Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Megalodon (1981) by Robin Brown


Nope. It isn't. Terrifying, I mean.

It's not really even about megalodons. There are three in the story, but the main reason they seem to exist is to act as foils for the book's actual main characters, two talking dolphins and a talking killer whale.

Now, before you get too upset, these dolphins and their killer whale friend aren't literally speaking English. They're communicating with the help of translation software their scientist-keepers have created: a dolphin chirps and clicks, it's run through a computer and comes out as computer-generated-voice English.

And that actually is kind of cool, it just doesn't belong in a deep sea thriller about giant sharks munching unsuspecting divers.

Hence my irritation with the book.

Technically that scene on the cover does happen in the novel, so it's not a completely false advertisement, but the scene is a long time coming, and it's less thrilling in-story than the cover might suggest. It's actually the only time in the book when human beings see a megalodon with their own eyes, react with gut-wrenching horror, and get munched.

I did a little research on Robin Brown, the novel's author. His previous book was nonfiction, The Lure of the Dolphin, and was billed as "a fascinating exploration into the bold discoveries linking man and dolphin--and the startling implications for the destiny of man, the sea, [and] the earth." Oddly enough, that's also a pretty fair description of this book.

What I'm getting is that the author was a big fan of dolphins so he wrote a couple of books, one fiction and one nonfiction, exploring how dolphins and mankind might work together in the future. I'm okay with that, I'm just not okay with this particular book being marketed as a monster fish story (which admittedly the author might have had little to do with) when it isn't.

Anyway. The megalodons themselves are bigger than current thinking generally allows for, with a 90 foot juvenile and a couple of 200 foot parents. They live (and spend the entire novel) at the bottom of a 15,000 foot ocean trench and are only seen by human beings, for the most part, as blips on a radar screen. They're written as relatively low energy bottom feeders, living off garbage cast from cruise ships and such, which a deep sea current conveniently carries down to them. They're also so covered in barnacles, mollusks and seaweed as to be indistinguishable from a rock formation when at rest.

So the author has taken these sharks and made them about as un-terrifying as he could. He's presented them as animals, part of the natural order, with as much realism as possible. I'm guessing if the animals described in this book surfaced next to your yacht while you were sunbathing on deck, you would initially be terrified at their sheer size, but assuming they didn't try to eat you or sink your boat (which they probably wouldn't), your terror would pretty quickly give way to awe.

And I think awe is probably exactly what the author was going for in his novel. It's just not the novel I wanted to read.

So again I'm pointing my irritation and disappointment at the book's marketers, whoever they might have been, because they sold me a (somewhat) interesting treatise on aquatic mammal and shark behavior disguised as "the most terrifying fish story since Jaws."

Other than that slight misrepresentation, the book is reasonably well written, if on the dry side. There are maybe a couple of minor editing issues (which the author also might have had little to do with). It seemed to me a character or two came into the story in a way that suggested they'd been introduced earlier, but hadn't been (as far as I could tell). A few characterizations were also a little uneven, with scientists talking at length about how dolphins and other sea mammals should be seen and treated as equals, then heading out to kidnap a sperm whale to help their research.

The most pulse-raising scene in the book is megalodon-free: after the juvenile meg swam past (but didn't attack) a deep diving nuclear sub, the resulting pressure wave caused serious damage, decompression, etc. The account of the sub's captain getting it stabilized and back to the surface is fairly high drama, and was actually more thrilling to read than any of the scenes with megs in them.

The overall plot of the book is this:

The US government is trying to do a mining survey at the bottom of this trench a few hundred miles out from Hawaii; they've realized the bottom of the trench is covered with gold and uranium. The first sub the Navy sends down gets mistaken for food by the juvenile meg, who gives it a quick bite, realizes it's not food and leaves. The sub goes back to the surface, damaged, and they send a diving bell down instead. It gets destroyed, again by the juvenile.

Meanwhile, the government has asked this research team to bring their dolphins out to act as spotters for the next sub and even think the dolphins might be able to survey the trench better than a sub can. But they can't dive deep enough, so the scientists capture a sperm whale and use the dolphins to convince it to do the deep water work. The second sub goes down and is damaged when the juvenile meg swims past it, etc. Anyway, the megs stay deep and the dolphins stay topside. The sperm whale has a brief tussle with the juvenile meg in the middle depths. No injuries to anyone involved.

There's also a Soviet sub lurking around, because the novel was written in the eighties and that was pretty much a requirement of the time. Eventually the juvenile gets torpedoed by the Russian sub and the parent megs eat it.

Near as I could tell, the book was published first in the US in 1981, hardcover then paperback (which is the cover I've got up above). It was also published in Great Britain as a hardcover (1982) and a paperback that was retitled as Shark! (1983). The covers of the other editions weren't nearly as cool as the American paperback, although the American hardcover, on the left, takes a distant second place.

And that's it, really.



Todd Reisom said...

Cool. I'd almost want to read it. Thankfully you've saved me the eventual disappointment of doing so.

Great review. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

You wrote, "I've seen or read more than one guy-becomes-cyborg story where the surgeons were able to save an arm but the shadowy powers that be said 'lose the arm, it'll be more effective with two cyborg arms.'"

Of course they said that in Robocop, but I dare you to find me a video clip of one more time.

Dan said...

Hmm. I assume I was thinking of something specific when I wrote that, but you never know, I might have made it up. I do that sometimes. At any rate nothing comes to mind now. C'est la vie.... :-)

Anonymous said...

@Dan props on admitting that!