A Sea of Troubles

What might be lurking in the depths?  This edition published by Penguin Books 1972.  Cover design by Harry Willock.

What might be lurking in the depths? This edition published by Penguin Books 1972. Cover design by Harry Willock.

Life on Earth can take an astonishing range of forms. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that familiar creatures such as our garden snails and slugs are related to the more advanced denizens of the oceans such as the octopus and squid, but they’re all part of the phylum of invertebrate animals known as molluscs. And their intelligent relatives can appear almost alien in their level of sophistication, as I discussed in a previous webpost – Aliens Under The Sea.

But they are all our fellow creatures on our own planet. In fact, although we often feel puzzled, and perhaps at times even a little frightened, by prospects of meeting aliens from outer space, we seem relatively unflustered by the idea of encountering fairly sophisticated life-forms already present here on Earth. Well, probably after a little wariness at first – after all, they are distinctly different from us.

In his 1957 essay Which Way is Up?, written soon after his enthusiasm for underwater exploration began, Arthur C Clarke describes the wonders that may be found down there in the seas – the manta ray and the octopus can be fascinating and beautiful creatures when one gets to know them and overcomes any initial revulsion. As he puts it, “there is nothing in the natural world, however strange it may be, that one cannot grow accustomed to.”

Indeed, when science fiction tackles the concept of threats to the human race originating from our oceans, it usually envisages extraterrestrials arriving from outer space to live in its depths before confronting us, as in the 1989 film The Abyss, rather than some indigenous race of creatures emerging from the water to menace us. The tagline for the 2012 movie Battleship, where invading aliens choose to arrive far from land, springs to mind: “the battle for Earth begins at sea”.

John Wyndham’s 1953 novel The Kraken Wakes is probably the classic in this field. Because of how and where they evolved, his alien arrivals can only live in the ocean deeps, and there is speculation that they originated in the high-pressure environment of Jupiter. Some scientists suggest that they are not necessarily hostile, which seems optimistic given that mankind shot down several of their spacecraft on first arrival. One would imagine that peaceful independent existence should be possible but, sad to say, humanity treats this as an invasion and reacts accordingly. An eminent journalist makes the point: “Can you imagine us tolerating any form of rival intelligence on earth, no matter how it got here?” – an attitude echoed all too soon by the governments of the world.

Before long, there is evidence of mining on the ocean floor, then ships sink in a matter of minutes and an American task force is destroyed. Eventually something which isn’t at all friendly emerges on land. And, unlike the alien invaders attacking from the sea in the 2011 film World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles, they don’t choose to strike first at a location where they will encounter the full might of the US Marines. Wyndham’s aliens are far more stealthy, and far more effective in the end.

But Clarke treated the subject differently in his 1962 short story The Shining Ones. In this tale, encounters with advanced squids, who are as much natural residents of this planet as ourselves, do not seem to bode well for the future when they may see the human race as a threat. Which is perhaps only to be expected given the way we sometimes treat even our own kind.

Over 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, and the oceans comprise over 96 per cent of that, yet we still know remarkably little of what goes on down there. Just maybe there are life-forms already on our own planet that we may one day regard as a threat. As a ship’s captain observes in Wyndham’s book, “some funny things can still happen at sea, now and then.”

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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