Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | September 21, 2008

Josef Assad: The Banjo Players Must Die || Peter Watts: Starfish

So I started reading Josef Assad’s 175-page farce about the end of the world, The Banjo Players Must Die, because I kind of wanted to know why, as the title suggests, the banjo players ought to suffer the aforementioned fate. But you know, like my mother always said, “if you don’t have anything nice to [blog], don’t [blog] it at all.” I should’ve known from the fact that the main character of the novel has an unpleasant attraction to hamsters that it would all end in tears. Verdict: Funny Book, No Punchline. And please for the love of all that is holy check for typos! Typos, man!

But that’s certainly not long enough for a week’s entry, so I metaphorically reached into the (also metaphorical) pit of books that is my filing ‘system,’ and pulled out an absolutely beautiful science fiction novel that I can’t wait to say good things about. Let the blogging begin.

Peter Watts’ 1999 novel Starfish takes place, for the most part, underwater. Its characters are verging on the posthuman to begin with: they’ve been mechanically modified to be able to survive at great oceanic depths for long periods of time. But it’s their psychological changes that, for me, make this book a glory of what I suppose you could call ‘on-the-cusp’ posthumanism. Watts has a singular knack for getting the reader inside the heads of all the characters (even the ones that are ‘villains’ — or at least villainous). I found myself developing empathy for them all, even when their interests clashed with each other. The conscious play with cognitive dissonance is brilliant, for starters. Moreover, the empathy the reader develops allows him or her to get dangerously close to some pretty profound psychological landscapes.

That Watts is, by profession, a marine biologist, would lead one to think that the book would be focused on the science. This book could have been a run-of-the-mill hard skiffy about people with metal lungs, which would have been okay, I guess. But instead, it’s a study of the changes stressful environments wreak on already fragile, even already broken, human psyches. They’re living in a world that is beautifully crafted, intricate in detail, with tons of throwaway ideas of what the future could be like, but that’s not the story. A lot of writers would be happy just to create a world like that and let it run away with itself, but Watts makes it the setting for an equally intricate plot played out by three-dimensional characters. It is those characters and their shift away from human psychological norms that really identifies this book, for me, as a kind of posthuman study.

As a general rule, I don’t like to give away much about the books I’m reviewing so that you, the reader, will go out and get them yourself. I hope I haven’t disappointed — go out and get it yourself. Read it!

That said, this book just screams for a sequel or two, and — praise God, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu (Kurzweil for some) or whoever you please — we have indeed been so blessed. I’m getting them now. I’ll let you know how they go.


Starfish, originally published by the wonderful people at Tor, has been made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike license. It can be downloaded here at the author’s site, or else bought from your local purveyor of hopefully recycled dead trees, or hey, you can buy it right now at

Oh, and if you want you can find The Banjo Players Must Die here. It’s released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.


  1. Thomas, thanks for the look. Sounds like it wasn’t a complete waste of your time which is good enough for a guy who has no plans to try for pro at any point (bet you’re relieved) 🙂 I’ll make sure to look at Starfish.

    PS: Typos? Oh dear. And I usually pride myself on my spelling…

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