book-reviews

Rifters

by Peter Watts

Rating: ★★★★

In most science-fiction novels which take place under the sea, you'd find that the revelation that all the employees were chosen due to their history as abuse victims would be the big reveal, the thing that casts a lot of tense mystery into relief. Not so for Watts. For this guy, this detail is just setting the scene. We go on to find far-reaching ideas in neurology, psychology and biology acting out their parts in this tense undersea fraction of a harsh future.

Blindsight predisposed me to like Watts' work, and is after all the reason I found Starfish and its sequels, and the same real-science-laden style I loved from Blindsight is evident in this earlier work. Similarly, the edgy, almost non-human characters. Yet Starfish does something new as well -- it explores group dynamics, the interactions between the rifters, the more human elements of their histories and their situation. In some ways this book about the reserved, broken people under the sea is a very touchy-feely psychological and emotional exploration.

Real science-fiction has real science, and usually the more speculative parts of it. The Rifters series is somewhat dated by this aspect, as several plot points which would've seemed out-there at the time of publication are now relatively everyday -- Watts even reflects on these updates in his notes for the later books. We also see some misses, such as the adoption of the quantum consciousness hypothesis which is now generally rejected, but for the most part the science rings true through the book, and science-fiction fans should especially enjoy what Watts serves up.

Where Starfish keeps up a close, claustrophobic underwater environment, Maelstrom and βehemoth bring us up to speed on wider developments in the world, which looks heavily catastrophe-wearied and corporation-dominated: unfortunately these are not amongst the projections which look out of date, and in general Watts' picture of the future is chillingly likely. As an aside, Maelstrom contains highly worthwhile passages on the internal lives of the evolutionary computer viruses which converge unpredictably on their apocalyptic godshead.

The βehemoth conclusion to the trilogy had a troubled publication history, though this alone can't account for its lacklustre reception: it doesn't add much of larger significance to the plot after the apocalyptic Maelstrom, and the two components of the book seem to separate quite easily. However, the book is notable for a highly disturbing -- certainly not for the faint-hearted -- secondary character who nonetheless manages to be at points sympathetic.