OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Fatal Depth: The Rise of Oceania: Book Three – by Timothy S. Johnston
Publisher: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Markham, Ontario, Canada, 2021
Cover Art: Eric Mohr
The book begins in the year 2130. Global warming has led to the rising of the oceans. Many famous port cities have been destroyed, with populations fleeing inland. The world’s economy was nearly shattered, but is now recovering. Twenty-nine underwater cities dot the world’s continental coastal shelves, along with hundreds of deep-sea mining and research facilities. Ten million people live beneath the sea, their aquaculture and resource gathering vital to the world’s economy. Many are tired of being dominated by what’s left of the land nations and want independence. They are willing to fight for it. The land nations will do anything to prevent it. Anything.
The opening prelude is equivalent in its drama and violence to the closing scenes of many an action thriller. Starts off with a bang, so to speak. Nothing subtle about it.
Lieutenant Cathy Lentz is in charge of the watch team monitoring submarines approaching the USSF (United States Submarine Force) Headquarters located at Norfolk, Virginia. She used to be on active service aboard submarines, but proved to be indecisive under pressure (no pun intended.) She resents being ashore, but at least it’s a cushy job. Till now.
Suddenly she’s confronted by four problems.
1) An incoming submarine is detected beneath the ocean surface. It’s running silent. No communication.
2) The submarine is larger than any known submarine, i.e. an unknown type, unknown nationality.
3) The submarine is first detected only 2 kilometers offshore traveling toward the base at a speed of 450 kilometers an hour.
4) Cathy is beginning to feel indecisive. She has about a second to make up her mind how to react. Quite the conundrum. Taking another sip of coffee isn’t going to help at all.
Does the pace let up after this breathless opening? Nope. The plot speeds along like a maniac impelled by implosions, explosions, and fisticuffs. One crisis after another. Makes Tom Clancy’s books seem turgid in comparison.
To be honest, there’s not quite as much action as the first book in the series, The War Beneath (which I previously reviewed), yet the pace remains breathless, leaving the reader in a state of eager anticipation as one turns the pages. This is accomplished by a strong element of mystery which makes the reader yearn for more information and revelation. Johnston deploys this technique as a partial substitute for action, and it is every bit as effective at compelling the reader forward.
I mean, who the heck has the economic means and advanced technology to unleash such a behemoth submarine wreaking havoc in the world’s oceans? I love the fact that Canada is briefly considered as a possible culprit. Apparently our level of technology in the 22nd century is top notch, but we have managed to retain our reputation as not being quite as big a bunch of jerks as just about everyone else. An optimistic bit of futurism.
At any rate, given the “layout” of the interrelations of national entities in this future age, as those who’ve read the previous two books in the series have been led to believe, the final reveal of the rogue nation’s identity comes as a surprise, but not an arbitrary surprise. The villainous nation’s motivation is crystal clear. They have profound reasons why they want to win the “biggest jerk” sweepstakes. Self-motivated villains fully capable of justifying themselves, as all true villains should.
Another thing I particularly like is the lack of detailed info dumps. The last time I read a Tom Clancy book half the time I felt like I was reading a weapons manual thrown in to pad the length of the book. Consequently I skipped over those bits till the plot picked up again. I know Grognards love reading about how an MP675 Aardvark Automatic has a barrel .47 centimetres shorter than a MP987 reverse-engineered Lallapaloosa Bangbuck but I don’t. I don’t care. I just want to know who gets shot next.
As his endnotes make clear, Tim has done his research, but he doesn’t believe in throwing his notes at you. Instead he prefers to deliver the gist of the concepts underlying his 22nd century technology and simply ask you to accept it and take it for granted. Thus it provides the framework for the action and helps propel the action. A good technique, not to mention a rational and intelligent use of research and extrapolation. The reader doesn’t need to read an essay justifying the concept in every petty detail. Just grasp the basic concept and go with the flow.
