The Revolution Will Be Incrementalized: Peter Watts and The Freeze-Frame Revolution


By JJ: Imagine being groomed from birth for a role on an galactic construction ship, on an endless journey to build a cosmic superhighway of wormhole transport gates for humans to use in the far future. Imagine being awakened by the ship’s AI for a few days, as part of a team to assist with a gate build, then spending millennia in cryogenic sleep before being awakened again to work with a different team of people – an endless cycle broken only by the occasional appearance of a strange lifeform as the ship exits at hyperspeed from a newly-constructed gate. Imagine the boredom, the isolation, and the devastating realization of the personal futility of being near-immortal, yet never getting to live a full life. Imagine the anger and resentment at realizing that you’ve been sold a bill of goods about this being your “noble destiny”.

Imagine trying to coordinate a rebellion with your co-workers, when you’re only awake for a few days every several thousand years – with an omnipresent artificial intelligence which has been programmed to protect the ship’s mission at all costs watching your every move, and hearing every word that you say.

This is the premise behind Peter Watts’ Sunflowers series and the just-released novella* The Freeze-Frame Revolution**.

Sunday Ahzmundin is one of 30,000 “spores” – diasporans who were groomed from birth to be sent out on the Eriophora, a cryosleep ship powered by a singularity and accelerated up to one-fifth of lightspeed, on a mission to prepare the way for a future humanity to travel the stars once their technology has advanced to the point where such travel would be possible. But their ship was a last-ditch effort made by a race of troubled people on a poisoned planet, whose survival was far from assured. And the ship left Earth more than 60 million years ago: the spores have no idea whether there are even any humans other than themselves still left alive in the galaxy. They have come to realize that they are living only shallow imitations of real lives – and they’ve discovered that their ship’s AI has been lying to them… about something.

It’s clear that the full story of this universe is something which Watts has had in development for at least a decade, because the worldbuilding in the novelettes “The Island” (which won a Hugo in 2010), “Giants” (2013), and “Hotshot” (2014) is solidly intertwined with that of The Freeze-Frame Revolution. And it is a wonderfully-rich, hard science fiction universe, filled with big concepts and unique imagery woven together in a plausible execution.

I was just as blown away by this fantastic story as I have been by all of his other works. The Freeze-Frame Revolution has earned a place at the top of my Hugo Novella nomination ballot next year – and I will be very surprised if I read anything this year to displace it from its Number 1 spot.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution is available right now on Kindle in both the U.S. and the UK, and will be released in paperback on June 12 in the U.S., and on June 28 in the UK.


* the cover says “A Novel”, but the story is 41,300 words, and Watts considers it a novella

** I received a free e-ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review


Fair notice: All Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit fan site Worlds Without End.

Recommended reading order

Other works by Peter Watts

Blindsight [Firefall #1] (Tor Books, 2006)

(Seiun and Imaginaire winner and Hugo, Campbell, Aurora, Sunburst, Locus, Premio Ignotus, and Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis finalist)

Two months have passed since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since – until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us. Who should we send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn’t want to meet?

Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can’t feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find – but you’d give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them…


Echopraxia [Firefall #2] (Tor Books, 2014)

(Aurora and Sunburst finalist)

It’s the eve of the twenty-second century: a world where the dearly departed send postcards back from Heaven and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline humans and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it’s all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.

Daniel Bruks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational, a cat’s-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he’s turned his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out.

Now he’s trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son. To his right is a pilot who hasn’t yet found the man she’s sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call “The Angels of the Asteroids.”

Their pilgrimage brings Dan Bruks, the fossil man, face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.

(Blindsight and Echopraxia were released together in an omnibus edition entitled Firefall, Head of Zeus, 2014)

Starfish [Rifters #1] (Tor Books, 1999)

Civilization rests on the backs of its outcasts.

So when civilization needs someone to run generating stations three kilometers below the surface of the Pacific, it seeks out a special sort of person for its Rifters program. It recruits those whose histories have preadapted them to dangerous environments, people so used to broken bodies and chronic stress that life on the edge of an undersea volcano would actually be a step up. Nobody worries too much about job satisfaction; if you haven’t spent a lifetime learning the futility of fighting back, you wouldn’t be a rifter in the first place. It’s a small price to keep the lights going, back on shore.

