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October 05 2017

We are delivered over to technology in the worst possible way when  we  regard  it as  something  neutral.

Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology


June 14 2017

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Air Force Museum
I had fun visiting the museum at Dover Air Force Base, unless they don't have a museum, in which case I've never been to Delaware in my life.

June 12 2017

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In the 90s, our variety radio station used the tagline "the best music of the 70s, 80s, and 90s." After 2000, they switched to "the best music of the 80s, 90s, and today." I figured they'd change again in 2010, but it's 2017 and they're still saying "80s, 90s, and today." I hope radio survives long enough for us to find out how they deal with the 2020s.

June 09 2017

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Glacial Erratic
"This will take a while, which sucks, because I'm already so busy chiseling out igneous intrusions from rock formations and watching Youtube loops of the Superman fault-sealing scene over and over."

June 07 2017


Proof of Principle

Dateline Munich. Scribbled in a near-coma while sitting in a chair which has been designed by aliens who obviously never looked at a human body.

Which is to say, at an airport…



Something slipped under my radar last week. I was nose-deep in “Freeze-Frame Revolution” and the upcoming Ratio talk, and when I looked up to find my way to the airport, “Fish To Mars” had hatched.

It’s still larval, mind you. Eighty percent yolk sac and 10% big round eyes. But there it was, wriggling in the current for an hour on the evening of May 31: a live trailer-for/excerpt-from next year’s (hopefully) full-blown production “Fish To Mars” belted out— appropriately enough— amongst the seals and lumpfish of the Bergen Aquarium.

I’m writing the story. It involves terrorist vegan gengineering and academic hierarchies and marbled lungfish and autocannibalism.  Also terraforming and First Contact with aliens who showed up on Earth long before Kubrick’s transcendent monolith-makers, and who— being not very bright— bet on an utterly wrong horse. There’s a lot of story, a lot of backstory, and yet the story almost seems to be the least of it. It’s an actual opera, you see; a fusion of classic high-pitched arias and growling distorted black-metal grunge. There’s music, and a libretto. There are singers and sets and costumes— relatively primitive at this stage, the event was basically a proof-of-principle exercise after all— and scientific fact-checking courtesy of  a number of real authorities, not the least being the co-discoverer of Dark Energy. We’re after verisimilitude, here. This aims to be the most scientifically-rigorous opera about alien lungfish on Mars ever written.

It is a high bar to clear.

The production is so multifaceted that the story itself is really more seed than structure; the actual production was built by people from a half-dozen institutions and I-don’t-know how many independent agents and artists.  It was an orgy of musical collaboration between Oded Ben-Horin (on the classical side) and Arild Brakstad (on the black-metal side), all of us herded by the award-winning jet-setting Karin Pittman of the University of Bergen (and who honestly seems way too connected for your average marine biologist— I’m starting to think that’s a cover identity or something).

Really, it shouldn’t have worked. But I’ve heard some tunes, and I’ve seen the pics, and…well, yes. It really seems to have turned out nicely. Wish I could’ve been there.

All the following photos are by Jarle Hovda Moe.

The set was really cool.

The set was really cool.

...although admittedly, some of the props could have used a bit more work.admittedly have

…although admittedly, some of the props could have used a bit more work.






I think those were scientists on the left. And the guy with the bowling ball on his head is an engineer.

I think those were scientists on the left. And the guy with the bowling ball on his head is either an engineer or the most overqualified post-doc in the solar system.

I think this might be kind of a post-apocalyptic Greek Chorus.

I think this might be kind of a post-apocalyptic Greek Chorus.

I don't actually now if this is part of the performance or not, but it looks cool.

I don’t actually now if this is part of the performance or not, but it looks cool.

This is Karin, who set the whole thing up. And something else I got a PhD in once, but I've forgotten the details

This is Karin, who set the whole thing up. And something else I got a PhD in once, but I’ve forgotten the details

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Dubious Study
Sounds fine. I looked up the Academy, and it says on their MySpace page that their journal is peer-viewed and downloaded biannually.
Reposted byjessaminerzekomy

June 05 2017

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Drone Problems
On the other hand, as far as they know, my system is working perfectly.

June 02 2017


An X-Prize for Irony.



There are these things called “X Prizes”. You may have heard of them. They’re big cash awards, handed out by the non-profit Xprize Foundation to encourage advances in everything from spaceflight to genomics to undersea exploration. It’s run by some pretty big names; Craig Venter may ring a bell with some of you. Or Ray Kurzweil. Or, um, Arianna Huffington.

Together, they want to save the world.

It’s obviously a pretty optimistic endeavor. “The benefit of humanity” shows up twice in a  mission statement of only 15 lines. The email I received last night, encouraging me to help spread the word about their new advisory body, suggested use of the phrase “chart a path toward a positive future”.

Given all this, you have to wonder why they’d want me anywhere near their clubhouse. Maybe they haven’t read any of my stuff. Maybe they’ve got me mixed up with some other Peter Watts. I asked the person who recruited me about that. She said I had the right sense of humor.

So there I am, second shelf from the bottom: part of X-Prize’s “Science Fiction Advisory Council“, up there with sixty-odd other SF writers, film-makers, and scientists, most of whom are of far greater stature than I. I’m told we hail from nine countries; that among us we have 13 doctorates, 44 Hugos, 28 Nebulas (Nebulae?), 35 Locuses, 10 John W. Campbells, six Arthur C. Clarkes, six British Science Fiction Association Awards, and one Academy Award. Looking beyond all that chrome I see a collection of colleagues, friends, personal heroes, and benefactors (you may know Straczynski from B5; I also know him for the massive donation he made to my legal defense back in 2010). I see a large number of people I’d love to hang out with over beers (and only one or two that I wouldn’t). It’s an august group, and I’m proud to be part of it.

One thing that makes me cringe a bit is my bio note. It’s self-aggrandizing. I wrote it years ago, in deference to some agency or application that demanded extreme tub-thumpery. I freshened it up and sent it off to the X-Prize people in case they, too, demanded Ultimate Pimpage— but I also submitted another bio which, as I told them, “has much less of a stick up its ass, and would be the one I’d choose if I had my druthers.”

The dude told me it was the best email he’d received all day. But they went with the ass-stick anyway.

I submit the other below. Because it’s better.  Just so you know.

Peter Watts spent the first two decades of his adult life as a marine biologist. After fleeing academia for science fiction, he became known for the habit of appending technical bibliographies onto his novels; this both confers a veneer of credibility and covers his ass against nitpickers. Described by the Globe & Mail as “one of the very best [hard-sf writers] alive”, the overall effect of his prose is perhaps best summed up by critic James Nicoll: “Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts”.

