Top critical review
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Originally Published On leostableford.com
on 20 September 2012
I finished reading Undersea nearly a week ago now and the more and more I turn it over in my head the more I can trace the book's issues come back to just one decision.
More on that later, because issues there are, but it would be grossly unfair to say that there was nothing to love in Undersea. As the blurb informs us the subject matter of Undersea concerns itself with a particular furrow of SF that doesn't get ploughed all that often. It's a watery space opera, no stars in the sky but plenty of decompression chambers beneath the waves.
This was a smart move in many ways. Undersea cannot suffer by comparison as nobody's yet produced the definitive oceanic colony novel (AFAIK). By the same token this is most certainly not the definitive oceanic colony novel, although it has many of the right ingedients. This is a slice of action thriller with some technological stuff and a moist post-apocalyptic scenario.
As such the piece is not 'idea driven' so much as 'based on an idea'. The drive has to come from the characters. The main pair, Ralla Gattley and Thom Vargas are personable enough, although I wouldn't go quite so far as to say rich, deep or well-rounded. We get to know Ralla quite well during the book, meeting both her parents and her fiance. We also get to see her wield the weapons of war and resist the efforts of their enemies to break her will.
Thom Vargas we see less of. We meet some friends of his, we learn he likes a drink, we learn that when he's not soused he can rouse himself to lead a team of sub-oceanic ninja fishermen on rescue missions.
Before we go any further I would like to make it quite plain that I enjoyed Undersea. The point of discussion here is 'is it worth £1.53 if you are intrigued by the premise'? The answer to that question is undoubtably yes. It delivers enough action, enough character and enough techno stuff to keep you going until the end.
Would I recommend it even to people who are not that bothered? That's where my endorsement ends.
I think it might be time to mention that key issue, and go from there. At one point during my read a character's name was spelled 'Mrakas'. I assumed that it was a slip of the finger and that next time the character would be correctly rendered 'Markas'. The character then continued to be called Mrakas every time he was invoked all the way to the end of the book.
Point one, the book has been somewhat shoddily proofed to the point where meeting a man called Mrakas I thought it had to be a typographical goof. The volume is rife with many of the more pernicious typos where a homonym substitutes for its more appropriate sibling, something I just can't bare (joke). There are also many places where a good editor would have spotted uses of the wrong word, nothing as bad as playing it fast and lose or loosing all patience but certainly more creative uses of that particular boob. I didn't mind, I just re-edited for sense in my own image as I went along. Less arrogant more pedantic readers will definitely find this a chore.
Point two, no doubt the character was called Mrakas because the author felt it added a little something. It did: unpronounceability. When faced with the choice of rounding out a character or giving him a silly name the journeyman author should learn to engage with a solid work ethic.
The character is not a child, giving them a silly name will not force them to make themselves more interesting to make up for their nomenclature. Until the book is out there mean kids like me cannot whale on him for having a silly name. Now that I am giving him a going over I bet there are many things Mrakas wishes he could do to make himself more interesting and rise above this unfortunate shortfall in the process of his creation, but he can't. The story is told and he is left only regrets and a tortured alphabet salad to enter into the forename box on his insurance claims.
This kind of laziness infects all the characters. If the author could be thought entirely incompetent then I might be more forgiving but Morrison demonstrates some raw talent. The setting is important, only someone with potential as a storyteller could really latch on to the hook presented by the danger and oppression of a human life forcibly pushed into less than ideal circumstances into undersea habitats.
The poetry of two communities, the heroes on board the citysub Universalis, the opposition on board the citysub Population, living in hastily assembled gigantic submarines manages to outstrip the question of how they haven't managed any R&D on their living spaces in the three or four generations that they've been tooling about under the sea. (This latter problem is even poked hard enough to make it a sore point when you are told that they had the time to develop deep sea mining colony domes, research stations and whizzy shards of body armour but no new development in the mobile capital city of humanity.)
In addition there is a heartwarming thread of utopian philosophy embodied in the political stance of Ralla Gattley. Morrison has a way of communicating how people act in mobs comes to life in a way I've not seen before. The politics of the masses and the manipulation of leadership communication are used to make plot points in a way that seems believable and contrasts with how such devices are usually overplayed. At one moment an attempt at undermining a character's leadership credentials backfires (which such moves don't tend to) and the description of the fallout from this ham-fisted attempt really gives the drama some muscle.
Gattley is idealistic enough to be endearing but realistic in her outlook enough not to be naive, a hard balancing act, to be sure. A key part of this balance can be attributed to the villain, the opposing citysub's lead politician: Governor Oppai, who is a splendidly weird creation.
I'm not entirely sure whether Oppai's distinctive character is a design or an accident. It is certainly possible that Morrison made the whole plot and supplied notes for "Villain 1 acts this way" before writing. When he came to write the novel he tried to fit Oppai's personality to the actions he was required to take.
Regardless, Oppai's characterisation does work, it shouldn't, but it does. Oppai is, simultaneously, a charismatic statesman and a paranoid lunatic. This sounds like something it would be fairly easy to pull off but his brand of charisma is very much of the contemporary age. Oppai makes statements about being "in it together" with the people on board the citysub Population whilst, at the same time, enticing them into his dangerous fantasy through a web of deceit; an exemplar of fascism through lies, appealing to the worst in human nature.
Oppai is brilliantly manipulative and eminently despisable. Making him Ralla Gattley's main adversary boosts the protagonist's character. Oppai is pretty much as two dimensional as all the other main characters but in a pantomime villain this is excusable.
To be fair I didn't have high standards for the main protagonists. 2.5 dimensions will usually do a great job in a plot-driven action thriller and 3 whole dimensions can often make the meat too rich and too strange.
Given that the novel is supposed to be complete in itself the fact that all you know about the protagonists is that they are pacifists with guns who may or may not be in lurve is a shortcoming. It is one that could have been mitigated in two ways.
The first is that Undersea could have gone from one off to saga, over a longer period the gradual accumulation of character is easier to forgive and almost inevitable for the storyteller. The second would be to have more characters front and centre making the piece into an ensemble.
Following both of these suggestions to their natural conclusion it would appear that Undersea is not just a fine idea for an SF adventure but also a solid basis for a television series.
I couldn't shake the feeling that things would have turned out a little better if Undersea had been given some of the discipline applied to a television series. Among the likely improvements such a treatment would have furnished are: the major beats would have been slower, the enemy could have amounted to more than a single character, the ensemble would have helped build a richer world.
The end result may have come out like Waterworld meets (new) Battlestar Galactica but in genre terms that's got potential to be a winner.
As it is the product before us at once goes too fast and doesn't deliver quite enough story to raise it further than a solid "just above average". The good news is that there are free volumes out there with more editorial polish and less compelling action. The bad news is that there are free volumes out there with identical (or better) editorial standards that are more gripping. As these are the facts I cannot grip you firmly by the shoulders and direct you to read Undersea now, but neither am I going to warn you away. If you're looking for a cheap and cheerful slice of action adventure with a twist Undersea will certainly scratch that itch.