AE Interviews: Peter Watts

Peter Watts lives in Toronto and has received press primarily for two things. The first is his bold decision to make the vast majority of his work (including both Blindsight and “The Island”) available for free online under a Creative Commons license. The second is an altercation he was involved in crossing the Canada–United States Border in December 2009. It was in the aftermath of his trial, which resulted in a felony conviction for obstruction, that he gave AE this interview. At the time, “The Island” was a nominee for a Hugo Award, an honour it has since won.

Photo By Johan Angelmark, Wikimedia Commons

Peter Watts lives in Toronto and has received press primarily for two things. The first is his bold decision to make the vast majority of his work (including both Blindsight and “The Island”) available for free online under a Creative Commons license. The second is an altercation he was involved in crossing the Canada–United States Border in December 2009. It was in the aftermath of his trial, which resulted in a felony conviction for obstruction, that he gave AE this interview. At the time, “The Island” was a nominee for a Hugo Award, an honour it has since won.

AE: Your fiction has always had a very dark undertone to it. I hope it doesn’t offend you if I describe it as fundamentally pessimistic; an unapologetic look at a world where the best we can hope for is that the universe does not choose to be unusually cruel in how it kills us.

Peter Watts: You think? I’d argue that my fiction is almost childishly optimistic, at least in its portrayal of human nature. I mean, sure, I thumbnail some pretty dire environmental predicaments; how can I not? That stuff is happening now. But have you noticed the paucity of actual villains in my work? Everyone has an excuse; everyone is trying to do the best they can. The corporate executives who kill thousands are only doing that to try and save millions of others; the homicidal sexual psychopath is so worried about the immorality of his impulses that he swears off sex with real people completely, for fear of hurting someone. He only turns into a monster when some third party neurochemically destroys his conscience — again, with the noblest intentions. There are no Dick Cheneys and Dubya Bushes in my fiction, no unrepentant assholes who’d gladly feed the planet into a wood chipper for no better reason than to line the pockets of their oil industry buddies. There are no genocidal hate-mongers, no money-grubbing televangelists. You will encounter the occasional thug with a badge who just likes to beat the shit out of people, but they’re peripheral characters, low on the totem pole; they don’t call the shots. The characters at the center of my novels, protagonist and antagonist alike, are generally just trying to make the best of a horrible situation.

AE: It would be easy to see how your recent legal trouble could feed into a cynical worldview. Are Sunflowers and State of Grace going to be as dark as were Blindsight, “The Island” and “The Things”? And would you say that the arrest, trial and conviction have affected the tone of those books?

Watts: They’ve affected (or perhaps merely reconfirmed) a lot of my attitudes towards life in general, but I’d hope my novels don’t change too much as a result. The thugs I ran into at the border were, for all their belligerence, pretty boring characters from a narrative standpoint. I could trot them out as extras (I already did, in fact, almost a decade ago when I was writing Maelstrom), but they don’t have nearly the depth to warrant much dramatic focus. Cardboard characters are pretty abundant in the real world, but they don’t make for very interesting storytelling.

AE: With the ongoing trial, I imagine it has been difficult to concentrate on anything else. How have the arrest and trial affected your ability to write? Have your in-progress novels been stalled by the incident? Or, conversely, has writing helped you get through it all intact?

Watts: My whole damn life has been stalled — and as I implied in my answer to your last question, I didn’t even really get much narrative inspiration out of the deal because the whole experience, while traumatic enough, was so goddamned banal for the most part. I will, of course, be able to write with more verisimilitude about what it feels like to be pepper-sprayed, shackled, and nearly suffocated. That’s something. But my writing (not to mention my consulting gigs) pretty much stopped dead over the past five months. I’m actually supposed to be working on a short story now, due for the end of the month. I still have no idea what it’s going to be about.

What got me through it intact is the support of a thousand friends and allies I never knew I had; I would have been totally fucked if not for that army at my back, and I’m probably going to be thanking those troops for the rest of the year.

AE: Looking at the whole thing from the outside it seems obvious that your arrest, trial and conviction have been one continuous miscarriage of justice. It would be easy to vilify everyone involved in bringing it about — the border guards, the judges, the jurors — and yet, on your blog you have gone to great lengths to emphasize that, with very few exceptions, you think that it is the system that has failed here rather than the individual people in it. I was particularly struck by the way you came to the defense of the jurors who convicted you when the tide of internet opinion turned harshly against them. So, if there are no Bad Guys in this story, just how did it all happen? In what way is the system broken? What, if anything can we do to keep this same fate from befalling others?

Watts: Oh, there are bad guys, all right. [Customs and Border Protection Officer Julie] Behrendt, the woman who initiated contact, was belligerent and sarcastic from the time she opened her mouth; she set the tone for the whole encounter. [Officer Andrew] Beaudry came charging over and inserted himself into a situation which, by his own admission, he didn’t understand. [During the trial,] the jury threw out their testimony because, in one juror’s words, “they couldn’t get their stories straight.” There’s also a prosecutor who claimed that I had a previous felony conviction in Canada (which I do not) and the author of a presentencing report which listed several things in my favour, and admitted that there were no negatives he could cite at all — and then went on to recommend the maximum allowable sentence, without explanation. Perhaps these people were simply dancing on strings pulled from higher up — my lawyer found it “unusual” that the body and the conclusions of that report were signed by different people, for example — but in either case, there were villains in the piece.

