Notes and Quotes: Arthur C. Clarke’s THE DEEP RANGE (1957)

Here’s a relatively quick take on a 1950s novel I reread this past week — not as long or as polished as my Black Gate reviews have been. (I’ll be resuming those in February.)

THE DEEP RANGE was the 8th of 11 novels of Clarke’s early period, which I’ll define as everything before 2001 in 1968. (The 11 counts both AGAINST THE FALL OF NIGHT and THE CITY AND THE STARS, and includes his non-SF novel GLIDE PATH.)

This is Clarke’s major novel of the ocean, set in a future that herds whales and farms plankton for consumption by humans. I think the theme of harvesting whales for their meat would make the novel awkward to reprint today, but I see there have been editions from Warner Aspect in 2001 and from Gollancz as recently as 2011. There are countries that still harvest whales, of course, but they do so to the condemnation of many other nations.

Clarke was of course an avid diver and had moved to Sri Lanka in 1956 (according to SFE), a year before this novel was published. So the descriptions here of diving, of exploring the coral reefs, are likely drawn from first-hand experience.


The novel is rather episodic, and breaks into three parts, with the middle section into three parts of its own.

  • Part One concerns Don Burley, a ‘warden’ for the World Food Organization and living on an island in the Great Barrier Reef, who responds to problems with the herding of whales, such as attacks from killer whales or breaks in the electronic ‘fences’ that keep the whales out of the plankton farms. He’s assigned to train Walter Franklin, a man with a mysterious past, to become a warden, and the suspense of this first part of the novel is the background of the reticent Franklin. In this section we see the ropes of becoming a warden: diving along the reef, observing the ocean life, the difficulty of romance on a small island where they are based. The suspense is resolved (spoiler): Franklin was chief engineer on an Earth to Mars run and experienced an accident in space that prevented him from space travel ever again, which is tragic because his wife and two sons live on Mars!
  • In Part Two Franklin has married a researcher on the island and has a son. There are three episodes here. First, a breach in one of those electronic fences, which seems to have been caused by one of the long-rumored ‘sea serpents.’ Second, the capture of a giant squid that’s been feeding on the whales, which is kept alive for display at Marineland. Third, an attempt to find one of those sea serpents in a deep ocean valley, which ends tragically when a quake hits and (spoiler) a landslide sweeps Don’s sub into the abyss.
  • In Part Three Franklin is now a director, concerned with global issues affecting the World Food Organization. He’s shown innovations like harvesting whale milk, or using killer whales as sheep dogs to manage the herds. A philosophical theme emerges as a Buddhist leader, concerned with his religion’s respect for all living creatures, campaigns to end the slaughter of whales for food. The issue reaches worldwide debate, with Franklin finally converted to the Buddhist’s position, when a crisis arises: a sub full of dignitaries, trapped in an accident with a collapsed mining derrick holding the sub down. Franklin does a deep dive himself to set explosives on the derrick.
  • And in a final short chapter, Franklin watches as his son, now an astronaut, launches for Mars.

The implication is that technology will be found to assure the human food supply and save the whales, but not because the whales are intelligent, as is the justification today for banning whale hunting. There are references to “meal and oil,” to “slaughter pens,” to whale steak, and a full chapter in which the Buddhist leader is shown how whales are slaughtered and chopped up for consumption.


The book’s central theme aside, one of my fascinations with reading these 50 and 60-year-old science fiction novels is to revisit the assumptions they made about the future, spot those that were wrong, and consider why. Clarke in particular was an idealist and an optimist, not so much about the promise of future technology, but about how he thought humanity would mature, in matters of religion and politics. Alas, we would have to say now that Clarke was naive, or at best overly-optimistic; the trends he anticipated are real, they’re just happening more slowly than he hoped.

Here’s this book’s take on the status of the world’s religions in its 21st century future. This is from page 136 of the Signet edition shown above.

It was never wise to underestimate the power of religion, even a religion as pacific and tolerant as Buddhism.

The position was one which, even a hundred years ago, would have seemed unthinkable, but the catastrophic political and social changes of the last century had all combined to give it a certain inevitability. With the failure or weakening of its three great rivals, Buddhist was now the only religion that still possessed any read power over the mind of men.

Christianity, which had never fully recovered from the shattering blow given it by Darwin and Freud, had finally and unexpectedly succumbed before the archaeological discoveries of the late twentieth century. The Hindu religion, with its fantastic pantheon of gods and goddesses, had failed to survive in an age of scientific rationalism. And the Mohammedan faith, weakened by the same forces, had suffered additional loss of prestige when the rising Star of David had outshone the pale crescent of the Prophet.

These beliefs still survived, and would linger on for generations yet, but all their power was gone. …

Of course, Christianity survives, its adherents overlooking or denying Darwin and Freud and their successors.

On page 151, an optimistic passage about how wars would disappear, and about the media.

…one of the disadvantages of life in a peaceful and well-organized world state was that with the disappearance of wars and crises very little was left of what was once called “news.” Indeed, the complaint had often been made that since the ending of national sovereignty, history had also been abolished.

Yet now we still have wars, and nationalistic fervor has only increased in the past decade. History hasn’t ended, as Francis Fukuyama thought at one time. And the news media, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, can always find some crisis to exaggerate into an existential threat and frighten their audiences about how dangerous the world is.

One more. Passages from pages 152-153, about Clarke’s visions of a worldwide, democratic government.

One of the unexpected results of the twentieth century’s electronic revolution was that for the first time in history it was possible to have a truly democratic government — in the sense we have every citizen could express his views on matters of policy.

Naturally, there had to be safeguards, and such a system would have been disastrous before the days of universal education–before, in fact, the beginning the twenty-first century. Even now, it was possible for some emotionally laden issue to force a vote that was really against the bests interests of the community, and no government could function unless it held the final right to decide matters of policy during its term of office.

Like most men of [Franklin’s] highly materialistic age, he was intoxicated with the scientific and sociological triumphs which had irradiated the opening decades of the twenty-first century. He prided himself on his skeptical rationalism, and his total freedom from superstition. The fundamental questions of philosophy had never bothered him greatly; he knew that they existed, but they had seemed the concern of other people.

Needless to say, here we are the 21st century and we don’t have a truly democratic government — not even in the US, let alone worldwide — we don’t have universal education, and skeptical rationalism and freedom from superstition are perhaps only barely farther along than they were in the 1950s, given the filtering into popular culture notions about psychological biases, motivated reasoning, and so on.

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