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Maelstrom
Peter Watts
Tor Books, 378 pages

Maelstrom
Peter Watts
Peter Watts is an author, marine biologist, and computer-based game writer. He has spent much of his adult life trying to decide whether to be a writer or a scientist, ending up as a marginal hybrid of both. He has won a handful of awards in fields as diverse as marine mammal science, video documentary, and SF.

Peter Watts Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Starfish

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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Maelstrom is a followup to Peter Watts' debut novel, Starfish, in which a deadly microbe from Earth's prehistoric past is discovered at the site of a deep-sea power generating station. To contain the danger, the power authority authorizes a secret nuclear strike, which destroys the station but sends earthquakes and tidal waves to savage the coastline of a North America already staggering under a burden of out-of-control disease, teeming hordes of refugees, and environmental collapse.

The strike was also intended to destroy the crew of the power station, feared to be vectors for the microbe, ßehemoth -- which, if it were ever to escape to dry land, has the capacity to destroy all competing lifeforms. But two crew members survive: Lenie Clarke, the crew leader, emotionally unstable and deeply scarred by memories of childhood abuse; and Ken Lubin, an assassin whose conflicting moral/psychotic impulses are chemically controlled through genetic engineering.

Lenie knows she's a vector, and that's OK. All she wants now is to revenge herself against the vast corporate structure that murdered her friends, in pursuit of its routine policy of sacrificing the few for the good of the many. She begins a journey across North America, sowing ßehemoth as she goes. Ken Lubin is on her trail, as is burnt-out botfly operator Sou-Hon Perreault, and Achilles Desjardins, another chemically-controlled operative, this time for CSIRA, the rapid-response agency that confronts and contains the endlessly multiplying disease and environmental crises of a ravaged earth. But the contagion Lenie carries isn't just ßehemoth, but a dark mythos of global retribution and destruction, springing up like wildfire wherever she goes. Bizarrely, this same meme is proliferating within Maelstrom, the anarchic electronic free-for-all that used to be the Internet. These parallel archetypes begin to interact, creating a destructive synergy that conceals Lenie from her pursuers. As for Lenie herself, she no longer wants to burn down the world; her quest has become much more personal.

The desperate-race-to-contain-the-threat-that-will-destroy-the-earth is fairly standard thriller fare, but Watts marries it to hard SF speculation and the tradition of cautionary SF narrative embodied in books like John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, to create something much more interesting. I admire dark novels, and this is about as dark as they come -- from the trashed and crisis-wracked landscape of 22nd century North America, to the vast corporations that engineer people as routinely as equipment, to the genetically altered operatives whose chemical enhancements make it possible for them not only to commit atrocity "for the greater good" but to live with themselves afterward, to the encoded death wish in the human collective unconscious that's triggered by Lenie's Typhoid Mary-like odyssey. "Meltdown actually was preferable," a character thinks at one point. "Better to tear everything down and just start over." There's some room, at the book's end, for mercy and redemption, but it's a very small chink of light. And the world isn't saved.

Bleak as this vision is, it's balanced by the spare vividness of Watts' prose, the fascination of his speculations (particularly the parallels he draws, in his portrayal of Maelstrom's wild evolutionary development, between biosphere and electrosphere), and the subtlety of his characters, who despite their various dysfunctions and ignoble agendas remain sympathetic. The narrative jumps from one point-of-view and situation to another, a rapid-fire technique that, like the jargon and scientific terms with which the book is densely furnished, is initially disorienting; the persistent reader, however, will soon adjust. Especially compelling is the treatment of Lenie's semi-mythic metamorphosis from survivor to Meltdown Madonna. Watts undercuts the power of this somewhat at the end, where he explains too fully the myth's real place in Maelstrom; this makes sense science-fictionally, but thematically I found it disappointing. In fact the ending, where too many things seem to happen too quickly and some threads are dropped, is the weakest part of the book. But the epilogue, evoking the great destruction and stubborn love of which human beings are simultaneously capable, is perfect.

Though it's a sequel, Maelstrom stands on its own; I didn't read Starfish (an oversight I intend to correct) and didn't have any trouble picking up the story. I suspect, however, that many of the book's elements, especially Lenie's discoveries about certain aspects of her job training, will have greater resonance for those who've read the previous installment.

Copyright © 2002 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.


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