I can’t remember where I first heard about the Rifters Trilogy by Peter Watts. It may have been on a message board or one of the many reader/writer blogs I follow. I heard it was different, unique, not your regular science fiction plot. I filed the information away with the plan to pick up the novels at some point. At the time I had a stack of unread books on my nightstand.
And truth be told, that stack is still there (composed of different books…the stack itself never really goes away). But one night I was cleaning up some old bookmarks on my iPad and saw one linking to the author’s website. So I clicked it and found that Mr. Watts was actually giving the trilogy away. For free. Under the Creative Commons license. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity, so I download a copy of each book and dug in.
Note – the books can be purchased through online retailers, and Mr. Watts also has a PayPal link if you feel inclined to make a donation. It’s to help feed his cats.
So on to the books…and a warning: I’m not going to go all Literature Major in this review. I’m also going to be spoiler-free, so my apologies for not digging into the guts of these novels. These are my thoughts and opinions on the books. Nothing more.
The trilogy is composed of three books – Starfish, Maelstrom, and Behemoth. It’s no surprise that the first book sets the tone, introduces most of the main players, and creates an interesting near-future where the deep water ocean vents are being harnessed for energy. The majority of the main cast are Rifters, people who live in a habitat on the ocean floor, near one of the great rifts (hence, their name). They are biomechanical engineered to live there, with implants that allow them to survive the immense pressure and breath through mechanical gills. They can turn the breathing function on and off as they move back and forth between the habitat and the outside environment. The focus of Starfish is what’s going on down in this cold, remorseless environment, how it’s affecting the Rifters, and ultimately, how it culminates in a catastrophic event that changes everything.
While Starfish is well-written and plotted, there were a few things that really caught my interest. First, the characters are all broken people. Seriously broken. Without giving away too much of the plot, the powers-that-be in the books prefer psychologically broken people to be Rifters because they adapt better to the undersea environment. They are somehow better equipped to handle the isolation and pressure of day-to-day life, as well as adapt to the modifications they undergo in order to live and work there. I think what intrigued me was the fact that none of the characters are exactly likeable. They are all dealing with their own inner demons, scars from the past, and emotional baggage. Plus, they don’t like one another. Generally, I find that authors (I’m guilty of this, too) tend to make their protagonists decent people who try to do the right thing. The Rifters aren’t like that. They are dark, brooding, angry, violent, and dangerous. It’s not that they aren’t relatable. We’re all broken in some way, and because of that, I could understand their motivations. I didn’t necessarily agree with them, but I understood where they were coming from.
One of the other things that drew me into Starfish was the undersea detail. I spent a large part of my life on, under, and around the ocean, so reading about the deep-sea flora and fauna was fascinating, especially since the author is a marine-mammal biologist in real life. The guy knows his stuff, and the details about the aquatic life are amazing. Additionally, according to the afterword, Mr. Watts worked closely with other scientists and medical professionals to get as many of the details correct as he could…with some creative license. In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into too much detail here. However, I do want to point out that the ocean, especially the deep water and its denizens, play an important role in all three novels.
The second book, Maelstrom, picks up where the second book leaves off. Something very bad has happened and our protagonist has returned to dry land for answers…and to settle some scores. The thing is, she’s not quite sure who the enemy is. Despite this, her attitude towards the powers-that-be and the fact she’s hiding from them makes her popular with the thousands of refugees who are isolated on the coast of the Pacific-Northwest. Side note here: In this future, the world is desperate for energy and third-world countries are dealing with serious environmental and agricultural issues. This leads to mass migrations across the oceans to first-world countries. However, and this may surprise you, the first-world countries (in this case, the US) have built a wall along the coast to keep them out. You’ll have to read the book to see how that works out for them. The books may be over a decade old, but they are still timely.
Again, the second book is a great read, some good action, interesting (if damaged) characters, and answers to some of the questions raised in Starfish. Unfortunately, there are new questions posed and some revelations that caught me off guard. Kudos to Mr. Watts for keeping me on the edge of my seat. The story takes on more urgency, things are escalating, and our protagonist is both a victim and an instigator. I think the duality works well in this story because I could sympathize with her, with what was motivating her. I didn’t agree with her methods, but she’s a bad ass who refuses to back down regardless of the situation. I liked that. Some of her actions are strange and seemingly out of character, like in one scene where she’s confronted by a mugger. She appears to just give in to him, but a few pages later I understood what she was doing. And no, it wasn’t nice.
The story hits a peak with the final book, Behemoth. Apparently, it was originally released as two books (per the publisher), but on the website it’s one volume. By this time in the story, North America is under siege by the rest of the world and one person is holding the wolves at bay. Our protagonist and a companion are on a mission to save the world, but they know the odds are against them. They again return to shore, this time on the east coast of the US, in search of solution to the problem threatening all life on Earth. The thing is, our protagonist is part of the reason things fell apart and as part of her character arc, she’s trying to do what she can to repair the damage she’s caused. Again, the action takes place both in the ocean and on dry land. Mr. Watts does a great job of giving all the main cast an arc, allowing them to change over the course of the three books in interesting and believable ways. And to keep things interesting, they don’t always change for the better.
There is, of course, the big show down at the end, and I think some readers may find it unsatisfying. Personally, I liked it. There was some finality to it, but it didn’t wrap up everything. I like it when an author leaves the rest of the story to my imagination. I don’t need everything wrapped up in a nice, neat package. Leave me something to think about, to hope for, to wonder about. Besides, from a writing perspective, it gives the author an opportunity to revisit the story again at some point and address those unresolved questions.
All in all, I enjoyed the trilogy. Well written, intelligent sci-fi. I didn’t get mad at the characters for making stupid decisions just for plot advancement. I felt that the technical and scientific aspects were well done…they weren’t overwhelming or too dense to understand and they served the plot well. As I mentioned above, the main cast all had arcs, they developed and evolved, changed their minds and their dispositions based on their situations and the knowledge they acquired. And I appreciate the fact that the story doesn’t get tied up all nice and neat at the end. It left me wondering.
A final note – As I mentioned earlier in this wall of text, the characters are broken people and aren’t particularly nice. This means that they do bad things, some worse than others, and there’s a fair amount of physical and sexual violence. None of it is glorified and it all serves a purpose to the plot. I know some readers have a problem with this stuff, which I can understand, so I want to make sure anyone interested in reading this series knows what they’re getting into.
Please check out Starfish, Maelstrom, and Behemoth. You can purchase them online or download (and donate!) at https://rifters.com/real/shorts.htm.