Water Launch Talk

Hello. Thank you for coming. I would like to thank McNally Robinson and Thistledown for sponsoring this evening. I normally avoid this kind of affair, so I doubly thank those of you who may feel likewise. I would like to outline a few of the ideas sketched in Water and then finish up with some readings.

The original motivation to write Water and the force which enabled me to carry it to completion was my anger and despair at the extinction event unfolding around us. [It was a cry of anguish.]

You don't have to look very far nowadays to see the indicators. Statistics on the status of species are kept by the [IUCN] World Conservation Union in a RedList. _1_ In 2004, their Global Assessment identified more than 15,000 species as threatened, including 12% of birds, 23% of mammals, and 32% of amphibians. The current rate of extinctions is 50 to 500 times that of the fossil record.

In November of 2006, a group of scientist working out of Dalhousie [FMAP: Future Marine Animal Populations] published a survey paper _2_ in Science projecting that at the present rate of exploitation world fisheries would collapse by 2050. [Take the East Coast's cod fishery and make it global.]

Just this spring, you have probably heard about a little problem with bees, called Colony Collapse Disorder, _3_ which has the potential to decimate many of the food plants on which we rely.

In the fall of 2006, a poll conducted by the Vancouver Sun revealed 72% of British Columbians thought the world would end in 2 to 3 generations. _4_

These concerns are not something I invented [unfortunately].

A thumbnail ecological view of our situation goes something like this: In 1800, just before the industrial revolution got underway and when we still lived mostly on a solar energy budget, the human population was just under 1 billion. By 2006, we had passed 6.5 billion. We are living well over the carrying capacity of the planet. The ecological term is overshoot; that means we are taking from the biosphere faster than it can replenish itself. _5_ [And as the banker said, "Things that can't go on, don't."] We are living as detritovores on millions of years of buried sunlight in the form of natural gas, petroleum and coal. When that party is over, we will find ourselves severely challenged.

The eminent biologist E.O.Wilson has coined the term "the bottleneck" to describe this existential crunch: _6_ rising population, depleted energy resources and the limits of the natural world. We are used to the idea of change being driven by technological advancement, but we are moving into an era when ecological limits are going to drive change - - not always in ways we like.

Some facts are almost too disturbing to face. Several broad possibilities present themselves. A lot of people [a significant fraction of the world's population] might die. We might figure out some way to raise the carrying capacity of the planet, as we have done several times in the past. [Note that this would only have the effect of postponing the problem.] And we might change the way we live in the direction of an ecologically sound society. [We might change the way we think toward an ecological paradigm.]

The good news is that changing the way you live, however drastically, is not the end of the world, although it might feel like it. The bad news is that I see no reason to think that will happen until we have no other choice.

[ Anybody who has been to the third world knows that we in the first world are habituated to an unrecognized affluence. Between 1850 and 1950 the rural population of North America dropped from approximately 55% to less than 5%. If industrial farming collapses, those numbers could well reverse.]

Of course, there are wild cards in the deck. We are living in an age of multiple revolutions -- in genetics, computers, fundamental physics, material sciences, among others and many things are possible. What actually transpires may be stranger than we imagine.

Can humans pull another rabbit out of the hat?

I don't know, but as Samuel Johnson remarked on the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight, it serves wonderfully to focus the mind.

In my little corner of the world, I decided to write scenarios to explore the fundamental factors of the near future. The first such scenario is Water.


So that was the beginning, the emotional heart of it. The first idea will take a little explaining.


[ In 1959, the American physicist Richard Feynman wrote a seminal essay, "There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom," _7_ in which he considered the theoretical and practical aspects of printing the entire 26 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin. He envisaged a process of larger machines building smaller machines continuing until the bottom machines consisted of some minimal number of atoms and calculated that the printing job was possible if you allowed a period to consist of approximately 1000 atoms.]

In 1986, another American, Eric Drexler, wrote a book called The Engines of Creation _8_ in which he projected the path of what he called nanotechnology. One of his far reaching ideas, drawing on the theory of self replicating machines formulated by the mathematician John von Neuman, was that of a self-replicating general-purpose molecule-sized robot, which he called an assembler.

It is common nowadays to hear nano-this and nano-that in the media. Some companies have adopted the language of nanotech in their advertising. You may have seen "nanites" in Star Trek or the nanotech based robot T3 in the Terminator series. It is worthwhile noting that while this notion of assemblers might seem fairly unreal, incredible even, we do know that it is theoretically possible, because they already exist. We call them bacteria. The question is whether it is possible to build a non-biological version.

