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THE GHOST FROM THE GRAND BANKS
1990

Review © 1998 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art © 1991 by Paul Swendsen.

ARTHUR C. CLARKE


Seven years before James Cameron took us back to Titanic, Arthur C. Clarke concocted this readable but pitifully weak yarn about two competing expeditions to raise the legendary vessel from the frigid floor of the North Atlantic. As in most of his classic hard science epics, Clarke brings together a disparate group of adventurers who band together to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem, all of which is related in strikingly concise prose with wit to burn. What is lacking here, however, is a genuinely compelling sense of narrative urgency and thematic depth, and in this instance even Clarke's characters are as wafer-thin as the supporting cast of any TV show. I wish I had more to say about this novel, but the plot synopsis was fairly well encapsulated in this review's opening sentence; beyond that there's really no narrative complexity. Throughout the book, Clarke touches upon several hot scientific headlines of the moment (such as the mythic Y2K computer problem), mainly the early-'90's mathematical fad, the Mandelbrot Set, with which one character is obsessed. Clarke does convey why fractal mathematics is so cool; he doesn't see fit to explain what it's got to do with raising the Titanic. Indeed, the novel suffers mainly in that, what with all of the fascinating ideas and elements Clarke puts forth, none of them seems to be linked thematically with any other, in any but the most superficial of ways. As an adventure story, it doesn't deliver the goods because there aren't any galvanizing moments of white-knuckle suspense, any hairs-breadth escapes from near certain doom. (Amazing when you consider this book features an 8.0 seaquake and one very large octopus!) Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic! beats this novel nine ways from Sunday on that score (and ironically, Clarke references both that novel and its film version). Most storytellers (up to and including Cameron) have additionally touched upon the famous ship's metaphorical value, the way Titanic represented human arrogance in the battle to beat Mother Nature at Her own game. Couldn't a novel about raising Titanic using the highest of high technology have explored — pardon the pun — similar thematic waters? And as for Clarke's epilogue, a far-future coda with a "surprising" reveal, well, it all just seemed superfluous, simply an attempt to inject some overtly science-fictiony elements into what might otherwise be a routine borderline-mainstream thriller in the Crichton vein. You can read this novel — easily the most disappointing of Clarke's long and magnificent career — in about as much time as it takes to watch Cameron's movie, but unlike that film's record-breaking success, The Ghost from the Grand Banks is likely to sink without a trace.