Deep Sound Channel, Joe Buff

Bantam, 2000, 401 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58239-9

I’ve been reading military techno-thrillers for fifteen years now, so I shouldn’t be surprised at the peculiarities of the sub-genre. And yet I find the overspecialization of some authors to be a constant source of wonderment. The united markets of America are probably the only publishing environment in the world big enough to be able to sustain a handful of writers specializing in, say, submarine thrillers. You may already recognize the names of Mark Joseph, Michael DiMercurio and Patrick Robinson. Now you can add Joe Buff to this list of naval experts turned novelists.

Deep Sound Channel is the first in what promises to be a long series of naval adventures set during a future war between English-speaking Allies and a Berlin/Johannesburg Axis. Never mind that the antagonism is as sketchy as it’s implausible: The point here is to have an excuse to study future submarine technology in combat situations. The Russian navy is on the rocks and the Chinese one hasn’t impressed much over the past few decades: Why not take it all the way into fantasy-land and hand-wave a resurgent Germanic Empire? Let’s just be lenient and let this one pass.

What we’re quick to figure out is that circa-2011 wars are as nasty as the author wants them to be: This conflict is waged with so many tactical nuclear weapons that skyscraper-set snipers have a few at their disposal, and SEALs planning a raid can reliably expect to use a leftover nuke to cover their traces through excessive vapourization. Ahem. Letting slide the political ramifications of a tacnuke-driven engagement (hey, it’s nice to deal with a psycho enemy that doesn’t care about public opinion), let’s just say that this brings both an extra edge and an extra yawn to the whole novel: Sure, there are bigger explosions throughout the novel. On the other hand –where’s the buildup?

It’s not as if the plot is particularly complex: Six months after the beginning of the hostilities, XO Jeffrey Fuller is asked to assist on a daring mission on South-African soil: A team of SEALs sets off to destroy a biowarfare facility, and Fuller’s ship (the ultramodern Virginia-class “ceramic” attack submarine USS Challenger) is the only one up to the task of bringing them there and back. There is, as you may expect, an obstacle: The crew of the Voortrekker, another higher-tech German submarine. As this is a military adventure, you can figure out the rest of the story.

There are, to be blunt, plot problems throughout the book and a number of characters straight out of lazy characterizations class. Protagonist Fuller is too soft, too kind, and yet ready to jump off his submarine for a SEAL mission at the drop of a ping. The enemy captain often cackles in mad attempts to outdo B-movie dialogue, doing tremendous damage to the credibility of the novel. (“Idiots! Did they really think their engine tonals would be masked against the floes … Fools! Our merchant marine masters would never make that error. The Americans are soft, Gunther, I’m telling you, and desperate.” [P.78] and later, less triumphantly: “I underestimated the Americans. I took too much for granted, and I fell for their clever tricks. So be it, but I swear to you, no longer. Next time we meet Challenger, she and her crew will die.” [P.377]) As is the case with specialized military fiction, jargon and tedious procedural details (almost invariably discussed by professionals who should already know this stuff) often overwhelm the flow of the story.

But criticizing Deep Sound Channel on literary qualities would be misleading, for the true worth of the book lies elsewhere. Joe Buff knows his stuff, and his first novel brings something new to the military thriller field by exploring the cutting edge of submarine warfare, without falling over in Science Fiction. For those of you sub-fans weaned on Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October, (already more than twenty years old!) this novel is your wake-up call: Things have evolved since then, and Deep Sound Channel is crammed with new gadgets, nifty tactics and neat ideas. There’s an amazing amount of oceanographic information enmeshed with the military stuff, and the result is both clever and interesting. Despite my lack of enchantment with the narrative qualities of the novel, I often found myself finding something new in the combat passages. This cutting-edge material is the true reason to read Deep Sound Channel, not the characterization or the quality of the prose.

In fact, it’s good enough to make me look forward to the author’s second novel (Thunder in the Deep). Buff’s writing skill can improve, and if they start matching his ideas… watch out.

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