Peter Watts

Blindsight, Peter Watts

Tor, 2006, 384 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31218-2

After years of knowing the author, I’m hardly the most objective reviewer any more when it comes to Peter Watts’ stuff. Still, even I didn’t expect him to bat it so far out of the park with Blindsight, a strong contender for best-SF-novel-of-the-year accolades. It’s a crackling good read, a compendium of dangerously counter-intuitive ideas and the best novel yet from a writer at the top of his game. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s also a work of hard Science Fiction that provides good arguments to anyone arguing in favour of the literary merits of the genre.

The premise is immediately familiar to anyone with even the slightest experience in the genre: decades from now, an alien ship is detected. A crew of specialists is sent to meet and greet the extraterrestrials. It doesn’t go well. Pure first-contact scenario, the bread-and-butter of SF-specific stories.

(Warning: Thematic spoilers ahead.)

But don’t jump to conclusions yet. Because the aliens may not be understandable, and the humans on board the exploration vessel may be even stranger than the extraterrestrials. Clearly, Watts is after more than a simple fuzzy story of first contact. After a while, his theme becomes clearer, as every character illuminates a different facet of non-standard consciousness. The title already alludes to actions that escape rational thought: the rest of the novel explores the same area. Before the novel is through, hard-SF fans will feel the pleasant sensation of hitting the floor nose-first as the rug is pulled from under them: For Blindsight uses the oldest SF scenario in the book in order to question one of hard SF’s core assumption: What if conscious thought wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be? What if consciousness was a wasteful illusion? What if consciousness wasn’t a way to solve problems but was, in itself, the problem?

Readers of Watts’ previous “Rifters” trilogy-in-four-books already know that the author isn’t afraid to follow implications where they logically lead. Even if the conclusion ends up indistinguishable from existential horror. But Watts’ fondness for deeply disturbed characters also allows him to explore issues through destructive testing. Here, the human crew is so far removed from baseline human stock that they each become a different way to ask the central question of the book in different ways.

This is more interesting than it first appears to be, especially considering how Blindsight embraces the type of Science Fiction that sticks closely to current science. Locking the novel in a straight-jacket of reality gives a convincing edge to the book’s speculations, but the impact of Blindsight‘s hard-SF elements goes beyond that: Indeed, one can make the case that hard-SF is the only mode of expression that can reliably explore the characters that Watts posits. Their interactions become thought experiment given dramatic form, thier personal quicks becoming wedges of illumination. There is something fascinating in how this novel understands the rules of the hard-SF game and uses them to its advantage. If anyone ever starts questioning the literary value of scientifically-knowledgeable authors, just give them this novel.

It helps that Watts has never written tighter, more steadily compelling prose. Told by an unreliable narrator, Blindsight appropriately plays tricks of perception, directly addresses its audience (“Imagine that you are…”), skilfully presents exposition into dramatic scenes and works wonders with scientific metaphors.

In many ways, this is the most remarkable accomplishment in Watts’ career so far, displacing even his short story collection Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes as a defining expression of his favourite themes. Biological determinism, a lack of sentimentality and playful pessimism have always been components of the Watts oeuvre, but here they find a clarity of expression that will convince even those who want to disagree with his conclusions. The inevitable nature of Blindsight‘s final chapter will resonate a long time with its readers, virtually ensuring the novel’s impact as anything but a safe and comfortable commodity in the genre SF assembly line.

Even in a year where SF fans were well-served by new novels such as Charles Stross’ Glasshouse and Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, Blindsight stands as one of the highlights of the year. Crammed with jazzy ideas, fully fluent in genre conventions and written to a compelling polish, Blindsight ought to land straight on the Hugo nominee list and find its place as a reference in the hard-SF genre.

You don’t even have to take my word for it: Blindsight is freely available on Watts’ web site. Read it. Think about it. Hold on to your illusions.

βehemoth, Peter Watts

Tor, 2004-2005, ??? pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN Various

βehemoth: β-Max, Tor, 2004, 300 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30721-9
βehemoth: Seppuku, Tor, 2005, 303 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31172-0

Regular readers of these reviews may recall my cool but generally positive impressions of the first two volumes in Peter Watt’s “Rifters” trilogy. Starfish and Maelstrom may have been a bit dour and depressing, but they had enough hard-SF goodness to keep me coming back for a third helping. (Or rather a third and fourth helping, Tor having decided -in their usual market-savvy attitude- to split the third instalment in separate books.) Now that I’ve read the full story, my irrational optimism has been fulfilled: With βehemoth, Watts delivers not only a good book, but a great ending to a trilogy that retrospectively makes a lot more sense.

