Posts Tagged ‘peter watts’

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension - third eye squegee

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

William Blake – The Marriage of Heaven and Hell



This same idea is seen in “The Borderlands,” an episode of the classic TV series Outer Limits. Aired in 1960 and directed by Leslie Stevens, the episode also juxtaposes science and magic, though in ways different from the occult detective genre. The episode opens, significantly, with a séance. An old, wealthy industrialist is attempting to reach his son, who has recently died in a car accident. However, not all present are convinced of the spiritual medium, and one of the assistants calls their bluff, revealing a simple cloth-and-string rig. After the failure of the séance, a discussion ensues about the possibility of reaching the dead. The others present at the table are scientists, working on the use of modern turbine power to open a gateway to the fourth dimension. Using a simple demonstration of magnets and an introductory lecture in quantum physics, the scientists convince the industrialist to use the city’s entire power plant for a brief period of time to try to open the gateway. The caveat is that whoever goes through to the other side must also search for the industrialist’s dead son.

The bulk of the episode details the experiment. Unlike the Electric Pentacle, which in form and function remains a traditional magic circle, here the magic circle is different. In the center of the lab, a large chamber serves as the platform or portal. Around it is arranged various unnamed laboratory technology – huge magnets, electron scanners, and tape-driven computers. This “black box” is the magic circle, and its techniques are not magic but laboratory physics, its animating principle not the magical word or sign but the principle of atomic magnetism. The episode documents the experimental protocols for each phase of the experiment, as laboratory technicians recite in monotone voices instructions and data, sounding like a very different type of grimoire. At the experiment’s peak, the scientist does enter into the fourth dimension, depicted in the episode as a wonderful montage worthy of Surrealist cinema. Space and time collapse in the consciousness of the scientist, but the search for the dead is for naught. If the occult detective genre still attempted to strike a balance between science and magic, Outer Limits episodes like these make a claim for bleeding-edge science as the new occultism, and electromagnetic laboratory chambers like the one we see as the new magic circles. If the lab is the circle, then the lab experiment is the magical ritual.

The Outer Limits episode ends on a note of caution, with humanity saving the world from its own inventions. But not all modern scientific incarnations of the magic circle are so filled with optimism. We get a slightly different, more menacing picture from early 20th century writers in the “weird fiction” tradition like H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s short story “From Beyond,” published in 1934 in the pulp magazine Fantasy Fan, takes the technological magic circle in a different direction. Instead of serving as a gateway or portal to other dimensions – a function still very much within the traditional magic circle – Lovecraft’s characters construct a magic circle whose function is the dissolving of the boundary between the natural and supernatural, the four-dimensional and the other-dimensional, the world revealed and the world as hidden.


In “From Beyond,” the narrator recounts the experiments of one Crawford Tillinghast, a reclusive physicist who begins to explain his rationale as follows [EXPANDED]:

“What do we know,” he had said, “of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have. I have always believed that such strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows, and now I believe I have found a way to break down the barriers. I am not joking. Within twenty-four hours that machine near the table will generate waves acting on unrecognised sense-organs that exist in us as atrophied or rudimentary vestiges. Those waves will open up to us many vistas unknown to man, and several unknown to anything we consider organic life. We shall see that at which dogs howl in the dark, and that at which cats prick up their ears after midnight. We shall see these things, and other things which no breathing creature has yet seen. We shall overleap time, space, and dimensions, and without bodily motion peer to the bottom of creation.

(in Lovecraft’s inimitable prose, italics always indicate an epiphany of cosmic horror…). Tillinghast goes on to show the narrator a device he has constructed, set up in the center of the laboratory, which Lovecraft only describes as a “detestable electrical machine, glowing with a sickly, sinister, violet luminosity.”

Seated around the device, in the center of the lab, the narrator and Tillinghast re-enact the magic circle of Faustus and his later incarnations. When Tillinghast turns on the device, the narrator experiences an influx of color and shape. Quickly, however, the trip begins to turn sour: “At another time I felt huge animate things brushing past me and occasionally walking or drifting through by supposedly solid body.”