For example, The USSF HQ is built partly on land and partly underwater. Since the oceans have been rising, rather than pull up stakes and move elsewhere, a gigantic wall has been built to keep the ocean from swamping the entire base. Nevertheless, even the structures above water level are hermetically sealed and maintain the same atmospheric pressure, four times normal, as the underwater buildings. Everything is interconnected, you see. And since the warsubs maintain the same pressure (they operate really deep most of the time) they can dock with the complex and let their crew travel anywhere within the complex without wasting time going through decompression.
Does this actually make sense? No idea. But it sounds feasible. Even has a certain logical elegance to it. The book is full of nifty ideas that seem to make sense and are probably possible given future developments in underwater technology. Even the sub zipping along at 450 kilometers an hour is plausible, if the briefly mentioned science behind it is correct. Hmm, could be. As I say, Tim’s research was conducted with due diligence. Petty details be damned. Just accept his extrapolation of current technology and hang on as best you can.
The main character is Truman McClusky. He’s the mayor of the American underwater colony Trieste and covertly the leader of an independence movement willing to wage war against any and all land superpowers. In the previous book in the series (which I haven’t read) he and his secret fleet apparently reduced the size of the USSF fleet and got away with it, the Americans believing they’re dealing with an unknown enemy. (That’s the pesky thing about enemies, just when you think you know them all a new one pops up.)
Unknown enemies a bit of a plague actually. McClusky’s secret base on the mid-Atlantic ridge is attacked by such. It’s all he can do to kill a whole bunch of them and then flee with most of his fleet intact. Quite an interesting battle. It never occurred to me to explode a torpedo inside your own base to temporarily startle the attackers. That’s one hot-damn of a stun grenade, I tell you. And that’s the thing about battles, large or small, in this series. There’s always something different, something unexpected, dare I say original, in Johnston’s description. Never the same old, same old. His battle sequences are exciting, like many a technothriller or piece of military fiction, but full of quirky and offbeat details the reader has never seen before. This is quite refreshing. Occasionally one is tempted say “Oh, come on! That couldn’t possibly happen!” But hey, he’s done his research. Maybe it could!
McClusky’s nemesis is American Admiral Benning, the man who killed his father thirty years earlier. Not that Benning remembers. He’s killed a lot of people, being devoted to efficiency and all. Something of a super-duper patriot, and a tad imperialist. He doesn’t like rowdy, independent-minded colonists. Prefers to put them in their place. Has the same attitude toward his subordinates. He doesn’t get invited to a lot of parties.
Fortunately Benning doesn’t know McClusky is responsible for the recent loss of USSF subs. Otherwise relations between the two might get testy. He thinks the same outfit that launched the super-sized, super-fast mystery submarine is responsible. He proposes an alliance, a mission quest to find and destroy the monster sub. McClusky considers this a wise precautionary measure. Besides, if handled properly, it could reduce the power of the USSF even further, which tracks nicely alongside his dream of establishing the independent underwater nation of Oceania. So he agrees.
I’m not surprised. Trieste city is located on the continental shelf a mere 30 kilometres west of Florida. Not as if the Americans would have any trouble locating the city if they decided to teach their inhabitants a lesson. McClusky has to be cautious.
Then there’s agent Lau of Sheng city intelligence. He hates McClusky, who totally outwitted him in their previous encounters. He hopes he’ll be assigned a mission to kill him. Lau really wants to reverse the humiliation which displeased his superiors. Unfortunately his high hopes are dashed. His superiors instruct him to find McClusky and negotiate a technology-sharing alliance with Trieste. For Lau this is the absolute bottom of the barrel. Now his hatred knows no bounds. Being polite is such a pain.
This is a quest mission novel to a degree, and involves the best possible partners in the quest, namely reluctant partners who hate each others guts. This keeps things interesting. Rest assured nothing is ever what it seems. Great fun.
