Involution Ocean by Bruce Sterling
John Newhouse is a middle-aged man addicted to a drug called Flare which is synthesized from the oil of a whale that lives in a large sea of dust on a hostile planet. John lives with several other drug addicts. When Flare is declared illegal and their stash runs dry, John and one of his roommates decide to join a whaling ship’s crew so they can get access to the oil they’ll need to manufacture the drug for themselves. John is hired as the ship’s cook while his friend comes aboard as a deckhand.
The crew of the ship is odd. John is attracted to the woman who has wings like a bat and can fly, but she’s allergic to human touch. The captain of the ship, who is obsessed with the strange creatures that live in the dust sea, might be crazy. John wonders why he’s hiding a propeller and other odd things in a secret storehouse.
When John and his friend manage to get hold of some whale oil and start secretly cooking up Flare in the kitchen, their personality and behavior changes. This causes conflict between themselves, and with others on the crew. Eventually it leads to the discovery of what the crazy captain is up to.
Involution Ocean (1977), Bruce Sterling‘s first novel, is a grim, bizarre, and sad story that’s been called a science fiction version of Moby Dick. It’s a cautionary tale — about how addiction and obsession can lead to destruction. It’s also a story about forbidden love.
What I liked best about Involution Ocean was the world-building and the ecological aspect. The huge dust crater is stunning and Sterling populates it with fascinating creatures. Unfortunately, it’s hard to like John Newhouse and, with perhaps the exception of the bat woman, there are no other characters whose survival I cared about.
Brilliance Audio has produced a new edition of Involution Ocean and it’s terrific. The narrator, Stephen Graybill, was new to me and I was delighted with his performance.