So, the setup. The space ship Eriophora (named after an orb-weaving spider) travels through the galaxy building wormholes to connect solar systems in some sort of galactic highway. This trip takes millions of years. The ship has an AI with the intelligence of a chimp and mostly builds the wormhole gateways by itself, but every few thousand years it wakes up a rotating crew of humans for maintenance. Deep into their journey, the human race back on Earth has probably evolved into something new or disappeared, and the crew of lone humans are on a mission that probably doesn’t make much sense anymore.
In what is becoming a theme for Watts, The Freeze-Frame Revolution features an isolated group of humans in a hostile environment. He first toyed with this concept in Starfish (1999) in which a group of psychiatric patients formed the crew of a deep ocean power station. In Blindsight (2006), a group of almost post-humans encountered unfriendly aliens in deep space. Now, humans start a fight against their own ship’s faulty AI, a fight stretched out over millions of years in which they might be the only original humans left in the universe.
I would never recommend this to someone unfamiliar with science fiction. I believe reading SF trains you to have a dialogue of understanding between reader and text, to make inferences about the future, guided by hints in the writing. In the case of Watts, the density of inferring is among the highest of all SF authors. That tends to make his writing confusing, but he can convey very complex settings and ideas with as few words as possible and at a high pace. This creates a kind of feeling of rush, of being at the bleeding edge of futuristic thinking, which many SF junkies love. It doesn’t make his writing beautiful, but Watts at least manages to make it clean and sharp.
Therefore, it is best to read this slowly, because even though this is a novella, the density of ideas is enough to fill a fat novel. (And, by the way, what we call a novella nowadays in page count would be a novel in the 50s.) There are some earlier short stories set in the same universe, but are not necessary to understand this novella.
This is hardly the first story about humans rebelling against a dictatorial AI; in fact, it is a bit of a cliche. The story still feels fresh, though, because of the unique, fascinating setting and the personal relationships. Sunday, our main character, is one of the last people to accept their dire straits. She had an understanding, a friendship even, with Chimp the AI. Only when she is about to blow the cover of the conspirators does she learn about their secret codes. The disillusionment is a bitter pill to swallow. Throughout the story we keep wondering whether Sunday is actually on the side of the conspirators, and half of the time he doesn’t know it herself.
Ultimately, the story didn’t blow me away, but many elements worked very well. The Eriophora is a deliciously complicated prison to escape from. What Watts brilliantly realized and utilized is that for a journey that takes millions of years, the ship has to have immense control over every process and an immense redundancy built into every system. This makes the resistance very exciting and communication is hard when stretched out over thousands of years.
It is also not a simple good versus evil story of the poor humans fighting a mad computer. The AI is programmed by mission control, so the fight is against their design, and the human tendencies to project consciousness on a computer voice tends to work against our heroes. Our brains assume intent and consciousness with only a few hints – we see gods and ghosts everywhere – and when dealing with AI the problem is not that it is hard to make a believable conscious computer but that our own brains are so easily fooled in assuming consciousness.