Science fiction under the sea

Posted: August 12, 2013 in cultural commentary
Tags: , , ,

It’s been said before, and it’ll be said again. There’s some awesome sci-fi to be had under the sea.

The future is singing crabs

If you, like me, mostly read the news for cool story ideas, then you may have noticed a couple of recent pieces about underwater resources. First came the UN’s announcement of plans to manage seabed minerals. Then came the discovery of new antibiotics off the coast of California. This is exciting stuff. Not only are we as humanity starting to pull bad-ass scientific breakthroughs out of the ocean, but we’re also trying to prevent this turning into an ugly free-for-all. I’m not saying we’ll get it right, but we’re trying, and things like that make me proud to be human.

This is my proud face. Well done mankind.

This is my proud face. Well done mankind.

But like I said, I was mostly reading this for the story ideas, and others have been there before me. There’s a small but tasty selection of sci-fi that substitutes the ocean depths for space as the place where humanity meets its future. From John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, monsters have been emerging from the deep for decades. Then there’s the more hopeful stuff, like Seaquest DSV. Remember that show? It was Star Trek with a dolphin, and yet somehow it sank without a trace.

Sometimes space and seas have even been combined, for an ultimate combo of sci-fi mystery, as in Warren Ellis and Chris Sprouse’s Ocean. In this a team of scientists discover something beneath the ice of a moon of Jupiter. It’s a Warren Ellis comic, so of course that something isn’t friendly, and the humans involved don’t handle it well. But as a Warren Ellis comic it’s also exciting and scattered with good dialogue.

Because lets face it, our approach to the ocean isn’t always that innovative. Wyndham used it as the source of his latest disaster, because that was his shtick. Ellis crammed it with crazy concepts and snarky dialogue, because that’s his. Del Toro filled it with old Japanese monster movies because, though that may not be his particular shtick, crazy visual genius is, and visuals don’t get much crazier than a robot hitting a monster with a cargo ship.

'Don't make me take this bridge upside your head'

‘Don’t make me take this bridge upside your head’

This isn’t to say that we can’t get something new out of exploring the oceans. Most creativity comes from taking existing things and fusing them together like atoms in a literary reactor. And as real science dives deeper into the depths, it’ll bring back a rich haul of ideas for us to misunderstand, misrepresent and wildly speculate about.

More powerfully, as the seas start to fill our headlines, sci-fi set in them will feel more real. With the space race dead, the concept of men exploring the universe feels less immediate, less connected to our reality. Sci-fi set there loses some of its ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy. Maybe the sea can fill that gap.

I’ve rambled all around this topic, so now over to you. What do you think? Are you excited by the prospect of deep sea sci-fi? Have you seen it appearing in fantasy or horror? Can you think of cool examples I haven’t mentioned, either from the news or from popular culture? Go explore the depths, and bring back riches to the comments below.

  1. Jules says:

    Yes, I’m always struck by how little we know about the secrets of the oceans. Whilst not previously knowing about certain microscopic antibiotics is understandable – and awesome to discover them – we have similar ignorance of some of the monsters of the depths. Giant tentacular sea creatures were a staple of centuries of seafaring lore, but it’s only recently that we’ve come to know much about Giant Squids and still know very little about Colossal Squids, such are the massive pressures, vast areas and minimal visibility that make exploring down there difficult.

    Great Cthulhu could quite happily be sleeping in drowned R’lyeh and we’d still know nothing about it!

    PS – I like your proud face. πŸ™‚

    • You’re right, there’s some amazing beasties being discovered in the depths. And I love that the environment down there is so very different from our own, leading to creatures that really feel alien. Even something as well known as the angler fish is intriguingly odd. Now imagine a giant one of those bad boys.

      That was a particularly proud face day – I think it was taken at a wedding.

  2. north5 says:

    Don’t overlook the epic contribution being made to the genre by the relative newcomers The Octonauts (“Explore! Rescue! Protect!”).

    When done badly, undersea scifi turns into Just Like The Land (or Space) But With Occasional Fish Floating Past (looking at you, Lucas) in which case you might as well not bother. Good undersea scifi (such as that involving Captain Barnacles et al) needs to remember what water actually does, and what it’s like trying to move around, run, drive, swim, communicate etc. in such an environment.

    Much as I’m sure Pacific Rim is awesome, I hope we don’t just get yet another endless line of Kaiju emerging from the deeps – there has to be more to the oceans, surely, than just being an oversized hackneyed Bag of Tricks?

    • Jules says:

      When I was last in Durham visiting Lynda and James, I had to read The Octonauts and The Monster Map 7 or 8 times in a row to my little goddaughter Thea. I gave almost everyone pirate voices. It was great! πŸ™‚

      • north5 says:

        It’s worth a watch on the iPlayer. Kwazee has a good old Pirate “yarrrrr”. Captain Barnacles sounds like a well-bred English sea-captain jolly well should sound. (If well-bred English polar bears were ever a thing.)

      • I just found an episode called The Snot Sea Cucumber. I’m clearly in for a treat later.

    • I have to admit, I haven’t watched The Octonauts. Given my previous post about the joys of children’s films, and my not-so-secret love of Jane and the Dragon, maybe I should.

      I totally agree about the risk of the ocean just becoming another hackneyed excuse for monster movies or other same-old same-old stuff. It’d be good to see someone using its unique properties to speculate on what life would really be like if we spent time down there, and what more interesting stuff might be hiding away. Fortunately, I think Pacific Rim has done well enough internationally to maybe just about justify a sequel, but not well enough in America to inspire a whole string of rip-offs.

  3. Jules says:

    Oh, and if (like me) you enjoyed Avatar, the first sequel is going to explore the ocean of Pandora, so we should have some epic otherwordly under-the-sea wonders to come. Remember that James Cameron actually dived to the bottom of the Mariana Trench last year to conduct research and record footage…

  4. Jules says:

    And for a completely different underwater short story, you might enjoy Hans Christian Andersen’s 1872 “The Great Sea Serpent”:

  5. […] ‘A Sheriff’ is the story of a lone man, your classic western small town sheriff, protecting a community of homesteaders against the encroaching bully boys hired by a big business. It’s about frontier justice. It’s about a lone hero standing up for the little guy. It’s about brains over brawn. And it’s about living underwater. […]

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