CLUBHOUSE: Review: “A Blanket of Steel” by Timothy S. Johnston

OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

A Blanket of Steel – by Timothy S. Johnston

Published in 2024 by Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 209 Wickstead Avenue, Unit 51, East York, Ontario, Canada, M4G 0B1.

Cover art by Ken Geniza


Truman McClusky faces two problems: he has to stop the world’s combined submarine fleets from destroying his beloved alliance of undersea colonies, and he has to prevent the world’s deadliest assassin from killing him. Which task is the greater priority?


I’ll start with a little context. A Blanket of Steel is the final novel of a six-book series, two of which I have previously reviewed—and liked them.

I don’t review entire series, mainly because I want to spread my review net widely to catch as many authors as possible. In fact I don’t even read entire series. I have eclectic tastes and jump around quite a bit, which is another way of saying I don’t have a clue how one goes about writing a series of novels about an ongoing group of characters.

I know how they did it back in the day. Same people, different location. Isaac Asimov, for instance, wrote Lucky Starr; Big Sun of Mercury, Lucky Starr: Oceans of Venus, Lucky Starr: The Moons of Jupiter… you get the idea. But surely something more sophisticated is necessary nowadays? In order to keep it interesting? Never mind the readers. I’m talking about the writer. How does the writer address the issue of facing a challenge rather than a chore?

Tim Johnston came up with an answer that served him well, one that probably would never have occurred to me. In the afterword to this book he explains: I did this so readers would not grow bored by the books. I didn’t want them to feel that they were constantly reading the same type of story. I wanted each to feature the familiar setting and characters, but to be different and always keep readers entertained.”

Yes, he had in mind his readers. However, I am struggling with a novel and dreaming of turning it into a series, so I would take his method of achieving variety and apply it, or something like it, to my attempt to produce a series I deem worth writing and potentially worth reading.

So, what is his method? The following chart listing the six titles in the series makes it clear:

“The War Beneath – Spy vs. spy chase thriller

The Savage Deeps – Military Thriller

Fatal Depth – A “do or die” mission

An Island of Light – Prison break

The Shadow of War – Heist

A Blanket of Steel – Revenge Thriller, also a combination of all of the above genres”

Brilliant! I think this is absolutely brilliant. As beginning writers go, I am about as ignorant as they come, so while Johnston’s system might be common knowledge for many, it is new to me and consequently breaks my mental logjam when contemplating my intentions. Exaggerating wildly, it’s a message from on high allowing me to push forward without second thoughts or imposter-syndrome doubts. A needed revelation. No wonder I consider it important for beginning writers to take note (as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been a beginning writer for over half a century).

Another bit of context. A Blanket of Steel is not simply a “daring do” thriller. It is actually a serious look at the possibilities inherent in learning how to exploit the ocean’s riches for the benefit of humanity. How serious? Subliminally at least, as serious as The Challenge of the Sea by Arthur C. Clarke, a non-fiction book written so long ago it has an introduction written by Wernher von Braun. Clarke’s book has chapter headings like “The Harvest of the Sea,” “The Last Roundup,” and “Wealth from the waves.”

Clarke goes into great detail about the productive capacity of the oceans, everything from the inexhaustible supply of plankton “think of vast, floating factories skimming up the richest of all harvests, far to the south amid the crystal glitter of antarctic ice” to the untold wealth of Manganese nodules, “millions of square miles are carpeted with them, just waiting to be picked up.” Sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

Alas, we know today that the only thing “easy” about our ability to harvest the “inexhaustible wealth” of the ocean is how easily we exhaust it. We strip mine the oceans of everything. Fishing fleets routinely catch more than their quotas. The vast Russian fish factory ships are particularly notorious. Species after species is being pushed to the brink of exhaustion. And at least one Canadian company has already built a prototype of an industrial strength nodule harvester that will chew up the life forms in the seabed as badly as the deep nets of fishing vessels have destroyed much of the seabed of the Mediterranean, essentially rendering it sterile. Clarke’s book failed to take into account humanity’s insatiable greed. In that sense, his book is very naïve.