Finally, the narrator “sees” around him that which has always existed but which human senses forever obscure: “Foremost among the living objects were great inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony with the vibrations from the machine. They were present in loathsome profusion, and I saw to my horror that they overlapped; that they were semi-fluid and capable of passing through one another and through what we know as solids.” The horror of this “cosmic” and “preter-natural” realization is then doubled by another more tangible horror. As Tillinghast exclaims to the narrator, “Don’t move,’ he cautioned, ‘for in these rays we are able to be seen as well as to see.” Tillinghast, who by now has gone far into mad-scientist territory, begins to prophesize of “ultimate things” stealthily approaching “from beyond.”

With Lovecraft, we see several transformations to the magic circle. First, as with the Electric Pentacle, the magic circle’s function is inverted – it now serves to focus and intensify the strange, enigmatic appearance of the “hiddenness” of the world. And it does so not through traditional magic, but through the modern sorcery of science; instead of referencing alchemy or necromancy, Lovecraft’s characters use the language of optics, physics, and the fourth dimension. There is also a second transformation to the magic circle, which is that science and technology are not just used to upgrade the magic circle – they are the magic circle. This distinguishes the device in “From Beyond” from the Electric Pentacle; while the latter remains a traditional magic circle, the device in Lovecraft’s story distills the metaphysical principle of the magic circle, which is a boundary or point of mediation between two different ontological orders, two different planes of reality. Lovecraft discards the architectonics of the magic circle, but keeps the metaphysics. The device serves as nothing more than a nodal point from which the characters are able to “see” the extra-dimensional reality and the weird creatures that swim about them every day. The aim, then, of the device as a magic circle is primarily a philosophical one: rather than assuming the division between the natural and supernatural, and then utilizing the magic circle to manage or govern the boundary between them, in “From Beyond” the magic circle is used to reveal the already-existing non-separation between natural and supernatural, the “here and now” and the “beyond.”


A third and final transformation to the magic circle has to do with the disappearance of the circle itself, while its powers still remain in effect. During the story, as the characters witness the “beyond,” the device itself gradually recedes into the background as the characters can only look about in a state of horrified awe. It is as if we get the effects of the magic circle, but without the magic circle itself. Nearly all the traditional uses of the magic circle adopt the model of spectator and spectacle – inside the circle is the audience, and outside it is the dramatic action (again, this is most explicit in the film version of The Devil Rides Out). In “From Beyond,” however, we lose this separation, and there is no spectacle that we may view from inside the safety of the circle. Instead, natural and supernatural blend into a kind of ambient, atmospheric no-place, with the characters bathed in the alien ether of unknowable dimensions. The center of the circle is, then, really everywhere…and its circumference, really nowhere.


Blindsight by Peter Watts:

“You’re blind,” he said without turning. “Did you know know that?”

“I didn’t.”

“You. Me. Everyone.” He interlocked his fingers and clenched as if in prayer, hard enough to whiten the knuckles. Only then did I notice: no cigarette.

“Vision’s mostly a lie anyway,” he continued. “We don’t really see anything except a few hi-res degrees where the eye focuses. Everything else is just peripheral blur, just— light and motion. Motion draws the focus. And your eyes jiggle all the time, did you know that, Keeton? Saccades, they’re called. Blurs the image, the movement’s way too fast for the brain to integrate so your eye just—shuts down between pauses. It only grabs these isolated freeze-frames, but your brain edits out the blanks and stitches an — an illusion of continuity into your head.”

He turned to face me. “And you know what’s really amazing? If something only moves during the gaps, your brain just—ignores it. It’s invisible.”

Cunningham shook his head. Something that sounded disturbingly like a giggle escaped his mouth.

