Peter Watts's first novel starts at the bottom and later works its way up. That is, the action begins in the appalling depths of a Pacific ocean rift, where dysfunctional characters are to run a geothermal power station that taps a hot vent. It's a creepily evocative world of darkness and extreme pressure, full of deep-sea monsters afflicted with giantism but also extreme fragility by their harsh, low-calcium environment. Humans going out into into this world not only require semi-sentient "diveskins" and light-amplifying corneal caps, but suffer a tiny death trauma at each exit through the airlock, as their unfeasible gas-breathing metabolism is overriden by inbuilt machinery and all the body's air passages fill with liquid. Who would ever want to work down there?
Watts's answer is reminiscent of, but creatively builds on, some speculations in an earlier sf novel of high suspense in the deeps: Frank Herbert's The Dragon in the Sea (1956, also known as Under Pressure). Here a harried submarine crew is pushed to its physical and mental limits, and those who adapt most successfully – notably the captain – enter modes of thought which, to the planted psychologist who's anxiously monitoring them, seem very like psychosis. Meanwhile the strange attraction of the deep virtually explains itself as Herbert invites you to put on Freudian spectacles and contrast the subtly comforting, amniotic embrace of the sea with the shock of emergence into terrible bright emptiness.
Starfish adds a further twist to the notion of quasi-psychotic adaptation to life on the edge. Its ruthless corporation selects workers who are "pre-adapted" – that is, halfway towards an adaptive remoulding, since they've already broken under the stresses of the tough topside world. Thus Lenie Clarke, the first candidate we meet, is a long-time abuse victim who may have become dependent on her victimhood. Three kilometers down, in Beebe Station on the Juan de Fuca rift, she's initially teamed with the more "normal" Ballard, a woman who's exasperated by Clarke's passivity and struggles in vain to build a positive relationship. We realize the perversity of the system when Clarke is retained and Ballard pulled from the job. Clarke is the Right Stuff.
Presumably there's an intentional ironic homage here to the authors of The Deep Range and The Drowned World. I was worrying that others of Beebe Station's subsequently expanded team of seven might be called Herbert and Verne, but no. The most interesting is Gerry Fischer, a paedophile whose tragicomic entrapment by a police child impersonator leads to his recruitment and to glimpses of the surgical modifications which equip these workers for the deep. Others are full of repressed or not-so-repressed violence. A couple are just ciphers. Under the shaping pressure of the Pacific, they change....
Watts provides plenty of satisfying incidents, developments, couplings and luminous descriptions of life in that ghostly, light-amplified world. Two of the group are lost, one dying under peculiar circumstances (there's a tiny murder mystery in here too) and one "going native" in a fashion that rejects the all too easy sf dream of unthinking transcendence as universal panacea. Those who remain, though, do eventually achieve a near-gestalt state, a comfortable, synchronized awareness of each other's presence and actions that's rooted in Roger Penrose's theory of quantum consciousness.
Earlier, one character has teased a metaphor from this novel's title. Starfish have lots and lots of little sucker-tube "feet" but no brains:
"So there's nothing to coordinate the tube feet, they all move independently. Usually that's not a problem; they all tend to go toward food, for example. But it's not unusual for a third of these feet to be pulling in some [other] direction entirely. The whole animal's a living tug-of war. Sometimes, some really stubborn tube feet just don't give up, at they literally get torn out at the roots when the others move the body someplace they don't want to go. But hey: majority rules, right?"
The once wildly divergent Beebe Station group is in better shape than a starfish. Not, though, in the eyes of the company expert who (like Frank Herbert's psychologist) gatecrashes this oddly functional team and tries to understand it in topside terms. He sees them as vampires, lacking conversational affect, living almost full-time in their black diveskins, hiding their eyes behind milky corneal caps, creating deranged art like wind-chimes driven by water thermals from the hot vent, even for God's sake sleeping out there in benthic hell rather than their nice bunks.... "How could anyone get addicted to a place like this?"
After which the storyline abruptly changes gear as Watts wheels on a possibly world-destroying menace. This is a primeval template for life which has survived in the warmth of that same vent, has never previously been able to spread, and which is potentially a deadly competitor for our familiar biosphere. Since it's been named Behemoth [with a Greek beta for the B] and is far more efficient at converting nutrients than existing "alpha" life, I found myself thinking of it as Betamax – the superior system that lost out for reasons unrelated to quality. We are VHS and we are doomed, if Betamax ever gets an equal chance in the food chain....
Naturally the first thing that occurs to caring corporate leaders is to nuke Beebe Station, but there are restraining complications as the world pulls this way and that, like (again) the starfish. Large-scale violence and disaster follow, mostly plausible although at a different level of credibility from the compellingly claustrophobic deep-water storyline. One factor that I couldn't quite swallow was the "smart gel" artificial intelligences, even if they do look like mozzarella and are colloquially known as head cheese; their hidden flaw seems to belong in another and Asimovian decade of sf, following as it does the familiar lines of "oh dear, in the First Law we never defined what 'injure' actually meant." The final, memorable image is of Lenie Clarke, having been royally fucked over by the world all her life, finding herself neatly positioned to repay the compliment.
Peter Watts writes confidently and well, and I suppose it's unfair of me to feel deprived of the story he didn't choose to tell – the further transformation and ultimate fate of that strangely-knit, not-quite-sane community at Beebe Station, as it might have been if the narrative hadn't instead crashed at speed into the brick wall of Behemoth and threatened apocalypse. A highly interesting and thoroughly researched debut novel.