Fiction Reviews

The Freeze-Frame Revolution

(2018) Peter Watts, Tachyon, £10.99 / US$14.95, 190pp ISBN 978-1-616-96252-4


A starship cruises from Earth around the Galaxy at 20% the speed of light. Only half a dozen or so at most of, its 20,000 or so strong, crew are awake only at mission critical times: otherwise they sleep away the millennia in cryogenic hibernation.  Its mission is to fabricate, from raw materials encountered on its voyage, stargates.  These are dropped off in star systems to enable those from Earth to reach out into the Galaxy.

All well and good, but the mission began 60 million years ago even though no-one in the crew had had more than several years awake time.  By now, some were wondering why a ship from Earth had not come through one of their gates declaring their mission over and to take them home.  Indeed nothing understandable, or alternatively friendly, had emerged from any of their newly created gates.  Was Earth still inhabited by humans?  Had humans evolved into something else?  Or had – whatever the civilisation was back on Earth – their mission and they themselves been forgotten?

Occasionally, Sunday Ahzmundin pondered these questions.  Yet Chimp – the ship's artificial intelligence was adamant that all was well and that their mission must proceed.  So proceed they did.

But Sunday was not the only one with concerns?  This raised other important issues.  How do you stage a mutiny when you are only awake one day in a million? How do you conspire when your tiny handful of potential co-conspirators changes with each shift?  How do you take down an enemy that never sleeps, that sees through your eyes and relentlessly, honestly, only wants what is best for you?

This novella, or short novel – as technically according to the current Hugo Award rules it is a novel with it being a thousand words or so over the novella limit – is the latest from one of the world's best, contemporary, hard SF authors.  Peter Watts is, of course, the writer of the Hugo winning Blindsight, one of the best ever first contact novels.

Like his other work, The Freeze-Frame Revolution will delight scientifically literate readers I particular, but not to mention others as it is so intelligibly written.  If you know what a ''lumen' is, 'Laniakea' means, or a 'blue dwarf', or even an 'AGI' means then you'll readily access the science upon which this novel builds.  But, perchance, if you don't then it is worth looking these up to appreciate this dimension and the thought that has gone into this first class example of science fiction at its best. (Though, 'sigmoid'? A bit posh; conversely 'logistic' is very arguably the general case in founding biology. But then coming across such nuances do entertain readers who love the 'science' in 'science fiction'.)

Having said that, this novella's setting – a starship operating across deep time – does mean speculation almost to the point of liberties. But, hey, that's half the fun.

This book's first paperback edition comes from the US, specialist SF imprint, Tachyon: it is not yet out in Britain (we desperately need more of Watts over here in Blighty) but Europeans can find it, as I did, in larger bookshops as well as genre specialist ones. Or you can, if you are prepared to sink that low, get it from Amazon.  The Tachyon first edition paperback also comes with a neat interior design by Elizabeth Story. Almost every other page has a word with one letter printed in red: it is as if the publisher or author wishes to send a message to the reader without anyone else knowing…

So, The Freeze-Frame Revolution is not yet (early 2019) out in Europe.  But it is , I assure you, worth seeking out as an import.  Some SF² Concatenation  team members nominated The Freeze-Frame Revolution as one of the best SF books of 2018: I simply had to see what all the fuss was about.  What the fuss is about is a tightly written, SFnal gem, and it really is possibly one of the best SF books of 2018!

Jonathan Cowie


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