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β-Max, Peter Watts, Tor, 2004, 300 pp.

β-Max is the first part of a larger book called βehemoth that has been split into two pieces. The second half of βehemoth is titled Seppuku, should be released within the year, and lets the reader find out what happens after the cliffhanger ending of this book (Watts points out the reasons for this split in his opening "Author's Note," as well as noting that the larger βehemoth story had a natural breaking point). βehemoth is also the closing volume of a trilogy that was begun with Starfish and continued with Maelstrom. After the world-shaking events of Maelstrom, I wasn't sure what kind of a story Watts would be able to tell next. Wouldn't it just be easier to move on to something else?

As it turns out, Watts has made the possibly brave, possibly foolish choice of jumping half a dozen years past the events of Maelstrom and telling a small, relatively self-contained story of one after-effect. We're back underwater, this time in the Atlantic, and the setting is an deepsea station much like the one in Starfish. Inside the main part of the station Atlantis are "corpses," executives and their families who escaped the collapse of civilization. Their hideout was found by a group of rifters, including Lenie Clarke, antiheroine of the first two books. An uneasy stalemate developed, and β-Max is the story of what happens to that truce when a series of strains and stresses occur. Watts makes a few detours (such as some disturbing character portraits of a man named Achilles Desjardins) but the main focus of this book is Atlantis station and the people who live there.

This strategy, in the absence of the concluding segment, serves to amp up the characterization (Lenie's guilt or absence thereof and so forth), but it feels, perhaps inevitably, a bit anticlimactic. Watts's writing is just as intricate and involving as ever, so I'll reserve judgment until I've read the second half.

Seppuku, Peter Watts, Tor, 2005, 312 pp.

Seppuku completes βehemoth, the last book of the Rifters Trilogy. The now somewhat inaccurately named trilogy consists of Starfish, Maelstrom, and the first part of βehemoth, β-Max. Taken together, the three books represent a sustained assault on the status quo, within science fiction and without, that's hard to read without being affected. As is already happening now, the human race will gain unprecedented power over its own workings, especially its biological mechanisms. Working from the law of unintended consequences, this power needs to be exercised with the utmost of caution and wisdom, two attributes which sometimes seem completely lacking in most areas of current human progress. In this trilogy, Watts draws a simple straight line from this into the future, and then rubs the disastrous results in our faces with all the fury possible.

This can make Seppuku an uncomfortable book to read. Following the events of β-Max, Lenie and Ken have come to the surface of N'Am, their first exposure to what the mainland is like five years after apocalypse. One familiar character comes back, Achilles Desjardins, and one new character shows up, Taka Ouellette, a failed doctor who is bringing what succour she can to the blasted inhabitants of the country outside of the now-sealed cities. The title refers to the name of a new germ that is being dumped over N'Am by other nations. What is it and what is its purpose? What should Lenie and Ken do about it, along with their new friend, Taka? And perhaps more to the point, what is Achilles already doing about it? Death and destruction litter the wasteland; more lives are lost due to carelessness, mistakes, malice, and neurochemically altered human decision-making.

As Watts points out in his always intriguing "Notes and References" section at the end of the book, scientists give us new reasons every day to doubt our own free will: "Unless you're one of those Easter-bunny vitalists who believes that personality results from some unquantifiable divine spark, there's really no alternative to the mechanistic view of human nature" (302). And when those mechanisms are under the control of unscrupulous forces, or, as happens in this book, cut loose of any control except sociopathy, the law of unintended consequences has real nasty teeth. Yes, indeed, it's all very uncomfortable, but it puts the Rifters Trilogy squarely in a noble tradition within science fiction. Authors such as Orwell, Brunner, and Watts have all told us: Avoid this future I'm describing at all costs, you bloody fools! It's a message worth repeating until it's heeded.

Last modified: July 26, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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