Maelstrom

Morality was a chemical.

I believe it is the prescience of a work of science fiction that makes it a classic. The only way for this to happen is not by correctly predicting the future technology (though that can help), but by interweaving a strong philosophical core into the usual elements of plot, character and setting. I can think of no modern writer who does this better than Peter Watts (and perhaps Cixin Liu), who is quite simply an under-appreciated genius.

Maelstrom is the sequel to Starfish, and while it does continue the story and themes, it brings a lot more to the table. In some cases this harasses the main story, where too many characters are introduced, and too much is going on. But as a whole it still provides a nihilistic look at the world, this time without constraints. Because while Starfish was contained on the bottom of the ocean, Maelstrom takes the chaos to the surface.

Spoiler alert: Behemoth, the ancient microbe that gobbles sulphur like there’s no tomorrow (which, there won’t be) is loose and being spread by Lenie Clarke, our genetically modified and physiologically fucked-up protagonist. It’s a grim story where really grim things happen. Refugees, food shortages, technological breakdown, you name it, it’s happening. And then the apocalypse walks out of the ocean.

Even just as a science fiction story it’s a fatalistic romp, but it’s more than that. It describes the situation we find ourselves in now.

Watts discusses memes before they became cool, and indeed we can look at the memes in the book as a reflection of the memes that lead to the rise of Donald Trump. Whoa, where did that come from? It’s quite clear.

There were exceptions, of course. Every now and then a single thread persisted, grew thick and gnarled and unkillable: conspiracy theories and urban legends, the hooks embedded in popular songs, the comforting Easter-bunny lies of religious doctrine. These were the memes: viral concepts, infections of conscious thought. Some flared and died like mayflies. Others lasted a thousand years or more, tricked billions into the endless propagation of parasitic half-truths.”

Memes play an important role. Not only is there the biological agency of memes, such as in Behemoth or general evolution, but there are the sociological memes we are so used to today. Lenie Clarke is essentially hi-jacked by a computer program that vomits out memes until one sticks: that of doombringer. Isn’t that EXACTLY what has happened with Trump? Isn’t that a huge part of his popularity? When everything is fucked up, we want it to end. Another quote describing the end:

 

“What happens is, the dog’s a social animal, and it gets so lonely it actually looks forward to the shit-kicking. It asks to be kicked. It begs.”

“What are you saying?”

“Maybe everyone’s just so used to being kicked around they’ll help out anyone they think has a big enough boot.”

“Or maybe,” Perreault said, “we’re so fucking tired of being kicked that we’re finally lining up with anyone who kicks back.”

“Yeah? At what cost?”

“What do we have to lose?”

“You have no idea.”

This idea is reflected both by the general populace’s embrace of doom, but also in Lenie Clarke’s embrace of sadism. She looks to be raped, she looks to be harmed, but only to further her own end, a weird perversion of schadenfreude. She doesn’t give a fuck about a world that treated her so badly, so she’s going to return the favour. That idea of embracing the end because what do we have to lose? Well, with Trump we have no idea. (As an aside, with Hilary we have a pretty good picture.)

To further hone in on what is happening, let me take a recent quote from Ran Prieur, renowned doomer:

When people lack that skill, when they know how to focus down into “us-vs-them” but not focus back out, then there’s a ratcheting effect where former allies fight each other about ever smaller disagreements. This is socially unstable, like a black hole collapsing in on itself, or maybe like a forest fire. If you see this happening, the first move is to put the fire out, to make peace; if that fails, the second move is to isolate it and let it burn itself out, to let the enemies fight in a way that doesn’t harm the world around them; and the emergency third move is to run away.

Us vs Them is what the current American (global?) situation represents. This is very much what is happening in Maelstrom, though it is simply Order vs Chaos. Indeed, a large part of the book involves putting out fires, and when it inevitably fails as Lenie marches onward, we move towards isolation (as happens in all outbreak stories). Then, right at the end, the forces of order literally run away (in the most ironic fashion possible). Maelstrom is a book written 15 years ago that represents the very problems we face right now. That is what I call a science fiction classic.

Some more choice quotes:

“Perhaps they’d been conditioned by all the quarantines and blackouts, all the invisible boundaries CSIRA erected on a moment’s notice. The rules changed from one second to the next, the rug could get pulled out just because the wind blew some exotic weed outside its acceptable home range. You couldn’t fight something like that, you couldn’t fight the wind. All you could do was adapt. People were evolving into herd animals.

Or maybe just accepting that that’s what they’d always been.”

“It’s the pattern that matters, you see. Not the choice of building materials. Life is information, shaped by natural selection. Carbon’s just fashion, nucleic acids mere optional accessories. Electrons can do all that stuff, if they’re coded the right way. It’s all just pattern.”

 

“Sometimes she really pissed him off. ‘There’s a war going on,’ he wanted to shout. ‘And it’s not against corpses or bureaucrats or your imaginary Evil Empires; we’re fighting against a whole indifferent universe that’s coming down around our ears and you’re shitting on me because sometimes we have to accept casualties?’

Oh, and it’s depiction of a future internet is just fucking perfect.

 

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