Once you have a self replicating machine that can build things atom by atom, a lot of weird and wonderful possibilities arise. Would you like a motor made of diamond? How about a house that will grow itself? How about an army of tiny robots swimming around in your blood stream removing bad cholesterol? If you had a factory of assemblers at home, you could build yourself any object for which you had the blueprint, the constituent material and the energy. [Think about the intellectual property battles that would engender.]

In Water, I assume such a mature nanotechnology has developed.

Space is Big

Another of the ideas I'd like to mention is obvious, but is overlain by television and Hollywood science fiction. It is the simple observation that space is huge.

We do not really have the direct perceptions to give us a proper sense of the scale, so I'll just draw one sketch.

The human made objects furthest from Earth are the Voyager spacecraft launched 30 years ago which are now just past the orbit of Pluto. At their current speed it will take some 80,000 years for them to reach the star nearest to us, Proxima Centauri, some 4.24 light years away. _9_

I think we tend to lose track of that scale while we watch the latest television star ship captain zip from star to star.

[The practical implication of this fact is that, barring some dramatic development in physics, humans are likely going to be stuck in this solar system for some time.]


Now we have the elements to put together another idea which is not entirely obvious. Here is the logic:

In practical terms, to make a human sized spacecraft go any decent fraction of the speed of light takes an awful lot of energy, but a smaller than a grain of sand sized robot could be accelerated to such speeds in a cyclotron type device relatively cheaply.

The proposal here is the robotic exploration of interstellar space by cheap-like-borscht nano-explorers which, once they land somewhere interesting, would build larger robots and report their findings back to us by radio.

In the novel I assume such robotic exploration of interstellar space has begun in a project called StarSeed.

Vishnu Project

Another idea I used seems a lot more reasonable now than when I wrote the first draft of Water in 2000.

Earlier this year, Norway announced the architectural plans of the Svalbard International Seed Vault, which journalists quickly began to call the Doomsday Vault. _10_ They are storing the seeds of all the plants humans currently use in case of some sort of planetary cataclysm.

If you drop the words "frozen zoo" into your favourite search engine you will come up with over 20,000 hits [Feb. 17 on Google] describing how conservationists and zookeepers around the world are freezing DNA samples of endangered animals.

I postulate the existence of a gigantic repository containing seeds, samples and genetic data on all life on the planet. I named it the Vishnu Project, after the Preserver of the Hindu trinity.

As the extinction event proceeds, I think this plan of action will come to be seen as more [and more reasonable, perhaps even] necessary.

[By the way, it is notable that the most populous lifeforms on the planet, the bacteria, will likely be poorly represented by such projects.]
[Mention that creating cells from scratch is beyond us.]

Founding Population

The idea of a founding population also deserves mention. This is what you might call the Iceland effect. [The few thousands Celts and Danes who settled that island between 900 and 1200 CE, created a unique culture with a distinctive genetics.]

If we should manage to end life as we know it, and only a small colony of humans survive, they would grow into very different societies depending upon who they were and how they survived, including the technology. If the founding population happened to be Chinese Buddhists, rather than say Scandinavian Mormons, the cultures would be drastically different.

What, I asked myself, if the survivors were Metis?

Most of us have grown up with our creation mythology formed by the Judeo-Christian tradition -- an alpha male god in the sky creating humans with the mud of the Garden of Eden. Contrast that world view with the Native American creation myth in which humans are created by a group of collaborating animals and First Woman.

[ I assume you know the story of First Woman who floated through a void of shapeless clouds until she saw a ball of water in space. She fell through the clouds and landed on the back of a big turtle, where she and a group of animals discussed their situation. First Woman said "If only I had some mud, I could make land," and so they have a diving contest to get some mud from the bottom of the sea. Many animals, duck, salamander, muskrat all try and fail. Then Otter dived down and stayed down so long they all thought he was dead. Finally after what seemed an extraordinary length of time, his body floated to the surface. Everyone is feeling pretty bad about this, but then First Woman notices that he has some mud clenched in his hand. She takes the mud and because she was majyk, she spreads the mud over the turtle and makes a continent, Turtle Island. The story goes on in this vein and my point is that the creation is a collaboration not a finger from the sky.]

If you grew up in such a culture and thought of the animals, if not the entire biosphere, as your co-creators, consider how devastating a global extinction event would be to you.

Choosing a Metis heritage for my character allowed me to acknowledge my own heritage and to highlight what I would call an attitude of reverence for the Earth.

