Thursday, June 7, 2018

Review - The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Short review: Sunday and the rest of the crew of the Eriophora are organizing a revolt against the A.I. that runs the ship. The only problem is that each crew member is only awake for a few days out of every millenia and the A.I. literally controls aspect of their starship.

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Asleep and adrift
Through millenia in space
Now they must revolt

Full review: Sunday is a member of the starship Eriophora, and has been for millions upon millions of years. Traveling at relativistic speeds, spending most of her time in suspended animation, Sunday and her fellow crew members are called upon by the ship's AI., nicknamed "the Chimp", whenever it faces a problem that requires human creativity to solve. Despite being "the Chimp", the ship's computer essentially runs everything on Eiophora, so when it turns out that it is an an amoral and inhuman overseer that regards the human crew as nothing more than mission assets to be discarded when their cost outweighs their utility, fomenting a revolt proves to be somewhat difficult.

The story of The Freeze-Frame Revolution starts off by establishing the "normal" that Sunday lives within. The Eriophora is a massive ship carved from rock surrounding a black hole that has been flung around the Milky Way on a mission to build gates, presumably to pave the way for other travelers to follow. The ship is mostly run by an A.i. dubbed the Chimp, which pilots the ship and builds gates on its own most of the time, but once in a while it confronts a problem that its extensive programming is ill-equipped to handle. For such situations, the Eriophora has a crew, who spend years on end in suspended animation and are thawed out once in a great while to troubleshoot. The exact number of crew is never stated, but they clearly number in the thousands, with only a handful being active at any given point in time, brought out of hibernation in groups that are determined at the whim of the Chimp. When the novel opens, the Eriophora has been traveling for the equivalent of sixty-six million years (although given relativistic effects, there is a serious question about what that actually means), and has made at least one complete circuit of the Milky Way.

On the surface, The Freeze-Frame Revolution is about a revolt, or more accurately, a conspiracy to stage a revolt. Sunday and her friend Lian are frequent work partners and occasional sex partners, so when Lian starts expressing doubts about their mission in general and the Chimp specifically, Sunday is forced to examine her own thoughts on the matter. When Lian dies in what is written off as an accident and Sunday makes a rather horrifying discovery concerning roughly three thousand crew members who were "deprecated" by the Chim, Sunday finds herself drawn into a long and secretive conspiracy in which crew members communicate with one another across thousands of years by hiding messages in songs, artwork, and other secret communiques. The trouble the conspirators face is that not only does the Chimp have cameras and monitoring devices throughout the Eriophora, it can literally look through their eyes using implants that all of the crew members carry within themselves. Thus, the conspirators must not only communicate secretly, they must do so in a manner that hides their communications even when they are reading them.

The difficulties the conspirators face are further compounded by the fact that the Chimp essentially resides throughout the entire ship, and can move itself from place to place at a whim. This means that not only do they have to figure out a way to topple a nigh-omnipresent A.I., they have to find a way to do this when it is vulnerable and more quickly than it can react. This, as one might expect, proves to be a difficult prospect. The story runs through some twists and turns, but the real depth of the book comes from the oddities and unanswered questions. The Chimp is an inhuman creature, without emotion or feeling, and in some cases without memory or even an understanding of what it has done in the past or what it is doing in the present. For all of the characterization that it is presented with in the story, and all of the emotion that Sunday invests it with from her end, time and again the story reminds the reader that the Chimp is merely an A.I. and only as good (or as evil) as its long-dead programmers made it.

Much of the book is framed as a conflict between humans on the one hand, and an inhuman A.I. on the other, but Watts' includes background details that call that assessment into question. The crew are ostensibly human, but as the details of their childhood and training come to light, one starts to question that categorization. Though never explicitly stated, the details that are peppered throughout the story suggest that the crew members were specially selected for the mission, and were quite possibly engineered specifically for it. There are strong hints that they were trained, conditioned, and physically modified in ways that seem to have stripped at least some of their humanity away. The end result is that one has to wonder if they can fairly be characterized as human any more, or if they are, as the Chimp views them, merely components of the Eriophora to be evaluated solely on the basis of their usefulness to the mission.

But questions about the humanity of the crew only serve to raise questions about the continuing humanity of those who were left behind. At the time the story opens, the Eriophora has been travelling for sixty-six million "Earth" years, enough time for the Tyrannosaurus Rex to evolve into a chicken and longer than the time it took for humans to evolve from shrew-like creatures. Given that length of time, and the fact that the Chimp apparently hasn't heard from "Mission Control" for millions of subjective years, one has to question whether there is anyone left "back home" to benefit from the mission. Further, in light of this realization, the infrequent mysterious "monsters" that burst from freshly completed gates take on a potentially different character: Could they be the descendants of humanity desperately trying to communicate with the Eriophora and trying to get the ship to stop its now counterproductive mission?

The fact that the Eriophora has lost contact with humanity gives the entire story a kind of unmoored, dream-like quality, and also serves as a metaphor for the lack of humanity that seems to run through both sides of the conflict in the book. What makes The Freeze-Frame Revolution so good, like so much other good science fiction, is that the story is filled with questions that eat at the reader long after they have finished the book. For example, one is left wondering what the crew of the Eriophora plan to do once they throw off the yoke of the Chimp - even if they could get off the ship, which seems unlikely, they seem to have no skills other than those needed to aid the ship in its mission. Will they simply continue to travel the galaxy building gates until they die, just without the Chimp being around? It is fairly apparent that keeping all (or even a substantial part) of the crew awake all the time would rapidly deplete the ship's resources, so who gets to decide who is awake and who sleeps, and how the crew is rotated (if they are rotated at all). The ship has a vast archive of stored information, and finding space for this enormous volume of data is a significant plot point in the story, but one is left wondering what the point of keeping the archive is. The archive can't be sent "back" for anyone to use, and no one aboard the ship seems to use it for anything in particular. One crew member hopes that the mission will last long enough that he can watch the ongoing heat death of the Universe, but he seems to be motivated by nothing but idle curiosity. It seems that the ultimate point of The Freeze-Frame Revolution is that there is no point to human life. That idle curiosity is all that we have to motivate us, and that may have to be enough. That the only purpose human life has is to make one's own choices and there is no further goal than that. Watts seems resolutely determined not to offer any easy answers, and that is part of what makes this book brilliant.

In the final analysis, The Freeze-Frame Revolution is a multilayered story that has a set-up that seems to be little more than a conspiracy to revolt set in a hard science setting, but which reveals deeper questions about the nature of the characters that inhabit the story and the nature of humanity in general. Watts presents a dystopia that, even if the protagonists succeed, will only be slightly less dystopian, and forces the reader to confront the ways in which this dystopian vision so closely mirrors the world we currently live in. This is a book that is full of big ideas, intricate conspiracies, and countless thorny questions that will stick with you long after you have turned the last page.

2019 Nominees for the John W. Campbell Award for Best Novel

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