Friday, June 29, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #180: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Peter Watts is famously a dour and depressive writer: the money quote on his works is from my Internet buddy James Nicoll: "Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts."

So perhaps I need to say up front that his new novella-as-a-book, The Freeze-Frame Revolution, does not feature the extinction of the entire human race [1] or any major character being tortured in horribly inventive ways for eternity.

Well...but no. That's not an accurate way to describe the situation.

Sunday Ahzmundin is part of the crew of Eriophora, a starship on a relativistic journey over tens of millions of years, threading a wormhole network around the periphery of the Milky Way, part of a small fleet of similar ships. As Revolution opens, they've been out there for sixty million years or so, the crew mostly in coldsleep except when small teams are woken for a few days for some of the wormhole-threading operations, and the network has gotten fairly large and robust. They would never have contact with the other ships -- space is vast and hard-SF travel slow -- but they did expect to be seeing the network used by the descendants of the people they left behind on Earth, even if only at a distance, looking backward as they speed on to the next job.

But nothing human or even vaguely human-derived has ever come through a new wormhole. There's an occasional "gremlin," some kind of entity or weapon that tries to attack the rapidly-disappearing Eriophora, but that's it. The expected next generation of faster human ships has never appeared, and the people the network is being built for have never used it. The crew of Eriophora is concerned about this, quietly, but it's not entirely clear how much of the activity they would see in the best of cases -- their job is to drop wormholes and then continue on at high speed to the next place they can drop a wormhole.

But they're thinking they would have seen something by now, if humanity were still out there. And so not seeing anything implies something about humanity not being out there.

The human crew of Eriophora comprises about thirty thousand people, divided into "tribes" of several hundred each. They tend to wake up with others of their tribe, for social cohesion, and only meet a few others here and there. Only a dozen or so are awake at a time anyway; individuals probably only are awake for a few days every couple of hundred years at best. Given the quantities of people, the frequency some of them are woken up, and the distance between stars, it's not impossible that some of those sleepers have never been woken up in those sixty million years.

The only permanently awake mind on Eriophora is The Chimp, a not-quite-human-level AI that was deliberately left dumber and less capable than the ship's human crew so that they would be the ones to do most of the wormhole-creation. It can fly the ship and keep the plan and single-handedly execute most of the simpler wormholes, but it's programmed to have humans support and augment it most of the time.

So what can the crew do if they want to change the programming of The Chimp? What if they start to think Eriophora's mission is pointless, and want to change it?

The Freeze-Frame Revolution is the story of a mutiny -- one that takes millions of years to plan and execute, among a population that spends the vast majority of its time asleep and alone. Sunday is important to the plot, though not the center of it -- she's The Chimp's best friend, and so the one who needs to lie to the AI to keep it all secret.

This is a Peter Watts book, so it won't be surprising that it's about people in a strange, dangerous situation, far from any outside support, dependent on complicated systems to keep them alive, and trying to effect a change that is effectively impossible. Those who have read Watts before will have their guesses as to how well the mutiny works out -- I couldn't possibly comment here.

I didn't pull out my flying slip-stick, but this strikes me as impressively hard SF with big ideas: the kind that SF readers eternally complain that there isn't enough of. Watts is also a compelling writer, and the novella length is proverbially the best for SF for a reason: it's just enough space to create a world and tell a specific, pointed story. So this is the kind of thing a lot of people should be looking for-- I hope they are, and I hope they find it.

[1] Well, maybe it does, offstage. Our characters don't know for sure, but have their suspicions.

No comments:

Post a Comment