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This review is from: Behemoth: B-Max (Hardcover)
Before I can review the content of Peter Watts' "Behemoth: B-Max" there are two facts I need to mention. The first is that it represents the third book of a trilogy, and I would strongly recommend one tackle the first two volumes ("Starfish" and "Maelstrom") before reading this one. The second is that "Behemoth" should be one six hundred page book, but because of trends in the publishing industry it's being published as two separate volumes. The author is completely forthright about this fact, and I believe him when he says that this was not his preferred method of publication. Because of this approach, precious little is resolved in this first volume; so if you aren't a fan of cliff hangers, you might want to wait until "Behemoth: Seppuku" is published in late 2004/early 2005 to read this volume.
For those of you who are new to the series, here is a brief synopsis that should tell you whether or not these books are for you. Essentially, the story arc is about evolution: human, animal and electronic. By mixing a blend of biology, computer science and chaos theory, Watts has created a near future Earth where man is simultaneously at the height of his powers and walking the knife's edge of total ecological failure. In an effort to maintain the high standard of Western living mankind has turned to deep sea geothermal power to meet their energy needs. Miles below the ocean, specially engineered humans culled from the dregs of society maintain these power plants. However, what no one could have expected was that they would encounter an organism that would unleash an apocalypse. Part hard science-fiction, part post-apocalyptic, the first two books represent a genuinely original voice in the genre.
All that said, "Behemoth" represents another superb piece of writing by Watts; it contains all the tension and fascinating science of the earlier volumes, but also displays his increasing talent. The structure of the book is more sophisticated and subtle than the previous volumes, and I say this not to criticize the earlier books, but to highlight the strengths of this one.
Set five years after the events of "Maelstrom", "Behemoth" finds the remaining rifters and the surviving North American elite living in an uneasy truce on the floor of the Atlantic. Presumably safe from the disease that is ravaging the rest of the world, they have managed to come to an accommodation that allows everyone to live and let live. Foremost among the rifters are Lubin, the one time spy, and Lenie Clarke, the Meltdown Madonna herself. Opposite them is Patricia Rowan, their one time nemesis and sometime ally. Alone, they might have formed a shifting but stable triangle; however, their constituents, particularly the more militant rifters, force a situation that is never far from open warfare. This dichotomy is beautifully executed by Watts, and represents a shift in his approach. Where much of the tension in the prior two books was environmental, in "Behemoth" he has created a human drama that surpasses its astonishing location.
In contrast from the fragile existence on the ocean floor, the reader is presented with the contrast of Achilles Desjardins, the human god who fights chaos for the CSIRA. While occupying perhaps only a third of the book, these chapters are the most powerful. Consisting only of Achilles' thoughts, history and worldview, they paint a comprehensive portrait of one of the most powerful men on Earth. Perhaps most remarkable is that Watts makes him despicable and sympathetic at the same time, all while keeping him something of an enigma.
Given the fact that this is the third book of a trilogy, and further given the split nature of the title, any more attempts at a plot summary would risk grave spoilers. Simply put, it is science fiction as it should be written. Watts uses his setting as a means to consider our slow suicide as a species in the form of ecological decay, and the complex, and ultimately unknowable workings of the mind. He separates himself from much of what is on the market by injecting humanity and pathos into his writing; his world, no matter how brilliantly conceived and executed, is a means to a greater end. This stands in stark contrast to other "hard" SF novels which exist solely to cram technical information into a fictional setting while ignoring such fundamentals as plot and characterization.
What is perhaps most engaging about Watts' books is that he has made the mundane unique and terrifying. No one gives much though to the web as an environment, but he sees an electronic landscape filled with predators and prey. Most of us think of the ocean as the beach, but Watts reveals a world every bit as alien as the surface of another planet. Finally, his attention to detail is superb, without being overwhelming. Watts' world is replete with history, but much of it is only alluded to; this creates a world that is weighed down by history, and a novel that isn't. An excellent example of this detail is his web site. I can't post the URL here, but a simple web search will turn it up. There one can find mountains of what one might call "side-story" it doesn't fill in any gaps per se, but it does further flesh out the Earth of the 2050's.
If you're a fan, a probably have said more than I needed to to sell you on this book. However, if you are new to the series, I hope I have managed to pass on the incredible originality and superb writing Watts has to offer. This is a trilogy that is unique in my experience, and "Behemoth" represents the best contribution thus far. This is definitely not one to be missed.