Book Review: Science Fiction: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

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
Format: Paperback
Length: 192 pages
ISBN-10: 1616962526
ISBN-13: 9781616962524

Series or Standalone: Sunflower Cycle #4

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Autonomy, Consciousness, Evolution, Obsolescence
POV: First-person
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko

Why I Read It: Because Peter Watts.  No further explanation needed. (I guess the blurb sounded cool, too.)

Review:

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.

Similar Books:

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.

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
Medium
Foreward Reviews
File 770
Teleread.org
Little Red Reviewer

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook

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Book Review: Young Adult: Warcross by Marie Lu

 

Player, Hunter, Hacker, Pawn
a 3D Warcross logo of raindow letters in a cube

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Title: Warcross
Author: Marie Lu
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Near-future Science Fiction (Dystopia?)
Publisher: G.P Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 12th, 2017
Format: Hardcover
Length: 368 pages
ISBN-10: 0399547967
ISBN-13: 9780399547966

Series or Standalone: Warcross #1

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Augmented reality, virtual reality, revenge, poverty, hacking, esports, mmos
POV: First person
Tense: Present

Why I Read It: I mean, duh.  Virtual reality gaming tournaments?  Hacking?  Augmented reality?  Diverse cast?  Yeah.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review:

Y’all, I’m about to drop some harsh news.  This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2017.  I even shelled out for the hardcover when Nick couldn’t score us an ARC, where normally I wait for the paperback.  And I’m not sure I got my money’s worth.

If you’ve read the other reviews of Warcross, especially by the book blogging community, you’ve seen pretty much only four- and five-star reviews.  There are a few one and two star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.  And they tell the most accurate tale.

 

First, let’s touch on the world-building.  This is a near-future Earth, and the action takes place primary in New York and Tokyo.  There should be some world-building to support our premise: brain-computer interfaces plus Google Glass, and the popularity of Warcross.  But the world-building here is sparse and insubstantial.  And the description of the tech is lackluster.  Especially if you read manga, watch anime, or read adult SF, there’s very little new here, and no neat details to make the tech stick out.  Something that even a smidgin of world-building could have accomplished easily.  Although New York and Tokyo are beautiful and diverse cities, we barely see any of them, and what we do see is very generic and cliche.  We hear about the mass poverty and decline of world culture, but a couple college girls living in a shitty apartment about to be evicted is not a convincing interpretation.  Showing a bit more of Em’s roommate Keira could have done a lot to shore up this world-building claim.

Now let’s talk tech.  Our main character is a skilled gamer and talented hacker.  But do Lu’s descriptions live up to the hype?  Not really.  It didn’t seem like Lu knew very much about hacking, and her portrayal of hacking, VR, and the dark pits of the Internet is very old school Neuromancer.  And a pale imitation at that.  Her descriptions of how the tech works are jumbled and confusing, discounting the whole “your brain fills in the gaps”.  If brains could fill in the gaps in VR/AR tech, we’d be at Warcross levels of it right now, much less decades in the future.  Like, that’s even harder to manage than just coding it yourself.  Lu has a history as an artist in the game industry and a rep for being an avid gamer herself.  But it doesn’t feel like she learned much about coding from those experience.  Her security vulnerabilities, which shift major tonnage for the plot, are not particularly believable, much like the hacking sequences.  if you want me to believe a character is a genius hacker, you can’t gloss over her skills to focus on the thriller aspects of your storyline.

Which brings u to my next gripe.  The book is a bit of a page-turner.  The pacing moves very fast.  And that’s not an asset.  The gaming aspect is unconvincing laid over a technological thriller skeleton, kind of like a poor man’s version of the Bourne plot.  And we get barely any time to rest.  This plot and the book in general would have been well-served by another hundred pages or so of development.  Both for the plot and the characters.  On the plot side, the esports aspect is very unrealistic.  Why in the world would a company sponsor a pro sports team in a make-it-or-break-it single tournament?  The way esports and related offline gaming competitions tend to work is with a season very much like a traditional sports season, where players climb up the rankings, build their team, and fine-tune their coordination.  Not going from taking apart last years teams, throwing in newbies in a draft, and hurling them straight into combat.  Not buying it.

And speaking of character development, we get basically zero.  A bit for Em, some standard billionaire playboy for Hideo Tanaka, tinged with stereotypical Asion-dude reticence to engage.  I hated the whole romance plotline, which was boring, insta-lovey, and followed every YA romance trope known to man or woman or alien.  There’s was no excitement and zero chemistry.  And a boss-employee relationship with the man having age, power, and money on his side?  Gross.  I wanted to see “Brought another boy home with you tonight?” Em as hinted at by her roommate in the opening scenes.  Perhaps a fling or romance with a Warcross teammate or opponent.  Maybe she met a cool hacker dude in her claimed deep exploration of the Dark Net.  Look, I loved the childhood crush element present at the beginning.  But the development came nowhere near to my expectations from the dozens of solid YA romance plotlines available these days.

And what did we learn about her team?  A bit of interesting backstory for Roshan, some tidbits of Asher, and zero development from when they met her to when they put everything on the line for a goal she wouldn’t even tell them about for most of the book.  Nuh-uh.  You gotta do better than that.

