Sunday, October 28, 2018

Review: Peter Watts, Beyond the Rift (2013)

First published in Interzone #251.

Thirteen very gripping stories – sometimes gripping with uncomfortable vigor – including a generous helping of near-future thought experiments about neuroscience, consciousness and identity (‘The Eyes of God,’ ‘Hillcrest v. Velikovsky,’ ‘Mayfly,’ etc.). ‘The Things,’ a fanfic of John Carpenter’s film The Thing, might also be lurking in that camp. It’s ‘told from the point-of-view of the alien,’ though the story plays pretty violently with the notion of point-of-view.

Watts chooses a religious term – ‘communion’ – to describe the way the Thing’s singular self synchs with its various offshoots. Religion gradually emerges as the collection’s most pervasive preoccupation, rearing its ugly Godhead in some surprising places, like ‘The Things,’ but also built into central conceits of several stories. For instance, there’s the alternate history ‘A Word for Heathens,’ one of the collection’s highlights (even if its neuroscience feels a bit dated: Koren and Persinger’s solenoids-based ‘God helmet’ started sprouting question-mark antlers shortly after the story’s publication (research into the neurological foundations of religious experience continues – injecting radioactive isotope into Buddhists etc.)).

Two longer, fairly God-free adventures form the collection’s real backbone (or exoskeleton). ‘The Island’ is about a cyborg starship crew on a golem-esque interminable assignment, roused from cryo by their dodgy TomTom to confront an anomalous megastructure, whilst unintelligible posthuman peril teems in the mouths of wormholes in their wake. Watts traces the outlines of these venerable space opera tropes with a peremptory, almost contemptuous deftness, then fills the rest of his canvas with emergent weirdness of peculiar raw intensity. It won a Hugo: good. ‘A Niche’ is a tense, moreish tale of deep-sea geothermal engineers under a lot of pressure at work. It was absorbed into Watts’ Rifters Trilogy but still works superbly as a standalone, as indeed it would as reality TV.

In the brutal, relentless, dystopian afterword, we join Watts as he Googles himself, resists his caricature as a miserabilist or misanthrope, reflects critically on his writing (“I can’t write real villains [...] I can’t do fundamentalists very well either” (220)), sets the record straight regarding his violent, unjust and utterly lawful persecution by the US Justice System, and finally positions himself as “an angry optimist” (217/230). Despite the spiky and declamatory tone, you never get that sense of ‘like it or lump it’ which is so common when authors explore their own weaknesses.

Whilst Watts is an insightful critic (or troll) of his own work, he is also a rather sly one. Watts characterises ‘Nimbus’ as “pure unresearched brain fart” (218), a typically sharp précis – insofar as the story imagines vast, gaseous sentience emerging in the firmament of the near future, posing the provocative question: what if our planet could fart brains? – but also disingenuous. Humanity’s massacre by the wrathful-deity-cum-planetary-immune-response is the background, and Watts knows he could have plastered the foreground with feelgood. Instead he’s gone for the one about the daughter who is more-or-less indifferent to her dad’s likely suicide. Ecological catastrophe swells the generation gap into a gulf no schmaltz will traverse.

By the time the afterword is referring to the traumatised cyborgs of ‘A Niche’ as “mermaids,” I know Watts has his lung firmly in his cheek and a bioluminescent photophore lure twinkling in his eye. In short, the readers who call Watts’ work ‘dark’ probably do so for reasons different to those the afterword addresses – and I think he knows that.

First, there’s the enthusiasm for scientistic reduction of aspects of stuff which – perhaps because it’s stuff that’s intrinsically resilient to existing scientific ways of knowing, or because the stakes on a botched scientific account of this stuff are so high, or because there’s some pragmatic value in occasionally treating this stuff as scientifically inexplicable – should maybe be treated gingerly, tenderly, with a bit more negative capability. All that’s hardwired into me is an alarm bell which trills when I see the word ‘hardwired.’

Second, there’s rhetoric: Watts often relies on visceral, corporeal and violent connotations to manage the ebb and flow of his prose energy. The first page describes the “half-finished lifeboat cannibalized from the viscera of dead helicopters” (1). Sometimes it’s sexual violence – like the concluding moments of ‘The Things’ (19), or, from ‘The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald’: “The wound swallows the coroner’s rubberised hands like some huge torn vagina, its labia clotted and crystallised” (67).

We all live our lives through approximations – scientific, humanistic, other – and often what prioritises certain models at a certain moment is simply tact. Or else, it’s deliberate anti-tact. It’s the late timor mortis conturbat me of the gothic, whose object is to discomfit, disquiet, to stir up a dread-like awe. Sometimes Watts with his moralist, scientist or philosopher hat on will collaborate with Watts with his gothic or horror or thriller hat on. Tit-for-tat, Watts hats! But just as frequently, their interests collide. Then they’re hardwired to fight. And I have the model to prove it.