After an accident in space left deep scars on his psyche, Walter Franklin retrains as a warden, one of the herders protecting and tending to the whales that form a large proportion of Earth’s food supply. Though space is forever denied to him, he finds new purpose exploring an equally strange and bewitching environment.
The Deep Range is set on a relatively near-future Earth. Humanity has control of the upper levels of the ocean, using the life within it to feed the planet. But there are always still secrets, dangers, and strange creatures down in the deeps.This is more of a chronicle than a standard novel – it’s divided broadly into sections, but even within those sections, things don’t fall neatly into the standard character arcs. We pick up Franklin’s life halfway through it, after an already profitable space career, and we follow him as he goes through the rest of it. There are goals and obstacles, but this is not a book in which everything builds up to a single climax. That tends to be something you expect of significantly older books, but it’s always an interesting approach.
The prose, while not deathless, is strong. Arthur C. Clarke is one of the greats of science-fiction for a reason, and there is a clarity and flow to his writing that I always forget exists when I haven’t read authors who have stood the test of time in a while.
Like all old sci-fi, the technology is out of kilter – no one can predict how science will advance perfectly. Some problems that modern society has solved still aren’t solved in this future, and some things we still struggle with (especially space travel) are commonplace and easy. Venus was a notable mismatch; in the book, it has oceans teeming with exotic megafauna, whereas poorly-crafted reality has a Venus filled with toxic gases and boiling sand.
The real jarring missing piece is global warming. This is a book about stewardship of the natural world, particularly the oceans, but climate change wasn’t something much in the public discourse when The Deep Range was written. All the characters are deeply invested in conservation, but there’s no hint of melting ice caps or mass extinctions.
Socially, the book is very much of its time, although forward-looking. The sole female character is rapidly sidelined and married off, but she is at least independent, intelligent, and taken seriously by the other characters. Modern ideas about gender roles and representation are an evolution that Clarke did not anticipate, but you get the impression that he would not have had a problem with them. Similarly, the book deals with different nationalities and cultures in a way that is at least accepting, even if they don’t get center stage. The dominant culture has western trappings, but is presented as global, and race & religion aren’t stumbling blocks for people.
I liked this – it’s an enjoyable story about interesting ideas, written by someone who knew what he was doing. However, like all classic science fiction, it’s not particularly comforting. Clarke presents his best idea of what humanity should be doing and is capable of, and it’s impossible not to compare that to the way the modern world currently is. Good science fiction makes you look towards the future; reading a past vision of the future is saddening because you realise how far we still are from that vision. The Deep Range shows a society that seems to have mostly gone beyond intra-species violence, where conservation is accepted as a necessity and a positive, where humanity is continually striving for a better world and new horizons. We’re supposed to be colonising Venus at this point, and yet we’re still arguing over whether it’s worth saving the coral reefs.
It’s a good book. It’s about redemption and discovery and the beauty of the earth and about how people could be better than they are.