Book Review: The Watch Below, James White (1966)

(Uncredited cover for 1966 Ballantine edition)

4/5 (Good)

James White, famous for his Sector General series, spins a disturbing tale of two isolated and decaying societies — one alien, one human.  Without doubt the work demands a certain suspension of disbelief.  The isolated human society half of the premise comes off as highly artificial/improbably/impossible (and, well, bluntly put, hokey).  I found the alien half of the story line a more “realistic” situation but less emotionally involving as the human half.  White has difficultly meshing the trans-generational nature of both story lines — and the inevitable intersection at the end is predictable, anti-climactic, and dents the great appeal of the central portion of the work.

Lest this dissuade you, White’s dark vision is a transfixing take on the generation ship (literally) — how would a society descended from five individuals evolve for a hundred years trapped in the hull of a vessel deep underwater with only a memory game, the groans of the hull, a flicking garden light, piles of dried food, a generator, and intense cold to keep them occupied?  “The Game had become so much a part of their lives that it would have been harder to stop playing it than it would have been to stop breathing” (116).

Brief Plot Summary (some spoilers)

In the year 1942 German submarine sinks an anti-submarine cargo ship.  Thankfully the vessel contains huge stores of food and supplies and a special re-enforced hull.  The three men and two women (one wounded) trapped below expect to be rescued at any moment but soon realize that it’s not probable.  This is by far the least interesting section of the novel replete with lengthy descriptions about how they figure out how keep from each others throats, couple-off discretely, and survive (they keep the air clean with a garden, set up a generator, huddle under sacks to keep warm, try to calm the hysterical women, have children, etc.).  And set up The Game…  To remain sane each person recalls the smallest details of books (C. S. Forester’s Hornblower Series, the Bible, pulp sci-fi, etc), childhood events (birthdays, etc), everything…  It evolves into more than a simple obsession for it is the laborious construction of the only source of knowledge accessable for the future generations.

After the descendants of the first generation enter the fray, White enters disturbing (and fascinating) territory.  Not only have the descendants never been outside but their entire world view is premised on the information passed down by the Game — i.e. what tidbits their parents happened to remember.  Eventually some question the veracity of the information in the Game at all.  And of course, at least one member of each generation dreams of escape — and tries.  All the while the windows cloud over with algae, diseases ravish their malnourished bodies, the hull rusts, the lights run out (and the generator slowly stops working), and the cold grows more and more oppressive…

The parallel story line chronicles the generations of an ocean dwelling alien species (who generally act like humans).  The oceans on the aliens’ world were evaporating due to the growing temperature of their sun — desperate measures are taken.  The aliens pour all their resources into the construction of gigantic generation ships.  The passengers of the ships are cryogenically frozen and expect to be woken up in cycles to operate the vessels…  However, they soon discover that repeated thawing has a detrimental effect on the mind.  A new plan is hatched. A small group of aliens on the flagship will remain unfrozen and create a society to maintain the ship on its journey to a new ocean world.

The new ocean world is Earth!

Final Thoughts 

White purposefully inflicts the same forces on both the isolated alien and human societies – genetic degradation (diseases, compromised intelligence, etc) and societal changes due to the ship becoming “the world.”  However, I never felt like the aliens were sufficiently alien — which I surmise is White’s point.  All sentient life will respond similarly when presented with desperate situations.

Despite the inherently ridiculous situation of humans living for a hundred years underwater in a “special” cargo ship, I found their story line (especially The Game) fascinating and emotionally involving — there’s a scene where the descendants listen to the helmet of a boy trying to escape scrapping along the bottom of the vessel which gave me the chills.  When the story lines intersect White is too hasty tying up all the strings — 189 pages for a trans-generational and trans-species narrative is not enough!

Recommended.

(Uncredited cover for the 1967 edition)

(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1972 edition)

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15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Watch Below, James White (1966)”

  1. This sounds fascinating – thanks for the recommendation. It’s interesting that you feel there’s a lot more scope here which hasn’t been explored… my writing cap is on and my brain is whirring with ideas!

    1. The concept of the generation ship has always been one of my favorite sci-fi themes — while this story might not have been in-depth enough for my liking it touches on many key tropes that crop up in other works… I highly recommend two short stories/novellas.

      John Brunner’s Lungfish (1957) in the collection Entry to Everywhen — the generation ship takes on characteristics of the womb, the later generations do not want to leave.

      Ursula Le Guin’s Paradises Lost (2002) in the collection The Birthday of the World and Other Stories — expands on this idea with a eye to the social ramifications and familial structures…

      There are tons of novels about generation ships — if you’re curious I can give you a list.

  2. Glad to see you finally picked up a James White book (not that I’ve been on your case or anything). That new White acquisition isn’t even on my radar; never heard of it. Glad we see eye to eye on the Watch Below- suspend belief and absorb the setting. On The Game– I agree it’s pretty dark, but in an environment which lacks in light, another form of sensation must be brought to. Funny how I didn’t mention that in my review.

    1. Haha, I liked the cover — it wasn’t part of the Sector General series so I picked it up. And, well, first books are always fun to read — you get to see where they start and how they evolve.

      The Game is the reason I liked this book! I thought the alien section was dull — but I found the social/intellectual ramifications of the Game absolutely fascinating.

  3. Nice job Mr.Boaz, i saw this site today for the first time and i liked it too much. Sure i will follow it. Greetins from Sicily !

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