Diving into Adventure: Submarines Across Fiction Genres
By Vikas Datta
Take a fairly large number of people together in a relatively cramped underwater space – an unknown and fatal domain for unprotected humans, add the tensions that brew whenever disparate humans are in a confined space for any considerable amount of time. , and some existing/futuristic technologies — these are the basic ingredients of “underwater history” — an engrossing subgenre of ever-popular maritime fictional adventures.
Although submarines are useful for exploring our planet’s last uncharted space – the deep sea and its wonders, their primary role is as largely silent and virtually undetectable war machines. The characteristics of the ship – its strengths, vulnerabilities and risks, the caliber and capabilities of its operators, as well as its tasks, can generate many other plot devices.
It’s a subgenre that lends itself well to visual representation – remember how many James Bond movies (not the books though) featured submarines, or for that matter, the Adventures of Tintin? – but it makes for equally captivating reading.
Take his primary role. When two submarines face off, it’s like two blindfolded combatants trying to follow each other just by the sound they make. And when other weapons platforms on different domains – surface or airborne – join in the hunt for submarines, the tension skyrockets. Imagine you know you’re targeted, but you can’t see the threat and, unlike land, there’s nowhere to hide beyond a limited space.
Underwater stories therefore mostly take place in wars or near wars, whether between nations or even an individual fighting their own battle.
This happens to be the origin of this subgenre – “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” by French visionary science fiction writer Jules Verne (French 1872; first English translation, 1873). This story is fairly well known due to all the films it inspired, but it seems more relevant how this work did not receive its due from early English translations.
Not only was the name mistranslated to “sea”, instead of “seas”, denoting the length of the voyages of Captain Nemo’s “Nautilus”, not their depth, but the narrative also suffered from the haste and predilections of these translators.
Verne was not the “inventor” of submarines, which existed in his time, although extremely primitive, but he quite accurately planned their modern versions.
Although some critics initially disputed this, it was due to early British and American translators, who abbreviated his works by removing most of the science and longer descriptive passages, made thousands of translation errors base and even censored the texts by removing or diluting anti-British or anti-American references, or rewriting them to suit their personal views. It took more faithful translations – the first in 1962 and onwards – to restore Verne’s references.
Submarines crop up in adventure fiction in works ranging from those of Alistair Maclean and Nevil Shute, to accomplished spy novelists like Len Deighton, and even romantic comedy writers like Kathy Lette, or practitioners of high fantasy – with a punch, like Terry Pratchet. Let’s look at some of them.
‘The Enemy Below’ (1956) by Denys Rayner is the story of a four-day battle between a British destroyer and a German submarine in the South Atlantic Ocean, with both commanders earning respect growing for each other, until they are literally and metaphorically in the same boat. The author, who was a Royal Navy officer in World War II and had commanded anti-submarine operations, goes on to explain how much of the story is true, if not possible.
“Run Silent, Run Deep” (1955) by Edward L. Beach Jr., who had a respectable career as a US Navy submarine commander, brings the action to the Pacific theater. An unparalleled guide to this form of warfare, it also discusses the equally important and relevant human aspects of courage, loyalty, honour, ambition and revenge, and how war tests them and amplifies them. The possibility of modern warfare setting its moral standards is highlighted quite shockingly in the denouement.
On the other hand, the post-apocalyptic film “On the Beach” (1957) by Shute, is set in a world where an accidental nuclear exchange has devastated the entire northern hemisphere and where a small group of survivors in the southern australia lives its limited life as the radioactive clouds drift towards them has a key underwater subplot.
With the only survivors in the southernmost parts of Australia, South Africa and South America, the arrival of a strange radio message from Seattle sparks hope, and an under -American sailor, who had survived since being in southern waters, set out to investigate.
Along the way, they confirm that the radioactive fallout has not diminished, that no life remains, and that even their enterprise was a vain hope.
The Cold War provided fertile ground for the use of submarines.
Deighton weaved them well into the various installments of his story of an anonymous, unglamorous spy that began with “The IPPCRESS File” (1962). “Horse Under Water” (1963), the second episode, deals with the recovery of objects – which constantly evolve from material to ideological to technical, from a German submarine sunk off the coast of Portugal in the last days of World War II.
Then, “Spy Story” (1974) sees its protagonists, two mid-level intelligence analysts, return home after a six-week stay on a nuclear submarine in the Arctic, through various schemes, twists and mysteries, then, return to the Arctic aboard a submarine where a curious game is to be played.
Maclean’s adventures, often set in dark places like the Arctic, frequently attract submarines, to reach the wilderness, if nothing else, and then, as a good place for the layered and twisty denouement that marks most of his works. “Ice Station Zebra” (1963) is a prime example, with what appears to be a simple rescue operation that turns out to have more than meets the eye.
If lovers of maritime thrillers have read only one underwater thriller, it was probably Tom Clancy’s debut album “Hunt for Red October” (1984), which gave birth to the techno-thriller genre.
The story of a leading Red Navy officer’s elaborate revenge against a system he personally opposes, it is probably the most realistic account of submarine operations, uses and politics as the story moves from multiple submarines to meetings of the Soviet Politburo, the White House, and the headquarters of the Soviet and American Navy as the American authorities devise a plan to advance the windfall.
Submarines, as mentioned, play key roles in at least two Tintin adventures – a positive, but ultimately unsuccessful, one in “Red Rackham’s Treasure”, and a somewhat more unfavorable one in “The Red Sea Sharks”.
Moving on to the more fantastical events, there is a prototype in Terry Pratchett’s “Jingo” (1997), named by its brilliant but sadly unimaginative inventor as “Going-Under-the-Water-Safely Device”. He continues to play a key role in this stellar installment of the Sam Vimes/City Watch cycle of the Discworld saga which denounces xenophobia, racism and cultural insularity, while satirizing jingoism, extreme nationalism and Lawrence d ‘Arabia.
And then there is finally “Fantastic Voyage” (1966), which is different from most of the previous ones – in that they are books that have become films, but it is a film whose novelization has become so famous – or rather remained more famous for more than four decades than the film.
The plot is a desperate attempt to heal a defecting scientist, badly injured in his attempt, by a team of intrepid adventurers from inside his body, via miniaturization!
As it was Isaac Asimov who adapted the screenplay, the book corrected countless scientific errors, while adding several elements and nuances – such as a character identifying the mole, which is painted more gray than black, while putting the emphasis on the scientific problems brought about by the film’s premise, say, seeing when the wavelengths of visible light are larger than the eyes of the crew, and extracting air from the lungs when molecules are not not much smaller than the submarine.
There are many more, but these works offer a good start. Dive!
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])