It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Memory jog

The latest issue of Perihelion Online Science Fiction Magazine has appeared, and among its many fine stories is one of mine – ‘Waters of Lethe’. It’s about a bathyscaphe journey to the bottom of Europa’s world-ocean. Sort of. You can read it here.


I’ve now written stories which feature Wilfred Owen, Spitfires, the Bell, Apollo astronauts, flying boats, rocket sleds, bathyscaphes… What to do next?


Science fiction under pressure

As a species, we have little experience with naturally hostile environments, a century’s worth perhaps. By “hostile”, I don’t mean environments such as the Arctic, which are uncomfortable, or could prove fatal without basic survival tools. I mean environments which are pretty much instantly lethal without complex technological assistance. Human beings have to date visited two: space (including the lunar surface) and the sea deeper than 200 metres below the surface (it’s actually shallower than that, but the depth record for free diving currently stands at 214 m).

A scene from Luc Besson's The Big Blue

A scene from Luc Besson’s The Big Blue

Science fiction has covered the first of these in countless stories and novels, with varying degrees of accuracy. But no reader of sf doubts the hazardous nature of outer space. While all too many science fictions present magical technology allowing human beings to live and work and make war in space, there’s still a background of ever-present danger. In fact, it’s almost become a cliché.

But what of the opposite extreme? High atmospheric pressure rather than vacuum? Certainly the former have been covered in science fictions, though the genre tends to treat it as much the same as the latter – ie, both are survivable when wearing a spacesuit. But spacesuits are actually just personal spacecraft, designed for the same environment as spacecraft – ie, space. (If that’s not belabouring the point a bit much.) They provide a self-contained atmosphere and protection from radiation. A spacesuit wouldn’t work on a planetary surface with a datum pressure of, say, 50 atmospheres. It would be unwearable, constricted by the gas pressing against every square centimetre, its joints locked since they are designed to maintain a constant internal volume. When submarines get squished when they sink too deep in the sea? That’s what would happen to a spacesuit… and the person inside it.

A JIM suit

A JIM suit

Which doesn’t mean hyperbaric environments would necessarily be out of reach. One solution would be to use an Atmospheric Diving Suit, which is much like a spacesuit but designed to keep pressure out rather than in. The current depth record in an ADS is 610 m (2000 ft), which is 61 atmospheres. Perhaps with the advent of new and stronger materials, or some sort of force-field, environments with much higher pressures would be accessible to someone in an ADS.

Chief Navy Diver Daniel P Jackson in the Hardsuit 2000

Record holder Chief Navy Diver Daniel P Jackson in the Hardsuit 2000

The only recent example that comes to mind of a sf novel set (partly) on a world with a hyperbaric environment is Alastair Reynolds’ On the Steel Breeze (2013), the second book of his Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Several chapters take place on the surface of Venus, which, as well as a mean surface temperature of 462° C, has a surface pressure of 92 to 95 atmospheres. In the novel, some of the characters go EVA on the surface, an apparently not uncommon pasttime, in “surface suits”:

The suits were essentially ambulatory tanks. They were glossy white, like lobsters dipped in milk. They had no faceplates, just camera apertures. Instead of hands, they had claws. Their cooling systems were multiply redundant. That was the critical safety measure, Chiku learned in the briefing. Death by pressure was so rare that it had only happened a few times in the entire history of Venus exploration. (p 128)

Clearly – refrigeration aside – Reynolds’ surface suit is much like a beefed-up ADS, and in no way resembles a spacesuit. Which is as it should be.

But what if a closer interaction with the environment is required? Perhaps there’s a need for something more dextrous than “claws”? Or human beings must be as unencumbered as possible in order to live and work in this hyperbaric environment. Obviously not the surface of Venus, but perhaps somewhere less extreme…

Theo Mavrostomos at a simulated depth of 701 m

Theo Mavrostomos at a simulated depth of 701 m

You can saturate a human body up to pressures around 70 atmospheres – that’s the current record, set during a simulated saturation dive by Theo Mavrostomos in 1992. He spent two hours at a depth equivalent to 701 metres (2300 feet). The term “saturation” means the person’s tissues have absorbed the maximum possible partial pressure of gas. A sudden return to normal atmospheric pressure would result in explosive decompression. A too-quick return would cause the absorbed gas to bubble out of the person’s tissues – the “bends”, or decompression sickness, which can be fatal. There are other hazards associated with hyperbaric environments. At pressures above 5 atmospheres, nitrogen causes nitrogen narcosis, or “the rapture of the deep”; and at pressures higher than 15 atmospheres High Pressure Nervous Syndrome can affect people breathing helium-oxygen mixtures.

A pair of North Sea saturation divers

A pair of North Sea saturation divers

High pressure air is extremely difficult to breathe – not just the physical act of drawing it into the lungs, but also the lungs diffusing it into the blood. By using a less dense gas, such as helium, to maintain the correct partial pressure of oxygen (too much oxygen is poisonous), the human body can handle greater pressures. But this also presents its own set of problems – there’s HPNS, but also helium’s excellent conductivity of heat, not to mention the shortening of sound wavelengths resulting in the infamous “Donald Duck” voice (at the limit of saturation diving, this can make divers pretty much unintelligible). HPNS can be mitigated by adding some nitrogen back into the mix, and “unscramblers” are used on the radio links to divers but these are not wholly effective. There is no solution to helium’s conductivity other than bloody great heaters scattered throughout the saturation system.

