The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
Reviewed by Lucy Powell
How do you outwit a mind that is your own? How do you dupe someone who sees with your eyes, and hears through your ears? How do you outlast someone who never sleeps? These are the questions posed by Peter Watts’ newest novel The Freeze Frame Revolution, a hard, fast paced sci-fi narrative that really makes you think.
The premise at first is simple. Set aboard a spaceship Eriophora, sent from Earth eons ago to punch wormholes through space, this is a ship piloted and managed by a crew whose waking shifts last mere seconds in a timescale that spans millennia. Sunday Ahzmudin is our protagonist, and Watts makes her a compelling one. In fact, despite the hardcore, fast paced sci-fi that is crammed into every other sentence, the story is largely driven by Sunday and her relationships – not only with the other people onboard the ship, but with the ship’s main pilot ‘Chimp’, an A.I tasked with ensuring that the mission is carried out smoothly. Her somewhat complex, and at times heartbreakingly sad, interactions with the A.I, colour our opinion of the ensuing ‘revolution’ as the novel’s plot progresses to make a relatively “simple” mission through space and time, infinitely more intricate.
The ‘revolution’ part of the novel doesn’t happen until halfway through, but the way in which it happens is deftly done. The sense of suspense and claustrophobia created by Watts is amplified thousandfold given the inherently claustrophobia nature of a ship within the infinite expanse of space. Faceless ‘gremlin’ horrors chasing their every move and the stasis chambers – tongue-in-cheek named ‘crypts’ by Sunday, where the human’s “sleep” until their next work cycle – Watts pushes the pace of this novel into a heart-racing read.
As Sunday struggles to get to grips with both the AI Chimp (whom one cannot help but compare to HAL from Space Odyssey: 2001) and follow breadcrumbs left by her fellow rebels, one can feel the net and rebellion tighten. The twists and turns offered as our collective eyes are slowly revealed the truth behind the rebellion, and the people who lead it, is at times genuinely shocking. Yet, the ultimate climax of the book and the afterword too is one that is nicely straightforward, which is much to Watts’ credit. In a book that does much to befuddle the reader – not just through the plot, but through the dense terminology Watts uses – the otherwise interesting narrative is sometimes rather hard to keep up with. This is a novel that concentrates heavily on the “science” part in “science-fiction” and at times, one could be forgiven into thinking they were reading sections from a scientific paper on wormholes written far in the future.
Nevertheless, whilst the novel can be bogged down by jargon – scientific terms that required a thorough read through – this is a science fiction work that capitalises upon an interesting premise, and makes for an engaging read. Although the core plot premise is not new – humanity pitted against the machine – Watts makes an otherwise dense, overly complex novel gripping to the very last page.