Jack Conner’s multi-volume series “The Atomic Sea” crosses genre boundaries with gusto: dieselpunk mixed with science fantasy and “mutant post-apocalypse”. The author labels the story “an epic adventure in a strange world”. The story’s world is indeed very strange, but the story’s epic-ness is not that epic, at least not in book one: it is more of a traditional “save the world against the schemes of the nasty empire” setup.
The reader lands in a human-populated alien world whose oceans long ago turned foul with teratogenic (i.e. “mutation-causing”) poisons. Why? Nobody knows for sure, at least not yet, but it may be a plot point to be handled later. Anyhow, people everywhere struggle — and frequently fail — to protect themselves from the insidious effects of the sea and disfigured mutants are therefore common. Also, in the current era, the aggressive nation of Octung tries to conquer much of the world with the help of alien weird-science weapons.
On purpose, I will avoid spoilers below. After all, I have only read the first part of the full story so I don’t know what plot elements would be meaningful to divulge.
Book One starts with physician Francis Avery participating in a military whaling expedition (mutant whale cadavers provide essential rare chemicals for the military). He, the sole protagonist, is a middle-aged widower with an open and curious mind. His coastal home country Ghenisa is under attack from Octung and he believes the war is lost because of the enemy’s technological superiority.
Because Dr Avery is smart and brave, he discovers leads that suggest an enemy spy cell in the Ghenisan military. He also participates in the rescue of a living woman, seemingly both human and alien, from the bowels of a sea monster. To move ahead while staying alive, he allies himself with a harpooner shipmate and his fellow urban ruffians in an attempt to unravel the enemy conspiracy and get help from the alien woman to save Ghenisa from conquest. Things get very complicated after a while and I will therefore not say more about the plot.
I do not give The Atomic Sea a final assessment here, but I have a few observations to share at this stage. The main issue in my mind when reaching the end of the book: What Faustian deal has Octung cut with alien powers to get the otherworldly resources needed to conquer the world? The story so far does not give the Octung point of view, but only shows what consequences their aggression has on the target countries.
1. Doctor Avery is an interesting man and I came to care for him.
2. Noir city: Ghenisa is a punkish place. The urban landscapes are shabby and colorful. Class distinctions are severe and being a commoner is hard.
3. Dieseltech: The available tech is squarely in the diesel era with submarines, torpedoes, cars, etc. The naval whaling ship fits the mold, too, with a touch of Jules Verne to give extra flavor.
4. Action: Yes, the story every once in a while erupts into action scenes at sea and on land.
Not so good
1. Verbosity: I think that one quarter of the text can be removed as superfluous. There is simply not plot enough to justify the book’s thickness.
2. Too weird guns: The Octunggen weird-science weaponry goes over the edge, frequently being militarily impractical or plain silly (e.g. the raid of mutated giant killer crustaceans seems more appropriate in the RPG Gamma World than in this gritty story).
3. Far-out monsters: The fauna occasionally breaks my suspension of disbelief, e.g. the enormous flying mantas.
4. Unconvincing “gods”: The Collossum (the spiritual masters of Octung), whatever their true nature may be, make me think of evil superheroes rather than of divine beings.