BOOK REVIEW: Beyond the Rift by Peter Watts

REVIEW SUMMARY: A strong collection of short fiction that shows the author’s versatility and range at shorter lengths. (”The Things“ opens a strong selection of the best of an underrated writer.)

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of fourteen stories written by Peter Watts.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Excellent stories that highlight the author’s versatility and strengths in writing science fiction.
CONS: Story order might have been rejiggered to better impact.
BOTTOM LINE: A chance to delve into Watts’ work and find out what the fuss is all about.

Readers only vaguely aware of Peter Watts may have heard of his incident with the U.S. Border Patrol in Michigan. Others might have heard about his life-threatening bout with flesh-eating bacteria. Those more familiar with him through his fiction might know him as the writer of the story “based on The Thing.” These things are all true of course, as well as being the author of several novels, all using Biology as the core science in his science fiction. (One of them, Blindsight, was a Hugo Award nominee.) However, Watts’ short story output is far more than just one story based on a movie. The new collection Beyond the Rift showcases many of the gems of Watts’ oeuvre.

Opening the collection is “The Things”, perhaps his most famous short story to date. The story is the retelling of the events of the movie The Thing from the creature’s point of view. He makes the creature ultimately sympathetic yet believably alien.

In his Hugo winning novelette “The Island”, Watts goes deep into space to explore what kind of beings are the ones that build those shiny Stargates you see so often in fiction. Although “The Things” is high in my esteem, this is my favorite story of the collection.

A simple murder mystery, a seemingly insane spouse as the obvious suspect, is the deceptive opening to “The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald”. This was the first story in the collection that showed me Watts’ range in themes and subjects.

What if enlightenment and connection to the divine could be ensured by technology? In “A Word for Heathens”, the terrifying consequences play out for the protagonist, a futuristic holy warrior whose connection to the divine is unquestionable. Or is it?

It takes a special set of changes to mind and body to explore the deep ocean physically. In “Home”, one such changed person finds that returning back isn’t as simple as either side things. It feels like it’s in dialogue with Clifford Simak’s “Desertion”.

Is thinking about doing horrible acts a crime, or something that should be controlled by society? “The Eyes of God” explores how technology might explore that question. You’ll never see security at a building or an airport the same way.

Creating a model of a human mind is tricky. Even trickier are the personal consequences of such an endeavor, as seen in “Flesh Made Word”. Is a program you can turn off a real person? Or just an algorithm?

Living clouds and storms, and surviving their slow motion apocalypse is the terrifying world of “Nimbus”. This story of the set felt most like Watts looking toward the border of fantasy or at least fantastika.

In “Mayfly” (written with Derryl Murphy) raising a child’s mind in virtual space makes something far more alien than a child’s point of view. A showcase for perhaps one of Watts most more-than-human protagonists aside from a certain vampire in Blindsight.

First Contact between an engineered human and aliens in a cold and uncaring universe is sharper than a serpent’s tooth in “Ambassador”. This is the sort of story that enhances Watts perhaps unfair reputation for dark and uncaring worlds and characters.

“Hillcrest V. Velikovsky”, one of the shortest stories in the collection, shows the power and lack of power of belief in pseudoscience. In some ways, it feels like a retro short story in that its an idea and not much else, explored in a short space.

“Repeating the Past” shows what technology a grandfather will use to see a wayward grandson come back to the fold. This story felt like a modern take on Burgess’ Clockwork Orange.

In “A Niche”, the anchor story in the collection, we are introduced to the deep-sea world of Leinie Clarke, as he later explored in his Rifters novels. It takes a special kind of crazy to want to work on the bottom of the ocean. The claustrophobia of being at the bottom of the ocean is convincingly portrayed.

I was surprised to see religion as such a strong minor key in these stories. While I expected and got lots of interesting biological science fiction, I had not expected so many of the stories to deal with God and the divine. That Watts’ writing comes to the subject from a skeptical, scientific mindset, though, is no surprise. His writing may not be for everyone; dialogue and characterization firmly take a back seat to rigorous speculation and working out of premises and ideas.

For me, what Greg Egan is to Science Fiction from a Physics point of view, and Rajaniemi is to Science Fiction from a Mathematical point of view, Watts comes to and enriches Science Fiction from a Biology, especially a Marine Biology, point of view. An interesting afterword addresses a number of things about his life and work that readers might be curious about: reaction to his stories; the aforementioned legal troubles with the border patrol; his bout with necrotizing fasciitis; and the charge that his fiction is dystopian, dark, pessimistic and grim. I invite you to read these stories of his and decide the truth of those last charges for yourself.

7 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Beyond the Rift by Peter Watts”

  1. “CONS: Story order might have been rejiggered to better impact.”

    Eh, I read the stories out of order anyways. So it’s as if there weren’t any cons at all. ;)

    I too was very surprised at how often religion came up, and how Watts dealt with it. Certainly one of my favorite collections this year. I never got past the first book in the Rifters series, now I want to read them all.

  2. At the risk of making this sound like it’s All About Me (and it isn’t: this is Peter’s collection and he’s responsible for the vast majority of the words on the pages, including pretty much all the brilliant ones, as far as I’m concerned), please allow me to note that he did have a co-author on the story “Mayfly.” It may seem nitpicky of me to bring this up, but I worry that I’m either getting short shrift from the reviewer or, worse, the publisher has somehow seen fit to excise my name from the story. Which is it, if I may ask?

  3. Thanks, Paul. As noted, of course, this is Peter’s book and those 4 stars belong to him. Anxiously waiting for my copy.

  4. Great review – spot on.

    “The Eyes of God” was definitely the story that unnerved me the most, especially once the twist is revealed, and we understand what the ‘potential’ crime is. He could have played it safe and gone with something like murder, but Watts goes very dark on that.

    “The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald” was definitely one of my favourites. A simple story, on the surface, but one that really makes you wonder and second-guess your assumptions. As for “Ambassador,” that has to be one of the best first-contact tales I’ve read in a very long time. I loved the way he played with the unwritten rule that any race intelligent enough to make first contact must be benevolent.

  5. Just finished the collection today. It is not too often that you can find a Watt’s book at the B & N. When you find one, set aside the epic fantasy, media tie-in, or paranormal romances and snatch it up. The threat of learning something new looms when reading a story by Peter Watts. Hopefully, this doesn’t dissuade you. A careful and curious reader will scurry to the internet to find out a bit more about some of the embedded concepts. More casual readers, accustomed to hand-waving and techno-babble, can accept the stories just fine without needing to know more. Bottom line: It is hard to not be impressed by an author that can make you believe in sentient city-destroying storms or profoundly damaged humans living in the benthic dark at the bottom of the sea. “The Things” and “The Island” are worth the price of the book all by their lonesome. Before reading “The Things” I recommend watching John Carpenter’s movie The Thing first. It makes the story that much more impressive.

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