the Little Red Reviewer

Beyond the Rift, by Peter Watts

Posted on: November 17, 2013

Beyond the Rift, by Peter Watts

available November 2013

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher

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Peter Watts is the kind of story teller who doesn’t let us lie to ourselves. His writing style is aggressive and unrelentingly honest, he understands how easy it is, how natural human arrogance can be. We always think we know best, don’t we? Especially when it comes to people we’ve never met, or creatures we don’t understand.  That book, Blindsight, that’s on everyone’s “most important science fiction books” list? This is that guy.

Including two award winning short stories, The Things (which I reviewed here) and The Island, this collection could easily be subtitled “the best of”. Past the award winners, you’ll find the mind blowers – the stories that take what you think you know about how we think about our universe and flip it all inside out.  Thought crime control, the crushing dangers of the ocean’s bottom, a new way for religion to work,  a woman torn between her own body and that of a four year old child, a prequel to the Rifters trilogy, and so much more await you in Beyond The Rift. Head over to the Tachyon tumblr page to read some excerpts.

Be sure to read the Outtro, an intro of sorts, that comes at the end of the book instead of the beginning. It’s important that you read that part, and it’s important that you read it *last*.  Watts has a pretty good idea of how most people are going to react to his work, and now he’s going to explain himself.

confused yet? intrigued yet? a little  of both? Here are my thoughts on my favorite stories from Beyond the Rift.

The Island – Like the other workers on the Eriophora, Sunday and Dixon only wake up when they’re needed. The ship’s chimp brained AI has found a good spot, so it’s time to start building. A gate, that is.   Yes, Sunday, Dixon, and the other sleeping crew members are glorified highway construction workers. Sleeping most of the way, they travel far ahead, building transit gates in every corner of the galaxy. Humanity evolved, and left their road crews behind.  Sunday can barely even recognize what comes through the gates as human anymore. There is some brilliantly tight world building happening in this story, that’s for sure. Dix is still young, he wants to be awake all the time, he thinks there’s so much he can learn from the ship’s AI, no matter that Sunday tells him she ripped her port out years ago, and for good reason.  He’ll barely stand still long enough for her to try to explain what happened all those years ago. Regardless, they’ve found a spot, and construction has begun.  And then they find something strange, someone no one has ever seen before. The star they are near, it is surrounded by a sphere of organic material, it’s one huge organism. Sunday even describes it as a giant dyson sphere. She doesn’t want to hurt anything that might be intelligent, even if it’s not sentient, or is, and can’t communicate with them. After studying the star, she realizes it is benign and helpless, and that if she doesn’t move the gate, she’ll kill it. How arrogant, how human she is, to think she can understand this creature.  Maybe it can’t communicate in any meaningful way, but it knows how to get what it wants.

Ambassador – one of the first stories in the collection that I read, and it was to be a powerful harbinger of what was to come.  The nameless pilot narrator is being relentlessly chased by an alien ship.  Each jump buys the pilot  few more hours of time, but every jump makes ever getting home that much more impossible. The alien ship is eventually destroyed by something even more alien and more frightening. Is our pilot narrator saved? Not quite. He powers down his ship, and just watches for a while.  He observes that the conglomeration of mismatched alien ships near him are no longer being chased, but corralled.  The pilot has an idea of what’s going on, and if he’s right, he’s far more valuable to them alive than dead. If you find the end of this story cruel, it’s not your fault. After all, you’re only human.

Mayfly (written with Derryl Murphy) – Doctor Mikalaides is working with Kim and Andrew Goravec, he’s helping them bring their daughter back.  The anxious parents spend a few hours each day with their four year old daughter, acclimating her, trying to get her to understand how this new life works, the new life where there is a wire from her head to a server box. But all little Jeannie wants to do is cry and do bodily harm to herself.  Let’s look at it from Jeannie’s point of view for a few minutes, shall we? Where is she when she’s not in the mind of the little girl? Her downloaded brain lives in a virtual world, where she can build and rebuild the environments to her own desires, where time means nothing. In there, Jeannie isn’t four years old, she’s a grown woman. Why do these stupid people keep trapping her in the body and mentality of a child? How could anyone hate her that much, to force that on her?  She’ll just have to do whatever needs to be done never be trapped in that pathetic body again.

