The Deep Range by Arthur C Clarke
I almost let January slip by without making a post for Vintage Science Fiction month, but I’m getting my last-minute contribution in with a little-known book by Arthur C Clarke.
The Deep Range, first published in 1957, is a science fiction novel which takes place mostly on islands and submarines in the Pacific Ocean. Since I’m a former marine biologist, and we now have sixty additional years of scientific research, I thought I’d be punching holes right and left in the science of this book. Not so. Clarke mostly got the details right, and extrapolated some science-fiction ways of harnessing marine resources which would be effective, but cause a mass die-off of modern-day environmentalists due to stress. Clarke also nailed a couple of modern social/political developments, while missing on a couple of others. That is, I hope he missed, and that those developments are not in our near future.
In the novel, the Earth is largely run by the United Nations. This is a common setup in older science fiction. I don’t know if sci-fi authors at the time thought this was going to happen, or if it’s simpler to write a version of the future which doesn’t have international differences, or if this was just considered an interesting sci-fi aspect because it differed so much from the contemporary world.
The United Nations’ World Food Organization is responsible for all agriculture on land, and all management and harvesting of marine resources. If this were run with the efficiency and effectiveness of today’s UN, I’d expect that Earth could sustain a population of no more than ten thousand people.
Official United Nations Insult Counter: 1
The story mostly follows two men who work for the WFO’s Bureau of Whales. I’ve forgotten their names, so I’ll call them Nancy and Sally. Sally has worked for the bureau for a while, herding domesticated whales (which are harvested not so much for whale steaks as for fats and oils that go into processed foods) and trying to hunt predatory killer whales to extinction. He also fights a low-level political conflict with another WFO bureau which harvests plankton to go into soup that hungry humans are forced to eat. That’s the future UN for you: feeding you plankton soup, slaughtering everyone’s favorite large-brained mammals, and trying to blow up Shamu with torpedoes.
Official United Nations Insult Counter: 4
Nancy is brought in by the UN as Sally’s new employee. Nancy used to be an astronaut, but was stranded in space for a few hours at some point, leaving him so psychologically scarred that he couldn’t work in space any more, and apparently couldn’t even live on the Lunar or Martian colonies, where he has a wife and kids. So, he gets sent to Earth, leaving his family behind forever because they can’t handle the gravity. There’s another character in the book (it could be Sally, but I’m not sure) who dives inside some water-intake pipes to make a repair, and is so traumatized that he never goes underwater again. Apparently, some United Nations organization is also in charge of astronaut and diver manliness in the future.
Official United Nations Insult Counter: 5
I don’t know what’s wrong with these future people. I was left floating in the ocean, at night, for a couple of hours (bonus fear — the ocean has sharks) because a boat had to go off and deal with something that seemed more important at the time. I was back in the water the next day. I got lost for a few hours in a South American rainforest one night (bonus fear — there were tarantulas), and I was back in the jungle the next day. Of course, I never had an entire team of the UN’s top psychiatrists helping me to deal with my trauma. Perhaps that would have left me unable to function.
Official United Nations Insult Counter: 6
Anyway, Nancy gets assigned to work on a submarine. He has a history of mental crackups, so the UN sends him to work where other peoples’ lives depend on him, in a claustrophobic environment, surrounded by thousands of tons of crushing pressure. Why didn’t they go all out, and fill the submarine with spiders or snakes or scorpions or something? On top of that, they keep his condition secret from the rest of the crew, who know he didn’t just go from astronaut to submariner for no reason, so they don’t trust him and are always watching their backs instead of doing their jobs.
Official United Nations Insult Counter: 8
Ultimately, Nancy cracks up again, and takes a one-man sub into the deep as a suicide attempt. Unfortunately, his attempt fails. He is rescued by a submarine captain who everyone on the planet knows is a smuggler and poacher, but who never faces justice due to UN incompetence. When Nancy wakes up on the submarine, he discovers it’s on a big-game safari-style poaching trip, with the paying customers being UN bigwigs — the same bunch of guys who write the wildlife-management regulations and are responsible for poaching enforcement. So, Clarke predicted the future of governments in general, and the UN in particular, with this part. Nailed it.
Official United Nations Insult Counter: 11
The most interesting conflict comes late in the story, almost as a footnote. If it had been the central story of the novel, I think this would be a well-known, widely-read book today, rather than something I had to search out as an example of underwater sci-fi. This conflict is started by a Buddhist religious leader who has his own popular talk-radio program. (I thought political talk-radio was a wild prediction by Clarke, but after a little recollection and googling, I found a couple of historical examples which he might have just extrapolated.)
This Buddhist leader wants to ban the slaughtering of animals, and has decided that whales would be the best starting point, politically. This would, of course, put Sally and Nancy and the rest of the Bureau of Whales out of a job. Fortunately, the bureau has been working on a side project, planning to milk the whales instead of slaughter them. (This isn’t as silly as it sounds. The book doesn’t mention this, but whale milk is over 30% fat, versus around 3% for cows.) Sally tries to convince the BoW hierarchy to shift focus, even though it might result in lower short-term production, and also tries to convince the Buddhist leader to give him time to make the switch, rather than pressing for immediate closure of the BoW.
Ultimately, the plot lines involving Sally and Nancy aren’t very interesting, and the plot lines involving the Buddhist leader are too brief and not brought to a conclusion. Clarke also doesn’t seem interested in spicing up the novel with any action. There is a scene where a submarine is hunting a previously unknown species, basically a kraken, and then a pod of sperm whales attacks, but Clarke manages to keep it devoid of tension and emotion. Essentially, this story exists to showcase future potential technologies and ocean-management strategies.
The most interesting technology Clarke uses is the creation of artificial upwelling stations, which heat ocean-bottom seawater, causing it to rise and carry settled nutrients to the surface. Those nutrients cause algal blooms and an enormous increase in the biomass of sea life in the area. This technology would be effective, assuming your goal is the maximum harvestable biomass in the ocean. It would be a disaster for species of marine life adapted to live in low-nutrient environments, such as the open ocean, coral reefs, or seagrass beds. Also, Clarke has these stations powered by nuclear reactors, which were the low-maintenance, reliable solution of the 1950’s. Today, we would use some other power source, as modern marine biology teaches us that Clarke’s solution would create far too many Godzillas.
Finally, just in case you thought my review didn’t insult the United Nations enough, here’s an additional middle-finger salute for every man, woman, and child that lives, even nominally, under the authority of an organization which gives representation to the most vile and corrupt people on the planet:
Official United Nations Insult Counter: 7,500,000,011