Involution Ocean: Bruce Sterling’s first novel, now on audio

Involution Ocean by Bruce Sterling science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsInvolution Ocean by Bruce Sterling science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsInvolution Ocean by Bruce Sterling

John Newhouse is a middle-aged man addicted to a drug called Flare which is synthesized from the oil of a whale that lives in a large sea of dust on a hostile planet. John lives with several other drug addicts. When Flare is declared illegal and their stash runs dry, John and one of his roommates decide to join a whaling ship’s crew so they can get access to the oil they’ll need to manufacture the drug for themselves. John is hired as the ship’s cook while his friend comes aboard as a deckhand.

The crew of the ship is odd. John is attracted to the woman who has wings like a bat and can fly, but she’s allergic to human touch. The captain of the ship, who is obsessed with the strange creatures that live in the dust sea, might be crazy. John wonders why he’s hiding a propeller and other odd things in a secret storehouse.

When John and his friend manage to get hold of some whale oil and start secretly cooking up Flare in the kitchen, their personality and behavior changes. This causes conflict between themselves, and with others on the crew. Eventually it leads to the discovery of what the crazy captain is up to.

Involution Ocean by Bruce Sterling science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsInvolution Ocean (1977), Bruce Sterling‘s first novel, is a grim, bizarre, and sad story that’s been called a science fiction version of Moby Dick. It’s a cautionary tale — about how addiction and obsession can lead to destruction. It’s also a story about forbidden love.

What I liked best about Involution Ocean was the world-building and the ecological aspect. The huge dust crater is stunning and Sterling populates it with fascinating creatures. Unfortunately, it’s hard to like John Newhouse and, with perhaps the exception of the bat woman, there are no other characters whose survival I cared about.

Brilliance Audio has produced a new edition of Involution Ocean and it’s terrific. The narrator, Stephen Graybill, was new to me and I was delighted with his performance.

Published in 1977. Audio version published in January 2021. A far-future Moby-Dick by the author of Schismatrix: A desperate addict on a bleak, arid planet boards a whaling vessel to hunt the drug he craves. The powerful narcotic syncophine, commonly known as Flare, comes from only one source: the oil of the gargantuan whale-like beasts that swim the dust sea of Nullaqua. It was John Newhouse’s addiction to the substance that made him a dealer and forced him to move to this airless, inhospitable planet. But when the all-powerful galactic Confederacy declares Flare illegal, the needs of Newhouse and his clientele leave the desperate off-worlder no choice but to sign on as an able seaman aboard a dustwhaler and hunt the giant creatures himself. Joining a crew of junkies and misfits, including a mad captain with his own dark and secret agenda and a bewitching, batlike alien woman who is pained by human touch, Newhouse sets out across the silica ocean at the bottom of a seventy-mile-deep crater in search of release and redemption . . . and sails toward a fateful confrontation between man and beast that could lead to catastrophe. Bruce Sterling’s debut novel is a remarkable feat of world building—imaginative, provocative, and smart, featuring an unforgettable cast of colorful characters. If Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick unfolded on Frank Herbert’s Dune, the result might be something akin to Sterling’s extraordinary Involution Ocean.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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