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Literature / Rifters Trilogy

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"Take a dozen children, any children. Beat and mix thoroughly until some lumps remain. Simmer for two to three decades; bring to a slow, rolling boil. Skim off the full-blown psychotics, the schizoaffectives, the multiple personalities, and discard. Let cool. Serve with dopamine garnish. What do you get? Something bent, not broken. Something that fits into cracks too twisted for the rest of us."
—Excerpt from personal diary of Yves Scanlon, N'AmPac GA Industrial Psych

A Speculative Fiction series by sci-fi author Peter Watts. Taking place 20 Minutes into the Future, the series is set in a Crapsack World where the end is nigh.

The N'Am-Pac Grid Authority is building geothemeral power plants at the bottom of the ocean, along tectonic rifts. But constructing and staffing these stations is a problem, since people are hard to keep alive and functional at such depths. As such, the company has developed certain cybernetic enhancements for its workers, resulting in the titular "Rifters". With one of their lungs replaced with complex machinery, a Rifter can breathe underwater indefinitely as well as function in the crushing depths of the deep sea. Combined with a self-cleaning skinsuit, a voice-modulator for speaking underwater, and light-amplifying "eyecaps", a Rifter can feel more at home in the deep than anywhere else.


The thing is: normal people tend to suffer complete nervous breakdowns when they're miles underwater, literally under extreme pressure where they might die at any moment from the many dangers of the rift. So in a somewhat questionable bit of decision-making, the company decides to recruit new Rifters from people who are already psychologically damaged - in other words: abuse victims, war vets, criminals, etc. This ends up working surprisingly well since these people, already used to living in constant stress, are better able to mentally handle the rift. Of course, this can (and does) lead to a bit of friction between the staff, seeing as they're all disturbed individuals. This becomes a recipe for disaster when, deep within the Juan de Fuca rift, an ancient microbe is discovered. One that has been isolated for over two billion years and that could mean the end of all life on the surface. And the people put in charge of containing it feel less and less connected to humanity every day...


Originally written by Watts as a trilogy of three novels: Starfish, Maelstrom, and βehemoth. However, due to Executive Meddling, βehemoth was split and published as βehemoth: β-Max and βehemoth: Seppuku. This, among with other troubles from the publisher, means that printed versions of the novels are hard to find in stores, so Watts ended up puting all the novels for free on his website.

Tropes found in the Rifters Trilogy:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Shows up several times -
    • The internet is no longer trustworthy due to being overwhelmed by self-evolving viruses - and the descendants of self-evolving anti-viruses that got out of control.
    • The "smart gels" (used to filter the net, fly lifters, and other things) have to be trained to perform their jobs, which may result in them learning unintended lessons. The gel running the quarantine's previous job had been as an anti-"wildlife" filter, which meant it had been taught to filter out complex computer programs (the "wildlife") while letting simpler ones (the files) through. It absorbed from this a preference for simple things over complex ones. βehemoth is much simpler than the present biosphere. Oops.
  • Anti-Hero: Lenie Clarke alternates between this and Villain Protagonist.
  • Anyone Can Die: And how!
  • Apocalypse How: The βehemoth outbreak threatens a Class 5 - the end of multicellular life. If it continues unabated, all life will die of nutrient deficiency, especially sulfur deficiency. Only the continued survival of βehemoth itself would keep such a situation from reaching a full-blown Class 6.
  • Apparently Human Merfolk: The Rifters.
  • Artificial Gill: The Rifters do not breathe air when they leave the habitat. Instead, oxygen is electrolysed directly from the seawater by a electrolysis assembly in the left side of their thorax, which is then introduced directly into their pulmonary vein.
  • Becoming the Mask: Achilles developed mental blocks and a "nice guy" persona in an attempt to clamp down on his innate sadistic sexual urges. When an enthusiastic masochist asks him to get rough with her while they're in the sack together, he finds himself suddenly unable to perform. He then insults her by asking if she's ever sought therapy for her "problem", and she leaves in disgust. Later on, when his capacity for guilt is removed later on the mask is smashed to pieces.
