I like hard science fiction, but I prefer real characters to cardboard cutouts trudging through a story centered on a technical gimmick. I like finding an engaging plot, without too many subplots or the bloat of excess back-story shoved into the foreground, as is common with novels struggling to imitate epics of the genre. I relish discovering books with a fresh setting. When the setting's depicted by a writer who has, pardon the pun, immersed himself in that setting for years -- well, I'm hooked. Throw in a scare or five, and I'm there for the duration.
If those are your preferences as well, then step right this way, please, to an active volcano in the abyssal depths of the Pacific Ocean, and to the more-than-slightly-twisted mind and world of Lenie Clarke and her equally troubled co-workers. Clarke lives in a near-future where the power that runs the vital machines is in the hands of a global company; a world of bioengineering, genetic enhancement and psychological shaping that's reminiscent of some of Bruce Sterling's novels (Schismatrix and Distraction, most notably). That volcano has a metaphorical as well as a physical presence, and acts as a signpost for what happens in the novel.
Starfish is an impressive debut from a Canadian scientist/writer who seems to enjoy tackling big topics like corporate greed and mismanagement, the resilience of the human spirit, and the wealth of things humans still don't know about Earth's deep ocean environments -- or each other. Peter Watts has had short stories published in Canadian SF magazines, and won an Aurora Award in 1992 in the Best English Short Form category for "A Niche." He's also a marine biologist with more than 10 years of experience working with endangered marine mammals, having been employed by animal-rights groups, government agencies, and fishing industry corporations.
This day-job expertise contributes to his sometimes cynical viewpoint, and stands him in good stead in his writing. Backing up the science in the novel is a reference section (more detailed than a bibliography) to show where some of the ideas came from. There's also a website at www.rifters.com with more information. The "smart gels" concept alone (based on the early 1990s research of a Japanese scientist) should make us all nervous. But then, there's plenty to tantalize and trouble you in this tale.
In 2050, an energy conglomerate called the Grid Authority invests equipment and time to determine the exploitable value of undersea geothermal vents, cracks in the ocean floor that provide heat and nutrient chemicals to a variety of exotic creatures, including tubeworms and giant clams. GA officials want to find out what the vents can do for humans. The company needs people (temporarily, they say) to run the sophisticated machinery they've installed at Beebe Station, near Channer Vent on the San Juan de Fuca Rift in the Pacific Ocean. A psychological expert, a "neurocognitist" named Yves Scanlon, is hired to figure out what kind of person would be best suited to work and live for extended periods at the bottom of the ocean.
Scanlon's answer: the damaged ones. Both abused and abusers, according to Scanlon's predictions, should find the deep ocean environment very homey. The abusers are kept away from their preferred targets of depredation. The abused are given a chance to leave behind the surface world where memory flogs them mercilessly every day. The company trains them to do specific tasks, and Scanlon is in charge of matching up the personalities who will work together.
The crew members of Beebe Station each have their own private hells to endure. The call of the dark outside the station gives some of them a sense of peace, which a few respond to by wandering around on the ocean floor on their off-time -- and being chased by gigantic glowing sea critters if they're not careful. The crew have all been physically modified to obtain oxygen from both air and water, and carry special enzymes in their bodies which allow them to survive at depths where the pressure would otherwise squash them like bugs. Their modifications include retroviruses to further change their body chemistry, and a breathing apparatus which isn't removable. No, it's not gills, and describing it any further would ruin the fun, dark fun though it may be.
Some of Beebe Station's crew members eventually find life there unbearable. Some are lost to the ocean, some taken to the surface to unknown fates. For them, as for most of humanity, a complete escape from that which haunts them is an illusion. Clarke has hidden herself from the rest of the world for most of her life, passing through the lives of others like a cipher. But it's through Clarke's eyes that Watts shows the reader the damage that the deep ocean's unforgiving rules inflict on the people living there, as well as what they do to each other.
The crew members tend to spook each other just by being together. When Ken Lubin (certainly the most out-there of the group) decides to tinker with the chemicals that allow him to live on the ocean floor, he turns out to be more bizarre than the others ever guessed. As the status quo at Beebe begins to fall apart, Clarke experiences some revelations about herself that she never expected. At about the same time, a strange laser array surrounding a non-GA installation is discovered not far from Beebe Station, raising more questions about the company's real motives in conducting the vent project. Clarke eventually decides to abandon her habit of disengagement with the world and track down the answers. But to reveal more would spoil a wonderfully complex, emotionally charged read.
Watts has mixed hard science (physics, chemistry, geology), so-called soft science (sociology, psychology), and that wondrous alchemy which talented writers possess, to produce an SF novel that reads like a thriller. On top of all that, he works in a few frissons of terror in just the right places. Good hard SF, a little horror, and a bit of mystery, all in one book -- now that's a rarity. With the sequel, Maelstrom, now out in hardcover, we can all spend a little more time with Lenie Clarke -- if we dare.
J. G. Stinson is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Florida.
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