“The future is in the hands of those who explore […] and from all the beauty they discover while crossing perpetually receding frontiers, they develop for nature and for humankind an infinite love.”

— Jacques Yves Cousteau

The Deep RangeA few days ago I stepped into my favorite Seattle bookstore where, for three dollars and fifty cents, I picked up a dog-eared copy of The Deep Range by Arthur C. Clarke. I was looking for some light reading for an upcoming train trip and the kitschy cover art suggested that this was exactly what I was looking for. Besides, surely somewhere in this book I could learn something about the history of oceanography.  I was motivated in part by having read Helen Rozwadowski’s recent article, “Arthur C. Clarke and the Limitations of the Ocean as Frontier.” As Rozwadowski writes in her conclusion:

“The Deep Range provides a window into the relationship between the ocean and outer space in the minds of boosters for the exploration of both places. Like other works by Clarke, this novel reflects popular conceptions of the ocean in the 1950s and 1960s as a frontier offering material resources as well as the possibility for human expansion and progress.”

The ocean frontier, like space, has been used as a setting for science fiction for as long as the genre has existed. The most famous example of science fiction set in the oceans is, of course, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). Verne, like Clarke, took his inspiration partly from the technological innovations that he witnessed during his own lifetime. The Nautilus of Verne’s novel is said to have been inspired by a visit to the 1867 Exposition Universelle where Verne examined a model of the French naval submarine Le Plongeur.

Poster for Cousteau's 1964 movie Le Monde Sans Soleil.
Poster for Cousteau’s 1964 movie Le Monde Sans Soleil.

In the 1950s, the ocean frontier was becoming more accessible than ever before. In Clarke’s lifetime, the ocean had become a new open “range” full of resources to be explored and tapped. First published in 1958, The Deep Range drew inspiration from the technological innovations of the 1950s and 60s.  For instance, the 1950s saw the beginnings of recreational scuba diving, as well as military and commercial experimentation with deep-water saturation diving – Cousteau’s Conshelf missions and the so-called man-in-the-sea programs of the U.S. Navy. My 1987 edition of The Deep Range included a retrospective foreword by Clarke:

“I had just become seriously addicted to underwater exploration, and soon after bought my first scuba set. Like a motorist in those pioneering days before any interfering bureaucrat had dreamed of drivers’ licenses, I simply ordered it from Abercrombie and Fitch, strapped it on, and plunged into the nearest convenient body of water.”

Clarke set his novel sometime in the early decades of the 21st century (the specific date is never given). He predicts a future in which the marine environment is no longer a true frontier, in which the elements, and creatures, of the oceans have been tamed. The seas have been partitioned using nuclear powered sonic barriers, whales have been domesticated for their oil, meat, and milk, tended by a specially trained task force of submarine-riding wardens, and plankton has become a a source of protein for a quarter of the world’s population. Only the very extreme depths remain unexplored. As one of the central characters in the story reflects:

“What, […] would earlier ages have thought of this? In some ways it seemed the greatest and most daring of all man’s presumptions. The sea, which had worked its will with man since the beginning of time, had been humbled at last. Not even the conquest of space had been a greater victory than this.”

At the heart of Clarke’s story is a tension between two frontiers: the ocean and space. Clarke suggests that humanity has been offered the choice of two different paths into the future : to race directly for the stars, or first to begin with the exploration of the oceans. For Clarke, the correct choice is clear. As one character in the story tells another: “you are a marine biologist and know the links we have with the sea. We have no such links with space, and so we shall never feel at home there – at least as long as we are men.”

From my vantage point, in the 21st century, close to time period in which Clarke’s novel is set, this is the part of the story that still holds the most resonance. The tension between these two frontiers for exploration did not disappear in the 1950s or 60s. Today advocates of ocean exploration still appeal to the metaphor of the frontier, and draw parallels between space and sea. Bob Ballard, in his public talks, frequently points out that better maps have been made of the surface of the moon than of the bottom of the oceans. James Cameron was recently quoted as stating: “As much as I love space exploration, we don’t have to go into space to find great exploration horizons. We can do it right here on Earth.” And former president of NOAA and veteran aquanaut, Sylvia Earle, argued in a recent interview:

“We understand why it’s important to reach for the stars, to look at ourselves in perspective of the universe, ask big questions such as where did we come from, how is it that we’re here in this blue speck in space, and where are we going? And we’ve devoted a great amount of time and resources to moving forward, but meanwhile we’ve neglected understanding how this part of the solar system – our home – our life support system – how this really functions.”

So did Clarke’s predictions of the closing of the ocean frontier pan out? Not quite. We didn’t learn to turn whales into livestock, or control the dynamic forces of the oceans. But Clarke did predict the endurance of an idea, one that over half a century later continues to resonate in discussions concerning the exploration and exploitation of the marine environment: the notion of the oceans as a frontier. The oceans still are a “deep range,” but whether the marine frontier will ever recede entirely remains to be seen.