Thursday, July 31, 2014

Book Review: Red Tide

© 1975 by D. D. Chapman and Deloris Lehman Tarzan

This was not a great book, but it’s great to me because of its placement in my life.

I’d imagine there’s a point in many a young lad’s life where he snoops around in his father’s desk drawers and finds something shocking.  Maybe cigarettes, maybe a dirty magazine, maybe a gun – who knows?  All I know is that I once pulled out a drawer in the hutch in our dining room and found five paperback books.

Now, it wasn’t snooping in his desk, bureau or dresser or something like that.  The dining room was a public area in my little house growing up.  But I vividly recall to this day, at least thirty-five years later, opening that drawer and seeing those books for the first time.  Nothing else was in the drawer, just five books.  I withdrew them out one by one, studying the front and back covers, leafing through the pages.  Who put them there?  Must’ve been my father.  Couldn’t have been my younger brother or my mother.  Had to have been him. 

I remember the titles still: Who Can Replace a Man? by Brian Aldiss; The Barbarian at World’s End by Lin Carter; a novelization of the George C. Scott movie Hardcore (?!?); these stand out, plus a hazy image of a Zane Grey novel with a shark on the cover (?) whose name I forgot.

And, of course, Red Tide.  See the iconic (to me, at least) image below:

I immediately snuck one and read it, then moved on to another.  Aldiss confused and terrified me.  Carter fascinated me and, had I read it a year or two later, might have ignited a passion for archaeology.  And I remember spending hot summer evenings in my top bunk bed reading the tale of an underwater oceanographic research facility cut off from a war-torn surface, with water-breathing men or something-or-other thrown in for good measure: such was Red Tide.

Though I am certain I read the whole thing, I forgot 99.9 percent of it as I entered teenagehood and life waylaid me.  By the time I could legally buy a beer, I could probably describe, if pressed, that book cover and name two characters: Mattern and Loera.  That’s it.

Fifteen years ago I stumbled across that cover (that cover! that cover!) in a used book bin in a forgotten used book store (in Massachusetts, I kinda sorta think) and picked it up without hesitation.  It leapfrogged up the two or three On-Deck books and I read it immediately.  Then, as happened nearly twenty years prior, I immediately forgot it.  Plot specifics, characters others than Mattern and Loera, setup and denouement, etc.  The one thing that did vaguely settle over my consciousness concerning the book was that it did not seem to be the same tale I read as a boy.

Earlier this summer I was rummaging through some boxes of books and – whoa! there’s fishman of the sea! – I spotted Red Tide nestled among some old college textbooks.  Should I read it again?  No memory of the last re-read, but … it’s only two hundred pages and looks to be a quickie.  So again I bumped it up on the reading list and this past weekend blew through it in two days.

Verdict: well, c.f. the first sentence of this post.

The good: The setting.  Cobb Seamount, the deep-sea underwater research facility is downright claustrophobic, cramped, nerve-wracking.  The deeper you go the heavier the air must be to breathe, going up to 200 atmospheres at the very bottom, Down Under.  The biochemistry creeped me out, things like the dangers of metabolizing hydrogen and going coprophagic if you stay down at 200 atmospheres too long, though I have no idea if this is true or not.

Also good: the setup.  A garbled radio message orders Mattern, an ex-diver and now administrator of the facility, to destroy the floating radio station above Cobb.  Now there’s no communications with the outside world, and no one knows what has happened (nuclear war? biological war?).  Soon, as happens in such closed quarters, everyone is at everyone else’s throat in no time. 

Bad: Dialogue.  People just don’t talk they way normal people do.  Maybe it’s because normal people ain’t 500 feet below the ocean waves in a possibly-post-apocalyptic world, I dunno, but I couldn’t see sensible, professional, highly-trained people speaking – and acting – this way.  Maybe the authors were trying to indicate tempers flaring due to intense stresses involved.  It just didn’t come across that way to me, a humble reader.

Also bad: the unfolding plot.  A minisub trip to another undersea complex run by a Bondian villain and decked out with extras from Airport 75.  I couldn’t stop visualizing bell bottoms and pantsuits, medallions over hairy chests and a lot of “what’s your sign, baby?”  A scientist who chucks all morality to the side to create a race of men who can breathe under water.  A lovestruck tough guy who inexplicably dons a pressure suit and descends hundreds of feet to “save” a woman who has zero interest in him.  Two scientists deciding on inexplicable spur-of-the-moment, uh, intercourse.  A bunch of trigger-happy sub captains afflicted with what seems like roid rage.  Supposedly top-notch researchers abandoning all adherence to chain of command to mutiny with a grungy crab famer.

So … a mixed bag.  But who knows?  Maybe I’ll re-read it again, this time when I’m 60, and it will be an entirely different novel.  Maybe it’s a work that changes as the reader does.  Maybe it functions as a sort of mirror to the psyche of whoever turns it’s pages.  Maybe – maybe –

Grade: C.  And that involves a huge curve because of that cover!!!

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