Science fiction, more than perhaps any other genre, has an established tradition of social and political critique. Such iconic works as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Frank Herbert’s Dune all used future human civilizations as stages to play out contemporary struggles such as Golden Age hedonism, class-based societies, modern imperialism and plutocracy. This pattern, dating back to the genre’s inception in the 19th century, has created an expectation that new science fiction must also contend with some contemporary crisis of the human condition, preferably in some novel fashion.
Both Peter Watts and Claire North (the pen name of Catherine Webb) have established themselves as unique literary voices. Watts is known for his exhaustively researched fiction and tight narrative structure, while North is a linguistic gymnast in the tradition of T. S. Eliot and Thomas Pynchon. Their most recent offerings, The Freeze-Frame Revolution and 84K, do not disappoint, and although each of their plots is strongly reminiscent of other novels, the delivery sets them apart from their compatriots.
In Watts’ The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Sunday Ahzmundin is a biological engineer on the spaceship Eriophora, whose unusually close relationship with the AI autopilot, Chimp, is tested when she learns of a rebellion being conducted by certain members of the crew in their brief gaps between decades-long periods of stasis. Although this is, by Watts’ admission, more scientifically speculative than his other work, purists will be pleased by his handling of machine learning, evolutionary time scale and even names—Eriophora is a genus of orb-weaving spider that creates spiral webs, and the Eriophora is building a spiral web of faster-than-light travel routes. The Freeze-Frame Revolution is closer in length to a novella than a novel, which enables the cover-to-cover tautness of the plot and makes the character development, especially of the relationship between Sunday and Chimp, all the more remarkable.
84K, by contrast, is both large and dense. Theo Miller is a man of uncertain provenance, living in a near-future United Kingdom that is dominated by a single massive monopoly called the Company. Theo determines the price in pounds sterling that convicted criminals must pay for their offenses, but when a woman from his past reappears, he must face the blight at the heart of his society. North constructs a linear plot out of disjointed slices of time, resulting in a book that never shows its hand and only snaps into focus at the very end. This unusual plot structure makes 84K a challenge for the reader, but it feels necessary. After all, North is painting a portrait of a society that hides its true form behind a facade of advertising and euphemism. Her heroes miss crucial details, and it is unclear whether “heroes” is really the right thing to call them.
Although The Freeze-Frame Revolution is strongly reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and 84K contends with a similar autocracy to George Orwell’s 1984, each book distinguishes itself both by its author’s technique and by its treatment of moral ambiguity. In each case, the protagonist possesses imperfect and likely biased information and is embroiled in a revolt that, for all its humane intentions, is anything but benevolent in practice. Watts leaves the essential conflict tantalizingly unresolved and writes from the perspective of Sunday retelling the events. This casts doubt on the veracity of Sunday as narrator, transforming what could otherwise have been a relatively cliché story of man versus machine into an engaging tale that leaves the reader with more questions than answers. And North consistently justifies her writerly contortions by using them to convey her protagonist’s state of mind. Her carefully chosen run-on sentences, unusual phrasing and jarring jumps (frequently mid-sentence) from thought to thought, character to narrator, or present to past convey Theo’s progress from being a deliberately boring, utterly confused bureaucrat to a man who has finally attained a sense of purpose.
Perhaps modern science fiction is somewhat hamstrung by its need to reflect our current society in its speculative funhouse mirror. There are only so many great debates to be had, after all. But these latest contributions, from such eminently skilled writers as Watts and North, are worthy voices in their respective conversations, and thoroughly engrossing stories in their own right.