An interview with Peter Watts – Part 4

Can there be love between literature and video games? Certainly!

After what probably felt like forever, we are finally ready with the last part of the awesome interview with Peter Watts, the Canadian author of ‘Blindsight’ and ‘Beyond the Rift’. Here we talk openly about his underappreciated works, his relation to video games, the storytelling for different media and his future projects.

If you want to read the other parts of the interview:

А за версията на български кликнете тук.

And which among the short stories in ‘Beyond the Rift’ would you recommend the most?

Oh, geez, uhm… ‘The Things’ was another story that I didn’t know if it worked when I first released it and then it really kind of took off. Let’s say ‘The Things’. ‘The Island’ I think is cool, because it’s my first attempt to get into far future deep space opera, but kind of a gritty „Hey, all you lazy assholes who invoke Stargates and stuff, this is what it would really be like“. It’s a good story and I think it does a lot of really excellent world building and it won a Hugo… But ‘The Things’ works on a bunch of different levels. In the first place, the sheer arrogance of trying to retell the story of a movie from the point of view of something that doesn’t actually have a point of view, because it’s continually splitting into different things, right? Just the writing challenge of that was amazing. But it was also fan fiction, because I really love that movie.

Science fiction horror is obviously an influence and an inspiration for Peter Watts.

So it was an homage to my favorite movie and then halfway through I realized that what it really is, is an allegory on the missionary impulse. The Thing is pretty horrific, what it does to us is pretty horrific, but it thinks it’s doing the right thing, it thinks it’s saving us. It’s faux, it absorbs us and it calls it ‘taking communion’, because it’s communing with us, it’s gifting us with its ability to adapt to new environments. It doesn’t understand the concept of an individual. And that idea of well intentioned evil really, really sums up the whole missionary impulse – that we’re going to beat God into you, we are going to save your soul by essentially conquering you and forcing you into doing these things that you don’t want to do, and we’re all gonna do it for God. That’s pretty close to what the Thing was doing in my interpretation of it.

I thought it was cool, because it worked in three ways. It also managed to rehabilitate some of the dumber aspects of the movie. Because as much as I love the movie, there are some… I’m pretty sure that back in the 80’s no personal computers came with special software that helped you detect whether your friends had been taken over by shapeshifting aliens before, so where did that programme even come from? And there were some inconsistencies in terms of the rubber and the story. It was really great to write a story, that actually tried to explain and fix some of that stuff. So yeah, ‘The Things’ may not have been the best story, but it accomplished the greatest number of tasks – it was homage, it was critique, it was allegory for religion and it was fix-up. So yeah, ‘The Things’.

Do you have a literary work that you feel was underappreciated or deserved more recognition that it got?

Yeah. I think ‘Malak’ could have done better. And I think ‘Giants’ was underappreciated. It was set in the same cycle as ‘The Island’. I think there were a lot of awesome stuff about it. It was based on a paper in ‘Nature’ in which an astrophysicist found that a planet had actually survived passage through a sun. That was essentially the story of ‘Giants’ – the ship was essentially trapped and was gonna fall through the outer limit of this red dwarf and the only way it could make it was if it burrowed into an ice giant, kind of an Uranus-sized or Neptune-sized thing, which was also passing through. The sun would eventually burn that thing away. But by the time it got down to where the ship was, hopefully it would already be on the other side. It was a really cool set-up, a really cool premise for a story. And then I sorta threw in aliens and all sorts of politics about the A.I. and the people on board and the personal dynamic which built into the larger narrative of that whole voyage, which is told in a number of different stories.

Taken from „Sotala’s projected trajectory, 2095-11-20 to 2096-03-02. On present course, Earth/Luna insertion is expected at 0023 GMT on March 2.“

I didn’t know if ‘The Things’ was any good when I’d finished it, I didn’t know if ‘Blindsight’ was any good when I’d finished it – when I finished ‘Giants’ I thought „This is a good story, I’m really proud of this story!“ And it kinda sank without a trace. I mean, it’s got reprinted here and there, but it was never nominated for any awards, nobody cites it as one of their favorite stories and I think it could use a little more love.

Do you think marketing was to blame?

