Peter Watts
The Rifters Trilogy (1999–2004)
Reviewed: 2010-02-28


  1. Starfish (1999)
  2. Maelstrom (2001)
  3. βehemoth (2004)

2050. The Juan de Fuca rift. A divergent tectonic plate boundary in the Pacific Ocean. Three thousand meters down, the Rifters keep the huge geothermal generators humming that now power civilization in western North America. Take your standard human, give them implants to extract oxygen from sea water, genetically modify them so their bodies keep working in several hundred atmospheres worth of pressure. Even then, the deep sea remains a precarious place. In the dark loom giant, sickly, monstrous local lifeforms. The active volcanism of the area is a constant danger. Who would volunteer and then actually turn out to be suitable for this kind of work? The rapists and child molesters, the violent wife beaters, but also their victims. Damaged, broken souls. It is their addiction to trauma that allows them to function in this environment.

We follow Lenie Clarke and her bunch of Rifters from an early time in the program. We see them deal with their environment, how those who couldn't cope on the surface come to life in the deep ocean, drifting away from humanity. And just when you thought the story was all about the Rifters, the camera zooms out and reveals a much bigger picture.

The deep sea is an alien space and Watts makes the most of it. Given his background as a marine biologist, I was surprised at the pieces of computer science geekery. How the Rifters figure out the function of a mysterious device on the seabed serves as a neat illustration of what cryptographers call a side-channel attack. And he nicely highlights the problem that we may train a neural network (or a genetic algorithm) to efficiently perform a task without actually understanding how the machine works.

After surviving the cataclysm at the end of Starfish, Lenie Clarke is back: She's mad as hell and she's not going to take it anymore. Revered as a savior by some, hunted as a danger by others, her journey takes her through the unpleasant landscape of future North America.

This is a dystopian future. Ecological catastrophes and new plagues have become the norm. The Internet has become Maelstrom, teeming with electronic wildlife. Malware now experiences Darwinian evolution, leading to an arm's race between hosts and parasites. The agents of the Entropy Patrol put out the little fires before they turn into full-fledged catastrophes, shutting down cities and governments. Power needs a restraint. High-ranking operatives have their free will taken, chemically induced loyalty to the greater good.

It turns out that life as we know it was actually seeded from Mars. But native life has evolved on Earth. It just has been hidden away. What if circumstances liberated it and it proved able to outcompete the biosphere?

For the first half of βehemoth, Lenie Clarke has returned to her beloved deep sea. Eventually circumstances force her again to the surface and to travel the ravaged landscape of a post-apocalyptic continent. There is no good or evil. Humans are the slaves of their biochemstry and neurological wiring. Liberating people from artificially enforced mental shackles is a good thing, right? What if this takes away all your conscience and you can chose your morality ad libitum? (Shades of Greg Egan's "Reasons to Be Cheerful". How does an entirely rational mind derive its goal system?) And saving the world may just mean the end of biological life as we knew it.

Over the course of three novels, Peter Watts covers a lot of territory, expanding the scope of the story from a bunch of extreme deep sea divers to the fate of the biosphere and the fall of civilization. The protagonists are characters of varying degrees of unpleasantness, tortured from within and without in an increasingly hellish world. Watts throws in a lot of ideas and you can forgive him some fudging. (Where do the Rifter implants and eye caps get their energy from?) Bleak, grim, pessimistic, and yet oddly satisfying.

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Generated: 2010-03-14

Christian "naddy" Weisgerber <>