The Ghost from the Grand Banks by Arthur C Clarke
Originally Published 1990. Reissued by Gollancz, November 2011.
ISBN: 978 0 575 10177 7
Review by Mark Yon
At this time of year, towards Christmas at Hobbit Towers, I find myself wanting to read some Arthur C Clarke. It’s a boyhood thing: Sir Arthur’s books were one of my first loves of SF, and I would eagerly read and reread his tales as the nights drew in.
These days the nostalgia is further tempered with the sad fact that I am unlikely to read new material – unless there’s something hidden away in the Clarkives. There’s been nothing since his death in 2008, and no solo material since 1996 to my knowledge. His last novel, The Last Theorem, was co-written with that other legendary veteran, Frederik Pohl.
I still do like to read ‘the good stuff’, though. The Ghost from the Grand Banks was one of his later and perhaps lesser works, though I’m pleasingly surprised that the echo of Sir Arthur resonates throughout its pages.
Those who know a little about Sir Arthur may know that one of his passions in his later half-century was for scuba diving, though sadly limited by his ill health. His move to Sri Lanka in 1956 was evidently partly due to this. This interest in the undersea world was first made prominent in his novel The Deep Range (1957), though it was based on a short story first published in 1954.
In the Sources and Acknowledgements of the book, Sir Arthur explains his love of the sea and the ‘haunting’ (his word) of his life by the sinking of the Titanic. The actual title, ‘Ghost from the Grand Banks’ was mentioned very briefly in an earlier Clarke book, Imperial Earth, which mentions a recovered Titanic placed on display in New York.
It is therefore no surprise with such a personal passion that he returns with Ghost to the mysterious world of the Earth’s oceans.
In Ghost it is 2010. The first part of the book, which takes up about half of the novel (‘Prelude’) sets up this world of the future and introduces us to our main characters. Jason Bradley is a world-famous (and very rich) oceanic engineer who as part of the International Seabed Authority is overseeing the attempts by two salvage companies to raise the two separate sections of the submerged wreck of the Titanic from the Grand Banks it sank on for the centennial of the sinking of the ship in 2012.
The first salvage group is to raise the stern of the ship, the last part to sink, and will be paid for and filmed for Nippon-Turner, a company who has also paid for a revised version of the film An Affair to Remember to be created by Edith and Donald Craig, whose tale we are also told here. At the same time we hear of a rival salvage company, led by millionaire entrepreneur Roy Emerson and the UK company Parkinson Glass, who wish to raise the larger forward portion of the wreck to retrieve now-priceless Venetian glass artefacts believed to be preserved in the ocean depths.
The second part of the book, (‘Preparations’) tells of the laborious arrangements that have to be made before any salvage can occur. The discovery of a mysterious yet well preserved corpse in one of the sealed cabins is an intriguing development, and perhaps reflects Sir Arthur’s interest in rational explanation for the unusual at the time. Though in the end the reason for this ‘ghost’ is fairly mundane, it does provide a hook to create interest.
In the third part (‘Operations’), we have the events up to the attempt to resurrect the Titanic.
The fourth part (‘Finale’) deals with the attempts to raise the wreckage. It is a dangerous task and the explorers have to face many hazards, malfunctioning equipment and seaquakes included.
If the appearance of a ghost didn’t already suggest it, Ghost from the Grand Banks is perhaps nominally science fiction, and certainly less science-fictional than many reader would expect from the author of 2001 A Space Odyssey. Though mainly set in the near-future (at least from a 1990 perspective) the trappings of technology and science are not too fantastical and there are some hot science ideas of the time involved, although the Epilogue, set in the far future, is more typical Clarke grandeur.
As ever, in the later Clarke books, the chapters are short, rarely more than a couple of pages, but each one throwing out clever ideas – the ever-clean car windscreen, the Y2K computer bug, the idea of the Mandelbrot set, all fairly new ideas at the time of the book’s original publication but without too much relevance to the plot.
It is quite strange reading it now, concerning matters that were originally set in the near-future but now are in the past.
The characterisation is what you expect from Sir Arthur. It is brief, and some would say functional. A Clarke novel usually works for its ideas, if not for its characterisation. At its basic it’s a tale of clever, highly-motivated people with means, which makes them a little interchangeable.
When we do get background details of the character’s lives, they can be quite odd. It was a surprise to find a Clarke novel involving a high-class brothel in London, bondage and lesbianism! However, the focus is primarily on the attempts by the two competing salvage teams to raise the wreckage, one who aim to raise part of the Titanic by using glass bubbles, the other by freezing the debris in ice to raise it to the surface.
It is a book whose plot is pared to the bone, with characters to match. Superfluous detail has been removed, though there is throughout Sir Arthur’s characteristically dry humour. Those used to hefty trilogies creating a complex, detailed environment will find this a shock and perhaps be disappointed that there is clearly more to tell that is untold here.
However, in truth, this is not Sir Arthur’s best book. There is a little bit of a feeling that, despite the enthusiasm of Sir Arthur to write an ocean-based tale around the Titanic, in the end it seems somewhat half-hearted. The book was written at a time when Sir Arthur had, to most intents and purposes, pretty much retired from writing fiction, and it comes across as one of those great ideas that, in the end, may not have been worth the effort. As already mentioned, the plot is pretty basic. It lacks the broad scale of the Odyssey books, the inventiveness of Rendezvous with Rama or even the fresh enthusiasm of his early books. The ending is a little ambiguous, though its respect to exploration is clear.
At times it seems to be little more than a jumbling of Clarke’s interests at the time of writing, with a little less cohesion than we normally expect. Some parts of the plot are rather conveniently shoehorned together. Initially Edith and Donald Craig and their gifted daughter Ada seem to be there for little else but to allow a discussion of the Mandelbrot set, although in the end there’s a link to the ghost that seems a little convenient. An edited transcript of a speech given by Sir Arthur about the Mandelbrot Set in 1989 is also given as an eleven-page Appendix to the book, reflecting perhaps that the author’s interest is there rather than with the telling of the Titanic tale.
This does not sound great, and there are many who will no doubt feel a little shortchanged by this rather predictable tale. But what we do get, surprisingly strong to me on this reread, is an adventure tale suffused with that Clarkean signature tone, a combination of astute knowledge and wry observation. It is unique, and I was surprised to realise how much I miss it. It was this that made the book an engrossing read. For me, spending time with a Clarke novel is like spending time with an old friend, even when that friend can ramble a little!
In the end it is perhaps charitable to say that it is a readable tale which respects and highlights the importance of stoic heroism, the danger and the thrills involved in deep sea salvage, as well as serving to remind readers, should they need reminding, of the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic. As we approach the centenary in real life, this makes an apt means of remembrance, as indeed it does reminding us of the legacy of Sir Arthur C. Clarke.
Mark Yon, November 2011.