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Book cover art by Bruce Jensen.
Review © 2000 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Starfish is a riveting debut novel that grabs you right by the short and curlies, an often spine-chilling adventure-cum-psychological thriller that will have most readers staying up late and then sleeping with at least one light on. Its grimness will not appeal to everyone, but if you like your fiction both edgy and dark in roughly equal measure, this unsettling trek into both the depths of the ocean and of the human psyche will leave you uneasy for days.

The story takes place in the eternal night of the ocean floor, at the Juan de Fuca Ridge off the Pacific Northwest (here called N'AmPac). Beebe Station is a plant constructed by the Grid Authority, an enormous multinational corporation (these seem to run the world in Watts' bleak, maybe too Blade Runner-ish for its own good future), for the purposes of harnessing geothermal energy from the scarifyingly active Channer Vent along the ridge. Interestingly, the Grid Authority has staffed Beebe with bio-engineered people who, on the surface, were genuinely crazy, unfit for life in human society. Altered so that their bodies can both breathe water and withstand the horrific pressures of the extreme deep, the isolation of the ocean floor does seem to have a cathartic appeal for these unfortunates.

Chief among these is Lenie Clarke, a withdrawn young woman scarred by memories of sexual abuse who finds herself peculiarly at home in the deep, though still at first resistant to any sort of intimacy with her colleagues. A couple of them, however, have a profound impact on her and cause her to examine herself and her life more deeply. One is Fischer, a sad and lonely pedophile who has been sentenced to the deep as an alternative to more severe punishment. Watts amazingly makes Fischer one of the book's most sympathetic antiheroes, conveying the intensity of his loneliness in a heartfelt way, culminating in his ultimate disappearance: he simply swims off into the blackness one day and never returns...

There is palpable tension all throughout Starfish, and a few terrific scenes of out and out horror. The waters around the Channer Vent have had the bizarre result of producing gigantism in some of the indigenous life of the area, and Watts seems to know that there's no more effective nightmare fuel than the image of some ghastly monster suddenly flying right at you from out of impenetrable darkness. The first few chapters of the book are full of this kind of thing, and I gotta admit, for someone like me who naturally finds the deep ocean rather frightening...well, if you've ever watched a horror movie with one hand in front of your eyes, imagine doing something as goofy as that while reading a freakin' book!

Yet even these scenes seem safe and conventional once certain discoveries are made concerning what exactly is down there at the Channer Vent, what may be causing the mutations in the marine life there, what may be affecting the minds and even the bodies of Beebe's crew...and the final decisions that are made up on the surface concerning these things. Watts here launches into top-drawer speculative fiction. His science is admirably researched and the potentialities he suggests are much more disturbing than most of the end-of-us-all concepts SF has ground into cliché over the years (nuclear war, alien invasion, etc.).

You won't find yourself warming up too readily to Watts' characters, but in a sense that seems to be part of Watts' thematic point. Watts slowly but surely makes you understand their hostility, their aloofness and social dysfunction in a future society that treats people as things, cogs in a great machine. There's not much a world like that can offer its inhabitants in terms of personal fulfillment, and it makes perfect sense when Beebe's cast of castaways begin to find themselves more at home down there than up here. Many of them spend entire days and even sleep overnight outside of the station.

As for the Grid Authority, it continues to view these people as tools created to perform a task and not as people at all underneath all that bio-engineering. Scanlon, a psychologist who screens new candidates for undersea life, even describes himself as a "mechanic," and gets a bit more than he bargained for in the novel's second half when he treks down to Beebe himself to see exactly what is going on with people whom he at first views as little more than machines to be evaluated on a level of pure performance. The line between humans and things blurs even further with the introduction of "smart-gels," bio-engineered organic neuronets that the corporate world relies on to make life-or-death decisions while only the regular folks working at the bottom rung have the perspective to see the risks.

Suffice it to say that Starfish is don't-miss reading, a novel in which Watts keeps upping his own ante with practically every chapter, with a final result that delivers a much needed jolt of electricity and adrenaline to a genre that has too often of late fallen prey to the marketplace's easiest forms of audience pandering. While admirably avoiding going over the top, Watts doesn't let any of us off easy either, which makes him a new talent to watch, an author of real depth.

Followed by Maelstrom.