oddmonster (oddmonster) wrote in bookish,

Review: Oceanspace, by Allen Steele

#51: Oceanspace by Allen Steele:

Judith abruptly realized that she had seldom thought of Peter since she had departed Tethys nearly two days ago, even though she had left him in the company of a woman who was clearly interested in him. Between fruitless searches for sea serpents and hyperthermophiles, he had given scarce thought to her own husband. Perhaps this was forgivable in an ambitious marine biologist, yet nonetheless the pursuit of science was no excuse for negligence.

Synopsis: Toolbox ex-Navy sub pilot accompanies his marine-biologist wife and a journalist 350 feet below the ocean's surface on the chance of seeing a giant eel and running it down with his new experimental prototype sub. Instead, he chases after the evil French and sticks his hand down the journalist's pants.

So, I am a sucker for any book that involves great big mysterious things that live in the ocean, especially if they live in really inaccessible parts of the ocean and have a lot of teeth. And I always, always root for them to win.

I am even more of a sucker for these books if they feature dramatic fonts, pictures of futuristic diving bells on teal-blue covers and if I am shopping at the Goodwill or in the quarter-books barrel at Hannafords. It's a failing.

And starting in the late 70s, apparently the American publishing industry went batshit for these very same things, because Peter Benchley spawned an entire genre of the things with Clive Cussler, and thus, if I look carefully, I can find some true gems of 400-page sea-beastie snacktaculars.

Now granted, Oceanspace wasn't published until 2001, but it has all the hallmarks of its predecessors: Gritty, ocean-obsessed ex-Navy pilot with the failing marriage; feisty lady journalist who wears a skirt while visiting an off-shore diving rig; luckless good-guy bit players who provide set-dressing and drive the subs; innocent teen in the wrong place at the wrong time; a bad guy whose skin is several really noticeable shades darker than the all the good guys'; toothy sea beastie with cold dead eyes who makes the book actually readable.

Oh, it's pretty much a one-person drinking game, this genre.

Peter Lipscombe is merrily tootling around in his experimental sub prototype saving whales from non-American bad guys with a jaunty salute, when his old buddy Joe sends out a distress signal from his own experimental sub prototype. When Peter zips to the rescue, he manfully jumps into the ocean for no reason. Afterwards, Joe tells him what happened anyway: sea serpent attack.

STFU, says Peter, manfully.

No wai, Joe replies. I put the pix up on flickr.

N000000000000, wails Peter, no one can see them until my world famous marine biologist wife gets back from Dominica. She must see them first!

After a minute, Joe asks, how's the marriage going?

STFU, says Peter again, bitterly.

And from there we have plot-a-go-go. Everyone convenes on the Offshore Rig of Science and Peter shows the pictures to, well, EVERYONE HE CAN FIND ON BOARD. Including the journalist and her skirt. If you are thinking to yourself at this point, Peter, he has spent one day too few in Mr. Hyperbaric Chamber, you are very, very close. Because no, in reality, Peter Libscombe is a fucking toolbox.

It's not any of the aforementioned, exactly, nor is it how when he forgets he agreed to host his 17-year-old niece onboard the Offshore Rig of Science, after not having seen her for two years, he spends the first five minutes of their reacquaintance thinking two things: one, how he can use her "unexpected" visit to his advantage, and two, whoa, she's not fat anymore.

But wait, my story gets better.

You realize, of course, that all these people are going to have to go down to the Offshore Science Station of Science (Three! Hundred! And fifty feet! Below the surface of the ocean!) and make each other homicidal, right? Well, as soon as they all arrive down there, and Peter is giving a tour to his niece and the skirted journalist, this happens:

"Hey, Uncle Pete?" Andie interrupted. "Not to make a big deal about it, but I gotta change into something warmer."

"Sure...but you better get used to getting undressed in front of other people. Things get pretty tight in here sometimes, and there's always someone using the head when you want it."

Andie grumbled something under her breath as Peter turned his back to her and Leslie did the same.

And on the next page, he tells them both about how he strips down to his underwear, and then takes a moment to reflect that these two little fillies seem to be on the verge of fighting over him! Whoa!


Seventeen. Niece. FUCKING. TOOLSHED.

As I personally am not blessed with any offspring, I am writing this as the disinterested party who sits over here on the couch and marvels drily at society's foibles, but, for those of you on my f-list who have seventeen-year-old offspring*, if you were to learn that one of your siblings (or siblinginlaws) had behaved in this manner, what, pray tell, might be your reaction?

And at that point, I had to keep reading, because I really, really wanted the sea serpent to eat that dude. That or for his wife to speargun him in a particularly exciteable area. Like the lab, for instance.**

However, Mrs. Lipscomb kind of deserves Peter. Apparently world-famous marine biologists do precious little biologing in the marine because they have to run around being ruthlessly infantilized and belittled by the text. Oh yes. Yes. No, not at all kidding:
  • "She absently gnawed the fingernail of her left thumb until she realized what she was doing. An old childhood habit she had never completely overcome."

