For the first half of the book, Starfish was shaping up to be one of my best sci-fi reads since Leviathan Wakes. Combining remote, hazardous deep sea environment with a larger mystery and character study was riveting, and if that at all sounds appealing, I suggest you try it. In the second half, Watts loses a bit of focus as he brings in larger issues of both physical change and a dystopian mystery.
“Beebe Station floats tethered above the seabed, a gunmetal-gray planet ringed by a belt of equatorial floodlights. There’s an airlock for divers at the south pole and a docking hatch for ‘scaphes at the north. In between there are girders and anchor lines, conduits and cables, metal armor and Lenie Clark.”
Starfish begins with some of the best stuff of science fiction, pushing the boundaries of what we know about our environment; humanity living on the edge. Deep in the abyss of the sea, on the Juan de Fuca Rift where two tetonic plates come together, the GA corporation has built Beebe, an outpost for farming geothermals. Only their scientists have found that it takes an unusual sort of person to tolerate living at the bottom of the ocean. Oh, there’s the physical modifications, of course–removing the left lung to make room for adaptive equipment, a little gene-splicing to help human enzymes adapt–but more important are the psychological traits that allow some people to cope.
“‘I’m fine.’ She isn’t, but she’s getting there. This anger is nowhere near critical mass; it’s just a reflex, really, a spark budded off from the main reservoir. It decays exponentially with elapsed time. By the time she reaches her cubby she’s feeling almost sorry for Fischer.”
The writing is solid, integrating scientific concepts and world-building with excellent description. The information is very much in the moment and character-focused, so there isn’t a great deal of backstory. While this makes sense from one perspective (why would a character think much about the structure of the national government or an energy corporation?), it means that some of the mystery is just from lack of understanding, not actually conspiracy, so it makes the plot actually less dramatic than it could. I loved the setting, with vivid descriptions of a barely-familiar world that make the extreme underwater environment come alive.
“In a few places, the rift is almost gentle. Usually the heat stabs up in boiling muddy pillars or jagged bolts of superheated liquid. Steam never gets a chance to form at three hundred atmospheres, but thermal distortion turns the water into a column of writing liquid prisms, hotter than molten glass. Not here, though. In this one spot, nestled between lava pillows and safe from Beebe’s prying ears, the heat wafts up through the mud like a soft breeze. The underlying bedrock must be porous. She comes here when she can, keeping to the bottom en route to foil Beebe’s sonar.”
There’s perhaps three problems here. One challenging issue is that history of abuse/abusers figures strongly into some of the character profiles, including our lead female, LenieClarke. Watts tries to integrate some chemical and behavioral issues surrounding abuse into the story with only moderate success. I think there is enough subtlety in the writing to make it acceptable, but I can see where the discussion around abuse might be problematic for some readers.
More significantly for me was how the dual overarching issues were integrated in the second half of the book; plot-wise, they could have benefited from more transition and detail. Instead, we have choppy new viewpoints introduced from one of the very early and peripherally involved scientists and from a chopper flier. I understand what Watts was trying to do, so it is successful enough in that sense, but as a reader, I think it could have been more powerful with more detail. I don’t know if I dare say it, but it almost made me wish Neal Stephenson was co-writing. I’ll add further thoughts under spoilers.
The last, and most significant problem is that while it can technically be said there’s a resolution to Lenie’s character arc, the overarching plot threads are left dangling. I think it was resolved reasonably well; as a reader, I didn’t really feel cheated. It did make me interested enough in book two that I checked out both reviews and Watt’s website, where he has his work available for free. Sadly, the second book is extremely choppy and has trouble developing both a coherent narrative as well as maintaining character focus. I skimmed to maybe a third before I decided I was wasting time. But I think that says something for the conception and plot that it intrigued me that far. Or it might imply that I have book OCD.
There’s flavors here that reminded me of Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes, Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, James Corey’s Leviathan Wakes and, believe it or not, Resident Evil. That is an almost irresistible combination, and there isn’t really good reasons to resist. Recommended for sci-fi fans, with caveats for reader preferences and themes, but for me, a very solid four stars.