Peter Watts’s Rifters Trilogy

The very first thing published on aescifi.ca was an interview with Peter Watts. Shortly thereafter, AE published a review (by yours truly) of Watts’s then four-year-old novel Blindsight. Now, we are going to go back even further to discuss the trilogy that made Watts’s name in the first place: Rifters.

The very first thing published on aescifi.ca was an interview with Peter Watts, just after “The Island” had been nominated for a Hugo (which it subsequently won) and in the midst of Peter’s absurd contretemps with American border security. Shortly thereafter, AE published a review (by yours truly) of Watts’s then four-year-old novel Blindsight. Now, we are going to go back even further to discuss the trilogy that made Watts’s name in the first place: Rifters.

The Rifters Trilogy begins with Starfish, first published in 1999. The protagonist of Starfish is Lenie Clarke, a marine biologist who willingly undergoes thoroughly invasive bioengineering to allow her to live, inside and outside, on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. As far as one can get from humanity without leaving the planet — perhaps farther. The reason Lenie is willing to go to such lengths for escape, we learn, is that her history of physical and sexual abuse has made existing within normal society too overwhelming for her. This, obviously, is a fraught device. It gets worse when we learn that it’s not just Lenie who’s selecting the ocean floor for its seclusion, but the corporate authority behind the geothermal generating stations there located that is selecting abuse victims for their preconditioned capacity for adversity.

It’s hard to swallow, this positing of sexual abuse as adaptive towards life in extreme environments. It’s a combination of an antiseptic view of humanity as highly plastic survival machines and a reductionist view of civilization as just another evolutionary pressure. Despite my firm belief that authors should not be constrained to writing what they know, perhaps the most unsettling part of it all is Watts’s audacity in speaking for these characters, putting forth arguments and philosophies with the implied weight of their experience behind them. But, even if that makes you uncomfortable, I highly recommend that you find a way to set it aside, because Starfish is, quite simply, one of the best works of science fiction I have ever read.

Since long before Star Trek, we have seen stories exploring deep space that make the edge of the galaxy seem about as exotic as Japan. The aliens speak different, look different, and hold different beliefs, but, when it comes right down to it, the same basic motivations, relationships, and story shapes from Shakespeare hold true. Starfish presents a world, right here on Earth, that is so alien that not the first thing about it feels familiar. Even the relationships among the human crew of Beebe Station, on the edge of the fictional Channer Vent (part of the real-world Juan de Fuca Ridge), feel more alien and impenetrable than anything in most xenophiliac space operas. And yet, they are nonetheless incontrovertibly real.

Similarly, the marine ecology of Channer Vent is more shocking and horrifying than anything we would encounter in Mos Eisley. And yet, you get the sense that it is relentlessly informed by legitimate science. Much like in Blindsight, Watts offers extensive scientific endnotes to Starfish that serve the purpose of jolting you when you reach the end. Just as you’ve started to decompress from your suspension of disbelief, you encounter these comprehensive cites and realize that, even though this didn’t happen, something very similar to it is entirely possible. This is the payoff of the rare combination we find in Peter Watts: a brilliant scientist who is also a gifted storysmith.

The characters are sometimes impenetrable, and the reader occasionally feels that the author is taking the enormity of their histories as license not to explain their motivations, but the tension and atmosphere they create is nonetheless intoxicating. What’s more, this is a story where it feels at any moment that anything may happen and yet, at each turn, the events feel in retrospect inevitable. Probably the only narrative flaw in Starfish comes near the end when a character who had, up until that point, been a villain redeems himself by presenting the true villains with a riddle they fail to immediately untangle despite its simplicity.

I don’t think it’s possible to read Starfish without feeling eminently satisfied. Unfortunately, the same is not true of the sequels. In AE’s earlier interview with Peter Watts, the author said:

I’d argue that my fiction is almost childishly optimistic, at least in its portrayal of human nature. I mean, sure, I thumbnail some pretty dire environmental predicaments; how can I not? That stuff is happening now. But have you noticed the paucity of actual villains in my work? Everyone has an excuse; everyone is trying to do the best they can. The corporate executives who kill thousands are only doing that to try and save millions of others; the homicidal sexual psychopath is so worried about the immorality of his impulses that he swears off sex with real people completely, for fear of hurting someone. He only turns into a monster when some third party neurochemically destroys his conscience — again, with the noblest intentions. There are no Dick Cheneys and Dubya Bushes in my fiction, no unrepentant assholes who’d gladly feed the planet into a wood chipper for no better reason than to line the pockets of their oil industry buddies. There are no genocidal hate-mongers, no money-grubbing televangelists.

The non-villains Watts is referencing here are from Maelstrom and Behemoth, the two books that complete the Rifters Trilogy. And it is true, the two primary villains of the sequels, the CEO of the energy corporation that founded Beebe Station and the superstar hacker of the world’s security organization, are both initially or eventually heroes. But confrontation with the fact that morality is flexible and that both good people can do bad and bad people good is not enough to render a story emotionally and moralistically satisfying. Watts’s idea of the paucity of villains is clear in Starfish where we get a distinct feeling that everyone is just doing the best they can but that often their inclinations and interpretations run counter to one another. In Maelstrom, however, we are presented with two misunderstood antiheroes, one of whom takes a turn for the heroic in Behemoth, while the other veers to the villainous. At the same time, Lenie Clarke, so opaque and relatable in the first volume becomes a complete cipher in the second and a tedious bore by third.

Watts has stated that Tor scuttled his career by splitting Behemoth, the final volume of the Rifters Trilogy, into two volumes for retail: Behemoth: βmax and Behemoth: Seppuku. In truth though, I suspect that this publication decision had little actual effect. The primary audience for sequels is, inevitably, those who have read the volumes that came before. And, in the case of the Rifters Trilogy, Behemoth is definitely the weakest link in the chain. The whole trilogy is certainly worthwhile, and I recommend Starfish without reservation, but I feel that Blindsight was a much-needed fresh start.

When looking forward at Canadian science fiction to come, there are few if any authors I would recommend tracking as closely as Peter Watts. That said, if you want to familiarize yourself with his work, you are best advised to read Starfish and Blindsight while skipping the later volumes of the Rifters Trilogy.

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