“I’m saying saying these things can see your nerves firing from across the room, and integrate that into a crypsis strategy, and then send motor commands to act on that strategy, and then send other commands to stop the motion before your eyes come back online. All in the time it would take a mammalian nerve impulse to make it halfway from your shoulder to your elbow. These things are fast, Keeton. Way faster than we could have guessed even from that high-speed whisper line they were using. They’re bloody superconductors.”

It took a conscious effort to keep from frowning. “Is that even possible?”

“Every nerve impulse generates an electromagnetic field. That makes it detectable.”

“But Rorschach’s EM fields are so—I mean, reading the firing of a single optic nerve through all that interference—”

“It’s not interference. The fields are part of them, remember? That’s probably how they do it.”

“So they couldn’t do that here.”

“You’re not listening. The trap you set wouldn’t have caught anything like that, not unless it wanted to be caught. We didn’t grab specimens at all. We grabbed spies.”

Original Source Material

sabre tooth tiger eating human head

Early humans may have evolved as prey animals rather than as predators, suggest the remains of our prehistoric primate ancestors that were devoured by hungry birds and carnivorous mammals.

The discovery of multiple de-fleshed, chomped and gnawed bones from the extinct primates, which lived 16 to 20 million years ago on Rusinga Island, Kenya, was announced today at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s 70th Anniversary Meeting in Pittsburgh.

At least one of the devoured primates, an early ape called Proconsul, is thought to have been an ancestor to both modern humans and chimpanzees. It, and other primates on the island, were also apparently good eats for numerous predators.

The ubiquitous Laurasian and African Late Eocene to Early Miocene apex predator Hyaenodon (Hyaenodontidae).

The ubiquitous Laurasian and African Late Eocene to Early Miocene apex predator Hyaenodon (Hyaenodontidae).

“I have observed multiple tooth pits and probable beak marks on these fossil primates, which are direct evidence for creodonts and raptors consuming these primates,” researcher Kirsten Jenkins told Discovery News.

Creodonts were ancient carnivorous mammals that filled a niche similar to that of modern carnivores, but are unrelated to today’s meat eaters, she explained. The Rusinga Island creodonts that fed on our primate ancestors were likely wolf-sized.

“There is one site on Rusinga Island with multiple Proconsul individuals all together and these are covered in tooth pits,” added Jenkins, a University of Minnesota anthropologist. “This kind of site was likely a creodont den or location where prey could be easily acquired.”

Analysis of tooth pits, de-fleshing marks, bone breakage patterns, gnawing and other damage to the primate bones indicate that raptors were also hunting down these distant relatives of humans.

“Primatologists have observed large raptors taking monkeys from trees,” Jenkins said. “When a raptor approaches a group of monkeys, those monkeys will make alarm calls to warn their group and attempt to retreat to lower branches. The primates on Rusinga had monkey-like postcrania and likely had very similar locomotor behavior.”

The study presents the first evidence of raptor predation on fossil primates from Rusinga, which was part of the side of a large volcano 20 million years ago.

Multiple ash layers suggest that eruptions killed countless animals from time to time. But when the volcano was inactive, the site supported a wooded area.

Jenkins is not certain what selective pressures predators placed on these very early primate ancestors to humans, but she said they “can affect behavior, group structure, body size and ontogeny (the life cycle of a single organism).”

Robert Sussman, professor of physical anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, has long argued that primates, including early humans, evolved not as hunters but as prey of many predators, including wild dogs and cats, hyenas, eagles and crocodiles.

“Despite popular theories posed in research papers and popular literature, early man was not an aggressive killer,” said Sussman, author of the book “Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators and Human Evolution.” “Our intelligence, cooperation and many other features we have as modern humans developed from our attempts to out-smart the predator.”

He added that the idea of man as hunter “developed from a basic Judeo-Christian ideology of man being inherently evil, aggressive and a natural killer.”

“In fact, when you really examine the fossil and living non-human primate evidence, that is just not the case,” he explained.