At present, we’ve about reached the limit possible with saturation diving. In the oil industry, working at depths of 100 to 250 metres (320 to 820 ft) is routine. Deeper than 450 metres (1500 ft), ROVs are used. Greater pressures than 70 atmospheres may be possible – perhaps by using hydrogen, which has half the atomic weight of helium. Unfortunately, hydrogen is extremely flammable, although some helium could be added to render it safe. French diving company Comex consider it possible to reach depths of 1000 metres (3281 ft), or 100 atmospheres, using a hydrogen mix, but no one has tried and there’s currently no impetus to do so.

A still from Ridley Scott's Alien

A still from Ridley Scott’s Alien

Where this gets interesting is that, as far as I know, no one has used this in science fiction. While hyperbaric environments, or dense atmospheres on high-gravity planets, perhaps even gas giants, have undoubtedly been used, it’s either been with some science-fictional equivalent of a ROV, or magical spacesuits which operate as well in 100 atmospheres as they do in a vacuum, or perhaps even a kind of armoured suit capable of withstanding great pressure like a souped-up ADS. Dense atmospheres seem mostly to appear in science fiction only as settings for winged aliens or humans, such as in Vonda N McIntyre’s ‘Fireflood’ (1979) or Wings’ (1973; see here). Gas giants are quite common in sf, though mostly the action takes place in their upper atmosphere. One that doesn’t is Poul Anderson ‘Call Me Joe’ (1957), in which a disabled operator “drives” a ROV on Jupiter’s surface – James Cameron used a similar idea in Avatar (2009).

But sf typically treats alien worlds – what we now call exoplanets – as either extensions of space, or Earth-like, or near enough Earth-like not to make any difference. Those hardy explorers of countless science fictions often have little more to deal with than inclement weather, although perhaps one or two might need a breathing mask… No one has ever thought of the Earth’s surface as remotely like space – it’s an environment entirely distinct, and although it covers a wide range of conditions they’re all survivable. So why no variety in alien worlds? Ignorance initially, almost certainly; but then it becomes about the story, about some “alien” aspect of the exoplanet which drives the plot, as in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Endless Voyage (1975; see here). Yet, allegedly, science fiction is about science and technology, and how we use it…

Mars Arctic Research Station

Mars Arctic Research Station

Surely it would be more interesting to explore the techniques and technology that might be used to explore, or perhaps even colonise, an environment that is neither Earth-like nor vacuum? A saturation system strikes me as a perfectly suitable method to use in a hyperbaric environment; and one that is filled with dramatic possibilities. Just think, you could murder someone by knocking them out and them putting them in a balloon’s gondola… Too much science fiction, to my mind, fails to get across the true experience of the strange environments in which it takes place. It’s passed off as “setting” using a few incidental details, but in all other respects treated as if it were, say, middle America, or the Wild West. A more rigorous approach to such things would be far more interesting.

Of course, it’s not just exoplanetary environments. There’s certainly science fiction set underwater at great depth (see my earlier blog post on the topic here), but most such sf imagines that human beings have been physiologically engineered to survive in that environment. But, as far as I’m aware, no one in sf has made the mental leap from deep sea to hyperbaric planetary surface.


Warm below the storm, part 2

Reading about deep sea exploration, it struck me that the bottom of the ocean is a much scarier place than outer space. Humans cannot survive in either, of course, without technological intervention; but the sea is a more deceptive environment. It should be safe, it nurtured us after all – before birth, and back when life on Earth began. But we can’t breathe H2O, and the pressure can kills us in lots of sneaky and interesting ways long before it’s strong enough to squish us flat. And yet science fiction has treated the difficulties and dangers of the deep ocean with much the same disregard as it has for space.

Getting off a planet is costly and dangerous, and requires the expenditure of a great deal of energy. Sf pretends it has a magic way of doing this, one that mitigates the difficulty and danger. Getting to the bottom of the ocean may be much simpler – you just sink – but it’s equally dangerous. And living down there requires much the same level of assistance and engineering as living in space. Science fiction has its space stations and O’Neill cylinders and hollowed-out asteroids and orbitals, and they allegedly make living in space as mundane as living on this planet. Likewise, the genre posits underwater cities and humans genetically-engineered to live underwater, or submarines capable of reaching fantastical depths. But it’s all glib and unconvincing, just like sf is in its treatment of any place off-Earth.


