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Maelstrom, Peter Watts, TOR, 2001, 378 pp.

Peter Watts has seen the future, and if it's not murder, it's the next closest thing, the maelstrom of the title. Watts examines nearly every single one of our current nightmares -- environmental degradation, computer viruses, medical disasters, Orwellian political systems -- and extrapolates past them. Sometimes two or three steps past them. Take the following quotation for example:

Reverse-engineering was a tricky business these days. If you weren't careful, tweaked genes could change the microflora in the gut as easily as the flesh of the host. E. coli. could turn from commensal to cancer with the flip of a base pair. A few wily bacteria had even learned how to slip some of their own genes into viral carriers en route, and hence into human cells. It made Desjardins long for those good old-fashioned germs that merely fed on antibiotics. (281-282).

Watts shows us a frightening world, most terrifying because of its plausibility. What are the consequences of the common practice of overprescribing antibiotics? One step closer to Maelstrom. In this way, Maelstrom presents a sharp rebuke to overly optimistic views of the future and resembles other cautionary science fiction, most particularly the work of John Brunner, like The Sheep Look Up (environmental collapse), The Shockwave Rider (the use of information systems against the individual), Stand on Zanzibar (overpopulation), and the later book, The Children of the Thunder (advanced humans as sociopaths). The strength of Watts' book comes from the smooth conflation of a number of different concerns, as the embattled authorities contend with numerous problems. Such cautionary science fiction seems to exist with the function in mind of avoiding the future it is depicting, sometimes with positive results -- Orwell's 1984 never came about as described -- and sometimes history progresses more discouragingly -- nearly thirty years after The Sheep Look Up, we are closer to complete environmental degradation than ever. The case of The Sheep Look Up is especially pertinent here, as Brunner's book was as vivid and shocking as sanely possible, and Watts' book sometimes suffers by comparison: for one, there are no incidents of a defective microwave cooking a pregnant woman's fetus. On the other hand, perhaps Watts has a better grasp of the future, wherein we are at risk from threats the majority of us cannot understand. As a whole, Maelstrom certainly equals the general atmosphere of doom and despair and events out of control of The Sheep Look Up, and the scientific basis for Watts' statements are up-to-the-minute and well documented. Can a book change the world? After having read Maelstrom, I can only hope so.

Dramatically, Maelstrom has less going for it than thematically. The book is essentially a coda to the events of Starfish, so the structure of Maelstrom makes it a sequel that necessitates knowledge of the previous book. One of the main plot twists is essentially a latecoming reverberation to the central perfidy of Starfish, depending on Starfish for emotional depth. But Maelstrom feels very different than Starfish, mainly because few of the events take place deep under the ocean, instead ranging all across North America. Lenie Clarke, the main character from Starfish, has survived, and she's making her way across the continent. The authorities are busy trying to contain the deadly Behemoth plague. And certain developments inside the maelstrom -- the contemporary word for the internet, after the advent of various self-evolving and deadly entities online (41-43) -- make the jobs of the researchers at CSIRA (Complex Systems Instability-Response Agency) very difficult indeed. The plot has a great deal of momentum, despite a certain shapelessness much like in the case of Starfish, and this momentum could be likened to the grim fascination of watching a string of ever more serious accidents on the highway.

I won't say much about characterization, except to note that Watts does well with a cast that is often not entirely human. Lenie Clarke herself is acting from motivations not entirely meaningful to the other characters but this is conveyed logically and thoroughly. Also, the researchers at CSIRA with higher security clearance are given drug cocktails to control their attitudes, so their motivations are torn and mutilated in ways that are believable -- what secretive government agency wouldn't want employees unable to turn traitor? Watts uses a large cast but they are all distinct, even the entities in the maelstrom.

At the beginning of this review, I mentioned Watts' affinity with Brunner and his apparent opposition to Pollyanna-like views of the future (authors like Rudy Rucker come to mind); I note this because oftentimes Watts seems to be writing with an eye to the situating of his work in the genre. This was also the case in some of the short stories in Watts' collection, Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes. Perhaps this might not play well outside the genre. If so, that would be a shame, considering how strong a message Maelstrom has for us in the present day.

Last modified: January 21, 2002

Copyright © 2002 by James Schellenberg (

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