I really, really like Watts’ writing, perhaps to an extent not represented by my reviews of individual books. On the surface, that might not make sense, but it comes down to is that sweet spot where ideas, writing, and science meet and Watts’ generally ability to arrive near the zone. Freeze Frame is his most accessible book I’ve read to date (apparently, word count belies his claim of novella). While I’d highly recommend it to Watts fans as well as people who want to dip their toes into some hard sci-fi, for me it lands solidly third place behind Blindsight and Starfish. (To be clear, it’s technically better than Starfish. I just like the underwater setting in that book).
Watts does not hand-hold, but I felt like there were more clues than I normally find to his writing. The characters are aboard an asteroid converted into a gate-building ship, on a long-term mission to build humanity gates around the Milky Way. We all know that AI is probably better than humans when it comes to accuracy and following orders, but humanity has a certain gift for problem-solving and lateral thinking that means that humans stored in cyrogenic stasis became part of the mission, to be awakened at long intervals or in case of unusual problems. But humans are prone to disobeying orders, so these were indoctrinated from a young age, and face a number of strategic depersonalization and strategies when awakened that keep them from forming strong human relationships.
“Built to revel in solitude, all those Pleistocene social circuits tamed and trimmed and winnowed down to nubs: born of the tribe, but built to leave it behind without so much as a backward glance.”
Clever, clever, clever, and bound to do a number on the psyche. Surprisingly, Watts doesn’t go too far into that aspect and concentrates more on the idea of the effects of short awakening, consciousness-raising, and revolution. He also rather sidesteps the why. Yes, it’s a long novella. But if I was his editor–and clearly, I’m not–I might have shaved off some of the exposition–sorry non-sci-fi readers–and brought more dialogue into it. But that’s never been Watts’ strong suit. Neither is characterization. Granted, there’s usually good reason for that, and as mentioned, these characters only get to be alive one day every five thousand years or so, so they don’t get a whole lot of time for hobbies or personal growth. But if you are a character reader, this isn’t going to be one of those Expanse-type ensemble casts where you grow to appreciate every member of the crew in different ways.
“Why’d you think I signed on in the first place… I want to see how it turns out.”
“Everything. The universe. This–reality. This hologram, this model, whatever we’re in. It had a start, it’s got an endpoint, and the closer we get to it the clearer that becomes. If we just hang in there long enough we’ll at least get to see the outlines.”
“You want to know the purpose of existence.”
“I want to know the destination of existence.”
There’s some very cool and scary ideas here, some underexplored. If it were me, I would have spent more on the psychology of purpose. Once they’ve established there is no more humanity as they recognize is, the psychological struggle would seem to be more about purpose, otherwise the humans truly are nothing more than ‘meat.’
Also note–thankfully, for me–there are no real chimpanzees in this story. ‘Chimp’ is what the crew calls the AI. Whew. I loathe anthropomorphized apes.
“Seriously. How do we know when the mission’s over?”
“Why would you want it to be over?” Vik wondered.
“When we receive the callback sequence,” Chimp said. Which had made perfect sense back when we were young and freshly minted and shiny new.”
There’s a trio of short stories that accompany it, all available for free on his website.
Note, the paperwhite kindle obviously doesn’t have the red letters that spell out the message that takes you to this updated postscript short story, of a sorts: https://rifters.com/Eriophora-Root-Archive-Log-Ahzmundin–frag/derelict.htm
Buddy read with Nataliya, Phil, David, and Vivian.