But. Not everyone was a bad guy. One of the border guards involved in the dispute was courteous throughout, and even during my encounters with her afterwards. As far as I could tell she was not dishonest on the stand (she claimed to have had her head down during the entire altercation, and to have witnessed none of the offenses I was alleged to have committed. So I’m not going to demonise anyone who happens to have a badge. (On the other hand, I sure as shit aren’t going to default to trusting them either, not after this.)

AE: You have continued to write short fiction in the years since your novels began to see print, culminating in “The Island” being nominated for the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. At AE, we believe that short fiction is a fundamental part of the genetic makeup of science fiction and a big part of our mandate is making sure that there remains a market for it, particularly for Canadian writers. I’d be interested in knowing if you have any thoughts on the subject. Do you think that short science fiction offers something unique that can’t be delivered by longer form works?

Watts: For sure. It’s a tired cliche that science fiction is “the literature of ideas,” and a lot of science fictional ideas for all their coolness don’t have the strength to carry a whole novel. Short stories serve an essential purpose as the one-line jokes of science fiction.

They’re also a valuable proving ground for novels-in-progress. I frequently play around with ideas at shorter, proof-of-principle lengths to figure out whether they justify longer treatment; if those practise sprints net me a few bucks on their own merits, so much the better. Starfish started out as a short story. You can see the ghosts of a couple of my shorter works poking their heads up here and there throughout Blindsight. And sometimes, a perfectly coherent novel can be built by bolting together standalone shorts pretty much as-is. Bradbury did it with The Martian Chronicles. Stross did it with Accelerando. I’m trying to do the same thing with Sunflowers, of which “The Island” is only one chapter.

The dark side of the equation, of course, is that perfectly good short stories can also get hauled out, stretched thin, and padded into novel-length works that really don’t justify the extra verbiage.

AE: You’ve released a lot of your writing, including “The Island,” to be read for free online under a Creative Commons license. You’ve credited this decision with saving your career. There’s no denying that making your work freely available, combined with maintaining an active Internet presence, has brought your writing to a large online audience that might otherwise never have found it. But the more surprising thing to many is that giving the digital editions of your books away for free has had a direct and measurable positive effect on sales of the print editions. In the case of Blindsight particularly, you’ve said that print sales tripled in the weeks following the release of the free online edition. Do you think that other authors should be learning from this? Do you think it would benefit writers, readers and publishers if Creative Commons licensing of digital editions became the norm? Or do you think that your situation, with Behemoth being so poorly marketed and with Blindsight’s undeserved obscurity, was uniquely suited to that solution?

Watts: I think there’s a lesson to be learned, certainly; but the lesson is not necessarily “Give your stuff away.” It’s “Get noticed.”

I wasn’t expecting Blindsight’s sales to take off in the wake of setting it free. I was already resigned to watching it tank. Blindsight was garnering some pretty ecstatic reviews, but nobody could find the damn thing in bookstores because of a miniscule print run, and a skip on the part of one of the two major book retailers on the continent. Because of those reviews I figured that people would be inclined to read it if they could find it — and if the only way they could find it was if I gave it away, well, so be it. The only scenarios I envisioned were of a commercial failure that nobody had ever heard of, versus a commercial failure that at least had the potential for wide readership. I was as surprised as anyone when it actually started to sell.

But the point is, if I’d simply built it, they wouldn’t have come. My website’s pretty obscure, and it was even more so back then. The reason going CC worked so well was because other people — Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, John Scalzi, that whole crew — found it newsworthy, and they boosted the signal way further than I ever could have. It wasn’t as though hordes of readers had been saying “Jeez, Watts has a new novel out but I don’t want to pay 25 bucks to read it” — rather, hordes of readers were saying “Who the fuck is Peter Watts? Never heard of him before. Oh, novelist. Really good reviews. Maybe I’ll look past that crappy cover art …”

I was not so much lowering the price point as raising awareness — doing the Creative Commons thing was merely the means to the end. And of course, the more people jump on the CC bandwagon, the less newsworthy it’s going to be. So it worked for me, that time; it’s worked for others (Cory, of course, is the real pioneer in this whole thing). But in a couple of years we could be in a position where the reading public is used to getting its words for free, but individual authors don’t get any whuffie boost for feeding that appetite because everyone’s doing it. And that brings us back to the very real question of how the artists get compensated. We’re not the Grateful Dead; it’s not like people are going to read our free bootlegs and then flock to attend live readings at $50 a pop. We’re gonna have to do other things to increase profile.

Musical artists like Trent Reznor and Amanda Palmer are doing fine with special collector’s editions and personal memorabilia. Cory’s doing the same thing with his latest project, an experiment in self-publishing that involves boutique editions. I don’t think I’m anywhere near that yet. Not quite sure what I’ll end up doing.

But I will think of something.

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