  • Berserk Button: Gerry Fischer causes this for Mike Brander in Starfish; Mike beats Gerry to within an inch of his life multiple times for minor things. It's implied that this is because Brander was sexually abused as a child, and Fischer is a pedophile.
  • Crapsack World: Rising sea waters have turned the entire west coast of North America into a four thousand mile long refugee camp known as "The Strip", where most of the refugees are crammed into giant ghettos and pacified with mood-altering drugs. Also, mutated super-diseases are running amok, parts of America resemble something out of Mad Max, governments have resorted to desperate measures to keep things together (the standard type of government is called Eco-Totalitarianism), and big corporations can get away with all sorts of immoral jerkassery...
    • This is the setting of the story, when we first start off. The entire series is a long series of "...and then it gets worse", ad nauseam.
  • Cyberpunk: Lets see: Crapsack World, Cyborgs, MegaCorps, Government Drug Enforcement, a Used Future with pervasive advanced technology but a low standard of living for most people regardless, computers and computer hacking everywhere... seems like cyberpunk. Or at the very least neo-cyberpunk.
    • Bio Punk: Messing with brain chemistry to make people better suited to certain tasks is a common security measure. Supercomputers are commonly made of human brain cells.
  • Cyborg: The Rifters are cyber-merpeople.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Perhaps the most sympathetic character, which is a pretty jarring example of the state of the world in-story.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Pretty much every Rifter. Justified (see Dysfunction Junction entry).
  • Death by Irony: Happens to Alice Jovellanos. She intentionally infects Achilles with "Spartacus", a virus that removes his GuiltTrip virus but has the unfortunate side effect of removing his natural guilt. Achilles ends up torturing and killing her to satisfy his now un-chained sadistic urges. Oops.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: What Achilles does to a doctor who refuses to treat his dying cat and chides him for wasting dwindling resources when the circumstances are so desperate. He paralyses him and incinerates his baby and his wife, saving him for last.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Justified. N'Am-Pac deliberately chooses people who have come to perceive extreme stress and danger as "normal" to be Rifters. Having an extremely messed-up life is one way to achieve such a state.
    • Of course, the other way is to make people messed up by implanting false memories.
  • The Empath: the Psychic Powers available in this universe basically take this form.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Even before the novels start the world is already halfway to the end. At the end of the first book, the microbe "βehemoth" threatens to kill just about everything on the planet. North America becomes a devastated wasteland in the second and third books.
    • The counteragent to βehemoth, "Seppuku", gets rid of βehemoth by rewriting people's mitochondria. This has the unfortunate (but unavoidable) consequence of causing mutations in anything affected and fundamentally altering all life on Earth into some new and never before seen form.
  • Everything Is Online: Averted. Actually, in this world, the trend is to move away from connecting everything to the 'net, because once viruses started to evolve without human input, the resulting Maelstrom became a feeding frenzy of "wildlife."
  • Explosive Breeder: Prior to the events of the books, most of North America is covered by what's known as "Kudzu4", a genetically super-charged solution to global warming that may or may not have spiraled out of control.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Lenie Clarke after she crosses the Despair Event Horizon at the end of Starfish and begins trying to deliberately spread βehemoth, making her the Villain Protagonist for most of Maestrom.
    • Achilles after being infected with a virus that removes his ability to feel guilt.
  • Fake Memories: A particularly horrific example.
    • Lenie was given false memories of having been being sexually abused by her father as a child to deliberately turn her into the sort of complete wreck of a person N'Am-Pac considers as potential Rifter material.
  • Fan Disservice: The graphic scenes Achilles sexually torturing and mutilating Taka. Not to mention the brief glimpses we have of Achilles's alone time (in his personal VR sims), or the way he first became aware of his sexual sadist tendencies as a young boy (when he convinced his little sister to jump off a roof and then got turned on by the sight of her lying injured on the ground).
