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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."
Yves Scanlon, N'AmPac GA Industrial Psych, excerpt from personal diary

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, since 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, along 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.
  • 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 are modified humans (cybernetics and genetic engineering are used) who can survive in deep sea conditions. In fact, they prefer the sea to staying in their confined Underwater Base.
  • Artificial Gill: The Rifters do not breathe air when they leave the habitat. Instead, oxygen is electrolyzed directly from the seawater by an electrolysis assembly in the left side of their thorax, which is then introduced directly into their pulmonary vein.
  • Awesome Underwater World: Starfish has this spectacularly — its deep-sea vent setting is stunning, with every excursion by its genetically modified protagonists a brush with death, darkness-induced telepathy, undersea robots, and giant versions of "regular" vent creatures... which aren't nearly as dangerous as their land-based counterparts. Its sequel, while still having an interesting, land-based setting, isn't nearly as astounding. Of course, Starfish can't help but include this trope, what with Watts being a marine biologist and all.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: Let's see: Crapsack World, Cyborgs, Mega Corps, 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.
  • 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 — see the Dysfunction Junction entry. Many of the supporting, non-Rifter characters have these as well, notably Achilles, giving somewhat of a Freudian Excuse to his eventual Face–Heel Turn.
  • Death by Irony: This 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: When a doctor refuses to treat Achilles' dying cat and chides him for wasting dwindling resources when the circumstances are so desperate, Achilles paralyses the doctor and incinerates his baby and his wife, saving him for last.
  • Divided for Publication: βehemoth was split by Tor Publishing into two books: βehemoth: β-Max and βehemoth: Seppuku. This did not go over well with Watts.
  • 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 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: Inverted. The trend is actually 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 of 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 that she'll be more likely to pass The Plague on to her partner isn'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's from Quebec).
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • Zig-zagged with Gerry Fischer. His 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". However, 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.
    • Lenie becomes Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds in Maelstrom after N'Am-Pac tries to kill everyone on Beebe Station. Combined with the fake memories of her abusive childhood, this pushes her over the Despair Event Horizon.
  • 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 near the end of the first book and escalating from there.
  • Gone Horribly Right:
    • In the third book, we find out that the original nanobacterium 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 led to βehemoth and eventually the β-max strain.
    • Spartacus removes GuiltTrip, 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-Gray 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.
  • Humans Are Psychic in the Future: Telepathy is explained as a result of quantum entanglement processes in the brain. People can "tune in" to other people's minds under favourable conditions, mostly involving chemically-induced altered states of mind.
  • Imaginary Friend: Shadow is either Gerry Fischer's imaginary friend or an alternate personality.
  • Just Before the End: The West Coast (well, the part that isn't a four-thousand-mile-long, one-mile-deep refugee camp) is run by the power company. The East Coast is an enormous urban sprawl run by street gangs. The bit in between is run by Kudzu4. The currency is the Quebuck, a new drug-resistant disease breaks out every 24 hours on average, and the vestigial remains of the North American government has been reduced to sporadically napalming the whole mess just to keep things down. That's just the how bad things are at the start. The first book could be described as just before the end, the second one as the beginning of the end, and the third book as the end well into the process of happening.
  • 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 given her circumstances, you just can't bring yourself to wish even more suffering on her. It helps that she readily admits to being responsible for millions of deaths and doesn't try to excuse or justify herself. However, 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 everyone in and around Atlantis is killed by Achilles's torpedoes at the end of the series. 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 the restraints are 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 that he'd been blinded (eyes destroyed by acid, and one is later gouged out) and then mauled by giant mutant attack dogs. Justified as he's an assassin with biotech enhancements and 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 Rifters' 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 is a drug that compels its user to do "good" things (whatever "good" is defined as, that is). Alongside it, "Absolution" 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). Subverted with Ken Lubin, who 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: The series features several, most notably "GuiltTrip", which forces its victims to always do "good" things (and severely punishes them, through pain or death, for failing to do so). A government agency purposefully infects its employess with GuiltTrip, reasoning that by doing so they do not have to worry about security anymore, since nobody would dare attempt to subvert or steal anything. Though it can be administered as a drug, GuiltTrip can be spread like a virus through exposure to bodily fluids and 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 Teeth than the Osmond Family: The deep-sea fish near Channer Vent are like this, but their teeth are so brittle that when one tries to bite a person's arm off, the teeth shatter.
