The Island by Peter Watts
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Existential ennui and a clever but cold reality smack in the face across space-time unimaginable vastness.
Released in 2009, this unexpectedly biting short story predated my newly beloved “The Freeze-Frame Revolution” in publication order and can certainly be read on its own (like I read it back a few years ago), but for the maximum impact I’d advise reading that one first and this one after.
“Mission accomplished is a meaningless phrase on Eriophora, an ironic oxymoron at best. There may one day be failure, but there is no finish line. We go on forever, crawling across the universe like ants, dragging your goddamned superhighway behind us.”
Set many millions of years after The Freeze-Frame Revolution, it brings us back to Sunday Ahzmundin (the protagonist of that one) and the Chimp (the AI of the wormhole-building black-hole-powered asteroid starship) and their strained dynamic through countless millions of years lived a few days at a time, punctuating deathlike eons-long cryosleep.
And in his signature no-talking-down-to-readers style Watts mercilessly delivers a cruelly clever slap to the face made entirely of brilliant pessimistic realism. (He must be a hoot at parties). It’s dark and lonely and claustrophobic and ultimately gutting — in a way I would not expect from quite a compact story where the impactful moments are so short that if you blink you’ll miss them. But if you pay attention and think, you just may end up needing to stare at a wall for a little while, feeling uncomfortably unsettled.
“I was a fool: I let myself believe in life without conflict, in sentience without sin. For a little while I dwelt in a dream world where life was unselfish and unmanipulative, where every living thing did not struggle to exist at the expense of other life. I deified that which I could not understand, when in the end it was all too easily understood.”
Awe-inspiring and awesome are not the same thing.
Depressingly excellent. 5 stars.
That 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novelette was well-earned.
There are a few more short stories set in this universe. The proper reading order for these (different than publication order) with links to the stories on Peter Watts’ website:
– The Freeze-Frame Revolution (my review)
– Giants (from Clarkesworld website)
– The Island
– Hitchhiker (unfinished)