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Publisher: Bluejack

December, 2004 : Review:

Storming Gehenna: The Rifters Books by Peter Watts

Starfish (Tor Science Fiction, 2000, ISBN 0-812575-85-7)
Maelstrom (Tor Science Fiction, 2002, ISBN 0-812566-79-3)
Behemoth: B-Max (Tor Science Fiction, 2004 ISBN, 0-765307-21-9)
Behemoth: Seppuku (Tor Science Fiction, 2005, ISBN 0-765311-72-0)

There's a long dystopian tradition in science fiction, wherein writers imagine the results of "What if this goes on?" in areas such as the environment, human biology, and politics. All such stories depict "worlds worse than our own"1 and, as a result, provide writers with plenty of grist for their creative mills. Many dystopian SF novels feature revolution against the established order, using a rather standard mechanism with which most readers have at least a passing familiarity (rebels form underground network, select rebel leader, get weapons, begin guerilla attacks against The Enemy, gather more support, and usually win). The revolt is often against the established political order; since human history is littered with such conflicts, they're within the reader's comfort zone as regards anything new or strange.

Many of SF's best writers have tackled dystopian science fiction, including Robert Heinlein (Sixth Column), Suzy McKee Charnas (Walk to the End of the World), John Brunner (The Sheep Look Up), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale), and Marge Piercy (Woman at the Edge of Time).

If dystopian SF had a motto, "things fall apart" would do nicely. Peter Watts has established himself in that tradition by creating a dystopia that is dark, paranoid, insidious, and all too believable. But Watts does something different with his dystopia. The revolutions of dystopian SF are usually on a macro level, and generally controllable by human action, but in the Rifters trilogy,2 the revolution is on a cellular level, and it's a revolution over which humans have no control. This cellular revolution occurs on three major fronts: inside a small group of humans, on land, and on the internet, which, in the world Watts creates, is called "Maelstrom," because of the uncontrollable profusion of artificial wildlife it harbors.

The revolution trigger is a non-DNA-based organism that lives on the Pacific Ocean floor in a volcanic vent of the San Juan de Fuca Rift. Unable to pass the thermal barrier at that depth, the organism has been barred from expansion. But it gets a hand up when a global power conglomerate called the Grid Authority decides to test the efficacy of geothermal power and builds a power station in the rift. The humans who staff the station provide the transition phase the organism needs to move beyond its restrictive habitat: first it moves to a human host (it thrives in warmth) and then, when the human goes topside, to the land ecosystem. The organism multiplies and infects at a terrifying rate. It also crosses the biological/mechanical barrier and infects Maelstrom, turning it into a snarling mass of wildlife, infogarbage, and viruses. Humans dub the organism "Behemoth" once they discover its presence on land, and begin a systematic program to eliminate it because of its devastating effect on DNA-based life.

For security and maintenance purposes, the humans who live and work at the power station have been bioengineered and genetically altered to allow them to survive at depths fatal to normal humans—they are, in effect, cyborgs. They are also required to fit a very specific psychological profile that indicates they'll be suited to long periods of time without human contact. The psychological shell they create around themselves is mirrored by the encasement of living near the bottom of an ocean. (Watts lists Elizabeth Loftus in his references for this idea, and she is one of the major researchers in this and related areas of human psychology.) In the abyss, they acquire a sense of security they never knew while on land. But it's a false sense of security—and threats don't come solely from other humans.

The central protagonist is Lenie Clarke, a woman who tries hard to put forth a steel exterior, but who actually spends a lot of time feeling very, very scared of her colleagues. She views them all through the lens of her past, which makes getting to know her coworkers thorny, at best. She's looking for focus in her life but remains unaware of this need until events bring her crashing down around her. The only person she trusts (and it's always a temporary alliance) is Ken Lubin, and he's got even heavier baggage than Lenie; he's also very, very hard to kill.

Starfish, the first book in the series, introduces these and other characters and initiates the plot, setting, and theme that will continue throughout the trilogy. In Maelstrom, both Behemoth and Clarke have come ashore in the Pacific Northwest of the North American continent. Clarke and Lubin discover they are both survivors, and join forces to learn what can be done to combat Behemoth. The Grid Authority executives and their families have holed up in a deep-ocean habitat (in a neat exchange of isolation tanks with the Beebe Station workers). In Behemoth: B-Max and Behemoth: Seppuku, Clarke and Lubin go looking for whoever or whatever is responsible for the continuing attempts on their lives, which leads them into a trap. This overview is only a bare-bones depiction, and it does no justice to the grace and skill with which the story is woven.

Overall, Watts has created well-rounded characters who, like real-life people, have both positive and negative aspects. In Lenie Clarke, the "rebel leader," Watts has brought to life a woman who is deeply conflicted, vengeful, and often indecisive, but never flaky. Watts' greatest skill lies in making her the character readers will root for, regardless of what she's accused of doing by other characters. She is the victim who subverts victimhood and turns it to her own uses. She represents the person who is denigrated, castigated, and cast aside, and has decided to stop being a doormat and fight back. Lubin might come across as a soulless killer to some readers, but I've known one or two people like him. Patricia Rowan, one of the Grid Authority execs, is a power figure whose attempts to justify, for the sake of her own conscience, her company's horrendous actions, serve to make her more human. Watts' characterization is weak, however, in his depiction of Rowan's daughter, Alyx, who befriends Clarke (as much as Clarke can have friends, that is). Alyx is a child, but she doesn't sound much like any girls I've known; the reader gets no indicators for why she speaks and acts as she does, and as a result the basis for her behavior just isn't there.