[ This founding population outlook dovetails with the process futurists engage in called world building. This is one really fun part of SF writing. You get to construct a world --- a biosphere, a society with a technology, a history and belief structure. The shape of that future will vary significantly depending upon a few basic parameters.

The philosopher Frederich Nietzsche spoke of the transvaluation of values that he projected would occur as humanity evolved. It is not stated explicitly in the novel, but as a symbol of that change, the title Water is a renaming of Earth.]

Now I don't want to mislead you. There is not a lot of what one thinks of as traditional Metis or Native American mythology in the novel. I tried to capture the sense of community one feels. A recognition of the importance of the land is there, but largely unspoken. The vision quest and the Windigo myth are mentioned, but because the novel is set about 1500 years in the future, I felt free to invent a mythology adapted to their situation, as the Metis have always done.

[ One of the primary functions of mythology is to function as a social lubricant, to get us all on the same page as it were, and one of the primary functions of a society is the organization of work -- who does what and why.

"Work" is one of those interesting words that is used in many ways. There is the everyday sense of the word, look for work, work on something. Does that work for you? But there is also a work of art. Theatre people speak of their current play as ‘the work'. Physicists have their own definition of work. In the magical tradition, one speaks of the work, the alchemical process of transformation an individual undergoes on a shamanistic quest.

In this future mythology a person is known by who they are and what they do, by their nature and the primary task they assume in society, which I gave the names "tribe" and "work".

One of the primary characters, Hannah, defines herself as a healer whose work is caring for genetically damaged children. Throughout the novel, the protagonist, Billie, recognizes herself as a hunter, but her work changes from being a Ranger to being a Seed Mother.]


I ran into the next idea when I happened to hear Dr. Jill Tarter, the SETI scientist lionized in Carl Sagan's novel Contact, talking on CBC. I will need to give you some background for this to make sense.

[ In the middle of the twentieth century, a lot of people were seeing flying saucers -- one theory goes that it was after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began to sink into the popular consciousness.

In the 1950s, the famous American Italian physicist Enrico Fermi coined what has become known as The Fermi Paradox. _11_ He calculated there should be thousands of aliens throughout the billions of star systems in the Milky Way, and he calculated that given a few million years with even very slow spaceships, they should be here --- but they're not, or so it seems. And so he posed his paradox: "Where are they?"

Perhaps you think there are no aliens and these sorts of contemplations are all so much bull feathering. You might be right. Given the current lack of evidence, that is a reasonable working hypothesis. I would remark however, that if humans are indeed unique in the galaxy, how great our responsibility to keep this tiny flame of life alight.

You can of course imagine all sorts of scenarios to "explain" the lack of aliens, but suppose you set out to discover if alien life exists or not. How would one go about discovering the truth of the matter? ]

In the early 1960s a group of scientists held a conference in Greenbank on the prospects of discovering extraterrestrial life. Dr. Frank Drake was trying to organize the agenda and while doing so, he asked himself, "What do we need to know about to discover life in space?" He began to devise what has come to be known as the Drake Equation. _12_

If we limit ourselves to the Milky Way, we need to know how many stars there are, how many of those stars have planets, how many of those planets are in the water zone, on what percentage of those water zone planets will life begin, of those planets with life on how many will intelligence evolve, of those planets with intelligent life on how many will a technological civilization develop and finally, given all that, how long will that civilization radiate detectable signals into space. The utility of the equation is that it breaks down an apparently unanswerable question to astronomical, chemical and biological questions we can answer or try to.

[ By the way, notice the subtle switch. The question is no longer finding alien life, but detecting a technological civilization transmitting a lot of electromagnetic radiation. That is an implicit recognition of the fact it is easier to use radio than travel. Considering that the history of ‘higher life' on earth is relatively short -- for 3.5 billion years earth was inhabited only by bacteria -- it is entirely possible that most distant planets are inhabited only by alien bacteria. There is also a subtle prejudice, in so far as we are looking for life as we know it. Crystalline entities living in the Oort clouds or interstellar space need not apply. ]

I had always taken the final term to be a reflection of the fact that civilizations develop and change technologies as a matter of course, but then I heard Dr. Tarter. And she said:

"You can make guesses on all the factors in the Drake Equation, and, to within astronomical accuracy, that is to within a couple of orders of magnitude, right, the equation reduces to N = L. That is the Number of technological civilizations that we can communicate with in the galaxy is equal numerically to their Longevity in years. Now you tell me. How long does a technological civilization live?"

That hit me like a bombshell. That last term could also apply to an extinction event. The pieces were beginning to fall into place.