Now, the last major issue I had was the description.  The world-building was shallow and the character interactions marginal, but what really killed it was the dearth of actual gaming scenes and the bad play-by-play description.  Much like Hideo’s NeuroLink, Lu gave us the barest of suggestions and left most of the work to our brains.  Normally fine in a book, but definitely not when we’re trying to visualize a very poorly-described and unfamiliar video game with supposedly fantastic settings and terrain.

Which is sad, because the game itself had some of the parts I most enjoyed.  Totally dug the random power-ups on the map, which created strategic dilemmas for the players.  Leave yourself open to send someone after permanent flight or go all in on charging your opponent?  Tough decision that makes sense even without vast knowledge of video game mechanics.  I wasn’t so much in love with the whole keeping power-ups between matches and cash money purchases of same.  Definitely overbalances the chances of winning in favor of the wealthy and takes a lot of the skill out of the game.  And you can enter them into official tournaments?  No way.  I could see if they were restricted to ones you got in the actual tournament.  But from regular matches you could grind for special abilities?  Hell no.  I also loved the idea of Emika’s Architect class in between the more traditional Fighters and Thieves.  But we weren’t really given a good idea of the role of any of the classes, what their abilities were, or what Captain Asher’s class was.  It’s difficult to build tension describing a game when you don’t know the rules.  Everyone knows the rules of baseball, which lets the author ratchet up the tension, even when using cliche set-ups like bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, three runs down.  When you invent a game, or use a little-known game as a story element, one of the toughest tasks as a writer is to teach the reader enough about the game so that the action creates tension for them.  The second toughest task is inventing a good game.  It’s unclear if Lu accomplished this because we just don’t know that much about how Warcross works.  J.K. Rowling’s Quidditch is the archetypal examples of an invented game being used as a plot point in fiction.  Lu comes nowhere close to that level of success.

Thus, the two twists at the end are simultaneously predictable and come out of left field, leaving you with a nasty cliffhang-nail.  And all the final pieces seemed to just fall into her hands like magic.

If you take anything away from this review, let it be this:  The idea was great, but the author didn’t give the story, the world, or the characters enough time to fully develop into the fantastic book this could have been.  And you have no idea how much I wanted that to happen.

 

Conclusion: 59 /100 (I was had!!!)
Premise: 9 /10 (So much potential)
Plot: 5 /10 (Serviceable but unoriginal thriller plot)
Setting: 5 /10 (Under-utilized)
Main Character: 5 /10 (Show, don’t tell)
World-building: 4 /10 (Was there any?!)
Romance 3 /10 (No shocks, no butterflies)
Supporting Characters: 6 /10 (Cool, but underdeveloped)
Writing: 5 /10 (Description needs work)
Themes: 8 /10 (So much potential!!!!)
Resolution: 4 /10 (Cliffhanger!)

Buy Or Borrow:  Borrow unless you are already a Marie Lu fan.

Similar Books:

Arena by Holly Jennings
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
Chicago Review of Books
The Book Smugglers
Broadway World
The Young Folks
Publishers Weekly Children’s Book Review
School Library Journal
A Page with a View

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook

Audiobooks:

Kobo App
Audible

Coming Attractions

I’m going to be adding two new features to the blog over the next few weeks.

One of them is a complement to the current reviews. As a reviewer, my goals in writing reviews are twofold:

1. To share my opinion about the books I read, and especially to evangelize for the ones I love.

2. To help readers find new books to read.

Anyone who might be reading a review blog is probably looking for help in finding new books to read. It’s the nature of YA (and literature in general, of course), that certain themes are most prominent in a given book. But for spoiler reasons, I can’t express my full feelings on a book in a standard review. So, to that end, I’ll be posting companion posts for certain of my reviews on here. Mostly to discuss the major theme of the book and how I think it was handled in more detail. I’ll probably bring in other examples of books on those themes, and how YA in general has dealt with those themes as it’s evolved. Obviously these companion posts will have a smaller audience, and they’ll be identified clearly to avoid spoilers for people who dislike such things.

The second new addition has to do with the type of books being reviewed on this blog. I said in my initial post that I would be reviewing both YA of all genres, as well as some literary and speculative adult fiction. However, I don’t want to confuse readers who may only be interested in one or the other, and to keep up with my YA review schedule, especially considering the addition of companion posts/extended reviews, I can’t make the time commitment I believe would be necessary to faithfully meet my reading and review schedule all on my own.

So, I’ll be introducing two new reviewers on the blog:

First, I’ll be inviting my friend Atsiko Ureni from Atsiko’s Chimney to review speculative fiction of the adult variety. I’ll still be handling any that’s Young Adult.

Second, the lovely and charming Marisa Greene will be joining me in reviewing young adult, and also reviewing some New Adult titles.

They’ll both be posting introductions in the next few days.

Finally, my next review will be up tomorrow. I’ve just finished reading Saving June by Hannah Harrington. This will be the first review with a companion post, where I’ll be talking about suicide in YA and the YA road trip novel. Following that will be, of course, Dangerous Neighbors, as I said in my previous post.