The September Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is The Deep Range. Originally published in 1957, and reflecting Clarke’s ‘other’ interest – the oceans, it is now available from Gollancz.
‘Since the beginning of time it had worked its will on humanity, and for as long as man could remember, he had struggled against its power. But in the 21st century the battle was won: the sea, mankind’s age-old enemy, had finally been conquered. Professionals like Walter Franklin now patrolled the infinite savannahs of the oceans, harvesting from the plankton prairies as crop which kept the world fed. But like that other great frontier, space, the sea had not yet yielded up all its secrets. And men like Franklin would never rest until its every fathomless mystery had been challenged…’
Arthur C. Clarke is so associated with novels set in space, it’s easy to forget his other fascination – the oceans. For my ninth Clarke read of the year, and during a month when I’ve read a great deal of space-set science fiction, it seemed a good time to read The Deep Range and explore another just as unfamiliar but captivating world.
The Deep Range might be about the sea but it is no less a piece of science fiction than Clarke’s other novels. Set in the 21st century, it follows the career of Walter Franklin, once a ‘spaceman’ and now beginning a new life in a different element as a warden of the seas. Half of the Earth’s oceans have been fenced in in order for their abundance to be harvested to feed the planet. Whales are the new cattle, feeding on vast meadows of plankton, their mass migrations controlled by wardens based on the Australian island of Heron.
Over the course of the novel, which covers many years, Franklin and his best friend and trainer Don Burley are caught up in a series of adventures as they shepherd the whales. There are giants out there – sharks and squid – but there is also something fearsome and monstrous sometimes glimpsed in the deepest trenches of the ocean. Franklin and Don feed off the adrenalin rush of these thrills.
Not all of the challenges that Franklin faces are physical. As the novel opens, he has been damaged by some mysterious event in space and it takes time for the oceans to cure him. But also, as the story progresses, issues arise about the morality of killing whales and the crisis that this creates for Franklin, in his job and personally, is fascinating and, for a novel written in the 1950s, ahead of its time.
Intriguingly, The Deep Range is the first Clarke novel I’ve read in which religion (Buddhism in this case) is dealt with a lighter hand. It is still seen as a threat and obstacle to the pursuit of scientific knowledge but here that is explored as not necessarily always being a bad thing.
As usual in Clarke’s novels, women don’t get much of a look in. There is a female scientist but she soon packs it in to fulfil her destiny as wife and mother and from then on becomes little more than a nagging voice in the background. But Clarke’s wider depiction of the family is much more interesting and poignant. Franklin’s character is one of the most intriguing and rounded that I’ve come across in Clarke’s books. He changes throughout the novel and we get to know him very well, just as he learns to understand himself. His dependence on danger and on the ocean itself are particularly well-explored.
Man’s relationship to the oceans and to the animals that live in it is a theme that is here related closely to how man explores space. We may well be judged on how well we treat other intelligent life, whether it’s in a different solar system or in our own oceans.