It’s not often that I read a collection where nearly every story hits home big time. The only ones that come to my mind are those two by Greg Egan, a writer who couldn’t be more different from Watts. Watts POV of human nature is that we can’t escape our own biology, that all the little and big lies we tell about ourselves are nothing more than a thin layer covering our true nature, and hiding from this is not a beneficent or even a smart move.
Which easily could have let these stories fall prey to a sort of nihilism where only biological imperatives count, but that is thankfully not the case. Few hard SF writers infuse their writing with such raw emotion and humaneness, you can feel anger burning beneath these words, real humans trying to deal with all the shortcomings of our very nature. These stories don’t paint a nice picture of us, but neither do they wallow in despair. Watts’s writing is excellent, completely absorbing, and if that wouldn’t be enough, nearly every story has a brilliant SFnal idea at its core, fractal behavior, thinking clouds, the benefits of murderous aliens and more. In conclusion, this is one of the very best SF collection I ever had the pleasure to read.
If your main character is a damaged individual because of her past experience of abuse, the first option to solve her inner conflict is to try and heal her mind. Or you can use her special mindset and put her in a situation where she is exceptionally adapt at thriving, while ‘normal’ humans aren’t. Deep down in the blackness at the bottom of the ocean, where pressure mounts, both physical and psychical. Very atmospheric, and while you read the story you feel like you’re with the characters deep down in the ocean, Watts has a style that sucks you into his stories and doesn’t let go.
This is more a slice of life piece combined with a fascinating idea, mostly because there’s no real feeling of an end or closure. But the journey of the main character who discovers that a certain human behavior may have a fractal nature is mind-blowing, sadly, since this is a Peter Watts story, the human behavior we’re talking about isn’t something as nice as altruism.
The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald
A small notice says this was published before the Matrix came out, which is understandable because of the thematic similarity. Only that here the concept behind it is much bigger. I just mention Frank Tipler. There was one plot device which was needed for the story to work, but didn’t made sense if you thought it over: why didn’t the people know where they were. Still an excellent story.
Bulk Food (with Laurie Channer)
I think only Peter Watts (and here with assistance of Laurie Channer) can write a story where humans finally learn to speak to whales, only to discover that whale society is not much better than our own. The story nicely messes with certain types of humans, like radical vegetarians, but while some of the cheap shots make for some good fun, the story ultimately suffers from them because it made it less serious and more silly, like the predictable horror ending. Good, but could have been better, especially because the idea is excellent.
What if clouds are vast computational devices who harbor some sort of awareness but very slow thinking speed. When mankind becomes too much of a threat to the environment, storms and thunder begin to wipe them from the face of the earth. And even when mankind tries to make up, clouds process and compute oh so slowly, and it might be too late for the clouds to register our changed behavior. Mostly this is a clever idea combined with a human interest story about a man who lost his wife and has to take care of his daughter amidst a slow-going but unstoppable apocalypse.
Flesh Made Word
Our typical Watts story with a damaged (personalitywise) main character who has, to cope with the loss of a loved one, become obsessive about recording the last moment of dying people, but who also has shut out or cut away most of his own emotions, which makes his present girlfriend slightly uncomfortable. There are also some clever bits about emulations of humans minds and some other stuff, but mostly it’s about a dysfunctional relationship and how we are our own worst enemy. Don’t expect a happy ending.
A first contact story that shows that not only can alien civilizations that reach the spacefaring age of their respective culture not be peaceful, they have to be malevolent to have made it there and if they don’t find other threatening über-aliens who want to wipe them out, their civilizations are bound to go the way of the Dodo. To say this story is grim is a big understatement, and yet in some perverse way the argument of the story makes a certain kind of sense. Probably the one story I liked most because of how Watts reused classical themes and turned the world upside down with them.
Entropy may cause social breakdown, or at least this is what one of the characters tells herself and her friend to cope with her recent rape. While the human interest part was very well done, somehow the story didn’t worked for me. If I had to pin it down, it was that the breakdown of society in the background felt unreal, unrealistic, which seemed disjointed from the human interest story.
This takes place in the same setting as the first story ‘A Niche’, and plays with similar themes, only that it’s shorter. Since the human protagonist is most of the time in a kind of non-thinking vegetable state, it’s hard to develop much of an empathy for her and connect to the story as a whole. It’s interesting, but not as good as the other stories.