US Hardcover First Edition
317 pages ; $23.95
January 30, 2002
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002
World-building is a primary goal of science fiction writers. The result of good world-building can be as vast as the universe of Frank Herbert's 'Dune', or as close and claustrophobic as that of Peter Watts' 'Starfish'. His Beebe Station, and the characters that inhabit it are a very peculiar take on the science fiction challenge of world building. Even when you're in the open ocean, the walls of 'Starfish' seem to be only fractions of an inch beyond your outstretched hand. And Lenie Clarke, the nominal protagonist of 'Starfish' is a rather unpleasant companion to tour Watts' dark vision of the future.
I'm writing this review from a point of view that would have been considered 'The Future' when this book was published, and so, I have the advantage of foreknowledge. What I know of the future of 'Starfish' colors my vision of the past when I read it. On first reading, I was underwhelmed. For all the density of Watts vision, for all the intensity of his characters, I found the whole to be less than the sum of the parts. The key turns out to be that 'Starfish' is only a part of what promises to be a very unpleasant bit of world building. However, the unpleasant world that Watts is constructing is certainly a world worth visiting, if you're not prone to depression upon reading well-rendered dystopian visions. You just have to realize that 'Starfish' is only the airlock.
As an airlock, 'Starfish' is quite something. Every detail is front-loaded with a suggestive background. Every dark space hides another, larger space with more details. Watts has a lot on his mind and has done quite a bit of research in an effort to show it off. He offers a helpful appendix with notes on the science behind his various dark speculations. Now (in the Future), he even has a website (www.rifters.com), with some luminous explication of 'Starfish' and its successor, 'Maelstrom'. Not every journey has a smooth start. Doors may open but lead only into the next room. If you find the doorway unpleasant, you might not like what lies beyond, even though it will be equally exquisite.