Watts’ debut novel (Starfish) was a New York Times Notable Book, while his fourth (Blindsight)— a rumination on the utility of consciousness which has become a required text in undergraduate courses ranging from philosophy to neuroscience— was a finalist for numerous North American genre awards, winning exactly none of them. (It did, however, win a shitload of awards overseas, which suggests that his translators may be better writers than he is.) His shorter work has also picked up trophies in a variety of jurisdictions, notably a Shirley Jackson (possibly due to fan sympathy over nearly dying of flesh-eating disease in 2011) and a Hugo (possibly due to fan outrage over an altercation with US border guards in 2009). The latter incident resulted in Watts being barred from entering the US— not getting on the ground fast enough after being punched in the face by border guards is a “felony” under Michigan statutes— but especially these days, he can’t honestly say he misses the place all that much.

Watts’s work is available in 20 languages. He and his cat, Banana (since deceased) have both appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. A few years ago he briefly returned to science with a postdoc in molecular genetics, but he really sucked at it.

Now I sit back and wait for the conference calls with James Cameron.


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State Word Map
The top search for every state is PORN, except Florida, where it's SEX PORN.

May 31 2017

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Voting Systems
Kenneth Arrow hated me because the ordering of my preferences changes based on which voting systems have what level of support. But it tells me a lot about the people I'm going to be voting with!

May 29 2017

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Opening Crawl
Using a classic Timothy Zahn EU/Legends novel is bad enough, but at least the style and setting aren't too far off. If you really want to mess with people, try using Splinter of the Mind's Eye.

May 26 2017

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Anti-Drone Eagles
It's cool, it's totally ethical--they're all programmed to hunt whichever bird of prey is most numerous at the moment, so they leave the endangered ones alone until near the end.

May 24 2017

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Gonna feel even dumber when I realize that all this time he's been talking into a bluetooth thingy and we're not actually friends.

May 10 2017


“You Tried So Hard”, The Toilet of Poking, and Other Tales of Adrenaline Week.

Three days in Warsaw.  Three in Poznań. Four days in Berlin. Fifteen hours travel time stapled to either end.

It rained the whole time.

I’m typing this 15000 meters over the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Behind us, Europe is turning bright and sunny after its long deluge. Ahead of us, Toronto braces to evacuate waterfront homes in anticipation of extreme flooding. After that, they say there will be snow. As I recall, the same thing happened a few years back when we returned from Helsinki.

Almost an hour in the cold and wind and rain to get there. Almost an hour in the cold and wind and rain to get back. Totally worth it.

Almost an hour in the cold and wind and rain to get there. Almost an hour in the cold and wind and rain to get back.

Totally worth it.

I don’t even care. It was great.  It was all great.

I cannot tell you what I was doing in Warsaw— contractually, what happens in Warsaw stays there— beyond the fact that while I was doing it the BUG found this great little café where you could eat strudel and drink coffee and be swarmed by resident cats. It was hard, though, to avoid a certain sullen sense of resentment: Cat Cafes were one of two sure-fire get-rich-quick schemes I had back in the eighties, and everybody told me it would never fly because you’d have to bribe too many health inspectors.


OK, now rthat I look at it more closely, it was a pretty dumb mistake.

OK, now that I look at it more closely, it was a pretty dumb mistake.

I can tell you about Poznań. Poznań blew my mind.

Of course, Pyrkon’s organizers had told me that this was one of the largest cons in Europe when they first extended the invite. I guess I never really internalized that. I’d been to Polish cons before. They were cool. I was happy to go back. When they sent me a map of the venue I thought, huh: big building, a lot of odd-shaped rooms. Typical convention center.

I was wrong.

The Map showed a big campus. Each room was a convention-center-sized building. This motherfucker weighed in at somewhere between forty and fifty thousand attendees.

fish mortality

The audience for the “Fish Mortality” panel. Or maybe it was “False Morality”; it’s hard to keep them straight sometimes. This was pretty typical.

That’s a big con. I thought Utopiales over in France was huge, and that only weighed in at a tenth the size. Next to Pyrkon, Worldcon is a bake sale at Altadore Baptist Church.

The merch room. On a slow day.

The merch room. On a slow day.

There were the usual cheesy home-built contraptions...

There were the usual cheesy home-built contraptions (this is in a completely different building than the quaint little merch room portrayed above, by the way…)

...and the usual obsessively-perfect costumes. This guy had his arm surgically removed for added verisimilitude; he kept it in the bathtub of his hotel room, buried in crushed ice, for post-con reattachment.

…and the usual obsessively-perfect costumes. This guy had his arm surgically removed for added verisimilitude; he kept it in the bathtub of his hotel room, buried in crushed ice, for post-con reattachment.

This thing, which was apparently around 3m tall, had moss on its back and filled Caitlin with an unnerving sense of disquiet.

This thing, which was apparently around 3m tall, had moss on its back and filled Caitlin with an unnerving sense of disquiet.

While these things, whatever the hell they were, scared the living shit out of me.

While these things, whatever the hell they were, scared the living shit out of me.

When a con is this big, it doesn’t matter if the vast majority of the attendees don’t even know who the hell you are; even with the infinitesimal fraction who do, you sign a lot of books.


This session went a half hour overtime, and by the end the line wasn’t any shorter than it was at the beginning.  I ended up having to do additional signings; I figure somewhere between 5-6 hours all told. The up side is that it did wonders for my ego.

The down side is, I didn’t eat on Saturday.

There were the usual author-fan selfies, which degraded over time from the usual arm-drape down to a series of pics on Saturday night in which I was stabbing supplicants in the eye with my Tuff-Write Tactical Pen (“We think our pens are cooler than sharks with lasers”). I wanted to build a collage documenting that progression. Strangely, though— while I had no trouble scraping up arm-drapey pics online— I couldn’t find any eye-stabby ones.  The closest I got was that shot down near the lower-right corner, where— having regressed to the emotional age of ten— I rabbit-eared the guy with the beard:


I had to settle for symbolism, grabbing a graphic from Tuff-Write’s website— which sells, I shit you not, instructional DVDs on How To Stab Someone In The Eye With A Tactical Pen.

 There was at least one person, however, who I asked for a photo. Frequent visitors to the Rifters gallery may recognize Karolina Cisowska, who so awesomely cosplayed Lenie Clarke for photographer Allan Rotter a couple of years back. This was an honor; the BUG and I wanted to hang out with Karolina and her partner post-con, but we couldn’t make it work. Next time.


