Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes - Peter Watts

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes
Peter Watts
Tesseract Books
ISBN: 189583676X

There are times when I love the internet. These times generally involve buying books. I particularly love being able to order out-of-print or limited edition books like Ten Minutes, Ten Monkeys. If anyone is unaware of the wonderful Abebooks, well, you're not now, and it's a fantastic broker for lots of small second hand or specialist bookshops. There's something very true to the older non-commercial, non-corporate idea of the internet about ordering from a little bookshop thousands of miles away.

The trick is of course to know what's worth ordering from thousands of miles away. The answer is anything by the man who wrote Starfish and Maelstrom.

Tesseract books aren't a publisher I've heard of before, but I'll be keeping an eye out for more of their catalogue. Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes is a very smart little hardback, nicely finished with a little monkey motif in place of the usual section divider character. [1] As well as a great title and nifty typography, you get nine short stories for your money, all at least well-above-average, and one original to this collection. Each story has a clearly SFnal, with a Big Idea nestled at its heart, but as with a pearl, it's the stuff on the outside that's worth the money. Here's a quick reaction to each story; I may gush.

A Niche - This is one of the two tales in this collection that mutated into his excellent novel, Starfish. The other is the short Home, which closes the collection. A Niche is closer to novella length, and reads like distilled essence of Starfish. It's a two person character study, with Lennie Clarke finding that she's strangely at home in the dangerous and alien world of the deep sea, while her crewmate Jeanette Ballard reacts like, well, a normal person. The SF trappings of Beebe station and the crew's implants seem almost incidental to the story, which is a brutal little psychological horror. Probably the best story in the collection.

Fractals - Another uncomfortable read, this is a discussion on racism, us vs them psychology, and biological imperatives underlying civilised behaviour. It's a story which made me squirm a little while reading, but it's a fantastic piece of writing.

The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald - This is wonderful. A man is found dead, with his wife the obvious suspect, given that she's beside his disembowelled corpse with a bloody steak knife. Myles Thomas is the psychologist assigned to her case. Jasmine is fit for trial, but clearly delusional, babbling about having killed her husband by trying to help him, by 'debugging' him, trying to cure his leukaemia. A doctoral candidate in general relativity, she manages to intrigue the doctor by invoking quantum mechanical reasons for her actions, insisting that if she has more time to think, she could figure out the correct formulas and just raise Stuart from the dead. Myles sees this as merely an interesting variant on the usual cases he gets, but that's before he hears from the coroner... I was reminded of Cory Doctorow's 0wnz0red at first, though this is much more accomplished, but Watt's swerves the story towards, well, towards the direction you'd expect given the title. It's not a fantastically original idea, as even one of the characters notes, but the treatment is stellar, even with the broken equations on page 63.

Bulk Food - Co-authored with Laurie Channer. This is utterly hilarious, and mercilessly vicious in its mockery of certain sections of society's view of nature. Orcas are sentient, and we've figured out how to talk to them. This causes problems for vegetarianisms, those who want to save the whales, and sea life amusement parks. I can't recommend this story highly enough, I haven't laughed as hard at a story in a long time.

Nimbus - A curious entry. What if... storms were sentient? What if clouds acted like clustered processors and in sufficient quantities could decide where to storm? Not as satisfying as his other ideas, and not really saved by the human interest story built around it. The world that a man and his wife knew is gone, and so is she. A storm took her from him, leaving him to raise their daughter in world where the sky has always been hostile. Touching, but unconvincing. The weakest entry in the collection, but still splendidly written.

Flesh Made Word - A look at what it means to die, what the moment of death can tell us about the process, how digital simulations compare to biological originals, all contrasted with the death of a relationship. Slightly weaker than the other stories I though, but trademark Watts. There's a key SFnal element in Westcott's scientific study of dying, supported by a human interest story featuring sharply drawn, sympathetic characters, with realistically complex personalities and relationships. I didn't quite know what to make of the ending of this one, but I really felt for Westcott, even though I realised we were told very little about him.

Ambassador - A straight little SF action piece, with a twist ending. What if we make first contact, and it just wants to kill us? What if first contact was made by a machine instead, what would that change, and what would the machine need? How about fear, the most useful biological survival mechanism. Brief but nifty.

Bethlethem - Entropy as the cause of societal breakdown, discussed by following an unworldly academic whose best friend has just been raped on her run-down estate. Brutally effective.

Home - A companion piece to A Niche, it brings us back to the world of Beebe station, and is a little character study about about going native in the deep sea. Watts has a gift for sketching dark, claustrophobic, paranoid worlds without ever making use of the blunt tools of the genre horror writer.

Looking at that list, I can probably identify two themes: firstly that biology is central to our identities, and there's no point pretending the negative behaviours implied by our genetic heritage don't exist. The second seems to be, er, secondary, and is perhaps more useful from the point of view of generating an obviously SFnal story frames to hold his characters. He likes to take fairly fundamental notions from physics, and exaggerate their day-to-day impact to contrast with his messy biological characters; scale invariance, simulations and complexity, entropy. Those themes alone wouldn't make this collection stand out of course, it's his writing which elevates this collection. I'm a gushing fan-boy, and can't wait for his next novel, Behemoth B-Max, to arrive on my doorstep.

Highly recommended.

[1] As a computer geek I have to be able to pronounce every character on the keyboard [2], so I'm a bit annoyed that I can't do better than 'the section divider character'. Anyone know the correct name? It usually resembles a little ivy leaf.
[2] Try helping someone with Perl problems over a phone sometime. Knowing the difference between a tilde and a caret is very handy. Helps if they know what you mean too of course...

Posted: Tue - July 20, 2004 at 12:49 AM