We dive so humanity survives.
I haven’t read pop sci-fi author Nicholas Sansbury Smith before, but something drew me to his newest release Hell Divers, the first in a projected trilogy. Yes, the cover is cool, and artificial as that is, the art sometimes draws me in. But even better was the concept: 250 years ago, the world was at war. Nuclear bombs laid waste to the planet. Nothing could and nothing did survive. The apocalypse left a world utterly unlivable. So humanity had taken to the skies.
Two huge airships carrying over 500 souls each were now all that humanity had for the future. The world had ended so fast that the airships, the very same ships used to bomb the planet into its inhospitable present, had become lifeboats for those who boarded them before the bombs dropped.
Without access to key machinery and materials, small teams of Hell Divers are sent through an ever-swirling atmosphere to the irradiated earth on salvage missions.
The average life expectancy for a Hell Diver was fifteen jumps. This was Xavier Rodriguez’s ninety-sixth, and he was about to do it with a hangover … Every drop was risky, often in its own new way. You couldn’t jump twenty thousand feet from an airship, plummet through electrical storms, and land on a hostile surface without risk.
Gotta admit — this is a pretty cool Mad Max-ian premise, and it appeals to me. Apple pie with ice cream also appeals … but I know it’s not good for me.
Hell Divers is an entertaining read. Smith writes a taut, action-imbued plot. Rodriguez, who goes by ‘X’, is a strong, admirable character, with a commensurate number of flaws — he’s an alcoholic, emotionally closed, an adulterer; but strong, with a macho ethic, and still appealing.
Only one character is written (and reads) with any real heart, and has the potential for the greatest emotional impact within the story. Ten-year-old Tin is left an orphan when his father dies on a dive with X. X vowed to take care of the boy, but is a widower, has no children, and let’s not forget the aforementioned alcoholism and emotional unavailability. Tin’s intelligence is off the charts, but social skills are lacking. He’s already been admitted into The Hive’s engineering school, but wears a sloppy tin cap his father made him so, his father tells him, the other kids’ mean words can’t hurt him.
Maria Ash is Captain of the Hive. She keeps her 546 men, women and children safe, but she’s doing more than just biding her time. She’s seeking a permanent home for the last humans on earth. A typical theme of apocalypse-lit is the ever-sought-after Nirvana or Shangri-La: a home and sanctuary for the remnants of humanity. Of course, for the residents of the Hive who’ve never even seen the sun, it’s mere legend. How can anything survive on what’s left of Earth?
Everyone had heard the stories as children. Of a “green world with growing things, and a blue sky.”
Into the mix of this apocalyptic hoo-hah, we are introduced to the Lower-Deckers — the people “who do the dirty jobs to keep the ship running.” They live near the nuclear powered engines, in crowded spaces, many aching through the terminal pains of radiation poisoning. Living in communal spaces, it reminds one of the bottom deck from the film Titanic. Smith sets up this caste system that enables a rather blunt and clichéd class warfare plot thread, complete with an ill-timed, on-ship rebellion.
While this thread fits well into the general themes of Hell Divers, it’s wooden, forced and never given appropriate time to develop. It provides Smith an opportunity to heighten the cheese factors with lines like:
There’s a difference between fighting for what you believe in and killing for what you believe in. Violence is never the answer.
On the first of X’s three dives in the novel, he’s embarking on a salvage mission:
The fuel cells Ash had ordered them to recover weren’t easy to come by. Only a few known locations on the continent remained where they could find the nuclear gold. Without the cells, the Hive wouldn’t be able to stay aloft. If they failed…
On this same dive during which Tin’s father dies, X meets a life form never seen before on the dying earth. He dubs them ‘Sirens’ due to the ear-splitting screech they make that resembles an electronic alarm.
First he sees:
Nests… Bulblike cocoons, covered in thick bristles and scabby tissue, like half-molted snakeskin.
As X ventures further:
…he could see something moving… It pushed at the floor with two hands and rose into a bipedal crouch. He stared, unbelieving, at the green-hued NVG image of what looked like a human physical structure. The creature let out another screech, which grew into a bellowing roar. What it was, it had looked unsettlingly human.
And later, X sees this variation:
Leathery wings hung at its sides. It dropped to all fours and hunched its back, and the spiked vertebrae split in half, swallowing the wings like a mouthful of teeth closing over some morsel. The monster let out a screech, and a cacophony of wails answered from the sky.
In an attempt to help their sister ship, The Hive finds itself in the midst of a hemisphere-pounding electrical storm. The enormous roiling storm had burned the fuel cells that powered the engines, and a number of the helium bladders had burst. Ash and her crew are only barely able to keep the ship aloft. To land was death. On the “poisoned desolate surface,” Hell Divers could last an hour, maybe more with highly modified, though still risky, equipment. But the ships couldn’t land. Humans wouldn’t have a chance.
The final third of Hell Divers takes place on Hades, the nickname of a major Earth city lost through 200 years of history and war. It was also the home of the corporation that built the enormous airships. And so Hades was a nirvana of sorts of spare parts.
Ash readies the team for their dive:
As you already know, Hades has the most severe conditions on the planet. The radiation and freezing temperatures make it, for lack of a better word, hell on earth. But this is it, gentlemen. Either we dive to Hades and bring back fuel cells and pressure valves, or we die. Pretty simple.
Hell Divers is a fun, high-action, military sci-fi thriller. It’s hackneyed in parts, but imaginative in others. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in pace.