just the weirdest segmented little thing you’ve seen. And when you pick these and you drop them in the water column they all have this reflex, where they essentially collapse into these teardrop shapes, where the central pentagon is at the bottom and their legs sort of fold up. It looks like a perfect aerodynamic teardrop that maximizes the rate of them falling back down to the ground where they feel safer. Physically, that’s what inspired the scramblers. Also, they have a distributed set of photosensitive cells all over their cuticles. So rather than having an eye, they have a wide photosensitive surface like a whole series of pinhole cameras. I stole that too for the scramblers. That was the biggest physical inspiration.

Other things like the whole non-sapient thing was obviously the thing I was exploring in the book, so they had to have that characteristic. And then I put them in this weird ass high radiation environment that would totally destroy any conventional genes. So then I had to come up with some other gene-free way of coming up with inheritance and so on. The vision in my head physically started off as brittle stars and then I had to lair on all those other alien characteristics just because this was the environment they were in, and they would therefore have to have that attribute in order to survive there.

A brittle star scrambling on the bottom.

How much time did you spend creating this species?

Oh, man. I mean, it’s not like I sat down and hit a stopwatch. It’s been bubbling away in the back of my mind for years. The genesis of ‘Blindsight’ probably started in 1991, when I read this essay by Richard Dawkins about what a mystery sub-awareness was – why do we have to be conscious, why can’t we just be meat robots, that do all the same things. It was almost 15 years before I actually wrote a book on that. But you could say that in the back of my mind for over a decade was bubbling away the whole idea of how do you make a non-conscious species, how do you make a meat robot, how does that work.

Did you just think about it, like, when you had nothing to do, or did you intentionally plan to write a novel with this idea?

Well, kind of both. One of the interesting things about the lack of free will in conscious thought is that you don’t have a lot of control over your head. You’re doing your grocery shopping or something and suddenly something pops into your head and you think this is cool and then you direct other thoughts and so on, but for the vast majority of that time obviously it was just stuff, that would pop into my mind while I was thinking about things or reading a paper on some aspect of biology and think ‘hey, that reminds me of…’ And then when I sat down to actually design the species, I guess in 2003, and so from 2003 to 2005 I was pretty much devoted to it. I was doing some biology on the side, but most of my time was devoted to working on ‘Blindsight’. That was the point when I physically sat down and started drawing diagrams, figuring out metabolic pathways and reading up with a specific eye how to explain certain aspects of the biology. So I’ve got all sorts of books with notes, sticking out of weird places that constituted deliberate research. That was over a period of two years. But over a period of 15 to 17 years it was always kinda bubbling away back there subconsciously.

If humanity ever met an alien race, do you think we would survive it?

A superior species would probably eat or destroy the inferior one. Unless the superior one is also grown up and conscious enough to want to preserve the other life form.

I think it depends on who meets who. If they sort of come down from the sky and meet us, we survive it if they let us survive it. If we advance to the point where we head out and find them, I hope that we’ll be grown up a bit, because so far, how we treat other races and other species that have less technological advantage than us… It doesn’t give you much hope. The colonizers and the colonized – it’s a hugely asymmetrical relationship. Honestly, I don’t pretend to understand the motives of aliens, but if they came out of the sky now, our survival would depend entirely on their attitudes, not ours. We wouldn’t have anything to say about it.

So you seem like a pretty curious person and you like to contemplate on different things, to explore the deep – be it ocean or space. What fuels your curiosity? Is it something you’ve always had?

I don’t know. I guess to some extend it’s just that every time I read something that I think is interesting or cool more often than not the first thing I think is ‘how can that go wrong?’ And that’s generally how a lot of stories get started. You read about some new scientific discovery or some new technological development and you could write a story about how great that thing is. And it will be ‘Gosh, wow’. But that’s not really a story, that’s just kind of an essay. To make it a story, the thing has to break, something has to go wrong with it. And I guess that’s just kind of the way I think of life in general. Whenever I think of anything, it’s like, okay, how is this gonna go wrong. I get involved with someone – how is this relationship going to break up? How is my life going to become miserable this time?

