By Peter Watts
First Published: 1999
Review © 2013 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Hard Science Fiction, Thriller
Cover Art by Bruce Jensen
Starfish is the impressive hard science fiction debut novel from Peter Watts which launched his career in 1999. It explores one of the least understood parts of our solar system which happens to be right in our own back yard, the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean. But this novel does not just consist of imaginative and very believable speculations about the deep; it includes terrific characters that are, for the most part, extremely flawed. The result is both a psychological and action thriller with nothing less than the fate of the world at stake.
A lot of great science fiction novels are based upon a brilliant premise. Starfish delivers not one but at least three or four exciting premises which I don’t want to give away because they should be discovered in the course of reading this novel. The only one I’ll mention is the idea that the best people to send to highly dangerous and claustrophobic environments might be those that have been through extreme traumas which have pre-adapted them to handling extreme environments.
The novel opens with the government sending Lenie Clarke to a power generating station at the bottom of the Pacific ocean, 3 kilometers deep. The constant volcanic action along the Juan de Fuca rift provides the potential for almost unlimited energy which the world desperately needs. However, the power stations located here also need regular maintenance. Clarke has a dark history as a victim of abuse but at the bottom of the ocean the extreme everyday dangers seem to provide a sense of peace. After her initial trial, she is soon joined by another five damaged and/or disturbed individuals. Some are victims, some are abusers. Placing them together in a high stress environment in such tight quarters naturally results in some volatile confrontations. But somehow the environment slowly forges them into a team with the seemingly least likely person, Clarke, becoming their leader.
The extreme difficulties the crew encounters, both internal and external, make for highly entertaining reading and the descriptions of the environment are very realistic with a lot of scientific backing. Watts obviously did a huge amount of research to make this novel realistic. The only real flaw for some people is going to be that the central conflict of the novel does not become clear until quite late. For the first three quarters of the novel, there are lots of smaller conflicts as the novel stays focused on the fight for survival. However, during the last portion, we find out that that there is a lot more that the government is worried about than just power generation, and we learn that the crew at the bottom of the ocean may have the key to humanity’s survival.
Starfish is highly recommended for those who like psychology, biology, marine science, and startling ideas about evolution in the not too distant future.