"When the lights go out in Beebe Station, you can hear the metal groan.
Lenie Clarke lies on her bunk, listening. Overhead, past pipes and wires and eggshell plating, three kilometers of black ocean try to crush her. She feels the rift underneath, tearing open the seabed with strength enough to move a continent. She lies there in that fragile refuge and she hears Beebe's armor shifting by microns, hears its seams creak not quite below the threshold of human hearing. God is a sadist on the Juan de Fuca Ridge, and His name is Physics."
Starfish is a science fiction novel by Peter Watts, probably most closely related to the cyberpunk subgenre.
A global organization has begun establishing geothermal power stations at the bottom of the ocean, but the biological neural networks known as smartgels aren't sufficiently advanced to take care of them. They need humans down there.
Their technology is sufficiently advanced to build a submerged base that can maintain surface pressure inside, even three kilometers under the surface. They can modify people's bodies to extract oxygen from seawater, and to collapse and remove all gas from their interior, becoming incompressible and immune to the pressure. It's not enough, though.
At Beebe Station, three kilometers down, the ocean takes claustrophobia to a whole new level. The opaque eyecaps that "rifters" must wear to go out into the water at this depth alienate crew members from one another. The fish are monsters like nothing seen topside. Even the most stable people are driven mad in a matter of weeks. The physiological problems are all taken care of, but psychological matters are a different issue entirely.
Enter Lenie Clarke, and her fellow misfits. Those in charge have decided on conducting an experiment. Perhaps, they think, people who have already been traumatized, who are addicted to abuse, or abusing others, serial victims and victimizers... perhaps they are already so far gone that life at the edge of the Juan de Fuca Ridge can't mess them up any more than they already have been.
But put a handful of social dysfunctionals together in a cramped environment, isolated from the rest of the world, and strange things begin to happen. If anything, the experiment works too well. The rifters get addicted to their new environment. They form a sort of twisted bond with one another, and develop an "us against the 'drybacks'" mentality. Paranoia grows steadily.
But to steal a line from the movie Strange Days, "The question isn't whether you're paranoid, Lenie. The question is whether you're paranoid enough." All is not as it seems, and the pace of the book, at first calm in its dark, mildly disturbing moodiness, rapidly accelerates towards its climax in the second half.
This is one of the better science fiction novels I've read in recent memory. The characters are believable in their various neuroses, and despite ranging from pitiable to contemptible, nonetheless gain the reader's sympathy, particularly later in the story. The writing style is, in my opinion, much more smooth and elegant than that used by the majority of science fiction authors.
Some people might find the book a little bit slow-paced at first, but I enjoyed the gradual quickening of pace, as object of the rifters' paranoia shifts from the intermittent dangers posed by the ocean and its creatures, to suspicion of one another, and finally to conspiracy theories about the "drybacks" in charge of the operation.
My only complaint about the novel is the surprise ending. Normally surprise endings are a good thing, but I would have preferred a little bit of foreshadowing, or clues that only become retroactively apparent after the truth is revealed (a la Fight Club), or at least having the surprise revealed a little bit earlier, to allow for a more prolonged climax. I had grown used to the constrained environment of the rest of the story, and the sudden expansion of scale to include the surface world felt unnatural, as if the novel I had been reading had been abandoned, and a new one started. The last 50 pages or so then felt rushed, as if the author suddenly realized that he'd waited too long to start telling the story he'd meant to tell all along. In his acknowledgements, he mentions that this was a short story, which was later expanded to become a novel. Perhaps this is the reason for this "feature," of the story, which is, to me, a defect.
That small complaint notwithstanding, I loved this book. I would highly recommend it to cyberpunk fans who are interested in a slightly different setting than they're used to, or indeed to just about any fan of science fiction. It's a Tor book, published by Tom Doherty Associates, ISBN: 0-812-57585. Fortunately, it's not as overpriced as some novels are these days; the cover price is $6.99 US, $8.99 Canadian.