No, because… none of my stuff has involved marketing. My publishers ‘Tor’ just generally never promoted my stuff anyway, really, except for maybe the first book, ‘Starfish’. I cringe every time I see authors on Twitter saying „BUY MY BOOK!“ and setting up blogs and websites saying „BUY MY BOOKS!“… Well, I have a blog, but my blog generally talks about cool places where I go, or cool science that I read, or makes political commentary, but it doesn’t go „buy my book“. My website is kind of a behind the scenes look at the world of the book, but there’s no little click on an Amazon button to buy my book. It’s just „here’s some cool stuff“, „here’s a fake behind the scenes report from the catholic church on the thread posed by the bicameral order“ and „here’s some spaceship schematics“. I think it’s really very cool stuff and I think it’s exciting, it’s an attempt to interest people, but once they’re interested I don’t try to say „Now you’re interested, buy my book“. I don’t do that kind of marketing. I have been lucky enough to get sort of a small vocal group of fans. I don’t have a lot of fans, but they seem to be fierce fans. ‘Blindsight’ keeps getting published in other languages, so it’s still making me lots of money, I’m still getting royalties on it, I’m still getting royalties from ‘Starfish’… It seems mainly word of mouth, it’s not marketing. So why couldn’t word of mouth work for ‘Giants’? I don’t know.

Is there a sequel or more books to ‘Blindsight’?

The sequel-slash-sidequel that’s out is ‘Echopraxia’. There are a couple of interstitial stories. There’s a story called ‘The Colonel’ which takes place between ‘Blindsight’ and ‘Echopraxia’. And there is a story called ‘ZeroS’ which hasn’t come out yet, it’s actually coming out in a couple of months [note: the interview took place in June and ‘ZeroS’ already got published in September 2017] – my first David Bowie themed science fiction. It takes place in the ‘Blindsight’ universe 30 years before any of that other stuff happens. Jim Moore, Siri Keeton’s dad, has a cameo role near the end of that story.

Is it a novel or a short story?

It’s kind of a… It’s 14 000 words, does that make it a novel?

The collection, in which ‘ZeroS’ is published.

Is it going to be published on its own or in a collection?

No, It’s coming out in a collection from Jonathan Strahan, called ‘Infinity Wars’. ‘The Colonel’ came out at And there’s another story, I’m not gonna tell you about, it’s hard to admit it exists. It’s also set in the same universe, but I wrote as a freebie, for a charity working for muscular dystrophy, collecting something… But I wrote it quickly, I wrote it for free and I’m not very proud of it, so I’m going to just let it die.

But yeah, there’s already two books, two relatively substantial stories and I’ll probably write some more stories in that. I wrote a story called ‘Insect Gods’ which mainly came out in Russia. It’s also set in the same world, but it’s not published in English or Bulgarian or anything.

How come it’s published in Russian but not in…

Cuz they wanted me to write, they were publishing a special edition of ‘Blindsight’ and/or ‘Echopraxia’. People already bought the book, but they wanted them to buy the book again, so they stuck an extra single in there, I wrote them this extra single called ‘Insect Gods’. It was pretty good for what it was.

The next novel will probably be ‘Omniscients’. Which I’ll probably start in a year or two.

Are you a fan of ‘Alien’, the movie? Because a lot of readers find similarities between ‘Alien’ and ‘Blindsight’ in terms of space horror.

That’s actually one of the reasons I’m afraid of TV or movie adaptations of my stuff. Because I can see people saying „Well, we really, really like this, but the whole nature of conscience stuff is kinda difficult, why don’t we strip out the nature of conscience?“, in which case what you’re basically left with is ‘Alien’.

The sequel/sidequel to ‘Blindsight’. Sadly, we don’t have it in Bulgarian yet.

I am a fan of certain aspects of it. I think the last two movies have blown chunks. I was angry at ‘Prometheus’ because it was so stupid. And the only reason I wasn’t angry at ‘Covenant’, was because, having already seen how stupid ‘Prometheus’ was, I wasn’t expecting much. ‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens’ are not particularly good as science fiction, but I think they are awesome movies. I love them as movies, I think they do what they set out to do very well. I watch them again and again and again.

So do you think you were inspired by ‘Alien’ when you wrote ‘Blindsight’?

