The Atlantic Abomination by John Brunner
In his 1953 novel The Kraken Wakes, English author John Wyndham gave his readers a tale concerning aliens who land on Earth and proceed to terrorize the planet from their bases on the ocean floor. But this, of course, was not the last time that a British writer would regale his readers with a story about malevolent space visitors living beneath the seas. Thus, in John Brunner’s novel of seven years later, The Atlantic Abomination, we find another set of hideous and destructive underwater dwellers, but unlike the ”xenobathetic, millebrachiate pseudocoelenterates” in Wyndam’s book, Brunner’s are a whole different kettle of fish – or something – as will be seen.
The Atlantic Abomination initially appeared as one-half of one of those cute little 35-cent “Ace doubles” (D-465, for all you collectors out there) in 1960, with cover art by the great Ed Emshwiller; David Grinnell’s The Martian Missile (with cover art by another equally great Ed, Ed Valigursky) resided on the flip side. The edition that I was fortunate enough to acquire is an undated, Ace stand-alone version, a 60-cent affair that those in the know have placed from late 1969 to early 1970, and with that same wonderful Emsh cover. Ace would come out with another iteration in 1976, a $1.50 paperback with (what I deem to be) a much inferior cover, and this would sadly prove to be the book’s final English-language publication to date, although a Kindle edition is currently available. So the bottom line is that The Atlantic Abomination should not pose an insurmountable obstacle to those prospective readers who wish to obtain it. And that is a very fortunate state of affairs, as a recent perusal has revealed the book to be an exciting, intelligent and even frightening science fiction adventure that has not dated one bit, despite it being 63 years old as of this writing.
As for Brunner, the Oxfordshire-born author surely needs no introduction at this late date. Today, Brunner is perhaps best remembered as the Hugo and BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Awards winner for his 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar. His 1969 novel The Jagged Orbit would also cop the BSFA Award, while his 1972 novel The Sheep Look Up was a Nebula Award nominee. But years before Brunner began writing these big, intellectually challenging and award-winning opuses, he was working hard at churning out pleasingly entertaining space operas for publishers such as Ace. He wrote his first novel, Galactic Storm, in 1951, at the age of 17 (!), but it wasn’t until 1959 that he began to write professionally. Around three dozen novels would spring from his typewriter before Stand on Zanzibar would usher in a more “mature” phase in his career. As a newcomer to all things Brunner, I figured I would begin with one of his earlier, pulpier, and less intimidating works, and The Atlantic Abomination, which had been sitting on my shelf unread for decades, despite the lure of that fascinating Emsh cover, has turned out to be a perfect place to start. To be succinct, I loved it!
Brunner’s book is divided into two sections. The first, titled “The Mystery,” starts out on the Earth of some 110,000 years ago, when a seismic upheaval was in the process of inundating land masses and creating new undersea mountains. We witness the plight of the hideous alien Ruagh, who is using his mental commands to coerce hundreds of quivering Earthlings to carry his many-ton bulk, on a palanquin, across the quaking ground and away from his city of Avvan (as depicted on Emsh’s great cover). Ruagh begs one of his fellow aliens to allow him to share his prearranged shelter, is refused, and so dies in the ensuing catastrophe. Flash forward 1,100 centuries to the futuristic year of around, uh, 1980. Operating from a cutting-edge deep-sea “bathynef” operating from the ship Alexander Bache, somewhere east of the great Atlantic Ridge, oceanographers Peter Trant, Mary Davis and Luke Wallace encounter a catastrophe of their own more than a mile down. While exploring an undersea cave, an avalanche of mud results in Wallace’s apparent death, and during a subsequent rescue mission, Trant unearths the carved and inlaid remnants of what appears to be a lost city! Their superior, Dr. Gordon, on board the ship, hopes that it is the fabled Atlantis that they have uncovered, but sadly, that is hardly the case here. Miraculously, Wallace manages to be found in a dazed but living condition almost a full day after his oxygen tanks should have given out! But later, acting under some kind of hypnotic compulsion, the scientist steals the bathynef, returns to a spot a mile beneath the waves, and is seemingly lost again. And after a passenger ship disappears completely, the reader learns the sorry truth: Ruagh’s fellow alien, after a hibernation of many millennia, has at last awoken, to its surprise now beneath the ocean, and soon proceeds to use Wallace and the cruise ship’s 1,800 passengers as its slavelike cat’s-paws!