So, is Johnston just another writer grabbing relevant info from here and there to back up the underlying theme of his latest novel (the entire series, for that matter) to provide enough tidbits of “fact” to render his fiction plausible?

The man writes from a profound knowledge of the subject. Here’s what triggered him to explore the ocean’s possibilities:

“‘The Rise of Oceania’ originated during my studies of physical geography, geology, geophysics, and environmental systems at Western University (the University of Western Ontario) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Every class seemed to involve discussions and studies on the Greenhouse Effect, rising water, flooding, shore defenses, famine, greenhouse gases, and more. I quickly realized that nations would have to locate new resources for Earth’s exploding populations. We are not going to stop climate change. Any thoughts along these lines are a pipe dream, a fantasy.”

The series begins with the oceans having risen, populations under extreme stress and dwindling, climate change running riot. A number of the most advanced industrialized nations have established undersea colonies on the continental shelf where stable populations are surviving, growing, and learning to be independent of the resources of the surface world.

Naturally this involves ever advancing technologies enabling mankind to go deeper and deeper. Johnston points out that many of the technologies he describes already exist, albeit not yet applied to crewed vehicles. And many of the more science fictional technologies are under active research and may actually be feasible within a surprisingly short span of time.

Tish, tosh, you may say. Nothing radical in technology is ever produced until corporations pour billions of dollars into research and development when they sense being first in the field could lead to vast profits.

Well, consider space exploration. It used to be strictly a propaganda contest. But, in terms of commercial exploitation of mining resources, a tipping point may have been reached. More and more effort by more and more nations is going into discovering precisely what the asteroids are made of and how easy would it be to mine them. Several nations are looking forward to establishing permanent bases on the Moon. One company has already formed in Japan whose sole purpose is to be the first company specializing in constructing structures on the Lunar surface. Once new launch technologies have been perfected and rendered reliable, expect a tsunami of investment money, motivated by greed, to overwhelm the space race.

Similarly, many nations, including quite powerful ones, are currently manoeuvering to control the seabed. Why do you think China is telling all nations bordering the China sea to piss off? Because they claim that its seabed belongs to them. Heck, the Russians even claimed the seabed at the North Pole. This wasn’t laughable propaganda. They’re dead serious. Even the Chinese are claiming portions of the arctic and Antarctic oceans seabed. This isn’t some idiotic fad. It’s all about resources, and a precursor of things to come. Wars are going to be fought over these claims. The premise of The Rise of Oceania is not farfetched. It’s prescient.

But all the above is in the background of the plot arc, the underlying reality driving the daily life and motivations of all the characters. Hard times make for hard people. It occurs to me the name “Truman” was chosen for the protagonist because he frequently has to make hard decisions based on perceived necessity. It was the historical Truman who decided to drop the atomic bomb. It was Truman who decided to fire General McArthur. He was a man who faced up to hard decisions. Nothing wibbly-wobbly about him.

Truman McClusky, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve, at least in his thoughts. But not in his words or actions. At the beginning of A Blanket of Steel he’s about to broadcast to the world that fifteen of the world’s colonies under the sea have formed an alliance and that today they are declaring their total independence from their “parent” nations. From past experience he knows the world’s governments will go absolutely ape and try to take over the colonies or, failing that, destroy them. This makes Truman feel a tad nervous, but he’s disciplined enough not to show it. He looks calm and rational, but inside he’s an emotional wreck. As I would be, only I’d show it. People like Truman are the result of years of training and experience. Either that or they’re born psychopaths. Even he isn’t sure which he is.

Not that there’s a shortage of psychopaths. A particular Russian Admiral has never forgiven Truman for his previous victories and his top priority is to see Truman dead by any means fair or foul. To that end he has hired “The Shiv,” an assassin mercenary whose ethnicity, ideology and identity no-one knows anything other than the fact he’s worth every rouble he’s paid, or dollar, or gold bar; he’s not fussy. Mostly, he’s just deadly.

