Hostile, unexplored environments. Creatures that have never been seen by human eyes. Extreme cold and pressure that no human can withstand. Sound like a good place to set a story? Yes. Is it in space? Actually, no.
Deep space is an intriguing setting for a multitude of science fiction and near-future thrillers. The lack of air, extreme temperatures on both sides of the scale, loss of gravity, and the ever-present danger of something destroying the atmosphere in which the protagonists live provide a constant threat. In other words, the setting can become a character all its own.
But stories don’t have to take place in deep space to create the ultimate hostile environment. Instead, we have our own here on earth: the ocean.
Deep, Cold, and Deadly
The deep ocean shares many of the same characteristics of space. For instance, lack of oxygen for humans to consume, temperatures that kill all but the hardiest of species, and pressure that is absolutely deadly. Movies like The Abyss and Leviathan offer viewers a future where humankind is slowly taming the deep ocean and mining it for resources. In both films, the ocean is an antagonist of sorts and not just a setting. And also in both, the hostile environment serves its purpose of heightening tension and suspense.
I chose to set my novel, The Black, on a deep-sea exploration rig a thousand miles away from civilization. The protagonists are essentially trapped on a metal platform sitting in more than five miles of water while they do their jobs of exploring a deep-ocean trench for oil. But in The Black, the oil they bring up is something far more pernicious than a source of pollution.
In order to make the tale believable, I had to research underwater technology, the fauna and flora that inhabit the deepest ocean depths, rig construction, rig life, deep ocean drilling, and petrochemical analysis. All that for a book that weighs in at about 255 pages. In other words, it was a ton of research. The trick, of course, is using the research to help the story rather than weave the story around the research.
Ocean as Antagonist
The antagonists of the story are the ocean itself, the dangerous vocation of oil drilling, and a creature that is best not described in this essay. In order to make the story believable, I had to solve a few problems. For one, how would human beings have any idea what was going on 5 miles below the ocean surface? Despite what you might have seen in the aforementioned movies, there are no suits that can protect from the freezing temperatures and the extreme pressure. So how would the characters know what’s happening on the ocean floor? How can I give the readers access to those sights if the characters themselves can’t see them?
While The Black might be categorized as a schlocky monster book, I wanted the ocean to be a palpable obstacle for my characters. In order to overcome the challenges of the deep, I researched the hell out of how they’re conquered in the real world. And when I didn’t find a satisfactory solution in existence, I extrapolated. But I digress.
Exploration by Remote Control
Deep-ocean oil exploration requires a rig to send down various pieces of equipment and get them lined up. How is this done today? Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). An ROV is tethered to a platform’s underbelly using a very thin cable. Through the connection, an ROV driver sits in the rig’s control center and commands the vehicle to do their bidding. This isn’t simply sitting in front of a video console. ROV drivers have to deal with lag between their commands and when they actually reach the robot. There is some serious skill involved in not just driving the robot, but keeping it from getting entangled in the drill string or ocean flora.
But ROVs have a limit. After a few miles, the signals take so long to get to the robot that the driver has to anticipate too far in advance. To further complicate the problem, the cable itself is easily snapped by conditions the driver can’t possibly foresee. This is compounded by the extreme lack of light.
Lower midnight is a part of the ocean where sunlight cannot penetrate. It truly is the definition of darkness, probably darker than deep space. The only possible light is produced by bioluminescent flora and fauna. Regular lights on an ROV cannot cut through this kind of darkness. Therefore, new technologies have been invented to get around the problem.
Since ROVs can’t operate in lower midnight, scientists created what is called an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). AUVs are essentially programmed robots. Some have rudimentary artificial intelligence and carry enough gear to take readings, pictures, and video. These actually exist today. However, for deep ocean exploration, they are still in a prototype stage. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution had been testing their design for a little over a year. The craft, named Nereus, was capable of reaching a depth of 11,000 meters, taking sonar surveys, and then surfacing at a pre-arranged location for recovery. The first real dive for the AUV caused a lot of excitement in the ocean exploration industry. Finally, they had a tool that could explore the depths at a relatively trivial cost.
Nereus did its job. It used sensors to map the bottom of the Challenger Deep and succeeded in returning to its makers. On its next mission, however, disaster struck. When they attempted a dive to the bottom of the Kermadec Trench, the AUV not only missed its rendezvous, but came up in a thousand pieces. So what happened? We’ll never know. Maybe a stray air bubble got into the shell. Maybe the previous dive had weakened the metal. Or maybe, just maybe, something down there thought it was food. Regardless, the AUV died hard.
While reading the articles on this new piece of technology, I realized it was perfect for my story. AUVs would allow my protagonists to “see,” albeit second-hand, what was going on at the bottom of the trench. The AUVs would bring them telemetry, condition readings, and even be able to give some idea of what was directly below the ocean floor. But since the AUV technology is still evolving, I was forced to extrapolate as to how they would function and the kinds of duties they could perform.