I’ve not read a great deal of watery sf. For some reason, it seems to have passed me by. It’s not been as popular a subject in genre writing as outer space, which may explain how I’ve managed to miss it. I’ve certainly read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), whose Nautilus marks one of the first depictions of a submarine in fiction, if not the actual first. At one point in the novel, Nemo stops off at a “submarine forest”, and leads a party including Aronnax to “a narrow valley, between high perpendicular walls, situated about seventy-five fathoms deep”. Or about 450 ft. Which would be about 13.8 atmospheres, and would require compression and decompression – neither of which are mentioned. Another famous science-fictional submarine is the “subtug” in Frank Herbert’s first novel, The Dragon in the Sea (1956, AKA Under Pressure). The story focuses on the mental pressure suffered by the crews of such submarines, as they sneak into enemy territory and pump oil from secret oilfields. The actual physical pressure of the deeps on the submarine itself is mostly ignored. Both The Deep Range (1957) and The Ghost From The Grand Banks (1990) by Arthur C Clarke, neither of which I’ve read, feature submarines. The first is apparently about undersea farming, and the second the raising of the wreck of the Titanic (also the subject of a thriller by Clive Cussler, titled – obviously – Raise the Titanic).


Still in the 1950s, Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson wrote a trilogy of novels set in and around the underwater city of Marinia: Undersea Quest (1954), Undersea Fleet (1956) and Undersea City (1958). I don’t believe I’ve ever seen copies of these, but from the cover art on Wikipedia they look like juveniles. James Blish and Norman L Knight’s A Torrent of Faces (1967), a novel which proved a better read than I had expected, features a semi-submerged hotel which sinks. Also in the novel are people genetically-engineered to be semi-aquatic, and much of the shallower regions of the oceans are farmed by them to feed the Earth’s tens of billions. A sf novel about which I know nothing is Hal Clement’s Ocean On Top (1973), and I mention it only because the cover art of the UK paperback features what looks like the bathyscaphe Trieste. In Marta Randall’s Islands (1976), the narrator joins an expedition to dive on sunken Hawaii to hunt for artefacts and treasure. The narrative doesn’t go into much detail on the diving. In 2000, Allen Steele swapped outer space for underwater in Oceanspace. According to the blurb on Amazon, it’s set in 2011 and depicts an undersea research station which encounters some sort of sea monster. Harriet Klausner gives it, of course, five stars, but another reviewer complains with a straight face of the characters’ lack of depth. Peter Watts Rifter series – Starfish (1999), Maelstrom(2001), Behemoth: ß-Max (2004) and Behemoth: Seppuku (2005) – is about humans modified to live and work in the deep ocean, but you have to wonder why he named one book after an obsolete videocassette format. Most recently, Carolyn Ives Gilman’s novella Arkfall is set in the world-ocean of a Europa-like moon – see my review on Daughters of Prometheus here.

I mentioned Clive Cussler earlier. His novels often feature submersibles and diving. I’ll admit I’ve not read any of them for over a decade. The first seven or eight were fun thrillers, but their quality began to plummet with the publication of Treasure (1988) and by Shock Wave (1996) they were all but unreadable. These days, Cussler runs a writing sweatshop much like James Patterson. Lincoln Child’s Deep Storm (2007) is a technothriller set in a secret military deep sea habitat, but judging by the plot précis given on Wikipedia, it seems little different to Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.

For more underwater science fiction, see these two posts on the topic, part one and part two, on Joachim Boaz’s Science Fiction and Other Ruminations.


In the cinema, the topic again seems less popular than outer space. 1989 must have been a good year for underwater epics, however, as it saw the release of The Abyss, Leviathan and Deep Star Six. All three are set in habitats in the bottom of the sea. In The Abyss, it’s an oil rig – and they have a close encounter of the third kind. It’s been praised for its accuracy, but the liquid-breathing diving suit is pure invention. See here for photographs of the abandoned movie set, built in an uncompleted nuclear power plant. In Leviathan, they’re building an undersea missile base – so that would be just like a nuclear ballistic missile submarine then, that doesn’t move – and they stumble across the wreck of a Soviet ship which was apparently carrying a biological weapon. It infects the crew of the habitat, and the film turns into a soggy Alien. In Deep Star Six, they’re mining the ocean floor, and accidentally open a cave that has been sealed for millions of years, so releasing a monster. Which finds its way into the habitat… and the film turns into a soggy Alien.


I’ve yet to buy a copy of The Neptune Factor (1973) on DVD, but from the plot summary on Wikipedia it sounds a bit daft. That may be a real submersible on the poster – DSV-2 Alvin, by the looks of it – and the underwater habitat in which the scientists live and work is called Sealab… But when an earthquake causes Sealab to fall into an oceanic trench, and the DSV is sent to rescue them, it encounters giant monster fish. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) is just as silly. Seaview is a state-of-the-art nuclear submarine, with ballistic missiles… and giant windows in the bow. While it is on trials, a meteor shower causes the Van Allen Radiation Belt to catch fire (um, right…), and the Earth has three weeks before everyone dies. The admiral in command of Seaview saves the day by firing a nuclear missile into the Van Allen Belt.


