4 out of 5
In a foreword to B-Max, Peter Watts explains that Behemoth was intended as one novel, but the nature of publishing financials required it be split into two. He claimed this actually worked okay with how the book was thematically structured, but that the payoffs are, of course, in the second part. While I can’t yet weigh in on that concluding half, I can definitely support that B-Max works absolutely on its own; going into it with that “Part One” precursor sets the stage for knowing that there will likely be lingering plot threads at the end, and yes, that’s very true, but the book also reads like a cohesive, complete thing, taking us up to a logical endpoint, and with its own, self-contained build-up and climax. Moreso than Maelstrom, though, the second book in The Rifters “trilogy” – which I read with quite a pause between that and the first book, Starfish, without issue – B-Max drops the reader right in the fray, of needing to know the ins and outs of the world that’s been previously established: with its virus-infected internet; and its brain-chemistry manipulated soldiers working in different capacities for various corporate / government interests; and with our deep-sea adapted rifters; and rifter Lenie Clark’s willful spreading of the decimating Behemoth disease… This is not a story that can be started here and you can catch up: Watts needs you to be on the same page, and barrels forward with that expectation.
To the book’s benefit. Why would you start with the third book anyway? But I think what’s even more important about that, here, is the way B-Max builds on Maelstrom’s and Starfish’s structures to somewhat flip-flop how we now know these characters, and so having them in recent memory enriches the reading experience even more, beyond the awesome, inventive, and tense events Watts has in store.
We’re some years beyond Maelstrom’s virtual and physical infections. An uneasy alliance has been reached between the surviving “corpses” – Patricia Rowan and others – and the rifters, kinda sorta led by Ken Lubin and Lenie Clarke. Inoculated against Behemoth, these two teams – living in their own habitats, communicating only when required – are partially in hiding from the decimated surface world’s inhabitants and partially trying to research their way to next steps. The majority of our time is spent at ocean’s bottom, a la Starfish, getting our bearings with the status quo from Lenie’s point of view, as her tempestuous friendship with Rowan leads to growing grievances amongst her rifter clan, from whom she feels a growing alienation.
Beyond this physical relocation, things have certainly changed, emotionally, for our primaries: after learning of how her own past had been tweaked for maximum deep-sea adaptability, Clarke is – no pun intended – adrift in sussing out how she feels about anything, while Ken Lubin and, aboveground, Achilles Dejardins go through their own evolutions after being “freed” from Guilt Trip by Spartacus. We check in on Achilles periodically, in a haunting review of his past, but otherwise we’re locked in to Lenie: trying to keep tabs on the boiling tensions between factions, while also constantly questioning what she wants out of any of this mess. Things percolate until there’s no time to ask questions.
For a hard sci-fi novelist, Watts also excels at the fiction bits: at selling the environment and tone; at exploring the dark and mercurial mindsets of his characters. The thoughts he cycles through regarding nature versus nurture are haunting, especially given how some characters seem to happily “answer” these questions – meaning we could walk away with that, if we wanted to – and are only challenged through less indirect events. That’s been the building brilliance of the Rifters series: Watts’ intelligence is not only apparent in his researched design – understanding how the undersea habitat functions, for example – but also in Watts willingness to probe at dark, emotional depths and leave it open for our interpretation, paralleling this to the unemotive way that nature functions: survival of the fittest. His wording choices at getting all of this across never betray the moment; at a more micro level, I appreciate how the descriptive terms he uses stay within their “realm:” that is, if we’re describing things in the sea, the sounds of the words and the words chosen align with that setting. (At least to me.)
I do think the cast maybe gets a bit too unwieldy in the final sections to maintain the intensity the whole while – I had a couple of passages trying to remember Which Name Was Doing What and etcetera – and this cluttering carries over to the events in this portion of the book as well, where it seems like some things that are obvious some pages back are then presented as surprises, or, oppositely, something that I guess we were to assume seems to come out of left field. This part of the book (the last 50 or so pages) is purposefully rather frantic on the whole, so you can kind of swallow it as an offshoot of that, but it butts up against the careful, clear writing in the 250 preceding pages. That said, once things settle into the wrap-up and set-up for part two, it all comes together very satisfying, and promisingly – making me ready to tear into Behemoth’s second half as soon as possible.