I Go Through a Lot of Pants


A number of years ago— I’m hazy on the details— I made the online acquaintance of one Henry Gee, author of numerous science and fake science books and an editor at Nature. Maybe it was through his role as the wrangler for “Futures”, the series of SF supershorts that finish off each issue in that otherwise august journal— and to which I’ve made a couple of sales myself, hopefully to the chagrin of all those former colleagues who turned up their noses when I left academia to write about ray guns and talking squids in outer space (and who then spent endless years trying desperately to get a paper into Nature). Maybe it was over an early draft of Henry’s Siege of Stars, an SF novel combining some terrific ideas with some rookie mistakes (the latter of which seem to have since been fixed, given all the Big Names lining up to praise the published version). Maybe it started with that interview Nature did with biologists who write science fiction.

They were good times, all of them; I just can’t remember which one came first.

Anyhow, a couple weeks back Henry tagged me in something called “The Writing Process Blog Tour“. It’s kind of an authorial chain letter. An author receives a series of questions (presumably of interest to the reading public); answers them on their blog; passes them on in turn to three other authors downstream.  It’s a geometric progression which, if accommodated by all tagged targets, would rapidly swamp every cat picture on the internet.

Reluctant to be part of such a fission reaction, I asked Henry if I could maybe just pass the questions on to one other writer when I was done with them, to keep the proliferation cone a bit narrower. Henry had no problem with that; the rules are neither hard nor fast, and besides, I never signed anything.

So here they are.

What Am I Working On?

I can’t tell you.  Really. It might not even go anywhere.  But I just started, and it’s unconventional.

How Does My Work Differ From Others In Its Genre?

It is significantly more insecure, emotionally. Scarred by a past life in academia, I feel compelled to try and cover my ass against any manner of nitpickers. You may have noticed my habit of sticking lengthy technical appendices on the end of my novels. You may have even admired me for the effort, thinking I do this to Educate the Masses or to Share My Excitement about Real Science.


Why Do I Write What I Do?

Because nobody wanted to buy my children’s novel, Pancake, Snookums, and the Balance of Nature— in which the eponymous leopard frog and garter snake, trapped in the same terrarium, work together to effect their escape.  (Then Snookums eats Pancake.)

Denied my dream of writing Children’s Literature, I’ve settled for a sandbox big enough to explore the ideas that interest me. That’s science fiction, almost by definition. I suppose that technically it would be possible to explore the relationship between Theology and Digital Physics in a western or a historical romance, but that would take someone with considerably greater skill than I have.

How Does My Writing Process Work?

By cutting corners. For example, should I be presented with a question in a Blog Tour that’s identical to a question I’ve already answered in a previous interviews, I’m likely to just cut-and-paste in order to save time. Here comes an example right now:

Something gives me an idea: Hey, if that’s true, then what would happen if…?  (Or sometimes:  what utter bullshit. If that were true, then…)

I sketch out a plan to embed that question in a story. There follows a variable period spent writing and cursing, from which emerges a product that looks like a half-assed Rubik’s Cube badly wrapped in pages taped together from a paperback novel.  Then I go running, to give my subconscious time to crunch the numbers and serve up a fix. If that doesn’t work I go drinking with friends or take a shower with my wife, and use them as sounding boards to whinge about all the parts that won’t fit. I listen for ideas to steal, rewrite until the wrapping looks prettier and put it away, vaguely unsatisfied but resigned.

Three days before deadline I wake up in the middle of the night with a whole new angle fully-formed in my head. I throw out most of what I’ve done prior and start from scratch; I am frequently unaware of the passage of time at this point, even though time is now most pressing.

I hand it in.

The whole process generally consumes 30-60 hours for a short story. With novels you can stretch that out over a year or more, and bolt a detailed outline onto the front end (20-40 single-spaced pages— Cory Doctorow once described them as “not so much outlines as novels without dialog”).  Then, at the two-thirds mark, insert the sudden realization that some element I hadn’t considered in the outline totally destroys the plot logic of everything I’ve written, which forces me to go back, throw away the outline, and write by the seat of my pants after all.

I go through a lot of pants.


So now I get to stick someone else with these questions— and the person I tag is Caitlin Sweet, even though I know her answers to some of them. I tag her because she has taught me so much about our shared craft (sparing the lot of you from more clunky writing than you’ll ever know, by the way), that I can’t imagine not learning something new when she sits down to hammer out her own answers. Also because she’s more likely to forgive me for sticking her with a chain letter.

