Tor, 2004-2005, ??? pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN Various
βehemoth: β-Max, Tor, 2004, 300 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30721-9
βehemoth: Seppuku, Tor, 2005, 303 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31172-0
Regular readers of these reviews may recall my cool but generally positive impressions of the first two volumes in Peter Watt’s “Rifters” trilogy. Starfish and Maelstrom may have been a bit dour and depressing, but they had enough hard-SF goodness to keep me coming back for a third helping. (Or rather a third and fourth helping, Tor having decided -in their usual market-savvy attitude- to split the third instalment in separate books.) Now that I’ve read the full story, my irrational optimism has been fulfilled: With βehemoth, Watts delivers not only a good book, but a great ending to a trilogy that retrospectively makes a lot more sense.
It’s amazing how a short story (1990’s “A Niche”) has grown to this apocalyptic 1,200+ pages epic about free will, evil and the end of the world. We remember the situation at the end of Maelstrom: an archaic super-microbe killing off most of North America; the rest of the world teetering on the edge of self-annihilation; the Internet contaminated by malicious entities. βehemoth picks up five years later, at a time where the whole collapse into fire and rubble has stabilized to a slow glide. Deep below the sea, rifters and corporate elites are about to see their balance-of-life issues settled thanks to the introduction of something even worse than everything they’ve seen so far. When you consider what Watts has introduced in the first two books, that’s saying something.
I’ve alluded (above) to the splitting of the novel in two separate parts, but one of the happy surprises of βehemoth, even chopped up, is how the two halves feel like separate stories. The three main characters may be the same, but the setting, the dynamics and the storytelling are different. β-Max mirrors Starfish in taking place under the surface, in what feels like a closed set. But you know what they say about conflict in small spaces: it’s all knives and bare hands…
The second half, without spoiling much, takes place over a wider canvas (yes, much like Maelstrom) and steadily plows forward in order to orchestrate a final confrontation between the three main characters, each of which approach issues of guilt, free will and responsibility in a different fashion. Seppuku is also notable in that the mantle of the protagonist, regardless of POV, shifts away from Clarke to Lubin: it’s no accident if Clarke’s role in the conclusion doesn’t amount to much.
It’s no big insight at this point to say that the Rifters trilogy is one grim ride. What’s more useful to say is that once you start studying the shades of black that are left behind, truly interesting morality conflicts start to emerge, usually demonstrated through power plays of various kinds. Reason versus emotion, free will versus neurological imperatives are all explored to some degree and the result is fascinating. (Though it brings back to mind movie tag-lines like “fight evil with evil”.) Characters finally come into focus here, with complex motivations-upon-impulses. (or is it the other way around?)
If I have issues with the books, it’s that if Watt’s prose has seldom been more engaging, he could use a bit of polish in the way he allows readers to absorb information. Sometimes, revelations are made and the story hops to another plot point, without letting implications sink in. It’s not uncommon to go back a few paragraph with the nagging suspicion that something very important just happened.
I suspect that my growing enthusiasm for the series has much to do with learning how to cope with Watts or (if you prefer a reformulation), figuring out what were Watts’ intentions with the trilogy. In retrospect, even the features of Starfish that annoyed me so much all fit in place. Readers who start reading the first two volumes now (and the author has made them freely available on-line, so you’ve got no excuse) will do so knowing that this is a trilogy: their initial reactions will adjust accordingly. As it turns out, the protagonist of “A Niche” are named Ballard and Clarke for a very good reason.
Finally, one loud hurrah for the scientific content (and the crunchy “notes and references” essay at the end of the book). I’m not sure what’s in the Canadian water supplys these days, but we seem to be producing more than our fair share of good hard-SF. If nothing else, I can’t wait to see Watts’ next novel, Blindsight, especially given the tasty treats suggested on rifters.com…