Peter Watts concludes his “Rifters” trilogy with Behemoth (though this concluding volume is separated, for publishing reasons, into two separate books: Behemoth:B-Max and Behemoth: Seppuku). (I have previously discussed the earlier volumes, Starfish and Maelstrom).
Behemoth doesn’t add much conceptually to the earlier volumes of the trilogy; but it works out in ruthless detail, and to the bitter end, a logic of paranoia, sexual sadism, and the catastrophic ecological breakdown of both the natural world and the technosphere. Watts envisions a world — only slightly extrapolated from our own — in which organisms can be tweaked genetically in fairly precise ways, or even created and synthesized from scratch; and in which brains can be tweaked on a neurochemical level, resulting in human beings crippled by guilt, remorse, and self-loathing, or to the contrary utterly devoid of empathy and conscience. (Software can also be hacked in nearly infinite ways, with controlling and/or destructive results for the entire social and communicational infrastructure). The paradox is that the more perfect, precise, and far-reaching our instrumental technologies become, the more chaotically unpredictable are the outcomes.
What’s brilliant about this is that, for all the negativity of his vision, Watts is not in the least a technophobe. That is to say, in the Rifters Trilogy there is no sense of technology being to blame, precisely because there is no sense of a “nature” that would exist apart from it, or uncontaminated by it. Or in other words: technology and culture have never been anything other than “nature,” still and always. If there is a source of villainy in the trilogy, it’s the foulness of the human heart — but this, too, is nothing else than natural process, given that “personality is just another word for biochemistry” in the last analysis. Watts accepts biological reductionism — in his author’s notes he ridicules “those Easter-bunny vitalists who believe that personality results from some unquantifiable divine spark” (297-298). But it’s precisely on such grounds that he demystifies the comfortable belief — quite widespread these days among technofuturists as well as lovers of nature — that the balance of forces in complex social and ecological systems, like the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, somehow can be trusted to bring about optimal outcomes, if only we forbear to interfere.
I don’t think I am really giving away anything when I note that, at the end of the novel, humanity is given — just barely — another chance, “even though we don’t deserve one.” Chaos and complexity theories confirm the ancient sense that the future is intrinsically unpredictable — which is why the novel cannot end in the finality of annihilation, any more than it could have a conventionally “happy” ending. That would be letting us off the hook too easily. The only optimism that the novel affords — severly qualified because it is the nearly-mystical, just-before-the-end vision of a woman who has been tortured to death — involves throwing out instrumental reason altogether, giving up on tweaking and reworking, giving up control, “[throwing] the very concept of a controlled experiment out the window,” and instead “rewriting the very chemistry of life,” allowing monstrous and unpredictable mutations to run their course, staking everything on “the most profound evolutionary leap since the rise of the eukaroytic cell” (242-243). Whether this is a grand affirmation, more than worthy of Nietzsche, or just another nihilistic self-delusion, the novel doesn’t tell us — nor could it. What’s most impressive and powerful about Watts’ trilogy is that he doesn’t shy from extremity — but also doesn’t mystify extremity, by turning it into another fable of salvation.