The Rifters Trilogy
Reviewed by Michael Woodard
Deep below the Pacific, in the year 2050, a manned installation maintains the facility that generates and distributes geothermal power from active volcanic vents on the ocean floor. The installation is staffed by a group of 'Rifters,' people who have undergone cybernetic adaptations for living at the bottom of the ocean. They were chosen for this work not because they are the best of the best, but because they are child-molesters, addicts, abusers and victims. Those that hired them did not do so out of charity or punishment, they hired these people because they came psychologically 'pre-adapted' to life at the bottom of the sea. They are, "
bent, not broken. Something that fits into cracks too twisted for the rest of us."
Wow! It is difficult to believe that Starfish was Peter Watts' first novel. This book has easily made my short list of all-time favorites, and that is no small feat for a freshman novelist.
The main strength of Starfish is its characters. Their interactions, not only with each other, but within themselves as well, are realistic, believable and most of all, endlessly fascinating. Watts does not linger too long on the how and why of the characters' ailments, he simply presents them as they are. They do not even feel like 'characters' as such, they feel like actual living, breathing people. People that, even with their failings and despicable actions, the reader can relate to. The narration of the characters plays out like a conversation in an adjoining room - you find yourself listening in almost despite yourself, learning secrets not meant for your ears.
The plot itself initially seems almost secondary to the actions of the characters. But eventually the 'real world' and the world of the Rifters clash with devastating effect as the characters and the reader get caught up in something spiraling beyond control.
Not only has Watts' written a gripping story, he's done it with well-researched data. I have never been a fan of Hard Science Fiction that spends more time telling you how things work than they spend telling you what those things do, and Watts never comes across, even with his detailed research, as though he is getting too mired in the workings of his world. His take on the problems of artificial intelligence are unbelievably convincing and terrifying as he latches the fate of the entire world on an answer to a seemingly innocuous question: 'checkers or chess?'
There are essentially two sequels to Starfish: Maelstrom and Behemoth. The latter is a large, 700 or so page novel that has been divided (by the publisher) into two halves: Behemoth: B-Max and Behemoth: Seppuku. These books comprise The Rifters Trilogy.
Starfish is dark, seedy and undeniably one of the best books I've ever read.
Lenie Clark is a Rifter: she is biologically engineered to survive and work at the bottom of the ocean. She is also psychologically predisposed toward the work - she is a survivor, a victim and addict of sexual and physical abuse and, on one level or another, insane. But now her home and her friends have been destroyed; casualties in a war for the domination of the world that is being re-fought after billions of years between the victors (all life on earth) and the loser (Behemoth, which has found an unstoppable edge for the next round in the fight).
Lenie Clark knows nothing of this. She only knows that she will be the victim no more. She is raging with a burning desire for revenge, and she is going to fight back at all costs. What she does not know about are her two allies, the Behemoth living quietly inside of her and another ally of humanitys own making. If Lenie Clark succeeds, these allies will bring about the end of the world. Not that Lenie Clark would care if she did know.
It is difficult to overstate how much I enjoyed the first part of the series, Starfish. While Maelstrom lacked some of the character depth of its predecessor, it more than made up for it in world building. Its very easy to see the world of Watts creation in our own world, and it's frighteningly easy to extrapolate it from events in our world happening now. This is not a book set so far in the future it becomes hard to make connections, it is set maybe 50 years from now, and the connections to Watts dystopia are obvious.
Watts made my short list of favorite authors with Starfish, and after reading Maelstrom, I can see that it was no fluke. I have had some difficulty finding the third and fourth books in the trilogy (yes, that is a contradiction; the third book was split into two separate stand-alone novels) but I will find them sooner or later.
Watt's Official Website, Rifters.com
[Editor's Note: The first two novels in this series are still in print in paperback. It appears that the two volume Behemoth was never released in paperback; probably did not sell well in hardcover. The amazom.com links for those two titles will allow you to search for new or used copies of them, or else try BookFinder.com. Watts has also made them available to download in PDF and other formats on his site - CLICK HERE - or else you can just read them online. Several other stories are also available there, including the current Hugo-nomninated novelette "The Island." - Galen]
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