It’s amazing how a short story (1990’s “A Niche”) has grown to this apocalyptic 1,200+ pages epic about free will, evil and the end of the world. We remember the situation at the end of Maelstrom: an archaic super-microbe killing off most of North America; the rest of the world teetering on the edge of self-annihilation; the Internet contaminated by malicious entities. βehemoth picks up five years later, at a time where the whole collapse into fire and rubble has stabilized to a slow glide. Deep below the sea, rifters and corporate elites are about to see their balance-of-life issues settled thanks to the introduction of something even worse than everything they’ve seen so far. When you consider what Watts has introduced in the first two books, that’s saying something.

I’ve alluded (above) to the splitting of the novel in two separate parts, but one of the happy surprises of βehemoth, even chopped up, is how the two halves feel like separate stories. The three main characters may be the same, but the setting, the dynamics and the storytelling are different. β-Max mirrors Starfish in taking place under the surface, in what feels like a closed set. But you know what they say about conflict in small spaces: it’s all knives and bare hands…

The second half, without spoiling much, takes place over a wider canvas (yes, much like Maelstrom) and steadily plows forward in order to orchestrate a final confrontation between the three main characters, each of which approach issues of guilt, free will and responsibility in a different fashion. Seppuku is also notable in that the mantle of the protagonist, regardless of POV, shifts away from Clarke to Lubin: it’s no accident if Clarke’s role in the conclusion doesn’t amount to much.

It’s no big insight at this point to say that the Rifters trilogy is one grim ride. What’s more useful to say is that once you start studying the shades of black that are left behind, truly interesting morality conflicts start to emerge, usually demonstrated through power plays of various kinds. Reason versus emotion, free will versus neurological imperatives are all explored to some degree and the result is fascinating. (Though it brings back to mind movie tag-lines like “fight evil with evil”.) Characters finally come into focus here, with complex motivations-upon-impulses. (or is it the other way around?)

If I have issues with the books, it’s that if Watt’s prose has seldom been more engaging, he could use a bit of polish in the way he allows readers to absorb information. Sometimes, revelations are made and the story hops to another plot point, without letting implications sink in. It’s not uncommon to go back a few paragraph with the nagging suspicion that something very important just happened.

I suspect that my growing enthusiasm for the series has much to do with learning how to cope with Watts or (if you prefer a reformulation), figuring out what were Watts’ intentions with the trilogy. In retrospect, even the features of Starfish that annoyed me so much all fit in place. Readers who start reading the first two volumes now (and the author has made them freely available on-line, so you’ve got no excuse) will do so knowing that this is a trilogy: their initial reactions will adjust accordingly. As it turns out, the protagonist of “A Niche” are named Ballard and Clarke for a very good reason.

Finally, one loud hurrah for the scientific content (and the crunchy “notes and references” essay at the end of the book). I’m not sure what’s in the Canadian water supplys these days, but we seem to be producing more than our fair share of good hard-SF. If nothing else, I can’t wait to see Watts’ next novel, Blindsight, especially given the tasty treats suggested on

Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, Peter Watts

Tesseracts, 2000, 167 pages, C$11.95 tpb, ISBN 1-895836-76-X

[Disclaimer: I’ve met Peter Watts, heard him speak at panels, moderated a panel on which he was a participant, even sat next to him at a convention to live-translate a few panels. I think that he’s a heck of a nice guy. Plus he gets points for being a Canadian author. Adjust review below accordingly.]

While Peter Watts’ first short-story anthology is titled Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes (a nod at Dilbert’s monkeys-on-typewriters comic strip), here are a few other titles that may be appropriate:

Nine Stories, Ninety Minutes: At a slim 167 pages and nine stories, this collection is a bit frustrating. There are no introductions (either to the book as a whole or to the individual stories, though a Publishing History at the back of the book thankfully details each story’s previous appearances) which is a bit disappointing given Watts’ generous propensity toward self-commentary. (See his web site at for ample illustration.) But the silver lining to this sparse content is that you can read the book in a single sitting: The writing is crisp and clear enough to make you reach for “just another story” on technical grounds alone. Whether you will want to absorb all of this material at once leads us to our second suggestion…

