Books

Short works

Books : reviews

Peter Watts, ed.
Beyond the Rift.
Tachyon. 2013

A seemingly humanized monster from John Carpenter's The Thing reveals the villains in an Antarctic showdown; an Al shields a biologically enhanced prodigy from her overwhelmed parents; a psychologist analyzes a psychotic grad student who reprograms reality; and a father tries to mend his broken family during an ongoing assault by sentient rainstorms.

Combining complex science with skillfully executed prose, these edgy, award-winning tales shift the border between the known and the alien. The beauty and peril of technology and the passion and penalties of conviction merge in narratives by turns dark, satiric, and introspective.

Contents

The Things. 2010
The Island. 2009
The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald. 1998
A Word for Heathens. 2004
Home. 2000
The Eyes of God. 2008
Flesh Made Word. 1994
Nimbus. 1994
Peter Watts, Derryl Murphy. Mayfly. 2005
Ambassador. 2002
Hillcrest v. Velikovsky. 2008
Repeating the Past. 2007
A Niche. 1990
Outtro: en Route to Dystopia with The Angry Optimist. 2013

Peter Watts.
Blindsight.
Tor. 2006

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 26 April 2011

It’s the late 21st century. Two months ago thousands of alien objects “photographed” the earth, and sent a message to the stars. A faint source is seen outside the solar system – is it an invasion? A crew of neuro-enhanced expendables is sent off to find out. What they find blows all theories of alien contact out of the water.

This is fascinating exploration of intelligence, and personhood. It has a thought-provoking early discussion of what the requirements are for continuing evolution of increasing intelligence, and why that means aliens will be hostile. (I don’t necessarily buy the conclusion, but the argument is interesting, and fits in to research questions on “open ended evolution”.) And the end is a full bore investigation of what it is that makes us human, and whether that’s a good thing. (I definitely don’t buy the conclusion here: I think the discussed characteristic is a necessary, not contingent, consequence of intelligence. But I may be wrong here, and the extensive technical bibliography includes some counter-arguments, which I will try to follow up.)

The middle of the book I found a little slow, but that’s because there is a lot of background to set up. The use of flashbacks of the narrator’s earlier experiences helps leaven this set-up. It is very interesting to have such a potentially unsympathetic character as this narrator. The sympathy does arise, and comes from his bald descriptions of what is happening, and his complaints about not understanding why the others react the way they do, when to us it is perfectly obvious – sometimes laugh-out-loud obvious – why they do.

Initially I thought the book was going to suffer from “first novel” syndrome (despite not being a first novel), of having too many ideas packed in, to the detriment of the main point. The aliens, the neuroscience, the game theory, the linguistics, the artificial reality “heaven”, the vampire. But all the components are essential to the idea being explored.

The afterword has a discussion of where the plethora of ideas have come from, with over 130 references into the scientific literature. Reading a good book often makes me buy even more books. Good SF will lead me to more by that author (as here). A good technical book will lead me to explore other related books in the bibliography. I think I can safely say that this is the first time that I’ve read an SF book, then gone and bought a technical book from its bibliography, however!

Good hard SF, with interesting ideas, interesting aliens, and an interesting (if disputable) conclusion.

Peter Watts.
Echopraxia.
Head of Zeus. 2014

It’s the eve of the 22nd century and the beginning the end.

Humanity splinters into strange new forms with every heartbeat: hive-minds coalesce, rapture-stricken, speaking in tongues; soldiers forgo consciousness for combat efficiency; a nightmare human subspecies has been genetically resurrected; half the population has retreated into the ersatz security of a virtual environment called Heaven.

And it s all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to reveal itself.

Daniel Brüks has turned his back on it all, taking refuge in the Oregon desert. As an unaugmented, baseline human he’s an irrelevance, a living fossil for whom extinction beckons. But he’s about to find himself an unwilling pilgrim on a voyage to the heart of the solar system that will bring the fractured remnants of mankind to the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought.

Peter Watts.
Starfish.
Tor. 1999

Peter Watts.
Maelstrom.
Tor. 2001

Peter Watts.
Behemoth: beta-max.
Tor. 2004

Lenie Clarke—rifter, avenger, amphibious deep-sea cyborg—has destroyed the world. Once exploited for her psychological addiction to dangerous environments, she emerged in the wake of a nuclear blast to serve up vendetta from the ocean floor. The horror she unleashed—an ancient, apocalyptic microbe called βehemoth—has been free in the world for half a decade now, devouring the biosphere from the bottom up. North America lies in ruins beneath the thumb of an omnipotent psychopath. Digital monsters have taken Clarke’s name, wreaking havoc throughout the decimated remnants of something that was once called Internet. Governments have fallen across the globe; warlords and suicide cults rise from the ashes, pledging fealty to the Meltdown Madonna. All because five years ago, Lenie Clarke had a score to settle.

But she has learned something in the meantime: she destroyed the world for a fallacy.

Now, cowering at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, rifters and the technoindustrial “corpses” who created them hide from a world in its death throes. But they cannot hide forever: something is tracking them, down among the lightless cliffs and trenches of the Midatlantic Ridge. The consequences of past acts reach inexorably toward the very bottom of the world, and Lenie Clarke must finally confront the mess she made.

Redemption doesn’t come easy with the blood of a world on your hands. But even after five years in purgatory, Lenie Clarke is still Lenie Clarke. There will be consequences for anyone who gets in her way—and worse ones, perhaps, if she succeeds.

Peter Watts.
Behemoth: Seppuku.
Tor. 2005

Lenie Clark—amphibious cyborg, Meltdown Madonna, agent of the Apocalypse—has grown sick to death of her own cowardice.

For five years, she and her rifter brethren have hidden in the mountains of the deep Atlantic. The facility they commandeered was more than a secret station on the ocean floor. Atlantis was an exit strategy for the corporate elite, a place where the world’s movers and shakers had hidden from the doomsday microbe βehemoth—and from the hordes of the moved and the shaken left behind. For five years, “rifters” and “corpses” have lived in a state of uneasy truce, united by fear of the outside world.

But now that world is closing in. An unknown enemy hunts them through the crushing darkness of the Mid Atlantic Ridge. βehemoth—twisted, mutated, more virulent than ever—has found them already. The fragile armistice between the rifters and their onetime masters has exploded into all-out war, and not even the legendary Lenie Clarke can take back the body count.

Billions have died since she loosed βehemoth the world. Billions more are bound to. The whole biosphere came apart at the seams while Lenie Clarke hid at the bottom of the sea and did nothing. But now there is no place left to hide. The consequences of her past actions reach inexorably to the very floor of the world, and Lenie Clarke must return to confront the mess she made. Redemption doesn’t come easy with the blood of a world on your hands. But even after five years in pitch-black purgatory, Lenie Clarke is still Lenie Clarke. There will be consequences for anyone who gets in her way—and worse ones, perhaps, if she succeeds…