You sound quite pessimistic, are you a pessimist?

No, I don’t think so. People have called me pessimist, people have called me cynical, people have called me nihilistic. There was an interesting study done on clinically depressed people. And it turned out that clinically depressed people were in fact more objective about their assessment of reality than so called emotionally healthy people. The normal emotionally healthy state is delusional happiness – to think that you’re gonna be the one to make it to the finish line, you’re gonna be the one who wins the lottery, you’re gonna be the one who gets the promotion.

And you can see how something like that would evolve in a world in which natural selection makes way and there are generally more organisms born than can possibly survive and most things are gonna die without having kids. If you had an objective assessment of your actual odds under those circumstances, you’d probably just sit down and wait to die, because what’s the fucking point, right? But as long as you have hope, you are motivated to continue to try and so natural selection promotes hope, even if it is unfounded. So you’ve got these people that we consider clinically depressed and we consider that a dysfunction, we consider that a pathology, but in fact when you ask them questions like ‘what are your chances of getting a promotion’, ‘what are your chances of missing the bus’, ask a whole series of different questions to assess their take on reality, it is clinically depressed people that answer more accurately than we do. So, in terms of how most people feel, pessimism can actually mean objectivity, pragmatism. Most people are pollyannaists*. I definitely take a grimmer view in a lot of cases than most people, but that’s because most people are delusionally upbeat, not because I’m a pessimist.

Optimism is not always advisable, contrary to what your motivation coach might say.

* Polyanna’s principle describes the tendency of people to remember pleasant experiences more accurately than unpleasant ones – that explains the subconscious tendency to focus on the optimistic.

Do you think we have explored the ocean enough? Do you think there are deep underwater species that have yet to be discovered? How much do we know about the ocean from what there is to know?

That’s an interesting question. The stock answer is „Yes, we know less about the ocean, than we do about the far side of the Moon, we know more about Mars than we do about the deep ocean, we’ve only mapped about 5% of the ocean…“ I think that’s bullshit. I think the militaries have probably mapped the oceans to a fine level of detail and they’re just not telling us about it, because they’re playing submarine games with each other. But we know that the technology exists to map undersea mountains and stuff, entirely on the basis of patterns in the surface water, microgravity changes and so on making changes in wave patterns on the surface. So I think we’ve probably mapped the ocean more than most people say. It’s probably very very true that, in terms of the amount of ocean, that has actually been visited by man or by robot, it’s a vanishingly small fraction. The question though is, are we missing all that much? Once you’ve seen one undersea crebe, have you seen them all? Are they all pretty much the same? There’s no latitude migrating. Once you get down below the Thermocline, it’s four degrees centigrade. There’s no climactic zones there. And the vast part of the abyssal plain is probably, I haven’t been there, but my guess would be – mud and starfish. You go down one place, you go down another place, the environment would be pretty much indistinguishable. So in that sense we probably know more about the interesting parts of the ocean and the rest would be more of the same.

That said, there are places where there are lakes on the bottom of the ocean. Where there would be little seeps, where you have that pocket of hypersaline water that comes out. Because it’s hypersaline it’s heavier than the other water. So you have the ocean and you have a sort of lake underneath the ocean, where it has its own wave patterns and everything, it has a surface, because it’s so dense. There are obviously the hydrothermal vents, the cold seeps, underwater corrals… There is a bunch of cool stuff and I would be surprised if we had discovered all the cool stuff. There may be something that’s the equivalent of a hydrothermal vent that we haven’t discovered yet, that would be pretty cool…

Most of the cool stuff about the ocean have probably already been discovered.

