Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Three Miles Down, by Harry Turtledove (author), George Guidall (narrator)

Audible Audio, July 2022

It's 1974, and Jerry Stieglitz is a marine biology grad student, working on his dissertation. He's sold a few science fiction stories, and he's a few weeks away from getting married. It's a good life.

Then three guys knock on his door, and push their way in when he answers it. They're from the CIA, and they have a proposition for him. They want him to join a secret expedition. No one is going to explain anything to him yet, but he'll be in the North Pacific, and will be able to continue his whale song research.

They're not really taking no for an answer, either, but they're willing to pay him enough to solve all his immediate problems--including paying for the cost of delaying his wedding.

There's a scary NDA to sign, and he can't tell Anna even as much as the little he knows, but with the costs of delaying the wedding covered, and the seemingly insane salary Jerry will be paid setting up nicely for the start of married life, she agrees.

He goes to an address in Los Angeles, and gets a false name, new ID, and the information that he'll be getting on Glomar Explorer, which will be trying to raise a sunken Soviet submarine, while pretending to mine magnesium from the ocean floor. And yes, sure, he can continue is whale song research. The new NDA includes a clause saying that if he tells anyone anything, the CIA may "terminate him with extreme prejudice."

When he gets to Glomar Explorer, he learns that retrieving the Soviet sub will be a "nice to get." They're really after something far more exciting: an alien spaceship on the ocean floor, that apparently sank the Soviet sub. They  want Jerry not as window dressing, but for his science fiction writing. He's someone whose scientific reputation is good enough to be a cover for why they really want him. He's there to think creatively about the aliens and the alien ship.

Jerry makes genuinely useful contribution, including the extremely useful contribution of how to get into the alien ship without damaging it, and without triggering whatever the ship did to wreck the Soviet sub. He's also provided a well-thought-out list of possible scenarios for how things could play out, with or without live aliens on board the spaceship.

He also expresses concerns about how the CIA is managing this, both the unduly aggressive treatment of the ship, and the insistence on keeping the ship secret from the Soviets. This isn't because he likes the Soviets. Like most liberals of the 1970s, he's quite well aware that the Soviets actually are far worse than any of his concerns about the USA. No, he thinks this is just too big for one country to keep to itself. These are aliens, and their technology is far ahead of ours in several ways, and the whole world will need to deal with it--both the risks and the possible benefits--in any real good is to come of it, rather than a possible world war that could end the world.

Jerry is not always sufficiently diplomatic about this. He gets kicked off the ship with a reminder of the "termination with extreme prejudice" clause.

He tries to keep his head down. He really does. But something leaks from someone, and he looks like one of the two most obvious suspects. Dangerous things start happening, and Jerry runs. Not randomly, but to the only place where he thinks he can change the diretion of what's happening.

The last third of the book is mostly political thriller, resting on a foundation of science fiction and alternate history. Whether Jerry, his marriage, and the planet can survive is in serious question.

The main plot of this book has a satisfying ending, but in the larger setting animating the book, there's  a cliffhanger setting. No sequel has been announced, but Turtledove doesn't set up a cliffhanger like that without intending to continue. I look forward to seeing at least one sequel.

It's a lot of fun, but not on the explosions and fights level. The excitement is in what they've found, and what they'll do about it, and what arguments will prevail. Both how first contact will go, and whether the world will survive, hang in the balance.

I like this kind of story a lot more than big explosions. It's a lot of fun, if you enjoy ideas and possibilities. Oh, and the occasional appearance of real-world science fiction writers.

I bought this audiobook.

No comments:

Post a Comment