I was interested in this because I found Watts to be one of the most fascinating sci-fi writers I’ve read, with wide-ranging concepts and expertise. Interestingly, the copy came to me about pandemic isolation time, when I suddenly lost my interest in anything challenging. However, it turns out Watts’ ‘angry tumor’ approach rather worked for me.
‘Peter Watts’ contains a curated version of at least fifty of his blog posts, so presumably you could find them online, with effort. As such, I would have appreciated organization to the collection. As it is, it feels scatter-shot, jumping from personal history to police brutality to movie reviews, to psionic abilities to his cats. I’m reminded of Ursula LeGuin’s blog collection No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters and it’s more thematic organization.
Applying my own advice, I’ll help potential readers know what it contains. A fair number of the posts reflect on personal history and events, which was certainly troubled. Watts had a complicated upbringing and certainly has come by his negative view of humanity by route of both experience and learning. ‘Everything I Needed to Know About Christmas I Learned From My Grandma’ starts off the collection, with a second-hand billfold gift from grandma. ‘The Least Unlucky Bastard’ talks a bit about his experience with a flesh-eating Strep infection and his ICU stay. ‘The Black Knight. In Memoriam’ is an ode to his brother, someone he cared for but was unable to see often, partly due to Watt’s being prohibited from entering the U.S. after a dispute with aggressive U.S. border guards (apparently covered in more detail elsewhere).
Another second would fall under socio-economic activism, such as ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ when he discusses the homeless schizophrenic man who has been squatting on/near his property, ‘And So It Begins,’ and ‘Dress Rehersal’ where he talks about the role of police and revolution. ‘Life in the FAST Lane‘ talks about the problems with scanning technology at airports and allowable failure rates–“if a test with a 99% accuracy rate has flagged someone as a terrorist, what are the odds the test is wrong?” But at San Francisco airport, 1% equals 1,200 a day will be flagged as potential terrorists.
A surprising number are musings on a particular sci-fi show or movie. Blade Runner 2049, for instance, Logan, and the Thing from 2011.
There are some musings on science and the impact of people on the planet, such as ‘Viva Zika,’ musing on Zika and population control. It’s an interesting piece, and while history has not borne out it’s impact, it would have been an interesting solution to the Homo sapiens problem. ‘Smashing the Lid off Pandora’s Box‘ are thoughts post International Panel on Climate Change and the pathology of hope.
Along these lines are thoughts on humanity and thought. ‘The Limits of Reason’ explores how one can’t really logic out of arguments with believers, first tried on some Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to his door. He hypothesizes that this is partly because we have developed logic “not to glean truth from falsehood but to help use win arguments;to make others do as we want; to use as a weapon“ (p.216). In support, he points out the theory of ‘confirmation bias,’ the ‘Semmelweis reflex’ that makes us reject contradictory findings, and the ‘backfire effect,’ that makes us become more confident as we are presented with greater opposing proofs. Two more dispiriting studies come up. One, from Kruger and Dunning¹ found that incompetent people regard themselves as smarter than others, tending to regard smart people as especially stupid, and continue to believe this even when shown proof otherwise. The second, by Xie et al² “suggests that a belief held by as few as 10% of a population can, over time, become the societal norm so long as that original 10% is sufficiently closed-minded and fantatical” (p.217). The citations for this one are interesting and come up a couple of times.
Some posts are pure scientific meandering. I can see it now; he sees a journal update and is motivated to do a little internet follow-up of is how the process begins. ‘Dolphinese,’ muses on whether or not dolphins have language, but I found those surprisingly unsatisfying. There were some references, but what mostly seemed to happen is that Watts read an article and then went off on a little riff, or it spawned a little research project of his own, and then was moved to write up his thoughts in a post, so it really wasn’t anything too in-depth. The dolphin post, for instance, just has three references, so it isn’t like it’s a particularly strongly researched post. ‘Extraordinary Claims’ is about psionic abilities and clearly he was a lot more interested in that, because it had eleven references.
And some posts–not many, thank goodness, are about how we need to ‘recalibrate’ hope. These are hard but interesting reads. To be fair, he realizes what he is saying. He just things we’re better served with a dose of reality. I, on the other hand, would have to point out everything he said earlier about how … complicated… people are.
Visual side note: Trade paperback is lovely, from the detail work in the table of contents to the block-print icons leading off each piece.
I’d call it two-and-a-half stars. Interesting insights into a really, really interesting author, but nothing as profound or moving for me as Ursula LeGuin’s similar work.
¹’Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 77(6), Dec. 1999
²’Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities.’ Phys. Rev F.84011130 (2011).