Agony Column Interview


Tripping the Rifters
An Interview With Writer Peter Watts
The Agony Column for July 6, 2004
Interview Conducted by Rick Kleffel

Peter Watts is not as unhappy as you'd expect.
I have to admit I was shocked -- shocked, I tell you -- when I actually saw Peter Watts' new novel, 'Behemoth: B-Max' in Bookshop Santa Cruz. I really, really enjoyed Watts' first two novels way back when I first started up this web venture. And in fact, I think I'd enjoy 'Starfish' and 'Maelstrom' even more now. 'Starfish' is the pitch-black story of society's most undesirable characters crammed together in a station near a volcanic rift where they unearth The End of Everything.

In 'Maelstrom' they let it rage, just because they're really pissed off and they can. Both are very dark, very detailed and dense looks that will skirt the edge of comprehensibility -- just as a vision of the real future would. Watts' vision is mind-boggling in all the right ways.

But it's been over two years since Watts' 'Maelstrom' came out. Since many of my readers may have missed both 'Starfish' and 'Maelstrom' the first time round, they're in the enviable position of being able to easily find and buy hardcover firsts of both for a reasonable price.

They're both short, compact novels, though they're dense and not perhaps a super-fast read. Still, you can start in on 'Starfish', and by the time you're reading 'Behemoth: B Max' the sequel, 'Behemoth: Seppuku' will be in the stores. [This assumes that you take your time and don't just plow through them, one after another. Believe me, you may want to to do just that.]

The cover image from 'Starfish' by Bruce Jensen.
I was frankly thinking that we might not see anything else from this talented writer. So, seeing another Lenie Clarke's personal apocalypse novel in the store, I was heartened. Even when I got home and discovered that it was only Eric the half-a-novel. Huh?

Well, it turns out that for purely fiscal reasons, reasons created by the limitations on what the big chains will buy, Watts had to split the novel that was to be the conclusion of the shall-we-call-it Behemoth Trilogy. In his 'Author's Note', he says:

"Behemoth is being released in two volumes, several months apart. I wish this were not necessary, but new policies have resulted from recent changes within the publishing industry. Henceforth, books by midlist authors will not receive wide distribution if they cost too much -- that is, if they weigh in at more than about 110,000 words. "Behemoth is over 150,000 words long, and was almost complete by the time this policy came into effect. Hacking away a third of it was not an option (believe me, I tried)...A two-part release was the only alternative.

"Fortunately, Behemoth was conceived and written as two contrasting halves from the outset…If you're the kind of reader who gets off on cliffhangers, this may work just fine for you. If not, you have been warned: you'll have to read Volume Two to see how it ends."

Curious about the very telling introduction, I wrote Peter Watts, and he was kind enough to write back and tell me -- and you, the readers -- what's up.

Bruce Jensen's cover for 'Maelstrom'.

RK: I just got a copy of this novel and I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to it.

PW: I hope you find Behemoth (Part 1) to your taste. It's closer in feel to Starfish than to Maelstrom, and as I recall you were part of the contingent that thought Starfish was kinda okay but stood up and cheered for the sequel. I myself remain vaguely dissatisfied with it--Starfish and Maelstrom both broke new conceptual ground, while Behemoth extends the ideas of the other books without introducing as many new ones. Don't get me wrong, it's an essential part of the package--it does, after all, conclude the tale. But it doesn't have the infodensity that Maelstrom had.

This ain't necessarily a bad thing--so far I know several people who think Behemoth is the best book of the three, and only one who doesn't (not that I'm counting). Publisher's Weekly really liked it (that's the only review I've seen to date). And I bet those who felt clobbered by Maelstrom's high-density fast-forwardness will find it an easier read. But then again, you were never in that group.

RK: I wanted to say that I really appreciate your introduction, which warns of the cliffhanger effect.

PW: Thanks. I kinda had to fight for that--my former agent refused to even bring the subject up with my publisher (which is one of the reasons he no longer represents me), so I had to negotiate with Tor directly. They've been doing this multipart release for a number of titles now, and not admitting to it up front, which IMO sucked the one-eyed purple trouser eel; if you gotta do it you gotta do it, but if you're going to give someone one novel for the price of two you should at least be honest about it.

I have to hand it to Hartwell, though--he was not keen on the idea, but he not only gave me the author's note, he also let me write the jacket text and agreed to put "Book 1" on the cover. He *did* make me take out "We hates Barne & Noble, we hates them forever!" from the note, but bottom line, nobody's gonna take that puppy home without knowing what they're getting into.

Peter Watts' new novel. Buy it now, read it later.
RK: I'd love to see Night Shade do a version of your trilogy with illustrations by JK Potter.

PW: Who/what is Night Shade? (I would ask the same thing about JK Potter, except I just Googled and found his home page. Oooo. That stuff is *visceral*.)

RK: I'm wondering if you can tell me anything more about the second part of the Behemoth -- no spoilers!

PW: How serious are you about the no spoilers part? Because I'd be happy to send you a Word file, or an rtf, or a pdf of the second volume if you'd like (since, after all, you guys weren't supposed to have to wait five months to finish the damn thing anyway). And if you want to see the cover art for Seppuku, check out the Real World/Gallery corner of my website. (In fact, check out my website anyway: it's completely revamped since last we spoke, with loads of new content. I think you'll like it.)

If you *want* to be deprived, well, fine. Here's a spoiler-free hint: In part one, our heroes (such as they are) get ominous hints of what's happened to the rest of the world in the five years since the events of "Maelstrom". In part two, they go back on shore and immerse themselves in it. And also reacquaint themselves with an old friend.

RK: …and why you chose to write about "space vampires". Shades of Colin Wilson and 'LifeForce' a pretty great B movie in the old tradition of Professor Quatermass. Your next novel is also described as literary -- aside from the fact that it's literature, why?

PW: I just liked the absurd juxtaposition--a "literary" novel about "space vampires"? Has kind of a Spinal Tap pretentiousness to it.

In fact, "Blindsight" is not really *about* space vampires: one of the characters just happens to be a resurrected vampire working in space. Here's my description of the guy, taken from the outline:

The cover for the forthcoming novel from Peter Watts, 'Behemoth: Seppuku'.
Jukka Sarasti: Member of an extinct cannibalistic subspecies who once hunted Homo sapiens on the prehistoric savannah. Thought to be the precursor to the vampire myth, his race has been resurrected via the reactivation of long-dormant genes from the bloodlines of sociopaths and high-functioning autistics. Vampires are highly valued for their superior analytical skills -- they did, after all, outsmart human prey for a living -- although their analyses tend to be opaque to regular folks, and their very consciousness tends towards a sort of dream-state. 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.)

(Cool, huh?)

But the book isn't about this guy. The book actually uses the conventions of a first-contact story to explore the nature and evolutionary significance of Human consciousness, and ultimately proposes that Humanity is doomed by its own self-awareness. (I'm talking sentience here, *not* intelligence--two totally different things, although most people tend to confuse them.)

And once again, I can hardly wait to see where Watts goes. He's way too smart to be in writing for the money, so you know he's doing it because 1) he's really, really good at it, and 2) he enjoys writing. This is exactly what you want from those behind your books. That and the devilish sensibility the Watts beings to the table. Here's my advice; get out your, buy up the first editions of 'Starfish' and 'Maelstrom', then hustle down to the bookstore to pick up 'Behemoth: B Max'. Wait for the conclusion, start the first one then hang on. With luck, by the time you're ready for another immersion in the caustic world of Peter Watts, he'll have those space vampires running nekkid through the streets of London.

Or not.