1957’s Sea Siege begins as though Norton might be trying to emulate Willard Price’s Adventure novels. A little later, I was reminded of John Wyndham. It might be that Norton was looking at what was selling in the 1950s and shaping her books accordingly.
Like Price’s equally fictional Hunt brothers, Griffith Gunston is the son of a prominent naturalist. (Griffith’s father, Dr. Ramsay Gunston, is an ichthyologist.) Unlike the Hunt brothers, Griffith is not at all interested in his father’s research. Griffith yearns for a career as a jet pilot! That is, if impending nuclear war holds off long enough for Griffith to join the air force.
Unfortunately for Griffith and everyone else on the isolated island of San Isadore, while Griffith may have no interest in what’s under the sea, what’s under the sea has a keen interest in the humans of this part of the West Indies and perhaps humans across the world as well.
As the book opens, a mysterious Red Plague is killing off the fish in the world’s oceans. Given that fishing is a primary activity on San Isadore, that would be bad enough, but the locals are even more concerned by the way ships are vanishing or turning up bereft of crew. While some of the locals blame dupees, sea monsters, a reasonable person like Griffith disagrees. The explanation is a lot more likely to involve enemy submarines, given that the Cold War is accelerating toward Hot. Well, reasonable people can be wrong.
The appearance of an actual sea monster, albeit a dead one, comes as a surprise. It should not be; as the experts point out, the ocean is huge and there is much in it of which humans know nothing. In a world where Latimeria Chalumnae has survived into the modern era, who can say what lurks down in the depths?
Except what is down in the depths isn’t lurking down there anymore, it’s colonizing the reefs around San Isadore. Humans may be a land creature and the new, ominously intelligent octopuses may be primarily sea creatures — but just as humans can venture out onto the sea, their new rivals can forage on land. Conflict between human and octopus is inevitable. It is the sea creatures who strike first.
It’s just too bad that the opening shots of the war between land and sea coincide with the long-awaited nuclear war between East and West.
I don’t know if Norton intended the text to be read this way but …it seemed to me that, while the be-tentacled masters of the sea probably didn’t intend to cause World War Three, the attacks on port cities, the casus belli of World War Three, were not carried out by rival nations as the Great Powers assumed but rather by an enemy whose existence the Great Powers were only beginning to suspect. I cannot imagine that the octopuses were unhappy that their land-dwelling rivals had so considerately obliterated themselves.
(It’s not impossible that the nuclear war in this is the same one referenced in other Norton novels. If so, the octopuses did not do as well out of the nuclear exchange as they seem to have done here. They do not reappear in any other Norton novels. At least as far as I know; corrections
bitterly and grudgingly accepted welcomed.)
In contrast to attempts at ethnic diversity in her earlier SF novels, Norton’s treatment of the inhabitants of San Isadore is … unfortunate (despite probable good intentions on her part).
The islanders were an oddly mixed lot. Some “red-legs,” rebel-convicts of the eighteenth century political wars, Scottish clansmen after ’45, or the Monmouth rebels, had been sent here by their planter-masters to start the first of the salt beds. Then the pirates of the cays had added men from time to time, marooned freebooters or shipwrecked buccaneers. There were Negro slaves and a few Indians — and now the islanders were a mixture of races, colors, heritages — Saxon names wedded to black skins, blue eyes beneath thick fuzz, startling blond locks now and then. And among them was a very small core of families who had not altogether slipped back to the semisavage existence of the rest, a core that produced from time to time an island leader or a man able to better his condition and try for some degree of civilized living.
Norton does posit that the islanders have valuable local knowledge, at which supposedly civilized people like the Gunstons scoff. Given that the big achievement of the civilized in this novel is to render much of the northern hemisphere uninhabitable (not to mention the possibility that the octopuses are themselves an inadvertent product of human nuclear testing), “semisavage” doesn’t look so bad in comparison. Still, the portrayal of the islanders is unpleasantly reminiscent of the very early Norton novel, Ralestone Luck.
This is one of the few Nortons of this period that features women. None are particularly major characters but at least they exist. This cannot compensate for the casual racism in the rest of the book, but it should be noted.
You would think that a combination of nuclear war and invaders from the depths would make for breakneck adventure, but, sadly, while there are some effective scenes — like the one where Griffith suddenly realizes he is being observed by a vast, silent crowd of octopuses, or the one where Griffith’s old world dies in fire and fear — this isn’t a particularly interesting Norton. The problem is pacing. The brevity forced on genre novels of this period meant that Norton had too few pages to fully develop all the major themes she had broached. By the time the author has finished escalating the tension and revealing the immediate aftermath of the combined nuclear and oceanic wars, the novel is over. The work seems to demand a sequel but I don’t think it ever got one.
Sea Siege is available in omnibus form from Baen Books.