Book Review: Ice Station Nautilus
Ice Station Nautilus
by Rick Campbell
St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Rick Campbell’s latest novel, Ice Station Nautilus, begins in the way that perhaps all novels should begin (imagine the wonders it would have done for Crime and Punishment): “Torpedo in the water, bearing two-five-zero!”
Unfortunately, and inevitably, things go downhill from there. The Achilles Heel of military techno-thrillers is actually as big as a trapezius on a Boston Celtic: sure, their authors can sling around occasional lines like “Torpedo in the water, bearing two-five-zero!” – but only at the cost of then filling in the yards and yards of supporting technical jargon. And sure enough, the echo of Campbell’s opener has scarcely faded when we start getting a fusillade of paragraphs like this one:
The Helm rang up ahead flank and twisted his yoke to right full, and the Officer of the Deck launched one of Michigan‘s decoys. Wilson turned his attention to getting a torpedo into the water. His crew was still at Firing Point Procedures, but his Executive Officer hadn’t determined an adequate target solution. With Michigan increasing to ahead flank, they would likely lose Sierra eight-five due to the turbulent flow of water across Michigan’s sensors. They needed to launch a torpedo soon.
The need to launch a torpedo soon is of course a truth universally acknowledged, but “twisted his yoke”? “Firing Point Procedures”? “Adequate target solution”? And who the heck is “Sierra eight-five”? Sounds like a Southern California high school graduating class.
Campbell knows just what he’s doing, on multiple levels. He’s a retired Navy Commander with many submarine tours under his belt, so he knows how to make his shop-talk sound convincing. And like all techno-thriller authors, he has one eye fixed firmly on the one that started it all: Tom Clancy’s 1984 surprise bestseller, The Hunt for Red October, which set the mold for the modern iteration of this kind of book: wooden, one-dimensional (and, needless to say, egregiously sexist) characters, enormous basal ore-deposits of pure, undiluted exposition, and American virility triumphing in the end over everything, including the laws of Newtonian physics.
The cold, clammy hand of Clancy rests more heavily on Ice Station Nautilus than on anything else Campbell has written. The book’s plot centers on two ships and the disastrous aftermath of their confrontation: the Yuriy Dolgorukiy is the newest Russian ballistic submarine, and its maiden patrol is being shadowed by the American attack submarine North Dakota. When the subs collide under the Arctic ice cap, the Americans launch a rescue operation (in the course of which they set up the titular base camp). The Russians launch a rescue operation too, but it quickly becomes apparent they, being Russians, also have more nefarious aims in mind.
This set-up gives Campbell plenty of dramatic opportunities for both ship-based ordnance and hand-held weapons, and he takes full advantage of both. He also sometimes shifts the scene of his action, Clancy-style, to the devious civilian bureaucrats who are the heavily-implied real enemies of all men and women in the field.
In other words, this kind of thing tends to be pure market-driven formula, and readers going in should know that, although in fairness they certainly will: as in many sub-genres, the comfort of the formula is the appeal of the enterprise. To his credit, Campbell livens things up with half a dozen very effective action sequences and some atmospherics that must certainly draw their strength from Campbell’s own personal experiences. Fans of Clancy-style techno-thrillers certainly won’t be disappointed by Ice Station Nautilus, although they’re the only ones who’ll be fully able to wade through the requisite droning that dogs the narrative even in the book’s third act:
On older submarines, the Officer of the Deck would give a rudder order when changing course more than ten degrees, and when changing depth, the Diving Officer would order a specific up or down angle for the boat. On Virginia class submarines, however, “the ship” made those decisions. The Officer of the Deck would order an new course or depth and the Pilot would enter it into the Ship Control Station, and the ship’s computer would automatically adjust the submarine’s rudder, bow and stern planes to the optimal angles. If desired, manual control could be taken by ordering a specific rudder or ship angle. But it was normally a “hands off” operation.
Got all that? Good – full speed ahead right rudder.