Take it away, BUG.

A Bauble for Blindsight, a Drum Roll for Dumbspeech


It’s been posted, so now it can be told: Blindsight won this year’s Seiun for best translated novel in Japan. Which means that as of now, that book has won two or three more awards in other languages than it was even nominated for in English.  Maybe I should take a hint from that. Maybe I should just give up on you Anglophones and start writing in Polish.

This disparity over domestic vs. imported awards makes it pretty obvious that I owe a big debt to translators in half a dozen countries. (In this particular case I think I also owe a big debt to China Miéville, who had the audacity to get two of his novels nominated in the same category. I suspect he would have taken home the prize easily if the China vote hadn’t thus been split, allowing Blindsight to cruise up the middle.) If you’ve bothered to click the link, you’ll note that acknowledgment of this debt takes up a good chunk of my acceptance speech. The remainder consists of me setting up my translators to take half the blame if Echopraxia crashes and burns.

But I’m starting to suspect, my usual depressive realism notwithstanding, that Echopraxia might not tank after all. I’ve already bragged about the Publisher’s Weekly review; since then, Library Journal and Kirkus have also weighed in. The LJ verdict is rosy enough—

…Watts welds philosophy and science in original ways. His novels are interested in not only the possibilities of technology but the nature of sentience and humanity. This is not an easy read, but just as you think it will be another discussion of religion and postsingularity intelligences in the ship’s galley, action breaks out. VERDICT The danger of hard sf is that the writing can sometimes seem clinical and dry, but Watts manages to keep his prose lush even when serving high-concept science. This book is quite an achievement and should appeal to those who enjoy the works of Ian MacDonald and Hannu Rajaniemi.

—but the Kirkus review— man, Kirkus just raves:

A paranoid tale that would make Philip K. Dick proud, told in a literary style that should seduce readers who don’t typically enjoy science fiction.

… Watts’ nihilistic meditation on evolution and adaptation is by turns disturbing and gorgeous, with a biologist’s understanding of nature’s indifference. If at times it’s hard to separate what is part of the vampire’s or monks’ plans and what is simply horrifying catastrophe, that also feels thematically appropriate.

This scientifically literate thriller’s tight prose and plot create an existential uneasiness that lingers long after the book’s end.

This is the nicest thing Kirkus has ever said about any of my books. Even when Kirkus likes my stuff (and they don’t always, in case I have to remind you about their “horrific porn” assessment of behemoth: Seppuku), they generally find something to complain about: Starfish‘s “poor organization [and] drifting points of view”, or Blindsight‘s “several complications too many”. But for Echopraxia, they have nothing but praise.

I feel a fall coming on.

Sleepwalk to Enlightenment


Illo credit "Anatomist90", over at Wikipedia

Illo credit “Anatomist90″, over at Wikipedia

Judging by the number of links I’ve received, a lot of you are already familiar with this paper on consciousness and the claustrum. Or at least you’re familiar with the tsunami of popsci coverage it’s received.

For the rest of you, the tale goes something like this:  54-year old female epileptic, seizure-free for four years at the cost of her left hippocampus. Now that reprieve has expired; the seizures have returned, and a team of neurologists led by Mohamad Z. Koubeissi have sown electrodes throughout her head to get the lay of the land and figure out what to do next. One of those electrodes edges up against the claustrum, a filamentous tangle of neurons thought to play a role in coordinating crosstalk between different parts of the brain.

When Koubeissi et al juice that particular electrode with 14mA of current, consciousness stops.

At least, that’s the way a thousand newsfeeds put it. More precisely, the body stops moving. The voice, which has been repeating the word “house” as a kind of baseline metric of awareness, trails off after a few seconds. The fingers, which have been snapping rhythmically, grow motionless. The patient sits glassy-eyed, to all appearances unaware and insensate. Inside her skull, the frontal and parietal lobes fall into mindless synchrony; not the synchronized call-and response of the consciousness state, but a mirrored lockstep incompatible with the operation of the global workspace.

Kill the current and everything return to normal. The patient reanimates, with no recollection of what happened during the down time.

The press is calling it a breakthrough.  An off-switch for consciousness, never before discovered. The Daily Mail, CBS, a myriad others have weighed in on the findings (although most of them seem to have mainly siphoned the bullet points off the New Scientist article that got there first). “…only a matter of time when we can create computers and machines that also contain a form of consciousness,” opines the Washington Post. “Their accidental discovery could lead to a deeper understanding of … how conscious awareness arises,” Discovery.com chimes in.

