July 18, 2008

Ebook review: Peter Watts' Starfish

Peter Watts: Starfish

This book is a 1999 first novel.  It is set primarily deep in the sea, near the volcanic vents where there is strange sealife that glows in the dark and have made other adaptations to the crushing pressure. 

At first, I had a really hard time getting into this novel.  I didn't like any of the main characters.  I didn't like the writing style either: it was hard to follow, weaving in and out of different viewpoints, and throwing lots of things at your without explaining the world or setting that the story takes place in.  Sometimes that can work well, and sometimes I prefer to have my sci-fi explained to me so I know what universe I'm in, what the rules are (hard sci-fi where it helps to know about quantum mechanics and the pauli exclusion principle?  soft sci-fi where technology is a black box?  fantasy where magic works?  fantasy where magic works but has rules?  and so on.) how to situate the characters. 

In fact, even up until halfway through the book, I really was having a hard time following things, and I didn't want to make the effort because I didn't like any of the characters.  I didn't like them at all.  I didn't empathize with them, and I didn't think these were interesting or fun people that I would want to meet in the real world.  I think that looking back on things, with a perspective of about a week, this was intentional on the part of the author.  I think all the disjointedness was trying to foster a feeling of pressure, stress, and discomfort because those are the feelings that they characters were going through.  I think it makes a bit of sense now.  By the end of the novel I still didn't like and didn't empathize with the characters much, but I was interested in them and wanted to see where the book was going.  I completely changed my opinion of the book from a real stinker to pretty good science fiction, and if I came across the other two books in the series, they would be on my "read" list.  I would actually like to buy ebook versions of them, but I don't think I'd go for paper versions (since I've documented that my space for meat-space things is dwindling rapidly.)

One of the things that changed my mind is that Peter Watts seems to know what he is talking about.  That isn't too difficult usually, because when we are not in our area of expertise it is pretty easy for other people to sound intelligent on a topic that we don't know much about.  In this case though, Peter Watts touched on neural networks a bit, and I do know a lot about neural networks.  I've used them in some experiments and am in one of the areas of computer science where things pop up (very very rarely, and only in fields tangential to my main core competencies) that use neural networks.  I was really surprised at how well the author understood neural networks when they are often treated as black boxes, and worse, attributed far too much "intelligence" for what they are (generally a collection of lots of simple sigmoid perceptrons or the like.) 

Even more randomly, I'm currently reading "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker, and a few topics from that popped up.  Actually, that made me wonder how much more I missed in this book because some of the things that were thrown in and just barely touched on were pretty accurate biological references to things I've also read about in Pinker's book.  In some of the more difficult hard-to-follow sections, a random character/voice "Broca" pops up, which is a reference to the section of the brain that controls one aspect of language.  I would have missed that completely because there is no explanation at all for this, but it works beautifully if you know the background.  I'm sure there is a lot of stuff from psychology that I just completed missed as well, but I was impressed that for the areas that I do know something about, Peter Watts has a completely believable interpretation in his book.  That is just nice to see. 

Anyway, I'm giving a mild recommend to Starfish only because I think it is a bit obtuse and hard to get into, but in the end is an enjoyable read.  I have to warn you that it ends on a pretty big cliffhanger, so you will probably want to read the follow-up novel.

Now for the good news: four of Peter Watts' books are available completely for free as ebooks!  I actually wish there was some way that I could buy them for about $2 each, which is what I feel is a good price for an ebook the way that I've been using them lately (I read for fun, not comprehension or retension, and use them to pass the time on the subway.)  It doesn't look like there is a way to donate on the site where the book are hosted, and I'm really surprised that these recent novels are available for free.  Where is the revenue stream there for the author?  I would like to support work that I enjoy, so I have no problem with paying for books, as long as I can get them DRM-free and at a reasonable price. 

The books are available on FeedBooks, which has a large collection of free ebooks (old, or licensed under creative commons licenses.) 




Comments

Provide your email address when commenting and Gravatar will provide general portable avatars, and if you haven't signed up with them, a cute procedural avatar with their implementation of Shamus Young's Wavatars.

Re: Ebook review: Peter Watts' Starfish
Hey by the way, do you happen to know if Kindle (amazon's ebook reader) is coming to Japan any time soon? I really wanted one in NY but gave up when I realized it wouldn't work in Tokyo (the wireless part anyway)...
Kyra
Posted 14 years, 2 months ago by Kyra • • • Reply
Re: Ebook review: Peter Watts' Starfish
Hi Kyra! I haven't heard about a Japanese release of Kindle, but I have asked around a little bit. I haven't met anyone that is in the know about that, but my guess is that a Japanese version is in the works, it is just a question of time.

In the meantime, I've really loved using my OLPC as an ebook reader. Since I moved to my new job and new house, my commute is down to a piddly 25 minutes, compared to my previous hour. I don't have as much time to read!!
Posted 14 years, 2 months ago by Fugu • @wwwReply

Comments have now been turned off for this post