Starfish
by Peter Watts

A review by M. E. Picray

M. E. Picray is an aspiring author living in the forgotten corner of Missouri. He has recently submitted a story called A Little Experiment to the Writers of the Future contest (good luck Mike). "Missouri Mike" is also a frequent visitor to Julie Czerneda's newsgroup (sff.people.julie-czerneda) where he shares his wisdom and  practices his formidable wit. You can also read "Missouri Mike's" review of In The Company of Others by Julie E. Czerneda.

Starfish begins like the launching of a ship. The reader exists in his peaceful world of sunlight and air when the chocks that hold it all in place are knocked out and you are plunged into an environment as alien as any in outer space. The Rift. Three clicks down where molten lava meets four-degree water. Where the storyís characters meet their worst nightmares, only some of which live outside Beebe.

Beebe is the habitat tank tethered to the sea floor where the Rifters can "relax" at sea level atmospheric pressure, eat real food, and breathe real air instead of using the artificial gills surgically implanted in their chests. They are told that Beebe was constructed to help them combat the psychological effects of living in the dark in a tiny tank, but there are inconsistencies. Inside there are mirrors everywhere, supposedly to make Beebe seem larger; yet the ceiling is too low, making it feel cramped, making them feel like the sea is pressing down on them. With exposed pipes running everywhere, the bulkheads running wet with condensate, the too small sleeping pallets in the cramped "cubbies", Beebe is anything but comfortable.

Say the words "Science Fiction" and you think "Science." A key element in the plot resolution is a substance that starts out as an AI computer that isnít really AI, but an independently thinking "Gel." Real world researchers are currently working on an organic material that is being projected to have the capacity to store more information and perform calculations much faster than any man made computer in the foreseeable future, and possibly have the ability to think independently. The Gel does that with a vengeance.

Although the cutting-edge science is important, I saw this book as being more about the people themselves and the triumph of the indomitable human spirit. The only kind of people who suit the environment in Starfish are perverts and misfits. You will not identify with the characters in this book, and you really donít want to spend too much time in their heads at once, but that time is needed. You need to get to know these characters to understand what happens later. The human subject matter covers some very difficult issues, which makes this a book within a book.

In the first part of the book, the writing style bothered me. It seemed chopped, diced, and hacked into tiny pieces without apparent guiding coherency. As the book progressed, I came to see that, given the personalities involved, it was really the only way to begin. Ostensibly a book about working at the Rift, it is also about abnormal psych, predators and prey, and mostly about surviving. The characters are survivors. They are both predator and prey. The mix of their personalities and their interactions with the predators and prey outside Bebee and on the surface is skillfully woven together to move the story along at a good pace. My call? An excellent read.

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