Monday, November 06, 2006

Biology in Peter Watts' Universe: Vampires, Madonnas and more

Commenters to my Vampire and Zombie post have recommended Peter Watts' Blindsight. It's on my "to read" list, but I thought I would point out a couple of interesting blog posts and web sites about Blindsight and the biology of Watts' universe. Because Watts has used his background in biology to construct plausible species in his novels, it's especially fun to read about.

Blogger Jeremy Byrne links to Watt's PowerPoint presentation (large swf file) on the creation of cryptogenic vampires by "FizerPharm". It's a humorous version of real pharmaceutical company presentations, including a bullet point list of the restrictions on their funding from "Texans for a Wholesome America", the mandatory fluorescently-stained neuron photos, company slogans on every page ("Flexible ethics for a complex world", "Trust Profit Deniability", "Taming the Nightmares of Yesterday for a Better Tomorrow"), and slides titled "Why eat humans anyway?", "Survival of the least inadequate", "Vampires: Myths and Realities" (Myth: Can't enter a house uninvited, Reality: Can't enter a house with open eyes), "Future Promise: Vampires in the Workplace" and much more. It's very funny if you've ever sat through such a presentation (or, I suspect, even if you haven't).

The slide show is part of the official Rifters web site, which has extensive background on the biology of Watts' universe, including the Rifters in Starfish, the ├čehemouths in Maelstrom, the Madonnas in Behemoth, and, of course, the Vampires in Blindsight. You can even read Starfish and Maelstrom free online or as downloadable pdf files. Cool stuff!

Watts' described his vision for the vampire species in a 2004 interview. It was the rise of civilization that originally caused the vampires to originally go extinct:
Unfortunately, their pattern-matching wetware is inextricably linked to a defect in the retinal receptors that detect right angles. Euclidean geometries trigger a form of incapacitating epilepsy in vampires, which must be controlled with seizure-suppressants. Sarasti has a serious drug habit.

(Just to add to the above: It was this very linkage that led to their extinction. It developed in a natural fractal environment without Euclidean geometry, and hence wasn't weeded out before it got fixed in the population via genetic drift. When baseline Homo figured out how to build huts, it was the beginning of the end. With the development of straight-line architecture--specifically, intersecting right angles-- vampires found themselves unable to approach the domiciles of their prey without spazzing out. You can be damn sure the prey figured out how to use *that* to their advantage.)
Technovelgy has entries for several biology-related items in Starfish: cultured brains called "head cheese or smart gel, the medical mantis and the "almost alive" diveskin.
The blog Pinnochio Theory discusses the sociobiological aspects of Watts' book.
Watts is a hardcore sociobiologist, in outlook. Which is often something that drives me up a wall. But he has enough conceptual audacity that he makes it work, chillingly and powerfully, in Blindsight.
On Watts' zombie characters:
I will skip over their biophysiology, though Watts is amazingly inventive in this respect (he is helped by his background as a marine biologist, who is therefore with all sorts of weird invertebrates). What really distinguishes the aliens is that they are zombies: not in the George Romero, living dead sense, but in the sense that the term has been used by cognitive science and the philosophy of mind. A zombie is a being who acts just as you or I do, who shows clear signs of language, intelligence, and so on; but who is inwardly devoid of sentience or consciousness.
Read the whole post for a fascinating discussion.
Finally, the Vector editorial blog, Torque Control, discusses Blindsight in the context of hard science fiction.

I am looking forward to delving into the Watts' universe.

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  1. Anonymous7:42 PM

    Hey, I like your site and was wondering if you wanted to do a link exchange.

    Let me know what you think:

  2. Interesting blog. I don't really do link exchanges, but I'll keep my eye on it for biology-related posts.


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