Nominations for Book Discussion Group (BDG) from June to September 2000

The nomination period is CLOSED.

Nominated books: 13


Constance Ash (Editor): Not of Woman Born
Nominator's story selection from this anthology are all 14 stories as it is not terribly long (272 pages).

In The Future You May Send A Mothers' Day Card To Yourself (reader comment)
This contemporary anthology promises to provide lively and evocative discussion and would be a welcomed addition to our upcoming reading list. I can't wait to read and discuss the issues raised in this anthology such
as current events concerning genetic studies, cloning, and  the role and definition of 'parent' 'mother'  'father' and 'child'.   We could expand our discussion and relate this anthology to other books/ stories on the topic.

One of the stories in "Not of Women Born"  is long listed in the 1999 Tiptree Awards.  More impressive than the many positive reviews are the overwhelmingly favorable readers' comments on this anthology:

At Barnes&
Description From The Publisher
An original anthology of stories dealing with modern science's impact on our ideas of conception, birth, and parenting from some of the most imaginative and prophetic authors in science fiction. Stories range from the humorous to the horrific, the fascinating to the far-fetched, with  humanity surviving in the face of overwhelming technology as the common theme of each. A truly unique collection from science fiction's elite!

From Sarah Flowers - VOYA
In this short story collection, top science fiction writers imagine worlds and futures in which extra-uterine, cloned, and bio-engineered reproduction flourishes. In the touching and morally deep Judith's Flowers, by Suan Palwick, a twenty-one-year-old college student must decide whether to live the rest of her life in the world of her genes or the world of her memories. In Dead in the Water, Jack McDevitt explores the process a woman goes through in deciding whether or not to "buy" one genetically perfect, virtually immortal child. Raising Jenny, by Janni Lee Simner, is a simple tale of mother love that addresses the question of nature vs. nurture, as a woman raises a daughter who is actually a clone of her dead mother. Walter Jon Williams looks at parents from a slightly
different angle in Daddy's World: he asks how far a father will go to keep his family together, what constitutes a family, and what does it actually mean to be alive? All of the fourteen stories are new except an astonishing one by Robert Silverberg first published in 1957. There Was an Old Woman, the first story to use the term "clone," is about an exceptional woman who created thirty-one sons and raised them each for a specific profession. The story has aged remarkably well, and brings yet another viewpoint to collection of stories........

A review by Lisa DuMond for the SF SITE
Throw down those ovulation predictors! Cast aside those thermometers! Of  what use are those fertility pills now? In the future, new humans are going to be popping out of every test tube, artificial womb, and industrial-size mayo jar if you look away for an instant. All that and keeping your girlish/boyish figure. Ah! Progress!

Some of these new methods may take you by surprise, but Constance Ash and her herd of authors are already putting aside money for their neuvo-neonates' college tuition. If there's a high-tech way to reproduce, chances are it's covered in Not of Woman Born. And covered well.....

....It may well be the number one topic in the new millennium. You might as  well get a jump start on the  questions, now. Open your eyes and your mind to the possibilities. There is no better way to do it than with the precious, and semi-precious, gems in this anthology. And, it won't hurt a bit.

Reader comments at Amazon
In The Future You May Send A Mothers' Day Card To Yourself
Reviewer: A reader from Tallahassee, FL      March 17, 1999
If you think the abortion debate is out of control now, wait and see what reproductive shockers are on the way.
Constance Ash has assembled some of the finest minds in scifi to explore the possibilities of procreation. This collection leaves no method unexplored and no problem well enough alone.
Ash delivers a chilling tale of survival of the fittest, willing or not, in "The Leopard's Garden." Sage  Walker keeps the blood cold with a tale of genetic manipulation and the cycle of life.
But, all is not grim and serious. "One Day At Central Convenience Mall" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman takes readers on a tour of the future AND provides plenty of time to shop.
The stories are too numerous and too full to cover in this space. Time for you to apply your own brain to the subject.
And, remember, it's only fiction. For now.
Rating: overall "A"

