Maelstrom – Peter Watts

5 out of 5

Maelstrom is Book 2 in Peter Watts’ Rifters trilogy; here’s what I said about Book 1, Starfish:

I enjoyed Starfish.

At any given point – set the book down – I was not compelled to read it.

The book is half undersea exploration, half psychological study, until it becomes something closer to a thriller, and a horror story, in its final, page-turning section. Now take that section and expand it into an entire book. That is Malestrom – the book which I couldn’t set down.

One of our deep-sea explorers – aka one of the trilogy-name bestowing Rifters – has come ashore, and there is havoc unleashed in her wake, of various forms. She is adapted to a particular way of life down there, and the technology- and drug-steeped masses butt up against that; the downtrodden see her as something of a savior amidst the morass of tamped down living that’s mandated by corporations and whatnot, and her reputation starts growing from there. Also: she’s completely fucked in the head, and has visions that make her prone to violence. A perfect figure for ushering in a revolution.

This framework may seem similar enough to any given Big Brother styled near-future, but that’s not the world of Rifters. While speculative sci-fi can certainly be hopeful, it can also be terrifying when it extends ideas that are very close to home, and that’s what Watts has done here. Instead of Starfish’s somewhat wandering extrapolation of living X leagues deep, Maelstrom is targeted: now that Watts had arrived at sort of the conclusion to that wandering, he can move in two directions: how did we get there; and where do we go from there. The “tech- and drug-steeped” society of the book is also not the uniform drudgery that might bring to mind; rather, it’s a just a hop away from where we are now, with always-online culture and continual advances that promise to make life easier and a few key corporations collecting the data that rules us all. And one of the underlying technologies allowing for this in Maelstrom is the “wilderness” of its title, which is the living body of viral information that the internet has evolved to within the series.

So… what is Maelstrom about, exactly? In short: the end of the world. And the all-too easy way that we get there – that we encourage ourselves to get there. This circles around Lennie Clarke, the aforementioned Rifter, and bounces narratively around the people who, in one form or another, are tracking her, or encouraging her, while she keeps having visions and telling people to fuck the fuck off. Everything in the book is recognizably human, and within the reach of our current status quo… and then Watts will fill us in on how it’s been tweaked, and we can make that adjustment – yeah, that’s not too different from me; from where I am now – and then we’ll get another tweak, and another adjustment, and so on. And now you’re caught up in the race to destruction as well.

Terrifying, brilliant stuff.