Jenkins and her colleagues continue to excavate at Rusinga and nearby Mfangano islands, hoping to find more fossils — especially those from birds — so that the scientists can identify the species that were hunting the prehistoric primates.

A newfound horned crocodile may have been the largest predator encountered by our ancestors in Africa, researchers now suggest.

Scientists have even found bones from members of the human lineage bearing tooth marks from this reptile, whose scientific name, Crocodylus anthropophagus, means “man-eating crocodile.”

Scientists found a partial skull and skeleton of the crocodile at Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania in 2007. Past research there famously unearthed numerous fossils of extinct human species and their stone tools, strengthening the argument that our lineage originated in Africa.

Fossil leg and foot bones of at least two hominids from Olduvai bear crocodilian tooth marks, and came from roughly the same time as the newfound horned carnivore and within roughly 300 feet (100 meters) from where the reptile’s skeleton was discovered.

“I can’t guarantee these crocodiles were killing people, but they were certainly biting them,” Brochu said. “Our ancestors would have had to be cautious close to the water, because the water’s edge at Olduvai Gorge would have been a very dangerous place.”

Crocodiles may have been common predators of hominids, the scientists noted. Larger crocodiles would be capable of consuming our ancestors completely, leaving no trace.

“It was probably as large as a modern Nile crocodile, one of the largest living crocodilians at between 18 to 20 feet,” Brochu said. “One thing to bear in mind was that while these crocodiles are not necessarily bigger than the ones today, hominids back then were smaller than we are today, so the crocodiles would have been relatively quite a bit larger.”

Nor was it just cats. Humans were eaten by giant hyenas, cave bears, cave lions, eagles, snakes, other primates, wolves, saber-toothed cats, false saber-toothed cats, and maybe even—bless their hearts—giant, predatory kangaroos. Amazingly, these are just the predators that consumed our ancestors during relatively recent history, the past 100,000 years or so. Go further back in time, and the diversity of things that ate our kin goes up (particularly given that our earlier, pre-hominin ancestors were progressively smaller).  Some predators, such as leopards, ate many of our ancestors. Others, like crocodiles, komodo dragons, or sharks, took their bites, but more opportunistically, savoring the occasional human or proto-human the way one might enjoy some special holiday treat…

Even today, where humans live alongside predators, both children and adults get eaten. Harry Greene, a herpetologist at Cornell University and one of a handful of my colleagues more likely to be eaten by a wild animal than to die of old age, and Thomas Headland, an anthropologist, recently conducted a study of Agta hunter-gatherers in the Philippines. Harry was excited to find that the Agta lived among a high density of pythons. The Agta tend to be not quite so excited; Greene and Headland found that one in four Agta men had been attacked by a reticulated python. Of the 120 men whose stories were considered for the study, six had been killed by a python. That’s a death-by-python rate of 1 in 20…

Many primate species have alarm calls that are specific for different predators. The first primate nouns were almost certainly those embedded in calls that meant, “Oh shit, big cat!” “Oh shit, giant eagle!” or “For the love of god, did you see the size of that snake?”  In this way, predators may have had a positive impact on who we are now, having given us the precursors of language, or at the very least, cussing…

Many traits that influenced our ability to spot predators or flee from them have been under strong natural selection for much of the past 40 million years of primate evolution and even before then. (We have been prey essentially since the beginning.) Researchers are just beginning to explore these possibilities. Lynne Isbell at the University of California-Davis has argued that the range of our color vision evolved in part because those of our ancestors who could see more colors were more likely to spot snakes. A study this year found that children spot snakes more quickly than they do flowers . They also spot snakes when using color vision more quickly than in gray scale. Our interactions with other species (be they snakes, or as some have argued, fruits) shaped our eyesight. Our screams, those preverbal (and universal) utterances, are alarm calls signaling, simultaneously, both a threat and the need for help.

