27 June 2018

Review - The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Cover by Elizabeth Story
The Freeze-Frame Revolution
Peter Watts
Tachyon Publications, 28 June 2018
PB/ e, 192pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution is a science fiction story, reaching into the far future. The far, far future - it ends some sixty million years from now (give or take a million or ten). Hence the title: Sunday Ahzmundin, our protagonist, is one of a 30, 000 humans carried aboard the Eriophora, a repurposed asteroid (I think) adapted as a space vessel and launched on a spectacular mission, planned to last into deep time.

As such, the Eriophora is operated from day to day by an artificial intelligence, referred to throughout as Chimp. Humans are stored in deep hibernation and only awakened, for a few hours or days, when their particular skills are needed for "the Mission". Thus they do not age appreciably, even as the world they have left behind - and the universe around them - evolve inexorably.

With this set-up, Watts seems to have created an inseparable barrier to any kind of linear narrative. Sunday is revived to assist with occasional "builds", some of them thousands of year ahead, and we begin to see... something... paying an interest to the rock as it performs its physics voodoo and spits out artificial black holes behind it. But the nature of the "gremlins" that seem to be following is obscure, and information about them relayed only indirectly.

Similarly, as some of the other characters seem to be developing doubts about "the Mission" (we learn that everyone aboard was brought up from childhood to take part, and we suspect there may have been even earlier modifications to them) it's hard to see how they can lead to anything more than stray remarks, centuries apart, in the margins of "builds' or as the crew wind down afterwards before being sent back to the "crypt".

Yet despite these constraints, Watts manages to spin a compelling narrative, albeit one that requires the reader to stay sharp and pick up hints from the text. I didn't find this difficult, this (admittedly short) book is one of those that whizzes along, almost demanding to be read in a sitting. (If you are worried about the hard science overtones and physics stuff making that difficult, don't be - just focus on the central point, this ship is basically a floating factory for making black holes and wormholes).

It is though more than just a whizzy SF plot, there is a lot here to think about. I spotted overtones of 2001 in Chimp's enthusiasm for the Mission and their general benign - or is it? - affect, which were very pertinent given the nature of that mission (establishing wormhole powered gates allowing for jumps across spacetime; not actually black monoliths, but, you know...) I also found Sunday's moral dilemma with regard to Chimp and to her fellow humans plausible, as well as the impossible position of the entire crew, seemingly the last humans in the universe.

Altogether then, an enjoyable and fun SF read and one with some genuine surprises for me.

For more about the book, see the Tachyon website here.

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