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Under the Sea

Entry updated 21 June 2023. Tagged: Theme.

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The world under the sea is an alien environment still in the process of being explored. John Wilkins, in Mathematicall Magick (1648), offered speculative designs for submarines and discussed the possibility of underwater colonization; already, in about 1620, Cornelius Van Drebbell (1572-1633) had successfully navigated a submarine rowing-boat in the Thames, and before the end of the century another would-be submariner had perished in Plymouth Sound. David Bushnell (1740-1824) built a submarine boat in 1775, and Robert Fulton (1765-1815) remained under water for four hours in his egg-shaped submarine in 1800. By 1863 the David, a submarine built by the Confederacy during the US Civil War, was sufficiently functional to attempt a torpedo attack on an ironclad; its successor actually managed to sink a ship, but was lost with all hands. By the 1890s the French Navy was equipped with four submarines and both Germany and the USA were building them.

The first notable literary work to feature a submarine was a romance by Théophile Gautier about a plot to rescue Napoleon, Les deux étoiles (1848; exp vt Partie carrée 1851; vt La Belle Jenny; trans in var colls as "The Quartette", "The Belle-Jenny" and "The Four-in-Hand"). The classic underwater romance of the nineteenth century was, however, Jules Verne's Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870; trans as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas 1872), in which the undersea world became for the first time a place of marvels and natural wonders to be explored. Frank R Stockton's The Great Stone of Sardis (1898), Harry Collingwood's The Log of the Flying Fish (1887), Herbert Strang's Lord of the Seas (1908) and Max Pemberton's Captain Black (1911) feature submarine adventures, but are concerned primarily with Transportation rather than with exploring the wonders of the deep. The main reason for this relative uninterest was the impossibility of any real interaction between human visitors and the alien environment. Apart from the occasional duel with a sea-Monster (almost always a giant squid or octopus) there seemed to most writers to be little dramatic potential in underwater ventures; for a protagonist to get to grips with the underwater world, some fantastic modification was necessary – as in The Water Babies (1863) by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) – and the notion of adapting humans to underwater life by biological engineering did not appear until Alexander Beliaev's The Amphibian (1929; trans 1959). The only attempts to set aside this difficulty in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were stories dealing with the rediscovery of Atlantis – which had often, by more-or-less miraculous means, managed to preserve itself and its air despite its cataclysmic submersion; examples include André Laurie's The Crystal City under the Sea (1895; trans 1896), the title story of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Maracot Deep (coll 1929), Stanton A Coblentz's The Sunken World (Summer 1928 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1949) and Dennis Wheatley's They Found Atlantis (1936).

The once impossible-seeming engineering feat of a tunnel under the English Channel and its potential for invasion was much discussed, for example in The Channel Tunnel; or, England's Ruin (1876 chap) by Cassandra, The Battle of Boulogne: Or How Calais Became English Again: Another Version of the Channel Tunnel Affair (1882 chap) by The Demure One, England Crushed: The Secret of the Channel Tunnel Revealed (1882 chap) by Vindex, How John Bull Lost London, or The Capture of the Channel Tunnel (1882) by Grip, Capture of London (1887 chap) by James Peddie, London's Peril (1900 chap) by F M Allen, Pro Patria (1901) by Max Pemberton, The Hawk: A Story of Aerial War (1909) by Ronald Legge. Later Channel Tunnel tales include Harry Edmonds's The Riddle of the Straits (1931), Reginald Glossop's The Ghastly Dew (1932), Graham Seton's The V Plan (1941) and Arthur C Devine's Tunnel from Calais (1942; 1943 as by David Rame); Joe Poyer's Tunnel War (1979) is an alternate history in which the tunnel is built in 1911. Early transatlantic tunnels feature in Il tunnel sottomarino ["The Tunnel Under the Sea"] (1912) by Luigi Motta and Der Tunnel (1913; trans anon as The Tunnel 1915) by Bernhard Kellerman. Perhaps the best known such tale is Harry Harrison's Tunnel Through the Deeps (1972; vt A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!), another alternate history opening in a 1973 world still dominated by the British Empire.

Early Genre-SF writers showed relatively little interest in undersea adventures, although film-makers made persistent attempts to make bigger and better versions of Verne's novel from the earliest years of silent movies to Disney's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954). Several pulp-sf stories, however, dealt with undersea life on alien worlds. An early example was Neil R Jones's "Into the Hydrosphere" (October 1933 Amazing), but the classics of the species are "Clash by Night" (March 1943 Astounding) and Fury (May-July 1947 Astounding as Lawrence O'Donnell; 1950; vt Destination Infinity 1956) by Henry Kuttner and C L Moore, reflecting the common image of Venus as a watery world. The most notable pulp story partly set beneath the oceans of Earth is The Green Girl (March-April 1930 Amazing; 1950) by Jack Williamson.

