She believed in the mission with all her heart.
But that was sixty million years ago.
How do you stage a mutiny when you’re only awake one day in a million? How do you conspire when your tiny handful of potential allies changes with each shift? How do you engage an enemy that never sleeps, that sees through your eyes and hears through your ears and relentlessly, honestly, only wants what best for you?
Sunday Ahzmundin is about to find out.
Note from the publisher: The red letters in the print edition (and highlighted letters in the e-book) indicate special bonus content from the author.
Title: The Freeze-Frame Revolution.
Author: Peter Watts
Category: Adult fiction
Genre: Hard Science Fiction
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: June 12th, 2018
Length: 192 pages
Series or Standalone: Sunflower Cycle #4
Themes: Autonomy, Consciousness, Evolution, Obsolescence
Why I Read It: Because Peter Watts. No further explanation needed. (I guess the blurb sounded cool, too.)
Like most Peter Watts works, I loved this one. It had some flaws I’ll get to in the body of the review, but overall it was great. Would have bought it if I didn’t get an ARC.
Several other reviews I read while prepping for my own review talked about confusion and opaqueness as far as the plot and premise. I didn’t see that personally, but I’ve read a lot more SF than most people. It should be mentioned this is the fourth work in a “series” of short fiction pieces. which can be found on the author’s website linked above under the series title “Sunflowers”. However, I disagree with most other reviewers in that I don’t feel that they must be read in order to really understand this novella/novel.
To save you all some trouble, the basic premise of the story is that a crew of people born and bred for the purpose have set out on a journey around the galaxy to see it with stargates between worlds. Although they are travelling in a relativistic spacecraft limited by the speed of light, those following after them through the gate network will not be. In order to live through what will be a multi-million year journey, they are put in cryo-sleep for most of the trip. A-less-than-human-level AI runs most of the voyage, only waking up humans when there are too many variables for it to work out a problem computer style. The majority of the story takes place some 69 millions years after they set out from 22nd century Earth.
The characters must figure out how to stage a revolution against their AI overlord while only being awake a few days in a million, compared to a machine that’s always on and runs far faster than the human brain, including running the functions of the entire ship such as engines, computers, the “internet”, and life support.
Something that you don’t find in much science fiction or science news these days is a writer who really understands how AI works and how it’s different than human intelligence. But Peter Watts is that rare gem, and it was wonderful to read a story that really captures a realistic-seeming artificial intelligence, both in the ways its sees the world and the mission, and in its interactions with the human crew members. The second part of what makes Watts brilliant here is his ability to recognize the blindspots of both his characters and his readers towards AI and weave them into a suspenseful if not exactly rollicking techno-thriller. Recent sci-fi blockbusters along similar themes may be more exciting, but can’t at all compare to the realism and humanity of Watts’ AI. On that along, science and especially AI buffs will find this book worth a read.
I should warn you that it’s a quintessential hard SF story, in that it expects you to know how to process the tropes and conventions of the genre, both tech wise and in the narrative. More casual SFF or general fiction readers may find some of the science and its presentation in the book either intimidating or tedious, and the tricks the characters use to keep their revolution a secret are not blindingly unique nor particularly entertaining.
Both the setting and the characters lack the level development one would get in a longer work. Certainly the length limits the story quality in that regard. Reading some of the other stories could remedy that to an extent, but they too suffer from some of the shortcomings of short fiction compared to the novel.
Finally, I need to address one of the main themes of this series as well as Watts’ work in general: free will. What is it and do humans really have it? Especially if you read the other stories in the series you’ll see this theme running through the novel. Some people might enjoy the exploration, and others might find it off-putting. I like the concept, but I felt the execution was a bit ham-handed.
But, there’s another more interesting, far more relatable theme in the novel: your place in the world. Many of the characters struggle mightily with the meaning of their existence in a world where there’s a good chance the rest of humanity has died out or evolved into something else. Especially given that there seems a strong chance that their intermittent existence will be prolonged far beyond and interest they might have in it by the ship AIs commitment to their mission. Because the characters have been removed so far out from the normal context of human society, they question not only the purpose of continuing their mission, but even of continuing to live. It’s on a bigger stage than most of us will ever experience, but the question of what gives life meaning is a universal one.
It probably sounds like I have a lot of criticism for this book. But that’s more a function of the review genre. I can’t tell you the details on the things that most excite me about the book because *spoilers*. But if nothing else, the on-again/off-again platonic relationship between the main character and the ship AI will give you reason enough to keep turning pages. Especially with the book only being about 140 pages long.
All that’s left to say is grab your copy and enjoy!
Conclusion: 77/100 ()
Premise: 8/10 (Not new, but a very new spin)
Plot: 7 /10 (Some holes)
Setting: 9/10 (Amazing and well-researched)
Main Character: 6/10 (Could have used more development)
World-building 9/10 (Well-structured and executed)
Technology 8/10 (Some handwavium, but on a hard science foundation)
Supporting Characters: 6/10 (Needed more development)
Writing: 8/10 (More than competent)
Themes: 8/10 (Great concepts, needed a bit more exploration)
Resolution: 8/10 (Brilliant twist, no “resolution” as such)
Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth the cost if you like hard sf with really solid philosophical/ethical commentary, especially as you can get the other three stories in the series for free on the author’s website.
There aren’t really any similar books. Some reviews I read cited generation ship novels, but that’s not really what this is. If you liked it, you might like Heechee Saga, but that’s about all I’ve got that feels really similar, and it’s an old, old series. Maybe the Rama series by Clarke. Still not really “similar”, but the network of travel routes and the time span are close.