, one wonders how he ever got a second chance (but we're glad he did).
Straight up, Involution Ocean is not a terrible novel. With brute force, it tells of the coming-to-terms-with-self of a Flare addict named John Newhouse. His local market running dry of the drug, he and a companion agree to go to the planet Mallaqua, and there join a whaling ship to hunt the great beasts whose fluids the drug is derived from. The ship a motley crue of sailors and seamen, Newhouse finds a quiet place near the kitchen to cook his wares, and there meets an alien lady, Delusa. Romance in the works, Newhouse thereafter finds his time sailing the dust sea pulled in many directions. But when the captain's real identity surfaces (no pun intended) things go crazy, and Newhouse is forced to confront his addiction.
If Involution Ocean sounds vaguely like Moby Dick, then apparently it's true; trusting wikipedia, Sterling jokingly titled the short novel “Moby Dust.” There is “sea adventure”, even if the sea is dust. There is a semi-crazed captain, even if he's alien. And there is a white whale of sorts, though to be fair is more metaphorical than physical.
But Involution Ocean will not someday be hailed with the same verbiage as Moby Dick. The novel falls short in several areas. Firstly, technique is bumpy and jerky. Sterling doesn't appear to have a clue to how to set a scene. Like a multi-color chain, he just moves from link to link, minimal if any transition between colors. I presume the book was supposed to be an adventure of sorts, but due to this lack of technique, the story doesn't really pull the reader in. Another result is that the range of highs and lows is choked. The emotions—shown or told— which drive Newhouse and his relationships and decisions are practically non-existent. Major plot points suddenly appear, and as quickly disappear—the details of scene which build and drive this tension are fleeting. There appears little knowledge, or at least inclination toward foreshadowing. The narrative floats in place, with little to engage the reader where it might be headed or to tie back to where it has been.
Despite this criticisms, Involution Ocean is not overall terrible. For readers not as sensitive to technique, it's possible Sterling's imagination is enough to keep them reading; as a concept, the novel is attractive. But conception is only the first step, and unfortunately, Sterling doesn't have the writerly chops in his debut. (To be fair, he would later discover—and make for himself—technique in later novels.) But how he got that chance based on Involution Ocean, I don't know. Think twice before investing in his debut.