Short interview 2: Peter Watts

short interview

Peter Watts is a Canadian hard SF author. According to his website, he spent “ten years getting a bunch of degrees in the ecophysiology of marine mammals and another ten trying make a living on those qualifications without becoming a whore for special-interest groups”. He notably wrote BLINDSIGHT, a novel published in 2006 which is now considered a classic.

1. According to you and apart from the number of words, what is the main difference between a short story and a novel?

A short story is a snapshot; a single frame. A novel is a movie.

2. What's your favorite short story?

Tough one. I've loved a million of them over the years; back in the eighties, when I was first discovering William Gibson, almost every story in Burning Chrome blew me away. And I don't know if I've ever got as choked up by a story as I was by Keyes' “Flowers for Algernon”. But for present purposes, I have to settle on “The Screwfly Solution” by Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.).

Not that it's the most stylish story I've ever read. In fact, I found some of the prose a little clunky. But while some stories use SF tropes to explore scientific ideas, and others use those tropes as a platform for social commentary, not many knock it out of the park along both those axes. “The Screwfly Solution” is one of them: it seamlessly integrates ecological engineering, alien invasion, and institutional misogyny into one short punch in the gut. It's the distilled, concentrated essence of The Handmaid's Tale as if written by a molecular biologist. It effectively conveys the creeping, mortal dread of being Othered out of existence, while at the same time maintaining an almost clinical, anthropological perspective. And it is not the slightest bit preachy.

I wish she hadn't written it. Then there'd be maybe a one-in-a-thousand chance that I might have.

3. What's your favorite short story written by you?

That's like telling someone to decide which of their children they'd rescue from a burning building. Let me check.

Okay, I've just skimmed my c.v. And honestly, it would be easier to tell you which of my stories I like the least.

But if we're talking favorites, I'm going to go with the obvious: “The Things”, from 2010. It just has so many facets: an exploration of how Lamarckian biology might work, a fan-fic tribute to one of my favorite movies of all time—a chance to retcon a few of the admittedly dumber details of that movie—and, surprisingly, a pretty cool metaphor for colonialism and the religious impulse (that last aspect kind of snuck up on me; I didn't even realize I was going there until I was two-thirds of the way through writing the damn thing).

And it doesn't hurt that “The Things” made all those award ballots and BoY collections.

4. Regarding faith & God, do you have some doubts or not at all?

Being an empiricist means you always have to admit at least the possibility that you could be wrong about anything. So I can't rule God out completely (of course, by defining “God” as a force that transcends all physical laws and limitations, the theists conveniently immunized their invisible friends against disproof: it's hard to test for something that exists outside of known existence).

That said, though, religious beliefs do seem to be adaptive in a number of ways. Religious communities have longer lifespans than secular ones, all other things being equal; and within religious communities, those with the strictest, most unforgiving rules (Handmaid's Tales societies, if you will) seem to last longer (they think it has something to do with entry and exit costs). Belief in invisible surveillant entities effectively reduces cheating in large communities where you can't keep an eye on everyone all the time (even today, you can reduce the incidence of cheating on university exams by simply drawing a pair of eyes on the examination-room wall). And in a predator-filled environment, it makes sense to attach agency to every unexplained sound from behind or flicker from the corner of your eye, because any of those cues could signal a predator sneaking up on you (and even if it just turns out to be the wind in the grass, the cost of running away from a false alarm is way lower than the cost of ignoring a real one). So we've been programmed to see agency and intent in Nature, even when there isn't any. Belief in god(s) might just be a category error resulting from an ancient predator-avoidance response.

Bottom line, there are plenty of reasons to explain the ubiquity of religion that have everything to do with evolution and nothing to do with actual gods. And I have yet to encounter any kind of compelling philosophical argument for the existence thereof (the arguments I most frequently encounter either come down to wish fulfillment or God-of-the-Gaps—science hasn't explained this aspect of the universe yet therefore God must have done it!). There may be adaptive utility to such beliefs, but there's absolutely no explanatory power.

I gotta agree with Laplace on this one. I have no need for that hypothesis.

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Peter Watts' website: