Three Miles Down, by Harry Turtledove

It is curiously that I’ve never read any works by Harry Turtledove until now. He is an incredibly prolific author famed for his alternate histories, such as his Southern Victory series about the South winning the Civil War and his Worldwar series about aliens invading Earth during World War II.

Somehow I’ve just never quite gotten around to reading his work until he posted on Twitter about his most recent, Three Miles Down (2022).

This book, set in the most chaotic years of the 1970s (for Americans, at least), describes humankind’s first encounter with aliens — found lying deep under the ocean.

The novel follows UCLA marine biology student Jerry Stieglitz, struggling to finish his PhD dissertation while also trying to sell science fiction stories to magazines. The year is 1974, and the Watergate scandal has turned the United States upside-down politically, with each new revelation of crimes more shocking than the last. As the story begins, Jerry gets some unexpected visitors: CIA agents, who want to hire him — with very significant pay — to accompany them on a mission in the Pacific Ocean. There is a Russian submarine that has sunk in deep water, and the US government has built the ship Glomar Explorer to raise it from the depths and reveal its secrets. The official cover story is that the ship will be mining for manganese nodules on the ocean floor, and they want Jerry along to perform some of his whale song research to bolster the cover story of a research ship.

The money is good, and will solve plenty of financial problems for Jerry and his fiancée, so he agrees to take the job, which is expected to last a few months. But after he sets sail, he learns that the recovery of the Russian submarine is another cover story. The sub exists, but it lies next to something literally out of this world — what appears to be an alien spacecraft, resting in the depths for an unknown period of time. The government is going to attempt to hoist the craft from the ocean floor to learn its secrets, and Jerry has been recruited in part due to his science fiction interests — who better to try to imagine what might happen as the Glomar Explorer begins its operations? There is a very real possibility of danger, as well: the government is almost certain that the alien craft was responsible for the sinking of the Russian submarine. Was it automated defenses, or something alive that made the attack? And will the Glomar Explorer suffer the same fate when it tries to raise it from the depths?

This is a really compelling and fun novel. A lot of the early part of the novel is all about tension, as the crew of the ship speculate on and try to anticipate every possible outcome of their operation, while at the same time dealing with a variety of setbacks. Turtledove is really good at making these “hurry up and wait” moments compelling and fascinating, and he gives us characters that we carry about, from the idealistic Jerry to the most cynical CIA spook.

I don’t want to give away much about the novel and where it goes, but let me just say that it takes a quite unexpected turn about halfway through, at which point is going from being “just” a science fiction novel to a full alternate history of the sort that Turtledove specializes in. As the author himself alluded to on Twitter, it is as much a novel about humanity and what we’re capable of as it is a story about what aliens are capable of.

I was pretty much hooked on this book from the very first chapter, and ended up reading the last third of the book within a single afternoon. It ends in such a way that leaves open the possibility of a sequel, and I sincerely hope there is one. Very much recommended!

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