Science fiction author Peter Watts is a warm and caring person. I know this because while most writers don’t give a second thought to the people who built the stargates their characters use to travel the galaxy, Watts is showing how these gates came to be in his new novella, The Freeze-Frame Revolution (paperback, Kindle).
To begin, what is The Freeze-Frame Revolution about?
I’ve been writing a series of connected stories — I’m calling it the Sunflower Cycle — dealing with the life and times of Eriophora, a converted asteroid that wallows around the galaxy building wormhole jump-gates for the people who come after. It’s a multimillion-year mission with a big human crew, but the meat almost never wakes up; most of the builds are automated, under the control of the ship’s Artificial Stupidity, named Chimp, based on its synapse count. Chimp only wakes up the humans a few at a time when it encounters something it can’t deal with on its own.
In a couple of those stories I made throwaway references to a mutiny that had happened millions of years before, an uprising which Chimp put down by the simple expedient of shutting off the air. I never put much thought into it — it was just a bit of backstory to set up the ongoing cold-war-ish detente that existed between meat and mech during those later stories — but when Jacob Weisman [the founder, editor, and publisher of Tachyon] unwisely asked me to write a novella, that seemed like a rich vein to mine.
It sounds likeThe Freeze-Frame Revolution is a hard sci-fi story. Is it, or is there another science fiction genre, or combination of them, that fits this novel better?
I don’t know about this term “hard sci-fi.” I think it’s a sliding and subjective scale, more a function of the reader’s background than anything intrinsic to a given story. Larry Niven is considered a “hard sci-fi” author, and his stories involve genes that code for luck. I’ve written novels that would be considered diamond-hard to anyone equipped with anything up to, say, an M.Sc., but a doctorate in microbiology would regard as pure fantasy my explanation for how Behemoth gets across the host-cell membrane without provoking lysis. So some might regardThe Freeze-Frame Revolution as hard sci-fi because I consulted with a laser scientist about black-hole propulsion systems, or because I took the time to work out Excel spreadsheets on time dilation effects or how fast you can go before hydrogen blue-shift melts your ship to slag; turns out its somewhere between 20-50% lightspeed.
On the other hand, the whole premise revolves around faster-than-light travel using “non-relativistic black holes,” which I’m pretty sure breaks physics as we know it. It might be hard sci-fi by some lights, but it’s probably the least hard sci-fi novel I’ve written. With the exception of Crysis: Legion, which was not my plot to begin with.
How about “hard space / game opera”?
I’ll allow it. Now, in The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Sunday Ahzmundin is only woken up one day in a million. Is there a reason you decided it was one in a million as opposed to one in a hundred or a thousand or a billion?
Yup.The Freeze-Frame Revolution is just one chapter in a vast narrative arc extending over billions of years. Sunday has to be alive at the end of it, so it was a question of assuming a reasonable human lifespan and working back to see how often she can come out of stasis and still be alive five billion years down the road.
The Freeze-Frame Revolution is not your first novel. Are there any writers or specific novels that had an influence on The Freeze-Frame Revolution but not on your previous stories?
Not on The Freeze-Frame Revolution exclusively, but the whole Sunflowers Cycle is at least partly a reaction to all those authors who got around the lightspeed barrier by invoking a magical system of stargates left behind by The Progenitors or The Forerunners or The Ancients — whatever name we’re using this week to describe the conveniently-extinct species who left their superhighways behind for us to play with. Nobody seems to worry about the poor bastards who had to go out there and build the gates to begin with.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have an impact on The Freeze-Frame Revolution?
Actually, I originally conceived of the Sunflowers Cycle as a video game; it came to me after I did some work for Relic on the Homeworld sequel. Don’t worry, the story I worked on had absolutely nothing to do with the sequel that ultimately made it to market. I profoundly hope no one associates me with that game.
Speaking of which, you wrote the novel Crysis: Legion, which retold the plot of the game Crysis 2. Did writing a book that was a written account of the game’s story have any impact on your own stories in general, andThe Freeze-Frame Revolution in particular?
Nope. I mean, writing Legion was a frustratingly-great experience along a number of axes: I got to meet and hang out with some terrific people, I was forced to stretch writing muscles I’d never used before, and it was both a challenge and an opportunity to retcon the inevitably-dumb aspects of such games onto a rationale that made some kind of sense. I mean, really: the aliens hop between star systems as easily as we cross the street, and we can take down one of their ships with a couple of SAMs? That’s like a bunch of lemurs with pointed sticks taking out an F16. It was a lot of fun working out explanations for those inconsistencies — not to mention the chance to insert some background and worldbuilding in around the edges of the plot — even if I did have to write the whole damn thing in three months and they kept changing the story on me. But those challenges were pretty specific to working in someone else’s sandbox; building my own is an entirely different exercise.
I asked earlier about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced The Freeze-Frame Revolution. But has there been any interest in adapting The Freeze-Frame Revolutioninto a movie, show, or game?
Nope, but then again it hasn’t even been released yet, so that’s not especially surprising. And when you consider that I’ve been getting “interest” in adapting some of my other stuff on and off since the turn of the century, and that nothing has ever come of any of it, I’m not holding my breath in this case either.
But as I said, I’d originally conceived of the whole sequence as a video game. I think the premise is perfectly suited to that medium. Each build could serve as its own mission level, and the epochs that pass between those builds allow you great flexibility in shuffling the game deck between levels. Humanity could fall back into the stone age and climb all the way back to nanotech in the time between one build and the next. Sometimes you boot up a gate and the thing that comes out of it tries to eat you. Sometimes nothing comes out at all. SometimesEriophorais charging headlong towards some alien war zone whose combatants are all extinct but who forgot to turn off their machines before they left; the only hope is to build a gate as fast as you can and hope that whatever comes out from behind isn’t worse than the things that are gunning for you up ahead. The game even contains a built-in premise that allows any sequels to incorporate improvements in game technology — better dialog options, more complex plot trees — as an integral element of the narrative itself. I.E., it can turn one of the limitations of modern games into a feature, as the ship’s A.I. gets smarter as the story progresses.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Freeze-Frame Revolution, and they wanted to read something else by you, would you suggest they read Starfish [the first book in the Rifters trilogy], Firefall [which has the two books from his Firefall duology, Blindsight and Echopraxia], or your short story collection Beyond The Rift?
It depends on what you’re looking for. Beyond The Rift requires less mental investment, insofar as it’s a bunch of bite-sized chunks. Kind of a sampler pack. If you’d rather dive into something more demanding, Blindsight is by far my most popular work, which is odd because it’s also my most difficult. It’s actually been used as a required text in undergraduate neuro courses. Don’t say you weren’t warned. It does have more to say than your average sci-fi potboiler, but you might have to work for it. Starfish is a lot more accessible, but it’s also my first novel, so the prose may not be as polished. I can’t be sure, I haven’t read it since I wrote it, but that’s what some of the Amazon reader reviews say.