Ocean on Top

When I was a graduate student, I found Hal Clement’s science fiction novel in the Florida State University Bookstore. I had just completed a summer in the U.S. Navy-sponsored Scientist in the Sea Program in Panama City, Florida. Being an avid diver, and a burgeoning scientist, my imagination was captured by Clement’s book.

I read his book shortly after it was published in 1973, but after graduating and moving, I lost the book. Unfortunately, I also forgot the book’s title and the author’s name. Yet I still felt a deep connection with the story, and for that reason, I spent decades looking for it, without success.

Recently, my luck changed. While browsing the Wikipedia topic on liquid breathing, I found the source I had long been searching for. “Hal Clement’s 1973 novel Ocean on Top portrays a small underwater civilization living in a ‘bubble’ of oxygenated fluid denser than seawater.”

There it was, at last. And best of all, that bubble turned out to be perfluorocarbon, an exotic, heavier than water, transparent liquid. In reality, filling a person’s lungs with it, is not as murderous as it would seem.

I was ecstatic: could this really be the book I’d been seeking for decades? Being on travel at the time, I searched for an Audible version of the book. Again, I was in luck: there was a version narrated by Tom Picasso. (Thank-you, Wikipedia and Audible, for providing instant gratification!)

With a bit more research, I discovered that “Hal Clement” was the pen name for Harry Clement Stubbs. I ordered two copies of his first edition, one of them signed with both his pen name and real name.

Harry (Hal) Stubbs passed away at age 81, in 2003. Born in 1922, Stubbs was an early leader in the “hard science fiction” genre, where science fiction is infused with scientific facts and logic.

Harry Clement Stubbs, aka Hal Clement.

The original version of his story was a Magazine serial version, copyrighted in 1967 by Galaxy Publishing Corp., for Worlds of If.

First publication.

While the publication of the 1973 book version of Clement’s story might have been influenced by the Energy Crisis of 1973, , the date of the original publication, 1967, suggests that Clement was simply prescient. I would be surprised if in the 1960s, a science fiction writer of ordinary skill could have envisioned the global Energy Crisis of 1979.

Yet, here it is, the publisher’s summary of Ocean on Top: “Aquatic Enigma – The world’s energy was limited… and with overpopulation and a high level of technology, the Power Board had virtually become the real government of the world. Power was rationed, it was guarded, it was sacred. Thus, when three of the Power Board’s agents disappeared at sea, and there was evidence that something irregular was happening to the energy quota in that area, it was cause for real alarm.”

In 1979, while I was stuck in long lines waiting for gas in Maryland and Washington D.C., I vividly remembered the premise behind the book whose title evaded me. What a curious prediction that author had made, a prediction that in part had come true.

Of greater interest to me in 1973, as a newly fledged Navy-trained science diver, was the book’s prediction of the consequences of contemporaneous U.S. Navy-funded work on liquid breathing by human divers. In the 1970s, Johannes A. Kylstra was the primary researcher working on that project in the hyperbaric laboratory at Duke University.

Some critics say Ocean on Top was not the best of Clement’s works. Arguably, that honor belongs to his earlier Mission of Gravity(1954). However, if you are curious about the prospects of forsaking the land and living under the sea, his 1973 book raises some interesting points. One is that it posits the divergence of humans into two races; air-breathing humans and liquid breathing humans.

Promo image for the movie, Aquaman.

It also predicts, convincingly, some of the communication difficulties such a human divergence would cause. After all, our anatomical speech apparatus is designed for working in air, not fluid.

Perhaps it was the subliminal memory of Clement’s little book that influenced the storyline in the recent work, Atmosphere, Book Three of the Jason Parker Trilogy. After all, liquid breathing was an exciting science and science fiction concept back in the day, and surely worth a resurgence in this century, based on modern science.

I say “modern science” for two reasons: the first is because liquid perfluorocarbon is now instilled in lungs for medical treatment. Secondly, thanks to new molecular engineering technology like CRISPR-Cas9, we now foresee how genetic engineering can potentially lead to a divergence of the human species.

If Hal Clement was still around, I have no doubt he’d be writing many more science fiction novels about a future that just might be more realistic, and with more immediacy, than we think.

Cover for the second edition.