Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book a Review: Out of the Deeps

© 1953
Originally published in England as The Kraken Wakes

[mild spoilers]

Sometime around November of 1948 and lasting for a few years, the southwestern United States – particularly New Mexico – experienced what would soon become known as “green fireballs.”  Witnesses would see green balls of fire briefly streak through nighttime skies, sometimes as many as a dozen fireballs at a time.  These more-than-meteors were silent and left no physical traces on the ground.  Since many sightings occurred near sensitive military areas such as Los Alamos (and, gulp, Roswell!), the Army soon opened up an official investigation, called Project Twinkle, into the strange phenomenon.  After two years of study, Twinkle concluded the green fireballs to be natural phenomena, though exactly what type of natural phenomena it did not specify.

John Wyndham, an author non-SF geeks might know best as the mind behind The Day of the Triffids, begins his alien invasion / apocalypse with red fireballs, perhaps cashing in on all this “keep watching the skies!” craze.  Color aside, his fireballs come with two important distinctions: one, they only seem to occur over the deepest parts of the sea (the hero and his wife, on a honeymoon cruise, spot five one night), and, two, they last long enough for fighter pilots to shoot them down.  When hit, interestingly enough, they exploded in a brilliant burst of flashing pyrotechnics.

The hero of our tale, Mike Watson, is a writer who works for the “EBC,” a television network in 1950s England, along with his wife Phyllis.  The book is his first-person account, written while stranded on a sinking island, of a highly unique alien invasion – from the sea – where mankind comes perilously close to extinction. 

Despite its faults – and they are many – I kinda liked it.  I like the whole bird’s-eye view of a worldwide invasion.  Reminds me of those 1950s sci-fi flicks, ones like Earth vs the Flying Saucers in particular.  But in Earth vs the Red Fireballs, or, er, Out of the Deeps, or The Kraken Wakes, the invasion is more subtle than a Ray Harryhausen or George Pal movie.

The book, like the mysterious invader’s plans, is divided into three phases.  Phase One is the red fireball phase, slightly boring and dragged out, but an intriguing premise nonetheless, especially as the Scientific Establishment struggles to explain it and Weird Things Happen.  Our inexplicables get a lot more interesting in Phase Two, where first contact, so to speak, occurs, and by Phase Three millions and millions of humans are dying, most often, ironically enough, at the hands of their fellow man.

The problem with the bird’s-eye view of catastrophe is the danger of not feeling personally involved in the proceedings.  This happens in spades in the novel.  Only one scene do our hero and heroine actually come harrowing close to death at the hands of the invaders.  But it’s a great scene.  Occurring during “Phase Two” and thus somewhere in the middle of the book, it involves “sea tanks” – egg-shaped organic thingies that roll out of the waves onto the shore, spouting slimy sticky tentacles dragging hapless helpless victims into a massive ball of bodies, a massive ball of bodies then dragged back down into the dark depths.  Truly a nasty fate, and one in which (most) of our heroes avoid.

Phase Three involves the melting of the ice caps.  That’s how the invaders are ultimately going to get us.  Somehow the unseen aliens have the technology to melt all that thar ice, and inch by inch the sea level  rises.  After three long years humanity has devolved into violent feudal clans (which we’re used to by now, with several seasons of Walking Dead under our belts).  This was the longest, slowest part of the book, and most depressing.  A four or five page coda reveals that mankind has at last found a way to fight back.

Did I like it?

Yes and No. 

First off, I luv any type of Earth versus Alien Invasion, the bigger the better, the more unusual and different the better.  As such, Out of the Deeps qualifies instantly.  An alien invasion from the sea, in which the planet itself becomes a weapon against us.  I found their strategy to be clever and, let’s face it, how the heck do you fight against the rising tide?  Literally!  And as mentioned, I liked the “macro” feel to the book, the documentary, “you are there” style of writing, at least initially.  Though it must be said again I craved for more life-and-death hazards for our heroes to overcome.

A few of the scattered reviews I’ve read here and there on the internet express thorough disgust at Wyndham for the character of Phyllis, the wife.  Sexist!  Chauvinist!  Is this 1953, or 1853!  I didn’t see this at all.  In fact, I found her the better half of the Watsons, exuding much more wit, toughness, humor, and smarts than her blockhead hubby.  I actually chuckled out loud once or twice reading her dialogue, and enjoyed her wrangling with the chief egghead trying to save humanity.

These likes were more than balanced with negatives, though.  Mostly it was the glacial pace of the 182-page novel (it does take place over several years, probably a decade in fact).  Too many paragraphs are spent telling us what happened, instead of showing us.  It struck me as a mid-sized novella or a longish short story padded out to novel length.  Also, I found the fact that not only do we never see the alien baddies, we never even communicate with them.  Though that is not necessarily a deal breaker; some mystery is good sometimes.  Then there was outright foolish, clumsy and unsuccessful attempts at humor, and I’m thinking specifically of the caricatures of the Russian politicians on this point. 

Overall, though, a quick read, which is always a plus for me.  I have nearly a hundred paperbacks on the shelf behind me to read.

Grade: B-minus.  (Would’ve been a C if it had been over 200 pages …)

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