Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

1966: The Watch Below (White, James)

Reflective plots, parallel plights (4/5)
From November 16, 2009

James White famously penned the xeno-medical Sector General series but is lesser known for his... well, his lesser works which pretty much includes all of his non-Sector General novels. Of the ten non-series books, The Watch Below remains White's most memorable novel by leaps and bounds. While The Dream Millennium (1974) may have been an altogether better novel, The Watch Below remains deeply seated in my mind regardless of its occasional flaw.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Somehow they had to find a way... Doc Radford, the Exec, Wallis, and the First Officer Dickson, together with two badly injured and hysterical nurses. They were stuck. In the pitch dark, bleak cold of a hull equipped with oxygen tanks and stored food. And nothing else. Under several fathoms of water. Somehow they had to find a way to stay sane long enough to make a new home. And billions of miles out in space there were aliens- water breathers whose own world was gone forever in gusts of titanic heat. They too had to find a way- a way to survive for generations, long enough to find a new home... Aliens and human alike had the same problem. This is how they met."


Five humans are struck by torpedoes in 1938 and their ship is partially submerged. They must eke out a living with very limited resources including generators, oxygen tanks, beans, and canned food. Even surviving for one year on these materials would have been beyond belief but White pens the story through numerous generations, which falls into the realm of "oh come on!" By grudgingly putting believability aside, the story can read pretty well. In parallel to multi-generational submarine universe is the more believable alien exodus. These hydro-origin beings are on a course to a star many years away so they must put themselves into a cryo-sleep to wait out the trip. One flaw: it doesn't seem to work right in space and successive periods of sleep render the awoken less and less intelligent. Solution: an impromptu generation ship to guide the fleet to the star.

Reading the paralleling stories is gripping, something which cannot be said for White's Lifeboat (1972) novel which features human passengers fleeing from a destroyed space liner. Putting believability aside and reading about the similar plights between the alien planet-escaping exodus and the human struggle to survive though dim in prospect.

It was all a great read until, as the synopsis suggest, "This is how they met." It was pretty much downhill in the last 15% of the book when earth's military becomes involved and distracts from the continuity of the parallel generational stories. The concept of the analogous stories is the key feature (again, putting aside the unbelievability feeling). White is also tongue-in-cheek about the characters attitude towards the possibility of having to stay in the sunken ship for generations and the pair-bonding they will have to do (a common trait found in his Sector General novels). Unlike many authors of the same era, White skirts the issue with conversation-studded "umms" and "ers" and "wells" in place of actually describing the physical acts, keeping the story innocent enough for juvenile readers.


Chilling at times, heartaching at other times, yet altogether a harrowing tale of hopeless existence in the underwater murky depths versus the alien hopelessness of reaching their destination intact, physically and mentally. It's a shame the last 15% of the book didn't bring the two parallel plots closer together. Regardless of the poor conclusion, The Watch Below is one of James White's best novels!

No comments:

Post a Comment