Reviewer: Peter D. Tillman   from Arizona      September 13, 1999
Theme anthologies sometimes suffer from too narrow a focus and/or carbon-copy stories. Not this one -- the authors interpreted the theme loosely enough so that I didn't lose interest. Walter Jon Williams takes a killer look at cybernetic family values in "Daddy's World", and Jack McDevitt delivers the most interesting look at gengineering one's progeny since Greg Egan's wonderfully sly "Eugene," in "Dead in the Water." McDevitt's mother-to-be is particularly well-drawn. A+ stories both; look for them on the award ballots next year. "A" stories: Silverberg's 1957 "There Was an Old Woman" is an amazingly fresh look at cloned lives, even 40 years on. Nina Kiriki Hoffman takes a sharp look at future retail clerks in "One Day at Central Convenience Mall." New author look at cloning's impact on showbiz in "Doppels."......

Things That Make You Go Hmmmmmm
Reviewer: A reader from USA      April 14, 1999
Mrs. Ash has done it again with her energized portrayal of the future and this time she brought of Woman Born has hit the target.

Birth of a mind-bending anthology of sf luminaries
Reviewer: E. Alexander Gerster   from South Miami, Florida USA      March 10, 1999
Fasten your seatbelt for a wild ride through the ideas of some of science fiction's best selling  authors--thematically published under the concept of alternative conception. Each story challenges the reader with both the suspension of belief, and the creation of new beliefs in what today may seem impossible, each bringing a different moral tone and attitude that stretches your mind, always asking "what if?...."
Highly Recommended.

Let's read it!

David Brin: Glory Season
From Kirkus Reviews , 03/15/93:
Upheaval and strife in a far-future feminist utopia, thoughtfully set forth by the author of The Postman (1985), Earth (1990), etc. On planet Stratos, long isolated from the Human Phylum, women are dominant politically, numerically, and sexually; the most successful women clone themselves to create extended aristocratic families. Only in summer, when the male sexual response peaks, are natural conceptions permitted. Of these births, the boys--excluded from power--assume traditional male occupations like seafaring and piloting, while the girls--``vars''--must compete fiercely for the few openings available to non-clones. The system, stable for hundreds of years, is now threatened by renewed contact with the Human Phylum: ambassador Renna's arrival on Stratos is forcing the ruling families to new intrigues and evaluations, power struggles and realignments. Caught up in the general turmoil, young var Maia- -events are seen from her point of view--acquires survival skills in a hurry, discovering within herself unexpected talents for navigation and problem-solving. The exotic Renna, so unlike the native men, fascinates her. When both are kidnapped by the same revolutionaries, Maia learns from Renna that what she has been taught of history is largely false. Together, the two discover hidden machines and factories surviving from a time before the clones, when men and women fought side by side to repel alien invaders. Finally, Renna dies attempting to escape back to his orbiting ship, while a new and wiser Maia finds herself the object of intense scrutiny by Stratos's ruling clans.

Nuketown review, Alfaen's Review, Review by ?

Deborah Christian: Mainline
The premise of Christian's brilliant first novel is as ingenious as its execution: a career assassin's unique ability to shift between alternate time lines grants her almost perfect immunity from the law. During her latest assassination of a prominent politico, hit woman Reva attracts the unwelcome attention of her victim's bodyguard, a powerful alien warrior who swears revenge. As if one pursuer weren't enough, Reva is also being tailed by an imperial security agent with his own special talent--invisibility. Yet Reva's developing friendship with an  imperiled black marketeer persuades her to remain in the current time line to protect her protegefrom crime lords while staving off her own enemies. Christian packs a relentlessly paced story line with enough explosive
action, interesting characters, and technological gadgetry, such as intelligence enhancers for beast as well as human, to fill a dozen novels. Hers is an exciting new voice that should engage a wide range of readers,
from military enthusiasts to Copyright) 1996, American Library Association.

A review by Jacqueline Lichtenberger (The Monthly Aspectarian):
Mainline other than in the use of point of view, is pretty much Intimate Adventure - the hero is a woman who is in a pickle because of a psychic talent. She has the ability to translate herself into parallel time-lines. She's crossed so many lines that she's lost and can't get back to her birth-timeline. She's found a way to make a living that isn't
prostitution, though. She's become a hitman. And she's absolutely the best.

