March 5, 2014


by Arthur C Clarke
240 pages, Gollancz

Review by Pat Black

Arthur C Clarke’s mysterious worlds are mainly concerned with outer space. But in The Deep Range, he dives into his other abiding scientific interest: the oceans.

The novel was first published in 1957, and is an appropriation of an earlier short story of the same name. In the prototype, a man in a high-tech submarine acts as shepherd to a flock of whales, protecting them from giant sharks and killer whales. The story, and the novel that succeeded it, has a fairly radical central concept: that worldwide hunger could be eradicated by farming the great whales for food.

As Clarke wryly notes in his 1988 foreword to this novel, whales have had “excellent public relations” in the nearly 60 years hence, and so for many of us the idea of harming them, much less eating them, is repugnant. But even if Clarke’s ideas don’t quite work, they still intrigue us. If we can’t have whale meat, Clarke reasons, maybe we can have whale milk? And if men in submarines are shepherding whales, why can’t we have killer whales to act as sub-aqua sheepdogs?

As in many other Clarke stories, the human participants are a chore to be attended to before we get to the fun. As far as it goes, he gives a backstory to his main protagonist, the ex-astronaut Walter Franklin, but it’s couched in terms of scientific curiosity and new psychological frontiers. Franklin’s had an accident in space, and is effectively banished to earth to begin a new career as a submarine ranger. Franklin has an acute psychological problem linked to a sense of space: astrophobia, best described as agoraphobia times infinity.  

Franklin not only tackles his condition, but defeats it – indeed, he becomes a success through having done so. Clarke has used this theme of a damaged man returning to useful employment more than once. This reminds me of another Clarke short, where two men are stuck on a malfunctioning spacecraft with only enough oxygen to get one of them back home alive. One of them has had a total nervous breakdown earlier in the mission. We are meant to think he is toast, compared to his bullish co-pilot - but he triumphs, in spite of his nervous affliction. I wonder if there was some sort of psychological crisis in Clarke’s life, a trough he had to negotiate before hitting the peaks? As with many things in Clarke’s somewhat colourful private life, we may never know. A lifetime’s worth of his journals will stay sealed for another forty-odd years.

Franklin takes to his new job like a duck to water, and is soon fighting off great white sharks and whatnot to protect his flock. He makes a friend in Don Burley, a fellow submariner who starts off as a rival before mellowing out. He also meets Indra, who becomes his wife, and bears him a couple of kids. There’s no suggestion that this could have been a love triangle of any kind – unless we factor in Clarke’s closeted homosexuality, and the inescapable fact that Franklin and Burley have a more interesting relationship than Franklin and Indra.

As in The City and the Stars, the story’s primary concept is used for the principals to have whacko, episodic adventures which might have been dreamed up by a seven-year-old. They torpedo ferocious sharks; they capture a giant squid; and there are some tantalising glimpses of cryptozoology’s prize catch, the great sea serpent.

Clarke’s prescience also comes into play. When we first meet Indra, she is tagging a tiger shark with detection equipment – another bit of on-the-nose prophesying from Clarke? This must have been decades before scientists started doing it in the real world.  

Clarke also foreshadows instant global communications and the idea that news in one part of the world can have a global reach in a matter of seconds, whereas in the 1950s the same data might have taken days to get moving. He was a sharp cookie, old Arthur C.

He is a bit off-beam in some other prophecies. There’s one idea (which he returned to in Profiles of the Future) which sees mankind extracting all the mineral wealth that could ever be needed from seawater; surely that’s nothing more than a pipe dream, for any generation.

Clarke also foresees that the rising star of Judaism would have caused the extinction of the Muslim faith. After that, he predicts that science and the world of rational, quantifiable facts will ultimately push all religious faith to the margins of the civilised world…

I think you can whistle for that one, mate.  

His idea that the world’s dominant belief would become Buddhism is a charming one. This is because it’s more of a philosophy than a rigid doctrine, Clarke argues, and as such is less susceptible to being swamped by the rising tide of scientific progress. Again… nice idea, in theory. But one central idea of Buddhism - that we should not seek to harm our fellow creatures - comes into play by the novel’s end. It is this fascinating clash between the material necessity of feeding the earth’s population, and concern for the great whales - with all their strange grandeur and unknowable intelligence - that provides the book’s most fascinating conflict. The final chapter sees Franklin engaged in one last dive to rescue a stricken submarine crew, Thunderbirds-style, but it is his attempted conversion by a Scottish-born Dalai Lama that provides the true conclusion to the narrative.

There are the usual caveats when approaching a Clarke novel. No, there’s not much in the way of feminism; Indra rather drops out of the narrative by the time Franklin puts a ring on it (although to be fair to Clarke, he does talk about her studying hard and trying to get back into work). What are we to make of Franklin’s previous wife and family, abandoned on Mars, owing to some sort of gravitational/biological issues? And, yes, characterisation is weak, with only the Buddhist spiritual leader really sticking out.

But we don’t read Arthur C Clarke for any of those things. We read him for his terrific ideas, his star-bright perception of scientific possibilities - and because, no matter how much of a clever-clogs he was, he enjoyed a good monster moment as much as the next guy.

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