Written by: Paul Mannering
Michael Crichton, who wrote such classics as Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain and Airframe, passed away in November 2008. He left us a legacy of science fiction-horror-science-thrillers that ranged from the remarkable to the downright proselytising (State of Fear being a prime example).
Crichton at his best is the main author who comes to mind as a comparable influence when reading Deep Black Sea. A civilian crew of scientists are embarking on a one year mission to live at 20,000 feet under the sea in a specially designed habitat. They will conduct experiments and do research that will help with the development of technology for the currently shelved manned mission to Mars.
With NASA involvement the scene is rich with tension. We have the astronaut whose lifelong dream of going beyond earth’s orbit has been shattered. We have the clashing personalities and we have the clear signs of things being messed with from the very start.
The deepest ocean is as alien to humankind as the surface of Mars. The remarkable thing is that life exists in abundance at these incredible depths and at pressures that would crush almost anything. Around completely toxic environments like black smokers – where underwater volcanos spew hot gases and elements into the surrounding water, tubeworms, fish and other creatures thrive.
The horror in this novel comes in several flavours.
We have the constant fear of being in complete isolation. There is no help. There is no rescue. Leaving this depth would require weeks of decompression and a very slow ascent. The habitat creaks and groans reminding us that a horrific death is a constant risk.
There is the villain, perfectly realised in the form of a character with the purest of intentions – he is absolutely invested in the potential benefits of the research he is conducting during the mission. Of course, no one else knows exactly what he is doing and his near-complete lack of conscience as the story progresses makes him fascinating.
Finally, there is the horror of the creatures themselves who live and thrive in the abyss. This is where Salkin shines and the phantom of Crichton silently applauds. The informative and fascinating science that fills each page really elevates this book to a higher grade. Alien horror from space is a common theme – but this is reality. The science-fiction of it shows when humans interact with the entities of the deep – and you are left painfully aware that this scenario may actually be plausible.
The only concerns I have from a reading perspective is that I found the characters lack development to the point they appear as caricatures of stereotypes.
The Italian from New Jersey cooks, the Scotsman speaks in a thick brogue that the others can’t understand. The two women on the mission are simply there for sexual tension (and sexual fulfilment) to sate the men. In the beginning there was a Clive Cussler style of super-shiny character description. Men are handsome gods, rippling with muscle and experts at everything. Other than the villain there is really little sense of imperfection in them anywhere. It might be why the characters seemed interchangeable and without any particular value, except as set pieces.