I was so eager to get to grips with my review copy of The Freeze-Frame Revolution, fresh from Tachyon‘s freezer cabinet, that my digits still have ice burns. Peter Watts is a writer I revere to the point of blind adulation, and a huge inspiration for me. He fully deserves his past award wins and nominations, and The Freeze-Frame Revolution is probably a shoo-in for a Best Novella Hugo. So I hope that readers won’t dismiss any criticisms I make as presumptuous condescension. I don’t think I’d be doing my job as a reviewer if I didn’t point out the book’s shortcomings as well as its virtues, and try to give the author a hand to be even better. Trigger warning over, now to the book.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution builds on themes already aired in Watts’s “Sunflower” cycle of short stories. It is the first-person retrospective account of Sunday Ahzmundin, one of the 30,000 or so crewsicles aboard the generation ship Eriophora, on the road for some 66 million years building jumpgates for a human race that has long since out-evolved or simply forgotten them. Chimp, the Eriophora’s artificial dumbtelligence, periodically wakes a select few for each jumpgate build. Some crew, however, are growing dissatisfied with their road to nowhere, and when Sunday discovers the ruthless limits of Chimp’s mission parameters, she joins the slow-motion mutiny that unfolds in the blind spots between the AI’s sensors. Those forced pauses in the characters’ plans don’t impinge at all on the narrative, though. It’s a fast-paced read that I ploughed through in a couple of days, so it certainly keeps eyes on page superbly.

That said, The Freeze-Frame Revolution is not an original concept, and recycles tropes as avidly as Eriophora’s fabs recycle matter. Lost generation ship? Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop, or Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun cycle. Or Pandorum. Or Ascension. Or Snowpiercer. Drawn-out subversive conspiracy under perveillance? Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. Dictatorial monomaniac AI? Take your pick. The final, reframing twist comes as a real surprise, but not a completely unpredictable one. Yes, these are well-established tropes precisely because so much can be wrung out of them, but their use reflects limitations in Watts’s work to date that I’d love to see him transcend.

Watts recounts ideas and concepts brilliantly, with the snappy lucidity of the best popular science writers. Eriophora, cored from an asteroid and driven by its own singularity, is convincingly realized, as are the tribal subcultures that develop among the crew. Yet William Gibson’s Freeside or Zion are far more richly textured, tactile, believable environments than Eriophora. Likewise, Watts has a consistent problem evoking believable social groups above the think tank or brainstorming circle, let alone entire communities or nations. His politics read more like behavioural science than Foreign Policy, or Vinge’s gritty, all-too-believable conflicts. Blindsight worked so well partly because the narrative constrained most of the action to a half dozen cutting-edge transhumans. Contrast Eriophora’s crew, though, with the fantastical inhabitants of Gene Wolfe’s Whorl, and I’d say that Watts seems distinctly light on world-building, or even proper nouns. His creations often feel like the wireframe or ragdoll renditions of the underlying concepts, insufficiently fleshed out. It’s a problem common to much hard SF, yet getting around it does not imply short-changing the ideas: Gibson’s predictions of cyberspace and the hacker culture gained strength and currency precisely from the physicality and believability of their world.

None of the above should imply that The Freeze-Frame Revolution, or Watts’s writing in general, lacks heart. Watts clearly loves his people, and his work has a solid moral core, even when it’s so bleak and dystopian. He can get readers to invest emotionally in his characters and their dilemmas, as well as propel them through his stories at a cracking pace. Yet novels, like Mallarmé’s verses, are made not with ideas, but with words, and I’d love to see more fiction, even at the cost of less finking. Watts’s pacey narrative and confidence in handling reveals demonstrates his formal mastery. I just wish he’d create worlds rather than thought experiments. Still, with The Freeze-Frame Revolution running only to novella length, Watts has plenty of elbow room, and at the speed he writes, I’m sure he has time and energy to round his work out more.