Lately, though, the life has begun to pall. She's lonely because when she shifts to another timeline after making a hit, she has to deal with people who aren't really the same people she had established relationships with. And as a hitman, she really doesn't dare trust anyone with her secrets in a world where telepaths are all around and some work for the law, a hitman with a secret can't afford relationships. As a result, she's lived now a few years without any relationship in her life and it's getting very, very lonely.

So she's promised herself not to skip time-lines again. She gets involved with a woman who is a smuggler and thinks she's real smart but isn't as smart as she thinks. Our hero tries (an act of charity) to help her learn how to cover her ass and be a good smuggler. Meanwhile, on a hit, our hero kills the boss of a man who has hired a really wild alien as bodyguard.

The alien is pissed. The alien's honor has been tarnished by this assassin and he's out for blood. Meanwhile, a lawman with a similar gift to our hero's is on her tail. He is developing an attraction to her, but doesn't want to admit it to himself.

This is an extremely densely plotted novel.

Emma Donoghue: Kissing the Witch

Katherine Dunn: Geek Love
From the book cover: "Author Katherine Dunn--who has always chosen the unconventional in her own life as the daughter of migrant farmworkers, a teen runaway, a boxing stringer for Associated Press, and an award-winning
novelist--now brings us one of the decade's most controversial books: a literary sensation that is a work of daring, brilliance, and unrelenting shock.

"Geek Love is the story of a carnival family, the Binewskis, who save their traveling 'Carnival Fabulon' from bankruptcy by giving birth to fabulous freaks--the children born to Lil Binewski after she ingests drugs, insecticides, arsenic, radioisotopes, anything to make her babies more 'special'. The result is a world readers have never encountered before, a place of horror and humor, where vengeance and love are realized in unimaginable ways. And where some unforgettable 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not' characters are both exotically unique--and hauntingly, chillingly, like us."

A page with various reviews and references

I've read this book twice and still find it fascinating.  The characters are loving, destructive, jaded, innocent, manipulative and completely engrossing.  There are  Arturo the Aqua Boy the limbless, sadistic, "Transcendental Maggot"; his sister Olympia a bald hunchback albino dwarf and narrator of the story; their Siamese twin sisters the elegant pianists Electra and Iphigenia; Chick, Fortunato, the strongest child in the world -- telekinetic, empath; their proper Bostonian mother Diamond Lil and Aloysius the ringmaster, founder and creator of the troupe.  There are other siblings kept in polished jars in the Chute, and then there's the next generation and an evil Miss Lick who gets her kicks from mutilating pretty women, for their own good.  I'd have to say this is the most bizarre story I've ever read, and I'd love to read it at least once more.

Jewelle Gomez: The Gilda Stories
I would like to nominate the Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez.  A very small group of us discussed it last year in San Francisco, and I would love to hear what the larger group has to say about it.   I might also be able to get Jewelle to join us at some point or at least give us an update on her current work in progress.

My brief summary:
Gilda is a vampire, but not the usual kind:  She's a black woman, a runaway slave who is befriended by a vampire and later taken into the vampire's family.  Her life is portrayed as a series of stories spanning the time through today and into the future.  Gomez provides detailed vignettes of gold-rush San Francisco, Boston in the 1950's, the New York city theater world in the early '70's, among others.  But these are not your standard Lestat upscale venues.  Gomez takes us to where the real people lived, the farmers and prostitutes and aspiring actors.  We see the civil rights, black power, and gay/lesbian struggles through the eyes of Gilda and the mortals she loves.

Midwest Book Review
The Gilda Stories is an elegant, sensual, and natural vampire fantasy. Time-traveling from Southern slavery in 1850 to environmental devastation 200 years later, Gilda is the quintessential outsider seeking community. Jewelle Gomez combines a natural flair for storyteller with an ability to weave tapestries of personality that grab the mind's imagination and won't let go. A memorable story, deftly told.

