Rating: 9.0 (out of 10)
For sixty-five million years, the crew of the starship Eriophora has been building gates to facilitate faster space travel for human expansion. The ship is ruled by Chimp, a “dumb” AI built with a lower synapse count to keep it at relatively human-level intelligence, and every few thousand or million or so years a build crew is selected and awakened from among its 30,000-plus population to assist in the logistics of gate construction. Sunday Ahzmundin, the protagonist and narrator of Peter Watts’ new novella “The Freeze-Frame Revolution”, is Chimp’s favorite, and finds herself awakened more often than the average crewperson. She has come to see Chimp as a friend, has gotten to know more people from more of the various “tribes” that constitute the milieu of life on a ship whose mission will likely stretch as far as time itself. She’s also been around enough to see the seeds of mutiny grow, as people begin to question whether Chimp – whose capacity to rule over their lives is near-absolute – can even be trusted, and whether it really is as “dumb” as the mission’s progenitors claimed. But how can anyone stage a coup against an entity that knows where they are and what they are doing at all times, when they don’t even know who or how many of their allies will be awake at the same time, at intervals stretching several millennia or more?
The mordant tone of Sunday’s narration attests to a kind of casual acceptance of the crew’s eventual fate; for the first few dozen million years, most crewpersons held out hope that they would be recalled home, or that they would be allowed to retire and settle down on an earth-like planet somewhere – at this point it seems clear that they won’t stop building gates until the heat death of the universe. When we first meet Sunday, she is relating how she used to play a little mental game with herself, calculating what point in Earth’s history they would be if they were moving backward in time rather than forward. She gives up around the time Australopithecus thrived in Eastern Africa. Had her morbid exercise in hypothetical time travel continued, the point at which her story begins would land Eriophora at the end of the Mesozoic Era, when a mass extinction event wiped out the dinosaurs. In all that time they have only covered a fraction of the expanse of the Milky Way, and the only indication they have of any sentient life – much less human life – still existing in the universe outside of themselves is the occasional “gremlin” that pokes through a newly-built gate to take a shot at them.
The ratio of human years to mission years creates the kind of psychological imbalance that makes the desire for insurrection both understandable and inevitable – the most commonly utilized crew members are awake for little more than a decade or two while eons pass them by. Add to this the fact that the terms they use to (accurately) describe the conditions that define their existence are inherently dehumanizing: they were “programmed” for the mission from birth, crewpersons are “deprecated” when their skills are no longer considered useful, their coldsleep pods are called “coffins” and are stored in “crypts”. Their lives – spent mostly in a state of near-death – are reduced to their functionality, with Chimp as the sole arbiter of their value, which is measured only by their usefulness to the mission. The most striking thing about the scope of “The Freeze-Frame Revolution” is the way it makes the scale of the universe and the wonder of discovery feel like more of a prison than a liberating experience.
Watts falls within the lineage of classic hard SF writers who can make far-future science magic seem tangible, but his true gift lies in how personable he makes it feel. Heavy themes like alienation, the value of existence, and the nature of consciousness are woven into the brisk narrative with humor and pathos. Watts may be too smart to let a big idea pass by without picking it to pieces, but above all, “The Freeze-Frame Revolution” is fun to read.
[The Freeze-Frame Revolution is a stand-alone story in Watts’ Sunflower Cycle; the first story in the cycle is “The Island”, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 2010, and is available in Watts’ collection Beyond the Rift, as well as the forthcoming anthology The Final Frontier, edited by Neil Clarke (July 10). It is not necessary to read the rest of the cycle before reading The Freeze-Frame Revolution, though “The Island” is well worth checking out.
Also, The Freeze-Frame Revolution is a little over 41,000 words long; the publisher is marketing it as a novel, while the author insists that he prefers it to be seen as a novella. For Hugo voting purposes, it is well within the 5000 word allowance for the novella category (40,000 words), and can be nominated as such if one so chooses.]