Beyond the Rift is Peter Watts's third short story collection, including pieces which have previously appeared in Ten Monkeys, Ten Words (2002) and his self-published The Island and Other Stories (2012). Never having read any Watts before, I didn't know what to expect from him, and so embarked with the usual degree of wary-yet-hopeful scepticism reserved for unfamiliar authors. Happily, Beyond the Rift proved to be a quick, compelling read—and, I suspect, a solid introduction to the author himself. Watts has a clean, engaging prose style, a knack for narrative structure, and the ability to include solid, hard SF worldbuilding without toploading his stories with a lot of impenetrable jargon. Though his stories don't tread much new ground, thematically speaking—there's a lot here that pays homage to the tropes of pulp SF—he often explores them from philosophical angles, and in so doing asks some interesting questions.
The first story, "The Things," is an excellent example of this, taking the familiar idea of an alien intelligence trying to assimilate scientists in Antarctica and making it new by telling the whole thing from the alien's perspective. That being so, the fact that this is a retelling of John Carpenter's movie The Thing (1982) is worth noting, particularly as it received some high-profile praise for showing the power of fanfiction to both re-examine and deconstruct old tropes. (Though it's hard not to roll one's eyes at yet another instance of male-authored fanfiction being deemed serious and worthy by both its creator and other male fans in a culture that otherwise loves to ridicule such a predominantly female-authored oeuvre as frivolous, hackneyed, and trite. Apparently, the privilege of reinterpreting old stories rests with men alone.)
"The Island" similarly picks at an old SF concept—that of wormholes used to facilitate interstellar travel—and focuses, not on the outcomes of the technology, but on the environment and sociology of those perpetually sent ahead to create it. "The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald" is another old favorite, an ordinary person who suddenly attains such a complete understanding of the universe and its physics that they can practically work magic, while bystanders are left to struggle with the impossible consequences and their implications.
Mind control, the chemical/biological origins of consciousness, faith, and feeling are also dominant themes of the collection. "A Word For Heathens" posits a dystopian world where absolute scientific certainty in god, facilitated by electrical stimulation of the proper part of the brain, has subsumed the need for mere faith, while "Hillcrest v. Velikovsky" is a more satirical look at the potentially litigious consequences of debunking someone's belief in placebos. "Flesh Made Word" and "Mayfly" both deal with the digital uploading and creation of human consciousness, but while the former examines the concept as relative to death, the latter is more concerned with creating life. By contrast, "The Eyes of God" and "Repeating the Past" are focused on forcible mind control deployed for the greater good: one from the macro perspective of governmental control, the other from the intimate, micro perspective of family conflict.
"Home" and "A Niche" are both set in the same world, one where individuals chosen specifically for their ability to withstand trauma are bioengineered to allow them to survive at the bottom of the sea, the better to study such a hostile environment; the pressures they're under, however, are both emotional and literal. In "Nimbus," a father struggles to connect with his daughter in a world where the sky itself has been revealed as a sentient entity, sending storms to attack humanity and unable to be reasoned with; while in "Ambassador," an android pilot fleeing the predations of an unknown alien menace muses on whether its ultimate allegiance is to the humans who created it, or to self-preservation.
In short, Beyond the Rift is a well-written, thematically cogent anthology, one which, on balance, I'm glad to have read—and on that basis, I wish, I really wish, there was nothing more to say; that I could end the review here, without adding what comes next. It's a testament to the strength of these stories otherwise that I was still able to enjoy the anthology; that I would still, in fact, happily recommend it to others, albeit with some caveats.
The whole time I was reading Beyond the Rift, I felt a niggling sense of alienation. Something was bothering me, something familiar, but I was halfway done before the what and why of it really clicked, and once it did, I couldn't unsee it.
Beyond the Rift presents a disconcertingly othering view of women.
Of the thirteen stories in Beyond the Rift, only three have female narrators: "The Island," "Home," and "A Niche." Of these women, two are rape victims whose trauma is their defining emotional characteristic—indeed, according to the internal logic of the world of "Home" and "A Niche," it's the very reason they both elected, and were chosen, to be turned into undersea fish monsters (because surviving rape apparently makes one innately well-suited for dangerous, isolated work that requires you to undergo deeply invasive physical surgeries that challenge your humanity, regardless of whether you have any prior training or interest in, oh, I don't know, absolutely anything relating to the ocean). Had only one of these women had rape as her backstory, then maybe, maybe, I could have written it off as being just one example of trauma severe enough to prompt one's relocation to an undersea rift: instead, we're left with a setting where scientists are actively recruiting female rape victims to become monsters.
And the other female narrator? She has sex with her son. Not a son she raised herself—a son her ship's AI created using her genetic material while she was in cryosleep—but a young man whom she nonetheless instantly defines as being her son, and for whom she feels a maternal responsibility. Except she also repeatedly mocks him as spastic for his poor social skills, the consequence of his being raised by the AI (because even in the far and distant future, ableism is still a thing, natch), and talks on multiple occasions about how she'd happily push him out the airlock. She doesn't like her son as a person, disparages his intellect, exhibits no physical attraction to him whatsoever—and yet, she sleeps with him. In a story which is otherwise primarily concerned with questions of morality and emotional logic, such a bizarre sexual encounter felt deeply out of place; not least because it was wholly unnecessary.
