Aug 7 2014 10:00am

That Was Awesome: Starfish by Peter Watts

Starfish Peter Watts Rifters 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.

Peter Watts EchopraxiaThen 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.

Peter Watts’ new novel, Echopraxia, is available August 26th from Tor Books. Check out an excerpt here on


A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth of fiction up here on, 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.

Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
It was when I read Blindsight that I really got the traces knocked out beneath me regarding Peter's work.

His short fiction is really diverse and interesting, too.
Cliff G.
2. Cliff G.
I picked up Starfish completely by chance at a library book sale a number of years ago and it is easily one of my favorite science fiction books ever. I really need to make some time to track down and read the rest of the series.
James Campbell
3. JKC27
I got a copy of Blindsight for free on my Kobo. I read very good reviews on it, and really was intrigued by the synopsis of the book. However....I struggled with it, got to about 17% and had to stop. I am not even sure why.... I think I was expecting something different.

I will certainly give Peter Watts another try, maybe with Starfish.... I am a big fan of "real" sciencey sci-fi - Arthur C Clarke for example - and maybe I just started with the wrong book of Watts. Plus, being Canadian, I will give him a try again, just not sure where to start.

Starfish, as with Blindsight, sure seems like my type of book though.
Sean Tabor
4. wingracer
I too was not impressed by Blindsight though I did manage to finish it. It was just barely good enough that I might be willing to give another book of his a try if it's a very different book.
Angus McIntyre
5. angusm
To date, "Blindsight" and "Starfish" are my favorite of Watts' novels (and, like you, I'm a huge fan of his writing). I think they strike the best balance between sense-of-wonder and sense-of-dread. Lenie's rampage and a certain serial sadist in the later books of the "Rifters" cycle left me a little cold. Although in compensation, they do give a progressively more important role to Ken Lubin, everyone's favorite unknowable Zen monster.

At least, he should be everyone's favorite unknowable Zen monster. He's certainly mine.
Pirmin Schanne
6. Torvald_Nom
wingracer, you might want to elaborate a little bit as to what you didn't like about Blindsight, because it's quite possible that Peter Watts is not for you - after all, the James Nicholl quote on his website is there for a reason:
"Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts."
Cliff G.
7. ad
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.
So I get to see someone change from being someone I don't much care about, into someone who is an all-powerful evil? Why should I want to follow this journey?

I really liked Blindsight, but then I wasn't depressed by it.
Cliff G.
8. ad
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.
So I get to see someone change from being someone I don't much care about, into someone who is an all-powerful evil? Why should I want to follow this journey?

I really liked Blindsight, but then I wasn't depressed by it.
Alyx Dellamonica
9. AMDellamonica
I liked Lenie's rampage, actually. And I think, AD, the answer to your question about why the journey's worth following is twofold. First, it's a growing-to-power narrative that doesn't follow a standard goody-goody character as they achieve superheroic dimensions. Second, I'd argue that despite it all, there's a bit of redemption in Lenie. I like characters who really have to fight to express their own goodness; she's one such.
Cliff G.
10. Raskos
@6: Actually, I think that that quote counts as a very high recommendation indeed.
Cliff G.
11. Eugene R.
I liked how Starfish de-centered the idea of what a "normal" human response is, whether we are dealing with the divers or with the AIs.

Starfish was the first book chosen by my monthly sf/f reading group, and 15 years later, we are still running strong.

And, of course, Mr. Watts's brutal mistreatment at the hands of US Customs is a blot on America, alas.
Pirmin Schanne
12. Torvald_Nom
By the way, Miss Dellamonica, is there any chance that tordotcom might give the Rifters trilogy or Blindsight a reread?
Cliff G.
13. ad
9. YMMV. Personally, I can't see the interesting aspect of a weak, powerless uncaring person, who is given strength and power and turns into a strong, powerful evil person. What else would you expect?

Such people strike me as both unlikeable and boring.

It's a pity, because otherwise the book sounds interesting, but I have learned better than to read novels about boring people I despise.

I'll keep an eye out for later books by Watts, though.
Alyx Dellamonica
14. AMDellamonica
Hey, Torvald,

I can't speak for all of Tor, but I'm sure I'll reread Blindsight one day. But probably not right away.

Ad, there are some very intriguing (and I would say admirable) humans Echopraxia.)
Sean Tabor
15. wingracer
@6 Torvald Nom

It's been a while since I read it but as I recall, it wasn't so much the writing or the story but the main character that bothered me. I just found him really boring. It was like imagine you wanted to write a novel about the ups and downs of a championship winning football team but instead of telling it through the viewpoint of the coach or a star player, you used the viewpoint of a low level team janitor that saw all the games but hated football and didn't care about any of it. Seeing the season through that guys eyes would suck all the excitement right out of it.
Cliff G.
16. quinne
It sounds awful.

What are some of the detailed scientific ideas that the author includes in the plot? If they're highly detailed enough, I may check it out.
Sanne Jense
17. Cassanne
Watts is one of my favorite writers. As a hard sci-fi writer the core of his work are the awesome ideas. His characters represent awesome ideas too. Who they are might not be too exciting, but what they are is always fascinating, and what they are doing definitely is.
Lenie is broken and hard to like. However, she is not weak, and she is not evil. There is no 'good' versus 'evil' in these book (in fact, Watts doesn't even believe in free will ;) )
Siri (blindsight) was chosen as point of view, because he is the only human person on that ship, or at least the closest to baseline. He is pretty easy to like.

The ideas are so detailed that he includes footnotes, no kidding. Read his blog, he is obsessive about the details.

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