Peter Watt's debut novel, 'Starfish' was truly a masterpiece of dark science fiction. A vivid portrait of a dystopian future world, the novel was truly a joy to read. Enter 'Maelstrom', the second part of what will now be a trilogy concerning the 'rifters', central characters from 'Starfish'.
In Maelstrom, Watts moves the action back to the surface of the earth, and centers around the enigmatic figure of rifter Lenie Clark. Having narrowly avoided the tactical nuclear strike which killed her colleagues, Lenie washes up onto the 'left coast' of North America. The aforementioned nuclear strike did more than wipe out Beebe station, as the ensuing tidal waves killed countless millions. Now, more than a little upset by what she's been through, Lenie finds herself on the 'strip', an sealed off area of land inhabited by refugees. She soon embarks on a mission of retribution, unaware she's incubating the 'Behemoth' organism, a bug with the capability to wipe out all life on earth. She's not quite alone, as a rampant program in the maelstrom once known as the internet has latched onto her crusade. Soon, Lenie Clark becomes a rallying point for the disenfranchised whose very lives are threatened by her existence.
Enter Ken Lubin, who also managed to survive an underwater nuclear holocaust. Which clearly wasn't sufficient to wipe out 'Behemoth', if it can't deal with two rifters. Regardless, Lubin soon hears of Lenie's exploits, and is contacted by his former employers. The people in power are desperate to stop Armageddon, and driven by biologically implanted imperatives, Lubin is forced to hunt down Lenie.
In addition to the returning characters, Watts introduces a few new ones. Most notable of these is Achilles Desjardin, a type of hacker employed by the 'corpses' who keep the world running. Tracking Behemoth early in the game, Desjardin begins to discover more about Lenie Clark, and the mysterious entity within the maelstrom seemingly obsessed with her existence.
The story is not so much woven together, as mashed into what feels like a single long chapter. There's really no slow parts, as something's always happening. Whether or not you understand what that 'something' is, is another matter altogether. Watts has infused 'Maelstrom' with a slew of scientific terms and descriptions, and it can be difficult to understand the implications of all of them. He spends numerous pages tracing the behavious of programs, lecturing us on neuroscience, and waxing eloquently on the nature of electronic evolution. Some if it's very interesting, but there's so much of it it removes a sense of humanity from the book. It's hard to develop human characters when they seem almost relegated to a supporting role. Desjardin for example, seems to run into one moral dilemma followed by another, and that's about it. He spends the rest of his time tracking down programs and doing other tech-laden things. Lubin's pretty well nothing more than a machine, while we get to watch Lenie slowly deconstruct herself.
Speaking of Lenie, Watts let's us in one some very interesting secrets concerning her past, and these help shape the very feeling of the book. The storyline itself gives us a closer view into the working of the future world. Society is at the mercy of biological predation, as new strains of virus' and diseases are constantly ravaging the population. Thousands of people are (aggresively) quarantined, and the battle gets a little rougher every day. The internet has degenerated into a maelstrom (get it?) and is more like an unmapped jungle than anything else. Programs prey on other programs, and only a select group of people can brave the fury of the storm.
There's a lot of elements to a good novel here, but they're often interrupted, and rarely get the chance to come together. All in all, 'Maelstrom' is a good book, but pales in comparison to it's predecessor, 'Starfish'. The characters aren't as engaging, the sense of ambience isn't as tangible, and the story just isn't as riveting as the last time around. Nevertheless, if you enjoyed the first book, it's worth your time. We can only look forward to the forthcoming third title, 'Behemoth', and hope Watts finishes things up in grand style.