Diving into the Wreck is a short but excellent science fiction novel by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who has also written extensively in fantasy, mystery and romance, and is the former editor of the prestigious Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
The main character of Diving into the Wreck, who goes by the name “Boss,” is a specialist in the exploration of derelict space ships. Accompanied by a team of specialists, she goes into these abandoned vessels, in a process that is very similar to deep sea diving with all its careful preparation and inherent dangers. When Boss discovers a 5000 year old Earth ship that couldn’t possibly be in the sector where she found it, a string of events is set in motion that leads back to some of her earliest memories, and will possibly have huge implications.
Boss is an extremely interesting character. She’s a control freak (as evidenced by her nickname) and more than a little obsessed with privacy (see her ship’s name, “Nobody’s Business”). She’s extremely good at what she does, and you quickly get the idea that being capable is more important to her than being liked. The traumatic childhood event that’s described in the prologue still affects her every day. At first it seems disconnected from the book, but it comes back as the driving force of the entire novel.
Diving into the Wreck is told from a tight first person perspective, so everything — including Boss herself — is seen through Boss’s eyes. As a result, some shocking events are at first described in her very cold-sounding, matter-of-fact tone — and only later we find out how strongly she was affected by them.
The novel is affected in other ways by this choice of narrator and perspective. Aside from the bare-bones prose style, we also only get the most basic information about the political set-up of the novel’s universe, which involves a dominant Terran empire and a smaller breakaway group of independent planets, with the story firmly set on the side of that alliance of independent planets. After all, exposition is not on Boss’s mind: this is her story, and Diving into the Wreck is more about Boss and her psychological growth than about the SF universe it inhabits.
Much like Adrienne Rich’s poem of the same name, Diving into the Wreck uses diving as a metaphor for self-exploration and self-discovery. This may be a very personal interpretation, but the first person, present tense narrator frequently gave me the impression that the main character was narrating the events of the book under some form of therapeutic hypnosis, eyes closed, voice monotone, completely immersed in the experience.
However, this isn’t just a psychological novel without SF underpinnings. Kristine Kathryn Rusch throws in enough world-building details to give the reader a basic idea of the political and historical background of her SF universe. There are a few intriguing chapters set on a military research planet that would probably merit an entire novel. I couldn’t help thinking that someone like Peter F. Hamilton would have squeezed several thousand pages out of this universe. Not that this necessarily would result in a better work, but to be honest, I wanted more!
One issue I had with the novel: the side characters who accompany Boss on her dives are, for the most part, not very well defined. A few of them gain depth as the story progresses, but most are interchangeable figurines — which, possibly, they were in Boss’s eyes, too.
At just under 250 pages, divided into short chapters, Diving into the Wreck is a fast and entertaining read that starts off as a deceptively straightforward story about shipwreck retrieval but quickly reveals additional psychological, political and ethical layers. This is one of those rare SF novels I’d recommend to people who usually don’t read the genre: it’s easily recognizable as science fiction, but it does much more with standard elements of the genre than you’d initially expect. Recommended.