By Craig Russell
(Thistledown Press, October 2016, 214 pages, $19.95)
Craig Russell’s Fragment succeeds on multiple fronts. On one level, it’s a fascinating work of idea-fiction that tells a tale of first contact between humans and whales. It also spins an absorbing thriller yarn in which a motley group of humans and a lone, heroic whale join forces to face an unprecedented threat. On a third level, the book offers important insights into the gravest ecological reality of our time, climate change, without ever coming across as didactic or preachy. None of this is to say that Fragment is faultless, however; on the contrary, it is unfortunately hindered by a significant implausibility. But if you can suspend your disbelief for the sake of a good read, this flaw should put only a slight damper on your enjoyment of the book.
The story unfolds in what feels like the present (though the exact period isn’t specified), and is told in the present tense, a technique used quite effectively to heighten the suspense. Scientists at Scott Base, New Zealand’s permanent Antarctic research facility located near the Ross Ice Shelf, have concluded that four huge glaciers are about to make major advances. Polar climatologist Kate Sexsmith appears on network news to warn of the threat this portends. She begins describing how one of the glaciers is about to plow right into the Ice Shelf, but before she can elaborate any further, the interview is cut short. The climatologist is frantically rushed out of the room by a colleague as the rumble of avalanching snow erupts all around her, and then a brief moment later, the TV camera stops transmitting.
The shifting glaciers have broken a colossal chunk off the Ice Shelf and thrust it into the Southern Ocean. This “fragment,” as it comes to be known, is 200 miles long by 100 wide, weighs half a trillion tons and threatens to kill countless unsuspecting sea creatures in its path. The destructive force that it attains as it moves north and gets swept up in the world’s largest ocean current also makes it a dire threat to coastal population centers everywhere along its trajectory.
Russell skillfully interweaves several concurrent plot strands. In one of them, the three researchers from Scott Base travel to nearby McMurdo Air Force Base, only to find it leveled and all its 2,000 inhabitants dead. Shortly thereafter, the scientists are picked up by the USN SSBN Lincoln, a U.S. nuclear missile sub diverted to McMurdo to rescue survivors. Meanwhile, back at the New York headquarters of Innovation-TV, executives strategize their follow-up to the aborted interview with Dr. Sexsmith. They arrange for a reporter to board a cruise ship that’s been rerouted to intercept the Fragment. There are also plot strands involving Good Samaritans Blair Cockburn, a sailor who rushes to the cruise ship’s aid when it comes to grief, and Ring, a blue whale who sets out to warn his brethren about the Fragment. In the last major plot line, the U.S. president and his advisors debate what do about Ring, whom they come to view as a counterintelligence liability due to his ability to detect the locations of American military subs through sonar, together with his capacity to communicate with humans.
Ring’s first clue to the Fragment’s existence comes when he begins having trouble hearing other blues’ songs. The notes aren’t coming through as clearly as usual, and Ring deduces that this must be because some large undersea mass is impeding sound waves. Upon further investigation, he encounters the Fragment—and immediately senses the danger it poses. He starts composing a song to alert other blues and then sings it at regular intervals while swimming alongside the Fragment. This courageous act saves the lives of many blues, but is sadly incapable of helping the scores of other animals that can’t understand blue.
Though they don’t comprehend its meaning at first, two humans also take notice of Ring’s warning. Renowned marine biologist Graham Palmer, who was among the three scientists to board the Lincoln at McMurdo, first hears the song when the sub’s sonar chief, a huge fan of Palmer’s work, presents him with a recording of it. The two men are transfixed, for this whale song is unlike any other they’ve heard, and together they set about trying to translate it. After much persistence and the help of other scientists and technicians, they succeed in decoding it, then proceed to compose a response. This latter effort is rather crude, given their rudimentary grasp of blue, but Ring gets the gist nonetheless.
Soon Ring and the scientists strike up a voluminous conversation. The humans become fluent enough in blue to give Ring lessons in history, mathematics and other subjects. They’re aided in their efforts by the fact that blues, like humans, use abstractions and metaphors. As a result, the scientists are able to convey ideas through image transformations. For example, they illustrate the notion of peace by showing the calming of a violent storm, and the meanings of words like “harden” and “soften” by describing a jellyfish turning into a crab, and vice versa. As electrified as the researchers are at making contact with another sentient being, their student is equally thrilled. Clearly a cut or two above most other blues in cunning and intellectual curiosity, Ring immensely enjoys the challenge of learning about humans.
Fragment’s most obvious theme is the alarming rate at which climate change is accelerating. While we have yet to see, in the real world, anything on the order of a country-sized piece of ice breaking away from an icecap and raining annihilation on human and sea animal populations alike, the impacts that we are seeing consistently exceed even worst-case expectations. Thus, the scenario depicted in Russell’s book is entirely believable.
Another of Fragment‘s themes is the faulty reasoning that climate change deniers use to stoke public doubt over the issue. We watch a conservative pundit come onto national TV and argue, based on cherry-picked photos of a few isolated glaciers that have crept out to sea, that glaciers in general haven’t been receding. When the news anchor, who is no slouch at detecting bad logic, calls him out on this, the man clumsily resorts to another tactic: impassioned hand waving about how America “will not have carbon emission limits forced on it by foreign socialists. America will remain free.”
Russell’s writing is Crichtonesque in the way it draws on science from a range of fields to speculate capitvatingly on the future. In describing the terrain and inner workings of the Fragment, Russell builds on our existing knowledge of real-world glaciers and ice sheets. In particular, he shows how the complex moulin systems that undermine glaciers’ stability—by allowing meltwater to carve out their insides like so much swiss cheese—could apply on a titanic scale, turning a drifting ice sheet into a destructive force such as the world has never seen. The author also presents lots of interesting information about blue whale anatomy, underwater sound propagation, the physics of wave formation and various other topics.
As much of a knack as Russell has for rousing storytelling, he is equally adept at character development, and in Fragment he wisely focuses on a well-chosen handful of players. For me, the most well-realized characters are Ring, the brilliant whale expert and the valiant veteran sailor who carries out perhaps the most heroic act of anyone. I was especially impressed by how emotionally involved I became in Ring’s story despite his belonging to a different species.
I stated earlier that Fragment suffers from an implausibility. Fortunately, it doesn’t come into play (at least, for me) until the novel’s denouement. I won’t spoil the ending, so suffice it to say that I just had a hard time buying how quickly humans and whales go from first contact to interspecies collaboration and comradeship. (It’s to Russell’s great credit that he sold me on the premise that such a progression could occur at all.) In addition, I felt discomfort at something the scientists tell Ring in their efforts to persuade him to keep talking to them. They assure him that if, one day, humans and whales at large are able to communicate with one another, humans’ mass slaughter of whales will stop. To me this is a case of making a promise one can’t possibly keep—how can these individuals feel confident speaking for all members of their kind? But the issues just touched on are the only wrong notes I detected in the entire novel; everything else hits the mark squarely.