18216661_1460750303964399_4675997626050237558_oThis is “Q&A with Peter Watts”. I’m not exactly sure what I was finding so hilarious at this point, but it may have had something to do with my interrogator’s claim that Blindsight has been a bestseller in Poland. I was not fooled. I’ve seen my royalty statements. 18216736_1461873520518744_3944883674424680453_o“Harnessing the Power of Ignorance: Worst-case Neuroscenarios from the Peanut Gallery” was one of my few events that didn’t run late— ironically, since people in orange shirts kept waving signs at me telling me to wrap it up.  One of them even came up on stage and interrupted my climax; I told her in the nicest possible way to go away, and finished exactly on time. (It was, admittedly, a bit awkward when she returned as the moderator of my next panel.)


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This was weird. These “Free hugs” signs were everywhere at Pyrkon— generally carried by women, and almost always in English (although there were exceptions). I never did figure out what was going on.
Whatever it was, it had obviously been going on long enough for the inevitable backlash to kick in…
I’m pretty sure this was just blatant entrapment, though. (And count on the BUG to remind me of the pass phrase one must utter to get into the Mines of Moria.)


Occasionally Caitlin would lead me off-site to take in the sights of Poznań— such as the famous Museum of Croissants, home to evocative dioramas memorializing "Croissant-themed Hats of the Victorian Era" and "The Great Croissant Massacre of 1587". Sadly, we missed the English-language tour by a mere ten minutes and had to spend the afternoon drinking instead.

Occasionally Caitlin would lead me off-site to take in the sights of Poznań— such as the famous Museum of Croissants, home to evocative dioramas memorializing “Croissant-themed Hats of the Victorian Era” and “The Great Croissant Massacre of 1587”.

Sadly, we missed the English-language tour by a mere ten minutes and had to spend the afternoon drinking instead.

Yeah, right.

Yeah, right.

Did I say I didn’t eat on Saturday?  Not quite true. I had breakfast at 8a.m., and then supper at 11pm.

Supper consisted entirely of beer. This was Poland, after all.


IMG_3332Nowa Fantaskyka. Interviewer and translator. I first met these guys in Zielona Gora, back in 2011. They haven’t changed much.
My non-Nowa Fantastique translator, whose shirt struck a chord with me because I studied these guys for my doctorate. (Not Navy seals specifically, just the regular harbor kind.)

My non-Nowa Fantastique translator, whose shirt struck a chord with me because I studied these guys for my doctorate. (Not Navy seals specifically, just the regular harbor kind.)


Somehow we woke up in Berlin.


The BUG and I had a dual reading, a little place called “Otherland“: Berlin’s premiere SF store. (To give you a sense of how premiere, Ty Franck— half of James S. A. Corey, the duo behind The Expanse— read there just a couple of days after we did.) The reading served as an anchor for a couple of evenings’ drinks, dins, and socializing with the local genre crowd— and as is usual at such paired appearances, it was all oooh, Peter Watts (and wife) when we arrived, and all OMG Caitlin is so awesome along numerous orthogonal axes by the time we left.

In between, though, we had a great time.

Names— at least, real names— will be thin upon the ground here, as we’ve been requested to keep them off the record for “the usual paranoid privacy reasons” which I, for one, don’t find especially paranoid at all these days.

But first: before we get to the nameless community itself— remember how, some odd few-dozen pictures ago, I complained about how Cat Cafes were one of my two doomed get-rich-quick schemes of the eighties?  The other was a franchise of space-themed restaurants: places you could go where the windows open up on low-orbit planetscapes or glorious nebulae, where you ordered your food on a touchpad set into the table and had it delivered by robot arms running along rooftop rails. Where the food was crap but it was supposed to be crap, because you’re on a space station, goddamnit, and everything’s recycled.  That was my idea.

Guess what we came across while heading to Otherland:

I'm going to assume that nobody here needs the name explained to you.

I’m going to assume that nobody here needs the name explained to you.

We didn’t patronize the place, since we were already on our way elsewhere.  Just stuck our faces up against the glass long enough to get really pissed off, then grabbed these interior shots off the web.

But all was forgotten and forgiven when we finally arrived at Otherland, to discover this in the back room:

The Grail.

The Grail.

I’ve been searching for this toilet since before my very first trip to Germany: the one they described in the Germany for Dummies guidebook, the one that has the little flat dry platform for shit to land in, the better for these proud Teutonic people to poke and prod their feces for parasites and abnormalities before finally— after intensive examination— flushing it away into the mighty Havel. For years I searched in vain. I was beginning to think it was the stuff of myth. But here it was, in the back of a humble genre bookstore.

After that, the evening would have been a success even if no one had showed up for the reading.


IMG_20170503_234715We approach the shop like timid nervous animals in the night.

Otherland-Crew-NamesThese are the guys who run the store.


DSCN1759This is Luke Burrage, World-Class Juggler and book-review podcaster. I’ve been waiting to meet this guy for years.


C-7mIUBXoAQLiJh.jpg largeThis is me reading and the BUG looking skeptical before she blows me out of the water.

IMG_20170503_234351This is me barely winning a back-t0-back height contest with Saruman’s evil twin.


wattsupSaruman and I, discussing the things we would do with sexbots. (This is actually a moving gif, but I think you have to click on it or something.)

We totally avoid this shop like our lives depend on it.


DSCN1758This is Birgit, my awesome German translator. She said it took her two tries to see what I was getting at in Echopraxia, how finally everything clicked and she could see how everything fit together.  “You tried so hard,” she said.

I want that carved on my tombstone.

Also she didn’t know that BUG stood for Beloved Unicorn Girl— she thought I meant some kind of microbe— so German editions of Echopraxia are dedicated “To the BAZILLUS. Who saved my life.”

Which, if anything, is better than the original.


IMG_3378This is the napkin upon which the cognitive neuroscientist in the crowd (there always is at least one) jotted down his contact info (blurred to protect the educated) and his areas of specialization. I will be calling on him by and by. Oh yes I will.


DSCN1746The crowd enters a place to drink, and talk about the ethics of sexbots.


DSCN1750I converse with a woman who has an advanced degree in Mathematics, on the ethical implications of sexbots.

After the Otherland Affair, we gave ourselves a day to relax before heading back home. My ambitions were modest; I wanted to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2”. Caitlin set her sights a bit higher; she wanted to finish writing a novel.


She’s not in this picture because she took it. That’s Henry, her life-long friend and the dude we stayed with, to the left. Those are our glasses of celebratory champagne there in the middle.

So we both accomplished what we wanted to on that last day. I guess that makes us even.

And now I have less than a month before I have to turn around, go back to Bulgaria, and do the whole damn thing all over again.

May 05 2017

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I wonder if the three of us would’ve been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people.

