The focus of the first Rifter novel was very narrow. The story was told from one viewpoint, it took place at one location. Maelstrom is a very different type of novel. Many different viewpoints, mostly humans, but also one breathtaking sequence of events told from the viewpoint of a line of computer viruses, whose place in the overall scheme is not apparent at first. Thematically it’s, like most fiction by Watts, a hefty mix, incorporating many themes, but his pet peeve, the mental wiring of people is still one of the more dominant ones.
The main plot is about a race against time. Starfish ended with Lenie Clark surviving the attack on her life, still carrying a deadly virus. Now she’s back to get her revenge, whatever the cost. Maelstrom nicely draws the lines between the groups who are working against each other, without actually letting the reader easily fall back onto learned good vs bad patterns. Emotionally I was fully sympathetic to Lenie, while I hated the corpses. But Watts never forgot to remind everyone that Lenie’s success would be a very bad thing, while the success of the corpses a very good thing.
Maelstrom is an object lesson in how easily we can be manipulated by even a piece of fiction (something that is not too different from many news stories that follow the same principle). People rarely care for millions of people or the greater good. Mostly they care about the few people they know, even if those are about to do some very bad things. In the end, you remember not the faceless dead, but those whose name you knew or spend some time with.
Like I already said, Maelstrom is very different from Starfish, yet equally brilliant. If the first one was a slick indie movie, the second one is a big blockbuster with brains. The first one ended with an apparent apocalypse. If you want to guess for the ending of Maelstrom, you only need to remember that it’s written by Peter Watts.