The Great Deep

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Throughout human experience the sea has exerted mysterious fascination and undeniable power over us. A shaper of civilizations, a road for commerce, an avenue of conquest, the great deep has brought fortune to some, death to others. Our mere contemplation of it colors our perceptions and expectations of the world. In THE GREAT DEEP, James Hamilton-Paterson examines, in a thoughtful, elegant fashion, this intricate relationship between human beings and the oceans of the world.

Hamilton-Paterson writes not from the confines of a book-lined study but from a wealth of actual experience. Whether he is taking the reader aboard an oceanographic survey vessel or explaining the mysterious beauty of coral reefs, Hamilton-Paterson writes from firsthand knowledge, and his simple but eloquent prose makes that experience real for the reader.

THE GREAT DEEP fits comfortably into that valued tradition of literature, especially English literature, which uses a central topic as the departure point for observations and meditations. The reader learns strange facts—that some waves take half a day to pass, or that islands in the North Atlantic dotted maps for centuries, only to vanish. There are episodes of tragic violence, such as piracy in the modern Philippines, and more muted loss, such as the destruction of island cultures through contact with modern civilization. And there is the sobering consideration of the perhaps irreversible damage being done to our world’s fishing grounds.

THE GREAT DEEP is an original and powerful evaluation of the major portion of our world, the oceans, the wonders they contain, and the effects they have had on us as human beings.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXX, September, 1992, p. 122.

Booklist. LXXXVIII, July, 1992, p. 1907.

Chicago Tribune. September 13, 1992, XIV, p. 5.

The Guardian. September 13, 1992, p. 22.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, June 1, 1992, p. 705.

Library Journal. CXVII, June 15, 1992, p. 97.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, August 9, 1992, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, June 15, 1992, p. 93.

USA Today. November 13, 1992, p. D5.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, August 9, 1992, p. 2.

The Great Deep

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

There is an excellent tradition in literature, especially English literature, whereby an author takes a subject less as the guiding topic of his or her book than as the starting place for a wide-ranging series of intellectually and emotionally connected observations and meditations. During the Renaissance, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) virtually established the genre, creating a form that essentially had no form, except for watching the author’s mind at work. Almost all of Sir Thomas Browne’s writings fall into this category, and the famous quotation from his Urne-Buriall (1658) might serve as the epitome of what delights this particularly intriguing sub-branch of literature provides: “What songs the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women are not beyond all conjecture.”

To this distinguished tradition James Hamilton-Paterson adds a new and valuable contribution with The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds, a volume that librarians may catalog under “oceanography” but which, like the very seas themselves, ranges so widely and freely that it defies classification. This book is about the oceans of the world, the mysterious creatures they contain, the islands they form, and the reefs they hold, but its true theme is the hold these things have upon the human imagination, and how over the centuries men and women have responded to that grip, sometimes with poetic inspiration; sometimes with scientific precision; and, all too often, with ecological destruction. As Hamilton-Paterson shows so clearly, the sea is not simply there as an objective fact; it is part of us, a subjective reality that is carried in our existence as human beings on planet Earth.

In pursuit of that theme, Hamilton-Paterson packs the pages with curious facts, resonant in their isolated selves. There are “low frequency waves with swells so long they might take half a day to pass,” and the reminder that the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia is the largest single structure on Earth. Human beings naturally add to this collocation of oddities. During World War II, the British government wished to learn the most likely frequency bands of hull and propeller noises, the better to detect German U-boats. Lacking technology later developed, they turned to scientists and musicians with predictably wry results:

Ernest Rutherford also took a colleague with perfect pitch out in a small boat as part of the war effort. At a prearranged spot one of the great names in atomic physics took a firm grip on his companion’s ankles while this man stuck his head into the Firth of Forth and listened to the enginenote of a British submarine. Hauled back into the dinghy and toweling his head he announced it was a submersible in A-flat and he would recognize it anywhere.

The Great Deep takes observations such as these—and there are many others scattered throughout the work—and weaves them into a coherent but free-flowing tapestry that takes the reader through humanity’s eons-old encounter with the oceans. What do we know about this mysterious three-fifths of our planet? How do we react to it, both in our daily lives and in our imaginations? What have we learned, and what have we merely imagined we know? Perhaps most important, what have we done to this ancient cradle of life? It is in answering those questions that Hamilton-Paterson finds the structure of his book. The answers take The Great Deep from observation to meditation and provide its greatest pleasures.

The earth has its seven seas, so The Great Deep has seven chapters, each concerned with a different aspect of the world’s oceans. It begins, appropriately enough, with “Charts and Naming,” reprising the human compulsion to possess the landscape (or in this case the seascape) by giving names to features. Aboard the research vessel Farnella, Hamilton-Paterson observes scientists at work charting and cataloging the unseen ocean floor thousands of feet below them. Using sophisticated sonar devices, the team builds up a painstaking picture of the seabed by bouncing soundwaves from the bottom and plotting them on computer-calibrated devices. Nothing is seen, nothing is touched, but total accuracy is assured by modern technology.

Or is it? In the second chapter, “Islands and Boundaries,” Hamilton-Paterson subtly undercuts the assurances of scientific observation, indeed all human observation, by simply noting what has happened to islands both now known and others once assumed to be known. Their existence, both in the metaphysical and actual senses, is more problematic than commonly assumed.

Take Tiwarik, a real island with a fictitious...

(The entire section is 1948 words.)