Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, Peter Watts

Tesseracts, 2000, 167 pages, C$11.95 tpb, ISBN 1-895836-76-X

[Disclaimer: I’ve met Peter Watts, heard him speak at panels, moderated a panel on which he was a participant, even sat next to him at a convention to live-translate a few panels. I think that he’s a heck of a nice guy. Plus he gets points for being a Canadian author. Adjust review below accordingly.]

While Peter Watts’ first short-story anthology is titled Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes (a nod at Dilbert’s monkeys-on-typewriters comic strip), here are a few other titles that may be appropriate:

Nine Stories, Ninety Minutes: At a slim 167 pages and nine stories, this collection is a bit frustrating. There are no introductions (either to the book as a whole or to the individual stories, though a Publishing History at the back of the book thankfully details each story’s previous appearances) which is a bit disappointing given Watts’ generous propensity toward self-commentary. (See his web site at www.rifters.com for ample illustration.) But the silver lining to this sparse content is that you can read the book in a single sitting: The writing is crisp and clear enough to make you reach for “just another story” on technical grounds alone. Whether you will want to absorb all of this material at once leads us to our second suggestion…

Do You Have Ten Minutes, You Monkey?: I have long maintained that a good story collection gives a better peek in the mind of an author than even a string of novels. Watts seems intent on demonstrating this thesis: The nine stories assembled in this collection offer a disciplined unity of theme and attitude: It’s almost a thematic anthology. Stemming from Watts’ background as a marine biologist, all of his stories reflect deep cynicism (even misanthropy) regarding so-called “human nature”. In tale after tale, characters (often narrators, almost always professional investigators) have to face the fact that biology trumps psychology, that “being nice” is a luxury we can only afford because it’s now counterproductive to kill each other. Take ten minutes to read any of those stories, and you will experience a Total Perspective Vortex that will remind you of your real (insignificant) place in an uncaring universe. No, this is not a collection of stories to read to your children. Which leads us to another title…

Six Billion Monkeys, Twice as Many Bullets: Boy, is this a superficially depressing collection. Not that this is any news to fans of Watts’ fiction (which usually starts as “gloomy” and gets worse), but story after story of humankind killing itself, being wiped out or meeting aliens just as bad is enough to make anyone rethink the wisdom of bringing this book to the beach. But you know what? Lurking behind the facade, there’s a terrific sense of irony to be found here. Watts takes pleasure in perverting the usual ethos of science-fiction though ways that are in fact quite funny once you just step back from the story. Sentient Killer Clouds? Heh. Also consider this excerpt:

[A nutritionist is working on ways to teach killer whales to stop eating fish and convert to vegetarianism.] She’s already had some spectacular successes with her own cats. Not only is a vegan diet vastly more efficient than conventional pet foods – the cats eat only a fraction of what they used to – but the felines have so much more energy now that they’re always out on the prowl. You hardly ever see them at home any more. [P.79]

Now that’s funny. And indeed, there’s a lot of dark humour here and there, not the least of which is the delight of finding such an uncompromising stance on the false kingdom of man’s mastery over (its own) nature. The universe will get us all in the end, that is if we don’t kill ourselves first.

One Great Book by One Author You Should Read: Published by the Canadian small-press publisher Tesseracts, this collection is well-worth tracking down. It’s a smoother introduction to Peter Watts’ fiction than his novels, and it has the advantage of being both short and powerful. There’s plenty of good material here and if some of the stories are repetitive (“Home”, especially, doesn’t add much to “A Niche”), some of it is as good as anything you’ll read elsewhere. I found that even the familiar stories (I had read “A Niche” and “Bethlehem” elsewhere) were better the second time around. If nothing else, this should confirm Watts’ status as one of the many good Canadian hard-SF writers. Why don’t you grab Robert Charles Wilson’s collection The Perseids for an eerily appropriate companion volume?

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