Star Trek might have told us that space is the final frontier, but the ocean is the frontier that’s right at our doorstep. Largely unexplored, mysterious, and often downright weird (just look at those deep sea volcanic vent biological communities), the ocean has invited storytelling as long as human beings have been dipping our toes into it. Here are some underwater sci-fi and fantasy books that go from the scientific to the fanciful, from shallow water to the deep and cold where you’ll never know what to expect.
1.THE SCARBY CHINA MIÉVILLEBuy it from Amazon
The Scar lives in the same universe as Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, but casts off quickly from that weirdly fantastic shore to go to deeper and even stranger waters. Passengers of a ship are captured by pirates and forced to join the Armada, a floating city of a thousand ships. The strange leaders of the Armada, called the Lovers, are searching for a massive undersea creature called the avanc. But the purpose isn’t just for some kind of great hunt—it’s to harness the massive creature to take the entire floating city to the Scar, a place in the ocean where reality breaks down and everything is possible. The real question is if the Lovers—or anyone—should have that kind of power. But there’s an entire city of ships on a collision course with it anyway.
2.A DOOR INTO OCEANBY JOAN SLONCZEWSKIBuy it from Amazon
Feminist science fiction set on a water-covered moon populated by the all-female Sharers. The Sharer culture is fascinatingly built; it revolves entirely around the concept of nonviolence. Even the language of the Sharers emphasizes that idea, because there is no differentiation between subject and object, meaning that one thing acting upon another can always be linguistically reversed. Of course, an existence of total nonviolence and peace is going to get screwed up somehow; the Sharers encounter people from another planet, who threaten them. They deal with this threat by inviting a man from that planet into their society and teach him their ways; in return he helps defend them from the threatened invasion.
3.ROCHEWORLD BY ROBERT L. FORWARDBuy it from Amazon
It’s an oldie but a goodie, a “hard” sci-fi tale of a spaceship called the Dragonfly (fun fact: the original form of this novel was called Flight of the Dragonfly) traveling to a strange double planet called Rocheworld. One “lobe” of the planet is dry, and the other is covered entirely by an ocean. The ocean world is populated by a water-dwelling species called the Flouwen, who are utterly adorable blobs that also happen to be incredibly good at math. Rocheworld is the opener to a series that goes Robinson Crusoe in a fun way, and ultimately builds a society between humans and the undersea, friendly aliens.
4.LAGOON BY NNEDI OKORAFORBuy it from Amazon
Aliens have landed in the lagoon that stands next to Lagos, Nigeria, and the city will never be the same. The mixing of land and sea represented by the lagoon morphs into the mixing of alien and human, sometimes harmonious and sometimes very much not. The real question isn’t so much what the aliens want or if they can be trusted, but if the people of Lagos can adjust to this sudden shift in their world, and what they will become on the other side of it. While this first contact story takes place mostly on dry land, the underwater scenes as the aliens arrive are absolutely breathtaking. The sensibility of the lagoon as a liminal space permeate the novel, and at times while the characters are on dry land, they seem to be about to drown. It’s rich, delightful, and beautifully told.
5.INTO THE DROWNING DEEPBY MIRA GRANTBuy it from Amazon
Mermaids like you’ve never seen them before, vicious and bloodthirsty and downright chthonic. Into the Drowning Deep is a sequel to Mira Grant’s standalone novella Rolling in the Deep. In the novella, a ship named the Atargatis, populated with scientists and a reality TV “documentary” crew, goes looking for mermaids and gets more than they bargained for in a messy, bloody, horrifying way. Seven years later in Into the Drowning Deep, the sister of one of the slain passengers of the Atargatis embarks on a new journey funded by the same media company, determined to get revenge and show that the horrifying existence of mermaids isn’t actually a hoax. As you might imagine, the mermaids aren’t a hoax, they’ve been waiting for the humans to return, and things are going to get bloody. It’s a mix of the cut throat horrors of academia, the banal evil of reality TV entertainment, and some excellent B movie monster fun.