“How can the human eye can see more shades of green than any other color? ‘Cause of predators. Used to be, monkeys we were, right? And in the woods, in the jungle, everything’s green. So in order to not get eaten by panthers and bears and the like, we had to be able to see them, you know, in the grass, and trees and such. Predators”

~ Fargo 1×4: Eating the blame

In a way, of course, they were. All those gut feelings, right or wrong, that had kept the breed alive in the Pleistocene savannah—and they were wrong, so much of the time. False negatives, false  positives, the moral algebra of fat men pushed in front of onrushing trolleys. The strident emotional belief that children made you happy, even when all the data pointed to misery. The high-amplitude fear of sharks and dark-skinned snipers who would never kill you; indifference to all the toxins and pesticides that could. The mind was so rotten with misrepresentation that in some cases it literally had to be damaged before it could make a truly rational decision—and should some brain-lesioned mother abandon her baby in a burning house in order to save two strangers from the same fire, the rest of the world would be more likely to call her a monster than laud the rationality of her lifeboat ethics. Hell, rationality itself—the exalted Human ability to reason—hadn’t evolved in the pursuit of truth but simply to win arguments, to gain control: to bend others, by means logical or sophistic, to your will.

Truth had never been a priority. If believing a lie kept the genes proliferating, the system would believe that lie with all its heart.

Fossil feelings. Better off without them, once you’d outgrown the savannah and decided that Truth mattered after all. But Humanity wasn’t defined by arms and legs and upright posture. Humanity had evolved at the synapse as well as at the opposable thumb—and those misleading gut feelings were the very groundwork on which the whole damn clade had been built. Capuchins felt empathy. Chimps had an innate sense of fair play. You could look into the eyes of any cat or dog and see a connection there, a legacy of common subroutines and shared emotions.

The Bicamerals had cut away all that kinship in the name of something their stunted progenitors called Truth, and replaced it with—something else. They might look human. Their cellular metabolism might lie dead on the Kleiber curve. But to merely call them a cognitive subspecies was denial to the point of delusion. The wiring in those skulls wasn’t even mammalian anymore. A look into those sparkling eyes would show you nothing but—

~ Echopraxia by Peter Watts


The.Mist 1

There are, of course, a number of modern novels and films that portray mists as gothic, malevolent forces, often that serve as cover for ghosts, monsters, or unknown miasmas.

The.Mist 2

The presence of a magic site – some locale from which the hidden world can manifest itself, often with disastrous effects – implies some point of origin for the hidden world, or at least for its manner of manifesting itself to us as human beings.

Ghostbusters (1984) - magikal site 2

In our previous readings we considered the theme of the hidden world as manifest in “mists” – clouds, gases, and the like. There we saw how the hidden world often manifests itself in ways that are cataclysmic – at least for the human characters in those stories. Not surprisingly, genre horror is also replete with ooze.

Ghostbusters (1984) - slimed

In our consideration of ooze – as one facet of the hidden world – we have one more step to take, and that is to consider ooze not only as archaeological and geological, but noological as well. Here ooze is not just a biological amoeba, and not just the mud of the Earth; here ooze begins to take on the qualities of thought itself.

Event.Horizon. 1.2

The hiddenness of the world, whether revealed via the human-oriented motif of the magic circle, or the unhuman motif of the magic site, puts forth the greatest challenge, which is how to live in and as part of such hiddenness. In that ambivalent moment in which the world-in-itself presents itself to us, but without immediately becoming the human-centric world-for-us, might there be a way of understanding hiddenness as intrinsic to the human as well?

Ghosts.of.Mars. 1.1

The “hiddenness of the world” is another name for the supernatural, exterior to its assimilation by either science or religion – that is, exterior to the world-for-us. But these days we like to think that we are much too cynical, much too smart to buy into this – the supernatural no longer exists, is no longer possible…or at least not in the same way. In a sense, it is hard to escape the sense of living in a world that is not just a human world, but also a planet, a globe, a climate, an infosphere, an atmosphere, a weather pattern…a rift, a tectonic shift, a storm, a cataclysm. If the supernatural in a conventional sense is no longer possible, what remains after the “death of God” is an occulted, hidden world.

