Starfish, by Peter Watts, is a dark and brooding SF novel that takes place mostly in the deep ocean. Human beings are surgically modified so that they can breathe underwater, and survive the immense pressures of the extreme deep. They work and repair the machinery that harvests geothermal energy from volcanic rifts on the ocean floor, to serve the world’s ever-greater energy needs. But it turns out that only people with very particular psychopatholgies, perpetrators and/or victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, are able to stand the claustrophobic, almost lightless deep-sea environment without going crazy. Actually, they don’t just endure it; they love it. Sexual pathology leads to psychobiological metamorphosis, under the influence of an unfamiliar and stressful environment. Add to this telepathic empathy, “smart gels” (computing devices made out of living, functioning human neurons), alternative biologies, (justified) political paranoia, and an apocalyptic vision of the big (Richter 9.5 or so) subduction earthquake that is due to occur one of these days on the Juan de Fuca rift, leading to massive destruction in the Pacific Northwest (where I live). Without ever departing from the (seeming) plausibility of hard SF, Watts delivers a striking vision of a posthuman future – or more precisely of several disconcerting, mutually intersecting posthuman futures at once. Starfish is deeply pessimistic, but also, in a strange way, fiercely affirmative (though the metamorphosed future it affirms is not one that most of us would find sustainable, let alone comfortable).

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