    • Lenie intentionally cutting the inside of her vagina before sex so she's more likely to pass The Plague on to her partner wasn't exactly appealing either, except maybe if you have odd tastes.
    • And then there's the time Lenie casually lets a gangster rape her in exchange for passage through his turf.
  • For the Evulz: It's pointed out to Achilles that he can always satisfy his evil urges in highly realistic virtual reality simulations (in fact, this was exactly what he did before his Face–Heel Turn). His reply:
    "It's not about the sights or the smells, okay? You can't hurt a hallucination. It's play-acting. What's the point of torturing something that can't even suffer?"
  • French Jerk: Achilles Desjardins. Well not French, but still close enough to count (he is from Quebec).
  • Freudian Excuse: Gerry Fischer's pedophilia is due to him having an incredibly screwed up notion of human relationships due to childhood sexual abuse, and if we believe his flashback is an actual memory it seems the girl who abused him was herself sexually abused by her father and she raped Fischer because she had accepted her father's explanation that "this is what you do when you really love somebody".
    • In a subversion, the author seems to use Fischer to mock the concept that evil acts can be more or less excusable depending on motivation:
    "It's not so much what you did, Fischer had learned, as why you did it. If you did things because you were evil, you were in real trouble. If you did the same things because you were sick, though, the doctors would sometimes cover for you. Fischer had learned to be sick."
  • Gangsterland: In the future history of this series, America's east coast has become an enormous urban sprawl run by street gangs.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Passed several times throughout the series, starting with a Nuke 'em All near the end of the first book and escalating from there.
  • Gone Horribly Right: In the third book we find out that the original organism was modified in order to increase its reproduction rate, and thus its mutation rate, to see if it could be used commercially (drug delivery, et al), which lead to βehemoth, and eventually the β-max strain.
    • Spartacus, it removed Guilt Trip, but also one's natural sense of guilt, and thus conscience.
  • Government Drug Enforcement: The food provided to the refugees in the Strip is laced with mood-altering drugs to keep them docile.
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: Most of the characters don't really fit well into conventional hero/villain categories, and even the one character who would be seen as pure evil in any other setting is evil because his brain was badly tinkered with.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Lenie Clarke, after being a bit of the Villain Protagonist in Maelstrom, goes back to being an Anti-Hero with shades of The Atoner in βehemoth.
    • Meanwhile, Achilles goes in the exact opposite direction...
  • Imaginary Friend: Shadow, who is either Gerry Fischer's Imaginary Friend or an alternate personality.
  • Karma Houdini: Lenie Clarke never really receives any dramatic comeuppance for deliberately spreading an apocalyptic plague. It's surprisingly not too bothersome to the reader, partially because it's not really that kind of universe, and partially because she's such a woobie that you just can't bring yourself to wish even more suffering on her. It helps that she readily admits she has been responsible for millions of deaths and doesn't try to excuse or justify herself.
    • It's made clear in the third book that she does feel guilt about her actions. Plus, it could be said that karma bit her in the ass when at the end of the series everyone in and around Atlantis is killed by Achilles's torpedoes. Everyone she came close to caring about was there.
  • Loss of Inhibitions: Achilles Desjardins is a Sadist and uses sophisticated technology to control his urges. Once it is gone, his sadism becomes his primary motivation.
  • Made of Iron: Ken Lubin still manages a pretty decent showing in the final showdown at the end of βehemoth, considering he'd been blinded (eyes destroyed by acid, and later one is gouged out) and then mauled by giant mutant attack dogs. Justified as he's an assassin with biotech enhancements. And he's just that determined to get revenge on Achilles.
  • Made of Plasticine: The unnaturally large deep-sea fish near Channer Vent have incredibly fragile bodies.
    • They attack the rifters indiscriminately, but their gigantic razor-sharp-looking teeth just break off against the rifter's bodies. Most rifters just tear the fish apart with their bare hands; the fish just literally almost fall apart.
