Here's a review for Maelstrom, the 2nd book in the Rifters series by Peter Watts. I wrote this some time ago, and it's purely co-incidence that this reaches the top of the pile just as Peter has been convicted of 'obstructing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer' (sentencing has not happened yet, he's facing up to two years in prison). Get this book. No, get the series. It's top stuff, and he needs your support.
N'AmPac has nuked the Grid Authority's power generation station 'Beebe' on Channer Vent, Juan de la Furca Ridge, for reasons unknown. It must have been worth it – the subsequent Tsunami as well as the Earth Quake ('The Big One') from the slipping fault lines left the Coast in tatters. Or in the words of Patricia Rowan, the Corpse who ordered the nuking: "Millions dead. Trillions in damages. Preferable to the alternative, she knew. It didn't help much. Saving the world had come with a price tag attached."
But the nuke didn't get everything it was supposed to. Lenie Clarke walks out of the Ocean after walking home 300 miles across the Ocean floor - onto the Oregon Strip, where the refugees are held, nominally until they move on, realistically in perpetuity. And everyone she touches, everywhere she goes, things change. Because Lenie carries something from the deep Ocean, a Nanobe ('?ehemoth') older than the proverbial Martian Mike, simpler than all life on Earth as we know it. And now it's free and on its way to world domination, at the cost of the current Biosphere. Whatever that one's worth…
This is the 2nd book in Watts' 'Rifters' series. I presume it could stand on its own, but you would miss so much in terms of background and references that I can only recommend that you read the first part ('Starfish') before tackling this. It's well worth it, both for the first book and for this one.
Rifters is very clearly Hard SF, from the explanations of technology, development, and scientific background to the actual Reference and reading lists at the back of the book. Watts has a preference for new, exciting, and something controversial theories and discoveries, and at least one which he used in Starfish, and which re-surfaces here again, is very much under attack meanwhile. He extrapolates from these (nothing wrong with that), and throws in vanilla SF concepts ('Botflies' with 'Ground Effectors', anyone?) for minor bits, which, at least to me, means that this isn't 'pure' Hard SF (whether this is good or bad I leave to the reader's opinion. It doesn't bother me all that much, personally). There is a fair bit of Genetic and Bio-engineering going on, too, and some AI, especially in relation to the Smart Gels (aka 'Head-Cheese'), grown neural networks who learn to perform tasks, and who continually re-wire themselves as they develop and continue to learn. Neat, and a major plot device in the books. These are used to guard parts of Maelstrom, the current incarnation of what used to be 'The Net' (via Onion and Metabase). A wild, wild place, in the 2050s.
The overall structure of the story is very linear, but with several threads running in parallel to the Lenie Clarke story – and usually ahead in terms of dispensing information to the reader, too. Given that Canada is the dominating power in N'AmPac (I leave it to you to work out where that one comes from) there is some Canadian/French slang worked into the language spoken, to good effect (and you can always Google what you don't understand. I didn't find it necessary myself).
We have some very neat similes and parallels in various plot threads and concepts, too (no, I won't spoil your fun looking for those). Overall I feel that Watts doesn't have a very high opinion of humanity and it's dealing with the Biosphere (something I can relate to myself); his is not just a Dystopian, but a rather Apocalyptic future, regardless of the question if Humanity actually survives in any form at the end of the last book (no, don't tell me, I haven't read it yet).
This is a very strong middle book in this trilogy of four (the last book, ?ehemoth, was published in two instalments), and is in my opinion a Must-Read for every fan of Hard SF, or of SF with an ecological slant, playing very close to home, for that matter. Watts is on my list of the very best current SF authors, and was deservedly nominated for a Hugo award for his latest book, Blindsight. If you haven't picked up his books yet then it's high time you did so!
Series Number: 2
Author: Peter Watts
Reviewer URL: http://skating.thierstein.net
Publication Date: Oct 2001
Review Date: 080508
Topic: Hard SF