Review: ‘Fleet’ revives sci-fi’s nautical tradition

Fleet cover
Fleet: The Complete Collection
Science fiction’s nautical tradition goes back to the genre’s origins. In 1870, French writer Jules Verne predicted the nuclear submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and he created one of the great megalomaniac characters in literature, Captain Nemo. My own love of sci-fi was sparked in part by the 1960s TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which featured the research vessel Seaview and its resourceful crew. In recent years, however, the ocean has fallen out of fashion as a sci-fi platform. The 1995 Waterworld, the most expensive movie ever made up to that time, killed Hollywood’s interest in the watery parts of the world for years. And few of today’s science fiction writers regard the sea as a place for storytelling.

Andrew D. Thaler’s work Fleet may signal a change. The biologist and science writer has taken an old premise–that Earth’s land is submerged or uninhabitable–put a new set of complex characters on a motley collection of boats, and told them to survive. The action takes place in the 23rd century after the seas have risen and a plague has wiped out most of humanity. Man-made climate change is implicitly blamed for the creation of this dystopia. The boats range from a shrimp trawler to a cruise ship, and they sail the waters of the North Atlantic fishing for the last stocks of edible creatures. Originally published as a four-part series, I read all four parts in a single ebook packaged as Fleet: The Complete Collection.

As an experienced writer and scientist specializing in deep-sea ecology, Thaler knows his subject. His characters appear to be drawn from the men and women he’s come to know in his work with fisherfolk. The details of the boats and their operation are convincing, and the dialog is first rate. The structure of the novel is confusing at times, and the suggestion that a wooden sailboat might survive more than a century in salt water is far-fetched. But Thaler deserves credit for picking up science fiction’s nautical thread, and showing that the oceans still have many lessons to teach landlubbers.

What are your favorite nautical sci-fi stories?

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