    • Justified in that Channer Vent is a veritable desert in terms of nutrients, and the fish are extra malnourished due to their unnatural growth (because of βehemoth's symbiotic nature).
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: Neurobiology is one of Peter Watts's areas of interest, so it's no surprise this shows up quite a bit.
    • Karl Acton's personality changes after he cuts back on his neuroinhibitors, allowing the high pressure of the deep sea to cause his neurons to fire faster. This has the side effect of giving him Psychic Powers.
    • Achilles Desjardins's sexual sadism is implied to be the result of faulty neural wiring due to genetics or some other physiochemical factor.
    • A minor character in Maelstrom is noted as having suicidal tendencies due to genetics, and a minor character in βehemoth has emotional problems due to a physio-chemical imbalance.
    • GuiltTrip, a drug that compels its user to do "good" things (whatever "good" is defined as, that is). And alongside it, "Absolution", a drug that removes any feelings of remorse after you've done something that you might consider horrible under the effects of GuiltTrip.
      • An example: You need to burn a whole city block to the ground to prevent a deadly contagion from spreading to save a whole country. GuiltTrip will compel you to do so, even if you don't want to kill those innocent people, because doing so will save many more people and is therefore more "good". Absolution will make you not feel actual guilt from your actions, so you're not constantly haunted by what you've done.
    • It's implied that Achilles Desjardins's strong attachment to his pet cat may be partially a side effect of the biological modifications he's received.
    • The Government Drug Enforcement scheme in the Strip is another variation on the theme.
    • Achilles Desjardins's Face–Heel Turn is caused by him being infected with a virus that removes his ability to feel all guilt (even natural guilt). Somewhat averted in that Ken Lubin doesn't have a Face–Heel Turn after being infected with the same virus.
  • Mind Rape: What was done to Lenie Clarke is almost literally this, since it consisted of giving implanting false memories of childhood sexual abuse.
  • Mind Virus: GuiltTrip, though it can be administered as a drug, can be spread like a virus through exposure to bodily fluids and the such.
  • Moral Sociopathy: Ken Lubin doesn't have a biochemical conscience or a feeling of guilt after infection with Absolution. He remains a...somewhat decent person despite this.
  • More Than Mind Control: The mind-viruses "GuiltTrip" and "Absolution". The first renders the victim unable to perform or even contemplate doing something that they would consider "bad" (in other words, something they'd feel guilty about). The second, on the flipside, lets the user not feel any guilt, at all, after being compelled to do something they'd normally consider horrible.
    • Lubin's "Conditioned Killing Response" is a more extreme variation of GuiltTrip; since his background is in espionage, he's been conditioned to casually murder anyone who he feels has found him out.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: The "transferable disease" type. Most modern life on Earth is understood to be the result of a Martian Impact event in prehistory dubbed "Martian Mike". However, Earth actually developed life of its own before Martian Mike, and forms The Plague capable of outperforming the mitochondria in our cells.
  • Older Than They Look: Gerry Fischer is busted by the police when he falls for a sting which uses a man who has been artificially transformed into an apparent child as bait.
  • One Last Job: Joel Kita, the scaphe pilot, was planning to move somewhere else after the trip to Beebe.
  • Parental Incest: Lenie was sexually abused by her father in her youth. It affected her so badly that she sees shades of incest in every father-daughter relationship she encounters, to the point where she's tempted to kill the fathers of young girls she meets. It turns out that these memories of incest are fake and that her relationship with her late parents was most likely quite normal and healthy.
  • The Plague: βehemoth, obviously. In the the book βehemoth, the counteragent Seppuku is feared to cause another plague.
  • Psychic Powers: Justified in-universe and explained as a side-effect of the way the brain utilizes quantum effects in its functioning, and can be induced by tweaking with the firing-rate of your neurons (or through sensory deprivation). However, see Science Marches On below. Even then, they're treated as "hard" as possible.
  • Rape as Backstory: The pedophile rifter Gerry Fischer has an extremely warped view of relationships due to childhood sexual abuse and genuinely believes his molestations of children are a form of love.
