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During an office clean-up day, I came across a copy of Secret Under the Sea, a book published in 1960 and set in 2013. I couldn’t let the book go, and decided it had to go on my shelf for an early-in-the-year read and review. This week I found myself with the time to sit down and swim into the past…or is it the present?
By 2013, things sure have changed. We’re studying marine life from undersea stations that include both housing and labs (worth half a million dollars!); divers use small atom-powered water lungs to extract oxygen from sea water; we’ve sent manned missions to Mars and brought back Martian creatures; ordinary crime has stopped and war has been eliminated (the last was ended 50 years ago); and there are “travel discs” that people use as transportation. But we still reference things like transistor radios, enjoy peanut butter sandwiches, and marvel at the mysteries of a rich undersea environment.
Unfortunately, the few people in the world who can’t be cured of their unhappiness are banding together as Vandals, determined to upset the peaceful balance of the world in whatever way they can.
Our story focuses on Robby, who lives in an underwater research station with his marine-biologist parents (though his mother has given up active work in the field). Robby’s constant companion is a domesticated dolphin, Balthasar, who acts as both friend and protector. One day Robby discovers strange footprints along the ocean floor, but his father must leave on a top-secret government project before he can ask about them.
With Dad gone and Mom on vacation, a family friend named Lillibulero has come to stay and look out for the lab. Unfortunately, Vandals dock at the station and Robby and Lillibulero must escape and try to figure out what the outlaws’ plans are. While swimming outside, our heroes come across more of the footprints and follow them to a Sea Badger—one of the Martian creatures who should be safe in a lab, not wandering the ocean floor. After deducing that the Vandals have stolen and released the Sea Badger in order to create havoc, Robby himself is captured with little hope of escape. Luckily, he’s a bright kid, Lillibulero is a highly trained operative, Balthasar is an intuitive and loyal friend, and a trap that Robby had set for the Sea Badger works. As you may have guessed, by the story’s end, the Coast Guard have arrested the Vandals (26 men in all), the Sea Badger is safe in the lab, Robby’s father has returned, and all is right and peaceful with the world.
While I can’t say this is a great work of science fiction, it was a fascinating read. I loved peeking into the past to see our present, and was entertained by what scientific advances we do (and don’t) have. Unfortunately, the writing doesn’t hold up for today’s readers. It lacks a level of sophistication that I think elementary-school readers today expect and demand. That said, the story itself—with its fascinating combination of undersea research and alien life—has a lot to offer even if writing styles and approaches to action-adventure tales have changed.
So, sign me up for a shift or two with the International Department of Fisheries, Salt Water Research Division; introduce me to Balthasar; and let me spend some time with those peaceful Martians.
Secret Under the Sea was sold by Scholastic Book Services in 1960. The author, Gordon R. Dickson (1923–2001) was the award-winning author of more than 50 science fiction and fantasy novels. Secret Under the Sea is part one of the Secrets of the Deep trilogy.
January 29, 2013