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“The Freeze-Frame Revolution” by Peter Watts

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Peter Watts’s novella The Freeze-Frame Revolution tackles a fascinating science fictional premise: a rebellion whose members are only awake for a few days every millennium. Sunday is one of the crewmembers of Eriophora, a starship made from a hollowed-out asteroid and engaged in a mission to construct a series of jump-gates that will allow travel across the Milky Way. The crew spend the vast majority of their time in suspended animation, with different subsets being woken up depending on the skills needed to build any given gate. But it’s been millions of years since they’ve heard anything from the rest of humanity, and some of them are starting to wonder whether continuing with the mission is worth it.

This is a story that’s chock-full of big set-pieces: the Eriophora itself, the all-knowing AI that runs it, the artificial singularities powering the gates, the sheet time-scale of the ship’s journey. It would be easy for the human characters to get lost amidst all this, but Watts keeps the focus squarely on them. Their relationships and emotions are what drive the story forward. In particular, we see Sunday’s loyalties gradually shift as she begins to uncover the scope of certain actions taken by the long-ago mission planners. I also enjoyed the concept of subcultures developing among subsets of the crew who are habitually awakened together. (It reminded me a bit of Sue Burke’s Semiosis, in which each generation consciously chooses a set of traditions for itself.)

All this is not to say that the big set-pieces don’t pull their weight. Some parts of the book are quite grim, but one can’t suppress a sense of wonder at the grandeur of it all. A starship made from a miles-wide asteroid and fueled by a singularity! A millions-of-years-old mission! A galaxy-spanning network of jump-gates! The sheer scale of the project, and the boundless advancement of technology implied by such a project’s feasibility, harkens back to the Golden Age of sci-fi. This makes for quite an interesting juxtaposition with the overall tone of the book and Sunday’s eventual feelings regarding her “job.”

If Freeze-Frame has a flaw, it’s that the inciting event for the titular revolution leaves a loose end. Occasionally, when a jump-gate is completed, something comes through. Not an identifiable ship from Earth, but a strange phenomenon or creature. No two are alike, and while some are indifferent to Eriophora’s presence, others are hostile. An attack on the ship by one such “gremlin” plays a pivotal role in kick-starting the plot, and because of that, I expected there to be some revelation about the nature of these entities. Are they what humanity has evolved into? Are they alien stowaways on humanity’s jump-gate network? Are the jump-gates acting as portals into some alternate dimension inhabited by eldritch abominations? We never find out, and aside from some idle speculation, the characters don’t seem to treat it as a very important question either. But this is a small nitpick in a story that’s compelling overall.

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