July 22, 2018

Review: The Freeze-Frame Revolution

The Freeze-Frame Revolution The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Peter Watts is one of the hardest of hard SF writers, and one of my favorite authors, and Blindsight is one of my all-time favorite books. This new novella rides the cutting edge of physics and artificial intelligence, in telling the tale of a far-reaching journey into deep time (literally, 66 million years) and what that does to the people who take it.

The Eriphora, an asteroid turned spaceship, is bound on a road to infinity--or maybe the heat death of the universe--constructing gate wormholes on an endless circuit spiraling around the galaxy. Sent out from Earth millions of years ago, it is run by an artificial intelligence named Chimp, and staffed by thirty thousand people, the overwhelming majority of whom remain in suspended animation for centuries between builds. Chimp handles most builds itself and only wakes up a few humans at a time, as needed. Our protagonist, Sunday Ahzmundin, is one of those people, awake for a few days every thousand (or thousands, plural) years.

This is the quintessential story of rats on an endless treadmill, and what happens when they want to break free. There is no settling on a habitable planet on this trip; Chimp will not halt the mission to let anyone off, and Sunday and her cohorts must go back into their cold sleep if they don't want to die during the hundreds and thousands of years of sublight travel between builds. Needless to say, this state of affairs begins to affect members of the crew, and a revolution starts to ferment. But how can any resistance come to fruition when the mutineers are awake only, as the back cover copy says, "one day in a million?"

Peter Watts' books are not easy reads, and this is no exception. They're full of crunchy, chewy, hard SF ideas, rigorous physics, and meditations on, in this tale, the nature of deep time and artificial intelligence. His books demand the reader's full attention and reward more than one pass. (In this case, even more so as there's apparently a hidden message in the text--just look for the periodic red letters. I'm decoding it now.) His work is also very dark--I don't think he could write a light fluffy tale to save his life. This certainly doesn't qualify, and in fact that's the only knock I have on it (though I should be used to Watts' unrelenting bleakness by now). The ending is rather abrupt, as the mutineers strike during the attempt to build a Hub, a central point for the branching of several wormholes. The artificial singularity at the ship's heart, used to generate the micro-sized black holes that then serve as the gate wormholes (see, I told you: physics way over most people's heads), is deliberately sabotaged by the head conspirator, with the immediate result that all hell breaks loose. The newborn black hole rips through the ship itself, breaching many of the asteroid's pocket ecosystems, spewing atmosphere, destroying several thousand "coffins" of sleeping crewmembers, and threatening to tear the Eriphora apart.

And...that's it. Sunday is forced back into her crypt, and we don't know who lives or who dies, or if the ship can repair itself. Supposedly there are some companion stories on Watts' website. Normally I would be, shall we say, a wee bit irritated at such an ending? But what came before is so good, so thought-provoking, that I think I can forgive Watts the ending, with perhaps only a bit of side-eye. Certainly the last few pages hint at, though probably not a happy ending, at least a...continuation? Sunday is talking to someone, a combination reader/character in the story, so maybe the ship didn't tear itself apart. At any rate, this is brilliant science fiction, and well worth your time.

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