“How do you stage a mutiny when you’re only awake a few days in a century, when your tiny handful of coconspirators gets reshuffled every time they’re called on deck? How do you plot against an enemy that never sleeps, that has all those empty ages to grind its brute-force way down every avenue, stumble across every careless clue you might have left behind? An enemy with eyes that span your whole world, an enemy that can see through your eyes, hear through your ears in glorious hi-def first-person?”
An unimaginably long haul through the galaxy in a spaceship that is making wormholes. A journey of 66 million years (and counting), most of which is spent in cryosleep while the ship is being autonomously steered by an AI, punctuated by brief periods of wakefulness when the ship needs human input, every few hundred thousand years.
“Five hundred years is nothing,” Viktor said. “Call me in a few billion. Then we’ll talk.”
(For comparison and appreciation of the timescales involved, count back 66 million years, and you’ll arrive at a T. Rex staring at the bright speck in the sky, unaware that it’s about to be cosmically broiled alive.) I mean, do you even know who you’re building all those wormholes for? Is there anything even left of humanity?
“Sixty-six million years, by the old calendar. That’s how long we’ve been on the road. All the way back to the end of the Cretaceous.”
And an issue — well, one of many in a situation as mind-warping as this — is that, really, you’re just meat serving the machine and the mission millions of years old, meat that’s frozen most of the time, carefully designed to accept this way of things, and you’re alive just for as long as your cost/benefit ratio is above the red. You’re just meat, only occasionally needed, and you have no choice in this.
Revolutions have happened for lesser reasons than that.
Peter Watts writes brainy “hard” science fiction. And apparently he doesn’t believe in making it easy for his readers. He makes you work for it, doesn’t dumb it down, and expects you to think long and hard about challenging ideas. And he also doesn’t seem to suffer from terminal optimism, which is strangely refreshing. (Fellow pessimists, unite!)
He tackles the issue of human/AI relationship here, and the question of whether it’s even possible or whether it’s all pretense. The limitations of Artificial Stupidity, an AI – derisively referred to as the Chimp – designed to not be smarter than humans (since we all know the potential dangers of overly intelligent AI). Are we just anthropomorphizing something that is incapable of actual friendship; something that may or may not be able to dance? And often I feel like a chimp myself, reading his ideas and realizing that I lack a few neurons to fully get it. The funny thing is, I don’t mind at all feeling less intelligent than Watts.
And the things that Watts leaves unsaid are as important as the ones he tackles head on. The biggest one for me was — if this revolution succeeds, then what? What’s the plan? Keep on making wormholes, but without Chimp running the systems? In their situation, what’s even the meaning of free will?
In the time when most science fiction stories seem to require a few books and a few thousand pages to tell any story, it’s amazing how much Watts can pack into a story that clocks in under 200 pages. Concise and clever, it’s quite wonderful.
4.5 stars, rounding up. A nice end to a run of lackluster recent reads. And my favorite Watts book so far.
Buddy read with carol., Phil, David, and Vivian.