Monday, November 4, 2013

Review of Beyond the Rift by Peter Watts

Like many modern science fiction authors, Peter Watts is not a prolific writer of short stories.  In the twenty-three years since he was first published, only eighteen have appeared.  This is not an insult, rather a reflection of the publishing industry: writers today must supplement their income with ‘real-world’ earnings to get by, and thus spend less time filling the niches of their oeuvres.  But the advantage of limited outputs is that the ideas have time to ferment, for the prose to be polished, and ultimately for quality stories to emerge.  Essentially a best-of which pilfers six stories from 2001’s Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes and adds seven stories since published, 2013’s Beyond the Rift (from Tachyon) is high quality writing from Watts, one of science fiction’s most underrated yet important authors writing today—at least sometimes.   

Containing thirteen stories and one essay, all published between 1990 and 2013, Beyond the Rift is a varied mix that would be a great place to start for anyone looking to delve into the fiction of Peter Watts.  Short stories and novelettes, the selected pieces range from far to near-future scenarios, deep space to deep in the Earth’s oceans, post-humanism to the birth of AI, religion to secular interests, hard science fiction to cyberpunk (albeit cloaked), free will to determinism, environmentalism to the psyche, and life to death and back again. 

Brooding and dense, Watts’ style requires reader engagement.  Dialogue can be obtuse and exposition is most often indirect, giving Beyond the Rift a bleak, stark feel.  Stories like “The Island”, “Home”, and “A Niche” scrape their fingernails along the blackboard of storytelling, sparks crackling to life the closer one draws to the end.  Like Arthur C. Clarke’s Earthlight, the colorless moods give way to bursts of light near the conclusions, washing back through the stories and slaking readers’ pent up thirst.  The darkness not replete, fits and starts of optimism crawl out from the grim landscapes.  “A Word for Heathens”, “Mayfly”, “The Things” possess conclusions that both accept the exigencies of existence and attempt to come to an understanding with them.  The outlook may begin bleak, but Watts slowly skews the stories toward the gray side of optimism.

Similar to James Patrick Kelly, the stories in Beyond the Rift drop the reader into scenarios for which there are few clues as to the underlying reality.  But unhurriedly—a hint here, a veiled clue there—things takes shape.  The density of language resulting from this approach can be disassociating, but the deeper one peers through the murk, the more fundamental are the themes which emerge.

Individually, a number of striking ideas are presented, and a couple from different angles.  “A Word for Heathens”, “The Eyes of God”, “Hillcrest vs. Velikovsky” (and possibly “Ambassador”) examine Christianity and religion.  One throws health and God into the same barrel; another uses a sophisticated airport security device to comment upon morals in the mind and in reality (i.e. the Christian idea that thinking a sin is the same as committing it); the third outlays the placebo effect of religion; while the last, for as abstract as it is, is at least an existential quandary for which faith provides one possible solution.

Another common element to Beyond the Rift is cyber-enhanced bodies and outright post-humanism.  In “The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald” a woman tinkers with human biology to contentious effect.  In “A Word for Heathens”, government uses head implants to preach to its people, while in “The Eyes of God” similar tech sends advertisements direct to the cranial core.  In “Mayfly” and “Repeating the Past” technology is used for reasons hanging on the edge of morality.  In the former a couple harmed by radiation choose to grow a child physically connected to a virtual world, while in the latter a young man is presented the reality of a history he loathes through the video games he loves.  In “A Niche”, Lenia Clarke has her entire body altered to live underwater. And in "Home", a person who has been underwater for a long time - perhaps too long - encounters something she'd forgotten.  (This meeting inspired the intriguing cover art.)

But the most universal idea of the collection is humanity, particularly its psyche in the face of reality.  That reality may be far future space travel or environmental disaster on Earth today, either way the sci-fi effects take a back seat to human interest.  In “Nimbus” a man whose wife was killed by a major storm seeks to find a silver lining as the weather continues its onslaught.  In “The Island”, a woman tries to come to terms with a major obstacle while protecting her son. “The Things”, though perhaps more notable for being the story from the film The Thing from the alien’s perspective, is fully concerned with the varying states of mind of the men it exists amongst, and ultimately what it hopes to achieve through them.  And Watts’ first ever published story, “A Niche” is at the surface level an interesting psychological examination of two deep sea divers living in cramped conditions, while at a sub-level a meta-fictional contrast of Arthur C. Clarke’s intelligent complacency and J.G. Ballard’s veiled paranoia.

Style-wise, Watts is aware.  The words and sentences tweaked and refined for impact, there is a palpably visceral element in all of the prose.  The animality of mankind on display, see the following excerpt from “The Island”:

“We sleep.  The chimp makes grudging corrections to a myriad small trajectories.  I set the alarm to wake me every couple of weeks, burn a little more of my candle while the enemy tries to pull another fast one; but for now it seems to be behaving itself.  DHF428 jumps towards us in the stop-motion increments of life’s moments, strung like beads along an infinite string.  The factory floor slews to starboard in our sights: refineries, reservoirs, and nanofab plants, swarms of von Neumanns breeding and cannibalizing and recycling each other into shielding and circuitry, tugboats and spare parts.  The very finest Cro-Magnon technology mutates and metastasizes across the universe like armor-plated cancer.” (58)

In the end, Beyond the Rift is a good, quality selection of stories from Peter Watts that represents the majority of his output of shorts as of 2013.  Austere, isolating, visceral, gloomy—however you want to describe it, there is an underlying connection to the spark of life inside humanity that can’t be denied.  Cynically optimistic, there are uplifting themes tucked in the background of scenarios for which the empirical response would be depression.  Holding himself to a higher standard of storytelling, Watts uses the effects of mainstream sci-fi (a la Alastair Reynolds, John Scalzi, Richard Morgan, Charles Stross, Neal Asher, etc.), yet continually aims at something deeper in humanity and society’s soul;  William Gibson, Brian Aldiss, Iain Banks, John Brunner, Ted Chiang, and to some degree Greg Egan, are more his contemporaries.

The following is a complete table of contents:

“The Things”
“The Island”
“The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald”
“A Word for Heathens”
“The Eyes of God”
“Flesh Made Word”
“Mayfly” (w/ Derryl Murphy)
“Hillcrest vs. Velikovsky”
“Repeating the Past”
“A Niche”
Essay: “Outro: En Route to Dystopia with an Angry Optimist”

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