Reposted bygivemetwobeers givemetwobeers

April 12 2017


Noms and Cons and Metal Alms

Stuff’s been piling up in the wings as a side-effect of my ongoing battle against ego creep— enough now, as it turns out, to warrant a whole catch-all catch-up post in its own right. And since some of the following travel plans might intersect with the occasional fan, I should probably outline where I’m going to be for the next few months. And why I’m not going to be here all that often.

Road Trips.

I already mentioned that I’m going to be at Pyrkon a couple weeks down the road. For those who will be in attendance, I’ve now got a preliminary listing of my panels in hand [update: actual times and schedules!]:

  • (Fri, 28 April, 18:30, Sala Ziemi): Peter Watts – Q&A
  • (Fri, 28 April, 19:30, Aula 2): [Panel] How to make one’s debut?
  • (Fri, 28 April, 21:00, Aula 2): [Panel] False morality
  • (Sat, 29 April, 13:00, Autografy): Autograph session
  • (Sat, 29 April, 17:30, Aula 2): [Panel] My life in my hands: does free will exist?
  • (Sat, 29 April, 19:00, Aula 2): Worst-case Neuroscenarios from the Peanut Gallery
  • (Sat, 29 April, 20:30, Aula 2): [Panel] The limits of humanity and playing God

All characteristically Polish in outlook, except for that second one (and even it would fit if they just swapped out “make one’s debut” for “meet one’s end”).

“Worst-case Neuroscenarios” is a solo talk. About 50 slides so far, although I can’t seem to get the gom jabbar clip from “Dune” to render properly in Irfanview. (Stupid Lenovo Thinkpad. This stuff always worked fine on the Asus, before I punched it.)

We’re sneaking into Poznan after a few days in Warsaw and sneaking out again via Berlin, where the BUG and I will be reading at the Otherland bookstore on May 3rd. Not yet sure what I’ll read, although it’ll be from either the Sunflowers novella I’m currently finishing or the David-Bowie-themed piece of military SF I recently finished for the latest installment of Jonathan Strahan’s Fill-in-the-Blank Infinity series. (It’s coming out this fall, by the way; not seeing any cover art yet. Cover art and contents over here.) Pretty much all the fiblets I’ve posted this year hail from one or the other, but there’s plenty of yet-unposted stuff to choose from.

Bulgaria in June. I’m giving a talk at the Ratio Symposium, which frighteningly is not SF but straight-up pop science— usually delivered by leading lights and actual experts in their fields, not half-assed pretenders who happened to make a lucky guess ten years ago. I keep telling this to the organizers, but they seem to want me anyway.  They’ve booked my tickets, so if this is all a cruel hoax it’s an elaborate one.

Still trying to figure out that talk. If I wanted to focus on my own area of current expertise, I’d give one on dealing with stained pants.

The Ukraine in September; I’ll be at the Lviv International Book Fair & Literature Festival from the 13-17th, which I’m told will coincide with the release of the Ukrainian edition of Blindsight. Also Lviv is evidently the birthplace of Stanislaw Lem, and has many fine drinking establishments. (This seems to be a recurring motif; people in Warsaw, Berlin, Sofia, and Lviv have all emphasized unto me the quality of their local drinking establishments. Go figure.)

Lviv appears to be the go-to place for various festivals, and much as I’m looking forward to the literary one I can’t help but cast a wistful eye over references to the annual “Coffee and Chocolate Feast” and the intriguing “Feast of Pampukh”, an event I would very much like to attend if for no other reason than to find out what a “pampukh” is.  I’m thinking, maybe a gaff used by eighteenth-century whalers to hook porpoises and heft them over the gunwales.

Fish. To Mars.

Note the cool spirally spine. Remind you of anything?

Note the cool spirally spine. Remind you of anything?

Those are the road trips, although there might also be a Skype appearance at the Bergen Aquarium on May 31 for, well…

I don’t know exactly how to describe this. It’s kind of a teaser for a currently-under-development post-apocalyptic Norwegian Black Metal Science Opera about sending Marbled Lungfish to Mars. I’m told the embargo’s lifted this week so I can talk about it, but I don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes just yet so it’s probably best to keep it vague. Suffice to say the project seems to be drawing in talent from a number of different institutions, scientific and musical.  We’ve got head-bangers. We’ve got classical librettists. We’ve got marine biologists (real ones, not Twentieth-century dropouts clinging to some shred of credibility by sticking technical references onto the end of their SF novels). I am apparently responsible for the basic storyline, and I’ve got the co-discoverer of Dark Energy checking my astrophysics. No pressure there at all. (I hope to meet the guy in person some day. I’ve got a bone to pick with him. That discovery of his is directly responsible for one of my stories going from cutting-edge when it was written, to completely obsolete when it was published.)

In the meantime, I’m told it’s okay to share this protoype promotional art by Kim Holm.


Finally this, just over the transom: Bélial’s edition of Beyond the Rift (Au-delà du gouffre) has made the finals for France’s Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire under the “Foreign Short Fiction” category. I’m up against some heavy hitters so I’m not getting my hopes up— but hey, any excuse to trot out Manchu‘s awesome cover art one more time, am I right?

Especially since this is also up for a Prix in the art category...

Especially since this is also up for a Prix in the art category…

April 05 2017


Whispers in the Vomit Vale.



The hatch closed at our backs, swallowing us in brief darkness; it brightened to dim twilight as our eyes adjusted to luciferin constellations glowing dimly on all sides. We stood on a catwalk half a meter above rock and drifts of thin soil. (Eri‘s botanicals take their lead from the rainforests of Earth’s long-dead tropics: impoverished soil, production and nutrients all locked up in the biomass.)

We followed the path. My BUD flickered.

The catwalk forked. Lian nudged me right: “This way.” After a few meters I closed my eyes experimentally, found myself just the tiniest bit uncertain where down was.

Glistening black meshes with gelatinous orbs— each the size of an eyeball— glowing at their interstices. Thick ropey trunks arching up through the vault like a great charred rib cage, festooned with vines and patio lanterns. They leaned just a little, as though bent by some prevailing wind.

BUD flickered again, faded, sparked back to life as one of the Glade’s mechanical moles snuffled past close enough to pinch-hit as a booster station. We pushed on in the direction of that imaginary wind. The trees leaned further as we advanced; their bases thickened and spread wide across the ground, trunks buttressed against forces that pulled simultaneously along different bearings. The Glade passes right over the Higgs conduit, between the core that contains our singularity and the maw where its wormhole emerges. The vectors get messy in between. Down is mostly coreward but a little forward too; how far those downs diverge depends on how fast Eri happens to be falling through the cosmos at any given moment. Twisted trees and Kai’s squicky inner ears are the price we pay for a reactionless drive.

