Starfish by Peter Watts

I read this book a while ago, when it first came out. This book was the novelist’s first foray into fiction writing, and he exploded my imagination. Unfortunately my brother owned the original copy, and the book has since gone out of print.

I had the good fortune of getting it as a birthday present this past weekend. Every moment of downtime I get, I read this sucker. It’s scifi, cyberpunk (though not as cyber as the sequal, Maelstrom), and plays heavily on “pre-adaptation” of mentally unstable/twisted people to handle extreme pressure; literally, tending to hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor and figuratively with the cramped quarters, and high tension.

I have no idea why this wasn’t a bestseller. It’s brilliantly written. Violent, complex, and very easy to understand. From a psychological perspective, the characters are very paper-cut out: emotional damage to all the “unstables” is generally one-dimensional and caused from a single incident, psychiatrists that look at patients and say, “I get lots of people coming in here saying what you say, but I think you’re the first one who actually believes what’s coming out of your mouth,” (I know a lot of mentally unstable people… Of course they believe what they’re doing is right…) and a plot that’s as simplistic as saying, “Lord of the Flies.”

But it’s the periphery that gets me. The details. With the environment being so simple (bottom of the ocean, submarine-like living quarters, etc), and the plot being nothing more than six people fighting to keep a lid on their emotions while fixing portions of the power plant, the details of this world permeate everything.

I think that’s why I enjoy it so much: the writer does something I’m not used to writers doing. Those things that are usually frontrunner in a reader’s head–plot, environment–are actually in the background while periphery is key. It’s oddly subtle, and quite near fantasy if you look at it close enough:

Phytophyllic skinned rich people, adults that can revert to a childlike state by taking the right pills, and the way the government/private corporations run everything is eerily efficient.

The antagonist and main character, Lenie, is a woman that had been sexually abused earlier in her life. The prologue pits her in the colony with just one other person–a normal, oddly cheerful woman. The other woman snaps, eventually, the mental tension of living such a life becoming too much. Lenie snaps, too, in a strange way: she finds empowerment in the depths. She’s in control, there, and she’s in charge (Again, a little bit cardboard: someone who spent her life holding onto such a damaging memory won’t simply resolve it when she absolutely has to. In fact, fixing such a damaging memory usually takes a rewiring of self, and a long period of habit-forming positive reinforcement).

She gets strong, and sets precedent for the rest of the book. Book two (part of why I love this series so much) has her on a rampage through the United States, and Starfish feels like just a precursor to prepare the reader for what he needs to know. It’s complex. It’s awesome. I can’t put it down.




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