😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
It’s June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The small crew is supplemented by the two Indian scientists responsible for the submarine’s design, and an observer, M. Lebret, who reports directly to the Minister for National Defence, Charles de Gaulle. It is soon enough after the war for resentments against those who supported the Vichy government still to be fresh, and Lebret was one such, so there are already tensions amongst those aboard. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine’s capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on… past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure… and on… and on…
This is a brilliant start to a novel that remains brilliant for about two-thirds of its length and then fades a little towards the end. Undoubtedly the most original sci-fi I’ve read in a long time, it’s a mash-up of references, both explicit and in style, not just to Jules Verne and the Captain Nemo stories, but to lots of early sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers, from Alice in Wonderland to Poe, and even to Dickens. And I’m sure a more knowledgeable sci-fi reader would pick up loads that I missed. Stylistically it reads like a book from the early twentieth century, Wells or Conan Doyle perhaps, but it has a surreal edge and a playfulness with the traditions that keeps the reader aware that it’s something more than a pastiche.
And the surreality grows as the adventure progresses and the Plongeur continues its dive to depths that should have taken it through the centre of the earth and out the other side. As it gradually becomes clear to those aboard that the normal rules of physics seem no longer to apply, their reactions range from panic to getting royally drunk to religious mania, while one or two are still willing to speculate that there might be a rational explanation. Arguments begin over what can be happening and what should be done, and the crew are soon at each other’s throats. And when it eventually becomes a little clearer where they might have ended up, there’s a Lovecraftian feel about the Plongeur’s new surroundings and the creatures it encounters there. The book contains 33 illustrations by Mahendra Singh, and even in the Kindle version they work well in adding to the ever-growing atmosphere of horror. There’s much science and philosophy in the book, especially around the nature of reality and God, and even a little politics, but this too all feels deliberately off-kilter – not quite in line with the real world and therefore not to be taken too seriously.
I thought I might be hampered by not having read the original Captain Nemo stories, but for the most part I didn’t feel I was, though I suspect someone familiar with those would have got more of the references. There was only one point where I felt a little lost (when we were introduced to a character and were clearly supposed to recognise him from elsewhere) and a quick look at Wikipedia’s pages on Jules Verne and Captain Nemo was enough to get me back up to speed. The story moves through the Verne originals and on beyond where they finished. But Roberts is playing with Verne’s world rather than retelling it, just as he is playing with the real world and science of the ’50s too. In the last section he gets a bit overly philosophical and a little too clever, and also takes us into a sequence that drags a little, unlike the rapid pace of the earlier part of the book. But while I felt the ending wasn’t as strong as the rest, overall I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror. Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to trying some of Roberts’ other books.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St. Martin’s Griffin.