Crush Depth, Joe Buff

Morrow, 2002, 449 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-000964-0

By now, Joe Buff fans should know what to expect from his third novel. Cutting-edge near-future submarine warfare. Shaky grasp of story-telling techniques. An absence of political complexity. A story that emerges out of the water mid-way through, to conclude with yet another duel between submarines. At least Joe Buff is getting better with every following book, though Crush Depth doesn’t show the same stark improvement that set Thunder in the Deep apart from the debut Deep Sound Channel. In fact, it’s such a small improvement that some readers may come to question why they’re reading the entire series.

For it is obviously a series, and there’s no hope that it will conclude anytime soon. Buff is slated to write nearly a dozen novels in the “Jeffrey Fuller” universe, each one describing a campaign in a fictional near-future war opposing English-speaking Allies to a new Germany-led Axis. In this third book, captain Jan ter Horst and XO Gunther van Gelder both return from the first novel, while our stalwart hero Jeffrey Fuller must once again go head-to-head against enemies that are as smart as he is. Plot-wise, that’s all you need to know: You can infer the structure of the novel from Buff’s previous ones: There will be a submarine fight, a terrestrial raid and another submarine fight. One wonders if all twelve Fuller books will suffer from the same structure.

What’s new here is a land-bound prologue in which Fuller and series love interest Ilse Reebeck tour a wartime New York city. Unfortunately, this segment only highlights how Buff’s political sense comes nowhere near his expertise in military affairs. What becomes obvious is that Buff is merely using his future history to re-fight “The Good War”: Wartime New York suffers from rationing and plays big-band music as if it had escaped from a romantic WW2 film, whereas the big bad Germans are only one snappy salute short of being total Nazis. Given the pacifist learnings of real-world Germany, let’s just say that a German civil war is more likely than them presenting a credible challenge to the Anglo-speaking power bloc. Buff constantly tries to hand-wave “nuclear weapons!” as the big equalizer, but that excuse doesn’t excuse much given, once again, the anti-nuclear forces at work within Germany these days. (Don’t try to make me believe that massive executions would resolve that problem.)

The political unlikeliness at the root of Buff’s future history have always been problematic, but it becomes even more so as the series advance and Crush Depth, for instance, suggests an escalation of warfare from countries lining up against the US. Now, I would pay good money for a military thriller in which the US was the antagonist that a righteous alliance of nations would try to contain (heck, we’re already half-way there today), but somehow I don’t think that this is what Buff has in mind. (Wouldn’t it be a fantastic twist, though?) Oh well, onward, what with tactical nuclear weapons raining down on our protagonists like so many cheap fireworks.

Buff’s strength has been in portraying submarine warfare as a complex interrelationship between psychological, military, oceanographic and technological factors. While the degree of innovation is smaller in Crush Depth than in the series’s previous two volumes, there are still a number of good ideas and scenes here and there. Particularly noteworthy is a third act taking place under the Antarctic Ross Ice Shelf, though the final conclusion seems weak after all the build-up leading to it.

In terms of story-telling, Buff is still improving, though he still has a way to go before delivering a novel that can be enjoyed by laypersons: There are a number of hilariously unconvincing dramatic blunders in Crush Depth, including the clumsy introduction of Fuller’s father (“I haven’t thought about my father in months because I don’t like him… wait… who’s that man at the urinal? It’s my father!”) and a fake death that just isn’t unconvincing (no one will buy in it), but doesn’t even make sense in the internal logic of the series.

Given that even this type of stuff represents an improvement over the previous novels, you can see why I’m sceptical as to whether I’ll ever truly enjoy one of Buff’s novels. I happened to have the first three books on my shelves, but now that I’m done with them, it’ll be a challenge to convince myself to pick up the follow-up Tidal Rip. Maybe at a used book sale. Provided it’s really, really cheap.

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