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Starfish, the first novel by Peter Watts, is the kind of science fiction story I enjoy the most: it is exceptionally well-written, with complex characters, and possesses a vision of the future that feels real. That’s because Watts grounds his story and characters in a coherent, and darkly-imagined, world.

Starfish is set, primarily, on Bebe station, a facility that extracts gothermal energy from the Juan de Fuca Ridge at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and uses it to power towns and cities on the mainland. In order for Bebe station, and the others like it, to remain intact, it requires people to maintain it. Thus, the corporation running the energy programme selects people to bio-engineer so they can breath water and withstand the immense pressure down by Channer Vent on the Pacific floor. The biological change is just one aspect: there is also the psychological impact of working in such a dangerous environment.

What Watts explores is the kind of person who might flourish in such an environment. His answer is that they would be “pre-adapted”: people who are no stranger to trauma, stress and danger. They are people like his main protagonist, Leni Clarke, who was abused by her father as a child, but discovers on Bebe Station that she not only tolerates the dangerous assignments on the ocean floor, but discovers a strength and determination she never possessed on the surface. The corporation recognises this trait, and soon the station is full of borderline psychotics, some of whom get on well together, and others who do not.

Considering that Watts hops from the point of view of several different characters in the story, we get the inside scoop on this diverse group of broken and damaged people who are operating in a difficult and challenging environment. The characters are real: with severe personality problems, and erratic behaviour, but described in such a way that it gives the reader an understanding of their reactions. As the story progresses, the group bonds in unusual ways: mainly due to their shared experience of the odd peace that existing in the living ocean can bring.

The book is let down slightly in how it uncovers a sub-plot about a microscopic danger to which the Bebe crew are exposed. It is introduced in the last third of the book, and brings a new direction to the book that initially feels artificial. I think if it has been introduced earlier this transition would have been smoother. However, it is an excellent idea, and once it gets going rushes the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Watts is one of the best sf authors I have read recently, and I look forward to exploring more of his dark visions of a future in which the world’s oceans hold the key to life, as well as our possible demise.

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About Maura McHugh