However, I realized that wasn’t enough either. I needed the reader to see what the AUVs recorded first-hand. The characters, on the other hand, had to wait hours for the robots to surface to view footage and readings. I didn’t realize this at first, but by using the AUVs in this fashion, they became characters in their own right. They couldn’t talk, they couldn’t “think,” but their programming was able to react to the changing conditions around them. And instead of having to give some massive info dump by one of the characters about what the readings meant, I was able to describe what the AUVs saw, how they recorded it, and then have the characters react to the readings when the robots were recovered. In some cases, the AUVs actually recorded information the characters never even analyzed. This helped add tension and suspense.
A Cast of Nightmares
While the robots were fun to write, the more I researched lower midnight, the more I fell in love with the despicably ugly and alien lifeforms that live there. Lantern fish, giant tube worms, giant squids-most of these creatures belong in our nightmares. They are constructed so differently from anything we’ve seen from our relatively shallow trips in the water that they barely look like fish at all. Two of my favorite portions of the book actually take place from a lantern fish’s point of view. Why? Well, why the hell not? By having the narrator tag along with this strange creature, I managed to avoid another massive info dump, or at least hide it inside the narration. I also felt it made lower midnight more accessible to the reader.
Based on reader comments, I’d have to say the risks paid off. I violated many of the “rules” they teach in creative writing classes, but the readers don’t care about the rules so long as they understand what’s going on and are entertained. I somehow managed to make both work. And to be honest, it’s a little depressing to think I may never visit lower midnight again as a writer.
The fish, tube worm beds, AUVs, ROVs…these are just some of the props I used to make The Black work as a near-future techno-thriller. But there’s more to it than that. What about describing the rig itself and the poor protagonists stuck on it?
Life on a Rig
Off-shore rig life is complex. If the rig is “relatively” close to land, then most of the personnel work a two-week on/two-week off shift. The further rig workers have to travel to the rig, the longer both stints get. And while they’re on the rig, they’re usually working 12 hour shifts. If not more. Imagine being trapped on a floating city where escape is only possible when a helicopter or a ship (called a tender) comes to pick you up. In addition, imagine that if something goes wrong, the best you can hope for is to get in a lifeboat and that someone will find you. I find the whole proposition rather terrifying. But people do it. And they’re paid very well to do so.
Drilling is dangerous. Spend enough time in Port Arthur, Texas, or other cities that serve as a roughneck oasis, there’s folks with missing fingers. Some are missing toes. Others have nasty scars on their arms, chests, or faces. This is not an easy business to be in.
I did my best in The Black to convey the pitfalls of drilling life by discussing all the things that could go wrong. Not only do workers have to be watchful of possibly fatal breakdowns in the machinery, they also have to worry about rogue waves, storms, undersea volcanic disturbances, and earthquakes. That’s a huge list of concerns that have absolutely nothing to do with the job. Yet they are omnipresent and inescapable possibilities.
I spent a lot of time researching new rig construction and the latest designs, the kinds of amenities they have on board, whether or not they have internet access, and other minutiae. Immersing the readers into daily rig life was very important to me. Not only did I want the reader to get a realistic sense of who the characters were and why they acted the way they did, my goal was also to educate them about where the fuel for their furnaces, cars, and lawnmowers comes from and how it’s made. However, trying to disseminate that information without turning it into the dreaded info-dump was tricky. Maybe I succeeded, maybe I didn’t. But I wanted to try.
Bringing Oil to Life
In addition to researching everything about ocean drilling, I also wanted the “creature” to, at first glance, act and test like oil. Whenever oil is brought up out of the ground by exploration rigs, it is tested to determine its viability for refining. If the oil found isn’t extremely viable, the rigs move on to a different potential well site. Therefore, I wanted both the scientists on the rig as well as their parent company to brim with excitement over the find.
That meant researching the art of petrochemical analysis. Lucky for me, my father is a chemical engineer with over 50 years of experience. He helped me create a scenario where the oil tested as the most pure ever discovered, as well as some readings that simply couldn’t be believed. This kept the main characters caught in a web of discord and excitement over the oil’s properties. Without making it clear that the oil was something dangerous or giving away the surprise, the scientists needed to discover that the oil, while pure, was unique in unsettling ways. The age-old trick in writing thrillers and suspense novels is providing the readers information the characters do not have. With the petrochemical analysis readings, I was able to give the characters the information they needed in order to be more than a little suspicious of their prize.
The Proximity of “Now”
The Black was my first foray into the realm of the techno-thriller. To be honest, it was a terrifying endeavor. Writing about near-future technology for a very real and substantive industry that all but rules our world was fraught with peril. The amount of research necessary to pull it off was more than I can possibly convey. Did I occasionally cheat when reality got in the way of the story? Damned right I did. Did anyone notice? I don’t think so. But I did my best to make the story, its setting, and the science as accurate as possible.
Speculative fiction is just that–speculation. Whether a story is about the paranormal, the far future, near future, an alternate timeline, or the so-called fantastic, writers have to reach. We are making assumptions about how those worlds work. And the closer you get to “now,” the more difficult the process can be. Seems like every day a new variety of deep ocean life is discovered, articles on new technologies appear, and offshore exploration companies announce new record drilling depths. In a few years, perhaps many of the technologies described in The Black will feel awkward or downright hokey. Writing near-future stories always runs that risk, but it shouldn’t stop writers from dreaming a few years out.