Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review of Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes by Peter Watts

Like many science fiction writers, Peter Watts pays the bills working as a real scientist, and in his free time, taps away at a keyboard, penning stories of his true imaginative interests.  Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, the 2001 collection which collates the first nine short stories Watts published, bucks the scientist-as-writer stereotype in one significant way: Watts is interested in style and voice as much as ideas. Unlike many of his contemporaries—Alastair Reynolds, Geoffrey Landis, Vernor Vinge, etc.—Watts can actually write. His prose a strong point, the ideas embedded, and the stories as a whole are all the more successful for it.

Dense, minimalist, and openly in admiration of one of the genre’s most superb stylists, Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, though an early effort, shows ever sign of the spit and polish of William Gibson’s Burning Chrome.  Watts heads in a different direction from a character, setting, and method point of view, but for the sharp-edged, visceral sense of mood and style, there is some resemblance. 

As disparate as the stories seem on the exterior, there are several key themes tying Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes together.  Most are told from a first-person perspective, as well as by a character that is not intended to be empathized with.  Watts forcing the reader to examine the characters from a distance based on the friction their actions create, the scientist in “Fractals”, the fading researcher in “Bethlehem”, the grieving father of “Nimbus”, and the self-loathing researcher of “Flesh Made Word” will not be immediately likeable, and will require some ciphering to fit within their situation.  Most likewise possessing a post-human element, the characters only becomes more abstract.  The ocean walker of “Home”, the woman of “The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald”, and the manner in which Lenia Clarke handles her underwater adaptations in “A Niche” are very personal perspectives that likewise require imagination for the modification—biological, mechanical, etc.—that they have undergone.

The ocean (and its parallels) are likewise repeating motifs.  “Bulk Food” is a highly cynical take on Watts’ view that marine biology is an aspect of the research community bogged down with political and ulterior interest.  “Home” is a brief, eerie tale of a person wandering the ocean floor.  Coming in contact with something familiar in what is otherwise a sensory deprived environment, they are forced to make a significant choice.  In “A Niche”—a precursor to the Starfish novels—two women, uncoincidentally named Clarke and Ballard, are forced to survive together in the damp confines of an underwater research station.  One of the strongest in the collection, the psychological odds of the two perfectly compliments the unforgiving environment they live within.  And “Ambassador”, though set in space, has all the feel of an underwater chase.

Dystopia a motif popular still today, Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes contains its share.  Though (properly) relegated to the background so the human side can take center stage, “Nimbus”, “Bethlehem”, “The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald”, and “Flesh Made Word” all, to some degree, throw in a crumbled aspect of society to enhance the exigencies at stake and the emotional stakes. In one an ecological disaster has changed society, while in the others economic and political collapses have reverted society to scenarios semi-wild west in fashion.

But the thread which binds Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes together is the harshness, the darkness, the disassociating feel of life under Watts’ pen.  None of the characters living in enviable circumstances, nor dealing with easy situations, there is a post-modern cloud of cynicism that hangs over the stories, punctuated by a silver lining at the end.  With Gibson this feeling likewise exists, but hangs on the margins.  With Watts, it’s in your face.  Dealing with racism, fanaticism, self-doubt, and the blanket of equivocality science and the modern perspective muffle life with, “Bethlehem”, “Flesh Made Word”, “Home”, and “Fractals” are not easy reads.  “A Niche”, “Bulk Food”, and “The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald” are more conventional stories, but they too have a cloud hanging over them, turning the mood from b&w to gray.

In the end, Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes is a first collection, but a better first collection than the majority of science fiction today—particularly from the group of scientists masquerading as writers.  Watts letting science take a backseat or work in parallel to the social and individual themes being driven towards, most readers will be surprised at his day job.  The prose accomplished, the reader is all too easily lulled into a post-modern dystopia of fragmented dimensions.  Those who like Ted Chiang, William Gibson, and Greg Egan will most appreciate the collection.

Published between 1990 and 2000, the following stories are collected in Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes:

“A Niche”
“The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald”
“Bulk Food” (w/ Laurie Channer)
“Flesh Made Word”

As to the significance of the title, I'm stumped...

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