Peter Watts' Starfish

Some "science-fiction" writers have an excellent understanding of science. The science and technology employed in their stories is gritty and realistic, even when the story itself is thin and uninteresting. Others write great story. Their science is flaky and their characters often one dimensional but their novels are jam-packed with high stakes, high action and high adventure from start to finish. Others still are strong on character. Their characters are fully-developed, well-rounded individuals who would no doubt be fascinating if their stories weren't so flat and soap-opera-ish. Once in a while, however, that rare gem comes along amidst the ranks of SF writers who can integrate science, story and character. Peter Watts is one such writer.

The characters of Starfish are society's detritus. Child molesters, murderers and other violent offenders, along with the victims addicted to their abuse. Society cannot help them. There is no rehabilitation for the criminals - none that works. They rape and beat and murder again. As for the victims, there is no help for them either. They seem to seek out abusive situations again and again. They are unable to integrate into "normal", "healthy" society. These are humanity's lost children. There is no place for them in the world. At least, there is no place for them on the world.

When humanity's ever growing needs for energy entice giant corporations to build facilities along the Earth's deep ocean rifts where energy from the Earth's core spews out of sea-bottom vents ripe for harvesting, humans are needed to live down on the rifts to babysit the operations. Life on the rift is a strange enterprise; dark, isolated, claustrophobic, and bereft of many sensory stimuli which humans living on the Earth's surface enjoy. It also requires bio-mechanical and electro-chemical modifications to the body. "Rifters" sacrifice one of their air-breathing lungs to make room in their chests for machinery which allows them to electrolyze oxygen from their aqueous environment. They also bear other implants which regulate chemicals and internal pressure; modifications necessary to allow the Rifters to survive in their high-pressure, high-saline, ocean-floor homes. The Rifters aren't entirely human.

It turns out, however, that bio-tech alone cannot create a Rifter. There are psychological considerations which science has not yet learned to overcome. Most people crack when exposed long-term to the distorted life imposed by the rift environment. Most, but not all.

Society's lost ones; both the abused and the abusers; prove to be the only ones able to adapt to the Rifter lifestyle. They not only survive on the rift; they thrive there. Sociopaths and psychopaths all, they find on the rift what they were never able to find on land: friendship, peace, belonging.

Peter Watts' Starfish is an expert weaving of the lives of seven such Rifters and their interactions with each other, their environment and the world above. It is a fascinating and thoughtful study of how an environment shapes both the individuals and the society which inhabit it.

Starfish is far more than merely an excellent psychological exploration, however. There is plenty of intrigue and plenty of danger within the pages of this novel to keep them turning. The Rifters' adventures are not merely psychological but also physical - in extreme ways - as the Rifters are forced to fight for their lives, both with the monsters of the deep and the monsters from above and within.

Starfish examines what it means to be human by stretching its characters to the very limits of existence. How do people behave when faced with the threat of extinction - both that of their own lives and of the entire human species? When survival is on the line, do the psychopaths on the ocean's bottom behave any differently than the so-called "normal" "drybacks" on land? How does evil manifest in a human? In a machine?

Starfish is an example of science fiction at its best: great science, great story, and, ultimately, profound humanity.