They keep using that word. I don’t think it means what they think it means.

No, the caption doesn't say what those asterisks are. I'm guessing, statistical significance?

No, the caption doesn’t say what those asterisks are. I’m guessing, statistical significance?

If I wanted to be glib I’d point out that a rock to the head serves as a perfectly effective off-switch for consciousness, and I’m pretty sure we stumbled across that result long before the latest issue of Epilepsy & Behavior hit the stands. It would admittedly be a cheap shot; after all, the claustrum effect is somewhat subtler. The victim didn’t keel over like a puppet with severed strings; she remained upright, eyes open, “awake but not conscious”.  That’s kind of cool.  And the claustrum’s involvement is nicely consistent with the whole Global Workspace model, the idea that consciousness somehow emerges from the integration of different brain processes talking to one another. It’s a good paper. The stats are solid, even conservative (although it would have been nice if they’d told us what those asterisks were supposed to represent in Fig. 1).

But closer to understanding “how conscious awareness arises”? I don’t think so.

What we have here is another neural correlate. Those are useful things to have, but all they tell us is that consciousness doesn’t manifest unless the machinery is ticking a certain way. They don’t get us any closer at all to the Hard Problem, which is: why does that particular flavor of ticking machinery wake up? When all those subcortical structures— the brain stem, the thalamus and hypothalamus, the ACG— start talking to the frontal lobes just so, why does it feel like this? It’s just computation, after all. Circuits in meat. Why does it feel like anything?

I don’t know if we’ll ever figure that one out.

I have other reservations. Prior to flipping the switch, Koubeissi et al got their patient to start repeating the word “house”, and to snap her fingers. They did this, we are told, to ensure that it really was consciousness that was being interrupted— that those milliamps hadn’t just induced some kind of motor paralysis that stilled the body even though the mind was active. K et al‘s reasoning was that paralysis would kick in instantly when the current hit; the fact that the speech and the finger-snaps trailed off gradually is supposed to take the paralysis confound off the table.

Yet there’s nothing in the paper to explain why this “off switch” couldn’t also activate instantaneously (once again, I cite my rock to the head). It seems a significant omission in the rationale, especially given that this “switch” has never been documented before. Besides, if the results had hailed from a conscious-but-paralyzed individual, wouldn’t she have been able to report as much after the fact?

Speaking of confounds, here’s another one. It wasn’t just “conscious awareness” that went down for the count; it was cognition.  The patient showed no response to stimuli during the vacant intervals; Koubessi’s team may not have induced unconsciousness so much as catatonia. (Interestingly, they also reported a “slowing of spontaneous respiratory movements” during the tereatment. This would seem to suggest that autonomic— i.e., nonconscious— processes were also affected. Unless the procedure itself was so stressful that the patient was breathing hard to begin with.)

Koubeissi et al unleashed a shotgun blast, insufficiently precise for high-resolution insights. This is no criticism; they weren’t performing a controlled experiment, just a routine diagnostic procedure that happened to yield valuable and unexpected results. But by that same token we should be careful about the conclusions we draw. (The fact that the patient’s brain was atypical— having lost half its hippocampus to a previous operation— has been dutifully noted in most of the coverage I’ve seen.)

What I’d really like to see would be a stimulus which shut down consciousness but left the cognitive and reactive circuits intact: a scenario in which the patient continued to repeat “house” while the current flowed,  until— still unconscious— she processed and accommodated a new request to start saying “yoga” instead. I’d like to see her wake up when the current stopped, look around, and ask in a puzzled voice, “Why am I saying yoga? I thought I was saying house.” Now that would tell us something.

What, you don’t think that’s realistic? You think consciousness and volition go hand in hand, that the body can’t parse the house-to-yoga transition without some little guy behind the eyes to make sense of it all?

I’ve got one word for you: sleepwalkers.

It’s possible to sleepwalk your way though a repeated series of sexual encounters with complete strangers (note to philanderers: don’t try this at home). It’s possible to drive across town and stab your  mother-in-law to death, unconscious the whole time.  “Homicidal somnabulism” is enough of a thing to warrant its own Wikipedia page.

So forget epileptics with pieces cut out of their brains. You want to find an off-switch for consciousness? Reserve the departmental MRI for the graveyard shift and put out ads for sleeping automatons. Some of them, short of spare cash, might just see the flyer some 3 a.m. and call you up.

Even if they don’t know they’re doing it.