Do You Have Ten Minutes, You Monkey?: I have long maintained that a good story collection gives a better peek in the mind of an author than even a string of novels. Watts seems intent on demonstrating this thesis: The nine stories assembled in this collection offer a disciplined unity of theme and attitude: It’s almost a thematic anthology. Stemming from Watts’ background as a marine biologist, all of his stories reflect deep cynicism (even misanthropy) regarding so-called “human nature”. In tale after tale, characters (often narrators, almost always professional investigators) have to face the fact that biology trumps psychology, that “being nice” is a luxury we can only afford because it’s now counterproductive to kill each other. Take ten minutes to read any of those stories, and you will experience a Total Perspective Vortex that will remind you of your real (insignificant) place in an uncaring universe. No, this is not a collection of stories to read to your children. Which leads us to another title…

Six Billion Monkeys, Twice as Many Bullets: Boy, is this a superficially depressing collection. Not that this is any news to fans of Watts’ fiction (which usually starts as “gloomy” and gets worse), but story after story of humankind killing itself, being wiped out or meeting aliens just as bad is enough to make anyone rethink the wisdom of bringing this book to the beach. But you know what? Lurking behind the facade, there’s a terrific sense of irony to be found here. Watts takes pleasure in perverting the usual ethos of science-fiction though ways that are in fact quite funny once you just step back from the story. Sentient Killer Clouds? Heh. Also consider this excerpt:

[A nutritionist is working on ways to teach killer whales to stop eating fish and convert to vegetarianism.] She’s already had some spectacular successes with her own cats. Not only is a vegan diet vastly more efficient than conventional pet foods – the cats eat only a fraction of what they used to – but the felines have so much more energy now that they’re always out on the prowl. You hardly ever see them at home any more. [P.79]

Now that’s funny. And indeed, there’s a lot of dark humour here and there, not the least of which is the delight of finding such an uncompromising stance on the false kingdom of man’s mastery over (its own) nature. The universe will get us all in the end, that is if we don’t kill ourselves first.

One Great Book by One Author You Should Read: Published by the Canadian small-press publisher Tesseracts, this collection is well-worth tracking down. It’s a smoother introduction to Peter Watts’ fiction than his novels, and it has the advantage of being both short and powerful. There’s plenty of good material here and if some of the stories are repetitive (“Home”, especially, doesn’t add much to “A Niche”), some of it is as good as anything you’ll read elsewhere. I found that even the familiar stories (I had read “A Niche” and “Bethlehem” elsewhere) were better the second time around. If nothing else, this should confirm Watts’ status as one of the many good Canadian hard-SF writers. Why don’t you grab Robert Charles Wilson’s collection The Perseids for an eerily appropriate companion volume?

Maelstrom, Peter Watts

Tor, 2001, 371 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56679-3

I had been mildly critical of Peter Watts’ first novel Starfish, but intrigued enough by his potential that it wasn’t much of a struggle to decide to read the sequel, Maelstrom,. Now it turns out that I’m similarly half-critical of the second novel, but for rather different reasons.

Maelstrom begins not long after the cataclysmic events of Starfish‘s climax. (Don’t bother reading if you’re not familiar with the first book) The North American west coast has been trashed, and that only make a bad world worse. The whole global communication network is acting up, environmental collapse is well under way, gigantic corporations are up to their usual dirty tricks and a fractal death-wish seems to be affecting every aspect of the world, from single individuals to entire countries.

In this situation steps in Lenie Clarke, the very very bitter (and very very powerful) surviving protagonist of Starfish. She wants answers. She wants closure. She wants justice. And very few people are going to be willing to stand in her way once she gets going. If she has to kill millions in order to fulfill her goals, well, most of these millions are already ready to die for her…

If your SF diet has grown a touch too optimistic lately, it’s time to delve in the dystopian nightmare that makes up most of Maelstrom. Here, impending global cataclysm (from a variety of sources) is a backdrop to a series of very dark adventures in which an outbreak of primordial microbes is the least of everyone’s worries. The environment is trashed anyway. Violence is commonplace. Employees are guilt-tripped by their employers in acting in the best interest of shareholders, and the cure to that particular issue may be even worse than the problem itself.

It’s not a cheery novel and this lack of cheer does eventually take its toll. The dense but generally dour prose style does little to propel the story forward. The book’s single biggest failing may be how it remains curiously indifferent to the events it describes. A more nervous, more direct writing style might have been appropriate considering the magnitude of the story. But Watts seems more content with a style that seems designed to depress even beyond what happens in the story. A most angst-ridden bunch of characters would be hard to find. It’s not obvious (nor even desirable, maybe) to emphasize with them.

