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.