Having queried yesterday whether Sheri S Tepper’s The Waters Rising is in fact science fiction, one could pose the same question about Simon Ings’ Dead Water today. Certainly it does not immediately signal itself as such; in fact, if anything it looks more like a low-key thriller as the story gradually reveals a complex web of deceit involving the concealed movement around the world of shipments of toxic waste. Indeed, it is entirely possible to read the novel at this level, though I suspect anyone trying to do so will be more than a little irritated by the choppiness of the storytelling, as Ings moves back and forth through time, from character to character, place to place.
That choppiness, those waves of interference, form the central motif of this novel for they cannot be avoided even as the reader sinks down through the layers of storytelling. The story opens with the crash of the airship Italia after its successful crossing of the North Pole. The gondola splits open, depositing men and their equipment onto the ice. In an extraordinary act of heroism, the chief engineer, Arduino, empties as much in the way of supplies onto the ice as he can before he, the airship and the remaining crew members are swept away, never to be found. His quick thinking ensures that at least some of the survivors will hang on long enough to be rescued. However, one who will not return is Lothar Eling, the expedition’s meteorologist, who perishes during an attempt to fetch help.
His notebook is returned to his friend and mentor, Professor Jakob Dunfjeld, the man with whom he has been working, trying to understand how to model the weather.
*In Norwegian waters the difference between water layers is so marked, as regards their temperature, salinity, and density, that is a simple matter to determine their boundaries, as well as their respective movements. (10)
Elling has noted this during experiments which involve jumping into Arctic waters, clutching a weight, then rising upwards through the layers, but it is only on the point of death that he realises that waves also occur at the interfaces between individual layers. More than that, he realises that cavitation – the failure of a propeller to work properly as it passes through the the air/water interface – also occurs as the propeller passes through sharply differentiated layers of water. It chops them up but the boat will make no headway, trapped as it is in the waves between layers of water. ‘Dead water’, the sailors call it. This insight he writes down and it is later promoted by Dunfjeld as a development of his own work, the Dunfjeld Circulation Theorem:
*If it is unbounded – wrapped, say, round a globe, where every forward impulse is also a return – then pertubations will disrupt even an ideal frictionless fluid. (12)
This, then, is the elaborate metaphor which underlies the stories of three people: Roopa Vish, a private investigator; Eric Moyse, a shipping magnate, and David Brooks, a former British intelligence agent whose current occupation is not entirely clear. The connections between the three of them are not immediately clear but gradually, as the story progresses, as the reader rises and falls through the layers of narrative, through the layers of dead water, she begins to realise that an almost incomprehensible deception is being carried out, though only a small part of it is ever visible to the people involved.
The form of the deception is ingenious. After World War Two, Eric Moyse, inspired by something he saw in wartime London, has begun to develop the idea of container shipping, buying ex-wartime vessels , stacking them with metal storage boxes and slowly but surely moving cargo round the world. He has also come to realise that empty space, something he often has in abundance, is a useful way of concealing things, and thus he develops his own private enterprise, Dead Water, to conceal those things that nations want concealed, such as toxic waste. Secretive, refusing to divulge the details of his scheme to anyone, Moyse has built up a secret shipping line within the publicly visible company. After Moyse mysteriously vanishes, the waste continues to travel around the world until one of Moyse’s ships is hijacked by pirates.
Moyse concealed information on his business in a red notebook, the same red notebook which Eling took to the Pole with him, and which Moyse acquired from Vibeke Dunfjeld, with whom he had been helplessly and unrequitedly in love. The red notebook bobs up in the book time and again, floating on the tide of story, a marker for the circulatory currents which shape the narrative. We see Moyse take the book when, having finally located Viebeke, on a housing estate in Wales, his ill-advised visit is suddenly interrupted by a flood. The journal passes briefly to his adopted son, Vibeke’s natural son by another man, before returning to Moyse. Moyse himself disappears, only to reappear thirty years later when a container is washed ashore after the 2004 tsunami, splitting open to reveal his mummified body.
Roopa Vish has spent most of her adult life trying to track down and destroy a crime syndicate spread across India, first as a police officer and then, later, disgraced and also disfigured, as a private detective seeking revenge as much as a resolution to her case. The reader knows what Roopa does not, that her adversary is long since dead, and that try as she might, she can never finally resolve the case. Her rage drives her own, with great tenacity, although her life has already been destroyed by her determination to have justice. The reader trails her through a horrifying landscape of corruption, contamination and violence, in which life seems unbelievably cheap and no one cares. In many respects, it is only her ignorance that keeps Roopa alive, because the nature of what she is chasing has changed so much in the time she has been chasing it. She does not know it but like Moyse’s containers, she is being circulated. But by whom?
David Brooks is a sharp operator, having spent his life babysiting Arab sheikhs in exile and undertaking other unpleasant little tasks. Affable, slightly boring, he is the quintessential ex-pat; hard to believe that he can be anything else as he wanders through the Middle East and Far East like some sort of latter-day Lord Jim, always moving on along. What he is to the Moyse shipping line and it to him remains unclear; is he exploiting it, or blackmailing it. Like Roopa he is in circulation, but seemingly under his own steam.
There is no end to this story, of course. The novel covers only a part of it, because every forward impulse, as already noted, is also a return, and for every Roopa lost, every sailor and small-time operator discarded, there will be another. No one, not even Eric Moyse himself, was invulnerable; he could be put out of circulation as easily as he kept other things in circulation. Others can exploit his knowledge so long as they have sight of the red notebook.
This is an extraordinarily complex novel – I really felt I should be annotating it with flurries of multi-coloured post-it notes, to track the swirls and eddies of the narrative as it moves through the layers of plot, looping round on itself all the time. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of momentary encounters between characters, each slight movement pushing the story on. What is clear as the novel comes to a conclusion is the terrible inevitability of what is happening throughout. People struggle to act according to their own desires but they are already a part of a much deeper pattern of movement over which they have no control. They are becalmed or swept along, turned back on themselves, or else suddenly, inexplicably dashed onto the shore. There is no end, only deaths, casualties and more participants to be swept out to sea.
Is Dead Water science fiction? I think so. Not, obviously, in the classic genre mould, using instantly recognisable tropes, but science fiction nonetheless, because of this apprehension of deeper things moving and the use of meteorological theory to account for it, the sense of the world itself as some sort of strange entity.