I’ve only read one thing by Peter Watts before, his Hugo-nominated novel “Blindsight” from a couple of years ago, which was probably the most blow-your-mind, sense-of-wonder nominee in recent memory. This novelette combines many of the same feelings, but in a shorter space, such that it all goes by so quickly I had to read it twice to make sure I understood it, and even then there are elements that it would seem were purposefully left out. The narrator, who is supposed to be female but doesn’t really sound or act like one, is one of a small group of humans living on a generation ship that somehow oversees the construction of portals between worlds, although most of the work is done by self-replicating machines. The implication is also that they’re building some sort “rail” or road through space as they go, maybe that’s just poetic license, otherwise it conjures up images of the Vogons building the Hyperspace Bypass. This has been going on for a billion years, Earth has long since been consumed by the sun, and the human workers are only woken up when the ship’s sentient computer, known as “the chimp”, needs them.
The island of the title refers to the first alien presence they’ve ever encountered, a huge living bubble surrounding their next target sun, which they discover is signaling them to get out of the way. The chimp doesn’t have the programming to deal with that kind of eventuality, and it even has created another human called Dix to help the narrator, although it’s main purpose seems to be to give the narrator someone to react against so she’s not just talking to herself the entire time. As they approach closer to the island, the narrator has to figure out how to preserve the mission and the alien at the same time, while her fellow crew aren’t all that interested the dilemma and just want to finish the job. The ending is left somewhat ambiguous, which given the speed at which they are traveling they hardly have time to react before it’s on to the next star system.
There’s any number of things to wonder about with this story. The central unanswered question is how exactly did this ship come to be, since there were no previous alien encounters it would seem that humanity somehow built this elaborate expansionary mechanism but it’s never explained how or why, and so much time has passed since they launched that whatever came from humanity has long since evolved beyond them, although given the time scale you would think then they would have come up with a different process and this little crew would have long since been rendered obsolete. And why call the alien entity “the island”, since there doesn’t really seem to be anything island-like about it, the narrator also refers to it as a Dyson sphere, which it is in the sense that it’s surrounding a sun but I thought the point of Dyson spheres was to capture enough energy to sustain a huge population? If anything, the ship is the island, this little self-contained community of outcasts who have to work together and have nowhere else to go. Watts raises more questions than he answers, there’s an inevitable sense of existentialism when dealing with human lives spread out over such a distance and timespan, but he also expertly handles the complication inherent in this kind of a story, providing conflict between characters and computers and making the reader work a little bit to put it all together. Interestingly, this is the only novelette nominee to be picked for all four Year’s Best anthologies, so it had a lot to live up to. I’m not sure it completely delivered, but Watts has such imagination and skill that he produces a compelling story that gives you all the hard sf fix you could want.