I’d say there is less characterization than in the first book, which makes a lot of sense, because by now the series readers are familiar with the background behind the motivations and accustomed to the characters’ individual idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. What intrigues the reader is how the characters respond to new problems, figure out new ways of betraying their buddies (or not, depending on need), and above all, defeat the villains. Characterization is present, convincing, often entertaining, but thoroughly subordinate to the underlying concept and plot, which is as how it should be when writing an action adventure thriller.
What I’m trying to say in my usual convoluted and verbose manner is that author Timothy S. Johnston has the knack of getting the genre formula absolutely right in terms of balance. No one aspect hinders the others in any way. Plot, action, characterization, tech info, and originality are combined seamlessly into a tale that flows as rapidly as a river in flood. Some books are impossible to finish reading. This book is impossible to put down. It’s so much fun and exhilarating you want to stay up late till you’ve finished it.
In his endnotes Johnston states “For Fatal Depth, I watched many “Men on a Mission” movies to provide inspiration. Some of them include: Saving Private Ryan, The Guns of Navarone, Force Ten From Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, Kelly’s Heroes, A Bridge Too Far, and Inglourious Basterds.”
It goes without saying that academic-minded critics would be horrified to read this. What? He’s not following the likes of James Joyce and Hemmingway for inspiration? How can this be? Simple. Most of these films involve “reluctant heroes” thrown together by circumstance into an extremely risky mission, so good examples of that narrow-niche genre, good role models in terms of plotting. And, being movies, are cinematic in nature. So, too, this book, which could be easily adopted into a screenplay for a movie, albeit one requiring a considerably high budget for CGI. But that’s not my point. I’m arguing that this aspect of the author’s research has resulted in a book that is vivid and larger-than-life in the mind’s eye of the reader. This makes it a smooth and exciting experience for the reader, especially if the reader has enough imagination to “see” the book in cinemascope, so to speak. Very visual it be, and consequently very satisfying.
Musing further, I draw comparisons with Ian Fleming’s James Bond books and films. Normally, there is a super-duper villain of some sort, a character often more fascinating and intriguing than Bond himself. No such villain in this book, unless it be the monster submarine.
However, the threat in question is more dire than any Bond villain. In most Bond movies the villain does some mischief but nothing in comparison with the ultimate crime which is always thwarted by Bond at the conclusion of the film. In this book the submarine repeatedly strikes nasty blows against various nations which individually are far greater than the catastrophes planned by Bond villains as their ultimate ploy. Fatal Depth is a high stakes game indeed. More than most of the schemes Ian Fleming envisioned.
Yet, like the typical Bond plot, the final scene takes place in the lair of the beast. It makes for a spectacular climax, one hard fought for and not easily accomplished, and rather clever in conception. I don’t want to give anything away, but I’ll just say it depends on the age-old strategy of thoroughly understanding both the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy. Clausewitz and Sun Tzu would approve. Not to mention Ian Fleming, John Clancy, and Clive Cussler. It’s that sort of book. Well worth reading. If you like action adventure techno-thrillers, you’ll love Fatal Depth.
The best thing about Fatal Depth? Though it completes a trilogy, there’s more to come. A fourth novel, An Island of Light, is being written to further The Rise of Oceania series.
All too often critics bemoan the modern demand for prolonged series, implying it’s just formulaic pandering to dull-minded readers wanting more of the same, and that there’s no more originality left in the world. This may be true of some series, but not all.
In particular, the Rise of Oceania series by Timothy S. Johnston is sparklingly addictive, stimulating, entertaining, and truly “the pause that refreshes.” In other words, a pleasant and exciting way to ignore your mundane real world problems. Escapist literature? You bet! In the best possible way. Action adventure techno-thriller done exactly right. Perfection, I’d say. Doesn’t get better than this.
Which is my subtle way of saying “Highly recommended.” Don’t miss out. Read the series. You’ll have fun.
Check it out at: < Fatal Depth >