God and the Machines: The Short Fiction of Peter Watts

(First published in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, 25 May 2015.)

The notion that Peter Watts’s work is particularly dark, dystopic or depressing is common enough, but it’s an assessment that could stand some scrutiny. In his afterword to Beyond the Rift, a collection of his short fiction that came out from Tachyon Publications in 2013, Watts himself makes the case that his work, in that it expects better from humanity, is actually optimistic. He said pretty much the same thing in an interview here at AE:

I’d argue that my fiction is almost childishly optimistic, at least in its portrayal of human nature. I mean, sure, I thumbnail some pretty dire environmental predicaments; how can I not? That stuff is happening now [ . . . ] The characters at the center of my novels, protagonist and antagonist alike, are generally just trying to make the best of a horrible situation.


In doing so Watts echoes writers like Gardner Dozois, who has also argued for a defiantly “upbeat and optimistic” reading of some of his most depressing work. It’s not that the Rifters trilogy or Blindsight aren’t bleak, but they’re nowhere near, say, James Tiptree Jr.’s joyously apocalyptic worldview. And when you consider the cavalcades of pain and suffering that have populated recent award ballots, it’s not necessarily a surprise to find that when Watts has made it on the list—with his novelette, “The Island,” which won the 2010 Hugo Award, and “The Things,” which was a 2011 Hugo finalist and won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story—his work isn’t necessarily the darkest piece in sight. Not when he’s been up against the likes of Paolo Bacigalupi and Kij Johnson.

Dark science fiction isn’t exactly uncommon, is what I’m saying. So why is Watts, specifically, often its poster boy?

Maybe it’s because he’s that rare and chthonic creature: a writer of dark hard science fiction. The dark stuff usually comes from the literary side of the genre. Whereas, let’s be honest, hard science fiction writers pull their punches: When they destroy the Earth, for example, they have an annoying habit of rescuing humanity (see, for example, Greg Bear’s Forge of God). And their prose is, charitably, functional—bloodless—whereas Watts clearly bleeds all over the page whenever he writes. His prose is often visceral and anguished (and sometimes overwrought), each sentence reading as though it was bought with great pain.

That prose is evident in every one of Peter Watts’s short stories and novelettes, which are relatively few in number: only 23 since 1990, by my count. (A bibliography is included at the end of this review.) In no sense is he prolific, even when his novel output is also taken into account. But that relatively small corpus makes it that much less daunting to engage with. His practice of making most of his work available for free download on his website also makes his work a good deal more accessible, if not necessarily approachable. For those who would rather not download PDF files, his collection Beyond the Rift gathers about half of his stories to date.

Peter Watts at Ad Astra, April 2011.

Beyond the Rift straddles what I would define as Watts’s two periods: his pre-Blindsight period, when his fiction appeared exclusively in Canadian venues, mainly On Spec and the Tesseracts series; and his post-Blindsight period, when, following that novel’s critical and popular success, Watts’s short stories began appearing in Clarkesworld, Nature, and British and American original anthologies. Beyond the Rift includes all but four of his pre-Blindsight stories (overlapping with his previous collection, Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, now long out of print) but only the first five of his post-Blindsight stories. A surprising omission from the latter group is “Malak” (2010); the remainder of his second-period stories appeared after Beyond the Rift came out.

Watts’s early stories draw on his background as a marine biologist. His first published story, “A Niche,” is an early iteration of the story that would later become Starfish; “Home” also takes place in the Rifters universe. His career influences are most transparent in “Bulk Food,” co-authored with Laurie Channer (and not included in Beyond the Rift), at the same time a bloody take on establishing communications with orcas and an obvious satire of the Vancouver Aquarium and animal rights activists.

The orcas in “Bulk Food” prefigure the aliens in Watts’s other stories, who as a rule are neither nobler nor more ethical than humanity. It’s not that they’re better or worse than us; their ethical compasses operate orthogonally to ours. The killer alien ship in “Ambassador” is mostly inscrutable; the sentient creature in “The Island” is first thought benign by the crew of the ancient starship tasked with building star gates, but ends up using the ship to settle a score with one of its neighbours. And in “The Things,” Watts’s alien-point-of-view fanfic of the 1982 John Carpenter movie The Thing, the alien acts out of motives that are not only moral from its standpoint, but imperative. While they may not act in recognizably human ways, the non-human intelligences in Peter Watts’s universe do follow a certain Darwinian logic based on survival, competition and propagation. The subtext—that we do this too, if we look closely at our own behaviour—is clear enough.

Ethics and morality are in fact at the core of Peter Watts’s work; biology and neuroscience are merely the tools at hand. Indeed, it’s the human mind, rather than the alien, that plays the most central role in Watts’s work. The human mind can be hacked or replaced with a simulacrum—the latter in stories like “Flesh Made Word” and “Mayfly” (written with Derryl Murphy), the former in stories like “The Eyes of God,” where a totalitarian panopticon suppresses terrible urges even when they’re not acted upon.

Peter Watts at SFContario 3, November 2012.

Ethics are central even when the mind is a machine. In his most recent story, “Collateral,” Watts posits enhanced soldiers whose cyborg-implanted military hardware carry out subconscious orders before the conscious, analytical mind has a chance to make a decision. Watts is saying in fiction what he has called out elsewhere as fact: We don’t make rational decisions; we rationalize decisions made at the gut level. Ethics are essentially an algorithm for the implants to enact, and in that “Collateral” echoes “Malak,” where tactical drones must also make decisions about friends and foes and the cost of collateral damage.

Religion makes an appearance in these stories, as you might imagine; Watts consistently (and unsurprisingly) eschews the supernatural for the naturalistic. Once more he frames his subject in neurochemical terms: “Hillcrest v. Velikovsky” explores the relationship between faith and the placebo effect; “A Word for Heathens” posits the Presence as an electromagnetic phenomenon—it’s quite literally implanted in the characters’ heads.

Maybe that’s why Peter Watts’s fiction is singled out as being rather dark: He gets into our heads. It’s one thing to say comprehensively that civilization, the human species, or the entire planetary ecosystem is screwed, quite another to say that it’s because of our biochemistry. Our neurology. How evolution has wired us. Watts says we’re screwed on an existential level—and that’s not something even planetary engineering can save us from.

Maybe that’s why we’re so unsettled when we read him.

Beyond the Rift
by Peter Watts
Tachyon, 1 Nov 2013
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