Living in the Depths: A Review of The Watch Below

The Watch Below (1972) by James White

Reviewed by Kevin May

The Watch Below is a tale of isolation and survival across multiple generations.  Two very different groups find themselves in remarkably similar circumstances across time and space.  One, a group of humans, is caught up in a shipwreck in the early years of WWII and is forced to find a way to survive under the surface of the sea.  Through ingenuity and a lot of luck they manage to survive and even raise children in their dark underwater home.

The other group is a race of aquatic aliens whose home star became too hot for them.  They fled their system in a cobbled together fleet, which was designed to carry the population of the alien world in suspended animation across the void of space.  Unfortunately an unforeseen malfunction occurred and some of the aliens had to stay awake passing their specialized skills down the generations.

**Minor Spoiler Alert**

Without giving away too many spoilers both groups must find a way to surmount impossible odds to ensure that their progeny will live on.  After the first few chapters the years and generations begin to slip by and we are witnesses to the development of entirely new societies under desperate conditions.  Overall, these stories of survival told back and forth across time and space are wonderfully written and work off each other very well.

By the end of the book both isolated groups of survivors became paramount to the future of our planet.  That is one of the central tenets that I find important in this work.  A small group of people (or even a single person) who for some reason are able to see (to know) the universe differently can have a huge impact on the planet and all of humanity.  As Galadriel says in the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”  In this work it is the small seemingly insignificant people forgotten by history who have a powerful role in the future of the world.

James White does an excellent job of showing societies evolving under pressure and across huge spans of time.  Each isolated group begins with just a few individuals but they both expand their numbers and then correspondingly struggle over the limited resources.  In many ways this reminds me of an old Twilight Zone episode that showed an entire society developing under a microscope in a laboratory.  It is a fascinating study of how simple societies adapt and change over time.  It also explores what ideals they hold sacred and what they abandon as they shape their new culture.

One convention that the human survivors develop to keep boredom and eventual insanity at bay is what they call “the Game.”  “The Game” is basically a memorization and recall activity that encourages new memorization of shared and created stories, but also full and complete recall of stories and facts from their pasts.  By developing “the Game” and spending most of their free time working on it the first generation of human survivors are able to pass down nearly all of their culture, memories, and skills to the next generation.

I found this a fascinating development and certainly within the story it is essential so that the descendants of the first survivors know who they are and why they are there.  I also think that this skill is fully possible for most people if we developed our memories earlier in life instead of watching television and using wikipedia as our external long term memory.  To me this highlights a striking deficiency in our current society.  The human mind is full of potential and can leap forward if it were not distracted all the time.  White shows that humanity is very adaptable and wants to survive above all else.  Part of that survival is not just food, water, and shelter, but also companionship and mental engagement, which the group incorporates through “the Game.”

While it is debatable whether in near perfect isolation and darkness the human mind would be in its peak form stress can do funny things and all literature requires a certain amount of disbelief.  This goes along with the crew initially surviving the wreck and living off of bean plants and canned goods for generations.  Despite how impossible it sounds I believe that White makes it work.  After the first few chapters it is easy to suspend your disbelief.  Part of the reason that it works is because White is very good at showing us the wreckage and the depths of the oceans as well as the void of outer space and the shipways of the alien fleet.

The only other flaw in the work that I found was that the character development did not hold up across the generations bouncing back and forth between Earth’s oceans and the interstellar void not to mention across numerous generations.  Many of the characters, especially the female ones just seemed to be total background characters even when they were a substantial part of the surviving crew. I realize that the individual characters were not as much of a focus for the author as he was primarily focused on the long term societies, but for me well developed individual characters are important in every book.  In this book characters came and went a little bit too quickly for my taste.

All that being said I did enjoy the descriptions of raw survival in the plot and there were several discussions focused on beliefs, morals, and religion.  Overall, The Watch Below is a very enjoyable read that juxtaposes alien and man in very different roles.  Neither has the clear upper hand in the end, and both are important for the survival of the other.  It’s quite refreshing from the predictable war of the worlds scenario.

For those of you who like numbers here’s how I see it:

Story/Plot – 4/5

A refreshing twist on an alien invasion story told in a unique way.  The end was a little predictable and some of the transitions were a bit unsettling, but overall a well structured and well planned story.

Character – 2/5

The characters were not overly developed or unique.  In each generation there were certain roles that were filled by seemingly the same type of person/character.  While this is the weakest part of the book it is not overly distracting because of the focus of the overall story.

Writing Style – 3/5

An excellent and inventive style.  Enjoyable to read for its great descriptions and the alien environments that both groups must find a way to survive in.

Theme/Ideas – 4/5

This was one of the strongest points of the book.  As with most sci-fi the circumstances of the world allow the author to explore our beliefs and our identities.  I also enjoyed the symmetry of the book and thought that only bolstered the theme.

Overall – 3.25/5

A good and fast read.  Especially enjoyable if you like to see small groups of people (and aliens) under immense pressure to adapt over many generations.  It’s a unique kind of people watching to see how social and cultural norms may change under certain circumstances.


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