An anonymous review posted on
I've tried loaning this book to four different people. None of them seem interested in it until I start giving away what I consider to be the good bits. You've been warned. Gomez writes feminist vampires and portrays a kinder, gentler vampirism than I'm used to. They have small clan-like societies based on philosophy of life rather than ability. The act of drinking blood isn't a near-rape for one clan, but a "sharing." These vampires leave hopes, dreams and inspiration to the random people upon whom they feed. Rather than murder, Gilda herself may have saved a life through her hunger. The book follows Gilda from the late 1800's through to the early 2000's. It also follows her small cell of vampire family from a time when they were the stuff of legend to their exposure. This is a fine book. It's the first I've read that actually uses the idea of running water as a problem for vampires, or the passing on of a name and legend from one vampire to the other. Gomez's writing is clear and somewhat poetic, and her ideas are sweet enough to even make the legendary bloodsucking demons of the night seem like kind, gentle, neighborly folk.
Please read it.

Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel (eds.): Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction
Table of Contents:
*Sex, Guns, and Baptists KEITH HARTMAN
Half in Love With Easeful Rock and Roll REBECCA ORE
The Flying Triangle ALLEN STEELE
*Brooks Too Broad For Leaping CHARLES SHEFFIELD
Dance at the Edge L. TIMMEL DUCHAMP
*Love's Last Farewell RICHARD A. BAMBERG
The City in Morning CARRIE RICHERSON
State of Nature NANCY KRESS
The Beautiful People WENDY RATHBONE
Free in Asveroth JIM GRIMSLEY

The stories in italics and highlighted by * are recommended for discussion by one of the nominators.

Bending the Landscape (SF) is a wonderful collection of gay and lesbian short stories that take a serious look at the future.  In fact, often the not so distant future in the case of the first story, which deals with the issue of abortion and homosexuality: Baptists 'dislike abortions, but they really dislike homosexuals' while gays/lesbians have have a unique relationship with Catholicism because Catholics won't abort.  Something very topical, but all the stories are wonderful, and the introduction by Griffith and Pagel itself is a very nice short essay.

Another nominator:
The editors asked contributors to "imagine a different landscape... some milieu that had not happened" and then address the theme of Alien or Other, with the Other being a lesbian or gay man. Since the writers include men and women, gay and straight, the results are fascinating and kaleidoscopic.

The book is "a series of remarkable stories that deal with queer themes, from the points of view of straights, queers, and all those real people who lie somewhere inbetween or beyond these labels. Regardless of the
themes, you aren't going to be reading a better SF anthology this year. If you're at all interested in having your notions of gender and sexuality expanded, then read this book."

Nalo Hopkinson: Midnight Robber
Review from Mysterious Galaxy website:
Hopkinson, the author of last year's Brown Girl in the Ring, applies her mixture of African/Caribbean mythos and technology to a more distant future in Midnight Robber. Tan-Tan is a child of two worlds (echoing Sean Stewart’s Sly/Sloane in Galveston); the technically advanced Toussaint, and the more primitive prison planet, New Half-Way Tree. Brought to New Half-Way Tree by circumstances not of her choosing, Tan-Tan adapts to the new culture and becomes a conduit between the indigenous peoples of the planet and the penal colonists she resides with in her guise of the Robber Queen. Hopkinson's voice is unique, and she handles the combination of SF and fantasy deftly.

Novel excerpt at SF Site
Locus Online Review

Tanith Lee: Biting the Sun
Not only is this a beautifully crafted tale of a complex character rife with self-contradiction, but it explores a fascinating question:  Is rebellion possible in a world without rules?

Description from
"The far future has brought freedom not only from material want but also from rules, responsibilities, and risk. You can change bodies and genders like clothes, make love with whomever you want, live forever, and kill yourself as often as you like. You can have everything, except a meaningful life. Then one day a restless soul discovers an act so shocking and terrifying that human society has forgotten its existence. --Cynthia Ward"

