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Review: The Rifters Trilogy …kindof

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And on the third day of actual posts, I decided to introduce a brief interlude to discuss another thing that this blog is going to be about: Speculative Fiction, specifically what works and what doesn’t. And we are going to start off on a high note because, believe me, the following works. The reason I say that this is a “review kindof” is because the nature of Watts’ writing precludes me from going into much detail on the second and third books of the trilogy without spoiling about three-hundred brilliant plot threads. So what follows only includes as many details on the actual plot as I can give in good conscience:


Peter Watts is a Canadian born, former (or as he puts it “reformed”) marine biologist who has turned to writing speculative fiction. He is the winner of an Aurora Award (“A Niche”) and a Hugo Award (“The Island”), as well as the recipient of numerous nominations for other honours. His works include The Rifters Trilogy (Starfish, Maelstrom, ßehemoth), Blindsight (which looks like it might be getting a follow-up soon), and numerous works of short fiction. He has been featured in the journal Nature twice now (ironically for short fiction rather than any research from his biologist days). He is also a (let us give him the benefit of the doubt and say, wrongly) convicted felon in the United States for a little mishap with US Customs and Border Patrol.

His website may be found here.


The Rifters Trilogy is a series of three books (although it was actually printed as four physical texts): Starfish, Maelstrom, and ßehemoth. Each book primarily follows a woman named Lenie Clarke in a third person, limited perspective (although numerous interludes do swap out viewpoint characters from time to time to give a more complete view of the world). It is set on Earth in 2050-2056 C.E. The world is a combination of cyberpunk and biopunk pureed together to create an unsettlingly realistic (and in some ways even familiar) dystopia. The entire series is impressively well researched and Watts often takes the chance to show his work and includes discussions and reference lists for the technology and concepts used in each book.


“The abyss should shut you up.

Sunlight hasn’t touched these waters for a million years. Atmospheres accumulate by the hundreds here, the trenches could swallow a dozen Everests without burping. They say life itself got started in the deep sea. Maybe. It can’t have been an easy birth, judging by the life that remains—monstrous things, twisted into nightmare shapes by lightless pressure and sheer chronic starvation.”

So begins Starfish. It sets the tone for the series, even if things do get a little more amphibious later on. Even on dry land this is a series about frontiers, survival in the face of extreme pressure, and the monsters that live in both literal and metaphorical depths. It never really seems to find a solid voice on whether it wants to be a horrific thriller or an action piece, but then, it never really needs to. There are even places where the world Watts has crafted shines with a bizarre beauty (and your mileage may vary, but certain elements in the series almost drip a bit of fetish fuel).

The name of the series comes from the inhabitants of undersea geothermal power stations. These human extremophiles have been modified (all physically, some mentally) to be able to survive in the very depths of the abyss. They live in stations spread across unstable areas of the sea floor and are capable of venturing out in the crushing pressure to do their work for the Grid Authority, a megacorporation the likes of which would make William Gibson proud. The protagonists of Starfish are located on the ridge of the Juan de Fuca Plate, a highly volatile region off of the western coast of the US. Here is a link to Dive & Discover’s 2004 expedition to the Juan de Fuca, just so you can get to know the neighbourhood.

More specifically, they are located in a place called the Channer Vent. There is something special about this particular place. “Here there be dragons”. With a passion that makes the alien landscape of the sea floor come alive, Watts discusses the fauna of Channer vent almost all of it drawn from a study of actual marine life. Almost. Cause there is one new thing in the depths, and it is interfering with the metabolisms of the wildlife. And the  ramifications if it finds a nice, squish human-cum-amphibian to take it to dry land are apocalyptic. And the best part? It is almost as biologically plausible as everything else out there.

The characters that people these novels are largely, shockingly sympathetic. It makes no sense that they would be: pedophiles, life-long victims, assassins, psychopaths, sadists, and worse. are presented to the reader in a realistic and believable fashion. In a fashion with which we can empathise. Because they are us. No, not completely, but there are pieces. Possibilities that there, but for the sake of blind chance, go we. After all, we all have the same underlying neurobiology, and if that is subverted…

It should be noted that these are not what you would call happy books. And their content is incredibly violent, shockingly sexual at times, and thoroughly cynical. If you are squeamish, or an optimist, you might want to avoid them (or just grow up and baptise yourself in fire, it will be fun!).


In The Rifters Trilogy, Peter Watts has written some of the smartest, hardest, and most satisfying speculative fiction in existence. Further the fact that he sources his concepts make me giggle with manic, mad scientist glee.

Like all of Mr. Watts’ works, The Rifters Trilogy it is available on his website under the Creative Commons License. Here is a link to Starfish. Get busy reading.

Written by Caudoviral

01/12/2011 at 16:09

Posted in Review, Spec-Fic

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