Involution Ocean, published in 1977, is Bruce Sterling's first book. It is introduced by Harlan Ellison, who claims that the book is a "stunning tour de force" that will rock the genre and its readers. Ellison, although a great judge of talent (especially if you ask him), was either painfully incorrect or wildly prescient. Sterling did do his fair share of rocking, but it wasn't until Mirrorshades in 1986.
Involution Ocean is a far cry from the cyberpunk niche that Sterling later came to dominate (and, arguably, create). The setting is the far-flung world of Nullaqua. The world is defined by a single habitable crater, and that crater is filled with a heavy, perpetual mist of dust. Nullaqua is a sea-faring world, populated by a race of stoic, unimaginative sailors - all on an ocean of dust.
The book's protagonist is John Newhouse, an off-worlder. John is drawn to Nullaqua by 'Flare', a potent drug stilled from the belly of the 'dustwhale'. The story begins with the drug being declared illegal. In order to preserve his supply, John is forced to join a whaling ship, and sail the dusty seas of Nullaqua.
Besides John - acerbic, jaded and worldly - the ship carries a few other misfits. The captain is a massive and terrifying man, bent on carrying out his mysterious research. He harbors a secret vendetta against the dust and its denizens. His pseudo-scientific labors seem more like angry provocations of their environment.
Another misfit on board is an alien bat-woman - a winged scout from a distant world who has abandoned her people. Despite her disfiguring cosmetic surgery, she's far from human - and even the touch of a human being causes her physical pain.
If this seems like Moby Dick (plus a random bat-person), the comparison is intentional. In his foreword, Ellison even notes that Sterling wryly showed up with the manuscript entitled 'Moby Dust'. It is, however, a testament to Sterling's ability as a fledgling writer (he wasn't even out of college when this was published) that what starts as a SF pastiche becomes something very different by the end.
The complex relationships between the characters are at the heart of the book. Although the voyage invariably comes to a cataclysmic conclusion, everyone finds their own unique form of redemption. Sterling only has one serious lapse - an epiphany or dream sequence that reveals the origins of the dusty ocean and its sinister (and legendary) inhabitants. It is essentially six pages of Lovecraftian tomfoolery, an unpleasant and parenthetical break for world-building in an otherwise character-driven narrative.
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