science fiction, new weird, old weird, very weird - and everything else
not always save for work. never nice.
To be updated as I read my way through the short stories, novellas and novelettes forming the Sunflowers Cycle. There are four entries so far, I chose to read them in chronological order (which is not the order of publication).
1) Hotshot (first published in Jonathan Strahan's Reach for Infinity) - **
A short story introducing the main character Sunday Ahzmundin and her mission to punsh wormholes into the universe to allow faster than light travel for following generations (or something). It helped to get an impression of her character, but wasn't all that satisfying as a story. It's about Sunday being groomed for her mission and tackles questions of free will vs. determination - yet again. Watts really doesn't believe in free will, but he's told that before, multiple times actually, and here he's so much in the nose about it that it physically hurts. Man, ever heard about subtlety? Over at Goodreads another reviewer descriped the story as self-parody, and tend to agree. Makes one wonder if he has anything else to tell.
2) The Freeze-Frame Revolution (a novella recently published by Tachyon) - ****
Despite a regrettable lack of pandas, I liked this novella a lot more than its chronological predecessor. Our 'spores are now on their way through the universe, on board the Eriophora, a hollowed-out asteroid powered by a singularity-drive. The blunt of the mission is overseen by the ship's AI, called Chimp. The Chimp's intelligence is somewhat limited though, so every now and then it needs some help. That's where the humans come in. Awake for only a few days every hundred or thousand years, they are spinning a web of wormholes though the galaxy, always hoping to see someone else coming through. But after 66 million years, there's still nothing but an occasional demon, still no sign of whatever became of Earth's inhabitants after our crew left. And yet, the mission just goes on and on.
Not everyone is happy with this. Some want an end. Some want the home they have been promised. Some want a revolution. But how to fight an enemy that sees through your own eyes, hears through your own ears, that controls everything around you?
The fight human against machine is nothing new, of course; neither is the kind of affectionate relationship between our narrator Sunday and the Chimp. They have their fair share of HAL-and-Dave-moments - but those really work here and are also symptomatic for the whole novella: The Freeze-Frame Revolution feels charmingly old-fashioned, despite being set 66 million years in the future. It's not as dense and high-concept as Watts' longer works, but high-concept, big-idea sci-fi nonetheless, with character-building taking a backseat. Watts also provides some vivid descriptions of Eriophora's life-support system, haunting midnight-forests, which are a lot better than any of his descriptions in Echopraxia. And even after reading some stupid interview with stupid spoilers, I found the showdown to be tense and gripping.
Although I wasn't exactly rooting for the humans.
3) The Island (novelette, first published 2009, Hugo Award winner 2010) - ***
It's getting increasingly difficult to say anything about these stories without spoilering. Therefore I'll keep the summary short: The eponymous island is a spot on an intelligent Dyson sphere made of something akin to octopus-skin – still not a space-panda, but apparently an enormous, intelligent being. First contact, Watts' style. And Sunday has a son now.
I liked this a little less than The Freeze-Frame Revolution (FFR), but that's no fault of the writing. Sunday's voice seemed pretty consistent between Hotshots and FFR; The Island – the first story in the Sunflowers Cycle to be published – marks a notable shift. I have no idea if that was intentional or not, but it's fitting: after the events in FFR Sunday wouldn't be quite the same. There's an oddly lyrical quality to Watts' tech-jargon, and it's stronger here than it was in FFR. I needed 5 pages to even notice that it's 1st person present tense. I hate 1st person present, but it worked just fine here. The story just didn't grip me as much as the novella.
When looking for reviews, I saw one reviewer complaining about Sunday not acting or talking „like a woman“. That begs the question how a woman is supposed to act and talk? It left me wondering.
However, I sometimes do have problems with Watts' treatment of whomever he perceives as "other"; Foz Meadows talks about this in more detail in a review of Watts' short story collection Beyond the Rift, and I have noticed some of the things mentioned there, too. I had issues with how he dealt with his WOC characters in Echopraxia, othering Siri is the core of Blindsight - and I'm emphatically not okay with the inclusion of what's basically corrective rape. I'm not okay with the implication that a neuroatypical person is wrong and has to be raped right, and no amount of rationalizing will convince me that this was necessary. (Given the nature of Blindsight, it's not clear if that's what actually happened, but the implication is there). This drives me a bit nuts, because Watts is so spectacularly good at writing the „other“, the alien as well as humans who don't quite fit. He nails those characters, just absolutely fucking nails it, and then goes on and has to shoehorn some sexual violence or rape-as-a-metaphor into the text. Ugh, dude, why?
That said, I didn't notice anything off about Sunday, especially not given the singular circumstances. At least she doesn't think or talk about her boobs every five minutes (yes, I'm looking at you here, Andy Weir). In addition, Meadows' critique of everyone in Watts' stories being white and straight doesn't hold up, not in his short stories nor in the Firefall books (Blindsight and Echopraxia) nor in the Sunflowers Cycle. I didn't read someone named Sunday Ahzmundin as being particularly white to begin with; yes, that's stereotyping based on names, but why should I default to white here? And FFR in fact reads like Watts wrote parts of it as a direct rebuttal of said criticism, with hints at Sunday maybe being bi and the inclusion of gay and non-binary side-characters (yeah, I know, a white, male author actually listening to someone who criticizes him for not being inclusive enough: that sounds almost too good to be true). But I already noticed this kind of casual diversity in the Firefall universe, so it's nothing new.
Anyway, so much for the SJW ramblings. As an excuse, have some gratuitous cat-content.
4) Giants (short story first published in Extreme Planets, 2014) - ****
The first story not told by Sunday. I spent the first quarter of the text trying to figure out who the narrator is; some other readers guessed it's Dix, Sunday's son. It isn't. But you need the knowledge provided in FFR to figure out whom exactly we're dealing with here. Given the author, it's no big surprise that he would choose this POV somewhere along the line; given it's me, it's no big surprise I liked this guy. His voice sounds a bit like Siri, maybe because they share the loneliness; maybe it just reads like Watts and he really needs to work on writing unique voices.
The giants in questions are two bodies, one hot, one cold, an ice giant and a sun, and Eriophora has to fly through both.
Giants is my favorite story of the Cycle so far, with very vivid descriptions, a palpable sense of urgency, and a great structure. I read it sitting on my balcony, watching the dawn of an incredibly big, incredibly red full moon – very atmospheric. I completely failed to capture it on camera. It looked a bit like the picture below, but that's from last month.
5) Super-hidden secret content aka Hitchhiker - ****
The red letters in The Freeze-Frame Revolution form a message that leads to another short-story. No spoilers, just so much: it's creepy. Again another narrator than Sunday (but not new), also the first story told in close 3rd person. I'm not exactly sure where this falls on the timeline – I'm crap with numbers. It could happen before Giants, maybe even before The Island? That'd leave room for all kinds of uncanny possibilities.
So, two novels, one novella, one novelette, and six short stories in a bit more than six month: I think that's enough Watts for the time being, before my obsession grows any more severe. I'm drawn to his work not only because he's so good at writing outsiders (no matter how much he fucks up sometimes), but also because he's always looking at humans through his biologist lens, seeing just another mammal driven by instinct, desire, need, and fear. Mostly though, I simply like his writing. It's heavy on tech-babble and verges on the obscure from time to time; I often have to go back and re-read sections; sometimes even that won't make things clearer and even a dictionary won't be of any help. But I like an author who doesn't underestimate his readers.
Now, though, I need something less cold, less cynic; something a bit kinder, a bit more compassionate, something with a more wholesome view of humanity.