Fiction Reviews


Cuttlefish

(2012) Dave Freer, Pyr, hrdbk, US$16.9/16.95, 276pp, 978-1-616-14625-2

 

This is a story for young adults and, from the cover notes, seems to regard itself as fantasy (though others might label it as alternative history).

The divergence of the Cuttlefish timeline from our own is omitted from the story and the narrative is the better for it, though for the curious the author has thoughtfully explained this and other things in notes at the end of the book. These notes set the story in 1953 (though the cover of my copy, an uncorrected advance reading copy, gives it at 1976 (presumably a correction yet to be made)).

In 1898, Dr. Clara Immerwahr, a brilliant German chemist, had an argument with Dr. Fritz Haber, her intended. In our timeline their relationship survived this, they married, and he went on to become one of the driving forces behind German poison gas warfare; he (or they) was (were) very important in the development of the artificial synthesis of ammonia and the Haber-Bosch method was in use by 1911. This greatly increased a country's ability to create nitrates, useful for both fertilisers (and thus feeding the world's growing population) and for explosives (thus allowing longer and bloodier wars).

In the Cuttlefish timeline, following the argument, Clara went to England, stayed there, married someone else, and the Haber-Bosch method was not invented (though, we discover as the story unfolds, Clara had been thinking along these lines, had undertaken some experiments, and had left her documentation to her daughter, Dr. Mary Calland, to eventually read and continue with). Thus the British Empire controlled much of the world's natural nitrates and used this control with great effect, as well as their domination of the world's supplies of coal. When war started with the Kaiser, Germany soon ran out of explosives and the 1914-15 war was soon over (and as a result there were no World Wars as such). Germany came very much under the control of Britain and the Windsor-Schaumburg-Lippe monarchy, meanwhile in Russia the revolution resulted in victory to the Mensheviks, and America continued to be the home of revolutionaries.

Due to their domination the British Empire effectively held back the development of petroleum and so the petrochemical industry never came into being. The over abundant use of coal had a most detrimental effect - it lead to vast amounts of particulate soot in the atmosphere, atmospheric warming, and the Big Melt. Not only did the ice melt but also a vast bubble of methane unfroze from the permafrost; this lead to many more atmospheric changes (as well as killing millions of Russians). There were several years of catastrophic storms which, along with the flooding of coastal areas, caused damage and havoc around the world and caused many governments to fall. Even the British Government fell, the Empire being left in the hands of the monarchy.

The rising waters meant that many cities had drowned or were left partly submerged. In London, many of the streets were now canals and many of the taller buildings had lost the use of their lower floors (though otherwise seemed to be stable with their foundations and lower structure permanently under the water). Most of the Underground system had filled with water but there were those that had sealed the tunnels and pumped them out, leaving a dark, dank, and dangerous place in which some of the less fortunate lived, a class of people known as the Underpeople.

As the story opens, fourteen-year old Clara Calland is not enjoying herself at St. Margaret's School for the Children of Officers and Gentlemen in Fermoy, Cork, Ireland. Dr. Mary Calland unexpectedly arrives to visit her daughter and, most unexpectedly and without time for an explanation, immediately ushers her out of the school via a secret exit. It does not take long for Clara to realise that something very strange is going on they are being sought by both the British authorities and by a group of Mensheviks.

It is the latter who capture them and fly them by airship to London, intending to take them onwards to Moscow, though they manage to escape as the aircraft comes in for its landing. Eluding their pursuers, Clara and her mother arrive safely in the hands of the Underpeople and thus onto the Cuttlefish, a submarine bound for the Americas. It is there that Dr. Calland hopes to continue her researches and free the world of its reliance on natural nitrates and of domination by the British Empire.

However, Duke Malcolm, the Chief of Imperial Intelligence, spots that something is going on; he does not know the significance of Dr. Calland but if the Mensheviks want her then he is determined that they shall not have her; indeed, it is he (on behalf of Britain) that shall have her and whatever it is that she knows. The Duke has the Empire's resources at his finger tips and he has spies everywhere. Meanwhile, Captain Malkis is a most experienced submariner and knows that he has one of the most difficult voyages of his career ahead of him. And so the chase begins.

The Cuttlefish appears to be constructed rather in the manner of a barrel; it is a wooden craft, encircled by tight metal bands, but nonetheless can dive to a respectable depth. However, being coal-fired, her range is too limited for a straight crossing of the ocean so refuelling stops will be needed. Once well out to sea, though, she can surface, deploy her outriggers as hydrofoils, raise her sails, and run before the wind. With the British Navy mobilised against her, this is much more easily said than done.

Whilst interesting, much of this is merely background. This is an adventure story; it tells of Clara and her journey from the innocence of school to the safety of the colonies. It is also the story of Tim Barnabas, a lad of similar age by whom she is befriended on the Cuttlefish; he is from the Underpeople and is a trainee seaman on his first voyage. With Duke Malcolm after them, the Navy ordered to stop them at any cost, and general treachery on several sides, it is a voyage of much danger and adventure.

The author has obviously had a lot of fun with this timeline and enjoyed thinking about how the technologies might actually work. It is well written, has a good pace, and flows nicely. Interest is maintained throughout and there are surprises in store for the Cuttlefish and those aboard her. It is not at all deep and I found the characterisations a bit thin (and I was sometimes confused between similar crew members) but none the less I found it an enjoyable read. I particularly enjoyed the differences between the Cuttlefish world and ours and found it well,and interestingly, thought through.

Peter Tyers

See also Ian's take on Cuttlefish.


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