The Freeze-Frame Revolution: mutineers unstuck in time, strung out across an aeon

Peter Watts (previously) is a brilliant bastard of a science fiction writer, whose grim scenarios are matched by their scientific speculation; in his latest, a novella called The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Watts imagines a mutiny that stretches out across aeons, fought against a seemingly omnipotent AI.

Sixty million years ago, the Earth launched the Eriphora to explore the galaxy: a planetoid space-ship with conventional thrusters and all the equipment necessary to robotically construct hyperspace gateways that let it leap through unimaginable distances, stringing out a transport system behind it that those who follow can exploit to skip across space like a thrown stone.

The Eri is piloted by the Chimp, a dumb AI that is just smart enough to create and then reabsorb the manufactories that create the gate out of the planets it harvests in each system. The Chimp has to be pretty dumb, because any AI smart enough to solve all possible problems would probably go nuts, or at least decide that, after a few million years, it didn’t have to follow the orders its creators set in motion all those aeons ago.

So to help the Chimp cope with the unexpected, the Eri has 30,000 humans in cold sleep in its holds. Every few thousand years, these humans are awakened, in rotations, to help the Chimp manage complexity and ambiguity, and then they are put back into their cold sleep, only a few weeks or months older, to rest for another millennium or two. At this rate, the crew of the Eri might live to see the end of time itself.

But that’s only if the Chimp lets them live. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the Chimp is subject to long-term orders even it doesn’t know about or understand, and that these orders include liquidating the human crew in stages, as the mission nears its end. With bare millions of years remaining, the crew decides to mutiny, planning their rebellion in the Chimp’s blind-spots, exploiting the stupidity of its AI, faking their deaths and stealing cold-sleep pods, hunting for the Chimp’s data-center, which moves to a new spot every millennium or two.

It’s a mind-bending premise, and Watt’s (anti)hero, Sunday Ahzmundin is well-chosen, as the Chimp’s closest friend and confidante onboard — Sunday’s reluctant participation in the mutiny makes for a gripping read and a beautiful narrative excuse for a tour of Watts’s mindbending scenario.

This is definitely vintage Watts, from the Elder Gods the Eri discovers as it traverses the wormholes it creates to the imaginative tortures the mutineers use to punish those who betray the rebellion. It’s outstanding, exciting, terrifying, and will keep you guessing and reading to the last page.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution [Peter Watts/Tachyon]

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