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Saturdays in Books

Reviews of speculative fiction, YA, middle grade, and graphic novels, along with stray thoughts, links, and pictures.

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The SFWA European Hall of Fame: Sixteen Contemporary Masterpieces of Science Fiction from the Continent
Kathryn Morrow, James K. Morrow

Review: Beyond the Rift

Beyond the Rift - Peter Watts

I’m trying this new thing, where I make some notes about every story in a collection instead of just hitting the highlights.


Watts tends towards a specific set of themes in his writing. For starters, that we are not what our brains fool us into thinking we are. Next, that we are much more predictable, malleable, and controllable than we would like to believe. Next, that we’re capable of believing almost anything, regardless of evidence. Next, that sometimes these responses, though predictable are surprising and strange.  This collection will hit all these notes, sometimes in cords.


The Things – Watts’ retelling of the Thing from its alien perspective. My first encounter with this tale was hearing Watts read through it at Worldcon in 2009, where he said he didn’t think he’d ever see it published. Eventually, Clarkesworld published it both in writing and as an audio short story. Both versions are free, but I’m linking to the audio because I like that version better. It was shortlisted for 6 different awards, winning the Shirley Jackson. It’s a really fun piece, but the full enjoyment does require prior familiarity with John Carpenter’s The Thing.


The Island – only nominated for 3 awards, this strange space exploration/first contact story won a Hugo. If someone asks me to recommend something by Watts, this is my go to answer. It hits all the notes of hard scifi, philosophy, and general fuck-upness of his work in only 40 pages.


The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald – also one I’ve read before, as it appears in Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes. Is Fitzgerald a crazy murderer or a brilliant criminal mind faking insanity or something else entirely? The answer to that question is just more and more questions.


A Word For Heathens – finally a new story for me, unfortunately, this exploration of faith as a byproduct of neuroscience isn’t a good fit for me. It’s a little too on the nose.


Home – also appears in Ten Minutes, Ten Monkeys, and one of my favorites. Oh, and look, this collection ends with Niche, a related story also in the other collection. I sometimes love stories where women are forced by society to trade humanity for life, at least the ones that hit close to home (haha).


The Eyes of God – uses technology to explore a society with the literal ability to see the Catholic definition of sins (deeds and thoughts both). It’s creepy and heavy and answers none of the questions it asks. So, pretty much as expected from Watts.


Flesh Made World – I think I’ve read this one before. I’m not entirely sure. It’s one of those stories that ends where I think one should begin.


Nimbus – I like the emotional tone here, but the actual content just didn’t work for me. I just failed to take this particular apocalypse seriously.


Mayfly – This is the kind of technology concept Egan drops in as background, expanded through a paternalistic lens that begins and ends with how a man controls a woman’s life. Not my favorite, for sure.


Ambassador – technology implies belligerence. Need I say more? This story starts like the BSG mini-series stripped down to a single character but without all the hope and faith.


Hillcrest V. Velikovsky – this may be flash fiction. I’m not sure what the formal definition of that format is, but it feels like what small amount of self identified flash fiction I have read. And I feel like such a cynic for finding none of its twists surprising. Or maybe I’ve lived in the (USA) south for long enough to know this script.


Repeating the Past – This covers similar ground to Nimbus but from a different angle. In both, the narrator is faced with the inability to communicate how life was in the (recent) past to a member of the younger generation. Unlike Nimbus, this narrator finds a way.


A Niche – an uncomfortable read even having read it before. I like this story quite a bit, even though I don’t want to.


The collection ends with a non-fiction outro about the strange and predictable real world. For those of you who don’t know, Watts is a convicted felon who is no longer permitted to travel in the US. Shocking as that sounds, the actual details of his “crime” and the specifics of the trial outcome are quite a read on their own. Seriously, google it. He describes some of his reaction to the outcome here and the most surprising thing is his optimism.


To some extent, this collection is wasted purchase for me. I already read 10 Minutes 10 Monkeys (damn, that’s a great title for a collection), and there is very little in this one that isn’t either in that or from an awards ballot I’ve already read. There are a few new stories here, so if you don’t have the earlier collection, get this one instead.