Locus Online
Interview thread
<< prev | next >>
March 2008
Locus Magazine
Peter Watts: Lesser Evils
Peter Watts was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where he spent his first 13 years, until moving with his family to Ontario. An expert on the ecophysiology of marine mammals, he earned a BS and a Master's from the University of Guelph and a doctorate from the University of British Columbia. In the '90s he "was paid by the animal welfare movement to defend marine mammals; by the US fishing industry to sell them out; and by the Canadian government to ignore them." His fiction tends to be dark SF rooted in the biological sciences.

Watts began publishing short fiction with Aurora Award-winner "A Niche" (1990). Other notable stories include Aurora finalists "Bethlehem" (1996) and "Mayfly" (2005, with Derryl Murphy). Some of his stories were collected in Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes (2000). His first novel Starfish (1999) was a John W. Campbell and Aurora
Photo by Amelia Beamer

Award finalist, and launched the four-book Rifters "trilogy," which continued with Maelstrom (2001), Behemoth: β-Max (2004), and Behemoth: Seppuku (2005); the latter two were intended as one volume, but split up due to length. Hugo finalist Blindsight (2006) is a standalone novel of first contact -- with space vampires. He also edits fiction for On Spec and briefly did contract work for computer game company Relic Entertainment. He lives in Ontario.
Excerpts from the interview:

“I wanted to write Blindsight earlier, but maybe it wouldn't have been as good if I had. While many have said it's my best book, the whole time I was writing it I was thinking, 'This is talky. This is pure exposition.' Let's face it: the climax is a three-page info-dump (albeit an infodump replete with torture and mutilation). Blindsight's a conceptual book. My Rifters characters seemed more accessible. These guys in Blindsight aren't exactly post-human, but they're approaching that event horizon. They are less cuddly than usual.

“The evolutionary significance of consciousness is not a theme that lends itself well to a dramatic tale. I went into Blindsight fearing I'd bitten off more than I could chew: 'There's a kick-ass story in here -- I'm just not up to telling it.' I was hoping to get by on the strength of the ideas. I wanted to provoke discussion. I didn't want to simplify the message to the point where it became a sermon. What makes the discussion worthwhile is the fact that the issue contains nuances and complexities, and if you strip those away the discussion isn't worth having. Still. Shit needs to blow up real good at some point, or you're not telling a story; you're writing an essay.”


“We are not built to take a long view. We're hamstrung by three and a half billion years of evolution that promote behaviors with immediate payoffs. Evolution has no foresight; if it works now, it gets selected for, and there's no mechanism for guarding against an adaptation that works in the short term but spells certain doom a hundred generations down the road. This is why nobody wants to pay $2.00 more for a gallon of gas to stop anthropogenic climate change. Catastrophe's looming the day after tomorrow but that bite out of your wallet feels a lot realler because it's happening now.”


“Scientists tend to get treated with far less respect than Greenpeace sometimes. We have better credentials, but we're trained to avoid blanket generalisations. We're trained for caution, to never stray too far from the data and to consider alternative hypotheses, so we frequently come across as mealy-mouthed. But there are many cases where we don't have to sound mealy-mouthed, where the data do support one hypothesis over another. The whole seal/fisheries debate was one of them; I got so sick of being a whore for one side or another -- at one point I saw my boss present results that he knew were experimental artefacts to the press as real data, spinning them to let our sponsors off the hook -- that I left UBC in disgust after a year and a half.”


“I'm finishing off another post-doc on molecular genetics (DNA bar coding) at the University of Toronto. The reason I'm doing it now is that I was so disheartened by the whole process of Blindsight -- not the writing, but the industry end of things -- that I lost all motivation to write. I washed my hands of the whole damn business, basically took two years off. But at this point I'm coming out of the science and back into the writing. I'm not in the middle of a book; I'm in the middle of thinking which book I want to write next. I'm building worlds, but I haven't yet hung a plot onto any of them.

“I still do occasional piece work as a freelance biologist. I've got some money saved up and several new projects under development (including a sidequel to Blindsight). Got me a new agent. Blindsight has now made significantly more in overseas translation deals than I got for the North American release; evidently that's supposed to be par for the course, but it's the first time it's happened to me. It's also reawakened interest in the rifters novels. So I guess I'm back in the game. One might almost describe me as 'enthused', if one wanted to push it.”

© 2008 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.