Starfish by Peter Watts
In a future overpopulated and under-resourced Earth, a geothermal energy plant has been constructed in a trench thousands of miles under the Pacific Ocean’s surface. The humans of the maintenance crew who live and work in and around the power station have been genetically engineered to withstand the harsh deep-sea environment. But the only people who are willing to undergo this biological manipulation and unpleasant living situation are outcasts, misfits, the psychologically damaged, and criminals.
We meet them aboard the Beebe station where they live together in a cramped environment that can be tense, not only because of the difficulty of their job, but also because of the personalities involved. Ratcheting up the tension is the presence of the unearthly creatures that inhabit the deep trench and the crew’s realization that, in some ways, they are more akin to those monsters than they are to the humans who, both literally and figuratively, live so far above them.
Those earth-bound humans may not be aware of what lurks in the deep, but they are not safe from it. Something potentially catastrophic is stirring down there and it is a threat to all of humanity.
Starfish (1999) is an exciting biological and psychological thriller that scared me. I felt the darkness, coldness, and pressure of the deep sea as well as its alienness. I also felt the claustrophobia and stress of living on Beebe station, especially with colleagues that may not be completely trustworthy or even sane.
Author Peter Watts, a marine biologist, gives us a plausible explanation (backed up by science) for how the deep-sea monsters developed and why they are such a threat to Earth. I found these biological speculations to be fascinating and I especially enjoyed the parts that made me think about some of my favorite topics: psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and consciousness.
Readers who need characters they can root for may be disappointed in Starfish. None are likeable. This was a problem for me (thus only 4 stars), but it was mostly overcome by my interest in the subject matter. There are some slow spots in the story, too.
Tantor Audio sent me a copy of Starfish to review. Gabriel Vaughan does a great job with the narration, so I recommend this version, but I’m disappointed that I don’t see any indication that an audio version of the remaining RIFTERS trilogy (Maelstrom and Behemoth) is in the works.
The print version of Starfish contains pages of references at the end that allow interested readers (like me) to fact-check the science. I really appreciate this. I wish the audio edition had included it.
Starfish is the best book in the Rifters series, they go downhill rapidly from there. Maelstrom is still somewhat interesting. But Behemoth is something to avoid–the version I found was split into two volumes, the first of which was pointless and depressing, and the second of which was outright repulsive and deserving of every sort of trigger warning for sadistic sexual violence. Hardly any books I ever read get consigned to the trash, but both volumes of Behemoth ended up there.
Ugh. Thanks for letting me know, Paul. I wrote to the publisher to encourage them to do the sequels and now I wish I hadn’t.