And in the book’s appropriately titled second section, “The Terror,” things grow even worse. Here, Peter and Mary’s honeymoon is interrupted by a message from Gordon. The remains of the long-dead Ruagh had earlier been found, but now this living alien specimen has begun causing all manner of grief. Peter flies in a copter above the cruise ship and receives the full brunt of the monster’s punishing mental lash. And when the alien compels his slaves to ground the ship off of Jacksonville, Florida, Peter lies in hiding onshore, to observe. Sadly, he is soon brought under the alien’s mental sway, and is then forced to spend many weeks with all those others, doing harsh manual labor for his alien master. Jacksonville is soon reduced to a cordoned-off zone of the living dead; stumbling, half-starved automatons who cannot refuse to obey their hideous overlord. And as they begin dying off, new recruits are compelled to arrive from along the Georgia coast. Meanwhile, the U.S. president and his foremost four-star general, Barghin, can only throw ineffective missiles into the city, while they weigh their ultimate option … the nuclear one…
On the back cover of my 1969/1970 Ace edition there is a blurb that reads “Godzilla, Gorgo, King Kong … stand aside for The Atlantic Abomination!” And while I would never dream of taking anything away from those three cinematic greats, it must be admitted that those prehistoric beasts and the lovesick giant ape did little more than, er, tear cities apart and summarily kill people. The Atlantic Abomination, whose real name we are never told, is perhaps an even scarier proposition, however, as it not only makes slaves of humans, but treats them like the lowest and most disposable of commodities. A bridge is out? Compel the humans to build one out of their living bodies! Food supplies are low? Force the humans to eat each other! The slaves are dying? Free them from your mental control and just let them drop! It is a startlingly callous and unfeeling alien menace that Brunner gives us here; one who learns the hard way that Earthlings have developed just a wee bit since circa 110,000 B.C.! Whereas Wyndham had given us a veritable army of iceberg-melting alien menaces in his 1953 book, Brunner just gives us this one representative sample, but he really is quite bad enough, thank you! The Ace blurb is spot-on, though, when it comes to associating Brunner’s book with some of the great monster movies of the past, many of which the author must assuredly have assimilated. What a fantastic early ‘60s sci-fi monster movie this book could have been turned into! I can almost picture Richard Denning as Peter, and Mara Corday as his wife! That Ace book cover also asks “A horror novel by John Brunner?,” and yes, it is true: This book most assuredly does function as a horror novel as well, especially in its second half, whose nightmarish feel just might linger with you for days.
But despite the fact that a scary monster story is at the heart of this novel, Brunner’s telling is unfailingly intelligent, and his book is filled with interesting scientific discussions and told in a highly credible manner. Its largish cast of oceanographers, crewmen, military men and the president is efficiently sketched in by the author, and for once even the military brass – as represented by Gen. Barghin, especially – are depicted as thoughtful, decent sorts. Brunner’s book, overall, is tremendously suspenseful, exciting and unputdownable; short as it is (a mere 128 small-print pages, in my Ace edition), it will probably be gobbled down in one or two breathless sittings by most readers. The novel, concise thought it may be, yet contains any number of wonderful scenes, among them: Luke’s reappearance after being given up for dead; the first glimpse of the monster aboard that ocean liner; the march of the zombified recruits from Savannah and Brunswick; and, really, every little bit that transpires in the increasingly untenable, and increasingly nightmarish, Jacksonville, where Peter is compelled to do many horrible things, while his injured arm grows more and more gangrenous…
And yet, despite all the horrors on display here, and despite having been written at the height of the Cold War, The Atlantic Abomination is at heart a fairly optimistic book. In Brunner’s depiction of 1980, the Cold War is over, and the U.S. and Russia are shown cooperating fully and sharing their mutual bathynef knowledge. There are space stations in existence as well as a lunar base, and most impressively, nuclear weapons had all been banned and dismantled many years earlier. Hence, the president’s dilemma of whether or not to build and use a new atomic bomb in the present. It will be recalled that Brunner himself was an active campaigner for nuclear disarmament, and this early book, written when he was 26, reveals that same yearning for global peace and international cooperation.
For the rest of it, Brunner’s novel is surprisingly U.S. based, as opposed to British (as was Wyndham’s, for the most part), with a perfect knowledge evinced of U.S. politics and speech patterns. And I must add that I just loved the scenes shown from the monster’s haughty and disdainful POV, as Brunner gives us a glimpse into the alien’s thought processes. This is a book that could easily have paved the way for a sequel, and indeed, early on, our nameless nasty mentions to Ruagh, during the cataclysm, “You should have done as I did … But I was wise, and some few others who foresaw this day.” The reader cannot help but wonder how many of those other aliens still lie in hibernation on the Atlantic bottom, as does Peter, who reflects toward the end on what must happen when the people of Earth encounter these aliens again. So yes, Brunner’s book concludes on a deliciously bleak note that opens the possibility for a follow-up story, but sadly, that continuation would not be forthcoming.
I really have very few complaints to lodge against Brunner’s very fine work here. Yes, I wish it could have been a bit longer, and that we might have been given some more background about the monster and its home world. But this book is lean and mean, and as I’ve said before, there is nothing wrong with conciseness of expression, and with leaving your audience wanting more. I also wish the aliens might have been more fully described, other than just being told that they’re more than 30 feet long, with legs and a swollen belly. Perhaps Emsh’s depiction of a four-legged, bloated, and beak-faced monstrosity really is the best way to envision it. It’s also somewhat strange that the alien Ruagh, who dies early on, is given a name, while the alien who menaces our 20th century is not. And, oh … where does that word “bathynef” come from, anyway? Still, these are obviously conscious decisions of omission on the author’s part, and who am I to argue? These are merely quibbles, and The Atlantic Abomination remains a top-notch and intelligent (there’s that inescapable word again!) sci-fi/horror entertainment. I find myself eager now to try another of these pulpy, early John Brunner novels, and fortunately, there is another of his little Ace books that’s been sitting in my bookcase, unread, for ages. That book is The Super Barbarians, from 1962, and that is where this reader will be heading next…
I live in Jacksonville. I’ll have to read this! :)
I know you do, Kat! I wrote the headline for you!
How thoughtful! :)