Life Beneath the Ocean Wave

Something lurks in the deeps. This edition published by Pan Books 1974. Cover art by John Berkey.

Ocean exoplanets are now being detected in our galaxy, and may well contain life.  In the depths of seas vastly greater than any known on Earth, alien life-forms may evolve, possibly even achieving a remarkable level of sophistication.  It’s a subject which we look into in the latest issue of Odyssey.

Underwater science fiction has frequently tackled the question of aquatic life as it might develop, but usually from a terrestrial standpoint and in terms of the threat it could pose to the human race existing comfortably on our planet’s land surface.  Films have traditionally seen enlarged, mutated forms of existing marine life as the main enemy.  Back in 1955, It Came From Beneath the Sea showed a giant octopus attacking California, driven from its normal environment by (in a then highly topical theme) nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean.

Over the years, monsters have emerged regularly from the ocean depths – The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms made a mess of New York City in 1953, Godzilla had a go at Tokyo in 1954 (and made a number of subsequent  appearances), and the captured Gorgo was rescued by his mother in 1961, devastating London in the process.  This list went on and on.

More recently, the giant carnivorous tentacled creature that attacks the well-heeled passengers of a luxury liner in the 1998 movie Deep Rising is rather more like the variants on existing marine life that feature in the literature.  We see this in Herman Melville’s 1851 classic Moby Dick, when the crew of the Pequod encounter a giant squid, and HG Wells’ 1896 short story The Sea Raiders, where Devon comes under threat from the same sort of creature.  They later menace Bermuda in the 1991 novel Beast by Peter Benchley (probably best known for his 1974 novel Jaws and the subsequent film).

A giant squid features in Arthur C Clarke’s novel The Deep Range from 1957, though he suggests that there are even more strange creatures lurking in Earth’s ocean deeps – possibly even the Great Sea Serpent of mythology.  But then, such a beastie may not be entirely fictional.  In his 1966 book In the Wake of Sea Serpents, Bernard Heuvelmans analysed the evidence from over 300 years of sightings and concluded that many had an undeniable ring of truth.  John Ridgway and Chay Blyth, rowing across the Atlantic Ocean in 1966, had an encounter which convinced them of their existence.

Even so, there’s something about a giant octopus or squid which seems to be particularly menacing, possibly because of their known high level of intelligence, which I mentioned in a previous webpost – Aliens Under the Sea.  It’s not just the mindless aggression of the prehistoric monster awakened from the deeps, but something that’s felt to be far more calculating and insidious.

So if we combine the tentacled menace of the cephalopod with the true intelligence of higher civilization, you end up with a literary device of immense impact.  Right to the end of John Wyndham’s 1953 novel The Kraken Wakes, humans have no real idea of what the aquatic extraterrestrials who are taking over our planet really look like, but there are some tantalising glimpses which suggest a possible squid-like appearance.  But then, a genetically engineered intelligent squid might make a perfectly good space pilot, as in Stephen Baxter’s 1999 novel Time.

Exploring the oceans of other worlds may one day surprise us as to how life may evolve in such an environment, but even our own seas may yet reveal unexpected life-forms.  Exploration of Earth’s oceans is just beginning, though in the fairly near future we may recognise the sentiment expressed in Clarke’s novel: “The sea, which had worked its will with man since the beginning of time, had been humbled at last.  Not even the conquest of space had been a greater victory than this.”

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)


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