    • Lenie Clarke was raped by her father as a child according to her implanted memories.
  • Restraining Bolt: Part of what GuiltTrip is intended to function as; a biotechnological mechanism that will kill the person who carries it if they deviate from a programmed acceptable set of behaviors. All senior "lawbreakers" are infected with it, and as such, aren't not subject to any serious security or overwatch because it's assumed they'd never break any rules. The virus Alice infects Achilles with ("Spartacus") is designed to free him from this, but it also renders the person unable to feel natural guilt.
  • Right Hand Versus Left Hand: What turns the first novel into a trilogy. After βehemoth is identified, everyone involved starts screaming at everyone else involved;
    Rowan: ...Tanaka-Krueger wouldn't trust Japan. And then the Columbian Hegemony wouldn't trust Tanaka-Krueger. And the Chinese, of course, they don't trust anybody since Korea...
    Scanlon: Kin selection... Tribal loyalties. Never give the competition an edge. It's basically genetic.
    • ...resulting in everyone not only turning responsibility over to a smart gel, not only pulling one from the network at random, but also refusing to tell the programming team what they were doing! So the programmers were never told they were supposed to give the gel a certain directive; save human civilization. And as the gel's previous function was to protect files from viruses, it thus decides that βehemoth's simpler structure is a file and Earth's biosphere is a virus threatening it — and does everything within its completely unlimited authority to hand the planet over to βehemoth on a silver platter.
    You gave us the job, they'd said. You didn't tell us what was at stake. You didn't even really tell us what we were doing.
  • Sadist: Desjardins is a sadist in the sexual sense, getting off on subjecting women to violent torture. Prior to the removal of his Restraining Bolt, he used simulations to scratch this itch. Once the Restraining Bolt is gone, taking his normal sense of guilt with it, his sadism becomes his primary motivation. He intends to prolong the βehemoth crisis for as long as possible, since that will make his help so important that the authorities will look the other way when he becomes a Serial Killer.
  • Science Marches On: When Watts initially wrote the first book, he based the Psychic Powers in it off of a recent study that showed a very slight ESP-like effect in some sensory-deprived people; Watts simply extrapolated the effect into the Psychic Powers showed in the novel. However, by the time the later books came out, further studies had overturned the first study, casting doubt on the existence of the effect. Watts himself admitted this in the acknowledgements in the second and third books, but pretty much kept the effect in-universe because it was too cool to give up.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: βehemoth, which was safely trapped at the bottom of the ocean before Lenie Clarke brought it to land.
    • Eventually revealed she wasn't the first vector, there were several before her, but she was the one to succeed in bring it mainland.
  • Shout-Out: The bootleg TheraPal software Achilles confesses to as a teenager uses dialogue ("Could you be more specific?") from the confession booths in THX 1138.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Lenie after finding out that the childhood memories of being raped by her father are fake.
  • Typhoid Mary: Lenie Clarke
  • Unreliable Narrator: In the first book, whenever the narrative is following Gerry's point-of-view, it's unclear whether "Shadow" is based on Gerry Fischer's memory of a girl who abused him, or she's completely imaginary and represents something else. There's also the subtle implication that his actual abuser may have been one of his parents and he's repressed the memory.
  • Used Future: A lot of the settings in the book are definitely toward the gritty end of the Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty. Despite the relatively advanced nature of the technology described in the series, most everything seems to be ugly, broken down, dirty, etc.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Alice Jovellanos. She believed that guilt was unnecessary and counterproductive to her job as a "lawbreaker", since anything guilt does could be done better by simply thinking about the ethics of your actions in a logical manner. She "frees" Achilles from the Restraining Bolt of GuiltTrip (and his natural sense of guilt) thinking that he will be able to handle it because she believes he is a good person. This, of course, turns out to be horrifically incorrect; she didn't know him anywhere near as well as she thought she did.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Lenie Clark in Maelstrom.