Arthur C. Clarke, The Deep Range

I'm going to have to get off the retro science fiction eventually, but it's just so cool! So earnest about environmental crisis, and such manly men (if often embarrassingly girlishly women to match), and such a blend of hope and anxiety.

Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 The Deep Range, for example, is about a man who'd been a wildly successful space engineer until a serious accident left him with astrophobia so intense that he's not able to return to his wife and sons on Mars, let alone to keep working. His wife and sons had been born on Mars, too, so Earth's gravity would crush them, so he divorces his wife and can't see his sons. The time lag on the visiphones, too, means that there's no way to see or talk to them, so they're reduced to writing letters.

But Walt Franklin's engineering talents mean that after some intense psychotherapy, he's able to start a second career with the Bureau of Whales, one of the two major units in the Marine Division. In this version of the late 21st century, humans have figured out how to farm the seas to an almost unimaginable extent, with sonic fences allowing for the segregation of whales from their predators (mostly sharks) in order for the human race to get much of its protein intake from whale meat. It's incredibly humane, and the wardens have a deep respect and even love for their whale charges, but still: it takes a lot of dead whales to generate more than 20% of the protein needed to feed 5 billion people.

Buddhism is the only viable religion left, since the others all foundered in one way or another on the rocks of science, which is a problem. Its insistence on causing only the smallest amount of pain and the fewest possible deaths means a collision looms between Buddhist ethics and technologically advanced industrial whaling. Plus there might be sea serpents (no spoilers here, though!), and links between futuristic whaling and historic practices of ranchers and farmers (with plankton farming as a parallel to wheat farming). And explorations of suicidal ideation, electronic direct-democracy initiatives, media obsessiveness, uncapped undersea oil wells, and several other topics.

And in only 175 pages, amazingly!

Possibly the most interesting character, though her role isn't central, is Indra Langenburg, who we first meet as a 20-year-old graduate student "busily hacking away at the entrails of a ten-foot tiger shark she had just disembowelled" (p.26) as part of her research project on the vitamin content of shark liver. When we get into her thoughts later, it turns out that she's always expected to marry, but she's never wanted to give up her career. She does marry, and she does give up her career, but she remains current with the research anyway, and among other things, she publishes a piece on the evolution of the goblin shark that leads to her being "involved in an enjoyable controversy with all five of the scientists qualified to discuss the subject" (p.101). An awfully long way from postmodern feminist politics, certainly, but I liked that even in this brief book, Clarke made the effort to imagine the additional complexities of a woman's life - even if it's almost painfully studded with 1950s assumptions about family structure and femininity.

The world would be a better place if we all just read more pulp fiction. I heartily recommend judging books by their covers, I really do!


Anonymous said…
Hurray for pulp sci fi. I'll have to read Clarke's book this summer for sure.

Have you read Bradbury's Martian Chronicles? I'm not huge on all his stuff but I love these particular interlinked and oddly descriptive short stories. Similarly Ian McDonald's much more recent Cyberabad Days is fairly fabulous because he combines gods and wireless technology in strange and wonderfully speculative interlinked short stories. Little graphic.

richard said…
Hurrah for pulp sci fi indeed.

I haven't read The Martian Chronicles since I was about 14 or 15, but I remember really enjoying it. Cyberabad Days is new to me, but I'll add it the list: thanks for the reference!

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