Sphere (1998) has all the ingredients for a good story but somehow manages to be a rubbish film. A giant mysterious craft is discovered deep on the ocean bed (just like that one in the Baltic Sea), and a team of scientists are sent down to investigate. That first shot of the alien craft as the divers approach it is impressive… but it’s all downhill from there. Dark Descent (2002) is set in Challenger Deep. It’s a straight-to-DVD film and stars Dean Cain, which should tell you all you need to know. It’s basically Outland at the bottom of the ocean, with Cain in the Connery role.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea spawned a television series which ran for 110 episodes from 1964 to 1968. It’s been shown on British television several times, but I only vaguely remember watching it. The programme also featured a Flying Sub, which appears to have been based on Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Diving Saucer. I also vaguely remember seeing episodes of Primus, a US series which ran for only a single season in 1971 and 1972. It was about a diver and his various adventures. I must have seen it on Dubai television later that same decade. In the 1990s, there was seaQuest DSV. I only saw the first season in 1993, and fled the country before the second and thirds seasons were broadcast. I left for reasons other than to avoid seaQuest DSV, but missing them was an unintended bonus. I also reviewed the novelisation of the pilot episode for Paperback Inferno, and can remember only that the book was terrible and I filled the review with nautical and marine puns (as you do). More recently, in 2010, the BBC broadcast The Deep, a serial of five episodes starring Minnie Driver and James Nesbitt. Bits of it were interesting, but much of it was rubbish. Nuclear reactors, for example, do not explode.


I’ve probably missed out loads of genre books, films or television series which were, if only partly, set underwater. There are, of course, lots of films about naval submarines – from Das Boot to The Hunt For Red October – and no doubt far more technothrillers which feature submersibles or divers than those written by Clive Cussler… but it’s not a genre I read. I’m tempted to try some of them but, while you don’t read technothrillers for the prose, I do hope they’re a good deal better than the crap Cussler’s sweatshop churns out these days…

Leave a comment

Warm below the storm, part 1

This was going to be another of my The future we used to have posts because, after all, the days of serious research into sustained living underwater, or seeing how deep human beings can survive, are long since past. These days, it’s all ROVs and atmospheric diving suits – James Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep last year notwithstanding. But commercial saturation diving is still common in the oil industry, and a number of companies still send divers down to 200 or 300 metres. So, it’s not quite a future of the past just yet.

However, “inner space” – or at least the watery version of it – has been a reasonably popular locale for science fiction stories and novels. In my post on Sealab (see here), I mentioned some of them. This post, however, will be the real world. Next week, I’ll follow up with a part 2 on fictional submersibles, underwater habitats, deep sea diving, etc. For now…



DSV 1 Trieste II
max depth: 6100 m


DSV 2 Alvin
max depth: 4500 m


DSV 4 Sea Cliff
max depth: 6000 m


Grumman/Piccard PX-15 Ben Franklin
max depth: 1200 m


Interior of Ben Franklin

underwater habitats


Sealab I (1964)
depth: 58 m


Sealab II (1965)
depth: 62 m


Artist’s impression of Sealab III (1969)
depth: 185 m


Conshelf II (1963)
depth: 10 m


Conshelf III (1965)
depth: 102.4 m


Helgoland II (1971 – 1977)
depth: 31 m


Tekite (1969 – 1970)
depth: 13.1 m


Aquarius (1986 – present)
depth: 20 m

saturation divers


Oceaneering saturation divers


Oceaneering Nautilus diving bell


Saturation diver preparing to leave diving bell


In an octopus’s garden

Back in the 1930s, Swiss scientist August Piccard held records for both the highest altitude ever reached and the deepest ocean descent. In the last couple of years I’ve found myself retracing a similar journey, and while I may have travelled higher and deeper, I’ve done it from the comfort of my armchair. In books.

I was three when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, so the Space Race was a part of the world in which I grew up. I had a childish interest in it, but in my late thirties that interest was rekindled after reading Andrew Smith’s Moondust. I’ve since used my fascination with the topic in my writing – not just the Apollo Quartet, but also in published and soon-to-be-published short stories. And I plan to continue doing so.

In 2010, I learnt it was the fiftieth anniversary of the first descent by human beings to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean on the planet, some 11,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific. In January 1960, Lieutenant Don Walsh, USN, and Jacques Piccard, son of Auguste Piccard, had reached the ocean-bottom in the bathyscaphe Trieste (which had also been designed and built by Auguste Piccard). I was surprised to discover that very little had been made of the two men’s achievement – in fact, I could find only a single book on the topic, Seven Miles Down, which I wrote about here. Contrast this with the huge numbers of books published in 2009 to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing (such as these).


Space exploration has been in the public eye since 1957 and the launch of Sputnik. Underwater exploration – especially deep sea exploration – has not. Yet it’s actually just as fascinating a topic. While the “commute” is a great deal simpler and less expensive – you just sink – the environment at the bottom of the ocean is every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than space. It is an area in which great strides were made during the middle decades of the twentieth century, and in which all the various problems were solved by brute-force engineering… only for interest to fade away as it proved too difficult to keep human beings alive in that environment. Just like space exploration.

Recently, I’ve been reading about underwater exploration – partly as a result of my ongoing interest in the Trieste, but also because I’ve felt it’s a good subject for short fiction. Earlier this week, I finished Sealab by Ben Hellwarth, which is about the US Navy’s programme during the 1960s to build an underwater habitat. I also have a copy of Living and Working in the Sea by James W Miller and Ian G Koblick (recommended by Gavin Smith). And, of course, there’s plenty of material on the internet. Even so, underwater exploration is not as well documented as space exploration.

