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Science fiction writer Peter Watts tussles with U.S. customs agents, faces charges

December 15, 2009 |  2:42 pm

PeterwattsLast Tuesday, Hugo Award-nominated Canadian author Peter Watts was returning home from a trip to Nebraska when he encountered U.S. customs agents at the border between Michigan and Ontario. His rental car was stopped, and then something happened -- Watts says he was pepper-sprayed and attacked, while agents say he became aggressive. Watts was arrested and charged with assault.

Turns out that even a former marine biologist turned science fiction writer can have friends in the right places. Cory Doctorow, who writes science fiction in addition to contributing to BoingBoing, and science fiction writer John Scalzi, who maintains the popular blog Whatever, blogged about Watts' troubles, encouraging people to contribute to Watts' legal defense fund.

Canadian publishing magazine Quill & Quire notes that Doctorow is not the only one in Watts' corner. Toronto bookstore Bakka-Phoenix is not only accepting contributions on the author's behalf, it's selling out of his books. And author David Nickle was integral to spreading the word and bailing Watts out of jail.

The Toronto Star spoke to Watts about the incident. "Watts is overwhelmed by the online donations," the newspaper reports, "and jokes that while most people must be supportive, 'it's quite possible that some people think I'm a ... jerk, but they hate homeland security more.'" Watts, who has engaged a lawyer, has posted a genre-appropriate response to the incident on his website:

If you buy into the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics, there must be a parallel universe in which I crossed the US/Canada border without incident last Tuesday. In some other dimension, I was not waved over by a cluster of border guards who swarmed my car like army ants for no apparent reason; or perhaps they did, and I simply kept my eyes downcast and refrained from asking questions.

Along some other timeline, I did not get out of the car to ask what was going on. I did not repeat that question when refused an answer and told to get back into the vehicle. In that other timeline I was not punched in the face, pepper-sprayed. ... I was not left without my jacket in the face of Ontario’s first winter storm, after all buses and intercity shuttles had shut down for the night.

In some other universe I am warm and content and not looking at spending two years in jail for the crime of having been punched in the face.

But that is not this universe.

As for this universe, it appears Watts may face felony charges, imprisonment, fines of up to $2,000 and a possible ban from the U.S. He's due in court on Dec. 22.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Peter Watts. Credit: Dan Brooks

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