The Watch Below

The Watch Below - James White; 1966
The Watch Below – James White; 1966

Today I finished The Watch Below by James White (1928 – 1999).  It was first published in 1966 and the copy that I read is the February 1966 edition.  It is also the first of White’s novels that I have read. Since reading it, I have been considering whether or not this novel would be different if it were written this year. In many ways, the outcome would be very different. Definitely more negative.  But at the same time, I do not think this novel is particularly dated – an interesting fact for a mid-1960s work.

White’s genius in this novel is to juxtapose the survival efforts of two generation ships:  one human and one alien, one earthbound and one in outer space.  There are a number of pseudo-opposite items that White uses to create the comparison and contrast among the two generation ships.  For example, the aliens are sentient, scientific, and fallible.  They are also aquatic “water-breathers.”  Their planet has suffered from their sun’s effects and their race has been forced to evacuate in an elaborate effort to seek out a new “homeworld.”  Naturally, such a new world needs to have significant water resources.

The Gulf Trader is a converted tanker that in the early 1940s suffered a torpedo assault.  Probabilities and magic aside, though the ship is hit twice by torpedoes, several humans survive the attack and remain trapped within the partially submerged Gulf Trader. Of course, their first concerns involve the necessity of oxygen resources and keeping the remnants of the tanker from being flooded by water.

I was far more interested in the Gulf Trader than the fleet of survival ships with the aliens.  Mainly because having survivors in a sunken vessel seems more unique and exciting than flying around space looking for a new homeworld.  In fact, if the novel had solely been about the Gulf Trader, I would still have enjoyed it.  The contrast with the aliens is worthwhile and interesting, but maybe not as exciting as just focusing on the submerged ship.  Anyway, the survivors include a doctor, a first officer, a Lieutenant Commander, and two nurses.

One of the issues with the novel is that the nurses (women) are treated like they are idiots.  To be nurses in the merchant navy or the Royal Navy, I would assume they would have some medical knowledge and functional skills.  Instead, White writes them as if they are helpless, hapless, empty-headed dolls.  Several times, I found myself asking: “well, aren’t these women nurses? shouldn’t they be able to provide something to this stranded group?”  And, yes, of course White has them provide something – they are the mothers of the “generations.”  Basically, the plot has these two women survive so they can repopulate this sunken vessel and turn it into the “generation ship.”  Aggravatingly, they have to be coddled and reassured and treated with kid gloves.  (Has White ever even met a nurse?)

Anyway, I took a rather immediate shine to Lieutenant Commander Wallis – even before the torpedoes hit. After the explosions, he becomes the leader of the group.  However, he has big help from Dr. Radford.  In fact, it is difficult to say who is more integral to the survival of this group – Radford or Wallis.  The key point regarding the Gulf Trader is that this is a survival episode wherein the survivors are forced to suddenly adapt, innovate, and struggle on their own.  The humans are thrust into an entirely unbelievable situation and forced to deal with it.

The alien fleet which is headed toward Earth is the result of the whole civilization’s efforts to create a survival situation involving a strong and planned strategy.  And maybe this very fact is why I was more fascinated by the humans below the sea than the aliens in space.  The unexpectedness of the Gulf Trader’s scenario engenders more sympathy and excitement than the strategic efforts of the aliens.  Several times as I read, I was slightly annoyed by the interruption of having to read about the aliens.

The most important fact in the humans’ survival is not that they creatively solve the mundane issues of oxygen, waste-removal, flood-prevention, heat-sourcing, and nutrition.  Rather, it is that they find a way to, almost error-freely, transmit knowledge.  They are able to adapt to their surroundings and maintain their level of intelligence through several generations.  The first group of survivors begins to practice “The Game.”  This is first suggested by Wallis, but adjusted as needed by everyone else who ever lives in the vessel.  The Game is never completely outlined in detail (how could White do this?) but it does remind me of both Hermann Hess’ Magister Ludi/The Glass-Bead Game as-well-as Iain Banks’ The Player of Games (1988).

The Game, is it is always called, is how the humans survive the claustrophobia, monotony, and other psychological effects of their experience.  It is used for transmitting knowledge, ideas, and for entertainment.  It does seem so implausible, but there is something that is also very appealing and interesting in this concept.  Ultimately, it explains how generations after the original crew, the survivors still have someone called Wallis that is considered a doctor/Commander – and he thinks cogently on topics of bacterial infection, survival tactics, and leadership.

Another downside to the writing:  it gets a bit confusing as to the layout of the Gulf Trader.  So many compartments and “tanks” that I think the reader can get lost or stop caring too much about the specifics of the locations.  Also, while this novel focuses on the parallels of surviving generation ships, I think a little more description and environmental development could have helped out.  Yes, the reader is exposed to the many issues facing the crews.  However, I think a few moments of “descriptive prose” could have enhanced the eeriness and tension of the setting.  White’s writing tends to be factual and direct.

The ending is a lot more positive than I expected it to be.  Frankly, if this story was written today – I doubt it would be written with such a positive outcome.  Maybe 2015 is a lot more negative and apocalyptic-minded than 1966…. that’s kind of depressing, I guess.  In any case, the latest Wah-lass is a hoot and I liked him just as much as his ancestor.

4 stars

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2 thoughts on “The Watch Below

  1. I have similar sentiments — I really enjoyed The Game and all its ramifications for the society. I thought he really got at the psychology of isolation (well, as much as you can in a book as slim as this one).

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