Reader comments, also from Amazon:
The book is really two novels in one. The first, "Don't Bite the Sun," deals with traditional dystopian themes, all written in Lee's brilliant, colorful prose and enacted by a crazy and fascinating set of characters. From the beginning the story throws you off balance and pulls you in: come on, what other novel opens with its narrator committing suicide? In the futuristic city of Four-BEE a strict age-based caste system dictates its inhabitants' lives,
particularly the lives of the Jang, whose adolescence seems to last at least fifty years. You can do anything when you're a Jang. Drink, do drugs, marry, have love, kill yourself, all as many times as you like in whatever body you prefer; the only thing you can't do is...stop being a Jang. Thus when the anonymous, mainly-female protagonist decides to rebel against Four-BEE, but it's hard. When nothing is forbidden, what can you protest? Apparently there's something, because the second novel, "Drinking Sapphire Wine," deals with the other half of the story: what happens when the narrator finally ticks off the Powers That Be and is exiled from Four-BEE. Although I understand that the books were originally published as separate works, they mesh seamlessly into one another. In theory one could read "Drinking Sapphire Wine" without reading "Don't Bite the Sun"...but why miss the fun? Lee's Four-BEE is a weird and wild place, where pure hedonism is ultimately revealed to be hollow, but it's a delight to read about.

Neal Stephenson: The Diamond Age
The summary below is somewhat misleading in that it sounds like Hackworth is the lead character.  He is responsible for starting the process but the book revolves around Nell and the primer.
John Percival Hackworth is a nanotech engineer on the rise when he steals a copy of "A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" for his daughter Fiona. The primer is actually a super computer built with nanotechnology that was designed to educate Lord Finkle-McGraw's daughter and to teach her how to think for herself in the stifling neo-Victorian society. But Hackworth loses the primer before he can give it to Fiona, and now the "book" has fallen into the hands of young Nell, an underprivileged girl whose life is about to change.

From Booklist, January 1, 1995
Stephenson's dazzling cyberspace adventure, Snow Crash (1992), drew accolades as one of the most innovative,
thought-provoking first sf novels since William Gibson's Neuromancer. Unlike Gibson, who followed with lesser sequels, Stephenson breaks new ground in a grand-scale forecast of the coming nanotechnological revolution. John Percival Hackworth is a cultured nanotech engineer who risks the censure of his neo-Victorian social class, or tribe, when he forges a copy of an interactive, computer-driven book called A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. With the unprecedented power to single-handedly educate its reader,  the primer is designed to shape the values and maintain the superiority of the dominant tribe. During a mugging, however, Hackworth loses the copy to a lower-class thug, who in turn gives it to his sister Nell. As Nell learns secrets from the magic book, her understanding of herself and her world grows in ways the primer's designers never intended, and the entire destiny of society changes irrevocably. Stephenson's command of character and stylistic nuance has grown captivatingly stronger, and he now offers startling new ideas in virtually every paragraph. With breathtaking vision and insight, Stephenson establishes himself as not only a major voice in contemporary sf but also a prophet of technology's future. Carl Hays Copyright, © 1995, American Library Association. All rights reserved

Sheri S. Tepper: Singer from the Sea
I've just finished reading this book, and it is extremely moving. It speaks to me of the "secrets" that everyone assumed everyone else knew, but nobody talked about; about social patterns which serve those who control can access to knowledge; about intuition and risk taking and lying to oneself when underlying truth is too terrible to contemplate.  I do not like all of Tepper's books, by any means, but, in my opinion, this one should not be passed up by any woman.

SF Site Review by Robert Francis, Science Fiction Weekly Review

Katie Waitman: The Divided
After (unsuccessfully) nominating Waitman's first book _The Merro Tree_ last time. I read it and found it very good. Waitman is very good at building worlds with full-fledged culture, incuding art forms and myth. The Merro Tree also has a very interesting cross-species love relationship.  I am interested to see what she does in this new one. BTW, it has a beautiful cover.  Also be warned that some of the reviews posted at Amazon seem (to me, at least) to be full of spoilers.

Book Description
Katie Waitman's award-winning first novel, The Merro Tree, heralded the arrival of an exciting new science fiction talent. Now the exceptional promise of that acclaimed debut is more than met in a powerfully original story of love, loss, and transformation. Set on a war-torn world of stark contrasts and fragile balances, of plenitude and
poverty, romance and betrayal, Sa'har will stir the heart and haunt the mind long after the last page is turned. . . .

