Usually I write here about books I’ve read and enjoyed. It’s really quite selfish: thinking about a good book extends the pleasure I get from reading it. This post, though, is a little different. I’m going to write about a science fiction trilogy in order to work out why I don’t like it more than I do. These are good books, even excellent books. But something about them didn’t grip me the way I would have thought they might.
The books are Peter Watts’ Rifters trilogy: Starfish, Maelstrom, and ßehemoth (that’s a Greek beta at the start of the last; for ease of typing, I’ll stick with the English B from here out). Starfish was Watts’ first novel, published in 1999, and Maelstrom followed two years later. Behemoth was split into two volumes for print publication; B-Max (Betamax, I suppose) was published in 2004, Seppuku in 2005. All these books are available for free on Watts’ web site.
They’re extremely well-written. The plot’s tight and fast-moving, the characters are multilayered, and the prose is both concise and, when it needs to be, beautiful. And they’ve got some potent themes, about power and science and the nature of humanity. I came away from them very impressed. And also somehow dissatisfied, for no reason I could put a finger on. So I will write about them here, and see if I can articulate for my own satisfaction what it was that I missed, and whether it was something in the books or something in myself in as a reader.
The trilogy’s set a ways into the twenty-first century, when the world gets geothermal power from subsea stations. The people crewing these stations are surgically modified in a number of ways to adapt them for life on the ocean floor. And they all have some level of psychological disorder: because the environment is so extreme, the humans who live at the bottom of the ocean all have to be broken (by most people’s definition) in very specific ways.
The first book follows the crew of one station, revolving mainly around a woman named Lenie Clarke. We see her and the other crewmembers try to deal with each other and their environment — and soon find there’s something else going on, secrets the surface-dwellers are keeping from the subsea crew. It all comes to a literally explosive climax, and the second book sees Clarke making her way across North America on a mission of vengeance, changing the world in ways she doesn’t intend as she goes. By the third book, the world’s clinging on by its fingertips, more mysterious plans are in motion, and Lenie must undertake another violent journey to (of all places) Sudbury, Ontario.
The plot is effective, but has a few longueurs. The last section of Behemoth follows characters who are undertaking a certain task, and eventually accomplish it largely because another character allows them to; it feels both mechanical and drawn-out, if not anticlimactic. I found no sense of tragedy, no foreshadowing. The book does follow characters who make choices and try with everything they’ve got to follow through on those choices, which is normally interesting, but the characters’ success feels unearned.
Still, I don’t think this is the source of whatever dissatisfaction I feel. I’d say it’s the opposite: I feel this way about the plot because I’m not fully engaged with the narrative for other reasons. What, then?
Well, if I wasn’t engaged by the plot, was there something deeper that lost me? Thematically, these are books with a number of things going on. One aspect that struck me was the interrogation of what it means to be human, in a very literal sense. What are emotions? What is thinking, and personality, and the self? These things are brought out through a story in which memories are synthesized and personalities deliberately re-designed by chemical intervention. (This is one issue which I want to raise. The books are about other things, such as an interest in evolution: evolution by whatever means necessary, whether through the randomness of sexual reproduction, or through the acts of conscious beings. But let me flag the approach to the human here.)
So these are books with a lot on their mind. How are the themes worked into the story, then? Quite well, I’d say. The trilogy’s constantly throwing out new and wild ideas. The science is exhilarating, delivered quickly to keep the story moving quickly. And the story, in a sense, returns the favour; there’s a point where I found myself confused about the way by which a certain kind of microbe spreads and how that spread was to be stopped — but the actions of the characters, the unfurling of the plot, told me all I needed to know: these people do this to accomplish that.
The action is varied and interesting. The prose is concrete, reminding me of Gibson in its hard-edged velocity mixed with the future as it may be lived. Violence is for the most part credible, though some characters seem to gain or lose competency with violence as the plot requires it — Lenie is infinitely more capable in the second book than the third, I found — and some scenes of torture in the third book felt underimagined, the psychological and physical pain weirdly distant in a way I thought was ineffective. The character reactions seemed rote, villain and hapless victim, in a way that threatened to collapse the sense of them as three-dimensional people.
Which is too bad because in general the character work is strong. Motivations and actions are clear, and mostly follow logically. Occasionally characters are stupid when you don’t expect it; a minor faction of characters comes up with a chemical means to eliminate guilt from the human psyche, and don’t anticipate what the resulting behaviour will be. That seemed unlikely to me, but not impossible, especially if one assumes that the faction in question is blinded by their idealism.
I did find myself doubting the effect of the chemical. That is, the personality change that resulted in the character who took the chemical seemed larger than the description of the chemical implied. The character didn’t just lose any sense of guilt, he also seemed to lose any sense of empathy. More, Watts implies that all morality is based on guilt, which seems to me to be only half the story — you feel guilt when you fail to live up to your ideals, sure, but also feel pleasure when you do. It seems to me that this pleasure would not be eliminated by the removal of guilt: throw away the stick, and you’ve still got the carrot.
