Peter Watts. A Niche. (Tesseracts 3, 1994.)

Well, COVID-19 had the effect of isolating me at home, and I got through work in the garden that would have taken many weekends, and I put the brewing on hold to whilst the lockdown is in place, and ended up with some spare time and decided to read some SF. I picked up the Nebula Awards Showcase 2019 volume, knowing that there were a couple of stories to be read, but sadly they were fantasy/horror, so they weren’t any good. I wondered where to go for some good old-fashioned SF, but didn’t have to look far, as when I shelved the aforementioned SFWA book, just a few books away from it was David G. Hartwell/Kathryn Cramer’s ‘The Hard SF’ Renaissance, which was published back in 2002.

The predecessor volume, ‘The Ascent of Wonder’ is notable in my reading history, as I reckon it was the final volume I ever read in bed before going to sleep. Yup, there were halcyon days where I could go to bet at night and the wife and I would sit reading for a while. She still manages to do that, but once I’m in bed I’m pretty much ready for sleep and there’s no way I could start reading before the lids would start to droop. I’m one of those guys who is asleep and snoring pretty much as soon as my head hits the pillow. Somehow I actually start snoring *before* I’m asleep, but by some strange trick, I’m totally oblivious to my snoring even though I’m awake.

So I picked up the big ‘ol paperback of Hartwell/Cramer and looked through the contents. I’m not 100% sure I read the whole book back in the day, and some story titles rang definite bells, but I spotted Peter Watts’ name, and as I’ve invariably enjoyed his writing, chose this story.

His story perhaps draws on the James Cameron movie ‘The Abyss’* which came out shortly before this story was published in it’s deep ocean bed setting. There is a two-woman crew in ‘Beebe Station’ and the main protagonist, Lenie Clarke clearly has issues. We get her internal monologue as she interacts, reluctantly with fellow-crewmember Ballard (Clark and Ballard!). Both have had surgery to enable them to swim at great depth and without oxygen, but Clark is happy to remain in her wetsuit and with her corneal covers in place whilst on the ship. Over a couple of trips out of the vessel we find out more about Clarke, and in the final denouement a lot about her background and her evident addiction to risk and threat is revealed, as is more about the nature of the experimentation that is taking place.

Altogether a fine bit of short SF. And the story is available online on Watts’ ‘Rifters’ website. If you like the story, it became the first chapter of Watts’ first novel ‘Starfish’, the first of his ‘Rifters’ trilogy (this gleaned from Wikipedia).

*A film I quite enjoy watching when it appears on TV, one of those that irritates my wife immensely ‘ “Oh not *this one*, AGAIN!” She thinks I watch it just to perv over Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, but ‘just’ isn’t fair.

[27th March 2020]

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