He is also suspected to be the ultimate “sleeper agent,” i.e. hidden and embedded in the community of his victims and not activated till he has become accepted as a loyal subject, citizen, ally or whatever. This prospect terrifies Truman. It means any one of his allies and friends could be the enemy. His closest friends are particularly suspect. Except for one, evidently killed by the Shiv. This is the only possible means of learning anything concrete about the Shiv, so Truman gathers his closest friends together (so he can keep an eye on them) and sets off to investigate.

Shouldn’t he concentrate on commanding the outnumbered but technologically superior war submarines the alliance has gathered near his home colony-city of “Trieste” (located near Florida) which is the primary target of the world fleets? Well, no, they have a week’s grace since the world is currently being battered by a bunch of category six hurricanes.

Another bit of prescience on the part of Johnston. Hurricane categories only go up to level five. However, it is believed some hurricanes in the near future will be far more powerful than any we have experienced in the last few centuries, so it has recently been proposed, within the last month or so I seem to recall, that a category six be introduced. This would let people know, when the looming threat of a level six hurricane is announced, that they better leave ASAP to safer climes, like, say, Elon Musk’s Mars.

Anyway, Truman and his cohorts follow a trail of clues to assorted locations in the Pacific. We get to visit various undersea habitats, some of them of highly specialized purpose, and ride in a variety of vehicles. This “tour” constitutes a running series of violent acts of sabotage and even more violent encounters with The Shiv and other enemy agents, many of whom are working at cross purposes. Betrayal seems as constant as revenge, greed, and our other shining emotions which supposedly lift us above the level of the animal kingdom. Things get very complicated.

Especially trying for Truman, evidence mounts that one of his companions is indeed The Shiv. Trouble is evidence mounts against all of them equally. This is beginning to drive him nuts. Paranoid fantasy begins to rule the roost. None of his friends are in a happy frame of mind either. They not only suspect each other, but fear that Truman’s intense suspicion will get them all killed.

Johnston is adept at keeping the tension rising. Just when you think Truman has figured everything out satisfactorily, the situation goes awry, and the situation is more dangerous than before. One encounter after another appears to resolve the problem, but in fact makes things worse. Trumen and The Shiv manage to evade each other’s murderous intent, against all odds but in keeping with the rapidly evolving situation, that one begins to wonder if they are immortal. But, of course, they’re not. It’s only a matter of time before one kills the other. Trouble is they appear to be equally matched and equally lucky. This causes no end of pain for everyone associated with them.

Meanwhile, events elsewhere are weaving a plot arc of their own. Rest assured all the disparate elements, no matter how unexpectedly complicating, ultimately make sense and come together for a satisfying conclusion. Satisfying not only in terms of the book, but of the series as a whole.


I am not immune to ego massage. I was delighted to see at the beginning of A Blanket of Steel, among quotes from several critics, a portion of my previous reviews of The War Beneath and Fatal Depth (the first and third novels in the series), which read:

“If you’re looking for a techno-thriller combining Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy and John Le Carré, The War Beneath will satisfy . . . I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s what I call a ripping good yarn, a genuine page-turner. If you like action spy thrillers with lots of high tech in a science fiction setting this book will definitely please. It’s loads of fun. And fast-paced. Did I mention fastpaced? ’Cause it is.”—Amazing Stories


“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 . . .

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.”—Amazing Stories

I agree with my comments above, yet the last paragraph sells the series short, in that it concentrates on the entertainment aspects. Escapist, yes, if one ignores the underlying premise of ecological collapse and the ocean’s resources perhaps being our only salvation. Beneath all the fun and excitement, there’s a serious message worth thinking about.

At any rate, A Blanket of Steel offers hope for our future. Johnston has put enough thought and research into the prospect to render the promise of the premise plausible and doable. It would be wonderful if he turns out to be prescient in that, too.

You can find it here: < A Blanket of Steel >

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