Saturday, September 07, 2019

Johnston, The War Beneath (2018)

Timothy S. Johnston, The War Beneath: The Rise of Oceania. ChiZine Publications, 2018. Pp. 300. ISBN 978-1-77148-471-8. CAN$21.99; US$17.99.

Reviewed by Lisa Timpf

Award-winning author Timothy S. Johnston, who penned futuristic murder mystery/thrillers The Furnace, The Freezer, and The Void, is back with a new book. Johnston’s latest novel The War Beneath, released in December 2018 by Peterborough, Ontario’s ChiZine Publications, takes us below the ocean’s surface as Johnston envisions what life might be like in underwater cities. Johnston’s latest creation is the first in a planned three-book series dubbed The Rise of Oceania. The War Beneath has already garnered accolades. Winner of the 2018 Global Thriller Award in the Action/Adventure category, it was also a finalist for the 2019 Silver Falchion Award, and long-listed for the 2019 Cygnus Awards. Awards are all fine and well, but the real proof in the salt-water pudding is whether the book delivers in terms of interest level and innovation.

The opening paragraphs of the novel introduce us to protagonist Truman McClusky, a resident of the undersea city of Trieste. It’s been another gruelling day of kelp harvesting for McClusky, known to his friends as “Mac.” Normally, he’d have nothing more on his mind than getting some dinner and allowing his body to recuperate for the next day’s work. But McClusky, a former Trieste City Intelligence (TCI) operative has noticed someone tailing him, and that means trouble.

When McClusky withdrew from the TCI over a fundamental disagreement with its leader and his practices, he planned to turn his back on the world of intrigue and spy-craft for good. But McClusky is drawn back into his past life when he is asked to help recover stolen plans for an invention that could, if it fell into the wrong hands, spell the demise of Trieste and other undersea cities. It’s important stuff, but there’s another factor that motivates McClusky’s acceptance of the assignment: Johnny Cheng, the person who stole the plans, is someone who did Mac a grievous wrong, and he’d like nothing better than a chance to exact revenge.

Thus begins an undersea game of cat-and-mouse. In the course of the novel, McClusky clashes with French, Chinese, and American forces as he pursues Johnny in the interests of saving his city. What starts out as a seemingly simple mission—to recover the stolen plans—becomes more complex as McClusky is made privy to information about the invention and its intended use. In the end, only McClusky can decide whether carrying out his mission as assigned is truly in the best interests of Trieste.

Johnston creates an engaging world that is highly believable. The actions takes place underwater, starting in the undersea city of Trieste and continuing with McClusky’s adventures in SC (Sea Car)-1. Though the story is set in 2129, Johnston builds a sense of authenticity by weaving in details that anchor the story in reality, or what seems like it. The novel is prefaced by a time line that includes references to the impact of rising water levels, leading humanity to expand its frontiers to the ocean. Johnston’s inclusion of visuals, like a sketch of SC-1 and a layout diagram depicting the setup of Trieste City, and references to actual historic events, such as the USS Thresher submarine disaster, further reinforce the feeling of authenticity.

Johnston makes reference to the science of diving, such as gas mixtures for breathing and the effects of decompression. The setting also includes actual ocean-floor geological formations like the Aleutian Trench and the Clarion Fracture Zone. That being said, The War Beneath is a work of fiction, and Johnston admittedly takes liberties with some of the theory. In an ending section titled “A Note to the Reader,” Johnston acknowledges that he went beyond the bounds of known science in aspects like travel speed and the depth to which sea cars and other vessels are able to descend, but these deviations were conscious ones made in the interests of the story, and were ones that I as a reader willingly accepted. On the other hand, given the speed of scientific advances over the past century, it’s also possible that today’s fiction will become tomorrow’s fact in that regard.

The one quibble I would have on the believability front relate to the odds that McClusky triumphs over. In any story, the obstacles facing the protagonist must be challenging enough to keep the narrative interesting. Still, I felt that in some cases the number of enemies that McClusky faced and triumphed over were pushing the limits of “suspension of disbelief.”

While the establishment of bases on the moon or even Mars seem achievable in the relatively near future, Johnston’s novel makes a strong case for the notion that the oceans might realistically be the next frontier for human civilization. But Johnston goes beyond simply providing us with an image of how such cities might work on a practical scale—he also envisions the political implications. In The War Beneath, the parent countries watch jealously over their colony cities, exacting control and skimming off resources. It’s easy to see how this paternalistic approach would become a point of dissatisfaction for the undersea cities, and how it might spark a yearning for independence. But it’s a complex issue, and even protagonist McClusky recognizes that independence, if it comes too quickly, could lead to a host of other problems.

The War Beneath is well written, and there are no glaring grammatical issues. There were a couple of words that seemed to me to be overused, “stalked” being one of them, but this was a minor irritant. The bulk of the novel was presented from the first-person viewpoint of protagonist McClusky. I found myself questioning, as I read the story, whether a third-person viewpoint might have worked better. In some of the chapters, including the scenes near the end where McClusky takes charge, the first-person viewpoint came across as bordering on grandiose or overly self-conscious. The same actions presented from a third-person viewpoint might feel different. On the other hand, I understand from a writer’s standpoint the appeal of first-person viewpoint in providing a greater sense of immediacy, and I’ve used it in many of my own stories for that reason.

The War Beneath is billed as an underwater science fiction espionage thriller, and it delivers when it comes to action. That doesn’t mean that character growth is neglected. In the course of the novel, McClusky must deal with new information and integrate that against his world-view. To his credit, he is able to admit that he may have been wrong about some things. McClusky adjusts his approach during the novel, growing in the process.

Many science fiction writers look to the stars for their settings, but Johnston has chosen to turn his focus closer to home, providing us with an intriguing look at the potential and the politics of colonizing the ocean floor. While The War Beneath is a satisfying read with action that draws the reader into the story, perhaps equally of interest are the questions it leaves us with.

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