Monday, 13 May 2013

Davy Jones’ Ambassador by Raymond Z Gallun

First published in Astounding Stories, December 1935.

There’s been one big thing missing from this anthology: aliens. Sure, yes, we’ve had a few Martians, but they were basically humans in drag, and while TheMachine Man of Ardathia was pretty freaky his petulant manner was all too recognisably human. Maybe it’s just the particular stories chosen here, but these early SF writers don’t really seem to have grasped the nettle when it comes to exploring non-human life.

Until now. This story presents us with a fascinating alien society with its own weird morphology, technology and society. It’s more bizarre than any of the Martians we’ve seen so far or the far-future societies that have featured. An yet it’s relatively close to us in both time and space.

The title of this one’s the give away, of course: the alien society is deep beneath the sea.

In this story, Cliff Rodney (Gallun repeats the name three times in the opening paras, to make sure we get it) is exploring the depths of the ocean in a bathysphere. However, as the story opens he’s watching it flood with water from a crack in the viewing glass caused by a mysterious attack:
‘With canny craft the unknowns had avoided the search beam. Cliff had glimpsed only the swift notion of monstrous, armored limbs, and the baneful glitter of great eyes. The the blow had fallen like that of a battering ram. It had struck the forward observation port with a grinding concussion. A crack, looking like a twisted ribbon of silver, had appeared in the thick, vitreous substance of the pane. From it, water had began to sport in a slender, unstanchable shaft that grew ominously as the sea spread the edges of the crevice wider and wider.’
His motors disabled in in the attack, Cliff knows he’s going to die. It’s a nightmare situation nicely set up by Gallun who allows Cliff an admirable degree of sang froid:
‘He was a man; men boasted of their control of the natural forces. And he himself was a blatant and ironic symbol of that boast: They had sent him here in the belief that even the bed of the Atlantic might soon yield to human dominance!’
This passage nicely sums up the theme here: Cliff soon discovers that the territory is already settled by an amazing and advanced race of jellyfish-like beings. Naturally, they don’t use fire – they’ve heard of it, and it’s one of the first things they want Cliff to show them – and they have their own form of technology based on the principles of what we’d today call biotech. His host – The Student – tells Cliff:
‘Glass, electricity, wireless, and other things, come from animals. Nearly everything comes from animals. We have made the animals so. We have developed the useful characteristics of the animals – great care, selection, breeding, crossbreeding – a long time – ages.’
The undersea creatures are determined that Cliff should remain their captive: they fear the topside world and what they’ve learned of man. But Cliff appeals to The Student’s appetite for new knowledge – the same passion that drove Cliff to explore the murky depths – and The Student finally assists Cliff’s desperate attempt to escape:
‘Man and ovoid were different in form and mind; perhaps real sympathy between them was impossible. But Cliff had found a tangible similarity. In this sullen devil of the depths the eagerness to know the unknown had battled fear, and had won.’
This an expression of hope and optimism that has been missing from these stories so far. Despite all the tales of science gone wrong and the ultimate decadence of civilization across the gulfs of space and time, here we have two strangers united by their love of knowledge.

Themes: vastness (the depths of the ocean), aliens, exploration, biotech, the natural kinship of rational beings.


  1. Hey, there are some nice turns of phrase here.
    "canny craft ... the baneful glitter of great eyes": it's like a Blue Oyster Cult song!

    On the other hand, "the thick, vitreous substance of the pane". You mean "the glass", Raymond?

  2. Yep, this is one of the better stories in the collection for just that reason. It's almost Lovecraftian in that respect: there's a sequence where Cliff explores his undersea prison, discovering the artefacts of shipwrecks from years gone buy, that's genuinely eerie. Like a lot of the tales here, the whole thing's a bit corny, but to be honest I suspect we're over-critical of corniness and underappreciative of atmosphere and vivid writing.

    A different sort of example is The Machine Man of Ardathia which doesn't really go anywhere but has great descriptions of the Machine Man, and some fun snarky dialogue. I can't help but feel that in today's environment that would be overlooked in favour of a story that was more portentous but with less enjoyable writing overall (a tendency not absent from this collection however - The Eternal Man and The Power and the Glory are both marred by stiff high-toned writing on Important Issues).


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