Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
Watermind cover Watermind by M. M. Buckner

Tor hardcover - 301 pages
Tor paperback - 353 pages
copyright 2008

Cover art by Getty Images (left)

Book reviewed in November 2009
Rating: 7/10  (Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

       When I reviewed M.M. Buckner's first novel Hyperthought in 2003, I tagged Buckner as a writer to watch and suggested she had great potential despite the flaws in HyperthoughtWatermind is Buckner's fourth novel, the first to appear in hardcover, and there is no longer any need to discuss her potential.  She has arrived, a talented author fully in command of her skills.  Watermind displays subtleties of characterization, description, and mood that are worlds beyond Buckner's first book.

Watermind begins in the present day, as a new form of life spontaneously emerges from the polluted waters of the Mississippi River.  It consists of a neural net embodied in a colloid or chemical solution of networked microprocessors, nano-devices, and organic waste.  Buckner is quite persuasive in making the spontaneous creation of this new type of life feel plausible.  Really, where better is there on earth today to find a "primordial soup" to generate life than the waters of the Louisiana delta?

Our heroine CJ Reilly ("CJ" for Carolyn Joan, but don't call her that to her face) first discovers this new life form in the aptly named Devil's Swamp near Baton Rouge, working on a cleanup crew at a toxic waste site owned by her high-tech employer Quimicron.  CJ quickly butts heads with Quimicron CEO Roman Sacony, who wants to eliminate the colloid before he gets sued over it.  Reilly wishes to preserve and study it, partly because she believes it may provide a means of cleaning polluted water--the colloid absorbs pollutants, leaving the water around it completely pure--but more because she feels a maternal bond with the strange entity, which she comes to believe is a self-aware "watermind."

CJ is determined to communicate with the watermind, but time is running short.  The watermind is growing quickly, and its tendencies to eat metal and occasionally turn to ice are proving dangerous to humans and destructive to shipping.

Watermind is written in the style of a near-future thriller, with short chapters from multiple viewpoint characters.  It put me strongly in mind of Michael Crichton's nanotech thriller Prey, but with far better writing.  I urge you to recommend this novel to any Crichton fans you know out there.  Watermind is what Michael Crichton would have written had he been a little less paranoid about technology and a little more skilled with his prose.

The biggest difference between Watermind and anything Crichton ever wrote is the superb characterization.  It starts with the main character CJ, charmingly called "Ceegie" by her Creole boyfriend Max Pottevents.  A brilliant young scientist, CJ has dropped out of her PhD program at MIT and been wandering aimlessly and taking odd jobs since the death of her father Harry, an equally brilliant scientist.  The trouble is not simply CJ's grief over his death, but her failure while he was alive to forge her own identity apart from her father.  This identity crisis partially explains CJ's reckless tendencies.  Ordinarily, it annoys me when a protagonist acts irrationally to move along a novel's plot, but in Watermind CJ's rash actions are consistent with her well-drawn character.

The supporting characters are also interesting.  CJ is drawn to her boss Roman Sacony, a handsome and powerful Argentine businessman, even though at times she thinks he's a jerk.  At first he seems to be filling the standard role in any thriller of the Asshole in Authority, but on further inspection he proves a somewhat sympathetic character, whose primary flaw is that he cannot overcome his culturally-ingrained need to display machismo.  CJ's ambivalent feelings toward him are believably presented:

Fully clothed except for his shoes, [Roman] lay curled in a tight fetal knot with his hands folded between his knees.  She winced.  He looked too vulnerable that way.  His folded hands embarrassed her.  She wanted him to sit up and snarl so she could snarl back.
Her feelings for this impossible man changed like weather.  She ran a fingertip over his eyebrows to smooth out the stress lines, the way she used to do for Harry.  Then she dumped a bottle of water in his face.
"Wake up, you bastard."

CJ's attraction to Roman makes her feel disloyal to Max, her boyfriend from the toxic cleanup crew, whom she believes she is dating merely because he is sweet.  There is more to Max than CJ realizes, and he may ultimately prove to hold the key to understanding the watermind.

Buckner also treats upstate Louisiana as a character.  She does an admirable job of capturing the culture and feel of the region, including not just the sights but also the smells and texture of the bayou as well as the sounds of zydeco music.  (Only taste is missing - I wanted more description of the food, 'cause I loves me some good Cajun and Creole cooking!)

While the main characters in Watermind are strong, I have a minor nitpick as to some of the side characters.  Buckner goes out of her way to introduce some interesting folks, such as unscrupulous reporter Hal Butler and fundamentalist Christian Rayette Batiste, but never does much with them in the story.  One pictures these characters hanging around Buckner's living room, begging her to write a sequel so they will have something to do.

My more serious complaint with Watermind is the pace of the plot.  The early sections in which CJ first discovers the watermind are excellent, particularly the gripping opening scene when CJ is swallowed up by the icy watermind.  The ending is also effective, even if it depends on a bit of a deus ex machina trick.  But there is a too long and too repetitive middle section, in which the watermind gradually makes its way down the Mississippi, while CJ tries to communicate with it and Roman tries to kill it.  Through this section, the story takes on the flat and stagnant feel of a Louisiana swamp.  Buckner needed to take it to the next level and turn the watermind into either a clear menace to all humanity (which could be done seriously la Crichton or tongue-in-cheek like The Blob) or a wonderful new type of intelligence with which mankind could make a transcendent first contact.

       Buckner tries to keep the true nature of the watermind ambiguous, but the result is the novel bogs down in the middle.  Yet the writing is so strong and the characters so compelling that even when the plot drags, Watermind still makes for engaging reading.  I am not usually a fan of techno-thrillers, but Watermind is one I can heartily recommend.
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Copyright 2009 Aaron Hughes

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M.M. Buckner - Wikipedia
Strange Horizons Reviews: Watermind by M. M. Buckner
F & SF: Book Reviews June/July 2009 (includes review of Watermind)
Asimov's Science Fiction: On Books (includes review of Watermind)

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