I was inspired in the sense that, every time I wrote something that I thought was too Alien-like, I thought „Nah, it’s too much like ‘Alien'“ and I scratched it out. I was constantly aware of not wanting it to be like it. The whole point of going into Rorschach and this weird dark bony place, that’s obviously kind of reminiscent of the derelict ship on LV-2-40 or whatever it was. So I was aware of it and I was going out of my way to try and distance myself from it. Obviously I did not succeed, because if I had, people would not be saying that it reminded them of ‘Alien’. But if my work is gonna have to remind people of a movie, I think ‘Alien’ is a good one.

In your free time what kind of entertainment do you like most? Books, TV series, movies, video games…

…Video games… [we basically said „video games“ at the same time] I would love to read more, I’ve got this heap stack of science fiction that I would like to read… Unfortunately, I’m always feeling that when I’m reading I should be reading science, I should be keeping up on the journals, I should be researching stuff. Lately the only books I’ve been reading have been books that people have handed me for blurbs or reviews, so I do that, and frequently they’re not very good books.

Basically TV-watching and playing video games. And I exercise all the time, but I hate it. I do like music, but I’ve stopped listening to it. I used to listen to music all the time, while I work. I don’t do that anymore, i find it distracting. I like to travel a lot, because of school, but I always travel on someone else’s dime.

Peter Watts’ venture into the world of Crysis.

Would you say you are a passionate gamer? Because I saw you also have a book based on ‘Crysis 2’.

I’m not a passionate gamer, I’d like to be. If I had the time, I’d game all the time. I have to really really dial back, I really limit the number of games I allow myself to play. I gotta play ‘Witcher’ when I get back from this. These are old games, they’ve been out for a while. Because if I got every cool game when it first came out, I would never write, I would just play these games all the time. I’m still in withdrawal from ‘Skyrim’ and ‘Fallout 4’. There’s something, for all the crudity of the dialog trees, and for all the fact that the characters say the same thing over and over again, there’s just something immersive about those worlds, that I dream about and would love to get back to. I would not be passionate if I let myself, I would be addicted. I would just play games and games and games.

So how did the novel about ‘Crysis 2’ happen?

I was originally approached to write the script to that game by the guys on the factory floor. But unbeknownst to the guys who invited me to write the script for that, Electronic Arts, who were running the distribution, had reached out to Richard Morgan, the science fiction writer from Scotland, to do the games. So all of the sudden we found ourselves in competition, which was weird because we’re friends. I have enormous respect for that dude. Basically we ended up dividing up the task. Electronic Arts got to call the shots and they’d worked with Richard before. They didn’t know who the hell I was, so they decided to go with the guy they knew.

But the guys at Crytek liked me enough that they wanted me still involved somehow. So I helped them design the suit, I worked out the technical specs, I wrote a technical brochure, based on stuff I was reading – like artificial muscles and that sort of stuff. I got to do things in the novelization that weren’t… There were some pretty dumb aspects of the game that I thought I could improve on in the novelization, so I did that. In the game, for example, it takes three hours for the original character to strip out of his suit and put the other guy in the suit. The other guy waits up, he’s in the suit and then you find halfway through the game, that his heart and lung have been destroyed. And I’m thinking „Okay, that doesn’t make any sense, because if your heart and lung were destroyed, you would not have survived the three hours that took to get you into the suit, that’s now keeping you alive.“

So I rewrote that, so that the suit itself was cannibalizing its tissue to keep the central nervous system intact. The suit needed a central nervous system to operate it, but it didn’t need a lot of these other stuff. So the suit itself was going in there and grabbing parts of his body and metabolizing those to save him. And that’s something that would have never gotten into the game, because the guy, who was in charge of it, Cevat Yerli, his idea of dark was Iron Man. And he did not like the stuff I was coming up with, it was considered too cynical or too grisly, it would never fly. I put it in the book and he never read the book. So I passed it that way and it all worked out pretty well.

Crysis 3 is the end of the trilogy, but the series may yet continue in some form.

To that matter though, I have not played ‘Crysis 2’, or even ‘Crysis 1’. I’ve got both games, but I haven’t played either of them yet. I’m forcing myself not to play more than one or two games a year. Seriously, if someone would make a TV show or I make a breakout bestseller or something and I don’t have to work for 5 years, I would spend the first year solid with nothing but playing video games.

How do you feel about writing for other franchises? Like ‘Crysis 2’ – they weren’t your characters, I guess, or your story.