The idea of living at the bottom of the sea is not a new one. The best-known fictional example is likely Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and that’s from 1870. There are, of course, plenty of difficulties to overcome – and not just the fact that human beings can’t breathe water. The deeper you go, the higher the pressure – one atmosphere for every ten metres of water. So at 610 m (2000 ft), that’s 61 atmospheres, or 61 kg per square centimetre. At such pressures, ordinary air is too dangerous to breathe. Not only is the partial pressure of oxygen increased to levels which can be toxic, but the nitrogen causes nitrogen narcosis, which presents as a form of debilitating drunkenness. Nitrogen also dissolves in the cells of the body, and returning to normal atmospheric pressure causes the gas to bubble out, often with fatal consequences – the bends. As a result, divers visiting below 60 m use a helium-oxygen mix. They must also decompress slowly to normal atmospheric pressure, a process that often takes longer than the period spent underwater.

One technique that has allowed greater depths to be reached is “saturation diving”. In this, the diver spends time before the dive in a sealed chamber in which the pressure is slowly increased – often over days – to the required level. If, for example, the diver will be operating at 200 m (650 ft), by the time they’ve completed compression, they will be breathing a helium-oxygen mix at 20 atmospheres, and the cells of their body will also be at that pressure. A sudden return to normal atmospheric pressure would be quite literally explosive.


Saturation diving is frighteningly dangerous. In 1962, Swiss physicist and diver Hannes Keller announced he would dive to the hitherto considered impossible depth of 305 m (1000 ft) using a secret mixture of breathing gases. In a diving bell, Atlantis, he and a British journalist, Peter Small, were lowered to the seabed off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, California. The plan was for Keller to place a Swiss and US flag on the seabed. Somehow, he managed to get his umbilical tangled in the flags as he returned to the bell, and once inside he passed out as the gas mixture had gone bad. Small had already blacked out. The bell was raised, and at 60 m (200 ft) support divers were sent down to assist. One of them never returned. Once the bell was on the ship, Keller revived, followed by Small two hours later; but Small then passed out again. Several hours later, Keller noticed that Small had stopped breathing. He tried to resuscitate him, to no avail. Once the bell’s atmosphere had reached two atmospheres – eight hours after it was originally sealed – it was opened and Small rushed to hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Keller had broken the deep-diving record, but at the cost of two lives.

Underwater exploration, and living, has been more successful in shallower waters, typically no more than 10 or 20 metres – depths at which it’s safe for a diver to head immediately for the surface. Jacques Cousteau operated his three Conshelf habitats in the Mediterranean between 1962 and 1965, before interest waned in the idea. US industrial Edwin Link, inventor of the flight simulator, experimented with his SPID, Submersible Portable Inflatable Dwelling, in which diver Robert Sténuit set a series of records, including spending 24 hours at 62 m (200 ft) in 1962. The biggest such project, though it was initially run on a shoestring budget, was the US Navy’s Sealab, the brainchild of Commander George F Bond, who before joining the Navy had worked as a country doctor in an Appalachian village called, amazingly, Bat Cave. The Sealab programme comprised three habitats, each one larger and better-equipped than the preceding one, placed in progressively deeper water. Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter joined the project on loan from NASA and spent thirty days in Sealab II. Sealab III, however, was plagued by technical problems, and ended in tragedy when a diver from the first team sent down to open up and then live in the habitat died of carbon dioxide poisoning on the ocean bottom at 185 m (610 ft).


The US Navy subsequently shut down the Sealab programme, but research into saturation diving continued in the private sector as oil companies began offshore drilling at deeper depths. They needed divers for seabed maintenance and repairs. A few other attempts were made at underwater habitats, but the idea of sustained underwater living, especially at depths of 200 m or more, was soon dropped. These days there are only a handful of underwater habitats in operation, and they all sit in shallow water – such Aquarius, which is in 20 m of water in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Even commercial divers found it more efficient to stay aboard a ship in a sealed chamber at the required pressure, and travel to the seabed in a diving bell to work. These days, of course, much of the work done by saturation divers is instead done by remotely-operated vehicles, ROVs, which can operate much deeper and don’t require decompression.


While the US Navy may have canned Sealab, it didn’t abandon saturation diving. Instead, it mounted a secret mission to retrieve debris from Soviet missile tests from the floor of the Sea of Okhotsk. The US Navy then realised it could use saturation divers to place taps on Soviet military submarine cables some 120 m (400 ft) down in the same region. Operation Ivy Bells provided a lot of useful intelligence throughout the 1970s, before it was compromised by a traitor within the CIA in 1980.

During the 1970s, commercial diving companies and some navies had tried to extend the depth at which saturation divers could operate. Somewhere around the 310 m mark, however, divers begin to suffer from a variety of symptoms, even when using a helium-oxygen mix: lethargy, dizziness, shakes, vomiting, delusion and hallucinations. This was dubbed High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, HPNS, and it seemed like a natural limit had finally been reached. Eventually, it was discovered that by adding hydrogen, or a small amount of nitrogen, to the gas mix, HPNS could be avoided. Commercial saturation diving to 300 m became routine, and depths of around 600 m were found to be possible – in fact, to date the deepest dive ever recorded by human beings was to 534 m (1752 ft) by a team of commercial saturation divers in 1988. The deepest simulated dive – ie, in a compression chamber on land – was to 701 m (2300 ft) as part of a scientific exercise by a commercial diving company. The diver spent three hours at 70 atmospheres, and experienced only minor HPNS symptoms, a slight tremor. At present, it is believed human beings cannot survive deeper than 750 m to 1000 m.