In the post-World War Two period sf writers became more interested in the possibilities of undersea melodrama. Alien oceans figure in "The Game of Glory" (March 1958 Venture) by Poul Anderson, "The Gift of Gab" (September 1955 Astounding) by Jack Vance, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus (1954; vt The Oceans of Venus) by Paul French (Isaac Asimov) and in the story in which Roger Zelazny bade a final fond farewell to the image of Venus as an oceanic world, "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" (March 1965 F&SF). The notion of adapting humans to underwater life by Genetic Engineering is notably featured in James Blish's "Surface Tension" (August 1952 Galaxy), although Blish had introduced it in a more tentative form in "Sunken Universe" (May 1942 Super Science Stories) as by Arthur Merlyn, which is combined with the later story in The Seedling Stars (fixup 1957). Blish and Norman L Knight's novel A Torrent of Faces (1967) features humanoid "tritons" engineered for underwater life, similarly carried forward from Knight's earlier solo work "Crisis in Utopia" (July-August 1940 Astounding).

The mid-1950s saw a minor boom in sf stories set beneath the oceans of Earth, including Frank Herbert's tense submarine spy-thriller The Dragon in the Sea (November 1955-January 1956 Astounding as "Under Pressure"; 1956; vt 21st Century Sub; vt Under Pressure), Arthur C Clarke's novel about whale-farming, The Deep Range (April 1954 Argosy UK; exp 1957) and the first of Frederik Pohl's and Jack Williamson's Eden trilogy of juveniles dealing with undersea colonization, Undersea Quest (1954) – a theme to which they returned much later in Land's End (1988). Kenneth Bulmer's City under the Sea (1957) makes much of the idea of surgical modification for life in the sea; he further extrapolated the notion in Beyond the Silver Sky (1961). Other stories of the biological engineering of humans for undersea life include Gordon R Dickson's Home from the Shore (February 1963 Galaxy; exp 1978) and its sequel The Space Swimmers (1967), Hal Clement's Ocean on Top (October-December 1967 If; 1973) and Lee Hoffman's The Caves of Karst (1969). The idea is more elaborately developed in such works as Inter Ice Age 4 (1959; trans 1970) by Kōbō Abe, in which Japanese scientists prepare for a new deluge, and in The Godwhale (1974) by T J Bass, whose eponymous protagonist is a Cyborg leviathan.

The scientific community took an increasing interest in dolphins during the 1960s and 1970s, inspired by researches – notably those of John Cunningham Lilly (1915-2001), author of The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence (1968) – into their high Intelligence; a notable sf precursor of this work is Leó Szilárd "My Trial as a War Criminal" (Fall 1949 University of Chicago Law Review). The idea of Communication between dolphins and humans was popularized in numerous sf stories, including William C Anderson's Penelope (1963), Arthur C Clarke's Dolphin Island (1963), Gordon R Dickson's "Dolphin's Way" (June 1964 Analog), James Blish's Mission to the Heart Stars (1965), Roy Meyers's Dolphin Boy (1967; vt Dolphin Rider) and its sequels, Robert Merle's The Day of the Dolphin (1967; trans 1969), Margaret St Clair's The Dolphins of Altair (1967), Joe Poyer's Operation Malacca (1968), Robert Silverberg's "Ishmael in Love" (July 1970 F&SF), John Boyd's "The Girl and the Dolphin" (March 1973 Galaxy), Ian Watson's The Jonah Kit (1975) and Anne McCaffrey's late addition to her Pern sequence, The Dolphins of Pern (1994). In Douglas Adams's The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) it is indicated that human-dolphin communications have failed because we rather than they are slow on the uptake. Dolphins gifted with sentience by means of human ingenuity (see Uplift) play a key role in David Brin's Uplift series, most notably in Startide Rising (1983), in which a human- and dolphin-crewed starship takes refuge from a host of enemies in an alien ocean; similarly blessed – or in this case, perhaps, cursed – dolphins feature in Alexander Jablokov's A Deeper Sea (October 1989 Asimov's; exp 1992). As in the above-cited "My Trial as a War Criminal", dolphins have emerged as humanity's moral guides in Alan Moore's The Ballad of Halo Jones, Book 3 (graph 1986).

Analogies may easily be drawn between submarines and Spaceships. In Harry Harrison's The Daleth Effect (1970; vt In our Hands, the Stars) the heroes, in urgent need of a spaceship, simply attach their Antigravity drive unit to a submarine. Greater subtlety is exhibited in James White's The Watch Below (1966), which juxtaposes the problems of an Alien spaceship nearing Earth with those of a group of people surviving in the hold of a ship which has been under water for many years. A similar analogy is drawn in Asimov's "Waterclap" (April 1970 If), which deals with a conflict of interest between projects to colonize the sea bed and the Moon. A curious novel in which huge water drops function as Space Habitats of an extraordinary kind is Bob Shaw's Medusa's Children (1977).

