Tags: Peter Watts
This blog has been neglected as of late, but I’ve still been reviewing for Strange Horizons. Normally I link to those reviews more or less as they are posted there, but in this case the signal seems to have taken a long time to arrive. I’m not sure where WordPress’s servers are, but I don’t think this blog is a fifth of a parsec away from Strange Horizons as the crow flies. Perhaps that’s how far the signal had to go due to an inefficient path (bouncing around inside my head).
I’ve read but never reviewed Peter Watt’s 2006 novel Blindsight. That’s too bad, because it’s a fascinating book that really deserves a lot of discussion and scrutiny. Hopefully I will reread it in a year or two and write about it. In the meantime, I reviewed his long-awaited next novel Echopraxia in Strange Horizons back in October of last year.
Tags: Peter Watts
Niall Harrison is running another Short Story Club for the next few months at Torque Control. I participated in most of the discussions in the first one, so I was happy to see it return. Unfortunately I am usually the bad cop when it comes to short stories. In most cases I feel like sub-novel lengths are too short for interesting characters, world-building, or plot, which means for me short stories live and die by ideas. Most online stories are ten thousand words or less, which is barely enough even for ideas. At any rate, although science fiction is supposedly the literature of ideas and probably has more prominent short stories than any other genre, the fact is delivering a genuinely interesting idea is hard. Ted Chiang does it reliably, but so far I haven’t seen anyone else do nearly so well. The situation for fantasy stories is even worse given the emphasis on world-building, but Kelly Link has opened my eyes to its possibilities in the short format. In any case, even though last year I didn’t like most of the stories, I enjoyed discussing them.
First up is Peter Watts’ “The Things”, published by Clarkesworld. This is a pretty strong story, considering it is less than seven thousand words long. I haven’t seen The Thing (though I’m familiar enough with it to catch the basic reference unaided) but for people who have, the story is able to build off a bigger foundation than its mere length. It’s very well-written, but in the end it amounts to an exercise in “from the point of view of a creepy alien, humans are the creepy aliens!” This is a pretty well-trodden path in science fiction. Watts gets points for not taking the easy way out and humanizing his alien narrator. He builds a fairly convincing set of genuinely alien values for the narrator to pursue.
Typically for a short story, though, some intriguing questions are raised but are then abandoned. In what ways are humans similar to cancer? If one grants that a hive mind is desirable, what are the ethics of assimilation? Most people instinctively reject the premises of these, so it would be interesting to see them examined more closely by someone as clever as Watts, but that’s not in the cards here. The narrator mentions these things but spends most of its time piecing together shocking truths of human anatomy that are, well, not very shocking to most readers.
What redeems the story, mostly, from my usual complaints is the last line, which I won’t spoil here. It’s at once a little funny, a little offensive, and a little thought provoking (your mileage may vary on the exact proportions here). One of the comments at Clarkesworld calls it inappropriate and unearned, a criticism Watts then responds to directly. I agree with Watts that it is earned, but I’m not really sure it’s appropriate (I would argue what we’re dealing with here is a lot closer to murder). Still, I like stories that end with a bang, not to mention stories that are thought-provoking, so I was left feeling pretty positive about the whole thing.
Tags: Peter Watts
I have a confession to make. I know modern fiction is supposed to be gritty and realistic. But I can’t get around the fact that books in which every single character is a complete psychological screwup depress me. Unfortunately these books are rather common. Starfish is one of these books, but at least it has an interesting reason. Set in a power station on the ocean floor, the book’s thesis is that no functioning human being can stand the soul-crushing experience of being surgically modified to survive in the depths and then stuck down where no natural light ever reaches. I’m not at all convinced this is true, but it’s a more believable premise than you find in most science fiction, so why not? If you can get past the unpleasant characters Starfish is a pretty interesting little book. It reminds me of Crichton’s early work in that its limited cast is sequestered from the rest of the world, allowing the author to carefully sketch out a small social system. As my initial complaint ought to make clear, though, this book is far more concerned with characters than Crichton, though the technological bells and whistles are still nifty. All told it is a pretty effective story and cautiously recommended to science fiction fans.