Book Review: “Deep Sound Channel” (2000)


Cover image for Joe Buff’s novel “Deep Sound Channel”

I just finished reading Joe Buff’s Deep Sound Channel: A Novel of Submarine Warfare (Jeffrey Fuller Book 1). I accidentally found out about Buff’s six-part series on the fictional USS Challenger when I was doing research on a short story I was writing. Intrigued, I found out that the first in the series was available through my public library system so checked it out.

Although the novel was written in 2000, it’s set slightly in the “future” of 2011. According to the blurb on Amazon:

The year is 2011, and in South Africa a reactionary coup has established a military government that has begun sinking U.S. and British merchant ships. NATO quickly responds, with only Germany holding back-until Germany starts nuking Poland and eviscerating the French. Now the South Atlantic is a battleground where nuclear-tipped missiles rule-and the only gun worth using is one that seeks and fires from deep beneath the sea.

Captain Wilson, his executive officer of XO Jeffrey Fuller, a Boer freedom fighter named Ilse Reebeck, and the crew of the Challenger, along with a group of Navy Seals, must slip through a South African blockade and infiltrate a secret biological weapons lab to destroy a terrible organism using the South African’s own nuclear warhead.

A fair amount of the book, more than half, is submarine warfare in a “limited” nuclear war. I have to admit, I was pretty surprised when I discovered that planes routinely fire nuclear missiles at their enemies and submarines carry nuclear torpedoes. Limited or not, I have a hard time believing that this war isn’t creating an ecological disaster, both in terms of a “small” nuclear winter above ground, and irradiating and otherwise annihilating all marine life within the war zone and beyond.

But while author Joe Buff goes into exquisite detail about the physical effects of a nuclear detonation at various depths in the ocean, destructive power, disrupting sonar, and various electromagnetic effects, there isn’t one word about the ocean’s ecosystem.

Oh well, this is war.

The action is excellent. It’s been a long time since I read a novel about war in the vein of Tom Clancy, but this one was first rate.

Except for two things.

While I appreciated the level of technical detail Buff got into in the description of various technologies, sometimes it took me out of the narrative. For example, when the Sonar operator was explaining how his system worked, and how the sub could maneuver at the ocean’s bottom using a combination of sonar and computer modeling, it was obvious that Buff was really explaining this to the reader.

I remember reading an interview about the original Star Trek series some decades ago. Whoever was being interviewed, probably Roddenberry, said he never was tempted to explain how a phaser works. After all, on a cop show, the story doesn’t explain how a revolver works. It just works.

Yes, the technical details are fun, but he didn’t have to explain everything.

The other thing was the budding “romance” between Jeffrey and Ilse. It was painfully predictable. When Ilse first meets Jeffrey when she comes aboard the Challenger, she seems to absolutely hate him. By the epilogue, the adventure behind them, they’re dying to go on a date (no such luck, as it turns out). It also never explains why the young, handsome Fuller was still single and unattached, although Ilse ponders this at one point in the story.

Of course there has to be a bad guy. Yes there are a lot of bad guys, but this is the antagonist as well as Ilse’s ex-lover, Captain tel Horst of the submarine SAS Voortrekker. He’s a risk taking maniac who lives to kill the enemy, no matter what the cost. As Challenger infiltrates the heavily mined and patrolled bay near Durban, tel Horst’s submarine is in for repairs after nearly being destroyed in an attack against what he thought was an oil tanker. Turns out it was a decoy to lure in enemy submarines. This positions him and his boat in just the right place and time for the final battle with Challenger, setting up the climax.

This is the part of the book that really shines and the reason I read it in the first place. Captain Wilson had been seriously injured leaving Fuller in operational command. Tel Horst knew of Wilson, and for him, the sea battle was a personal game of chess between one Captain and the other. What he didn’t know was that Fuller, not Wilson, was his opponent, one with whom he was not acquainted.

I won’t reveal the ending, but it sets things up to immediately go into the next novel, and I have to admit, I’m sorely tempted to set aside all the books on my list and dive (no pun intended) into Thunder in the Deep.

The equal rights, equality, inclusiveness folks probably wouldn’t like the novel. Race is rarely addressed, and except for Ilse, there are no other significant women in the book. While Ilse is depicted as courageous and highly intelligent, it’s clear that she’s really there to play off of Fuller. Compared to the military action and adventure, which is the real point of this novel, the human interplay is pretty minor.

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