Since encountering Beyond the Rift, Peter Watts’ second collection of short stories, I have been wholly engaged. Quality overtaking quantity, Watts’ day job seems quite good at forcing him to spend time with each story, writing, re-writing, and ultimately ensuring each rings like a bell. (Ted Chiang’s writing has a similar vibe.) That being said, I felt Watts’ latest novel, Echopraxia, was a bit forced—more a tour of ideas than story integrating said ideas, and for certain fell short of its predecessor, Blindsight. I was thus happy to see that for his next project Watts was again taking his time (four years), and, striking out in a new direction. 2018’s The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Tachyon) the result, it’s a far-far-future locked room that highlights one of Watts’ favorite motifs: the limitations of the human condition.
Sunday is a worker aboard the space ship Eriphoria traveling vast distances across the universe, creating wormhole ends and tying them together. Cryogenically frozen and thawed as the ship’s AI, an entity called Chimp, deems necessary, Sunday passes thousands upon thousands of year or just a few days between work. Awoken one day for the completion of a wormhole, Sunday discovers that all may not be well with Chimp. Architectural details in the ship awry and people missing, it’s up to Sunday and his fellow workers to get to the bottom of the mystery, and do something about it. If possible...
Despite the change in setting, FFR returns to relatively familiar territory for Watts. Like Blindsight, it is a story of a lone ship traveling the universe, the unknown things and situations encountered there, and the human reaction to it. The details of imagination are singular (the idea of eons or days passing between cryogenic wakings is the imaginative point of rumination from FFR) not to mention the story mode is completely different (locked room mystery vs. space exploration), yet the end result is somewhat similar to Blindsight. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say Watts confirms a so-called, hardline view to human limitations and idiosyncracies. Some may view this as a criticism, but it is likewise possible to be seen as a baseline to confront, work with, and potentially adapt to. The more you know (or, perhaps better stated: the more truths you accept), the better.
FFR takes its sweet time getting off the ground (a poor idiom given the setting). The ship setting setting floats a touch unclear at the start, in particular. In a style not unlike Charles Stross’ far-futurism, however, Watts is clever in his science-ism, handwavy-waviness. There is some grounding among the futuristic verbiage. That being said, the first quarter of the book could have done with a bit more foundation to give the reader a clearer picture of what they should be imagining. In the real world of innumerable science fiction futures, seemingly everything is possible, meaning a little more effort from Watts would have concretized his vision in the reader’s mind to more positive effect.
In the end, The Freeze-Frame Revolution is a story that begins a bit ragged, but congeals into a tight climax that, Watts being Watts, addresses the inevitably of humans beating their heads against the very walls that make us human. The contrast between Chimp (har har) and the human crew is real. A quick read, said wobbling at the outset does not last long, allowing the setup to swiftly reveal and resolve itself, making for satisfying reading. I will not say Watts is back in a way that matches Blindsight or Starfish, but it’s certainly fair to say he has successfully integrated story with idea in a manner Echopraxia is lacking, not to mention in more entertaining fashion and bright spots of prose that prove the four year break between longer works has value. Recommended.