Starfish is a sci-fi novel by Canadian author Peter Watts. The story mainly follows Lenie Clarke, a deep-water worker who has been cybernetically enhanced to survive benthic conditions. The world's thirst for electricity has led humankind to tap geothermal power from deep-sea vents, and Clarke and her fellow rifters are specially selected by their employer to be psychologically primed to work in the freezing dark. That is, they are all broken: victims of abuse, unhappy loners, perverts or dangerous psychopaths. Starfish studies how the rifters change themselves, how their environment evolves them, and finally how their world transforms the unwitting humans who rely on them.
I feel safe in an assertion that you have never read anything like Starfish (or its two sequels) in your life. Watts' story is steeped in marine biology, sociology, psychology, parapsychology, computer science and biotechnology. Lenie Clarke's world is unique. She endures lack of sunlight, isolation, dangerous and unpredictable seafloor eruptions, attacks from monstrous fish, and finally the conniving politics of her own employers. Though an unhappy sufferer of previous sexual abuse, she learns to thrive in her new environment.
This book is in many ways a study of how life evolves and changes. Each deep-sea organism that Watts spotlights has learned to survive in hostile conditions in its own way. The rifters themselves are changed. Above the ocean's surface, humanity struggles with the evolving artificial intelligences of computer viruses and "smart gels", or bio-engineered brains. Because humans are so numerous, so are the illnesses that plague them. The world of Starfish is one in which nature has begun to compensate for the sudden evolutionary dominance of homo spiens.
The plot is fascinating. Lenie Clarke is a wonderful protagonist. She starts as quiet, shy and broken, and develops into a character with understated power. The story also features a few secondary protagonists, all fully-developed and intriguing. Each character is wonderful, real and morally ambiguous.
Summing, Starfish is unique and, above all, it is a fantastic read.
4 1/2 crippled fish with broken teeth out of 5