In general Watts takes a mechanistic view of character. Personality is defined by the physical nature of the brain, and can be changed by physically changing the brain. This works because Watts’ depiction of his characters’ emotions is — for the most part — credible. The characters are believable. They don’t always remain so, though that may be by design. I found the man who has his guilt expunged to be flat and unnatural, but that may be the point: that’s what happens when something at the core of the human experience is removed from you.
Still, if I had to guess, I’d say that what troubles me is something about Watts’ character work. Thinking about it, it seems to me that his characters are all, in essence, logical. They have their goals, and go about trying to attain those goals. They logically co-operate with each other as needed because it is the best thing to do, and betray each other when it is the best thing to do. They work out what has to be done, and do it. This all sounds very much like narrative common sense. And yet it’s weirdly unsatisfying. Something seems to be lacking. There is an absence of the gratuitous and of the delusional.
Thinking along these lines, I found an interview with Watts in which he made some incisive comments about his work:
But have you noticed the paucity of actual villains in my work? Everyone has an excuse; everyone is trying to do the best they can. The corporate executives who kill thousands are only doing that to try and save millions of others; the homicidal sexual psychopath is so worried about the immorality of his impulses that he swears off sex with real people completely, for fear of hurting someone. He only turns into a monster when some third party neurochemically destroys his conscience — again, with the noblest intentions. There are no Dick Cheneys and Dubya Bushes in my fiction, no unrepentant assholes who’d gladly feed the planet into a wood chipper for no better reason than to line the pockets of their oil industry buddies. There are no genocidal hate-mongers, no money-grubbing televangelists. You will encounter the occasional thug with a badge who just likes to beat the shit out of people, but they’re peripheral characters, low on the totem pole; they don’t call the shots. The characters at the center of my novels, protagonist and antagonist alike, are generally just trying to make the best of a horrible situation.
It’s a very good and accurate assessment. There are no villains, only people doing what they feel they have to do. The thing that strikes me, though, is that the characters’ assessments of what they have to do are virtually always reasonable. Watts refers to Bush, Cheney, and the oil industry, which gets at what I mean. Now, as a marine biologist Watts is likely to have more knowledge of climate change deniers than I do, but I’ve always had the sense that at least some of the people in the oil industry honestly reject the science behind global warming — they have decided that they are qualified to hold an opinion, and that opinion is the opinion they must have in order to continue to profit. They believe what they want to believe, or what they need to believe in order to sleep at night.
Watts’ characters rarely or never display that kind of self-delusion. Their world-views are based on attempting honestly to understand and deal with the world around them, in order to face the potential catastrophes looming before them. My point is that they accept these catastrophes as possibilities, even likelihoods. For many of the main characters this makes sense. But much of the story is concerned with social response to the doom of society; and it seems to me that there’s a level of denial that you’d expect to see, particularly from the elites.
And this seems to speak to something deeper in the books, to an unquestioned and indeed unspoken assumption: that the world is knowable, if complex and difficult to decipher. From that other assumptions follow. To start with, that other people are knowable, if complex and difficult to decipher. The point is that they can be deciphered, can be understood. And can be re-engineered. But a further implicit assumption is that the human brain is an acceptable tool for knowing the world. That the universe is not, in the end, stranger than we can imagine. And, moreover, if the brain can be re-engineered, that will not significantly affect the way we understand the world — unless, by removing certain emotions, we come to see things more clearly.
I’m skeptical. It seems to me that by changing emotions, by changing the brain, we change the way we conceive of the world. We don’t come up with new answers to our questions, but fundamentally change the questions. And I think it’s at this point that Watts’ chemical explanation for the phenomena of human emotions runs into dramatic difficulties. I think a lot of drama comes when a character must decide between two different and opposed wants — a character in conflict with themself. If you rewire the brain to eliminate a want, or eliminate the conflict, then the internal drama is nullified and there remains only the details of how the character goes about fulfilling their desire. Conflict becomes limited to what is external to the character.
I think this all ties back to my point about denial because the denial of reality is, to me, often a function of internal conflict. It’s a way by which people convince themselves that two conflicting wants are not in conflict. If a philosophy of character does not allow for that kind of self-delusion, then in the long run at least some characters in a story are likely to feel flat. And what I have learned, thinking about these books, is that some of the interest character has for me lies in the ways in which characters’ wants mangle objective reality to make them fit into their understanding of the world — the understanding, that is, that they have to have in order to be who they are and do what they do.
So in the end, the Rifters trilogy is well-written, with great ideas and solid action. And yet, for me, there is an issue with the character depth. What seems profound ultimately comes to lack a dimension. Still … I wonder if the issue I have with the book isn’t also an issue with a key assumption of much science fiction: that idea that the world is comprehensible through human cognition, in a way that the actual world around us is not — or, at least, is not yet. Watts’ world is complex enough that for a long while you don’t notice how alien this knowable world is. It emerges, slowly, over the course of three books. They’re excellent, and worth thinking about, and good science fiction. But some may find the characters and their world to be overly optimistic.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.