“Under da sea, under da sea!” Peter Watts'
Starfish is that fairly rare type of science fiction book, one that is set on this planet, under the sea - specifically at the Beebe Station in the Pacific Ocean at the Channer Vent, a hyperthermal vent on the Juan de Fuca Ridge. This is no Disney-style tale with singing lobsters and mermaids, though - it is dark, atmospheric, psychologically tense, page-turning. The denizens described are specifically engineered by nature for the immense depths of the Ridge: monstrous fish with mouths full of vicious-looking fangs, some with their own luminescent bait to lure prey to their doom.
The human inhabitants, on the other hand, have been bio-engineered to survive and thrive in their salt-water environment and carefully chosen for their resilience and ability to rise above their checkered pasts. Lenie Clarke, the female lead of Starfish, was sexually abused by her father and other men. Then there are characters like Gary Fischer, a schizophrenic sexual child molester who has opted for the necessary surgery they all had to endure to live at Beebe Station, such as the removal of one lung to have it replaced with machinery for breathing underwater. Though they don’t drink blood, one character, the psychologist Dr. Scanlon, calls them vampires, because of their pale skins, constantly worn opaque eye-goggles, and the emotional distance they carefully culture and maintain between each other.
This is a strange group of individuals at the fringe of society, but the work they do helps ensure that the mainland is supplied with a continuing source of energy from the hyperthermal vent. In many ways they are ideal for the job - they are accustomed to living under stressful conditions, they have no close family ties or friends, most of them have few to no options left, and their bosses at the Grid Authority feel they are easily manipulated. They are, for the most part - that is, until Lenie finds that the Grid Authority has been spying on them with cameras installed behind mirrors. She promptly smashes all of the mirrors and cameras, putting an end to the Grid Authority’s surveillance activities.
Little do the grid Authority suspect that anyone living as Clarke and the others do might come to be addicted to it and crave it. That’s what happens, though; the “vampires” gradually prefer to spend more and more time out of Beebe Station in the ocean, even sleeping with their eyes open and exploring their surroundings on their own, despite that being officially contrary to the rules, which require always being with someone else in case of danger.
The starfish of the novel’s title refers to an actual seastar, and also to the inhabitants of the Beebe Station. Starfish can be torn into several pieces, and each piece can continue on to become a separate starfish. Lenie grafts several pieces of different starfish to create a new one, stitching the pieces together. The different legs pull and fight against each other, as they often do with any starfish, but the starfish survives, much as the “vampires” do. It’s a great metaphor, and a much better way to describe the folks at Beebe station than calling them “vampires”.
Lenie, Acton, Fischer and the others, like Nakata and Lubin, not only adapt to their new watery world; they evolve. Are their changes being assisted by a rival to DNA that has managed to continue to exist in the harsh environment of places like Channer Vent? That’s what the Grid Authority fears, enough so that they place a nuclear bomb near Beebe Station to prevent, if necessary, the end of life as we know it.
In Starfish, Peter Watts pens a brilliant narrative based on hard science and complex human relationships. Tortured souls find a new chance at life on their own terms. It will make you want to run to the bookstore and buy (or order online) its already-released sequels - Maelstrom, Behemoth: B-Max, Behemoth: Seppuku and Blindsight. Starfish is an engrossing novel and is highly recommended.