One of the more peculiar novels I’ve read in a while, Watermind (2008) by M.M. Buckner felt a little like a book with an identity crisis: a unique amalgam of hard SF mystery, terrestrial first contact, unusual creature feature, near-future techno-thriller, and environmental allegory. I’m not sure it all entirely comes together, but it still kind of works…provided you don’t hitch your reading mindset too firmly to any one mode of interpretation.
While there are many characters, the star of the show is clearly the main protagonist CJ Reilly, an impulsive, quick-minded MIT drop-out and ne’er-do-well who has been drifting through life since her academic career went bust, living in the heavy shadow of a famous scientist father. Her latest stop in life, working on an environmental clean-up crew in the Mississippi delta, puts her on the scene of a scientific mystery when she and her new boyfriend, Creole musician Max Pottevents, stumble across a fascinating discovery: out of the toxic spew of river pollution, a weird entity has formed, soon to be called “the colloid.” The colloid is a spontaneously evolved “watermind” borne of years of advanced technology that has swept down through North America’s polluted river system. Fascinated by its properties after a mysterious first encounter, CJ wants to study the find, but this pits her against her boss Roman Sacony, an ambitious corporate bigwig on whose land the colloid has formed. Smelling lawsuits, Sacony wants the colloid contained and destroyed, and therein lies the central conflict of the novel, which escalates from slow-boiling mystery to full-blown adventure.
It’s a well paced and engagingly written novel, and Buckner has a sure hand with character, particularly Reilly, who is a well developed and lively protagonist — she’s perhaps a bit too plucky to be true, at times, but generally likeable and sympathetic. I found the main concept too implausible to swallow whole, but even so the premise is compellingly realized and neat enough that I was able to suspend disbelief (and my Mundane SF proclivities) to enjoy the ride. I ricocheted through several reading mindsets with this one — hard SF? monster movie? cautionary metaphor? — before deciding it was best read as a straight-up SF adventure, and I can picture it making a fun big budget film with its unique visual potential. There are aspects of the book I didn’t like — the obtrusively omniscient viewpoint (generally not my favorite narrative choice), a particularly unconvincing romantic subplot, the tendency of characters to talk to themselves — but for the most part I enjoyed the read. It’s a brisk, enjoyable book that tries to be many things, and mostly succeeds.