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Involution Ocean
Reviewed by Ivan Lerner, ©

Format: Book
Genre:   Science Fiction
Released:   1977
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

After my review of The Stars, My Destination appeared, I received an e-mail from notorious illustrator and cartoonist Tony Millionaire. A noted tall ships aficionado (and devoted Patrick O'Brian fan), Millionaire wrote, "Your review did not tell me if there were any ships in The Stars, My Destination. I only read novels about ships and sailing. Therefore your review is useless to me. And I do not mean spaceships."

Okay, wise guy, I thought, I'll show you… I wrote back to Tony: "You're right, there are no ships in The Stars, My Destination. But I don't think that I ever gave the impression in my review that there would be any ships (other than spaceships) in The Stars, My Destination. However, there are ships (with sails, masts, rudders, etc.) in Involution Ocean by Bruce Sterling." I went on to tell Tony a little bit about the story and that I recommended it, adding that "it's out of print, but you could probably find it somewhere."

Well, I thought smugly, that should shut him up-but my friend called my bluff. Very soon afterwards, he forwarded me a copy of the receipt from the Internet used bookstore that he had ordered a copy of Involution Ocean from.

Then I got worried: Not so much because Tony might not like it, but that if he didn't like it, he would demand a reason as to why I recommended it in the first place-and he would really jump down my throat if I couldn't come up with any sort of coherent argument that went beyond a lame "but I remembered it was good..."

And at that point, I couldn't remember any exact specifics of the novel to use in my defending of it. So I reread Involution Ocean, and found myself thinking, "Why is this book out of print? It is good!"

A sea tale that combines elements of Joseph Conrad, Philip Jose Farmer and H.P. Lovecraft with a fresh and innovative perspective, Bruce Sterling's first novel, originally published in 1977, is a smart SF adventure with a tight narrative focus. A slim book (my paperback edition, published in 1988 by the UK-based Legend/Arrow Books, is only 175 pages), Involution Ocean is a great companion piece to another of Sterling's early works, the rowdy and frenetic The Artificial Kid. Both are prime examples of the writer's potential greatness, and both are fun, pulpy reads that go beyond the constraints of "mere" genre.

The novel's protagonist, John Newhouse, is a junkie addicted to syncophine, generally known as Flare, which is only available from the guts of the dustwhales that exist solely on the planet Nullaqua. The only place that any life can exist on the planet is at the bottom of a giant pit that goes straight down about 70 miles from its airless surface (sort of a reverse Mount Lookitthat, from Larry Niven's A Gift From Earth). On the planet's surface is the eons-old wreckage of two cities from an ancient civilization called the Elder Culture. No one knows what destroyed the cities. At the bottom of the pit is a deep ocean of silica so fine that ships can sail on it (Nullaqua: no water; get it?). Founded by religious fanatics, advanced technology is prohibited on the planet, and aside from the most major of infractions, the galactic Confederacy ignores the place. Life there has been essentially unchanged for 500 years. Therefore, no one really knows what's at the bottom of the oceans either…

Newhouse moved to Nullaqua to be a dealer of Flare, but as the novel begins, the Confederacy has just declared Flare illegal, and he's pressured into taking a job onboard a dustwhaler to surreptitiously collect the drug. And there begins his adventure: On board the good ship Lunglance, there can be found intrigue (one other sailor, and possibly more, is a Flare junkie), mystery (the captain, a cross between Lee Marvin and Ahab, is up to more than just fishing), danger (hunting dustwhales is not easy, especially when there are sharks, flying fish, mutant crabs and giant sea anemones out to get you), and even kinky romance. At first, Newhouse thinks that Dalusa, the ship's lookout, has a pretty face, but her furry body and long batwings don't really do anything for him. But when he finds out that due to her alien biochemistry, a human's touch is like a bad acid burn to her, he changes his tune. "At the news of her inaccessibility," he narrates, "I felt a sudden lurch of desire…"

The novel is a real page-turner, with strong characterizations and a fascinating setting. Sterling creates a unique world with a few deft strokes of his pen, never resorting to an overwhelming dumping of information, always encouraging the reader to continue on eagerly. He provides no easy answers nor pat solutions, but a sharp, tight story that engages you both emotionally and intellectually.

Written years before crack exploded on the scene, Sterling unfortunately can't address some of the greater social horrors that the drug trade (and the heavy-handed government response to it) has inspired. However, this does not mean that he hasn't some relevant things to say about the attitudes an individual must adopt in order to kick their habit. In fact, this book was first recommended to me by a recovering heroin addict who commented that "some of this stuff is spot on."

Involution Ocean is recommended not just for those compleatists who admire Bruce Sterling's more current work, like Zeitgeist, Holy Fire or The Difference Engine (co-written by that other "founding father" of cyberpunk, William Gibson), but for those who appreciate good, weird SF that strives beyond the average.

Ivan Lerner says that if you can't find a copy of Involution Ocean, or convince someone to put it back in print, then at least visit Tony Millionaire's wonderful website: www.maakies.com.

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