BUD finally went down and stayed there: victim of signal-squelching rocks and bioelectric static and drive circuitry that couldn’t possibly be expected to control such vast energies without emitting some of its own. This dead link was our privacy alarm. As long as we were blind, we were alone.

“So what the hell were you doing, Li?”

She didn’t answer at first. She didn’t answer at all.

Instead: “You read books, right?”

“Sure. Sometimes.”

“You plug in, play realsies. Go touring. Watch ennies.”

“What’s your point?”

“You’ve seen the way people lived. Kids with cats, or hacking their tutors, or parasailing on their birthdays.”

“Yeah. So?”

“You’ve done more than see it, Sunday. You feed off it. You base your life on it. Our speech patterns, our turns of phrase— fuck, our swear words for chrissake— all of it’s lifted from a culture that hasn’t existed for hundreds of petasecs. We’ve been out here so very long, Sunday.”

I admit I rolled my eyes. “Enough with the world-weary ancient immortal shtick, okay? The fact that we’ve been out here for sixty million years—”


“— doesn’t change the fact that you’ve only been awake for twenty, tops.”

“My point is we’re living dead lives. Theirs, not ours. We never went hiking, or scuba diving, or—”

“Sure we have. We can. Any time we want. You just said so.”

“They cheated us. We wake up, we build their fucking gates, we recycle their lives because they never gave us any of our own.”

I should have pitied her. Instead, surprisingly, I found myself getting angry. “Do you even remember the shape Earth was in when we left? I wouldn’t trade this life for centuries on that grubby shithole if God Itself came through the gate and offered me a ticket. I like this life.”

We regarded each other through the gloom for a moment. Finally, Lian spoke— and there was none of my anger there, only sadness.

“You like it because they built you to. Because they’d never get any competent baseline to sign up for a one-way trip in a dead rock to the end of time, so they built this special model all small and twisted, like— like those plants they used to grow. In Japan or somewhere. Something so stunted it couldn’t even imagine spending its life outside a cage.”

Bonsai, I remembered. But I didn’t want to encourage her.

“You liked it here too,” I said instead. “You liked it just fine.” Until you broke.

“Yeah.” She nodded, and even in the dimness I got the sense of a sad smile. “But I got better.”

“Lian. What were you doing in the crawlway?”

She sighed. “I was running a bypass on one of the Chimp’s sensory trunks.”

“I saw that. What for?”

“Nothing critical. I was just going to— inject some noise into the channel.”


“Static. To reduce signal fidelity.”

I spread my palms: So?

“I was trying to take back a little control, okay? For all of us!”

“How in Christ’s name does compromising Chimp’s—”


“You were increasing the uncertainty threshold…” I murmured.

“Yeah. Exactly.”

Because the only reason Eri shipped out with meat on board in the first place was for those times when the Chimp didn’t feel up to managing a build on his own, when he needed some of that organic Human insight to get him past the unknown variables and halting states. And the less reliable his data, the less certain he’d be that he could handle it on his own. Lian was trying to tilt the algos towards Human input.

In principle, it was a pretty clever hack. In practice…

“Even if you figured out some way to keep the Chimp from just— finding your monkey wrenches and fixing them while we’re all down for the count, do you have any idea how many of those cables you’d have to jam up before you even started to make a dent in the redundant systems?”

“Somewhere between two thousand and twenty-seven hundred.” Then added: “You don’t have to cut the inputs, you just have to— fog them a little. Widen the confidence limits.”

“Uh huh. And how many of those nerves you hacked into so far?”


I guess maybe I thought that she’d realize how insane the whole idea was if she said it aloud. Nothing in her voice suggested she had.

“Why do you even want this? It’s not like Chimp’s fucking up the builds when we’re not up to keep an eye on him.”

“It’s not about the builds, Sun. It’s about being Human. It’s about getting back a little autonomy.”

“And what are you gonna do with that autonomy when you get it?”

“First, gain freedom. Lots of time to figure out what to do with it afterward.”

“You think if Chimp wakes us up often enough he’ll just roll over, suggest we all go back to Earth to drop off anyone who’s got bored along the way? You think if we just circle back around to the last build and wait for a while, some magic silver ship is gonna sail out and give all first-class tickets to the retirement paradise of our choice?” There’d actually been some talk about that, back at the beginning. It may even have been part of the original mission profile, before those first few gates opened up and spat out nothing but automation and ancient binary. Before the next few just sat there empty. Before the gremlins started. But it must have been thirty million years since I’d heard anyone bring up the subject as anything other than a cheap punchline.

“What were you thinking?” I finished.

Something changed in her posture. “I suppose I was thinking that maybe there’s more to life than living like a troglodyte for a few days every century or two, building toys for ungrateful grandchildren and knowing that I’m never gonna see an honest-to-God forest again that doesn’t look like, like—” She glanced around— “a nightmare someone shat out in lieu of therapy.”

“Li, seriously.” I tried to de-escalate. “I don’t understand the problem. Any time you want a— a green forest, just plug in. Any time you want to hike the desert or dive Europa or, or fly into the sunset, just plug in. You can experience things nobody ever did back on Earth, any time you want.”

“It’s not real, okay?”

“You can’t tell the difference.”

“I know the difference.” She looked back at me from a face full of blue-gray shadows. “And I don’t understand you either, okay? I thought we were the same, I thought I was just following in your footsteps…”


“Why would you think that?” I asked at last.

“Because you fought it too, didn’t you? Before we ever shipped out. You were always pushing back, you were always challenging everyone and everything about the mission. You were, like, six years old and you called bullshit on Mamoro Sawada. Nobody could believe it. I mean, there we all were, programmed for the mission before we were even born, everything preloaded and hardwired and you— threw it off, somehow. Resisted. Way I hear it they nearly kicked you out a few times.”

“Where did you hear that.” Because I was really damn sure that Lian Wei and I did not go through training within ten thousand kliks of each other.

“Kai told me.”

“Kai talks too much.”

Her shoulders rose, fell. “What happened to you, Sunday? How did you go from Hell-raiser to Chimp’s lapdog?”

“Fuck you, Lian. You don’t know me.”

“I know you better than you think.”

“No you don’t. The fact that you thought for one cursed corsec that I could ever be anything like you just proves it.”

She shook her head. “You can be such an asshole sometimes.”

I can be an asshole? How about a show of hands” —raising mine— “everyone who hasn’t stabbed anyone in the face today?” She looked away. “What’s that? Just me?”

“Case in point,” she whispered.

March 29 2017


Cambridge Analytica and the Other Turing Test.

Not even scripted.

Not even scripted.