Yeah, but the thing about a first person shooter is that, to some extend, the character itself is a cipher. The character is just an empty vessel that you are supposed to identify with, because you are the player. And that means that the protagonist has no personality, really. So you get to put a personality in there. When you’re telling a story from that character’s point of view, you get to have him having memory of his childhood, or the time he snuck into the aquarium after hours and played with the octopus, or his problems with his mother with dementia. You get to put in a lot of stuff that’s not anywhere in the game. But it doesn’t have to be, because it’s thinking back. It’s his memories, stuff reminds him of stuff. I gave this character a fear of water, because he nearly drowned when he was like 8 years old, and that puts a whole new level on the opening part of that game, where he has to escape from a sinking submarine.

You can do all that and it’s kind of like rewriting the Bible in an epic contempering. It’s never gonna be great art, but the fact that you can do it at all is kind of an accomplishment. And yeah, I refuse to be ashamed of my novelization of Crysis. I think it was limited, it was constrained by various things, but part of the fun is working within those constraints and figuring out what you can do in this new form in a way that doesn’t violate the game but adds more to it.

Was that the only time you did anything like this?

I’ve been involved in video games on and off since 2001 but none of them have ever made it into production. Every now and then a company will say „Hey, come over and help us with this“ and I’ll do that, but no game by Peter Watts has made it to market. There have been games inspired by Peter Watts that have made it to market. I was a big influence on ‘SOMA’ apparently, I was a big influence on ‘Bioshock 2’ and a couple of others. There’s a vampire called Sarasti in ‘The Witcher’ which is apparently a direct call-out to me. So that’s kind of cool. But none of those people ever invited me over and said „Hey, writer, do a game for us“. Which I would love to do, because I do think that gaming is the future of fiction.

Watts is a little surprised to see ‘The Man in the High Castle’ being adapted to a successful TV show.

Do you think ‘Blindsight’ can be easily adapted into a movie of a game?

Yeah, I think it could. However, I think that my ‘Sunflower’ cycle – ‘The Island’, ‘Giants’, ‘The Freeze-Frame Revolution’, I think those could be adapted into video games much more easily, because that’s how I originally designed them. I originally thought they would be a great premise for a video game. But of course, since there’s no way of pitching video games, I ended up just writing a series of stories. But they would be cool mission levels standing on their own.

But yeah, I think ‘Blindsight’ could be adapted too. I mean, hell, somebody made a series out of ‘The Man in the High Castle’, they made a series out of ‘American Gods’. Granted, ‘Blindsight’ is tougher, more difficult than that, but also a visual medium could convey a lot of stuff more easily than words could. So yeah, I think it could be done. Whether or not it would be done well is a whole different issue. But I think it’s possible, it would be possible to make a very cool movie or miniseries out of ‘Blindsight’ and I think it would be desirable to make an absolutely kick-ass game out of my ‘Sunflower’ stories.

So you would like to see those hypothetical projects realized?

Oh, God, I would! That would be my goal! Every year or two I write a ‘Sunflower’ story. Each one is a standalone mission. But you put them all together and they form this epic that starts in the 22nd century and literally runs to the heat death of the universe. And there is a much larger universe-altering arc that takes place over the course of all those different missions.

Ideally, what I would like to do, is release a video game / epic novel bundle. Because the things that make a good story don’t necessarily make a good video game and vice versa. You could have some stories that would be great stories, but they just wouldn’t translate well into a game medium. And then you’d have game levels, missions, that would be crappy as stories. So, in my absolute ideal human augmented virtual reality world, where I could do everything I want, the ‘Sunflower’ cycle comes out as a combination of game and book. They both describe the same mission, but different elements of it. Some stories never get played, but you can read about them if you want.

Another good use of the virtual reality world.

Yeah! Because it’s probably never going happen in this one!

Peter Watts speaking on ‘Ratio’ – the science forum he was invited in Sofia for.

So what projects are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished up ‘The Freeze-Frame Revolution’, which is the novella for tachyon that’s set in ‘The Sunflower’s universe. After that I have to write a quick short story for the X-prize project, because I’m now in the X-prize science fiction committee. And after that I’m basically beginning ‘Intelligent Design’, which is my next novel, a near-future techno thriller.

Ok, my questions are nearly over. Is there anything you would like to say to the readers of, to your Bulgarian fans?

If I have Bulgarian fans, thank you for being Bulgarian fans! Give away all your copies of my books to your friends and BUY MORE! [laughs] Good enough?

Yes, thank you!

My pleasure.

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