The scientific detail in these books is dense but never an obstacle, laced into the narrative with subtle effect, so much so that even the "hand-waving" science feels very plausible. All the scientific elements introduced in the books are integral parts of the story, which is what some would call the definition of science fiction (though some might argue that point). His "inventions" are based on state-of-the-art scientific research, and that reference list at the end of each book provides a pathway for interested readers to investigate a wide range of current theories. The variety is quite rich, too: deepwater biology, plate tectonics and geology, Ganzefeld effects, smart gels, origins of life on Earth and nanobacterium, to name just a few. In fact, between one book and the next, the ways in which Watts employs some of these theories turn out to be factual. I find this amazing, and more than a little scary.

But it's not all scientific wowsers in the Rifters series. If one had to pigeonhole the books, they'd most likely be placed in the "literary" SF slot because of the way the story explores themes of greed, arrogance, survival, and love in the context of humans versus nature and humans versus humans. Nature is represented by the Rift ecology in general and Behemoth in particular, with human greed and arrogance embodied by the Grid Authority's quest for more power sources at the expense of investigating the ecology of its targets.

Survival is the name of the game, and the theme once Behemoth reaches land, and Clarke's efforts to survive parallel the efforts of other humans in positions of power to ensure the continuance of humanity and all it knows. Love as a theme is in its fractured form here, as Clarke has become so emotionally scarred that she has great difficulty in discerning true caring from manipulation. Only in her relationship with Alyx is the reader shown that Clarke can, indeed, reciprocate true caring, but that relationship is never allowed to expand. As the "Meltdown Madonna," Clarke is destined to remain alone and without choice in the matter.

The book also offers numerous opportunities to see metaphors in its situations. The Beebe power station and the Grid Authority's habitat are like prisons, despite the fact that their respective "inmates" can actually leave them (though such departures are fraught with danger). They can also be seen as mirrors of the human psyche, especially the darker aspects of that psyche. We each keep nasty critters locked up, except when the pressures of life get too much to deal with—and then they can escape the prisons we build for them, often with an explosive effect. Behemoth's escape into a less hostile environment can be a metaphor for this explosion, as is Clarke's focus on finding the people who screwed around with her mind, once she learns that her mind's been messed with.

The density of language in the books borders on poetic. Watts has a visceral understanding of the effect that language can have on the emotion of the work. The characters and the setting work both as what they are and what they might represent; Clarke is both a character and an emotion, vengeance. The large, monstrous and transparent deep-sea animals that the characters encounter on their forays from Beebe Station work as what they are (animals) and as representations of unexpected events. "The abyss should shut you up," Watts writes in the opening of Starfish, perhaps referring to the smalltalk blather that passes for relating to other people in many social situations, and proceeds to show us why. The abyss itself is both the physical thing and a metaphor for the human mind. Watts never forces the literary aspects of his work on the reader, though, he just leaves them lying around like subtly scented flowers—or breadcrumbs.

The fact that the language is dense with information and meaning should indicate a careful reading is required to experience all the nuances of the text. In Starfish, for example, Watts describes Clarke's favorite hide-out: "In this one spot, nestled between lava pillows and safe from Beebe's prying ears, the heat wafts up through the mud like a soft breeze. . . . Sometimes she just comes here to sleep." Those two sentences convey information about where Clarke lives, how she relates to others, and how she interacts with the Rift environment in a dense capsule that opens in the mind after the words are read. Think of a blooming flower, or how a drop of dye dissipates in water. Readers who speed past such descriptions will be missing a large chunk of what makes the Rifters books so appealing. Return visits to this world can yield gems of insight that might have been missed the first time through.

Throughout all the books in this trilogy, despair wars with anger and the drive to set things right. These emotions come out of the characters and what they do in the story, and this is where the dark overtones and the paranoia are generated. Nothing is certain and no one is reliable in this world, and that mirrors what many people feel about life right now. How does it feel to walk through life wondering when the rug will be pulled out from under you? Watts gives us his version, and its ending isn't all sweetness and light.

The Rifter books are comparable to In the Oceans of Night (Greg Benford), Forty Thousand in Gehenna (C. J. Cherryh), Schismatrix (Bruce Sterling), and The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin), novels which surround the reader with the world the writer has created, and expect the reader to keep up with what's being presented. The introspective, immersion SF style is exemplified in these novels, and they also have enough action and just the right pace to keep a reader moving through the story. Reading the Rifters books feels like reading a cross between Alfred Bester, Hunter S. Thompson, Bruce Sterling, and Greg Benford—excellent company for any writer.

Footnotes

  1. Brian Stableford, "Dystopias," The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute and Peter Nicholls, eds. (St Martin's Griffin, New York: 1995), p. 360. [Back]
  2. Despite the fact that there will, at the end, be four separate books in this group, it's still a trilogy. The third book has been split into two volumes because, as Watts explains in the preface to Behemoth: B-Max, the major chain booksellers have apparently decided not to stock single-volume, hardbound novels over 100,000 words by midlist authors whom they consider not yet established in publishing. See Watts' web site for more information. [Back]

Copyright © 2004, Janine Stinson. All Rights Reserved.

About Janine Stinson

J.G. Stinson has been reading science fiction, fantasy, and horror for 40+ years. Her reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, the Broadsheet and SF Site, among others. Her essay "The Human As Other in the Science Fiction Novels of C. J. Cherryh" was published in The Cherryh Odyssey (edited by Edward Carmien, Borgo Press/Wildside Press, 2004).