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Starfish
Peter Watts
Tor Books, 320 pages

Starfish
Peter Watts
Peter Watts has a bunch of degrees in marine biology. 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. He is working on a sequel to Starfish.

Peter Watts Website
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A review by Neil Walsh

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You want gritty? You'll be spitting grit out from between your teeth after this one. It's dark. It's dirty. It's oppressive. It's a helluva first novel.

The setting is fascinating. In a near future world, where human populations have grown out of control, formerly separate cities have melded together as the urban sprawl flows over the land. But we're not dealing with the land, for the bulk of this novel. Most of the action takes place at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, in the Juan de Fuca Rift. Here, the omnipotent Grid Authority has established power facilities to exploit the dangerously unpredictable geothermal power which is so abundant in this part of the rift. And they've bioengineered the crew to be able to withstand the pressure and breathe the seawater down here.

Problem is, it takes a special type of person, with a particular psychological profile, to be able to adapt to the extreme environment and isolation of the rift. For whatever reason, the shrinks have determined that the best candidates for having a lung replaced by a mechanical filter are abusers and the abused. Wife beaters, beaten wives, paedophiles, and people who were abused as children. All in all, not the happiest bunch you could hope to meet. Plus, it's soon apparent that the longer they're down here, the more psychotic their behaviour.

However, Watts has a knack for writing characters. On one page you'll find a character to be utterly despicable, but on the next page you'll find that same character is the object of all your sympathy. None of them are actually... well, likeable, but they're extremely human -- even in their moments of inhumanity.

Meanwhile, up on the surface, there's a real plague of viruses on the information network. 'Smart gels' -- cybernetic hardware composed of human brain tissue amalgamated with electronic circuitry -- have been developed to outsmart the viruses. The smart gels are being given more and more control of our information network, and, as a result, everything else. But just because a computer has human DNA in it, doesn't mean it'll think like we do -- or like we want it to.

The story is anything but dull, despite the oppressive atmosphere, and the plot moves on several levels as the perspective changes from one viewpoint to another. The threat, as in Charles Pellegrino's Dust, is so seemingly insignificant and yet so thoroughly global. Like Pellegrino's novel, this book really makes you think about the fragility of life -- not on an individual level, but life on a planet-wide scale. All of it. And it's tenuous.

Copyright © 1999 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.


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