Once I knew I needed an alien perspective, I began to ask myself what would aliens make of our extinction event? How would they understand?

[By the way, somebody should write a monograph: "The Function of the Alien in Modern Mythology." What is that function? It seems to me they serve as a socially acceptable Rorshach test. They represent what a sociologist would call "the excluded other." They take us out of ourselves.]

Now I have to admit to a prejudice. I get teed off at the typical television and Hollywood aliens -- take one human, add funny ears or put distinctive wrinkles on her forehead and voila. This is changing with more extensive use of CGI, but you don't have to look very far to find such examples. So I wanted a really alien alien.

There is a point in the evolution of life on earth which has always intrigued me. For 3.5 billion years or so, life was simple. Bacteria reproduced by budding. There was no parent and child relationship; the budder and buddee were genetically identical, and so there were no individuals, except in so far as a colony is an individual. With the development of sexual reproduction, death and the unique individual came into being. Mind you this is still at the stage of single celled lifeforms, but the essential elements are there.

What, I asked myself, if a super advanced alien species with a mastery of nanotechnology and biology -- the biologies of thousands of planets -- decided to revisit that still point and recreate that state in a death defying nanobiological matrix where species and individuality was arbitrary?

The cells of a given human body all have the same DNA, but with different parts activated and deactivated, to make bone or brain or whatever. What would it be like I wondered, if the super advanced aliens, but could consciously activate different sections of the DNA-like material from all those worlds to create species as desired? That would create a fluid sense of the individual. The aliens could be sea slugs for a day or metallic bone or, for that matter, humanoid.

[ In Water I posit an uncomfortable answer to Fermi's question: an advanced, nanobiological lifeform silences technological civilizations as soon as it detects them by incorporating their biology. They absorb biospheres whole. This is admittedly, a fairly nasty prospect, from our perspective.]

Genmod Humans

The final idea I will bounce off you is that of human genetic engineering -- designing people. There is a lot of resistance to this possibility in mainstream society. It is liable to become more contentious in the future than the abortion issue is now.

Whatever you may think of the idea on religious or ethical grounds, it should be noted that the first steps in that direction are already happening, not through direct manipulation of the genome, but via embroyo selection. You may have heard that the Chinese "one-child-policy" and the technology of in-vitro fertilization has produced an unintended side effect --- a generation in which boys significantly outnumber girls. A similar phenomenon is happening in India to a lesser extent. In the UK there is a company which will scan embroyonic genomes for 650 known genetic diseases. As the biological revolution proceeds, our ability to intervene in our own genetics will improve and I see no reason to think this trend toward intervention will diminish.

If you assume people will get used to the idea and the practice become well established, the question which naturally arises is: after a thousand years or so, what might such creatures be like? [Will they still be human?]

There are a handful of characteristics one might project, which I won't go into, because the context is more important. The answer depends upon who is doing the designing and why. What a parent might want to give their child would differ from what a general might want in the perfect soldier or what a corporate executive might look for in good and compliant workers. Or what if some space agency wanted to design a creature adapted to surviving on Mars? So in policy terms, we might want to keep an eye upon who is making these decisions as much as what they design. [Not that I think we will be able to control this through laws.]

I should mention in passing that genetic modification is only one way in which we might change ourselves. A mature nanotech would allow direct intervention in the human body. How about a molecular machine that would generate the vitamins you need for the rest of your life?


So let's quickly review where we are:


Although it is usual for authors to read one longish section, I thought, with your indulgence, I would do something a little different. There are a few lines, here and there throughout the novel of which I am fond, so I thought I would pick out some of these for you.


The book begins and ends with an alien perspective. In the opening chapter, an alien creature has been tasked with studying humans and her immediate supervisor comes in while she is looking at a satellite view of the southern Pacific ocean. They talk and then the creature looks at the ocean and asks:

"Why is it called Earth, when it is mostly Water?"
[This is, btw, the closest I come to stating the symbolic renaming of Earth, implicit in the title.]


The protagonist Billie is starting her yearly patrols and the extinction event is preying on her mind. She knows more or less what had happened.

She had seen the pictures, old video and holo records of fabulously baroque creatures -- lions and giraffes, elephants and whales, cockatoos and kangaroos -- all gone now. To Billie they were like a dream, a troubling dream of overwhelming force.

She continues in this vein and then remembers something her friend Hannah said to her: "we were not expelled from the garden, we destroyed it."


Toward the middle of the novel, there is a scene at the Mission when Hannah has just been questioning the soldier Harmer and then she goes looking for Billie.

