Ouch! I’m a HUGE fan of underwater stories. Doesn’t matter what the general plot is, be it monster or character, I’ll go to it like a…well…like a fish to water. So when I first caught sight of Allen Steele’s “Oceanspace” needless to say I was very excited.
What a bad move that was.
You’d think someone of Mr. Steele’s reputation (the dust jacket AND the imprinted cover proudly exclaim he’s won TWO Hugo awards) would proof read the manuscript before allowing it to be published. There are so many typos (missing words, words out of order, etc.) that the book was barely readable to begin with. People make mistakes. I could forgive this if the story was so unbelievably good it held my attention completely. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case here.
In Oceanspace (which is Mr. Steele’s way of comparing the underwater world to what’s outside our atmosphere; not the most original of metaphors) the general writing feels like it went through the typewriter once, with hardly a glance down, and then was sent off to a publisher to fulfill a contract. Characters are referred to by both first and last names repeatedly, which is good because they are so non-distinct this is the only way to tell them apart.
Once we get past the names, the characters become such stock stereotypes I find it hard to believe this writer has ever been published before, much less won awards (Wait, no, if he has won awards, then the people at he publishing houses must think we’ll buy anything and they don’t have to worry about quality). We have the couple on the verge of a break-up; the temptress bitch who has her own agenda, the plucky teenager who comes through at the end, and the older, wiser teacher who, no matter what, must impart a final lesson. The only reason we know anything about these people is we are told what to think about them. Their actions are NEVER defined by any motivation other than Mr. Steele needing them to act a certain way to drive the plot forward.
Speaking of the plot…where was it? There were several stories going on, but none of them carried any emotional weight. The sea monster storyline (which started the book off with some great moments) was dropped as quickly as the Serpent disappeared into the briny deep. The high tech espionage bit was never explained enough to let the reader know what was at stake. The reporter who was there to do an in-depth piece on the habitat and its people but instead went looking for a cover-up was the most blatant plot device of all. And as for Andie, the 17 year old who just happened to be visiting her aunt and uncle when everything went down…why were her parents fighting? The book was set in the year 2011, presumably so the technology to make an underwater research center would be realistically present. And yet, everything else seems to have stood still. Our favorite teen listens to music she wouldn’t listen to as a 17 year old today. The submarine operators (who are at a premium for space) still elect to carry CDs (in their jewel cases no less) rather than opt for MP3 or its futuristic equivalent.
The one nice thing Mr. Steele does, however, is name a couple of glorified extras (who come in near the end of the book) after Jack Williamson and Fred Pohl, who wrote a trio of underwater stories in the 50s. At least he’s tipping his hat in the right direction.
Ultimately, though, the book just doesn’t work. While some of the technical detail is nice, there’s not enough of it (and it’s not accurate enough) to make it okay to jettison the characters and plot. If you’re reading this looking for a good underwater adventure…don’t hold your breath.