Near the end of the recent German movie “Er Ist Wieder Da” (“Look Who’s Back”), Adolph Hitler— transported through time to the year 2015— is picking up where he left off. On the roof of the television studio that fueled his resurgence (the network thought they were just exploiting an especially-tasteless Internet meme for ratings), the sad-sack freelancer who discovered “the world’s best Hitler impersonator” confronts his Frankenstein’s monster— but Hitler proves unkillable. Even worse, he makes some good points:

“In 1933, people were not fooled by propaganda. They elected a leader who openly disclosed his plans with great clarity. The Germans elected me… ordinary people who chose to elect an extraordinary man, and entrust the fate of the country to him.

What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban elections?”

It’s a good movie, hilarious and scary and sociologically plausible (hell, maybe sociologically inevitable), and given that one of Hitler’s lines is “Make Germany Great Again” it’s not surprising that it’s been rediscovered in recent months. Imagine a cross between “Borat”, “The Terminator”, and “Springtime for Hitler”, wrapped around a spot-on re-enactment of that Hitler-in-the-Bunker meme.

But that rooftop challenge: that, I think, really cuts to the heart of things: What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban elections?

I feel roughly the same way every time I read another outraged screed about Cambridge Analytica.

The internet’s been all a’seethe with such stories lately. The details are arcane, but the take-home message is right there in the headlines: The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine; Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?; Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media.

The executive summary goes something like this: An evil right-wing computer genius has developed scarily-effective data scraping techniques which— based entirely on cues gleaned from social media— knows individual voters better than do their own friends, colleagues, even family. This permits “behavioral microtargetting”: campaign messages customized not for boroughs or counties or demographic groups, but at you. Individually. A bot for every voter.

Therefore democracy itself is in danger.

Put aside for the moment the fact that the US isn’t a functioning democracy anyway (unless you define “democracy” as a system in which— to quote Thomas Piketty— “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose”). Ignore any troublesome doubts about whether the same folks screaming about Cambridge Analytica would be quite so opposed to the tech if it had been used to benefit Clinton instead of Trump. (It’s not as though the Dems didn’t have their own algorithms, their own databased targeting systems; it’s just that those algos  really sucked.) Put aside the obvious partisan elements and focus on the essential argument: the better They know you, the more finely They can tune their message. The more finely They tune their message, the less freedom you have. To quote directly from Helbing et al over on the SciAm blog,

The trend goes from programming computers to programming people.” [breathless italics courtesy of the original authors]

Or from Berit Anderson, over at Medium.com:

“Instead of having to deal with misleading politicians, we may soon witness a Cambrian explosion of pathologically-lying political and corporate bots that constantly improve at manipulating us.”

You’d expect me to be all over this, right? What could be more up my alley than Machiavellian code which  treats us not as autonomous beings but as physical systems, collections of inputs and outputs whose state variables show not the slightest trace of Free Will? You can almost see Valerie tapping her arrhythmic tattoos on the the bulkhead, reprogramming the crew of the Crown of Thorns without their knowledge.

And I am all over it. Kind of. I shrugged at the finding that it took Mercer’s machine 150 Facebook “Likes” to know someone better than their parents did (hell, you’d know me better than my parents did based on, like, three), but I was more impressed when I learned that 300 “Likes” is all it would take to know me better than Caitlin does. And no one has to convince me that sufficient computing power, coupled with sufficient data, can both predict and manipulate human behavior.

But so what? ‘Twas ever thus, no?

No, Helbing and his buddies assert:

“Personalized advertising and pricing cannot be compared to classical advertising or discount coupons, as the latter are non-specific and also do not invade our privacy with the goal to take advantage of our psychological weaknesses and knock out our critical thinking.”

Oh, give me a fucking break.

They’ve been taking advantage of our psychological weaknesses to knock out our critical thinking skills since before the first booth babe giggled coquettishly at the Houston Auto Show, since the first gurgling baby was used to sell Goodyear radials, since IFAW decided they could raise more funds if they showed Loretta Swit hugging baby seals instead of giant banana slugs. Advertising tries to knock out your critical thinking by definition. Every tasteless anti-abortion poster, every unfailing-cute child suffering from bowel disease in the local bus shelter, every cartoon bear doing unnatural things with toilet paper is an attempt to rewire your synapses, to literally change your mind.

The face of the enemy (figure: J. Albright)

The face of the enemy (figure: J. Albright)

Ah, but those aren’t targeted to individuals, are they? Those are crude hacks of universal gut responses, the awww when confronted with cute babies, the hubba hubba when tits are shoved in the straight male face. (Well, almost universal; show me a picture of a cute baby and I’m more likely to vomit than coo.) This is different, Mercer’s algos know us personally. They know us as well as our friends, family, lovers!

Maybe so. But you know who else knows us as well as our friends, family and lovers? Our friends, family, and lovers. The same folks who sit across from us at the pub or the kitchen table, who cuddle up for a marsupial cling when the lights go out. Such people routinely use their intimate knowledge of us to convince us to see a particular movie or visit a particular restaurant— or, god forbid, vote for a particular political candidate. People who, for want of a better word, attempt to reprogram us using sound waves and visual stimuli; they do everything the bots do, and they probably still do it better.

What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban advertising? Ban debate? Ban conversation?

I hear that Scottsman, there in the back: he says we’re not talking about real debate, real conversation. When Cambridge Analytica targets you there’s no other being involved; just code, hacking meat.

As if it would be somehow better if meat were hacking meat. The prediction that half our jobs will be lost to automation within the next couple of decades is already a  tired cliché, but most experts don’t react to such news by demanding the repeal of Moore’s Law. They talk about retraining, universal basic income— adaptation, in a word. Why should this be any different?

Don’t misunderstand me. The fact that our destiny is in the hands of evil right-wing billionaires doesn’t make me any happier than it makes the rest of you. I just don’t see the ongoing automation of that process as anything more than another step along the same grim road they’ve been driving us down for decades. Back in 2008 and 2012 I don’t remember anyone howling with outrage over Obama’s then-cutting-edge voter-profiling database. I do remember a lot of admiring commentary on his campaign’s ability to “get out the vote”.

Curious that the line between grass-roots activism and totalitarian neuroprogramming should fall so neatly between Then and Now.

Cambridge Analytica’s psyops tech doesn’t so much “threaten democracy” as drive one more nail into its coffin. For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, the corpse has been rotting for some time now.

‘Course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight back. There are ways to do that, even on an individual level. I’m not talking about the vacuous aspirations peddled over on SciAm, by folks who apparently don’t know the difference between a slogan and a strategy (Ensure that people have access to their data! Make government accountable!) I’m talking about things you can do right now. Easy things.

