We don't see all that many marine-fiction books, but when we do, chances are they're good ones. There's something about the mysterious oceans that makes for suspenseful reading as good as any space opera, but with a a stronger measure of reality. Sphere was an fantastic novel, and 'The Abyss' was a great movie (albeit a weak ending). Although the last year brought us only a few of these novels, 'Starfish', from newcomer Peter Watts is an amazingly unique book, the like of which you won't see again any time soon.
In the future, massive populations have forced earth's industry to turn to the depths of the ocean for energy. Massive geothermal vents are harnessed for their power. To maintain this unpredictable source, power stations must be crewed, several miles underwater. Physically this prevents a challenge to the human body, but science has allowed for specialized engineering of humans, allowing certain people to function at such depths. Mentally however, the answer isn't as clear cut. It actually turns out that normal people can't function in the close confines and demanding atmosphere of the ocean. In fact, the only people who can function under these conditions, are psychopaths. Perhaps 'psychopath' is too strong a term (It brought images of 'The Shining' into my head), and mentally unusual is more fitting.
Clearly enough, Watt's has set the stage for a cast of characters yet to be seen in any other books out there. They're all wonderfully drawn and fleshed out, and Watt's does an excellent job of making the reader alternatively feel pity, revulsion, sympathy, and fear. At first it's hard to relate to characters which are as fundamentally different from the mainstream fare, but soon enough we can't help but be drawn into their world. Character interaction is also uniquely approached, as discomfort, anguish, and hate are all prevalent, although the beginnings of compassion and understanding are expertly seeded.
Watts puts as much effort into atmosphere as characterization. The ocean is painstakingly portrayed as both dangerous and beautiful, and the seamless integration of setting and character makes for a surreal experience. In fact, much of the book is a journey towards the eventual union of the technicians and their environment, slowly manifested and masterfully executed.
Characters, setting, and technique are all integral pieces in a novel, but without plot, they're hard pressed to carry the day. Although 'Starfish' manages to provide a worthy plot, it's not up to par with the rest of the book. There's some very interesting concepts, such as the 'head cheeses', human brains grown on a plastic slab, allowing for aspects of intelligence without the moral dilemma's of cloning. Thoroughly tantalizing, and more than somewhat disturbing. Watts also takes numerous opportunities to delve into the scientific side of things, and does so remarkably well. In fact, all the data he presents is accurate, and he has a complete set of references at the end of the book. Tying somewhat into science, the end of the book is rather unexpected, and at odds with the rest of the novel. Based on an interesting premise, it is however, a little too contrived, and bound to be a bit disappointing for some readers.
To sum up, Watts has created an singularly unique book. A fantastic union of environment and humanity makes this an excellent read. The plot is strong and engaging, although it weakens a bit at the end, and at no times matches the excellent shown in other aspects of the book. The sequel to 'Starfish', 'Maelstrom' promises to be an intriguing book.