Starfish - Peter Watts

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google's archive).

Peter Watts
Tor Publishers
ISBN: 0812575857 (Amazon link)

Summary: An astonishing book; claustrophic, bleak, peopled with dysfunctional, psychologically damaged characters, crew living in the terrifying conditions of a deep sea power station on an unstable rift. Strong world building, savage characterisation, and remorseless plotting make this one of the best, and frankly sometimes disturbing, novels I've read in some time. Highly recommended to those who like dark, emotionally complex hard SF. (Who doesn't?) A+.

This can't be a first novel. It can't. (I know there's a sequel, but I'm only three pages into it. I should mention that I read [1] Starfish in one go, walked into town and bought the sequel.) There is strong, throw-away world building, and I was rather assuming that there were other novels in the sort of one author shared universe common to say, Alistair Reynolds or Neal Asher. The worldbuilding, especially passing comments on kudzu4, brain-gels, 'corpses', made me suspect a larger universe. The writing made me assume a seasoned author. Neither is true. Incredible.

Starfish takes place in a psychological pressure cooker on the bottom of the ocean. On the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific is Beebe station, which exploits geothermal power for an increasingly energy hungry world. The crew who live there are geo-engineered, able to live and work at crushing depths. They have mechanical lungs, different metabolisms. They are special, hardly recognisable as human when suited up, with their corneal caps hiding their eyes. ( 'She turns and catches sight of a slick black amphibian in the bulkhead mirror. It still happens, occasionally. She can sometimes forget what they've done to her.' )

The standout thing about this novel, and it takes a while to become clear, is that the crew are mentally as engineered as their bodies are. Theirs is a merciless environment, with the unstable, geologically active sea-bed prone to shifting in an instant, the water around black smokers turning from near freezing to super-heated in seconds. Water under this pressure will not boil or turn to steam, making the threat invisible. There is no sun. There is nothing to see away from the oases of the black smokers but the endless grey expanse of the abysll plane; home to the occasional rotting corpse from above, and little else. The Juan de Fuca ridge is also special; for some environmental reason the assorted creatures huddled around the black smokers here grow to be malnourished giants. Here be brittle-boned monsters. At these depths, in these conditions, the stress is relentless. Most people would crumple eventually. Who then should crew these stations? Well adjusted, carefully screened, highly trained crews? Like astronauts? Or those abused as children, who may themselves be abusers now, those physologically addicted to danger, to stress, to being damaged... Controversial characterisation!

This novel doesn't really have a hero. It's an ensemble piece, but there are a couple of key players. One is Joel Kita, a bathyscaphe driver. He's being gradually replaced by brain-gels; squishy layers of lab grown neurons, a literal neural net. Not sentient, not exactly, but conscious and alive. They're taking his job. I love the opening of this novel:

"The abyss should shut you up.
Sunlight hasn't touched these waters for a million years.
Atmospheres accumulate by the hundreds here, the trenches could
swallow a dozen Everests without burping. They say life itself got
started in the deep sea. Maybe. It can't have been an easy birth,
judging by the life that remains - monstrous things, twisted into
nightmare shapes by lightless pressure and sheer chronic
Even here, inside the hull, the abyss weighs on you like the
vault of a cathedral. It's no place for trivial loud-mouth
bullshit. If you speak at all, you keep it down. But these
tourists just don't seem to give a shit.
Joel Kita's used to hearing a 'scaphe breathe around him,
hearing it talk in clicks and hisses. He relies on those sounds;
the readouts only confirm what the beast has already told him by
the rumbling of its stomach. But Ceratius is a leisure craft,
fully insulated, packed with excess headroom and reclining couches
and little drink'n'drug dispensers set into the back of each seat.
All he can hear today is the cargo, babbling."

Another is Scanlon. He's a psychologist. ( 'Actually, I'm more of a mechanic.' ) He selected the crew, screening them for personalities ... suitable ... for the station's environment. He's mostly off-screen, discussed in flashback by crew-members. However, he becomes important later. Having selected the crew he later comes to visit the station; an outsider, wearing cumbersome diving armour, come to evaluate how they have adjusted. The contrast between what went in, and what he finds later in the novel is shocking, and it's nice touch, having the psychologist play the stranger to the tribe he created. Oh, the tribe don't know why they were selected...

Mainly though, we're dealing with the crew proper. One of the first is Lenie Clark. Here she is in a pivotal early scene, talking to another early crew member, Ballard, who is starting to suspect something is rotten in the crew selection process - she's talking about abused children seeking out beaters, or self-harming:

"No, of course you're not happy! But what you feel, that's probably
the closest you've ever come. So you confuse the two, you look for
stress anywhere you can find it. It's psychological addiction,
Lenie. You ask it. You always asked for it."
I ask for it. Ballard's been reading, and Ballard knows: Life
is pure electrochemistry. No use explaining how it feels. No use
explaining that there are far worse things than being held down and
raped by your own father. There are the times between, when nothing
happens at all. When he leaves you alone, and you don't know for
how long. You sit across the table from him, forcing yourself to
eat while your bruised insides try to knit themselves back
together; and he pats you on the head and smiles at you, and you
know the reprieve's already lasted too long, he's going to come for
you tonight, or tomorrow, or maybe the next day.
Of course I asked for it. How else could I get it over with?"

Ballard cracks. Ballard leaves. The new crew arrives. A child abuser. A beater. And so on. The find Clarke passive, withdrawn, aloof. She never takes her dive-skin off. She always wears her eye-caps. The station lights are down; the eye-caps compensate. She likes it outside. Sometimes she sleeps there... The new crew fight, feud - and one by one get seduced by the outside. The terrifying environment, monsters, pressure, boiling currents, exploding sea-bed and all, one by one, in different ways, they adapt to it. But you can't go native here surely?

The character driven portions of this novel are splendid, if uncomfortable, reading, and it's awful to find yourself sympathising with a human monster. Great writing; its hard edge masks a wonderfully skilled description of each damaged character, with no info-dumping and no mawkish emotion.

However, this isn't just a character study; there's a plot on the brew as well, and it's a classic hard SF tale. There's intrigue above, with the dry-backs sending down Scanlon, and the brain-gels taking over the crew runs. There are new stations being built. Automated ones. There are problems ashore hinted at. Some crew members start to adjust their internal machinery; revelations follow, the plot thickens. The hard SF portion is biology, naturally given the location. A subtly horrifying ending rounds out a fantastic novel. Powerful, disturbing, fast-paced and ingenious. Recommended.

Final nit-pick: I have to comment on the paper quality. This is one of the few Tor paperbacks on my shelves, I seem to have mainly HB and tradeback. Frankly, the paper quality is disgusting. It's grey, it's flecked with bits of crap. It's hard to read. Frankly, I was afraid that the paper would disintegrate before I finished the story. I've seen better quality stuff in institutional toilets. Is this typical of Tor's mass-market pbs?

[1] Handy hint to the pale skinned everywhere; when the sun decides to shine in a usually gloomy part of the world, don't bring a book this good with you when you decide to go sit outside. I thought an hour by the Thames would be nice on Saturday morning, and brought this paperback for company. I am now badly sun-burnt down one side...

Posted: Mon - June 2, 2003 at 11:39 PM