The algos eat data? Stop feeding them. Don’t be a Twit: if all Twitter’s other downsides aren’t enough to scare you off, maybe the prospect of starving the beast will lure you away. If you can’t bring yourself to quit Facebook, at least stop “liking” things— or even better, “Like” things that you actually hate, throw up chaff to contaminate the data set and make you a fuzzier target. (When I encounter something I find especially endearing on Facebook, I often tag it with one of those apoplectic-with-rage emojis). Get off Instagram and GotUrBalls. Use Signal. Use a fucking VPN. Make Organia useless to them.

What’s that you say? Thousands of people around the world are just dying to know your favorite breadfruit recipe? Put it in a blog. It won’t stop bots from scraping your data, but at least they’ll have to come looking for you; you won’t be feeding yourself into a platform that’s been explicitly designed to harvest and resell your insides.

The more of us who refuse to play along— the more of us who cheat by feeding false data into the system—  the less we have to fear from code that would read our minds. And if most people can’t be bothered— if all that clickbait, all those emojis and upward-pointing thumbs are just too much of a temptation— well, we do get the government we deserve.  Just don’t complain when, after wading naked through the alligator pool, something bites your legs off.

I’m going to let Berit Anderson play me offstage:

“Imagine that in 2020 you found out that your favorite politics page or group on Facebook didn’t actually have any other human members, but was filled with dozens or hundreds of bots that made you feel at home and your opinions validated? Is it possible that you might never find out?”

I think she intends this as a warning, a dire If This Goes On portent. But what Anderson describes is  the textbook definition of a Turing Test, passed with flying colors. She sees an internet filled with zombies: I see the birth of True AI.

Of course, there are two ways to pass a Turing Test.  The obvious route is to design a smarter machine, one that can pass for human. But as anyone who’s spent any time on a social platform knows, people can be as stupid, as repetitive, and as vacuous as any bot. So the other path is to simply make people dumber, so they can be more easily fooled by machines.

I’m starting to think that second approach might be easier.

March 09 2017


Electrofishing for Whales

Electrofishing for Whales

I used to work on a fisheries crew where we would use an electro-fisher backpack to momentarily stun small fish (30 - 100 mm length) so we could scoop them up with nets to identify and measure them. The larger fish tended to be stunned for slightly longer because of their larger surface area but I don't imagine this relationship would be maintained for very large animals. Could you electrofish for a blue whale? At what voltage would you have have to set the e-fisher?

—Madeline Cooper

So you want to give endangered whales powerful electric shocks. Great! I'm happy to help. This is definitely a very normal thing to want to do.

There are various electrofishing setups, but they all operate on the same general principle: An electric current flows through the water, and also through any fish that happen to be in the water. The electric current, through a few different physical effects, draws the fish toward one of the electrodes and/or stuns them.

For a long time, people didn't really notice that electrofishing injured fish at all. For the most part, stunned fish seemed to be fine after a few minutes. However, they frequently suffer from internal damage which isn't obvious from the outside. The electric current causes involuntary muscle spasms, which can fracture the fish's vertebrae. As this paper shows, these kinds of spinal injuries are more common and severe in larger fish.

As you mention, for a given electrofishing setup, larger fish are usually more affected than smaller ones.[1]This can lead to larger fish being overrepresented in sampling studies. Why? Well, we don't know. In their comprehensive 2003 study Immobilization Thresholds of Electrofishing Relative to Fish Size, biologists Chad Dolan and Steve Miranda modeled the way electric currents stun fish of different sizes, but caution that "no adequate conceptual system exists to explain the effects of size on electroshock thresholds from the perspective of electric fields."

None of these studies dealt with animals anywhere near the size of whales. The largest fish in Dolan and Miranda's study were still quite small. This experiment tested larger fish up to 80cm long,[2]The fish they used in the experiment grew rapidly to a range of sizes, mainly because the larger ones kept eating their smaller siblings. but nothing whale-sized.[3]There's been at least one case of dolphin death linked to illegal electrofishing. Since we don't know exactly why larger fish respond differently, it's hard to confidently extrapolate.

Fish are typically[4]Actual quote from that paper: "The results for these tests were unsettling ... this observation was so unexpected that we stopped the experiment to recalibrate the equipment." stunned by equipment delivering about 100 µW of power per cm3 of body volume, so for a whale, that would be about 20 megawatts.

But there's a catch: Most electrofishing is done in fresh water. Unfortunately, blue whales live in the ocean,[5]I mean, unfortunately for Madeline. It's fortunate for the whales. where the salt water conducts electricity much more easily. That might seem like good news for our electrofishing plans, but it turns out to make it much more challenging.

Electrofishing works best when the water and the target animals are about equally conductive. In highly conductive saltwater, most of the current flows past the animals in the water rather than through them. This means that ocean electrofishing requires much more power. Using our simple extrapolation, instead of 20 megawatts, we might need a gigawatt. In other words, you'll need to bring a large nuclear generating station.

Simple extrapolation is misleading here, since we know that large animals respond to electricity differently. How differently? Well, according to an electrofishing.net post by Jan Dean, a human who fell into the water in front of a typical electrofishing boat could easily die.[6]While it sounds dangerous, people aren't often killed during electrofishing accidents. The 2000 EPA report "New Perspectives in Electrofishing" comments that "In the United States, since World War II, only about five electrocutions during electrofishing have been documented." I assume they just mean records weren't kept before World War II, but it's technically possible that the war involved so many electrofishing deaths that they need to exclude it from the stats. Blue whales, which are even larger than humans,[citation needed] would presumably fare even worse.

Electrofishing temporarily stops a fish's heart.[7]Until reading this paper, I didn't know clove oil was used as a fish anesthetic. You learn something new every day! The fish seem to recover, most of the time, but humans—and probably whales—have a harder time with cardiac arrest.

It's possible that giving blue whales massive electrical shocks isn't as good an idea as it sounded at first.

That's not to say there's no place in science for giving random electric shocks to large aquatic animals. A project at the Denver Wildlife Research Center used electrofishing-style equipment—linked to an infrared camera—to repel beavers, ducks, and geese from selected areas. Apparently, the results were "encouraging."[8]The equipment kept the beavers away, although they returned as soon as it was turned off. It also worked on ducks and geese, although they had some problems with infrared waterfowl detection. The birds would usually take flight when the equipment turned on, although if it was cold enough, they'd just sluggishly paddle away.

So electrofishing equipment probably can't help you catch blue whales. However, if you're having trouble keeping them out of your backyard pond ...

... it's possible the Denver Wildlife Research Center can help you out.

March 06 2017


Oprah’s X-Men: Thoughts on Logan

Lers of Spoi. You have been warned.

