Tag Archives: Joe Buff

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.

Thunder in the Deep, Joe Buff

Bantam, 2001, 465 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58240-2

The problem with most military thrillers isn’t with the “military” part. Often recruited from active or retired ranks, military fiction writers have the technical details down pat. Given them the slightest excuse for a fictional war and they’ll be able to describe in telling detail how men will fight. What’s usually missing is the stuff fiction thrives on: Characters. Engaging writing. Adequate pacing. Dramatic build-up. Your typical military thriller can be mesmerizing if it’s written with competence, but too many such novels are published without much attention to traditional story-telling skills.

Joe Buff’s Deep Sound Channel was a submarine thriller that floated in the deep inversion layer between a good thriller and an unreadable thicket of military details. Saddled with a trite plot, unconvincing characters, overwhelming jargon and spots of awful prose, Buff’s debut model nevertheless found an audience thanks to its reasonably engaging depiction of near-future underwater warfare. Bad fiction buoyed by good ideas, in the grand tradition of military techno-thrillers everywhere.

Things haven’t changed much in the sequel Thunder in the Deep, but at least they’ve evolved in the right direction. Once more, we find ourselves aboard the USS Challenger, a new “ceramic-hulled” attack submarine stuck in the midst of a future war opposing the English-speaking bloc versus Germany and South Africa. The reasons behind the war are better explained here than in the first book, but they don’t make it any less ludicrous. But, as ever, let’s grant the author one big assumption and hop along for the ride.

This time around, protagonist Jeffrey Fuller (ex-SEAL, current submarine captain and all-around good guy) is charged with a desperate mission in two parts: First, rescue the crew of a damaged American submarine. Then (surprise), continue on to the shores of Germany to launch a surprise attack against a research facility building unstoppable cruise missiles. Aboard for the ride is Ilse Reebeck, the renegade South-American oceanographer who doubles as the series’ tangential love interest.

Plot-wise, Thunder of the Deep is almost identical to Deep Sound Channel: A mission, a submarine fight getting there, a land-based raid and another submarine battle coming back to base. The end. But don’t despair yet: Buff hasn’t messed with his formula, but he has learned a few other tricks. Simply put, Thunder of the Deep shows some improvement in the basic art of storytelling: Characters are slightly more complete, the jargon is turned down, the suspense is better-defined, the battles don’t seem as interminable as in the first book and novel’s overall impact is generally stronger. Small wonder, then, that when French editor Fleuve Noir decided to translate Buff’s fiction, they began with this volume rather than the first one.

It also helps that Buff’s strengths are carried undiminished in this volume. Once again, Buff (a civilian expert in military submarines; check his web site) portrays underwater warfare as a complex set of interaction between physics, geology, weaponry and plain old human psychology. The impressive climax of the book takes place around an underwater volcano, with both submarine captains making the most out of a desperate stalemate.

This being said, there are still significant problems with Thunder in the Deep, enough to keep this novel strictly for readers with an established interest in submarine warfare. As savvy as Buff may be in military matters, his political sense simply doesn’t measure up. The psychology of the book’s antagonists is still ridiculously simplistic: All native Germans, we’re shown, seem to be partisans of the war despite the tactical nukes flying left and right, cheering whenever their reichkommandant shows them war news footage. Ahem: Countries are not monoliths and enemies are not stupid.

But generally speaking, Thunder in the Deep is an adequate military thriller, one that should slightly expand Buff’s readership. Best of all is the sense of improvement in the series, one which bodes well for Crush Depth, the follow-up Jeffery Fuller adventure. I’m not a big fan of military series in general, but since I’ve got a copy of the next book on my shelves, well…

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.