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Starfish, Peter Watts, TOR, 1999, 374 pp.

Starfish is Peter Watts' debut novel, and it's quite a stunner. Watts has a unique prose style that takes the reader through harrowing and funny scenes with equal grace. He also manages character development in a way seldom seen in science fiction (the only similar novel I can think of is Wilson's Bios) -- characters shuffle on and off stage with little regard for the conventions governing such things, and yet we still care for the people and want to know what will happen to them next. Watts also compounds hard science fiction with some fanciful ideas, and the resulting mix demands close attention from the reader. All told, it's a wonderful concoction and a strong debut.

Starfish tells the story of an underwater base named Beebe Station, deep in the Pacific Ocean near the Juan de Fuca Ridge. The ostensible purpose of the personnel at Beebe Station is to maintain the nearby machinery that supplies power to the world by harvesting geothermal activity. However, the book spends little time on the day-to-day duties of the people at the station -- they occasionally do their work, but much more interesting things happen all the time. The personnel are chosen for their level of dysfunction among the members of above-water society (the drybacks), and we get many close encounters with madness and psychosis. The people in the station are also changing, due to isolation as well as to some illegal fiddling with their biochemistry. Corporate malfeasance is nothing new, but the future only makes it more dangerous, especially in combination with the catastrophic reach of advanced technology. Near the end of the book, some conventional suspense arrives and we get some tired tropes about saving the world and keeping one's humanity alive. Up to that point, the plot of the book is as shapeless and messy as could be, and I don't say that as a criticism. Sometimes a non-standard narrative becomes completely indecipherable and all the reader can do is give up. Starfish is impossible to summarize properly, but it also keeps the reader on-side and interested from beginning to end.

Starfish is divided into two sections, each of which has a handful of chapters. These chapters are further subdivided into labelled segments. The segment headings are reminiscent of John Brunner (a similarity which shows up even more overtly in Starfish's sequel, Maelstrom), and the short story that this book is based on, "A Niche," (which can be found in Watts' short story collection, Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes) shows up in slightly altered form as one of the early segments of the book. Watts tells the story from many different viewpoints, which helps us understand the motivations and backgrounds of the large cast of characters.

Lenie Clarke, one of the crew at Beebe Station, is likely the main character, although Watts never treats her like a conventional protagonist. Lenie suffered through a great deal of abuse earlier in her life, and at first it would seem like she would be the first to crack while at Beebe, as she is thrown in among some disturbed and violent people. But Lenie is consistently the strong centre of the group of dysfunctional people, and she is sympathetic and cheer-worthy. As I said earlier, Watts treats his cast of minor characters with what would be disdain or contempt in a less unique book. For example, a character named Acton comes to the station on page 116, a third of the way through the book, and he takes up an enormous amount of our time and compassion before exiting the stage well before the climax of the book (no further hints on how or why). Still, Acton is more memorable than the protagonists of other books. Similarly, Yves Scanlon is the company psychologist and spends most of the book as the absent object of the Beebe Station members' scorn. Then he is forced to come to Beebe himself (about halfway through the book), and things are a little bit different at such a close view than Yves was expecting. Yves becomes one of the most important plot hinges for the conclusion of the book. The final passages of the book are given to Lenie, which wraps things up nicely.

Watts has a ball with the hard science fiction elements of Starfish. He manages to incorporate artificial intelligence, the origins of life, a world-ending infection, telepathy, and a whole array of other goodies in a way that satisfies the hard sf fans. Watts also includes a section at the end called "References" in which he lists some of his background sources and notes, "Actually, you might be surprised at how much of this stuff I didn't make up" (371). Combining all of these things in a credible way is a task easier imagined than accomplished, and Watts makes it look easy. Quite the triumph.

First posted: March 18, 2000; Last modified: February 12, 2004

Copyright © 2000-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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