Maelstrom, Peter Watts

Tor, 2001, 371 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56679-3

I had been mildly critical of Peter Watts’ first novel Starfish, but intrigued enough by his potential that it wasn’t much of a struggle to decide to read the sequel, Maelstrom,. Now it turns out that I’m similarly half-critical of the second novel, but for rather different reasons.

Maelstrom begins not long after the cataclysmic events of Starfish‘s climax. (Don’t bother reading if you’re not familiar with the first book) The North American west coast has been trashed, and that only make a bad world worse. The whole global communication network is acting up, environmental collapse is well under way, gigantic corporations are up to their usual dirty tricks and a fractal death-wish seems to be affecting every aspect of the world, from single individuals to entire countries.

In this situation steps in Lenie Clarke, the very very bitter (and very very powerful) surviving protagonist of Starfish. She wants answers. She wants closure. She wants justice. And very few people are going to be willing to stand in her way once she gets going. If she has to kill millions in order to fulfill her goals, well, most of these millions are already ready to die for her…

If your SF diet has grown a touch too optimistic lately, it’s time to delve in the dystopian nightmare that makes up most of Maelstrom. Here, impending global cataclysm (from a variety of sources) is a backdrop to a series of very dark adventures in which an outbreak of primordial microbes is the least of everyone’s worries. The environment is trashed anyway. Violence is commonplace. Employees are guilt-tripped by their employers in acting in the best interest of shareholders, and the cure to that particular issue may be even worse than the problem itself.

It’s not a cheery novel and this lack of cheer does eventually take its toll. The dense but generally dour prose style does little to propel the story forward. The book’s single biggest failing may be how it remains curiously indifferent to the events it describes. A more nervous, more direct writing style might have been appropriate considering the magnitude of the story. But Watts seems more content with a style that seems designed to depress even beyond what happens in the story. A most angst-ridden bunch of characters would be hard to find. It’s not obvious (nor even desirable, maybe) to emphasize with them.

Fortunately, SF fans can look forward to a bunch of tasty little details. From marine microbiology to computer science and neurobiology, Watts reaches deep in background detail (a wonderful pure-science discussion/bibliography is helpfully provided at the end of the book) for plenty of cutting-edge concepts. And not just technical ideas either: Here, Québec has emerged as an important player on the geopolitical scene thanks to its massive hydro-electrical projects ensuring plenty of energy for sale. Resentment is palpable almost everywhere else.

Indeed, perhaps the best thing about Maelstrom is how the scope of the story has expanded. For a cycle that had its beginning in a short story (“A Niche”) exclusively set on an underwater station, Watts has embraced the whole world (with a focus on Ontario) as a canvas for Maelstrom. The story lives up to the title, offering a shifting web of complex -sometimes even contradictory- alliances.

In the end, the telling of the tale might not do justice to the content of the story, but Maelstrom certain has a lot to offer to readers with a a penchant for dystopian tales. In some ways, this is grown-up cyberpunk, with its usual clichés assimilated in a larger, more complex setting. It’s not a perfect book, but the good outweighs the bad by a significant margin. Heck, enough to make me interested in his next novel.

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