Maelstrom - Peter Watts

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

Peter Watts
Tor publishers
ISBN 0312878060

Maelstrom (rated A-) is a direct sequel to this author's astonishingly savage first novel, Starfish, which placed a diverse bunch of psychologically damaged crew, generally abuse victims conditioned to seek stressful situations, in a deep sea geothermal station. Much of power of Starfish came from the very confined staging; essentially there were three 'rooms' - the station, the dangerous, alien landscape of the sea bed around the rift, and, very occasionally, the surface world.

Starfish ended with the end of the world being announced; the rift was harbouring a primordial life-form, confined to specific ecological niche around the black smokers. Human blood was a comfortable alternate environment, providing a vector for Behemoth (spelt with a Beta for 'B') to escape. The problem is that while Behemoth isn't infectious as such, it is a rather efficient life-form, and would simply out-compete those organisms at the lower-end of the food chain. Soil bacteria would find it impossible to get hold of certain key nutrients, notably sulphur, when competing with Behemoth. The end of the world was coming quietly, but it was coming. So, those above did the obvious thing; Starfish ended with a large atomic bomb being detonated on the Rift - killing the crew vectors, and triggering massive casualties all along the North American coast as The Big One finally hits. One minor wrinkle, things end with Lenie escaping. Who sent her escape vehicle? Who subsequently shot it down? Is everything as simple as we had thought?

As an aside, I love the opening quotes for Maelstrom , which neatly sum up the entire plot of these two novels:
"Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox " -- Job 40:15
"All flesh is grass " -- Isiah 40:6

So, does Maelstrom live up the promise of Starfish? Yes and no. Maelstrom is an excellent book, among the best hard SF novels of recent years but I found it to be weaker than Starfish .

The novel opens with not with Lenie's quest to spread Behemoth to revenge herself both on those who tried to kill her and her crew, and on her abusive father. It doesn't open with the interweaving thread featuring Ken Lubin - a psychopathic assasin thrown down among the Beebe station crew as there were few other places to store him. (Lubin's development from pretty much a threatening cipher in the first book to a fully-fleshed character is one of the best parts of Maelstrom .) No, the novel opens with a rogue meme propagating through cyberspace. Which somehow, for me at least, lacks the same immediate appeal as all the other plot lines. The meme in question is the decision made by the head cheeses to favour Behemoth (pRNA) over normal DNA life; a decision driven by the neural nets evolving to always favour simplicity over complexity. The head cheeses loose their executive power quickly, but the ever-mutating spam life-forms of the net enjoy the boost in status attaching words like "Lenie Clarke" to their code brings. Why this is interesting or important I never really knew... though it does permit some enjoyable parallels being drawn being specific ecological niches and the relationship to some AIs to the net.

I didn't find any of the net plot-lines in this book terribly compelling by themselves; I rather liked some of the character development surrounding Achilles Desjardin, a chemically controlled operative for CSIRA, who try to contain the infection that is Behemoth. Achilles is a rapid response specialist, who possesses both a near-autistic ability to see patterns in complex systems, and to make rapid and difficult decisions based upon those patterns. In one of the better ideas, these abilities are enhanced by chemical upgrades; Guilt Trip ensures that Achilles 'does the right thing', always operating for the greater good, and ignoring the short-term human choices. In addition, he is helplessly loyal, being unable to plot against CSIRA, as such plotting would be against the greater good of the damage control they do. To live with himself after making hard choices driven by Guilt Trip, Achilles also has another chemical in his system - Absolution. Much of Achilles' plot line inter-twines with that of Ken Lubin.

While Achilles, and in his own different way, Ken Lubin, try, on behalf of Patricia Rowan, high in CSIRA, to track Lenie, another character follows her all the way on her journey across the continent to her abusive parents. Sou-Hon Perreault is a bot-fly controller, a rescue worker who pilots a remote flying robot. Hundreds of them are working along the coast, a coast already fenced in by a massive Berlin Wall holding back refugees who wish to come into North America. Washed up along this crowded and ravaged shore Lenie is essentially invisible. Sou-Hon is not operating at full capacity; like all the characters in these books her personality is under attack from incredible stress. In her case the aftermath of the quakes was too much for her, even with the drugs she takes to isolate herself from the situations she must work in.

Here's another place where the novel didn't work for me; in addition to the new world of the future net, Maelstrom, we have the emergence of a Lenie Clark meme in the general populace. Not just rifter chic this time, but an entire cult of personality around Lenie. She is saviour, destroyer, Shiva, the mermaid who is killing, curing, in a thousand places at once. Her ghost is chased across the country, and the meme online which carries her name is paralleled very exactly by the growth of this cult of personality. Ultimately, neither thread did much for me, and neither did the resolution of both those threads. YMMV.

I think the diffuse focus of Maelstrom is part of the problem; it is very well plotted and tightly structured, but its power is diluted compared to the pressure-cooker environment the characters endured in Starfish . Not only is there the whole physical world, meaning of course just North America..., under threat, but we also have cyberspace to roam around.

Still, overall, this is a strong novel, and I'm eagerly looking forward to the next one from Peter Watts. His characters typically make Cherryh heroes look well adjusted, and his plot-lines rival that of Brunner's classic The Sheep Look Up for quiet, bleak menace. Much of the material may not be to some peoples' taste, but the very horror of what has been done to people is what gives the novel its punch, not the horror of what might happen to All-Life-On-Earth. It's hard to visualise the long term, hard to think about the fate of whole planet. This is one of the key themes of the book - and I think the abusive nature of several of the relationships in these books mirror that - they make us care about Lenie, about Ken, who then act as a mirror for the larger plot.

Finally, I'm always a sucker for well-written SF which as a reading list at the back - plenty of biological references to back up the plotting.

Here's how it starts:
"The day after Patricia Rowan saved the world, a man named Elias
Murphy brought a piece of her conscience home to roost.
She hardly needed another one. Her tactical contacts already
served up an endless stream of death and damage, numbers far too
vague to qualify as estimates. It had only been sixteen hours; even
orders of magnitude were barely more than guesses. But the machines
kept trying to pin it down, that many trillion dollars, as if
quantifying the apocalypse would somehow render it harmless.
Maybe it would at that, she reflected. The scariest monsters
always knew enough to disappear just before you turned on the lights.
She eyed Murphy through the translucent display in her head: a
man eclipsed by data he couldn't even see. His face contained its own
information, though. She recognised it instantly.
Elias Murphy hated her. To Elias Murphy, the monster was Patricia
She didn't blame him. He'd probably lost someone in the quake.
But if Murphy knew the role she'd played, he must also know what the
stakes had been. No rational being would blame her for taking the
necessary steps. "

Posted: Sat - June 7, 2003 at 11:24 PM