Starfish, Peter Watts

Tor, 1998, 374 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57585-7

The sub-genre of aquatic Science-Fiction has been dominated, for years, by Arthur C. Clarke, who parlayed a scuba-diving obsession into at least two fine novels of futuristic sea adventures, The Deep Range (harvesting whales for food) and The Ghost from the Grand Banks (raising the Titanic). That’s in addition to several other stories, subplots and non-fiction writing about the subject. Anyone even daring to cover the same ground better pay homage to the master, or else.

That’s exactly what Toronto resident Peter Watts does in “A Niche”, the short story that formed the basis for Starfish: One of the protagonists is named Clarke. (The other; Ballard) “A Niche” ends up being the first chapter of Starfish, and the novel follows what happens after the events of the short story. “A Niche” was rather good (it was notably featured in Northern Star, a best-of anthology of Canadian short SF) and so is Starfish, despite a few problems.

The biggest of those is probably the premise. Some things work in short stories and simply don’t translate well to bigger lengths. The concept of using mentally unstable persons as deep-sea explorers is one of these things. Suspension of disbelief is easy to sustain over twenty pages (oh, another wacky SF concept!)… but three hundred? Does anyone really think that a multi-billion mega-corporation would willingly entrust important projects to crazy personnel on the dubious premise that “an environment that drive the sane insane might drive the insane sane again?” Is anyone in the audience truly surprised when people start cracking up under all sort of pressures, both physical and psychological? Is it any wonder if none of the characters is overly sympathetic to the reader?

Okay. Never mind that. Suspend disbelief and proceed.

…only to be stopped again by some major structural problems. The book suffers from its origin in that the major character of the short story -Lenie Clarke- is probably not the best viewpoint characters for the full-length story. That character would probably be the “sane” psychologist Yves Scanlon, but he doesn’t arrive on-site until the novel is well in its second act. Before that, the viewpoint keeps shifting between characters who often disappear before mid-novel, creating an unfocused impression that really doesn’t help the novel get underway. Have I mentioned that for the first half of the book there’s no one even remotely worth cheering for?

In fact, most of my good opinion of the novel comes from the last fifty pages or so, when new exciting elements (like Βehemoth) are introduced and developed as a credible plot thread. Suddenly, most of what comes before is negated or trivialized. This is good at first (it basically saves the novel), but rather unsatisfactory on further reflection. In fact, the Βehemoth plot element is so good that its late inclusion smacks of sloppy editorial guidance; why couldn’t the novel be re-conceptualized around this?

But, as ever, let’s not be overly critical of what is, after all, a first novel. It would be unfair to forget the obvious strengths of the novel; a daring sense of originality which is admirable even when it misfires; a good grasp of unusual characters; some really good ideas that could have benefited from much more development; an obvious willingness to do keep the science exact and to present the best parts to the audience and, perhaps most importantly, a readable style that should work wonders in a different context.

Starfish isn’t without problems, small and large, but it’s certainly a worthwhile read and a promising first novel from someone who should deliver good things in latter books. It follows in the aquatic footsteps of Arthur C. Clarke and doesn’t seem out of place in the company of the SF grandmaster. That’s not bad at all.

Possibilities for a sequel? Get more information on that, and Peter Watts at http://www.globalserve.net/~pwatts/

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