Ghosts.of.Mars. 2

Event.Horizon. 2.1

Additional Content

Hellraiser Bloodline_Angelique

Hellraiser: Bloodline

Lemarchand’s box is a fictional lock puzzle or puzzle box appearing in horror stories by Clive Barker, or in works based on his original stories. The best known of these boxes is the Lament Configuration, which features prominently throughout the Hellraiser movie series. This was designed and made by Simon Sayce, one of the original creative team. A Lemarchand’s box is a mystical/mechanical device that acts as a door — or a key to a door — to another dimension or plane of existence. The solution of the puzzle creates a bridge through which beings may travel in either direction across this “Schism”. The inhabitants of these other realms may seem demonic to humans. An ongoing debate in the film series is whether the realm accessed by the Lament Configuration is intended to be the Abrahamic version of Hell, or a dimension of endless pain and suffering that is original to the Hellraiser films.

Echopraxia by Peter Watts:

“Come on, Oldschool. We’re long past the days when all you had to do was clock a falling apple or compare beak length in finches. Science has been running into limits ever since it started trying to get Schrödinger’s cat to play with balls of invisible string. Go down a few orders of mag and everything’s untestable conjecture again. Math and philosophy. You know as well as I do that reality has a substructure. Science can’t go there.”

“Nothing can. Faith may claim—”

“Knot theory,” Lianna said. “Invented it for the sheer beauty of the artifact. We didn’t have particle accelerators back then; we had no evidence at all that it would turn out to describe subatomic physics a century or two down the road. Pre-Socratic Greeks intuited atomic theory in two hundred B.C. Buddhists were saying centuries ago that we can’t trust our senses, that sensation itself is an act of faith. Hinduism’s predicated on the Self as illusion: no NMRs a thousand years ago, no voxel readers. No evidence. And damned if I can see the adaptive advantage of not believing in your own existence; but neurologically it happens to be true.”

She beamed at him with the beatific glow of the true convert.

“There’s an intuition, Dan. It’s capricious, it’s unreliable, it’s corruptible—but it’s so powerful when it works, and it’s no coincidence that it ties into the same parts of the brain that give you the rapture. The Bicamerals harnessed it. They amped the temporal and they rewired the parietals—”

“You mean ripped them out completely.”

“—and they had to leave conventional language back in the dust, but they figured it out. Their religion, for want of a better word, goes places science can’t. Science backs it up, as far as science can go; there’s no reason to believe it doesn’t keep right on working after it leaves science behind.”

“You mean you have faith it keeps working,” Brüks observed drily.

“Do you measure Earth’s gravity every time you step outside? Do you reinvent quantum circuits from scratch whenever you boot up, just in case the other guys missed something?” She gave him a moment to answer. “Science depends on faith,” she continued, when he didn’t. “Faith that the rules haven’t changed, faith that the other guys got the measurements right. All science ever did was measure a teensy sliver of the universe and assume that everything else behaved the same way. But the whole exercise falls apart if the universe doesn’t follow consistent laws. How do you test if that’s true?”

“If two experiments yield different results—”

“Happens all the time, my friend. And when it does, every good scientist discounts those results because they failed to replicate. One of the experiments must have been flawed. Or they both were. Or there’s some unknown variable that’ll make everything balance out just as soon as we discover what it is. The idea that physics itself might be inconsistent? Even if you considered the possibility in your wildest dreams, how could you test for it when the scientific method only works in a consistent universe?”

He tried to think of an answer.

“We’ve always thought c and friends ruled supreme, right out to the quasars and beyond,” Lianna mused. “What if they’re just—you know, some kind of local ordinance? What if they’re a bug? Anyway”—she fed her plate into the recycler—“I gotta go.”