The Cinema carried forward its own tradition of submarine romance as its technical capacities grew. The Incredible Petrified World (1957) features exploration via diving bell; The Atomic Submarine (1959; vt The Atomic Sub) is an early nuclear-submarine venture; the titular seabed habitat of The Underwater City (1962) is hins genuine if doomed experiment in colonizing the deeps; the undersea City of War-Gods of the Deep (1965; vt City in the Sea) is remotely based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe; The Neptune Factor (1973; vt Conquest of the Deeps) features rescue from a deep rift in the ocean bed; and Goliath Awaits (1981) centres on a decades-old undersea community surviving in a sunken ship, as in the Earth storyline of the already-cited The Watch Below. More notable sf examples include Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), which spawned a long-running Television series (1964-1968), and The Abyss (1989). The latter was the most distinguished of a cluster of such movies at around the same time, others including Deepstar Six (1988), Leviathan (1989) and Lords of the Deep (1989). A later example is Sphere (1998), based on the novel by Michael Crichton.

In the juvenile-adventure tradition of Operation Neptune (1953) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the UK Stingray (1964-1965), there followed the more ambitious television project seaQuest DSV (1993-1996), made by Steven Spielberg's production company, and featuring an intelligent dolphin as a crew member. Gerry Anderson's SuperMarionation puppet sf series brought submarines to UK television: the eponymous Stingray, already cited, and the submersible Thunderbird 4 in Thunderbirds (1965-1966). City Beneath the Sea (1970; vt One Hour to Doomsday) has the titular city Pacifica as its setting.

Further science-fictional submarines are featured in Martin Caidin's The Last Fathom (1967) and Richard Cowper's satirical comedy Profundis (1979). Alien oceans and races adapted to them are found in Stefan Wul's Temple of the Past (1958: trans 1973), in which a spaceship which lands in an alien ocean is swallowed by a whale-like creature, Michael G Coney's Neptune's Cauldron (1981), Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean (1986), in which emissaries from a race of peace-loving ocean-dwellers must visit a very different kind of world, our own, and Piers Anthony's Mercycle (1991). A primitive but effective submarine with a Steampunk flavour is deployed in Terry Pratchett's Discworld comedy Jingo (1997). Adam Roberts, not for the first time, homages Jules Verne in Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea (2014).

Arthur C Clarke's constant interest in the sea – reflected in his nonfiction as well as his fiction – was further demonstrated in The Ghost from the Grand Banks (1990), about the raising of the Titanic. Another writer much interested in the sea was marine engineer Hilbert Schenck, whose fascination is evident in the stories in Wave Rider (coll 1980) and the curiously mystical At the Eye of the Ocean (1980). Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) presents a plausible Physics-based reason for living underwater: prolongation of life (see Immortality) requires continual growth; would-be immortals eventually become too massive to bear their own weight on land, and must join other gigantic creatures (like the blue whale) in the sustaining sea. This solves the problem posed by Gravity to humaniform giants (see Great and Small). A later undersea work, set in an underwater research station called Tethys, is Oceanspace (2000) by Allen Steele, which is dedicated to Clarke. Adaptation to pelagic life on the watery colony world Shin-Tethys features in Charles Stross's Neptune's Brood (2013).

Some authors have interestingly examined the Psychology of life in the sea's amniotic embrace. In Frank Herbert's already-cited The Dragon in the Sea (1956), the extreme danger of the submarine crew's deep-sea mission contrasts with their shared sense of the sea as protection and their suppressed fear of the sky; adaptation to submarine life corresponds to psychosis on land. The psychologically damaged seabed workers of Peter Watts's Starfish (1999) also adapt in disturbing fashion, preferring to live and sleep outside their protective habitat. Keith Roberts suggests in "The Deeps" (in Orbit 1, anth 1966, ed Damon Knight) that yielding to the potent lure of the sea is the beginning of long, slow Devolution, a point made more explicitly in Kurt Vonnegut's Galápagos (1985). Conversely, the genetically engineered humans who form a thriving undersea kingdom in Alastair Reynolds's Blue Remembered Earth (2012) naturally regard themselves as the best possible forward path of Evolution. A tiny undersea enclave of humanity – initially in a US submarine – survives the millennia of intense meteor bombardment causing the destruction of all life on Earth's surface in Neal Stephenson's Seveneves (2015), and adapts to live without equipment in the sea. [BS/DRL]

see also: Bermuda Triangle; Ecology; Invasion; Sargasso Sea; Underground; Undersea Super Train: Marine Express; The Wolf's Call.

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