Many of your stories make no bones about addressing difficult social and/or political issues. With “Collateral,” you shine the light on combat, veteran’s services, PTSD, politics, information technology, the media, and social awareness. Do you have any military or veteran’s services experience?
I do not. I do know a couple of generous vets—Steve Perry, Jordon Blanch by name—who beta-read the manuscript, to make sure I didn’t get the military details egregiously wrong. Steve’s Canadian, so I got all the appropriate Canadian military ranks, acronyms, and power structures from him.
As for the more personal elements of the story, though, I was just posing all the way.
The story starts with punch to the gut, a storm of confusion and sensory impressions that immediately hooks the reader. What inspired you to explore a story of combat, the aftermath, and a soul struggling to survive?
Mundanely enough, it started when Neil Clarke approached me to contribute to his cyborg anthology. So obviously cyborgs had to figure in there somewhere. And a few years earlier I’d written a story called “Malak,” told entirely from the POV of an autonomous drone that’s been outfitted with an algorithm that factors civilian casualties into its targeting choices. “Malak” follows the evolution of that drone from reflexive calculation to a sort of moral agency. It never “rebels” per se—I really wanted to avoid the hoary old cliché of the AI-that-transcends-its-program—but it does figure out how to accomplish ethical goals within those mathematical constraints.
I like “Malak,” but the issues it explores—free will, quantification of moral imperatives, the ethics of war crimes—you don’t exhaust those with one lousy short story. So I crafted “Collateral” as a kind of thematic and narrative mirror image, a left brain to “Malak”’s right. Where “Malak” tells the story of coldly logical hardware developing a concept of (for want of a better word) mercy—in a sense, becoming more human—“Collateral” tells the story of a fallible, flesh-and-blood human becoming more of a machine. Each protagonist sheds something essential to what they started out as, each follows a trajectory opposite to the other—yet ultimately, they both end up in the same place. They both become precisely, deterministically ethical. And as fate would have it, in both cases the most ethical course just happens to be the one that racks up a big honking death toll.
Neither soul “survives,” to bring it back to your original question. At least, not the way we like to think of souls. But the thing that replaces it is a lot purer.
You don’t cut corners. Each character is fully realized and complex, whether it’s Becker’s anxieties and rage, Sabrie’s perception and diligence, or the many politicians and their varied stances on the events of the war. When writing, how conscious are you of how the characters shape and influence the narrative?
Well, first off, thanks for describing my characters as “fully realized and complex”; I can think of a lot of people who’d disagree with you on that score. I might even be one of them. I think character development is probably the weakest implement in my personal toolbox, because I tend to come at writing from the direction of the idea to be explored: I think I’ll write a story about the neuroengineering properties of yoghurt—now, what kind of protagonist can best illustrate my theme? And I try to layer complex personalities onto those templates, really I do, but the very process always runs the risk of reducing your characters to mere mouthpieces for a particular point of view. In contrast, consider a show such as Breaking Bad; you rarely encounter a plot twist where you think “huh, the character had to act that way to serve the plot.” Rather, the plot always seems to emerge organically from the characters. I would like to write more like that.
This is one of the reasons I married my wife, incidentally. She’s way better at character-informed storytelling than I am. I am hoping that some day, some of that might rub off on me.
Conflict comes in many forms. One thing that struck me about “Collateral” was Becker’s objectification by the military and the media, stripping away her identity as surely as they burnt out her feelings of remorse. In the end, Becker’s final act reads as much as a means of reclaiming her own identity as building a foundation for the future. As a writer, how would you define a successful narrative conflict in a story?
I don’t think Becker has much of a future to build a foundation for. She’s not getting out of there alive any more than the people she kills, and she knows it—but if she can set the cyborgization of the military back by even a few years, put off that day when nobody is ever held culpable for any atrocity anywhere because it was all just a tragic software glitch—she considers it a price worth paying. Her own algos tell her that far more lives will ultimately be saved than those she’s ended.
And maybe that’s the essence of what I consider a successful narrative conflict in a story: It’s a conflict that extends beyond what the characters are feeling and jumps into the head of a discomfited reader. Because let’s face it, the end of “Collateral” is pretty much the platonic ideal of Spock’s famous platitude, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Everybody loves that line. It’s warm and soft and fuzzy, and redolent of noble self-sacrifice—but there’s nothing in that sentiment that says it is the self that has to be sacrificed. If the needs of the many do in fact outweigh the needs of the few, then how “the few” feels about that doesn’t really enter into the equation. It’s the difference between ethics and morality. Morality agrees with Spock’s platitude, but only until it thinks about the implications; then it gets squicked out and recoils because you can’t just kill innocent people like that, it ain’t right. Ethics is more algorithmic: Here is the plan that results in the greatest net number of lives saved. Implement it.
So I guess I’d define a successful narrative conflict as one in which the reader, finishing the tale, says No, that can’t be. It’s just wrong—but cannot tell you why it’s wrong, cannot argue the gut feeling. A successful narrative conflict makes you squirm at a dissonant bottom line you can’t disprove, even though you desperately want to. Something that forces you to question your own dearly held preconceptions.
That’s not the only successful narrative conflict, of course. There are plenty of others that work just fine. But that’s the kind that I feel most proud of, on those occasions when I can pull it off.
What writers get your heart racing when you want to get your fiction on?
If you’re asking whose style I wanted to emulate back when I was growing up, that’s easy: John Brunner. Samuel Delany. Robert Silverberg. William Gibson. (Note I’m talking style here, not substance. I loved Niven for his aliens and PKD for his hallucinogenic ideas and Margaret Atwood for her prose and insights into character—and I don’t think even Gibson managed to jam as many cool ideas-per-page into a book as Alfred Bester did in The Stars My Destination—but while I admire a whole bunch of writers, I’ve never especially wanted to write like most of them.)
If you’re asking who I’d read for pleasure today, if I ever had time to read for pleasure anymore: China Miéville. David Nickle. Richard Morgan, when I’m in angry mode. I’m really getting into this latest one from Charlie Stross. I’ve just discovered Lavie Tidhar; I’m definitely keeping an eye on him.
And nobody’s going to believe I’m sincere when I say this because she’s my wife, but have I mentioned how much I admire Caitlin Sweet’s ability to wed cool characters to beautiful prose while actually telling a decent story?
What future projects wait on the horizon for Peter Watts?
Intelligent Design, a near-future technothriller featuring sapient stock markets and genetically-engineered giant squid. (Actually giant genetically-engineered Humboldt Squid, although I seem to be the only one who actually cares about that distinction. Kids these days.) I’ve been wanting to write it for the past five years and have finally got started. After that, Omniscience, the concluding volume of the Blindsight / Echopraxia sequence. However, thanks to the spectacular implosion of a recent writing project, I have more free time in the immediate future than I was expecting.
So I think I might write a few short stories to get me back in the mood.
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