Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Review of Involution Ocean by Bruce Sterling

Every novelist has a debut, and some only a debut. With Bruce Sterling's 1977 Involution Ocean, 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.


  1. I don't know why we stopped talking/commenting on each other's sites, but, time to burry the hatchet (whatever hatchet it was -- hah).

    I, too, enjoyed elements of Involution Ocean but felt that it had the problems of a first novel.

    I wrote this in my review: "Harlan Ellison’s hyperbolic and self-aggrandizing introduction aside, Sterling fails to evoke the feel of a voyage of exploration."

    "Ultimately Involution Ocean doesn’t feel confident enough (Sterling was 21 when he wrote it!) to unveil in any concrete manner the mysteries of the planet but rather dumps the “reveal” via an extended descent into the metaphysical. This does not mesh with what was a love story married to a voyage of scientific exploration. This rather tepid critique aside (some authors could pull it off), Sterling’s imagery shifts between articulate visions of decay (a stranded ship slowly overrun with bird guano) to painfully saccharine symbols of Newhouse’s emotional unrest: “after some thought I settled on a large broken heart as my own motif” (35)."

    Might have been the last review of mine you commented on! 2016.

    1. For sure there was no hatchett. :) If I had to point a finger, it would be: The only constant thing in life is change. :)

      Yes, agree with all of that. Despite the flood of crap on the market today, I don't think this novel would cut it in 2021. It likely would have been Sterling's first and last. Which makes me wonder about the state of 1977. You read more than I in that era.
      Thoughts? Was this novel average for its time?

    2. I think it's an okay first novel. I've read far worse -- that's for sure. I think it has a similar baroque (dare I say a bit overdone) feel of other late 70s novels by M. John Harrison, John Shirley, etc.