The Freeze-Frame Revolution – Peter Watts

5 out of 5

I’ve been fortunate enough to say this a few times: it’s so, so satisfying when you read a great book.  “Great” is certainly subjective, but whatever qualifies for a reader reading past their set point – “I’ll put it down after this chapter,” or “ten more pages,” and then you keep going – and when that momentum continues to provide satisfaction, up through the final page… it casts such a clear light upon the dividing line between these supreme experiences and those texts that you enjoy, but just kinda pick up and put down at a leisurely pace, or more questionably, those that you slog through out of some kind of determination.  More succinctly: every great book reminds you of what it’s like to read a great book, which reminds you of why you fell in love with books.

I want and need to read more Peter Watts.  Freeze-Frame Revolution is only my second book of his, and even though I’m missing some short stories that set up the world in which it takes place, I loved it; I’m all in.  It takes what I enjoyed about that other reading experience – the hard, out-there, sci-fi; the study of such science’s long-reaching effects upon the humans it affects – and boils it down to a hard-hitting novella that has a clear trajectory, which is what the other book lacked for much of its pages.  Partially this could be said to be because it’s a “novella” – not even 200 pages in length – but it’s also because of the book’s subject matter: a space mission of mapping the universe, on a gigantic craft powered by a black hole and crafting wormholes to link point As to point Bs, run by a “stupid” AI and a crew of 30,000 that are only woken at times chosen by the AI – often thousands of years apart – to help support the “builds” of these “gates,” in case mission parameters require some backup.  It’s an insanely wonderful mindfuck of a concept that brings to the forefront the relativity of time – the crews’ lives are experienced day-to-day, despite multiple decades passing while they sleep – and also keeps the story necessarily rolling along, as our narrator – Sunday – is only up and talking when there’s something to do.

Sunday also seems to have a unique connection with the AI – named Chimp – in that she converses with it on a more human level, beyond requests for statistics and updates, visualized on HUDs into which all passengers minds / eyeballs are virtually plugged in.  We learn bits and pieces of her being there upon Chimp’s “birth,” upon seeing the AI “dance” – manipulate other objects, rhythmically – as it educated itself regarding the world around it; she affixes a personality to Chimp while also understanding that all of its responses are just branches in logic coded by humans, and purposefully coded to not know it all.  Not necessarily out of fear of the tired machines-take-over trope, but because of the coders awareness of our own limitations: we cannot plan for the unknown, and so we shouldn’t code for it.

We can, however, plan for the inevitability of being human; of being imperfect and dissatisfied with the status quo.  And our story posits that scenario: when these passengers tire of their forever mission of exploration, one which doesn’t computationally “end,” what happens?  What happens when enough of them start to share these feelings, and start to voice them, across the many-years divides and the different “tribes” of people who are often woken up together?

The reader starts to identify with Chimp.  Select passengers’ opinions dominate over the tens of thousands who have no idea that there’s a potential rebellion going on.  Meanwhile, Watts is able to drop in all of these insane, theoretical (and yet grounded) sci-fi concepts about how this ship operates and sustains, and the kind of in-world lingo that has developed to speak about those concepts, and it never had me scrabbling for an appendix or searching back over past pages for an explanation as some other books necessitate; you get the gist via context, but you can also do some extra research if you want to get a better grasp on the terminology (and perhaps that’s why it contextually works, because it’s not just made up wholesale).

Sci-fi, as is often noted, is one of those genres that can allow for not only the exciting (and frightening) exploration of the unknown and impossible, but also as a cover for heavy duty sociological and psychological studies.  Free-Frame Revolution is all of that, hyper-compressed down to incredibly well written – and often funny, and often terrifying, and often conceptually mind blowing, and often can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough gripping – bullet points of story.  Having read some other takes on the tale, I can understand how some of the supporting short stories may’ve undermined the book’s impact, but even taking that into account, this is much more one of those journey-over-the-destination experiences, because the endpoint is very much tailored to get you to a point where your own brain gears are a’turnin’, wondering what could be next – for the world of the book, and for yourself.