Nobody said mutation was pretty.

Nobody said mutation was pretty.

There’s always been a contingent of X-Men fans who insist on seeing Mutant as Allegory, a metaphor—albeit a heavy-handed one— for prejudice and disenfranchisement. Mutants routinely get invoked as a sort of Other Of The Week: stand-ins for unwanted immigrants, untrusted ethnicities, oppressed orientations. I’ve never been a big reader of the comics, but certainly the films have played into this. One memorable example occurs early in the first movie, when a bewildered parent asks her child: “Honey, have you tried just not being a mutant?” (An even more memorable example is young Magneto’s psionic awakening in a Nazi concentration camp.)

I’ve never bought into this interpretation, for the same reason I reject the claim that Oprah Winfrey was “disenfranchised” when some racist idiot in Zurich refused to show her a handbag because it was “too expensive” for a black woman to afford. When you can buy the whole damn store and the street it sits on with pocket change; when you can buy the home of the asshole who just disrespected you and have it bulldozed; when you can use your influence to get that person fired in the blink of an eye and turn her social media life into a living hell— the fact that you don’t do any of those things does not mean that you’ve been oppressed. It means you’ve been merciful to someone you could just as easily squash like a bug.

Marvel’s mutants are something like that. We’re dealing, after all, with people who can summon storm systems with their minds and melt steel with their eyes. Xavier can not only read any mind on the planet, he can freeze time, for fucksake. These have got to be the worst case-studies in oppression you could imagine. Sure, baselines fear and revile mutants; that’s a far cry from “disenfranchising” them. How long would gay-bashing be a thing, if gays could strike down their attackers with lightning bolts?

To my mind, X-Men are the Oprahs of the Marvel Universe. Immensely powerful. Inexplicably patient with the small-minded. And the fact that they’ve been consistently portrayed as victims has significantly compromised my suspension of disbelief— and hence, my enjoyment— of pretty much every X-Men movie I’ve taken in.

Right up to the best of the lot so far, the intimate, humane, sometimes brilliant Logan.

Logan is far and away the best X-Men movie I’ve ever seen (I’m tempted to say it’s the best X-Men movie ever made, but I haven’t seen Apocalypse so who knows). The characterizations are deeper, their relationships more nuanced. The acting is better: you wouldn’t expect less from Patrick Stewart, who somehow managed to maintain his dignity and gravitas throughout even the most idiotic ST:TNG episodes (looking at you, “Skin of Evil”), but the rest of the cast keeps up with him and makes it look effortless. The fight choreography is bone-crunchingly beautiful. This is the Unforgiven of Marvel movies, a story that focuses not on some absurdly high-stakes threat to Life As We Know It but on the more intimate costs to lives as we knew them. It’s a story about entropy and unhappy endings. It earns its 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Until the last act, when it throws it all away.

I’m not just nitpicking about the canonical dumbness inevitable in any movie based on a sixties-era comic franchise. (If I were, I might wonder how Logan’s 25-cm claws manage to retract into his arms without immobilizing his wrists like rebar through salami; the guy must have to extend his claws every time he wants to hold a spoonful of Cheerios. It’s a good thing they don’t sell milk in bags down there.) I’m complaining about something which, I think, largely betrays all that resonant, character-based story-telling that comprises the bulk of the movie. Or rather, I’m complaining about two things:

  1. When the bad guys know that their quarry can freeze flesh unto shattering with their breath, summon the very undergrowth to strangle and entangle pursuers, spit out bullets, and hurl everything from trees to troop transports with their minds, why in Christ’s name would they try to take them down with conventional gun-toting infantry? They’ve got drones, for Chrissake: why not use robots to shoot the kids from above the treeline? Why not snipe them from a safe distance with tranquilizers, or gas the forest, or do any of a dozen other things that could take down their targets without exposing ill-equipped flesh-and-blood to mutant countermeasures?
  2. When said quarry can freeze flesh unto shattering with their breath, summon the very undergrowth to strangle and entangle pursuers, spit out bullets, and hurl everything from trees to troop transports with their minds, why in Christ’s name do they not do any of that until half of them have already been captured and Logan himself is half-dead? We’re not talking about do-goody pacifists here; these aren’t adults who’ve made a conscious decision to eschew violence for the greater good. These are ten-year-old kids— with all the emotional maturity that implies— who’ve been trained as supersoldiers almost from the moment of conception. Back in the first act Laura must have single-handedly killed twenty heavily-armed cyber-enhanced psycho killers with no weapons but what God and the bioengineers gave her. So why are these superkillers running like frightened animals in the first place? Why aren’t they laying traps, implementing countermeasures, fighting back? They know how to do it; hell, they don’t know how to do anything else.

The answer, I’m guessing, is because writer James Mangold bought into the same bullshit allegory that so many others have: no matter the canon, no matter their powers, these kids have to be victims, even though the script has already shown us that they definitively are not. They must be oppressed and disempowered by an intolerant world, because that’s what the whole X-Men allegory thing is all about.

And in buying into that narrative, Mangold renders Logan’s ultimate sacrifice pretty much meaningless.  The children he died protecting were far more powerful than he was: numerically, psionically, even at simple hand-to-hand combat. If they hadn’t been shackled by allegorical fiat they could have won that battle before Logan ever showed up.

Which means that Logan died for nothing. And that’s not some nerdy quibble along the lines of the transporter doesn’t work like that; it’s a betrayal of nuanced characters we’ve come to care about, all for the sake of a mutants-as-victims narrative that never made any sense to begin with.

If the screenwriters had to indulge their victim mindset, they could have done so without sacrificing story logic or throwing away two hours of character development. Here’s a thought: Posit that mutant powers only manifest at puberty (something established way back at the start of the franchise, with Rogue’s first adolescent kiss). A few of these kids are verging on adulthood, but not most; they’re still vulnerable to men with guns.  They’re being hunted not for what they can do now, but for what they’ll be able to do if allowed to live another year or two.  Let the stress of being cornered, of seeing their fellows mowed down, the sheer adrenaline response of fight/flight be the trigger that activates just a few of the older ones, allows their powers to manifest: not in full-on crush-all-opposition mode, but just enough to hold on until Logan arrives to turn the tide.  It would change very little in terms of pacing or screen time; it would change everything in terms of earned emotional impact.

But no. What we’re given is a third-act chase scene almost as dumb as the climax of Star Trek Beyond. Which is a shame, because Star Trek Beyond was a loud dumb movie from the start; one more dumb element was par for the course. Logan, by way of contrast, is a thoughtful, melancholy rumination on the whole superhero premise; it remains, for the most part, a thing of beauty.

Too bad about that big festering pustule on the forehead.

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