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Starfish by Peter Watts

01/02/2009. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Starfish in the USA - or Buy Starfish in the UK

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pub: TOR/Forge. 312 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.95 (US), $16.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1596-0.

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The premise of 'Starfish' by Peter Watts is very clever. If you want people to live in a dysfunctional place like 3 kilometres down in the Pacific Ocean then why not use dysfunctional people who would feel this was a step up from how they were living? Even better, turn them into cyborgs so they can live underwater and keep an eye on a geothermal power station while there. The story follows this assortment of characters as they come to terms with their own pecking order and adapting to such a life and having to deal with the drybacks, the humans topside.

As Watts explains in the afterword, this was originally a short story and there is a feel of segmentation as he expanded and added to the length. There are always arguments involved in doing this. Do you keep the original story unmolested or do you adapt and sort out some of the clinks along the way?

One obvious one was having all the characters referred to by their surnames, amongst them the surnames of two famous SF authors. One of the reasons why its accepted nomenclature to refer to women by their forenames and men by their surnames is to prep the reader as to which is which. Done this way sort of dehumanised them all and invariably I had to constantly remind myself which were the boys and the girls. Considering there was a need to have some sympathy for Leni Clarke's situation, this obviously did a disservice to the characters although Watts does go some way to sorting this out in the later part of the book. The same could be said for what made them dysfunctional in the first place. Whether you would call a paedophile dysfunctional itself raises some question marks. In many respects, I wish Watts had explored the characters as much as the situation more. He certainly had enough material to make several books out of this than compacting and leaving so many plot strings hanging which ultimately made me wish he had done more. It would have made more sense to have focused on fewer aspects than do that.

Take the section of the story where medical chief Scanlon goes down to visit them. He's not a cyborg and has to rely on technology to go outside into the Pacific. In some respects, this reminded me of a similar problem in Fred Pohl's 'Man Plus' when two conventional humans accompany the cyborg adapted to Mars. Why make expensive cyborgs when it's not necessary? If anything, Watts does make the point that his aqua-cyborgs adapted rather well to the changes and his science at the change makes for interesting reading.

None of the above points should deter you from reading this book. Watts shows a lot of potential in this book and will certainly give you pause for thought as to what it would be like living in the depths. I've also discovered that this is the first of a trilogy so all the plots left hanging should be looked at in the next book.

GF Willmetts

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