I would like to see us explore the ocean more, I definitely would, but the problem is, exploring the ocean is a pretty expensive proposition and the only people with the kind of money and the interest to do that are the ones who want to mine the f… the shit out of the seabed for polymetallic sulfides, those who want to use the ocean as a battleground, or those who want to drop nuclear waste into subduction zones and hope that they get carried down to the magma, before they break open and kill everything… None of those reasons strike me as particularly good reasons for exploring the bottom of the ocean. I would like to explore the bottom of the ocean just so we have a better understanding of the planet we live on and so we can discover more neat stuff. But discovering more neat stuff is never the kind of a grand proposal, that gets you the big bucks to get down there.

Which is more useful and more profitable in your opinion – space or deep ocean? Which should be explored more?

I’m gonna say space. Because it’s not necessarily more profitable, but cleaner. You could mine an asteroid in space or you could mine a hydrothermal reservoir at the bottom of the ocean. There are environmental concerns in either case. You can automate a lot in either case. The difference is, when you stripmine something on Earth, you’re tearing up an Earthly environment. You’re fucking up the planet we live on. You can mine an asteroid and… thinking, thinking, thinking, I can’t really think of a way you can pollute space. If you can move all your industry off the planet, then you’ve taken a huge step towards restoring some kind of natural beauty to our planet, because we’re no longer pumping shit into the atmosphere, it’s just all out there in the Asteroid belt. So yeah, never shit where you eat.

So am I to understand that you don’t agree with certain opinions about humanity doing not so much harm to Earth, that we shouldn’t really care so much about climate change, because it’s not up to us?

Yeah, those people are idiots. Or they are shortsighted sociopaths, who don’t want to lose money, or they are being paid off by shortsighted sociopaths, who don’t want to lose money. Or maybe not even shortsighted, I can imagine a lot of people saying ‘yes, we are destroying the planet, but I’ll be dead by the time any of that happens and in the meantime I want to live well’. I mean, that’s a perfectly pragmatic Darwinian attitude, I can’t find a logical fault in that, except for the fact that it means you’re saying ‘fuck everything else’. But isn’t that what natural selection is, isn’t the whole point of evolution the selfish promotion of your own genes? I don’t like it, on a gut level I hate those people… Yeah, I definitely don’t agree with the ‘who cares about climate change, because we’l all be dead by then’. But that’s just the conscious part of me, that gets caught up in the beauty of hedges. It’s not rational, but I like our world and I want it to persist.

Earth turning into Venus would not be cool.

Do you think humanity will destroy Earth, or will we stop ourselves before it’s too late?

I think we’ll destroy the Earth.

So are we a doomed species?

I don’t know, I think the Koch brothers and the Trumps and the Paris Hiltons and the Theresa Mays of the world will probably have bomb shelters. I mean, you can buy nuclear powered submarines for billionaires that are literally advertised as ‘this is how you wait out the nuclear or the social apocalypse’. These things are self-supporting, the bedroom has got these giant wrapped around windows so that you can hang out in corral reefs and you can stay off-shore and you can avoid it when the mobs come to try to tear you limb from limb. So I imagine some people will probably survive, not the ones you wanna see survive…

On the other hand, take the Siberian Tundra scenario. Methane has 20 times the heat capacity, is it, of carbon dioxide and the permafrost is melting. There are crystal forms of methane down in oceanic muds. Nobody really knows how much of that there is, but if those methane clathrates melt and come out of solution, you could suddenly increase the heat retention potential of the atmosphere to the point where we could turn into Venus in less than 50 years. That’s a worst case scenario, but there’s nothing in Physics that says it can’t happen. It’s just a question of how much methane is in there and how much is coming out. And if that happens then yeah, pretty much all life on the planet is baked, except maybe for some very hardy bacteria. Because Venus – not a place to live. It’s the same size as Earth, it’s not that much closer to the Sun, but, holy shit, it’s like 400 degrees there. And we could easily turn the planet into that, depending on the breaks. So, in a situation like that – yeah, we’re a doomed species. A situation less than that – we’re probably a doomed civilization, but the species may survive… And it may not.

To be continued…

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