Book Review: Involution Ocean, Bruce Sterling (1977)


(Tim White’s cover for the 1980 edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

“Turn and look behind you, reader. Can you see the crater now? It is wide, round, magnificent; within it shimmers a sea of air above a sea of dust. Almost a million human beings live within this titanic hole, this incredible crater, this single staring eye in the face of an empty planet” (119).

In my youth naval history and fiction transfixed: from the capture of the Spanish Xebec El Gamo by Lord Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald to C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower sequence, inspired in part by Lord Cochrane’s career.  I assessed each novel and memoir on whether or not I felt like I was on a sea-going vessel, holding the ropes in calloused hands, trapped belowdeck in a storm, yanking the lanyard on a cannon’s gunlock… With a dictionary of naval terms on my desk, I looked up each and every reference, memorized the cross-sections of frigates and the intricacies of the chain of command.  I recoiled with grim fascination as Hornblower–fresh off the harrowing loss of the HMS Sutherland and desperate to escape the French countryside–peers at Lieutenant Bush’s amputated leg and checks the inserted cloth wads that soak up the leaking puss.

Bruce Sterling’s Involution Ocean (1977) draws on the naval tradition, transposed into a SF future, although it is more exploration à la Darwin and the HMS Beagle than combat à la Horatio Hornblower and the HMS Hotspur.  Inspired by Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), Involution Ocean tells the tale of John Newhouse’s search for Nullaquan dustwales, the “only source of the drug syncophine” (23), across a vast dust ocean at the bottom of a crater.

Harlan Ellison’s hyperbolic and self-aggrandizing introduction aside, Sterling fails to evoke the feel of a voyage of exploration. There are intriguing touches–Newhouse’s motivation ostensibly derives from his drug addiction spurred by a traumatic upbringing.  Ultimately Involution Ocean doesn’t feel confident enough (Sterling was 21 when he wrote it!) to unveil in any concrete manner the mysteries of the planet but rather dumps the “reveal” via an extended descent into the metaphysical.  This does not mesh with what was a love story married to a voyage of scientific exploration.  This rather tepid critique aside (some authors could pull it off), Sterling’s imagery shifts between articulate visions of decay (a stranded ship slowly overrun with bird guano) to painfully saccharine symbols of Newhouse’s emotional unrest: “after some thought I settled on a large broken heart as my own motif” (35).

I place Involution Ocean in the same league [nautical pun not intended] as Michael Moorcock’s The Ice Schooner (1969).  Both are nautical adventure tales set in unusual worlds.  Both connect the necessary dots but do not generate memorable voyages.  Fans of 70s adventure SF, albeit with an unusual narrator, will be entertained.

Analysis/Plot Summary

We all have some emptiness in our lives, an emptiness that some fill with art, some with God, some with learning. I have always filled emptiness with drugs” (23).

John Newhouse sets off from his house of drug addicts in Highisle, Nullaqua’s largest city (23), to track down his own supply of syncophine after a Confederation-wide ban on the narcotic.  Derived from the oil of dustwhales, he joins a whaling crew with fellow addict Calothrick on the Lunglance as a cook under the command of aged and mysterious Captain Desperandum .

Hunting whales the edges of the dust ocean at the bottom of Nullaqua’s only inhabitable area, a 70 mile-deep crater, Captain Desperandum has ulterior scientific motives: “But there are lots of little questions that nag at my mind.  What causes currents in the dust?  How deep is it?  What lives down there, what kind of scavengers?  How do they find their food without sight or echo location?  How do they breathe?  It’s the very opacity of the sea that infuriates […] I can’t see into it” (43).

Newhouse also falls in love with the tormented bat alien Dalusa, who serves as Lunglace‘s lookout.  In her people’s encounter with humans, she witnesses the carnage and desires to be transformed under the knife into the semblance of a human woman.  However, she remains horrifically allergic to the barest human touch. Both Newhouse and  Dalusa, two tormented souls, grow to love each other despite their own “sadomasochistic qualities” (62).

Adding to the mystery, the Lunglance possesses a hidden room in its hold that Newhouse is unable to open.  Although the voyage is ostensibly to hunt dustwhales, Desperandum takes the crew to more dangerous regions.

