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Maelstrom: Rifters    by Peter Watts order for
by Peter Watts
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2009 (2001)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Though I've been reading this paranoid, apocalyptic SF series out of order (beginning with Behemoth and Sepukku) I still enjoyed going back to almost the beginning with Peter Watts' Maelstrom, the sequel to Starfish.

The series stars edgy anti-heroine Lenie Clarke, whom it's hard not to like, despite the fact that she inadvertently unleashes an acopalyptic infection, Behemoth, upon the world in Maelstrom. After she and her fellow rifters (genetically modified to swim the ocean depths freely and maintain a geothermal power plant three thousand meters down) were infected in Starfish, the authorities launched a nuclear attack against them, under the orders of corpse (corporate executive) Patricia Rowan. Only Lenie and loose-cannon assassin Ken Lubin survive, but each is unaware that the other did.

Lenie walks out along the ocean floor and ends up in one of the vast coastal refugee camps monitored by botflies (robot cameras) under the supervision of peacekeepers like Sou-Hon Perreault. She makes her way to land, constantly pursued by the powers that be. Leading the charge is sociopath Achilles Desjardins, who wields the power of the Complex Systems Instability Response Authority in N'Am. To keep him incorruptible, Achilles is controlled by chemicals that give him a conscience, and their status is continually monitored - until someone close to him finds a way to fool the watchers.

Natural selection rules on the Internet, which has evolved into Maelstrom. Now, smart gels, that were created to 'protect data from Internet wildlife', develop their own agenda and act to keep Lenie safe, as does Sou-Hon Perreault. As Lenie muses, 'I'm some killer asteroid in the sky, and the dinosaurs are actually cheering for me.' People die in masses - from Behemoth and from the burning of huge areas of the country that Rowan orders to control its spread. And Lenie, the Meltdown Madonna, becomes Ken Lubin's new target, as he seeks her through the others on her trail.

Peter Watts defines the problem with his society (a very dark, but disturbingly credible, version of our own future) well - 'Everything gets way too complicated for mere mortals, so we set up webs and networks and AIs to keep track of things, except they end up exploding into these huge cancers of complexity too ... so not only do we need oodles more energy to keep this huge wobbling gyro from crashing over on its side but these same factors keep knocking out the systems we put in place to produce all that extra energy ... You know what apocalypse is? It's a positive feedback loop.'

Peter Watts' Maelstrom will pull you in and spit you out the other end, your mind whirling. If you're an SF fan, or are interested in what might go wrong with many of the paths the world's societies are pursuing, then this Rifters series is a must read, depressing but also entertaining and thought-provoking.

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