Letter From The Editor - Issue 67 - February 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
July 2018

Title: The Freeze-Frame Revolution
Author: Peter Watts
Publisher: Tachyon Publications

If Peter Watts is right when he insists, as he does in the Acknowledgements of The Freeze-Frame Revolution, that the book is really a novella—despite acknowledging that his publisher and community standards both classify it as a novel—then this may qualify as one of the densest, most inventive science fiction novellas in years. And even if Watts is wrong, and this really is a novel, the same description of inventiveness and density—even more so—would apply. Either way, we the readers win. The setup is immediately enticing. The mission of the starship Eriophora, powered by an AI called Chimp and populated by a human crew designed to deal with unknowns, is to seed the Universe with gates that will allow other ships to jump instantaneously from one place to another.

To say that the Eriophora’s mission is long-term would be a vast understatement. Accelerating to sizable fractions of c, the humans must still endure thousands of years of cryogenic suspension between the deployment of the gates; their ageing is thus doubly retarded (relativistic time dilation plus enormous spans of dormancy) with regards to Earth time. Indeed, the story opens with our narrator, Sunday Ahzmundin, playing a little mental game: “Every time I thawed, I’d tally up the length of our journey so far; then check to see when we’d be if Eriophora were a time machine, if we’d been moving back through history instead of out through the cosmos.” But she soon finds that the timescale of human civilization is grossly inadequate to the task at hand and abandons the exercise: “I gave up after Australopithecus. It had been a stupid game, a child’s game, doomed from the start. We were just cavemen. Only the mission was transcendent.” And then she gives us a glimpse of where the story will go. Sixty-six million years after leaving Earth, the humans mount a revolution against Chimp.

Naturally, this invites all sorts of irresistible questions, some of which the jacket copy wisely asks: What prompts the human uprising? How do you mount a revolution against an intelligence orders of magnitude more advanced than you, which controls your environment, requires no sleep, and has all available resources at its command? How do you achieve secrecy when you’re under constant surveillance, and how do you meaningfully make plans with others when the intervals during which you’re awake and suspended are outside your ability to regulate? All this and more, answered in under two hundred pages!

Watts’s storytelling approach is minimalist. He keeps his sentences short and punchy, his exposition to the bare minimum. Certain ideas only become fully elucidated after the fact. All of this works to the narrative’s benefit, conveying in prose something akin to the ceaseless forward momentum experienced by Eri’s crew. That’s not to say that Watts avoids description. Indeed, he excels at a kind of hard-edged, chilly descriptive prose that makes as much use of scientific concepts as it does naturalistic imagery. Consider for example: “The hatch closed at our backs, swallowing us in brief darkness; it brightened to dim twilight as our eyes adjusted to analuciferin constellations glowing on all sides.” Or: “I’d hike to the caverns during down time, watch him dance as the forest went in: theorems and fractal symphonies playing out against fissured basalt, against a mist of mycelia, against proliferating vine-tangles of photosynthetic pods so good at sucking up photons that even under light designed to mimic the sun, they presented nothing but black silhouettes.”

Sunday’s voice is well-crafted and full of attitude, which occasionally leads to highly quotable lines. Two that stayed with me: “Revelation has a half-life” and “What’s the point of physics if you can’t trust it with your life?” We come to care about her even when we disagree with her decisions. One of my favorite interludes involves Sunday’s recollection of Chimp’s birth and her characterization of him as “dancing” during the early stages of his maturation. Watts’s powerful combination of inscrutable non-humanity and pathos regarding Chimp made me recall HAL 9000’s disconnection sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s film.

In his novel Tau Zero (1970), Poul Anderson gave us the starship Leonora Christine, which through an accident to its Bussard ramscoop engines suffers a constant acceleration of one g, subjecting its crew to an increasingly vertiginous temporal dilation in which millions of years end up passing in seconds, all the way to the contraction of the Universe itself. Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson’s The Singers of Time (1991) likewise presents an extreme relativistic scenario. The Freeze-Frame Revolution operates in similar “high concept” ground, but it’s undeniably the best of this breed, presenting engaging, believably flawed characters with complex interrelationships (and I certainly count Chimp among them) and a surprise ending that still manages to feel consistent with what has come before. Watts is an original thinker and a bold storyteller, here at the top of his considerable form. This is one of the year’s best science fiction odysseys.

