Friday, June 24, 2011

The dragon in the sea

Frank Hebert
Tom Doherty Associates, 1956 (my copy is from Tor Books, 2008)
Size: Short (my copy has 268 pages)
Theme: Underwater action thriller
Narrative: third-person
Main character: John Ramsey
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

Dwindling oil reserves, particularly important during war time, have led countries to exert extreme measures to ensure control of underwater drilling spots. A Western subtug is directed to bring oil from one such spot, directly underneath an enemy base. However, the path is riddled with dangers, both external and from within the subtug crew. The last 20 missions have been unsuccessful, and questions arise as to the cause of their failures.

This novel follows the mission of John Ramsey, a prized psychologist from the BuPsych, who is charged with incorporating the subtug crew who will conduct this dangerous and vital mission. The four-men subtug crews have not only to contend with the extreme ocean environment and lurking enemy subs, but also with the psychological hurdle of deep sea diving. Ramsey is expected to study his three shipmates and identify if there is a spy among them or whether they are likely to crack under the pressure.

The story is packed with action and thrills at every page. The crew has to escape multiple hunters as they infiltrate enemy territory. Along the way, accidents and sabotage make their job harder. They have to improvise and outsmart their opponents if they wish to return home. But equally dangerous is suspicion and the potential loss of total trust among four men who depend entirely on each other to survive. The characters in the plot are diverse and rich, although it would have been nice to learn even more about them. The enemy faction is left entirely faceless throughout the novel, which does not really hamper plot development. The novel would have to be considerably larger in order to tackle that side of the story. Still, the narrative provides an adequate and conclusive ending, unraveling the mysteries and motivations of the crewmen, as well as setting up a likely near future for the main character.

Spoilers (warning: the following text contains information that may hamper/ruin how much you enjoy the book):

The crew is successful at bringing home the stolen oil. At the very end of the book we find out that Joe was indeed a spy, having been blackmailed by the enemy forces with a threat on his children. However, he was still trying to ensure that the enemy did not get the information they wanted, and secretly plotted to have their mission fail but with minimal impact on their homeland. Although he did not manage to do as he initially intended, in the end he sacrifices himself to save the ship. John develops a theory to prevent subtug crewmen from development the type of psychological issues that were becoming common. Although he is not given his own department, he receives a promotion and is requested to perform another mission.

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