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…

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