The first book in his Rifters series, Peter Watts’ Starfish creates a world made more disturbing by being concretely believable, yet makes it not just bearable but fascinating through writing that has all the powerful ease of a hammerhead’s tail.
In this future, humanity has managed to harness the geothermal energy formed in the rifts at the bottom of the ocean, where the earth tortures itself unceasingly through the grinding of tectonic plates. It takes a special kind of person to work down there, and not just a person with a mechanical lung, corneal caps, altered brain chemistry, and a protective skinsuit. Only someone who is accustomed to being predator, prey, or both, to a cycle of abuse, can tolerate the inhuman pressure. And the Rifters don’t just tolerate it, they thrive. The more inhuman they become the better they feel, the more power they gain, and the more they come to realise just how dangerous this operation really is.
As a marine biologist, Watts knows he doesn’t need to stray far from reality to populate the ocean floor with things skeletal and bloated, sharp and supple, things that can fill the starless depths with light or just slip by silently in the darkness, felt as no more than a stirring of the water. But it’s imagination and talent with metaphors that makes him able to depict a jellyfish as something to make you nauseated, or turn the humble starfish into something to fill you with despair for the human race.
Watts certainly spares the reader nothing when it comes to the novel’s human characters. Working on a theory that sexual abuse is addictive, he explores the hopeless crevasses of their ruptured psyches. And in a world of rampant internet viruses, overpopulation, and semi-beings formed from human brain tissues, the people who can function on the surface aren’t exactly charmers either.
If these aren’t enough psychologically and scientifically plausible horrors for you, Watts has another surprise down in the planet’s forgotten depths, where ßehemoth waits for its moment to rise. This startlingly ingenious creation seems all the more unstoppable in a context so cynically drawn, and peopled with individuals so driven by paranoia, pride, revenge, and twisted love. The end of the world looks inevitable. Let’s see what happens in the next book.