Starfish by Peter Watts – review

RaftWhen I posted my review of Raft yesterday I realised that I hadn’t written a review of the book I’d read before it, which was Starfish by Peter Watts. You’ll remember that I’ve talked about Peter a bit here recently, and you’ll probably remember the picture of me pretending his Hugo award was my own. I had the pleasure of hanging out with him a bit during Worldcon, and felt that I should read some of his work. There are so many people out there writing amazing things and I wish I had the time to read them all. It’s just a simple fact of life that I’ll never read all the books I want to. I made that realisation some time ago and I’ve since come to terms with it. And it’s something of a relief to just accept that fact, however sad it is.

However, when I’ve actually met someone, talked about all kinds of stuff, discovered what an awesome person they are and so on, there’s an added impetus to read their work. Especially when it’s so well regarded. So I picked up a copy of Starfish, Peter’s debut novel, at Worldcon and got him to sign it for me. I read it on my return.

Starfish is an incredible novel. It’s the story of Rifters, people with the special skills needed to run power generating stations three kilometres below the surface of the Pacific. The back cover blurb is an excellent description of the book:

[civilization] recruits those whose histories have preadapted them to dangerous environments, people so used to broken bodies and chronic stress that life on the edge of an undersea volcano would actually be a step up.

These people are fitted out for high pressure depths, with one lung removed and replaced with a water/oxygen processing unit and various other biotech adaptations to make them able to survive outside their undersea home in nothing more than the Diveskin they habitually wear.

Watts manages to create such an incredible atmosphere that the life of the characters at the bottom of the Pacific is utterly believeable. His story is partly a study of the human condition, partly a near future thriller. His understanding of the science of life in the deep and the creatures that inhabit this unusual, volcanic area is stunning. Rarely has a book so totally immersed me in the environment I’m reading about.

The main character of Lenie Clarke is someone I want to read more about, which is good, because there are more Rifter books – the whole thing has become a trilogy with Maelstrom and Behemoth as sequels to Starfish. I’ll definitely be picking up those books to read.

Starfish is hard SF, Watts experience as a marine biologist clearly evident, but it’s also incredible storytelling, amazing characterisation and brilliant worldbuilding. I’m so glad that I met Peter and subsequently read this book, because it’s without a doubt one of the best things I’ve read in years. I’ll rarely go so far as to give something 5/5 on a star rating, but this is unquestionably a five star book. And one that won’t just appeal to SF fans. This is superb literature that anyone will enjoy.


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3 thoughts on “Starfish by Peter Watts – review

  1. I loved Starfish and Maelstrom. Read them years ago, and then a couple of times each since. Wish I could find a copy of Behemoth. Blindsight is definitely my favourite though! Amazing, nay, mindblowing ideas and science; deep space travel; alien contact; surgically created multiple-personality, sociopathic and ‘vampire’ crew members all travelling together in the cramped confines of a space vessel… what could possibly go wrong there? Loved every word of it.

  2. I’ve heard that Behemoth is hard to find in Australia. You can get it from Amazon or Book Depository though. You can also get Peter’s books for free as ebooks from his site if you’re that way inclined. Blindsight looks awesome and I’ll definitely be reading that.

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