  • More than Mind Control: The "GuiltTrip" mind-virus 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). "Absolution", 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 believes has found him out.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: A rare justified (and partially averted), scientifically plausible example of the "transferable disease" type. Most modern life on Earth is understood to have originated from a Martian impact event in prehistory dubbed "Martian Mike". However, some life had already evolved before Martian Mike near Earth's hydrothermal vents. This tiny nanobacterium, later dubbed βehemoth, evolved to be extremely efficient to eke out life on the ocean floor, as its biology means that both high salinity and low temperatures interfere with its metabolism. When βehemoth is accidentally carried out of its native habitat, it turns out that its extreme efficiency allows it to absolutely thrive and outcompete any terrestrial organism in any environment which isn't as cold and salty as the sea floor, a description that includes virtually all of Earth, including the inside of living cells, in which it replicates using the abundant amount of nutrients present until the host runs out and dies. The partial aversion is that while βehemoth's biochemistry is close enough to normal life that it can eat the latter, βehemoth has evolved such a mineralized cell wall that normal life can't even recognize it as alive, so there's no immune response and any organism that could eat βehemoth wouldn't even recognize it as food.
  • 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.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: In Starfish, the psychologist Yves Scanlon starts to think of the Rifters as vampires after he discovers numerous parallels; very pale skin, unusual eyes (the Rifters wear their eyecaps most of the time), sociopathy, increasingly abnormal behavior, no breath (in water), seemingly supernatural abilities, aversion to mirrors, etc.
  • 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 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 in the Trivia page. Even then, they're treated as "hard" as possible.
  • Rape as Backstory:
    • The pedophilic Rifter Gerry Fischer has an extremely warped view of relationships due to childhood sexual abuse and genuinely believes that his molestation of children is a form of love.
    • Lenie Clarke was raped by her father as a child according to her implanted memories.
  • Restraining Bolt: This is 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, they aren't subject to any serious security or overwatch because it's assumed that they'd never break any rules. The virus that Alice infects Achilles with ("Spartacus") is designed to free him from this, but it also renders him unable to feel natural guilt.
  • Right Hand Versus Left Hand: This is what turns the first novel into a trilogy. After βehemoth is identified, everyone involved starts screaming at everyone else involved, 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! The programmers were never told they were supposed to give the gel a certain directive; save human civilization. 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 GuiltTrip Restraining Bolt, he used simulations to scratch this itch. Once GuiltTrip 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, which will make his help so important that the authorities will look the other way when he becomes a Serial Killer.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: βehemoth was safely trapped at the bottom of the ocean before Lenie Clarke brought it to the mainland. It's eventually revealed that she wasn't the first vector (there were several before her), but she was the only one to succeed in spreading it.
  • 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.
  • Troubled Abuser: One of the characters in Starfish is a pedophile named Gerry Fischer. At some points, the narration follows his point of view, and it's revealed that he himself was molested as a child.
  • Typhoid Mary: Lenie Clark carries βehemoth back to the surface world. However, she isn't a totally straight example since she spreads it deliberately.
  • Ultraterrestrials: A non-sapient example. Most life on Earth is descended from Martian Mike; however, Earth actually developed life of its own near its hydrothermal vents, where it stayed for billions of years while terrestrial life dominated the planet. Billions of years later, a geothermal energy program accidentally brings some of this life, dubbed βehemoth, to the surface, and it turns out that when it isn't spending most of its energy surviving on the sea floor, it's more efficient than any equivalent terrestrial life form and can easily outcompete them, even the mitochondria inside of other living cells. The end result: The Plague, technically-not-Alien Kudzu, and a Class 5 Apocalypse How in the making all wrapped into one.
  • Unreliable Narrator: In the first book, whenever the narrative is following Gerry Fischer's point of view, it's unclear whether "Shadow" is based on Gerry's memory of a girl who abused him or if 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 that he's repressed those memories.
  • 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., particularly during Lenie Clarke's cross-country tour-o'-death in Maelstrom.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Alice Jovellanos believes that guilt is unnecessary and counterproductive to her job as a "lawbreaker", since anything that guilt does can 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), believing that he'll be able to handle it because she considers him 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.