Sekmé is a rarity--a female Maurheti soldier risen to the rank of Commander at the tender age of twenty-four. Daughter of a pilot killed in a gel-bombing raid on godless Tel-mari civilians, Sekmé is determined to crush resistance once and for all. But the merciless efficiency that has made her a hero to her soldiers and a demon to the enemy has also earned Sekmé the enmity of dangerous men closer to home. Men with interests other than victory.

Merkus is a freedom fighter leading the resistance against the despoilers of Tel-mari wealth and honor. Sickened by the endless slaughter, he longs for a peace he has never known--a peace he has only read about in an ancient poem that sings of a mythical place called Sa'har. But to the  Maurheti, Markus is a hated terrorist to be hunted

Wepanu has spent his life wandering the inhospitable deserts of Maurhet, his only companions the mysterious entities known as jo. Visible to a chosen few, the jo remember what humans have forgotten--a prophecy passed on to Wepanu that will bring Sekmé and Merkus into a violent collision fated to shake the beliefs of Maurheti and Tel-mari to the core. A prophecy that will point the way to the peace of Sa'har--or ignite an all-consuming holocaust . . .

SF Site Review

Peter Watts: Starfish
I read this book earlier in the year and was haunted both by the language and the ideas as it explored, particularly that of what it means for either gender to be sexually and physically abused, and whether one can
become "addicted" to this state. It was also an interesting examination of institutional and personal cruelty.

I would highly recommend this book for discussion and for anyone to read.

Booklist/May 15, 1999:
Burdened by exploding population, the world turns to geothermal energy from vents thousands of feet under the ocean. The vents are explosive and unpredictable, sending bursts of superheated steam randomly into a nightmare world of transparent fish, 50-foot tube worms, and oddly fragile sea monsters whose teeth shatter when they bite. To survive at such depths, the crews of deep-sea power plants must be modified to withstand the pressure, "breathe" water, and see in a darkness illuminated only by phosphorescent creatures. The necessary mental modification isn't easily done; indeed, only the already emotionally damaged--battered women, paranoid ex-spies, child molesters--won't turn psychotic from it. One crew's members struggle among themselves at first, but soon discover strange satisfaction in their isolated world and insight into their troubled lives. A subtle  paranoia is everywhere, however, from the cramped station quarters to the office of the corporate psychiatrist  who selected the crew. The hidden threat behind this unease isn't revealed until nearly the end, but the dark universe of the sea bottom and rich characterization captivate to the last page. Watts makes a brilliant debut with a novel that is part undersea adventure, part psychological thriller, and wholly original. --Roberta Johnson

Another Dave Langford review. First published in The New York Review of SF 134, October 1999:
Peter Watts's first novel starts at the bottom and later works its way up. That is, the action begins in the appalling depths of a Pacific ocean rift, where dysfunctional characters are to run a geothermal power station that taps a hot vent. It's a creepily evocative world of darkness and extreme pressure, full of deep-sea monsters afflicted with giantism but also extreme fragility by their harsh, low-calcium environment. Humans going out into into this world not only require semi-sentient "diveskins" and light-amplifying corneal caps, but suffer a tiny death trauma at each exit through the airlock, as their unfeasible gas-breathing metabolism is overriden by inbuilt machinery and all the body's air passages fill with liquid. Who would ever want to work down there?

Watts's answer is reminiscent of, but creatively builds on, some speculations in an earlier sf novel of high  suspense in the deeps: Frank Herbert's The Dragon in the Sea (1956, also known as Under Pressure). Here a harried submarine crew is pushed to its physical and mental limits, and those who adapt most successfully -- notably the captain -- enter modes of thought which, to the planted psychologist who's anxiously monitoring them, seem very like psychosis. Meanwhile the strange attraction of the deep virtually explains itself as Herbert invites you to put on Freudian spectacles and contrast the subtly comforting, amniotic embrace of the sea with the shock of emergence into terrible bright emptiness.

