Mark Twain said that out of a possible 115 offenses against literary art, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer committed 114. In his latest novel, Arthur Clarke may have scored the full 115. This sci-fi adventure about the raising of the Titanic in 2012 A.D., the centenary of its sinking, is about as suspenseful as a cookbook. Whatever their age or sex, the characters are clones of one another, all smug, smart-alecky, self-made millionaires. The action is nil, and even in the realm of technological marvel-making, which has always been Clarke’s forte, the pickings are slim. Then why did I like the book?
It must be that Clarke has ripened into one of England’s most original eccentrics, someone who has enjoyed so many years of celebrity and seclusion that he can write completely dotty books without realizing it. Any paperback hack would know you don’t spend a few chapters building up to a confrontation with the sea’s biggest octopus only to have the hero say ”Boo!” at the showdown, making the monster flee in terror. You don’t introduce a darling little girl into your plot for no other purpose than to have her die in a rowboat accident. And surely you don’t stamp canceled on the whole plot by introducing an earthquake just when the Titanic is getting its comeuppance.
Fans of sci-fi maintain that their first priority in any story is a ”sense of wonder,” and precisely because Clarke doesn’t follow the usual rules of dramatic construction, books like Ghost can generate a sense of wonder better than most. Clarke is a longtime enthusiast of deep-sea diving, and he approaches his fictional worlds in the spirit of a scuba diver, examining them with patience, trepidation, and reverence.
There is a hidden agenda in Ghost that has nothing to do with the Titanic, or undersea exploration, or human nature. Clarke has become enamored of the Mandelbrot set, a mathematical phenomenon now popular among computer nerds. Much of the book is given over to Mandelbrot-set enthusiasts who lecture us on its mysteries, and Clarke has added an appendix, in which the lecture is repeated at greater length. The Mandelbrot set has no more bearing on the book’s plot than do the courtship rituals of penguins. It’s just Clarke’s current hobbyhorse, and connoisseurs of eccentricity will relish the sight of him riding it off to infinity. B