The Deep Range
by Arthur C. Clarke
Review by Ernest Lilley
Roc Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0451096215
Date: 03 February 1981 List Price $1.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Arthur C. Clarke's reputation is inseparable from 2001, A Space Odyssey and a host of other outer space novels, but this unfairly overshadows the author's own personal love, the sea. Though he may never see orbit he has been an aquanaut for more than forty years. He has explored the waters off his adopted Sri Lanka and has written several books that expound (with Mike Wilson, Clarke's exploration partner; Boy Beneath The Sea, The First Five Fathoms, Indian Ocean Adventure, Indian Ocean Treasure and The Treasure Of The Great Reef.) or exploit (Dolphin Island, The Deep Range) the undersea world.
Written in 1957, The Deep Range lacks most of the conventions of modern SF, even at sea. Rather than an ecologically and economically devastated future, The Deep Range is about a managed Earth. In response to a teeming world population, mankind has taken stewardship of his home, and among other things, farms whales for food. If you have just thrown your hands up in horror, well, Clarke isn't too wild about it either, making the question of animal rights an emergent theme as the book progresses. Considering when the book was written, the book is in part a platform to discuss the elimination of whaling, not so much on the grounds of species kill, but for the higher notion that it was immoral. But I digress.
Walter Franklin was a promising astronaut on the Earth-Mars run until an accident in space left him psychologically crippled and unable to return to space, incidentally separating him by an uncrossable void from his wife and family. Knowing he is too good a man to waste, and betting on the restorative nature of the sea, he is teamed with Warden Don Burley in the South Pacific to learn the craft and science of whale herding. The story follows Walter as he tries to build a new life surrounded by the living ocean, his eyes resolutely cast away from the unreachable heavens. I like the simple story of his rise through the Bureau of Whales, finding a new love, building a friendship with Don. I enjoyed the respite from doom and the return to a world where man and science can meet challenges, not with hubris, but by working together both with a world in accord and accepting responsibility for the environment.
Clarke envisions future cowboys of the sea roaming the (deep) range keeping tabs on pods of whales groomed to be a food source. The book paints a picture rather like a Worlds' Fair diorama, fleshed out with little stories added to the characters you see as your tour mobile goes past the ocean of the future. Clarke spices it up with the odd crisis; a sub trapped under girders at the limit of a diver's ability to work, a search for an elusive large marine animal (Sea monsters everywhere!) that haunts their subs long range sonar, and anecdote by anecdote, he spins a comfortable yarn about a future that might yet be.
The technology is only mildly dated, missing some of the newer robotic gadgetry we use to explore the depths, and I'd love for the author to revisit the premise with the array of gear and deep diving subs we have today. In truth, the central device of the story, the fast long range minisub is only now being developed, so perhaps there is still enough future in the story to maintain the SF quality.
Undersea stories provided a fertile arena for SF in the 50's and 60's including Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (novelized from the 1961 movie by Theodore Sturgeon - think SeaQuest without Lucas and the dolphin...) and its precursor written a hundred years before, Vingt Mille Lieues Sous Les Mer (1870) which you may know better as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne. Today, SF shies away from the sea as a bold frontier and since Jacques Cousteau's death last year no one has risen to champion the undersea world. Reading The Deep Range takes us back to an age in SF where the future was full of possibilities, an exercise from which you may surface and ask: Don't we have more options today instead of less? Couldn't a better world be one of them?
(Edited highlights of a BBC interview with Arthur C Clarke, talking about the future, his childhood, Sri Lanka, and his measure of a true artificial consciousness, as well as a photo gallery with pictures of the author scuba diving and quicktime movies showing him in his Sri Lanka home can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/audiointerviews/profilepages/clarkea1.shtml.)