Much like space exploration, science fiction typically glosses over the difficulties associated with living and working underwater – especially at depth. There have been numerous novels, films and even television series featuring underwater cities, but most seemed to take as given that some element of humanity has been engineered to survive underwater – even at depth. James Blish and Norman L Knight’s A Torrent of Faces features aquatic humans, as do, more recently, Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth and Peter Watts’ Rifters Trilogy. Actual diving, or realistic underwater habitats, seems more the province of techno-thrillers – much like accurate space exploration has been. Michael Crichton’s Sphere, for example, has all the elements of a good story – saturation diving, underwater habitat, and a mysterious alien spacecraft on the ocean bottom… but still manages to be a bad film. The Abyss is perhaps one of the best cinematic representations of deep sea diving, but the fluid-breathing diving suit is pure invention. Given the actual achievements made last century in saturation diving and underwater habitats, it seems a shame the topic is not more commonly used in science fiction.


Having said all that, depth is no obstacle when people remain in a one-atmosphere environment, as they do in a submarines, submersibles or atmospheric diving suits. Sf representations of these are far more common – from Frank Herbert’s The Dragon in the Sea to the seaQuest DSV television series. But that’s a topic for another post…


I love the smell of old paper in the morning

Inspired by Pornokitsch’s book porn post earlier today, I have decided to share some of the older, and perhaps less obviously the sort of books I would buy, books in my collection. And here they are…


I bought The Life and Works of Jahiz on abebooks after reading and enjoying Robert Irwin’s The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, but I’ve, er, never got around to reading it. It was published in 1969, so it’s not especially old – in fact, it’s younger than me. But I suspect very few people I know also possess a copy. (I see there’s a single copy for sale on Amazon… for £129.99.)


I’ve tried my hand at poetry, and a few of my attempts have been published, but I’ve found the poetry that appeals to me most is that of the 1930s and 1940s, such as by the Cairo poets. Here I have three collections by Terence Tiller: Reading a Medal (1957), Poems (1941) and The Inward Animal (1943); Richard Spender’s Collected Poems (1944); and John Jarmain’s Poems (1945). They were bought at antique fairs, on eBay, or from Abebooks.


And here are two poetry anthologies from that period. New Verse (1939) features photographs of the contributors at the end and appears to have been annotated in pencil by a previous owner. Poetry of the Present (1949) has a review slip in it, giving the exact publication date as April 28th 1949 and price as 10/6.


My favourite poet is probably Bernard Spencer, and here are a couple of hard-to-find chapbooks: The Twist in the Plotting (1960) and With Luck Lasting (1963).


I first came across the Cairo poets via the Lawrence Durrell connection. During WWII, there were two groups of poets and writers in Egypt – both serving in the armed forces and civilians. Durrell and Spencer were in the Personal Landscape group, centred around a journal with that title. The other group was called Salamander after its magazine, and later published three collections of poetry by armed forces personnel: Oasis (1943), Return to Oasis (1980) and From Oasis into Italy (1983). (I can’t find any copies of Oasis online to link to, unfortunately.)


Middle East Anthology of Prose and Verse (1946) is, er, exactly that. It includes Lawrence Durrell, John Jarmain, Bernard Spencer, Keith Douglas and Olivia Manning, among others. The book lacking a dustjacket is Personal Landscape (1945), like Oasis above, an anthology drawn from the pages of the magazine of the same name, which includes, er, Lawrence Durrell, John Jarmain, Bernard Spencer, Keith Douglas and Olivia Manning, among others.


From verse to prose – three novels from the 1930s and 1940s. Priddy Barrows (1944) is Jarmain’s only novel – he was killed in WWII. I wrote about it here. Copies of both Priddy Barrows and his poetry collection are, it seems, now impossible to find. At First Sight (1935) is Nicholas Monsarrat’s second novel, and This Is The Schoolroom (1939) is his fourth (but my copy is a 1947 reprint).


Finally, a couple of books about bathyscaphes. Seven Miles Down (1961) is the only book written specifically about the voyage of the Trieste to the floor of Challenger Deep in 1960. I wrote about it here. 2000 Fathoms Down covers descents in a bathyscaphe by the two authors during the 1940s and 1950s.


Ten favourite books read during the lifetime of this blog

I saw this meme on David Hebblethwaite’s excellent blog (and he picked it up from The Broke and the Bookish), and I thought: that’s a good idea, my turn now. It Doesn’t Have To Be Right (It Just Has To Sound Plausible) has been running since 2006, originally on but on for the past couple of years. Each year, I’ve put together a list of the best five books I’ve read that year – a habit which even predates my blog, as I used to do it for an APA I was in for a good many years. So those best of lists for each year were the obvious place to look for books for this meme.

