Book Review: Starfish by Peter Watts

I don’t even know what to tell you about Starfish except that it’s gorgeous. But I’ll try.

Starfish is bad-shit crazy

I mean, it’s really depressing and scary and gross and unhappy and has never-ending levels of crazy but it’s also gorgeous. Just not cute-little-baby gorgeous.

Blindsight and Echopraxia, Peter Watts’ first books, were fantastic reads that revolved around first contact in space. Starfish and its sequels deal with another frontier: the bottom of the ocean. ‘Rifters’ are biologically and mechanically adapted humans who are able to withstand the pressure of the deepest, darkest part of

the ocean. They live down there to make sure the energy of the Earth itself manages to travel all the way to the land lubbers up top. The ocean is just as alien as space, except that there are more aliens.

Watts is a scientist and it really shows in this book. This is truly superb hard science fiction as Watts explains what it would be like to live on the bottom of the ocean. The biology of life down there, the social fabric of humans compressed together and even lessons on tectonic plates are all discussed in detail. But of course, all of these things are deadly: vicious teeth from sea beasts, anger issues come to the surface and nuclear weapons are planted on fault lines. It’s huge in scope yet explores the minutiae of the topic so perfectly. But this isn’t just interesting science facts thrown at you page after page. Watts can tell an excellent story, too.

Story

The story begins with just two rifters working on the bottom. Cleverly we think the character working alongside our protagonist, the seemingly stronger of the two, will survive and bear the deep, but this is cleverly subverted by Watts. Before long a full contingent of trench workers are living the close proximity, with the inevitable fights breaking out. Hardship after hardship plays out, and most of the conflict is between characters on a psychological level. But above it is a sinister tone: just why exactly, beyond the obvious energy needs, are these people down here? What are the higher-ups hiding? We begin to find out when they send down one of their own.

This is a no bullshit story: characters don’t do stupid things, but just try to deal with horrific scenarios in the best way they can. There is a lot of story left just out of sight, and you want to know more. And while I think the plot could perhaps have been tightened up, it is told with a very strong sense of narrative, with Watts’ mixing it up when needed.

Characters

What was most striking was that I even ended up liking the characters despite the fact that they are paedophiles, wife beaters and victims of abuse. They’re so human and well developed, even as the author explores just how depraved they are. How they play off each other, how their pasts come back to haunt them like wet ghosts, is expertly crafted by Watts. As with the best speculative, it isn’t just the monsters out there we should be scared of, but the monsters inside of everyone.

These monsters come out when under pressure, which is both metaphorical and literal in Starfish. The reveals are all jaw-dropping in their audacity and nihilism, but it is the journey of the protagonist that really strikes hard. She goes through hell, breaks down completely and that’s where Watts leaves us. Eager for the sequel. In fact, a recurring theme in his stories are the primal urge to finish them in one sitting, a sign that you are in the hands of a masterful writer.

And on that note, I urge you to pick up Starfish as soon as possible!

And on that note, I urge you to pick up Starfish as soon as possible!