Three Miles Down–First Contact meets The Hunt for Red October in latest Harry Turtledove novel

Review by C.J. Bunce

Harry Turtledove is best known for his alternate histories, a sub-genre of science fiction.  His alternate take on baseball in the Great Depression, The House of Daniel (reviewed here), mixed fantasy elements with historical reality–it’s a good read for baseball fans.  Turtledove’s latest novel Three Miles Down is even less alternate history and more historical fiction with a sliver of sci-fi, an alien First Contact story.  Its historical setting is within the day-by-day events after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men ends–from Nixon’s Watergate scandal resignation to the days past Ford’s controversial pardon.  The sliver of alternate history is the creation of a second major conflict–Cuban Missile Crisis-style–with Russia.  And it’s all centered on a lost Russian submarine in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Turtledove puts several genres and styles together all building to a climax in the book’s final sentence.  Nostalgia, Tom Clancy, Max Allan Collins, Michael Crichton, and the 1970s’ answer to The Day the Earth Stood Still await readers Three Miles Down, available now here at Amazon.

Turtledove has Max Allan Collins’ leisurely, almost sleepy, relaxing style as readers accompany his protagonist, UCLA graduate student Jerry Stieglitz, whose forte is analyzing whale songs as a marine biologist (the very subject “whale song” is genre code for first contact, right?).  As with Collins’ writing, Turtledove’s hero mirrors his own personal interests, here Jerry finds time to submit science fiction stories for magazines like Analog.  The novel’s sub-title is, “A novel of first contact in the tumultuous 1970s,” specifically 1974.  Turtledove wants to remind readers of the ups and downs of Watergate, how shocking the revelations were, and the lengths taken by insiders to cover it all up well beyond Nixon’s resignation.  Most Americans today weren’t alive during Watergate, so it’s a history trip well worth taking.  But that’s just a backdrop for what feels like an early Michael Crichton story.

Turtledove references Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, and his story mirrors Crichton’s early development of a young educated male lead who gets enticed into some noteworthy scientific exploration.  Just as Jerry is getting ready for his long-planned wedding date, the CIA arrives in his apartment to give him either a chance of a lifetime, or an offer he can’t refuse.  Jerry’s interest in whale song is exactly what they need for the RAND Corporation ship the Glomar Explorer.  It’s a giant vessel in recent press, harvesting manganese nodules off the ocean floor.  Or is it?  Is it also attempting to unearth the missing Russian submarine?  Jerry’s science is just the cover story the CIA needs to cloak its mission, and they offer Jerry more money than he hopes to earn in the next several years to play along.

But when Jerry gets to the last position of the Russian sub in the middle of the Pacific, he learns that the cover story is really a cover story on a cover story.  The novel’s sub-title is the giveaway, so there’s no spoiler here as to what the real mission is about.

The tone and notes are all Tom Clancy and The Hunt for Red October, but without all of Clancy’s dizzying descriptions.  It’s closer to Close Encounters of the Third Kind–what are all the steps you’d take when readying for First Contact?  Hasn’t someone thought about all this long before 1974, and why tap a graduate student for a mission so important?

Turtledove takes surprising directions from beginning to end.  The result has murder and duplicity, along with some heart and hope.  It’s fresh and interesting, and a nice nostalgic visit to the 1970s.  For fans of history and science fiction, don’t miss Three Miles Down, available now from Tor Books here at Amazon.



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