This list of ten books are not my favourite books of all time, but they are books I liked and admired a great deal during the years 2006 to 2011. They’re also quite indicative of what it is in fiction that I like and admire. They’re in no particular order.

1 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
This has been a touchstone work for me for a number of years. Mercurio’s highly-detailed prose is something I try for in my own writing, though I do wonder if in Adrift on the Sea of Rains I’ve gone even further than Ascent does. The story of a Soviet pilot leading up to the Korean War and during the years following, Ascent paints a bleak picture of a driven man who, despite numerous setbacks, still ends up playing an important, but secret, role in the USSR’s space programme. Although its central character, Yefgeni Yeremin, is invited to train as a cosmonaut, this is not the cheerful gung-ho can-do-ism normally found in fictional treatments of the Space Race. Ascent is not a science fiction novel, and Mercurio is not a science fiction author (although he did write and produce the science fiction television series Invasion: Earth), but I felt Ascent could be read as sf – and I wrote as much here.

2 The Jewel In The Crown, Paul Scott (1966)
I vaguely recall watching the television adaptation of this when it was broadcast back in the 1980s, though all I can remember is Art Malik, Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James. When I stumbled across all four of the Raj Quartet books in a charity shop for 69p buy-one-get-one-free, I thought they’d be worth a read. And when I got around to reading The Jewel In The Crown I discovered that Paul Scott was precisely the sort of literary writer whose fiction I enjoy a great deal. There is an impressive control of voice on display throughout The Jewel In The Crown, and the collage of testimonies from which it’s put together create an impressively rich and detailed portrait of life in the invented Indian city of Mayapore. After finishing The Jewel In The Crown, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I collect in first editions (although I’ve yet to find an affordable copy of this book in first edition). I wrote about The Jewel In The Crown here.

3 Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011)
I used to read fantasy quite a lot – not as much as I read science fiction, but it was probably my second choice in terms of reading material. I worked my way through most of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, tried the first book of Steve Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, and ploughed my way through sundry other well-known fantasy novels. And then I completely gave it up – or rather, gave up on it. It was all rubbish. Everything was the same, there had been no real invention in it since the 1970s. It was all magic systems and thinly-disguised role-playing-games’ campaigns. But I knew the name Carolyn Ives Gilman – I’d liked her debut, Halfway Human, which was sf – and the description of Isles of the Forsaken did sound like something out of the ordinary in fantasy terms. And so it proved. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel where two of the major characters escape imprisonment by the villains. Their route takes them along tunnels and inside the mountain overlooking the city, where they find themselves in some sort of vast otherworldly library built around an apparently bottomless well. It’s an astonishing moment in a fantasy novel that is very much unlike all the other fantasies currently available; and it’s one of only a handful of books in the genre that I consider worth reading. I wrote about it here.

4 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
I’ve been a fan of Sterling’s writing since the 1980s, and have bought each new book by him as it was published. Not all made my top five list for their year of publication as I sometimes felt his propensity to throw out ideas on every page occasionally made uneven reads of his novels. The Caryatids, however, seemed to me like a welcome return to form – more than that, it was one of the first science fiction novels which read like a truly twenty-first century science fiction novel. The world Sterling created in The Caryatids felt like one that was reachable from the present day – or rather, felt like one that was inevitable if nothing was done in the present day to halt things like Climate Change or the collapse of capitalism. I was happy when I was asked to review the book for Interzone, and even more chuffed when I was told I’d also be interviewing Sterling. The interview is in Interzone #221 March-April 2009, and I think it came out quite well. I reprinted the review on my blog here in May of this year. Incidentally, I still don’t understand why there’s been no UK edition of this novel.

5 Spirit, The Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008)
I’ve long maintained that Jones is the finest British writer of science fiction currently being published – although she’s not had a novel published since this one. There have been three collections since 2008, and she continues to write short fiction – and, of course, there are the YA books she writes as Ann Halam… although the latest of those, a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island, will only be published in the US. Spirit is perhaps the closest Jones has ever come to writing space opera, and the end result is characteristically Jonesian but also seems in part to carry the flavours of several other well-known sf authors, from Samuel R Delany to Iain M Banks. The story is based on that of The Count of Monte Cristo, but the ending recasts Dumas’ tale of revenge as something less vindictive and more redemptive. I wrote about it here but the review’s cake-based conceit wasn’t as effective – or made as much sense – as I’d thought when I wrote it. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

6 Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974)
Three years ago was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and in order to celebrate it I decided to read the (auto)biographies of the three astronauts involved – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – and review the books on my Space Books blog. I also read and reviewed several other books about the mission. Carrying the Fire not only proved to be the best of the three (auto)biographies, but also the best astronaut autobiography I have read to date. Collins was always characterised as the most introspective and erudite of the three “amiable strangers”, so it’s no real surprise that Carrying the Fire is so readable and so well-written. It also feels far less self-aggrandising than is typically the case for astronaut autobiographies – the nature of the job in those days demanded the sort of people who have big egos. Recently, of course, we lost one of the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong, on whom the most attention regarding the lunar missions has focused, despite his retreat from public life afterward. My review of Carrying the Fire is here.

