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Starfish (Rifters Trilogy) by Peter Watts
Cover Artist: Bruce Jensen
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765315960
Date: 29 April 2008 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Website of Peter Watts / Show Official Info /

Peter Watt's 1999 debut novel came out to strong reviews and midlist performance. Now it's back in print, this time in Trade Paperback, and his later writing has shown that he's only gotten better over time. If you didn't pick up Starfish the first time around, this is a good time to begin reading Watts from the start. I guarantee that he's going places you haven't been before.

Bebe Station sits three kilometers down (that's 1.86 miles to the metrically challenged) astride the Juan de Fuca ridge, a place where the earth splits open to give birth to continents, a place of awesome power and devastating isolation. Bebe is a power station, or at least a monitoring station, manned by a pair of antisocial and heavily modified humans who are willing to live between the fires of hell and the endless, freezing numbness of the deep to keep darkness at bay for the rest of humanity. That doesn't mean they're especially nice folks.

Ballard is the cheerful one. Clarke the sullen one. The women don't much like each other and the deep pressure habitat is way too small to make that a non issue. The company needs humans on site to keep the power station going, but they're still working out what kind of human can take the stress of living on the rift five miles down. So they try a few at random. What they find out is that putting the best face on things when they're genuinely desperate isn't a sustainable dodge. Pretty soon Clarke gets a new station-mate, Lubin, whom she gets along pretty well with. Mostly because they leave each other alone.

What they find is that the bottom of the sea is the perfect place for humanities most damaged individuals. Maybe the pressure they feel living among the rest of mankind is good training for the millions of tons of water at places like Bebe.

Or maybe its just that the abusers, pedophiles and death seekers among us won't be missed when they're modified to become part machine, part fish, and perfect for the job. The job is highly technical, but its training has come a long way, and a bit of force fed information can bring the dregs of humanity up to speed.

"It's not so much what you know, It's what you are."
"What's that then?"
"Pre-adapted."
Having established the ideal profile for crew, the GA sends down a full crew, Fischer, the pedophophile, Brandon, the abuser, and a collection of other damaged souls, all adapted to the deeps and twisted inside. Outside, big fish wait; grotesque, ferocious, hungry and fearless. They're terrifying and hyper-aggressive, but ironically they're brittle and easily torn apart, which makes them a metaphor for the crew of Bebe Station.

They don't get along very well, especially Fischer and Brandon. Fischer's passive, and Brandon's aggressive, but that doesn't mean Fischer's penchant goes to getting beaten to a pulp and he spends increasing periods outside the station. Their bodies are all deep adapted, using an advanced version of liquid breathing technology, which you'll remember from James Cameron's Abyss (1989), augmented by artificial gills. As a result, they all discover that they're more at home outside than in the hab. Fischer goes native rather than deal with Brandon's rage, though an attraction to Clarke keeps him coming back from his feral existence.

When the GA decides that Fischer is gone for good they send down a replacement, Acton, and that's when things really get interesting, because being in the deep changes you, which the people who built up their bodies knew, if not how much. The intense pressure speeds up synaptic rate, so one of the mods to the borged aquanauts is neuroinhibitor implants to keep you working at surface speeds.

Anton, however is inclined toward tinkering with his settings, and what he discovers is that life under pressure, with your synapses rapid-firing, is a whole different level of being. A level that lets him leave his own broken bits behind (he's another abuser) and connect with life on an almost metaphysical level, aware of the quantum level connectivity between organisms. He too falls in love with Clarke, and tries to get her to tweak her innards too, but she holds back. At least until after he's done his Icarus bit by pushing his experiments to the point where parts of his human brain are burned out. Acton's last wish, more or less, is that Clarke, the de facto leader of the Bebe crew, use the data he's developed to tweak herself and the others, but only within "safe" limits.

That's all well put together, and may even comprise the short story that Starfish evolved from, but I haven't found it, so can't be sure. What it does make up, is the set up for the real story, which comes out in the second half and continues in the next two books.

When the second act starts up we find that Clarke has indeed tweaked the gang, and that they've discovered more than just expanded consciousness. They've discovered a certain amount of telepathic sharing between them, but only when they're under ocean pressure. Like Fischer and Acton, they become increasingly less interested in coming inside, where they lose their expanded selves and revert to the assholes the GA selected for the job.