Starfish adds a further twist to the notion of quasi-psychotic adaptation to life on the edge. Its ruthless corporation selects workers who are "pre-adapted" -- that is, halfway towards an adaptive remoulding, since they've already broken under the stresses of the tough topside world. Thus Lenie Clarke, the first candidate we meet, is a long-time abuse victim who may have become dependent on her victimhood. Three kilometers down, in Beebe Station on the Juan de Fuca rift, she's initially teamed with the more "normal" Ballard, a woman who's exasperated by Clarke's passivity and struggles in vain to build a positive relationship. We realize the perversity of the system when Clarke is retained and Ballard pulled from the job. Clarke is the Right Stuff.

Presumably there's an intentional ironic homage here to the authors of The Deep Range and The Drowned World. I was worrying that others of Beebe Station's subsequently expanded team of seven might be called Herbert and Verne, but no. The most interesting is Gerry Fischer, a paedophile whose tragicomic entrapment by a police child impersonator leads to his recruitment and to glimpses of the surgical modifications which equip these workers for the deep. Others are full of repressed or not-so-repressed violence. A couple are just ciphers. Under the shaping pressure of the Pacific, they change....

Watts provides plenty of satisfying incidents, developments, couplings and luminous descriptions of life in that ghostly, light-amplified world. Two of the group are lost, one dying under peculiar circumstances (there's a tiny murder mystery in here too) and one "going native" in a fashion that rejects the all too easy sf dream of unthinking transcendence as universal panacea. Those who remain, though, do eventually achieve a near-gestalt
state, a comfortable, synchronized awareness of each other's presence and actions that's rooted in Roger Penrose's theory of quantum consciousness.

Earlier, one character has teased a metaphor from this novel's title. Starfish have lots and lots of little sucker-tube "feet" but no brains:

"So there's nothing to coordinate the tube feet, they all move independently. Usually that's not a problem; they all tend to go toward food, for example. But it's not unusual for a third of these feet to be pulling in some [other] direction entirely. The whole animal's a living tug-of war. Sometimes, some really stubborn tube feet just don't give up, at they literally get torn out at the roots when the others move the body someplace they don't want to go. But hey: majority rules, right?"

The once wildly divergent Beebe Station group is in better shape than a starfish. Not, though, in the eyes of the company expert who (like Frank Herbert's psychologist) gatecrashes this oddly functional team and tries to understand it in topside terms. He sees them as vampires, lacking conversational affect, living almost full-time in their black diveskins, hiding their eyes behind milky corneal caps, creating deranged art like wind-chimes driven by water thermals from the hot vent, even for God's sake sleeping out there in benthic hell rather than their nice bunks.... "How could anyone get addicted to a place like this?"

After which the storyline abruptly changes gear as Watts wheels on a possibly world-destroying menace. This is a primeval template for life which has survived in the warmth of that same vent, has never previously been able to spread, and which is potentially a deadly competitor for our familiar biosphere. Since it's been named Behemoth [with a Greek beta for the B] and is far more efficient at converting nutrients than existing "alpha" life, I found myself thinking of it as Betamax -- the superior system that lost out for reasons unrelated to quality. We are VHS and we are doomed, if Betamax ever gets an equal chance in the food chain....

Naturally the first thing that occurs to caring corporate leaders is to nuke Beebe Station, but there are restraining complications as the world pulls this way and that, like (again) the starfish. Large-scale violence and disaster follow, mostly plausible although at a different level of credibility from the compellingly claustrophobic deep-water storyline. One factor that I couldn't quite swallow was the "smart gel" artificial intelligences, even if they do look like mozzarella and are colloquially known as head cheese; their hidden flaw seems to belong in another and Asimovian decade of sf, following as it does the familiar lines of "oh dear, in the First Law we never defined what 'injure' actually meant." The final, memorable image is of Lenie Clarke, having been royally fucked over by the world all her life, finding herself neatly positioned to repay the compliment.

Peter Watts writes confidently and well, and I suppose it's unfair of me to feel deprived of the story he didn't choose to tell -- the further transformation and ultimate fate of that strangely-knit, not-quite-sane community at Beebe Station, as it might have been if the narrative hadn't instead crashed at speed into the brick wall of Behemoth and threatened apocalypse. A highly interesting and thoroughly researched debut novel.

Science Fiction Weekly Review, SF Site Review