Contrary to her expectations, Billie was not in the cafeteria. She was in the meditation room, but she was not meditating. Her face was tied in a knot, when Hannah entered. Billie looked up. "Why do you keep that?" She pointed to a cruel-looking cross made of broken beer bottles hanging in the middle of the wall.

"It was here when I arrived and somehow I could not bring myself to throw it out," Hannah replied, paused, then added as an afterthought, "Think of it as the union of opposites if you like. The youngsters come to expect the stereotypical from us oldtimers. It pays to have a discordant symbol to make them think. "

Billie looked doubtful. "Yeah, well it is a little christian," she emphasized the word, "for you though, you must admit."

"Those bottles once held alcohol," continued Hannah, ignoring Billie's dig. "The Old Ones are gone. Their religions are gone. But addiction is not. The fundamentals remain." She paused for a moment looking at the jagged cruciform. "The world is miracle enough," whispered Hannah.


Later on, Billie has met a genetically engineered creature, an Ultra. He presented me with an interesting problem. How do you portray a creature who is many times more intelligent than you? I chose to make him emotionally labile. He is playing half a dozen games simultaneously and sometimes loses control.

At one point, the Ultra [Arnim] is trying to explain the difficulties they face in changing their own genetic makeup.

"We keep trying to find a way out of the trap your ancestors laid and made of us. We keep trying to create new variants." Arnim fixed Billie with a penetrating glare. "What 'you' would call new Ultras." He put an emphasis on the word 'you' that made Billie squirm with the bitterness. "Perhaps we will succeed. Some are still trying; others have given up. The design of new lifeforms is more of an art than a science. The results have not always been good or useful. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a gene for wisdom."


Applying yourself to the task of writing can be a little bit like being possessed. You let these characters speak through you and sometimes they seem to have lives of their own. Norman Mailer called it "The Spookie Art" for that reason. The voices speak and the author just happens to be the person who was there to write it down. Sometimes it's funny. You come back later and you can't help but wonder, did I write that?

A section from the beginning was notable in that regard, as was the Unpublished Foreword which you can find on my web site. This selection opened the door. [It is written in what I call the oracular voice.]

We are the People. We live as we have always done, by the grace of the sun, on the bounty of the earth, because we are worthy. Since the animals left us, many of the ancient ways no longer apply. When the plants died, we had to adapt new ways. No longer does the great horned owl call our name; no longer do the caribou roam. The Old Ones are only a memory, but their works remain. The Ultras and the Machines remain, but we are the People.

Although we came from many lands, and although we were very different, the mutant and the lucky, we joined together. When it became clear there were no others, we knew we had to work together or die. We came together in the Big Sky Lodge and began to build. We knew the way of the small machines. In time, a few plants and animals returned. [ Far to the east, the Water Lodge did much the same. It is simple self-governance.]

Life is different when you look ahead a thousand years, or ten thousand. [We evolved a loose structure born of basic common law and Metis tradition, molded by the circumstances. We could not trust any plan, for who knows what the future might bring. We put our trust in people. We adapted the word "tribe" to indicate the nature and essence of an individual. And we adapted the word "work" to mean the tasks one assumes in life. A person is known by their tribe and their work.] Of all the billions before the fall, we are not many, a few thousand, and for all that, we are no longer quite human. We do not die easily.

I thank you for your attention. Goodnight.


  1. World Conservation Union RedList
  2. Fisheries Collapse
  3. Disappearing Bees - Colony Collapse Disorder
  4. Apocalypso
  5. Overshoot
  6. _The Future of Life_ by E.O.Wilson [ISBN: 0679768114]
  7. Richard Feynman - There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom
  8. K. Eric Drexler - Engines of Creation, The Coming Era of Nanotechnology
  9. NASA Voyager
  10. Vishnu Project
    1. 2007/02/09: BBC: 'Doomsday' vault design unveiled
      The final design for a "doomsday" vault that will house seeds from all known varieties of food crops has been unveiled by the Norwegian government. The Svalbard International Seed Vault will be built into a mountainside on a remote island near the North Pole. The vault aims to safeguard the world's agriculture from future catastrophes, such as nuclear war, asteroid strikes and climate change. Construction begins in March, and the seed bank is scheduled to open in 2008.
    2. 2007/02/11: TreeHugger: Doomsday Seed Vault, Part 2
  11. Wiki: The Fermi Paradox
  12. Wiki: The Drake Equation


The sections in [square brackets] are optional text I may or may not use depending upon time & mood.

Last modified May 14, 2007