Watts' first novel Starfish (beginning the Rifters Trilogy) focuses on a group of people who've been surgically augmented to survive the crushing depth of the ocean floor, in order to work on a power station located on a geo-thermal vent. The catch is that most normal people have trouble adjusting to the stresses of working and living in such an environment, so people who are naturally adapted to living in stressful environments are recruited instead. In this case, victims of abuse, including pedophiles, borderline masochists and clinical sociopaths. It gets worse. The series juggles dark character study, a distinctly un-rosey view of future society, kick-ass action, and cutting edge technology. The series earned Watts much critical praise.
His next novel, Blindsight (unrelated to Rifters), focuses on a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits sent to investigate a strange alien artifact that's been detected on the edge of the solar system. The novel is mainly a First Contact story that mixes elements of cosmic and psychological horror in order to examine (and deconstruct) the ideas of sentience and consciousness. Blindsight became something of a hit for Watts, garnering a Hugo nomination for best novel. The companion novel Echopraxia was published in August 2014 and is set in the inner Solar System.
Watts likes to show his work, utilising extensive notes and references to support his work and theories. Because of this, unsurprisingly his work tends to end up on the hard end of the scale. It also usually lies at the cynical end of the spectrum too, although not often without the slimmest, most stoic, hope available, if you squint.
Tropes involving Peter Watts
- All There in the Manual: Watts' website has a ton of supplementary information concerning his novels.
- Blind Jump: In short story "Ambassador", protagonist constantly used this technique to escape relentlessly pursuing alien ship.
- Crapsack World: It might seem that way, what with all the broken characters and civilization-ending catastrophes, but the man himself doesn't see it that way at all:I'm fond of pointing out that my portrayal of human nature is actually naively optimistic; you won't find any religious wing-nuts whose invisible sky-fairy tells them to massacre the infidels or bomb abortion clinics, for one thing. You won't find any corrupt politicians who start unnecessary wars to line the pockets of their buddies in the oil industry. You won't find climate-change deniers or creationists. My characters sometimes do awful things, but generally those actions are forced on them; they're killing a thousand to save a million, trying to do the least harm. My fictional characters, generally speaking, are far too noble and decent for the real world.
- Executive Meddling: During the production of βehemoth, the third book in the Rifters Trilogy, Watts's publisher Tor decided to split the book into two parts (subtitled β-Max and Seppuku). This was a decision Watts was extremely unhappy with, leading to their relationship being soured. It would further deteriorate during the publishing of Blindsight, due to artistic differences over the cover design, as well as an extremely limited print run. So limited, in fact, that once it began to become popular, nobody could find it! Faced with the prospect of having his novel buried, Watts decided that it would be better to make no money and at least have the novel read, so he released it free on his website. This move proved extremely popular, and led to Watts releasing his other novels and many of his short stories for free online.
- Gone Horribly Right: He has a short story called "Malak", about an autonomous drone plane that's sent into warzones to fight enemies. It's given special programming on how to discern between combatants and non-combatants so it can make combat decisions without input from its masters. Unfortunately, the protocols on what determines who is a "combatant" can be applied to the masters themselves. Whoops.
- Grey and Grey Morality: Most of his works have shades (hah) of this, mostly due to their Crapsack World settings.
- Made of Iron: Watts contracted Necrotizing Fasciitis. That's a flesh eating bacteria. What did he do? He blogged about it. The whole series of posts can be found here, under the title "Flesh Eating Fest '11". At one point, a nurse treating him said that he must have an extremely high pain tolerance.
- Overreacting Border Security: Watts had a now-infamous encounter on the U.S./Canadian border, during which he was maced and wrestled to the ground by a power-tripping border patrolman. The reason? Not reacting fast enough to a verbal command from the patrolman.
- Perspective Flip: His Hugo-nominated short story "The Things" is the events of the Cult Classic sci-fi movie The Thing from the alien's point-of-view.
- Reality Warper: Titular protagonist of "The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald".
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Very far towards the cynical end.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: Admits that he does not like to talk down to the readers.
- Tuckerization: Watts often rewards people who have been particularly helpful to his work by naming one of his characters after them, who then invariably die a horrible death.