(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.
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)