The world of Nullaqua is the most fascinating element of the book–a planet with little atmosphere, almost all of it settling in the deep crater.  The dust oceans, inhabited by strange fauna, holds its secrets tight in dark depths.  Desperandum and Newhouse, outsiders on the planet, encounter the views of Nullaquan natives, who are descended from a small group of religious fanatics who believe in maintaining an unchanging world.  Everyone has their traumas and murky pasts.  Will anyone be able to escape their constraints?  Will the planet give up its secrets?

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(Visions Graphics & Film and Charles Bush for the 1977 edition)


(Peter Paul Dama’s cover for the 1988 edition)

20 thoughts on “Book Review: Involution Ocean, Bruce Sterling (1977)

  1. That is one sweet 80s computer head!
    I’ve got a copy of the Tim White cover of Involution Ocean, but the first version of this I read looked this:

    • That cover correctly depicts the cliffs! I can’t remember if we discussed it before, but, did you enjoy the novel?

      I think Robert Andre’s 1980 German edition cover does evoke the “feel” of the novel, although, the cliffs are non-existent!

      • The Andre cover reminds me of old school Martian landscapes.
        I always preferred the uncredited (?) pic with the cliffs to the Page cover simply for its mysterious “accuracy”.
        As to the words… I like the novel enough to read it twice possibly three times way back around 1990/91. I’m a bit of a sucker for exploration/quest stories, and I found the pathetic anti hero to my taste at the time, as far as I can recall through the mists of time. Maybe time to dust it off for my traditional once in 25 years read through!

      • Unfortunately I don’t know the artist of the Legend edition cover.

        Three times?! Wow, the narrator must really have appealed or something. At least he does see the light in some ways by the end…

  2. It is unfortunate your science fiction adventures (at least those documented on this blog 😉 ) are limited to the early 80s, nothing beyond. In Sterling’s case, for example, you get access only to his early, how shall I say, unpolished work. In the late 90s, but especially since the turn of the millennium, Sterling has come into his own, creating his own brand of sf satire. Should you ever decide to look beyond your current scope (at least publicly on the blog 😉 ), Sterling’s Distraction, Love Is Strange, Pirate Utopia, and The Caryatids are worth the time. That being said, there is still an early Sterling work, apparently about a young man who goes around filming himself for the entertainment of the masses with has a strong youtube vibe to it, that I haven’t read yet. Have you read The Artificial Kid (1980)?

    • Jesse, I have not read The Artificial Kid (1980) yet — seems bizarre and intriguing and my cup of tea. As I indicated in another comment, I did read his late 80s Islands In the Net (and which I quite enjoyed) and also Schismatrix (1985) (I remember little), so, I suspect I’ll explore more of his work at some other time.

  3. Schismatrix and Schismatrix Plus are the same thing, only the Plus version includes a handful of short stories Sterling had written in the setting. I personally am not enamored by the Schismatrix shorts, but I know some people are. Regardless, the novel Schismatrix is the best of the bunch, and is only “cyberpunk” at the thematic level, not at the bog standard, near-future, mega-corporation, direct human-machine technological interface, aesthetic level. It’s been a few years since I read Schismatrix, but I still have very strong visuals of certain scenes hanging around in my memory, which is not something I can say about a lot of books I’ve read…

    • I detect a sort of essentialism (addressed in my other comment) when it comes to your definition of cyberpunk. As I mentioned, perhaps we have a monolithic take due to the success of Neuromancer and various similar clones but in reality, many authors explored some of the thematic ideas in varying ways — Sterling and Rucker included.

  4. I have a soft spot for this book, although it’s twenty years since I read it. I guess it could be read as a sort of pastiche of Moby Dick, but Sterling also seems to be taking a dig at organised religion, specifically how it is antithetical to progressive thinking; ‘involution’ being the opposite of ‘evolution’, dust being something old, out-dated ideas are buried under, while the mysterious force that grips the diving bell is clearly a giant hand (ie, with the accompanying and appropriate implication that God himself lies at the ocean’s bottom).

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      As I read this in 2016, the only things that I remember is the fascinating world. It’s absolutely a pastiche on Moby Dick, although it had been far too long since I read Herman Melville’s novel to say anything substantive on the point.

  5. Well, the symbolism is easy to miss – mainly because Sterling doesn’t go anywhere with it (ie, the ocean’s name, dust, God. Etc). I was underwhelmed by his subsequent attempt at a cyberpunk novel (‘Islands in the Net’*) so much so that I didn’t read him again for years, but I came across some of his short stories last year. They’re well worth checking out, if of their time.

    I re-read it again a few years ago. It’s still an unsatisfying book, but more prescient than – say – Gibson.

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