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Why write a submarine story?

There's a scene early in The China Syndrome where Jack Lemon is in the control room for a nuclear reactor power plant. He stares intently at the array of dials in front of him. Not being nuclear engineers, we don't know what any of the dials are indicating exactly. But from the sweat on his brow and the tears in his eyes, we know that Jack Lemon's character is watching the nuclear reactor he is responsible for go through the early stages of a meltdown. It is a tremendous piece of acting. And it is a masterful bit of storytelling: the movie never bothers to show you the nuclear reactor itself. The drama of what is happening is entirely conveyed by a few bits of dialog and the reaction on Jack Lemon's face to what he is seeing on the dials.

It occurred to me that a person reading their fate from a wall of gauges is a singularly powerful way to convey dramatic tension to an audience. It has long been a truism of the horror film genre that the scariest thing is the thing you don't see. Once the ghost, ax murderer, face-sucking alien, or sea monster has been shown to be real the fear is shortly thereafter drained out of it. One of the things that is magic about that scene in The China Syndrome is that the source of the terror, fear, and doom is held at a distance and remains unseen. At the same time the reality of it is front and center. It manages to be an invisible terror and at the same time something that is currently happening — not some vague threat, but invisible, terrifying disaster in occurring in real time. What could be more terrifying than that?

The staring-at-the-dial-in-terror scene in The China Syndrome depends entirely on Jack Lemon's acting ability to convey the terror of the situation. The audience is assumed to know nothing about how nuclear reactors work, or what the dial Jack Lemon is staring at conveys. You could imagine that the effectiveness of the scene could only be enhanced if the audience understood the meaning of the readout on the dial.

And this is precisely what happens at the climax of the greatest submarine movie of them all: Das Boot. The audience — fully aware of the most basic rule of submarine drama that the boat can only go so deep before it collapses on itself from the pressure of the water — is treated to the excitement and terror of watching the submarine sink. The knowledge of the sinking is transmitted by nothing more than the camera showing us the needle on the depth gauge climbing and climbing, until it passes the last of the hashes on the deepest part of the dial… and keeps going.

Yes, we get the cutaway shots of the captain staring in terror at the depth gauge. Yes, there are some external shots of the boat going down into the murky Mediterranean. And yes, those familiar with the scene will remember that the glass of the dial even cracks dramatically (presumably from the stress of the hull being reshaped by the pressure of the water, and thereby bending the housing of the gauge until the glass can no longer take it). But all that is just bonus. The real story is told by the depth gauge itself. One could imagine a dramatic story told by nothing but gauges and dials. (Admittedly, it would be pretty experimental.)

For someone who is unfamiliar with the technical workings of submarines, the first thing they need to understand is that submarines have no windows. Well, research submarines have windows for looking at the strange dwellers in the deepest, blackest pits of the ocean. But the submarine technology the militaries of the world developed in the 20th Century are a different kind of machine entirely. Windows are not necessary, because the boat is operated entirely by sensors that detect the world around it. The most important of those sensors uses sound waves to map the world around the submarine. It is known as sonar. In the light-less waters of the ocean, sound give a much clearer picture of what surrounds the submarine than vision ever could.

The sound sensors are wired up to the "control room" of the submarine. In the control room are the people who use the sound-sensor information to decide what they want to do with their vessel and where they want to go.

The control room is also where the periscope is located. But if you thought submarines were generally steered by the periscope, then allow me to introduce one of the first facts about the mind-blowing technology that submarines make use of: the periscope — which you can read as visual information — is supplemental sensory input for a submarine. Visual information is typically used only to confirm information submarines already know from other sensors. It is entirely unnecessary to the core functions of the submarine.

So one way to think about a submarine is as a kind of animal. The people controlling the submarine are in a way the brain of the animal. They take in sensory input, make decisions, and guide the behavior of this giant steel tube of an animal. Out there in the world's oceans right now, hundreds of these animals are swimming around. On a modern nuclear submarine, the technology has reached a point where these animals never have to surface. (The only limiting factor is not air or water or fuel — it's the food to feed the human crew members.) They pass back and forth across the deep parts of the ocean with no need for windows. No need for eyes. They neither see nor are seen. Like all things that exist in the parts of the ocean that see little sunlight — giant and colossal squids, toothfish, oarfish, sleeper sharks, sunfish, spider crabs, tube worms, and hundreds of trillions of bristlemouths — submarines are subconscious objects. We know they are out there, but most of us will never see one in our lives. They are literally out of sight and out of mind. The stuff of significance only to dreams.

But submarines are unique among these subconscious objects for having people aboard. It is impossible for us to conceptualize what a layer of fish so vast and dense that it forms a false sea bottom as a coherent object or experience in our mind. But we — real human beings — are out there in those submarines. While the other subconscious denizens of the deep are so alien that if brought to the surface — in other words, brought into our world — they are instantly rendered into a lifeless puss. They are subconscious objects with virtually no place in the conscious world. Submarines, while they remain largely subconscious, also have an element of human reality to them by virtue of the simple fact that they must support human existence to function. They are a subconscious object into which we can put our conscious daydreams, if we choose to.

For this reason the submarine makes an exceptional stage for telling a story.

A metaphorical stage, as described above, for sure. They also make for an excellent literal stage or set. The reasons are obvious: nearly all of the action in a submarine story has to occur in one of a few compartments aboard the sub. There is no off-stage. There's no outside. The larger world — such as it exists — is mediated entirely through the sensory mechanisms of the submarine (and the readings from those sensory mechanisms are easily rendered into dialog). The submarine's main compartments become a setting for drama, a frame around the action. It gives the storyteller a powerful and useful limitation. Imagine a play set on a submarine that consists of nothing more than three sets: the control room, the torpedo room, and the engine room. Maybe they rotate so dialog could move back and forth between the compartments. The challenges of being restricted to a story told on a set like that would be liberating to a gifted story-teller.

Even if a story-teller didn't treat the submarine as a formal theater set, the submarine story is by its very nature constricted by a set of rules that the audience can be generally assumed to understand: there's a limit to the amount of air available, the submarine can only go so deep without being crushed, enemies are detected by sound, etc. The rules become rails that guide a submarine story. They are the reason that the best of the submarine stories: Das Boot, Hunt, Crimson Tide, The Enemy Below, Run Silent, Run Deep; are so good.

Because these story guiderails seemed so powerful to me, I set out to watch and read as many submarines stories as I could. Let me tell you: those rails only hold up for so long. The submarine genre, like all genres, is filled with crap of which only a few of the best rise above. As strong as those guiderails may be, they are not enough to keep most mid-century, post-war submarine stories from plunging into dull hyper-nationalistic us-vs-them schlock cliche. Instead of supporting the story, the rails become a track for the formulaic. The mid-century submarine movie wore out the formula, leaving submarine stories tired, dated, and smelling of naphthalene and camphor.

But I believe those guiderails can give a talented story-teller a running start. I think the submarine story is ready for a re-tooling and a re-telling. If the nationalism, masculinity, and WWII/cold-warrior-ness of them was left behind, the machines themselves could be a source of terrific stories. (Though this might be limited with modern subs where the tech is so advanced it is virtually magic — Harry Potter aside, it becomes difficult to tell a compelling story when almost anything could happen or be believed.) There's a real opportunity to centrifuge out what's good about submarine stories, mix them up with some more up-to-date notions (like, you know, female characters) and maybe create something really special.

This is exactly what I tried to pull off in my novel By Sound Alone.