I asked Peter Watts, author of the brilliant and genre-redefining science fiction novels Blindsight and Echopraxia, a few questions about his own working methods and the genre (or genres) he works in. Here are his responses.
TeleRead: Do you see any ingrown shortcomings in the genre/subgenre you work in, and do you try to correct those?
Peter Watts: I don’t think I’m competent to answer this question; I’m not sufficiently familiar with the genre to make valid generalizations about its shortcomings. One of the few things that really bugs me about my life at this point is that I don’t get much chance to read for pleasure any more; I’m not making a good enough living at this gig to be able to afford six months off to get caught up on all the books in my to-read pile. So those books that I do read tend to be either highly lauded, or foisted upon me by people hustling for blurbs – neither of which comprises a representative sample of the field as a whole. I will say that the truly crappy stuff I read comprises significantly less than 90% of the whole, which kind of proves the skew (assuming that Sturgeon’s Law is still in effect).
Based on that skewed sample, though, I might wish that more people took bigger chances. I mean, it’s nice to see Ancillary Justice having fun with gender pronouns, but back in the day Michael Moorcock wrote a novel portraying Jesus of Nazareth as a drooling imbecile usurped by a tormented time-traveler. Theodore Sturgeon wrote a pro-incest story, not because he was actually in favor of that (he wasn’t, right?), but purely as a challenge, a thought experiment. Suppose this were true: how would that play out? I can’t help wonder if we haven’t grown more timid since then.
Again, I’m abysmally ignorant of my own field, so maybe such envelopes are still being pushed. Maybe someone could point me in the right direction.
TeleRead: How do you go about transforming data dumps and theoretical excursions into flowing prose? How much of a part does a writer’s ear play?
Peter Watts: Some would argue that I don’t do that. It takes about thirty seconds of Googling to find a whole subpopulation of SF fans complaining about my turgid infodumps, and to some extent I’ll grant the point. However, I do try my best to minimize the infodumps – and I’ve resorted to a couple of different tricks to do that.
Ideally you can slip the necessary information in through inference. Rather than having Rod and Dawn tutorialise each other on a subject they both already know about – solely for the sake of reader edification – have them talk about it, around it. Let the reader glean context in bits and pieces. If that’s too tricky, outsource the heavy lifting to Google and Wikipedia. I’d much rather have a character offhandedly mention “trolley paradoxes” without elaboration – confident that readers will be able to look up the term in seconds if they don’t already know what it means – than drop some naive stand-in onto the stage to ask “And just what is a ‘trolley paradox’, Professor?” every time a new subject comes up. (Granted, some readers don’t want to have to click those extra links to look things up. Some readers would rather be spoon-fed. But let’s face it; those people aren’t gonna be interested in a Peter Watts novel to begin with.)
Of course, sometimes the underpinning background is so vital, or so obscure, that you pretty much have to spell it out. In such cases, I’ve learned that torture is your friend.
Want to know know the Grid Authority’s analysis of our protag’s motives? You can have a bunch of people sitting around a boardroom talking about it (which is what happened during the first draft of Maelstrom), or you can have one of your characters enduring a painful, cavity-scouring decontamination procedure to cleanse him of a doomsday infection, while being interrogated by his superiors on the other side of the sterile field (which is what happened in the second). Need to convey a bunch of dry boring crap about density-dependent reproductive responses in microbial ecosystems? You can have someone sitting in her lab, watching her cultures and thinking back to the courses she took in grad school – or you can make her the victim of a sexual psychopath who plays sadistic little games, asking questions just at the limits of her expertise and hurting her whenever she gets the answer wrong (which is how it went down in Behemoth). Need to deliver a three-page neurophilosophical infodump at the climax of your first-contact novel? You could always have Spock and McCoy trading debating points in the med lab. Or you can have your protagonist assaulted so violently that his very consciousness shatters into profound autism, that he perceives all external input as a deafening disembodied voice from the heavens. (That was Blindsight.) Pretty much any infodump becomes more – immediate – when you sheath it in pain and jeopardy.
The downside, of course, is the inevitable demographic that can’t see the narrative justification for introducing violence, who assume that the only possible reason would be the expression of some kind of authorial kink. I get that sometimes. So be it. I’d rather offend the few than bore the many.
TeleRead: How seriously do you take the dystopian scenarios in your fiction as either predictions or warnings?
Peter Watts: Perhaps not seriously enough. I don’t really write about dystopias at all, I’d argue. There’s a lot of environmental devastation in my novels, but it’s context, not theme. It’s just the background against which the stories play out – and I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s the most realistic background available, given current trends and the response-time lags inherent in massive systems.
But I’ve also argued that my fiction depicts a childishly positive view of Human nature. My characters do terrible things, but that’s because there aren’t any good options on the menu – thanks to the legacy issues we left them, the best they can do is kill ten to save a hundred. Even my most cardboard, mustache-twirling cut-out of a villain (post-hacked Achilles Desjardins, from the Rifters series) started out as a profoundly moral individual victimized by a gengineered microbe that turned him into a psychopath.
But there are no Dubyas or bin Ladens or Cheneys in my fiction: no one who’d exploit religious beliefs to promote genocide, or start a war for no better reason than to profit their buddies in the energy sector. My characters may be forced to do horrible things, but they’re not as a rule horrible people. Or at least, not as horrible as people tend to be in real life.
So, yeah. I’m probably being too optimistic.
TeleRead: Would you try weird fiction, horror or some similar genre some time, or do you find hard science fiction quite horrifying enough?
Peter Watts: I have trouble with these terms. I wonder if there’s too much overlap to justify their use as distinct genre labels. Take horror, for example: its defining characteristic seems to be that it sneaks under your guard and stabs you in the brain stem. Any story that induces a sense of dread, that makes you look over your shoulder or hesitate to turn out the light, is horror. Where science fiction is a genre that explores the social ramifications of scientific and technological change, Horror is a feeling.
And so, horror can be anywhere. “Alien” and Carpenter’s “The Thing” are science fiction; nobody would deny that they’re horror as well. My own Blindsight is widely regarded as Hard-SF, but I’ve just as often seen it described as “Lovecraftian horror.” Horror is diffuse, it can spread its fucking tentacles into Mainstream and Historical and SF – maybe even Romance, for all I know. (Although that would be tricky, since Romance is another feeling-based genre. How easily can you mix adoration and dread?)
Same thing with Weird. My understanding of Weird is that it’s defined by its ability to throw the reader off-kilter, imparts a sense of unease and disorientation – because Man, this is not what we’re used to. If we had to pigeonhole Weird into a larger clade I think we’d call it a branch of fantasy – but again, there’s no reason why that sense of displacement couldn’t manifest in any other genre, science fiction included.
I’d have to say: according to some, I’ve already transgressed into horror. I’d do it again in a second, if that’s where the narrative data happened to lead. Same with weird. And I could do it all without having to face the choice implicit in the question, without ever having to abandon SF.
I might draw the line at Romance, though.