7 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928)
My father was the DH Lawrence fan in our family. On a trip to the US, he dragged my mother to Taos to see the chapel where Lawrence’s ashes are interred. But, despite a shelf full of books by and about Lawrence in my parents’ house, I’d never tried reading him. And then, for some reason I no longer recall, I decided I ought to have a go. So of course I picked Lawrence’s most famous – and infamous – novel. And I loved it. Like Lawrence, I’m a Nottinghamshire native, and though the Eastwood dialect he writes is much broader than the Mansfield dialect I heard throughout my childhood years, it’s still familiar. So there was an immediate geographical appeal to the book. But when Lawrence was writing about nature and the countryside, his descriptive prose really shone for me (Lawrence Durrell, a favourite writer, is also an excellent writer of descriptive prose). The characters of Mellors and Constance were also drawn much more effectively than I had expected. I so enjoyed Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that on subsequent visits to charity shops I picked up copies of Lawrence’s other books, and now have most of them – and I plan to slowly work my way through them. Incidentally, the best film adaptation I’ve seen so far of the book is Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley. It’s French-language, which is initially odd, but it does seem to capture the book much more effectively than any other adaptation.

8 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
There is a trio of books by a writer whose personal views I find odious which riffs on Golden Age tropes and attempts to do something 21st century with them. I read the first two shortly after they were published – and before I knew what the author was like – and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They weren’t actually very good. David Herter’s first novel, Ceres Storm, plays similar games with those tropes, but it is beautifully written and very, very good. Of course, Herter remains mostly unknown whereas the previous writer now churns out best-sellers. Such is the way things work. Evening’s Empire was Herter’s second novel, and it is not science fiction. It sat unread on my bookshelves for a decade, and when I finally read it I wondered why it had taken me so long. It starts off as a (John) Crowley-esque fantasy before taking an abrupt left turn into something strange and wonderful. The main character is working on an opera based on Jules Verne, and that in turn inspired me to pick up and read Verne’s two best-known works, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth… but I don’t think I’ll ever really be a Verne fan.

9 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
If Gwyneth Jones is the finest writer of science fiction in the UK currently still writing, then Compton is the finest sf writer in the UK who is no longer writing (and hasn’t been published since a pair of near-future crime novels published in the mid-1990s). He’s perhaps best known for The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974), which was adapted for cinema by Betrand Tavernier as Death Watch in 1979. Compton started out writing crime novels in the early 1960s, but branched out into sf in 1965 with The Quality of Mercy. British sf of that period was far better-written than its US equivalent, chiefly because it was less orientated toward, or had fewer roots in, pulpish action-adventure. Writers such as Arthur Sellings, Keith Roberts, Rex Gordon, Michael G Coney or Richard Cowper – not to mention the New Wave authors – could write rings round their American contemporaries. Even those who banged out hackwork for US publishers with impressive regularity – Brian Stableford, EC Tubb, Edmund Cooper, Ken Bulmer, etc. – were better prose stylists than the big Hugo winners like Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert or van Vogt. Compton was the best of the lot. His books read like snapshots of the 1960s and 1970s now, but they’re beautifully observed snapshots. They are the embodiment of sf novels set in the near-future that are really about the time they were written. Synthajoy‘s science-fictional content does not especially convince, and its central premise is unlikely to generate sense of wonder… but it’s a wonderfully-written portrait of a woman who is driven to crime by the behaviour of her husband, the inventor of the eponymous psychiatric technique. I wrote about it here.

10 Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010)
I think I’ve always had a somewhat utopian bent, and that’s only grown stronger in recent years. Science fiction has its occasional spats over pessimistic versus optimistic stories, and while I can hardly claim that Adrift on the Sea of Rains is optimistic, I have grown increasingly annoyed with the default futures far too much recent sf employs. It’s all grimly corporate and capitalist near-fascist states which only perpetuate the myth of self-actualisation through money, power and material possessions. I’d like to see that change. Yes, I know there are utopian science fictions available, but it’s the default nature of this horrible US-led invented future that I’d like to see disappear. Red Plenty, however, does not depict a communist future, a USSR which outlasted the capitalist West. It’s actual a dramatised history of events during the first half a dozen decades of the USSR. But it’s beautifully done, and it’s easy to see how the soviet system promised so much more than it ended up delivering. It presents the USSR as a dream of utopia. The fact the dream failed should not invalidate the attempt. Read Red Plenty and then tell me the American Dream is the only sustainable future. Who knows, twenty years from now we may be mocking sf novels that don’t depict the USA as a repressive and misogynist theocratic oligarchy…

special extra 11th book: Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Mietz (1961)
This list is supposed to be ten books – it says so in the title of the post – but I really wanted to include this book… not because it is well-written, or because it’s the best book ever published on its subject. It is, as far as I can discover, the only book published on its subject. And it’s a subject which came to fascinate me when I learnt of it in 2010. That year was the fiftieth anniversary of the first – and until only recently – visit by human beings to the deepest part of the oceans, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Like the Apollo programme, the descent of the bathyscaphe Trieste was a triumph of brute engineering, and that’s one of the reasons I find it so interesting. It’s also inspired some of my fiction. I wrote about Seven Miles Down here.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,864 other followers