Tuesday, August 10, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novelette: "The Island" by Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2)

Peter Watts packs a lot into this short piece of fiction, which was part of one of the “New Space Opera” anthologies that are supposed to highlight the new directions the genre has taken away from its traditional Star Trekkish roots.

It is different. The narrator is a woman named Sunday who lives and works on a ship named Eriophora over a billion years in the future. The ship is tasked with building wormholes to facilitate interstellar travel for the various posthumans zipping around the universe. It’s not a job that the crew can quit, and they seem to be immortal. It’s also a fairly thankless job – no one bothers to communicate with them. The crew resents the work, and especially their boss, a computer they call Chimp, but they toil on for eternity. Watts manages to get all of that world-building in, plus a fairly significant plot. The narrator meets a new worker named Dix who claims to be her son but acts a little odd, and the crew encounters a massive alien entity floating through space (the titular “Island.”) So, for all the high-concept post-singularity complexity of the world, it’s really a story about reaching out to other beings and making connections amidst an isolated and hostile situation (the title’s other meaning).

I liked it. It’s well written, and the emotional themes do resonate. At the same time, the world seems needlessly complex to me. The real story is about Sunday and Dix, and we don’t really need the wild setting to get them to the interesting emotional place we see them in. Watts seems to be showing off a bit with the world-building. There’s some interesting material in there, but I worry that these far future post-singularity settings are going to start to feel generic to me by the time I catch up to the present on my Hugo reading.

Grade: B-

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