But there are things among the cliffs and trenches of the Juan de Fuca Ridge that no one expected to find, and enough pressure can forge the most obedient career-victim into something made of iron. At first, not even the rifters know what they have in them – and by the time anyone else finds out, the outcast and the downtrodden have their hands on a kill switch for the whole damn planet…


Maelstrom [Rifters #2] (Tor Books, 2001)

This is the way the world ends:

A nuclear strike on a deep sea vent. The target was an ancient microbe – voracious enough to drive the whole biosphere to extinction – and a handful of amphibious humans called rifters who’d inadvertently released it from three billion years of solitary confinement.

The resulting tsunami killed millions. It’s not as through there was a choice: saving the world excuses almost any degree of collateral damage.

Unless, of course, you miss the target.

Now North America’s west coast lies in ruins. Millions of refugees rally around a mythical figure mysteriously risen from the deep sea. A world already wobbling towards collapse barely notices the spread of one more blight along its shores. And buried in the seething fast-forward jungle that use to be called Internet, something vast and inhuman reaches out to a woman with empty white eyes and machinery in her chest. A woman driven by rage, and incubating Armageddon.

Her name is Lenie Clarke. She’s a rifter. She’s not nearly as dead as everyone thinks.

And the whole damn world is collateral damage as far as she’s concerned…


ßehemoth: ß-Max [Rifters #3] (Tor Books, 2004)

Lenie Clarke – rifter, avenger, amphibious deep-sea cyborg – has destroyed the world. Once exploited for her psychological addiction to dangerous environments, she emerged in the wake of a nuclear blast to serve up vendetta from the ocean floor. The horror she unleashed – an ancient, apocalyptic microbe called ßehemoth – has been free in the world for half a decade now, devouring the biosphere from the bottom up. North America lies in ruins beneath the thumb of an omnipotent psychopath. Digital monsters have taken Clarke’s name, wreaking havoc throughout the decimated remnants of something that was once called Internet. Governments have fallen across the globe; warlords and suicide cults rise from the ashes, pledging fealty to the Meltdown Madonna. All because five years ago, Lenie Clarke had a score to settle.

But she has learned something in the meantime: she destroyed the world for a fallacy.

Now, cowering at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, rifters and the technoindustrial “corpses” who created them hide from a world in its death throes. But they cannot hide forever: something is tracking them, down amongst the lightless cliffs and trenches of the MidAtlantic Ridge. The consequences of past acts reach inexorably towards the very bottom of the world, and Lenie Clarke must finally confront the mess she made.

Redemption doesn’t come easy with the blood of a world on your hands. But even after five years in purgatory, Lenie Clarke is still Lenie Clarke. There will be consequences for anyone who gets in her way-and worse ones, perhaps, if she succeeds…


ßehemoth: Seppuku [Rifters #4] (Tor Books, 2005)

Lenie Clarke – amphibious cyborg, Meltdown Madonna, agent of the Apocalypse – has grown sick to death of her own cowardice.

For five years (since the events recounted in Maelstrom), she and her bionic brethren (modified to work in the rift valleys of the ocean floor) have hidden in the mountains of the deep Atlantic. The facility they commandeered was more than a secret station on the ocean floor. Atlantis was an exit strategy for the corporate elite, a place where the world’s Movers and Shakers had hidden from the doomsday microbe ßehemoth – and from the hordes of the moved and the shaken left behind. For five years “rifters” and “corpses” have lived in a state of uneasy truce, united by fear of the outside world.

But now that world closes in. An unknown enemy hunts them through the crushing darkness of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. ßehemoth – twisted, mutated, more virulent than ever – has found them already. The fragile armistice between the rifters and their one-time masters has exploded into all-out war, and not even the legendary Lenie Clarke can take back the body count.

Billions have died since she loosed ßehemoth upon the world. Billions more are bound to. The whole biosphere came apart at the seams while Lenie Clarke hid at the bottom of the sea and did nothing. But now there is no place left to hide. The consequences of past acts reach inexorably to the very floor of the world, and Lenie Clarke must return to confront the mess she made.