  • She's the designated coffee server, because women do that, you know. They serve;

  • Apologizing for interrupting when the men are talking and having no problem being called "dear" by her colleague;

  • "...this was just the sort of adventure that makes little girls from Bangor, Maine want to become scientists in the first place. She had met marine biologists twice her age, many of whom had been actively studying deep-ocean life when she was trying to get a date for the senior prom";

  • She's also lectured on how to save her marriage by her 17-year-old niece...and she listens, thankful to be guided...by a teenager.

  • Maybe she's likeable, then. "Christ, she thought as she let out her breath. Can't men do anything right?" Whoops. Turns out she's one o' them feminazis. Bummer.

Crying jag? Check. Dropping all attempts at science to scream at the other woman in public? Check. Snapping repeatedly at everyone who's helping her do her science? Check.

And once we're all down in an enclosed space and feeling claustrophobic, nauseated and on-edge from the possibility of being Sea Serpent Chex Mix, cue an invasion by the evil Gitane-smoking French! Rar!

Also, how is it possible we're still standing for books where the only people of color are the villains? Come the fucking ON. There are a half-dozen white scientists in the Diving Bell of Science and one black one. So who would you suspect is the scientist selling secrets to the French? I know! Dead giveaway, right? Is it because he longs to escape the poverty of his third-world youth?

*pause for a teeth-grinding break

...and resume*

Other than that, it's a sea of lilywhites. Oh wait, I'm wrong. There's one other black dude, who Mrs Lipscomb describes as reminding her of "Queequeg, the Polynesian harpooner from Moby Dick; all he needed was a beaverskin top hat and a shrunken head". He's there to drive the smaller sub while everyone else screams about sea monsters and underwater volcanoes.

Seriously, he has the least number of lines of anyone on that mini-sub.

And then there's the journalist, who's Asian, so of course, she's "an expert at the art of seduction", and so little lacking in morals that when her attempts to seduce Toolbox Pete fail***, she decides to go from writing a balanced article on the research to a smear piece that highlights the top secret thing she's been told she's not allowed to see, mention or write about. And she explicitly says that it's because she couldn't get more than Pete Lipscombe's hand down her pants.

Which brings me to this: did you know unicorns are amphibious?

And the book is listed as science fiction.

It's also one of the worst edited books I've ever read. Not just random typos, but also having Pete tell visitors the diving bell has never had an emergency, and then a page later, having him say, "We've had other emergencies down here before, but we've never come close to launching the lifeboats."

And it's 400 pages long.

As an added bonus, Toolbox Pete's wife suspects he banged the journalist but wisely decides not to you know, ASK HIM, because she figures ask no questions, be told no lies. Instead, suffer in tortured wounded curiosity.

And I add this bit at the end because it's very possible that as an author, you could set up that situation in fiction and create pathos and empathy and draw a finely nuanced picture of a doomed marriage. You could highlight Mrs. Lipscomb's treatment by the others and her own responses and make commentary on that and I would praise your insight to the heavens, Mr. Steele.

You could even draw the situation where Pete's behaving inappropriately as long as it was handled ENTIRELY DIFFERENTLY. Like, where someone is aware of the situation or either of the two women respond to it, or he's caught, or he realizes he needs help and possibly to throw himself out the nearest airlock. But there's none of that self-aware analysis going on in this book, so I have to take it at face-value that, ladies and gentlemen, the hero of our underwater adventure story is the type of man who thinks, "he would have dearly loved to blow a torpedo up their ass" while gunning after the evil French in his experimental sub.

But without that degree of nuance and awareness, what you're left with is a racist, sexist wanna-be potboiler where everyone stops every 150 pages to scream HOLY SHIT SEA MONSTER WTF BBQ before returning to the bit where the author gleefully rolls in the rotting carcass of 1980s sea-adventure schlock and squeezes off a sad little adolescent fantasy where nothing really gets accomplished except the death of another tree.

I want my quarter back.

*Not that I am, for a moment, intimating that any of you are old enough to have 17-year-olds. No. You're all looking beautiful, babies. Beautiful.
**What? What were you thinking I'd say? Tsk tsk. You are a bloodthirsty little crowd, aren't you?
***That's right. Pete lets the journalist get into his bunk, kisses her, looks down her shirt, sticks his hand down her pants and then tells her he's sorry, he can't go through with it because he just can't cheat on his wife. So for all of you who are wondering where the lines are drawn in that situation, there you go. One hand, in the pants, for free, and it's still not cheating. GO TEAM USA.

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