Fortunately, SF fans can look forward to a bunch of tasty little details. From marine microbiology to computer science and neurobiology, Watts reaches deep in background detail (a wonderful pure-science discussion/bibliography is helpfully provided at the end of the book) for plenty of cutting-edge concepts. And not just technical ideas either: Here, Québec has emerged as an important player on the geopolitical scene thanks to its massive hydro-electrical projects ensuring plenty of energy for sale. Resentment is palpable almost everywhere else.

Indeed, perhaps the best thing about Maelstrom is how the scope of the story has expanded. For a cycle that had its beginning in a short story (“A Niche”) exclusively set on an underwater station, Watts has embraced the whole world (with a focus on Ontario) as a canvas for Maelstrom. The story lives up to the title, offering a shifting web of complex -sometimes even contradictory- alliances.

In the end, the telling of the tale might not do justice to the content of the story, but Maelstrom certain has a lot to offer to readers with a a penchant for dystopian tales. In some ways, this is grown-up cyberpunk, with its usual clichés assimilated in a larger, more complex setting. It’s not a perfect book, but the good outweighs the bad by a significant margin. Heck, enough to make me interested in his next novel.

Starfish, Peter Watts

Tor, 1998, 374 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57585-7

The sub-genre of aquatic Science-Fiction has been dominated, for years, by Arthur C. Clarke, who parlayed a scuba-diving obsession into at least two fine novels of futuristic sea adventures, The Deep Range (harvesting whales for food) and The Ghost from the Grand Banks (raising the Titanic). That’s in addition to several other stories, subplots and non-fiction writing about the subject. Anyone even daring to cover the same ground better pay homage to the master, or else.

That’s exactly what Toronto resident Peter Watts does in “A Niche”, the short story that formed the basis for Starfish: One of the protagonists is named Clarke. (The other; Ballard) “A Niche” ends up being the first chapter of Starfish, and the novel follows what happens after the events of the short story. “A Niche” was rather good (it was notably featured in Northern Star, a best-of anthology of Canadian short SF) and so is Starfish, despite a few problems.

The biggest of those is probably the premise. Some things work in short stories and simply don’t translate well to bigger lengths. The concept of using mentally unstable persons as deep-sea explorers is one of these things. Suspension of disbelief is easy to sustain over twenty pages (oh, another wacky SF concept!)… but three hundred? Does anyone really think that a multi-billion mega-corporation would willingly entrust important projects to crazy personnel on the dubious premise that “an environment that drive the sane insane might drive the insane sane again?” Is anyone in the audience truly surprised when people start cracking up under all sort of pressures, both physical and psychological? Is it any wonder if none of the characters is overly sympathetic to the reader?

Okay. Never mind that. Suspend disbelief and proceed.

…only to be stopped again by some major structural problems. The book suffers from its origin in that the major character of the short story -Lenie Clarke- is probably not the best viewpoint characters for the full-length story. That character would probably be the “sane” psychologist Yves Scanlon, but he doesn’t arrive on-site until the novel is well in its second act. Before that, the viewpoint keeps shifting between characters who often disappear before mid-novel, creating an unfocused impression that really doesn’t help the novel get underway. Have I mentioned that for the first half of the book there’s no one even remotely worth cheering for?

In fact, most of my good opinion of the novel comes from the last fifty pages or so, when new exciting elements (like Βehemoth) are introduced and developed as a credible plot thread. Suddenly, most of what comes before is negated or trivialized. This is good at first (it basically saves the novel), but rather unsatisfactory on further reflection. In fact, the Βehemoth plot element is so good that its late inclusion smacks of sloppy editorial guidance; why couldn’t the novel be re-conceptualized around this?

But, as ever, let’s not be overly critical of what is, after all, a first novel. It would be unfair to forget the obvious strengths of the novel; a daring sense of originality which is admirable even when it misfires; a good grasp of unusual characters; some really good ideas that could have benefited from much more development; an obvious willingness to do keep the science exact and to present the best parts to the audience and, perhaps most importantly, a readable style that should work wonders in a different context.

Starfish isn’t without problems, small and large, but it’s certainly a worthwhile read and a promising first novel from someone who should deliver good things in latter books. It follows in the aquatic footsteps of Arthur C. Clarke and doesn’t seem out of place in the company of the SF grandmaster. That’s not bad at all.

Possibilities for a sequel? Get more information on that, and Peter Watts at