Redemption doesn’t come easy with the blood of a world on your hands. But even after five years in pitch-black purgatory, Lenie Clarke is still Lenie Clarke. There will be consequences for anyone who gets in her way-and worse ones, perhaps, if she succeeds…

Peter Watts is a former marine biologist who clings to some shred of scientific rigor by appending technical bibliographies onto his novels. His debut novel, Starfish, was a New York Times Notable Book, while his fourth, Blindsight – a rumination on the utility of consciousness which has become a required text in undergraduate courses ranging from philosophy to neuroscience – was a finalist for numerous North American genre awards, winning exactly none of them. (It did, however, win a shitload of awards overseas, which suggests that his translators may be better writers than he is.)

His shorter work has also picked up trophies in a variety of jurisdictions, notably a Shirley Jackson Award (possibly due to fan sympathy over nearly dying of flesh-eating disease in 2011) and a Hugo Award (possibly due to fan outrage over an altercation with US border guards in 2009). The latter incident resulted in Watts being barred from entering the US – not getting on the ground fast enough after being punched in the face by border guards is a “felony” under Michigan statutes – but he can’t honestly say he misses the place all that much. Especially now.

Watts’s work is available in twenty languages – he seems to be especially popular in countries with a history of Soviet occupation – and has been cited as inspirational to several popular video games. He and his cat, Banana (since deceased), have both appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. A few years ago he briefly returned to science with a postdoc in molecular genetics, but he really sucked at it.

Connect with Peter Watts:

14 thoughts on “The Revolution Will Be Incrementalized: Peter Watts and The Freeze-Frame Revolution

  1. Couldn’t agree more. An excellent bit of hard skiffy. It needs a sequel though…..

  2. Minor appertainment: the Clarkesworld link fails on HTTPS even if you go ahead after the cert failure. It does work if you change it to HTTP:

    Giants

    The plot outlined in the article, minus the rebellion aspect, reminds me of a short I read a year or two ago. Might be one of Watt’s but I’m thinking not. Going to bug me till I can remember the story…

  3. BTW I like the tagline on the U.S. version (which has a quote from Richard K. Morgan instead of Nalo Hopkinson?!): “She believed in the mission with all her heart. But that was 60 million years ago.” 😉

  4. Somehow I’ve missed everything since The Island, which was excellent. Also haven’t read Echopraxia, but I have to be in a very solid place, mentally, to deal with that series.

    Great to see some Peter Watts love!

  5. Thanks for this, JJ. Peter Watts is one of my few buy-sight-unseen authors. Can’t wait for this one.

  6. @JJ

    Also, your Rifters blogpost link apparently got tangled up with the File 770 homepage and isn’t working. 🙁

  7. Blindsight is a fine (if challenging and depressing) novel, but ever since I read it back I’ve had a complaint. This seems like a good place to get it off my chest. It has at worst minor spoilers, but I’ll put it in ROT-13 just in case.

    Jnggf perngrf perngherf ur pnyyf “fpenzoyref”, gung jngpu n crefba pybfryl naq zbir bayl jura gurl pna gryy gurve rlrf ner qbvat n fnppnqr. N ovg bqq gung uvf nyvra pna svther bhg naq rkcybvg gung dhvex bs bhe ivfhny flfgrz, ohg bxnl, V pna ebyy jvgu vg. Ohg ur gura gerngf gur fpenzoyre nf orvat PBZCYRGRYL vaivfvoyr gb gung crefba. Gung’f whfg jebat. Gur ivpgvz jbhyqa’g or noyr gb frr gur fpenzoyre’f ZBGVBAF, ohg gurl jbhyq fgvyy or noyr gb frr gung vg jnf gurer.

  8. Bonnie McDaniel: Can you help me home in on which link isn’t working? I just did a Word search through all “rifters” in the post and didn’t spot a problem. So I’m probably not looking in the right place.

  9. @Mike

    It’s not in the post itself. It’s in JJ’s comment. 2nd comment down, “a really interesting blog post here.”

  10. Bonnie McDaniel: Thanks — got that fixed now. And in the process learned something interesting about how WordPress presents links in comments differently to me than to readers. The problem was there was no “http://” in JJ’s URL. WordPress filled that in for readers by referring them to a (nonexistent) address on this website. But to me, the URL was displayed as JJ entered it (not showing me the fill-in File 770 part). For a moment I didn’t think anything was wrong,

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