Unsurprisingly their surface controllers notice, and wind up sending down Scanlon, the scientist that profiled them in the first place to see what's going on.

"I don't know how you take it, month after month."
"Yes you do. You're a psychiatrist. You chose us."
"Actually, I'm more of a mechanic."
"Of course," she says, eyes expressionless, "it's your job to keep things broken."
Why does the author think that broken humans would be a good pick for a high stress environment? He muses, through Scanlon's journal:
Take a dozen children, any children, Beat and mix thoroughly until some lumps remain. Simmer for two or three decades; bring to a slow rolling boil. Skim off the full-blown psychotics, the schizoaffectives, the multiple personalities, and discard. ... Serve with dopamine garnish.

What do you get? Something bent, not broken, Something that fits into cracks too twisted for the rest of us. Vampires.

Watt's goes into some detail on his website (see link above) about why he thinks this makes sense. I'd say he's figuring that weeding out the humans that can't take stress is best done by selecting from stress survivors in the first place. That abuse creates "survivors."

As Clarke says to another crewmember:

"it's not how much shit you've raised that suits you for the rift. It"s how much you've survived."
Unfortunately, I don't think that science supports the contention, certainly there are a number of psychologists who screen nuclear submarine sailors and astronauts that would take exception that you want unstable types in charge of critical and potentially destructive assets. Ultimately his story line agrees, as the malcontent and abused bunch aren't responsive to the GA's interests and wind up banding together against is.

Watt's premise is that the psycho-soup of deviants had been carefully concocted to keep them from bonding in any way that the GA couldn't make use of, but what they didn't count on the crew getting attached to the environment via Dopamine addiction, or establishing the extra-human qualities that the pressure induced.

I'll give him points for how it all unravels, but the setup is still fundamentally flawed.

The alternate good reason for selecting the people he does is because society won't miss them, and really it would be just as well for everyone if they didn't come back. Watt's certainly gets there, but he meanders to the point by introducing an element that will drive the remainder of the series, but only rides piggy back on this book.

It turns out that at some point, the GA realizes that there are deep sea microbes which they really don't want on the surface and which have undoubtedly infected the crew. So they realize that they really don't want them back.

Starfish owes a considerable debt to Gordon R. Dickson's "Space Swimmers", who also develop extra-human qualities from living in the sea. Watt's work is based on much harder science, though ultimately is no less speculative. Storywise though, Starfish is a cross between a lifeboat drama, with the characters trapped together in a pressure cooker and the classic loser makes good storyline that Hollywood has made money off of for generations. The crew of the power station weren't supposed to rise above their problems and pain to form a family, but the GA assures them constantly of the opposite, confident that their muddled minds won't figure out the truth.

Under the extreme pressure of the rift though, truths become self evident.

Starfish was Watt's first novel, and now that it and I have both aged a bit, I found it much more engaging. When it came out in 1999, it didn't grab me, despite a fair amount of critical acclaim.

It's not that Starfish was set in inner space rather than outer. I've enjoyed lots of under-the-sea SF from Clarke's The Deep Range to the excellent short story "Arkfall" By Carolyn Ives Gilman in the September, 2008 issue of F&SF. As a kid, I loved the National Geographic with Sealab or anything Jaques Cousteau was off doing. Maybe Watts' characters were just a bit two antisocial for me to get into. Maybe I've unmellowed.

Since then I've read Watt's Blindsight, which happens to be set in outer space, and I've had the chilling pleasure of listening to him lecture on cognitive psychology of vampires, an outgrowth of the work he did in that book, and maybe I've come to appreciate his point of view, or the cut his edginess makes or something but now, when I picked up Starfish I found it's gotten much better. I also see the early stages of the themes he explored in Blindsight, especially the vampire/superhuman among us and the role of consciousness in our lives. Readers of his later work will find that Clarke's comment to Scanlon, "Don't flatter yourself...you don't have the slightest control over who you are," continues to develop, as does the rift between humans and what he terms Vampires.

Having initially blown off the rest of Watt's Behemoth series on the basis of my inability to connect with Starfish the first time around, I strongly suspect I've missed a lot of good writing and I won't make the same mistake again as I expect they'll all be coming out in trade format.

Last: Star Wars: The Clone Wars / Next: The Bell at Sealey Head

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