Peter Watts didn’t become my favorite hard-SF author right away.
Don’t get me wrong. There was a lot that I loved about Starfish from the get-go. The science was cutting edge, and as a practicing biologist, Watts was in an excellent position to write about his source material with both authority and panache. The book was indisputably inventive: a sort of bastard cousin of a first contact novel, one where the aliens are unknowable but the humans are, in their way, even more intricate and mysterious. It is laden with wonders and terrors, residents of a deep-sea setting that appeals to me on an almost visceral basis.
But! Starfish wraps up with a move from sea to land, and when I read it I wasn’t sure its story would sustain itself as it came out of the water, as it dried off, stretched out its limbs and took us into the sun in the sequel, Maelstrom. I was skeptical about one story element: a discovery made by the people of Beebe Station, one with world-shattering implications. Having seen a few too many writers play that card over the course of my review-writing stretch at Locus Magazine, I questioned whether what he was setting up was really going to go off the rails. A lot of those world-in-danger stories end with the planet and all named characters mostly unscathed.
I said as much in my review, and the author—whom I didn’t know at all, at that point—dropped me a line to charmingly suggest I might, possibly, be wrong. Over time, and as I read the later books in the Rifters series I reconsidered. (Also, he and I became friends. It’s important for all of you to know this, because I’m reviewing his newest book soon.)
Nowadays, as I mentioned, Watts is my favorite of the writers working in the hard-core sciencey end of the speculative fiction pool.
So what is Starfish? It’s set in a deep ocean power station off the Juan de Fuca Ridge, a station staffed by individuals who’ve been radically adapted for deep-sea labour. They can swim and breathe underwater and survive immense pressure. The adaptations that make this possible make them look, to my mind’s eye, a bit like old ’50s SF movie monsters: white caps hide the color of their eyes and their divesuits give them an amphibious appearance.
But it’s not just hundreds of tons of water crushing these folks. Watts, you see, likes nothing more than to cram a dozen or humans into a cramped artificial environment, preferably with a monster, and then to set them on each other as if they were cage fighters competing for Earth’s last double cheeseburger with bacon.
In Starfish, it’s understood that no sane person can remain effective in this sort of a working environment for very long. The power company’s answer is to select people who have already adapted to physical pain and chronic stress… people who’ve already been put through a wringer by trauma and mental illness. People who know how to keep going even as they fall apart.
This brings us to Lenie Clarke, a survivor of horrific childhood abuse.
When I think about this series, what I remember most is Lenie. As the novel opens, she’s is in emotional shutdown. She’s prickly. She’s chosen the ocean as her workplace because she doesn’t particularly want to interact with people.
Lenie starts out so passive she can barely cope with harsh language, let alone the enormous and aggressive sea life that throws itself, constantly, at the outer walls of her undersea home. She isn’t upbeat, chipper, proactive, friendly, or in any way a people pleaser. The more people ignore her, the happier she is. If there’s a problem, she definitely does not want to be part of the solution. And in a number of ways, that never really changes for her.
Despite herself, though, she can’t quite help acting on the occasional kind impulse, even as she tries to remind herself that being merciful will only lead to trouble.
The being she evolves into as this series plays out, not surprisingly, is frightening. It convinces you, utterly. Lenie Clark transforms from a cringing introvert to a sort of secular goddess of destruction. It’s amazing, I promise.
Now, looking back at the Rifters books so many years later, and having just read Echopraxia—another Watts book that crams a bunch of people together in a can (this time in outer space, with a vampire… or is that Blindsight?) it is incredibly interesting to compare the two.
It can sometimes be the case that reading someone’s newest book, and then going back to their first, will lead to disappointment. And it’s certainly apparent that Watts has certainly grown in the fifteenish years since Starfish. His story concepts are no less powerful, however, and the prose style in his most recent work has become deliciously, mind-bogglingly supple. That said, there’s nothing wrong with the writing in his debut. The language may be plainer on a sentence by sentence level, but the story is perfectly clear—often horrifyingly so. There’s nothing that gets in the way.
Then and now, the ideas leap off the page and claw at you. Peter Watts is not looking to give you some light escapist adventure, or bolster your peace of mind. He wants you to think about the science we’re doing today while giving us a glimpse of both the best and worst case scenarios for what it might mean, just a few years down the road.
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travel horror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” the second of a series of stories called The Gales. Both this story and its predecessor, “Among the Silvering Herd,” are prequels to her new Tor novel, Child of a Hidden Sea.
If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.