Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman

19 Apr

Arkfall cover

Carolyn Ives Gilman
Phoenix Pick, 2010
ISBN 0978-1-60450-454-5

Review by Ian Sales

Osaji lives on Ben, a world much like the moon Europa, with a world-ocean beneath a thick covering of ice. Humans have colonised Ben, but only on the floor of the Saltese Sea in underwater cities, or travelling about in arks which drift freely from place to place. After one such tour aboard the ark Cormorin, Osaji leaves the crew at Golconda – because she cares for her grandmother, who the others aboard the ark consider a liability because she is suffering from senile dementia. Because Osaji has taken responsibility for the care of her grandmother, her options are severely limited. Her sister will put her up, but not for long as she doesn’t want the burden of their grandparent. So Osaji signs aboard another ark, Divernon, but neglects to mention she will be accompanied…

But while settling aboard, and before Divernon’s other crew members appear, a seaquake strikes Golconda and causes great damage. Divernon breaks its mooring, and is unable to return to the city, unable to control its flight from the city. Osaji is not alone, however. Just before Divernon broke free, she managed to rescue an offworld visitor to Ben, Jack. Together, they find themselves adrift in Ben’s waters, propelled by swift currents from the Saltese Sea out into the greater ocean of the world… Where they are witness to strange sights unsuspected by the Bennites.

The story of Carolyn Ives Gilman’s novella Arkfall in part apes the journey Divernon takes in the outer ocean. There is no real direction to it, more of a Vernian surrender to fate and the ocean currents. For a genre which relies so heavily on plot and its consequent narrative impetus, it makes Arkfall a leisurely read. But that doesn’t work against it because Osaji is a wonderfully-drawn character, and the world-building is superb.

It’s not simply that the humans of Ben live on the floor of a black ocean, or that the arks are mostly biological technology. But also Ben’s society is fervently cooperative, and its members are almost pathologically self-effacing:

Osaji looked down. “Your applicant enjoys wet.” She could not say she was good at it – that would seem unhumble – but she was. “Her profile is listed in the registry.” (p 20)

Jack the offworlder, however, is a more familiar character. He is in most respects like a present-day American – indeed, abrasively so:

“The entire goddamned culture is based on passive aggression. Don’t you all know this is a frontier? Where’s your initiative, your self-reliance? Where are your new horizons? I’ve never seen such an insular, myopic, conformist, small-minded bunch of people in my life. This planet is a small town preserved in formaldehyde.” (p 13)

The irony, of course, is that the journey Osaji and Jack subsequently take has nothing to do with initiative or self-reliance. It was an accident, the result of something over which they had no control. Nor could they control it any point, since the arks have no propulsion system. Happily, the two reach an accommodation, and it is their shared sense of wonder which allows them to cooperate (though Jack has to make one or two concessions first). Jack also proves to be the first person to not only accepts Osaji’s grandmother but also manage to get through to her.

Chief among Osaji and Jack’s discoveries is an alien city, deep in a gulf in a part of the ocean never before visited by humans. Another irony: Jack railed against the Bennites’ lack of curiosity and here was a wonder on their very doorstep, something they should have found long before:

The thought of monstrous rock shapes below her, hidden since the beginning of eternity, filled her with dread. She was about to suggest that they had come far enough and should cut the cable when Jack said, “What’s that?” … They were surrounded by glass towers. Not solid glass, but intricate meshworks of spun filaments that glinted silver and azure in the beam of Osaji’s light. As the searchlight touched the nearest ones, they seemed to ignite in a cascade, as if conducting the light from one glass strand to the next, till the entire landscape around them glowed. (p 55)

But the Bennites’ priorities are not Jack’s – as is personified by Osaji and the responsibility she has taken for the care of her grandmother. The alien city will still be there should they return, yet for the Bennites to rush out and explore would have been to leave vulnerable those incapable of keeping up, those who need the care of others. It is in the nature of truly civilised societies that the succour and safety of its members always comes first. The Bennites – Osaji – are more civilised than Jack… and what exactly have they lost by taking their time to explore their world?

Arkfall first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 2008, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novella. I’m not sure how, given that it was published two years previously. I understand works were eligible for two years for many years, but I had thought that rule changed before the 2010 Nebula Awards. No matter. Arkfall is definitely worth reading. Recommended.

3 Responses to “Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman”


  1. Aliens of the Heart, Carolyn Ives Gilman « Daughters of Prometheus - June 29, 2012

    […] in turn persuade me to try a science fiction novella, Arkfall, which I then reviewed on this blog here. And that convinced me I should pick up a copy of Aliens of the Heart. Gilman’s writing is […]

  2. Warm below the storm, part 2 | It Doesn't Have To Be Right... - May 27, 2013

    […] Still in the 1950s, Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson wrote a trilogy of novels set in and around the underwater city of Marinia: Undersea Quest (1954), Undersea Fleet (1956) and Undersea City (1958). I don’t believe I’ve ever seen copies of these, but from the cover art on Wikipedia they look like juveniles. James Blish and Norman L Knight’s A Torrent of Faces (1967), a novel which proved a better read than I had expected, features a semi-submerged hotel which sinks. Also in the novel are people genetically-engineered to be semi-aquatic, and much of the shallower regions of the oceans are farmed by them to feed the Earth’s tens of billions. A sf novel about which I know nothing is Hal Clement’s Ocean On Top (1973), and I mention it only because the cover art of the UK paperback features what looks like the bathyscaphe Trieste. In Marta Randall’s Islands (1976), the narrator joins an expedition to dive on sunken Hawaii to hunt for artefacts and treasure. The narrative doesn’t go into much detail on the diving. In 2000, Allen Steele swapped outer space for underwater in Oceanspace. According to the blurb on Amazon, it’s set in 2011 and depicts an undersea research station which encounters some sort of sea monster. Harriet Klausner gives it, of course, five stars, but another reviewer complains with a straight face of the characters’ lack of depth. Peter Watts Rifter series – Starfish (1999), Maelstrom(2001), Behemoth: ß-Max (2004) and Behemoth: Seppuku (2005) – is about humans modified to live and work in the deep ocean, but you have to wonder why he named one book after an obsolete videocassette format. Most recently, Carolyn Ives Gilman’s novella Arkfall is set in the world-ocean of a Europa-like moon – see my review on Daughters of Prometheus here. […]

  3. 17,500 words or more | It Doesn't Have To Be Right... - September 30, 2013

    […] Isles of the Forsaken. I reviewed ‘Arkfall’ for Daughters of Prometheus – see here – and yes, its setting could almost have been designed to appeal to me, but it was the social […]

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