A Niche – The future is underwater. With the planet’s surface a mess, companies have started building labs on the ocean floor, studying the creatures who can survive down there. They’ve started biologically adjusting humans to have a better chance of surviving under the pressure, but you can’t adjust someone’s personality.   Right now it’s only Lenie Clark and Jeannette Ballard on Beebe Station, on the bottom of the ocean. Reading this story, you will hear the metal creak under the pressure, you will begin to feel the crushing claustrophobia, you will want to escape whatever room you are reading in. Watts’ writes in such a way that there is never any escape from where he’s taking you. Lenie and Jeannette aren’t getting along as well as they could.  Lenie is quiet to Jeannette’s chattiness and bravado, Lenie is happy to wear her wetsuit and eyecaps indoors, whereas Jeannette insists on keeping a stark separation between the deadly ocean outside, and the safety of the lab. As Lenie becomes more and more comfortable with the intricacies and interdependencies of life on the ocean floor, Jeannette becomes convinced that Lenie is having some kind of breakdown.  Part of this experiment is also learning what kinds of personalities do best in the deep ocean labs. If you’ve ever failed a personality test at a job interview because you weren’t enough of a cheerleader, this story will make you proud.

The Eyes of God – A man is waiting in the security line at the airport. The trip isn’t business or pleasure, he’s going to a funeral. As he gets closer and closer to the front of the security line and gets more and more anxious about what’s about to happen,  he can’t help but think about his father, and what the two men have in common.  These weird new security scanners. They don’t sniff for explosives or detect lies, or look for nervous behavior. These new scanners look directly into your mind. The minimum wage security guard at the airport knows exactly what the narrator’s innermost thoughts are, what his dark urges are. Doesn’t matter that he would never act on any of those urges, doesn’t matter that he has never acted on any of those urges. It’ll still come up on the scan, it’ll still be a story for the security guard to tell his buddies over a beer later over sick laughs.  The scanner finds the things you’d never do, and it erases the urge for a few hours, for enough hours to get on the plane and to your destination.  The narrator gives the guard a little bit of a hard time, and the guard politely tells him this isn’t against anyone’s first amendment rights, this doesn’t take away anyone freedom to do whatever they want. It only takes away the urges for the next nine hours. For everyone’s safety, you understand.

The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald – The recurring line in this story “what’s wrong with this picture?” is there to remind us to pay attention.  Jasmine Fitzgerald was arrested for murdering her husband Stuart. She freely admitted to stabbing him, to practically cutting him right open, and it’s Dr. Myles Thomas’s job to determine if she’s psychologically fit to stand trial. At first, he does think she’s crazy, with her talk of “getting it right this time”, of debugging the programming. She knows that Stuart is dead, but she doesn’t seem to understand that dead is permanent. Dr. Thomas lets Jasmine steer the conversations, and she wants to talk about God, quantum physics, and viruses. She’s fixated on viruses, but not viruses in our bodies, and not exactly computer viruses either.  It’s not that she’s not fit to stand trial, it’s that we’re not ready for her.  Dr. Thomas can’t follow Jasmine’s math, but he’s smart enough to know that pretty soon there won’t be anything wrong with this picture.

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5 Responses to "Beyond the Rift, by Peter Watts"

Oh man you put it so perfectly…I love your snarky humor when describing The Eyes of God! maybe I should do that next time – a more indepth review of my favorites instead of the shorter snippet I do on every single one….

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I’m such a minor part of the book I almost feel bad writing this, but would you be willing to correct the spelling of my name? Derryl, not Darryl. Thank you.

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my apologies Derryl, I updated it as soon as I saw your comment. Thank you for speaking up, I am often spelling people’s names wrong, and I need to pay better attention.

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Thank you. It’s a burden my parents put on me long ago, picking what is almost the most obscure spelling of a name that can be spelled in a wide variety of fashions.

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