Of the remaining ten stories, two—"The Things" and "A Word For Heathens"—feature no women at all. Though the titular character of "The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald" is, indeed, female, we only ever see her from the outside: as a strange, almost alien presence, one whose humanity is all the more disconcerting for the rapidity with which it's being sloughed off. The sympathetic male protagonists of "Nimbus" and "Flesh Made Word" are both scientists mourning the deaths of their wives while struggling to connect emotionally with other women—one a daughter, one a second wife—whose personalities are both refracted through technology. The daughter in "Nimbus" is described in abstract, inhuman terms by her father—"Slowly, smooth as an oiled machine, she lowers her eyes to earth" (p. 144)—and portrayed as being clinically obsessed with, though not impassioned by, technology. In "Flesh Made Word," the protagonist has his computer talk to him in the voice of his dead wife, and when his new wife leaves him, fed up with his emotional withdrawal, she does so by making an AI version of herself which, once it's finished breaking up with him, he conveniently deletes. "Mayfly" is even more horrific, showcasing a four-year-old girl whose brain is also that of a highly sophisticated AI, one whose full potential she can only access when her parents "switch her off"—something she forces them to do via bouts of violent self-harm. Eventually, this culminates in suicide, killing her child-body-self in order to let her inhuman self live.
Which begs the question: how does this portrayal of women relate to Watts's status as—or at least, the widespread perception of his being—a misanthropic writer?
Having been unaware of Watts's reputation prior to reading Beyond the Rift, I didn't read the collection with this particular criticism in mind, and can therefore sincerely say that it never once occurred to me to class his writing as misanthropic; nor do I feel the label applies in retrospect—not to this collection, at least. While the stories in Beyond the Rift certainly deal with dark themes, horrific premises, and deeply flawed characters, I never felt that Watts was positing such violence and mayhem to be an intrinsic part of humanity, or inevitable in terms of our evolution. Merely acknowledging humanity's many failings doesn't seem a sufficient criteria for misanthropy, even in instances where their dissemination constitutes a primary narrative focus; even when the focus itself is cynical. Compared to someone like R. Scott Bakker, who compulsively fixates on rape, misogyny, and torture out of a self-stated belief that human beings, and particularly human men, are inevitably predisposed to sexual aggression and violence, or to any number of grimdark writers who start out by assuming a certain type of goodness to be either narratively boring or fundamentally unrealistic, and who therefore delight in actively subverting it, Watts feels positively cheerful. Misanthropes ask questions of humanity in the full expectation that they already know the (depressing, inevitable, grotesque) answer, and are trying to steer us in that direction; Watts asks questions to make you think.
Which doesn't, alas, exempt him from accusations of sexism and default bias. Misanthropy is far from being the only explanation for a poor or stereotypical representation of women; far more often, I think, it's simply a case of the author not having thought about it.
I found it offputting, for instance, that Watts uses the word rape as a synonym for non-sexual violation more often than he uses it to describe sexual assault; which, in a collection with three rape-victim narrators, strikes me as being rather problematic. Similarly, two of his narrators are never assigned a gender; and yet, I suspect, we are meant to unthinkingly read them as male, both from other context cues (the narrator in "The Eyes of God" has paedophilic impulses towards young boys, but has never acted on them, though their presence is implicitly related to the character's own childhood abuse by a male priest) and—more saliently—from being unambiguously described as male by the author in his closing essay-slash-afterword (as is the case of "Repeating the Past"). The lack of gender-specific pronouns in both stories therefore isn't, I suspect, something that's been done deliberately, as a way of making the audience think about gender, but is rather a consequence of the author's own default settings: to always assume the narrator is male until or unless you're told otherwise.
So: on the one hand, excellent concepts, execution, and structure. On the other, the consistent alienation and stereotyping of female characters—and of course, there's the fact that everyone's white and straight. Or at least, that's what we're once more left to infer; there was, I think, a single, fleeting description of a single minor character having dark skin, but that was it, and while I appreciate that this is a collection far more interested in philosophical and scientific questions than the more social, bodily issues of diversity, gender, and representation, which is my usual preference, it still would've been nice to feel as though the characters had some individual human identities and existences beyond their immediate preoccupation with either (mostly male) angst, or science, or survival.
Even with the gender issues, however, I still feel this is a strong collection. And that makes me feel a little angry, to be honest, because the problematic stuff didn't need to be there at all. There was no reason the fish-women had to be rape victims; there was no reason the narrator of "The Island" had to sleep with her son; there was no reason to repeatedly use the word rape as a metaphor while applying it only once to actual sexual assault; there was no need for the other women to be viewed always from the outside, through a predominantly inhuman lens; there was no need to twice use the dead wife trope. Why is there always this historic bias in hard SF especially, that the concepts are what really matters, and the social elements just window-dressing? If I were a time-traveler from the 1200s catapulted forwards to the modern world, I'd be just as amazed by the social changes as the technological; and yet we persist in dismissing the social science component of science fiction as inherently lesser, less interesting and vital, than the question of why an alien race might hypothetically hunt us.
Why do we find it so easy to forget about gendered pronouns in stories where the subject is either male-as-default, an alien or an android, but baulk at the idea of doing so to write genderfluid or gender-ambiguous humans?
Regardless: Beyond the Rift is a strong collection overall, despite my reservations about its portrayal of women—but of course, that won't be an issue for everyone.
Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality and sometime fantasy writer. She blogs about tropes, pop culture, feminism, politics, and SFF at her website, Shattersnipe, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post. She is also the author of two YA urban fantasy novels, Solace & Grief and The Key to Starveldt.