Title: Close Your Eyes
Author: Paul Jessup
Publisher: Apex Book Company

I first encountered Paul Jessup’s short fiction sometime in the last decade, finding compelling stories of his in places like Fantasy Magazine and Apex. When I saw a listing for the upcoming Close Your Eyes I immediately assumed it would be a novel and made a mental note to check it out, fascinated by the thought of long fiction by Jessup. In fact, if I’d been paying more attention I would have realized this book collects Jessup’s powerful novella “Open Your Eyes,” originally published as a standalone chapbook, and adds a never-before-published companion novella, “Close Your Mouth,” which acts as a sequel. Connecting the two is an “Intermission,” which helps to make sense of the temporal discontinuity between both novellas. But even though technically this is not a novel, it will satisfy those, like me, seeking to experience Jessup yielding his craft on a grander scale. These pieces, and their interconnections, make for a fascinating read.

The opening novella’s explosive first line is: “Her lover was a supernova.” The second paragraph elaborates by telling us: “her womb—it spun with the light of stars. She felt black holes open up inside of her, intense gravitational weight.” And a few paragraphs later: “She felt time unravel inside the great ribcage of her egia. The great body of the ship was losing power, the few orange lights still active only flashing mute warning signs.” As you may gather from these samples, Jessup’s imagination knows no bounds—which is not to say that he isn’t disciplined in his approach. I’m not going to spend much time on the overarching two-novella plot, not because it isn’t clever or suspenseful, but because I think Jessup’s style is just as, if not more, interesting. Ekhi, the female character from those lines I quoted, is found by the crew of a scavenger ship and brought aboard their vessel. This crew, rife with interpersonal drama, is captained by one half-artificial Itsasu, who has formulated a secret plan to be reunited with her dead husband. Equally significant is the ship’s AI, which has a separate mission all its own. Add to this unstable invading mix aliens and a language virus known as the “sakre” and then imagine things getting out of control.

The narrative’s aesthetic is something like space opera put through a Weird blender, with standard space operatic tropes reconfigured—and at times disfigured—in intriguing, often disquieting ways. Recurring imagery related to biological processes and the human body, particularly intestines, evoked for me a Cronenbergian sensibility, but amplified with quasi-Clarkean technology-as-magic. Imagine, if you will, transposing squishy elements like the UmbyCords and bio-ports of eXistenZ to Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee milieu and renaming the physics with invented or repurposed words. Said differently, there are cosmic vistas and reflections in these novellas, but plenty of viscera too. The closest on-screen analog that occurs to me, for example, to the Good Ship Lollipop, where the action unfolds in the book’s first novella, is Moya, Farscape’s bio-mechanical ship. The idea of language-as-virus brings to mind China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011) and more recent cousins like Karen Tidbek’s Amatka (2012; Eng. 2017).

Jessup tells these stories in very short scenes, often only a page or two long, accreting layers of sensory descriptions along the way. Cadence is important to him; he often repeats words or word combinations, which creates a kind of incantatory poetic rhythm, and he relies on sentence fragments just as often as full sentences. As a result of this approach, the action, which is already almost non-stop, feels even more relentless. Jessup excels in creating immediacy via attention to details, especially regarding settings. Consider for example the opening to scene 7: “Hodei paced in the engine room, knotted metal and brass wires brushing against his jumper, soft firefly sparks pulsating as they jerked and hovered in the air. In the center of the room sat giant, wet eggs, quivering and green and covered in sparkling electric webbing and film. In the center of the eggs nested the entanglement engine.”

This also highlights another one of Jessup’s techniques, which is to introduce speculative concepts by using their names and not stopping to explain them, letting their context impart their significance instead. He appeals to the reader’s intelligence. That said, one linguistic element that didn’t quite work for me was the reliance on modern-day expletives, which simply felt too familiar, and therefore out of place, within the narrative’s broader strangeness. I also could have used additional character development, particularly in the first novella. I understood primary motivations and desires, but didn’t feel like I’d spent enough time with each of the main characters to become emotionally invested in their quests.

Both pieces are, through their design, quick reads, but I recommend slowing down if you can to savor the language. The second novella strikes me as darker and, in a way, more mature. As I hope I’ve made clear, these novellas aren’t for the faint of heart, at times pushing from the ferment of the Weird into full-blown horror. You will find here suffering and destruction and violence and torture and death. But you will also find a kind of stark, ravaged beauty and a thoughtful exploration of our innermost desires and impulses.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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