The Freeze-Frame Revolution: Doesn’t feel complete

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts science fiction book reviewsThe Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts science fiction book reviewsThe Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Having never read one of Peter Watts’ novels before, I thought a short novel like The Freeze-Frame Revolution (2018) would be a good place for me to start. After all, I like science fiction, generation-style ships, rogue AIs, and solid narratives about mutinous crews. Watts delivers on those elements and many more, but the story never really coalesced for me, and I had trouble connecting with the narrator.

Over the last sixty million years, Sunday Ahzmundin and the rest of the Eriophora’s crew have been traveling the galaxy, harvesting usable materials from asteroids and whatnot and turning those materials into wormhole gates. The ship’s AI, known as Chimp, wakes the crew on a carefully rotated schedule so that members are only awake for a few days or so in between long periods, sometimes thousands of years, of stasis. Groups of crew members who work well together are often revived at the same time, so that there are familiar faces during work-shifts. But dissent grows within the ranks, along with mistrust of Chimp and his adherence to the parameters of their mission, and Sunday must choose whether to ally herself with Chimp or her fellow humans.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for me was that I couldn’t understand what the rebels were rebelling, why they objected so strongly to Chimp’s presence, and what their end goal post-revolution was. Sunday isn’t the instigator of the revolt, so her first-person voice doesn’t share any specific insights with the reader, but neither is she really taken into the closest confidences of the revolutionaries due to her perceived alliance with Chimp. Chimp, itself, genuinely seems to be making the best decisions it can within the parameters of its programming, so I couldn’t figure out what the crew were objecting to.

Sunday habitually refers to herself and every other living person on board Eriophora as “meat,” and though she claims to have tight friendships with people like Lian and Kaden, I had the sense throughout The Freeze-Frame Revolution that Sunday was describing something that had happened to someone else, in another time, rather than events that she had been a part of. (Another “Wait, what?” moment for me was when Watts murkily reveals, at the very last moment, who Sunday’s been telling this story to and how, which came out of nowhere and goes unresolved.)

Moreover, sixty million years, even if the sum total of time experienced by a crew member only equates to a normal human lifespan, is a really long time to drive in very slow circles around the Milky Way, looking for scraps of anything useful. Sunday makes the point early on that it helped her to think of the ship as time-traveling backwards, looking for important milestones in human civilization as the inverse of how long they’ve been in space, but the Chicxulub impact is no less abstract for me, sixty-six millions years removed from it, than Sunday’s voyage is for me, also at a remove of sixty million years. Throw in Watts’ liberal use of diamond-hard science and high-level astrophysics, along with his very vague explanations for what Eriophora looks like or what, exactly, this mission is all about, and my ultimate impression was that most of the pertinent information had been provided elsewhere, in some other novel or short story that I simply wasn’t aware of.

I think I would have enjoyed The Freeze-Frame Revolution if it were a longer, more in-depth work that more fully explored the lives, personalities, and motivations of the Eriophora crew and its eventual rebellion against their AI minder. But Watts’ brevity didn’t work in the story’s best interests, and the overall effort wasn’t successful for me.

Published June 12, 2018. How do you stage a mutiny when you’re only awake one day in a million? How do you conspire when your tiny handful of potential allies changes with each job shift? How do you engage an enemy that never sleeps, that sees through your eyes and hears through your ears, and relentlessly, honestly, only wants what’s best for you? Trapped aboard the starship Eriophora, Sunday Ahzmundin is about to discover the components of any successful revolution: conspiracy, code―and unavoidable casualties.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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  1. Paul Connelly /

    I had a pretty similar reaction. The story was sort of interesting as far it went, but few of the potential plot developments turned into actual plot developments. I was waiting for more about the “monsters” that followed them out of the gates, or maybe something Van Vogtian like they come out of a gate and find another version of their own ship is already there due to some kind of time paradox, etc. But, no, Watts’s techno-pessimism is a limit on the kind of hijinks that the story will get into. (Like, the starship’s 60 million year voyage is hijinks, but it’s a voyage to nowhere basically.)

    A couple of Watts novels I liked pretty well, and a couple I actually threw in the trash so no one else would read them (something that might happen once every 20 years or so). The basic takeaways of the ones I’ve read so far are: “Look at all this sparkly technology and cool advanced scientific speculation that is mindbending in its implications! Look how it shows you that life in general and human life specifically is a fragile, futile, mechanical, horrible thing! Look how no one in authority can be trusted other than to be callous, underhanded and malevolent! Now, isn’t it better to have wised up and realized all these things?”

    • I thought the gate-monsters were going to be much more significant than they were, which was a big disappointment after all the initial fanfare. I’m glad to know someone else was mystified by that!

      The impetus for the revolution seemed to be rebelling against authority for the rebellion’s sake, but then someone else would end up taking charge, and then wouldn’t there have to be a rebellion against them, and on and on? Confusing.

      • Paul Connelly /

        I thought the purpose of the rebellion was to end the mission…stop building more gates and try to get—well, maybe not “home”, since even if the home planet could be found, conditions might be unsupportive of life. But they wanted to get somewhere where their lives might have more purpose than the repetitive gate building. Really, they were going nowhere and mechanically re-enacting a ritual for the supposed benefit of a species that was probably long extinct (except for themselves). The horror of life, a familiar Peter Watts theme, in this case staged like a production of Tau Zero crossed with No Exit as directed by the love-child of Richard Dawkins and H. P. Lovecraft.

        • I can see that. Again, if it had been a longer novel, some of those ideas could have been more fully-explored and clarified. But these things happen sometimes!

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