© 1987 Michael Crichton
Norman Thomas is accustomed to government officials asking for his assistance to counsel survivors at plane crashes, but traveling fifteen hours into the middle of the Pacific is a first. Upon arrival, John finds not an island with aircraft remains, but a small fleet of ships from the US Navy: and the object of their concern isn’t a crashed vessel at all. It’s a sunken ship…a spaceship….that is three hundred years old. So begins an eerie psychological thriller, as Thomas and a team chosen to make first contact with unknown life forms are taken by sub deep into the bottom of the ocean, into a lightless world of fear and wonder.
Johnson came to the Navy’s attention when, during the Carter Administration, he submitted a report to a committee concerned with extraterrestrial life. It wasn’t a subject he took seriously, but they offered him money for educated guesses, and with a house to pay for he was more than happy to make guesses. Those guesses have become US policy, and the recommendations he made have become his own hand-picked team of zoologists and other professionals. From the beginning Johnson and the other civilians suspect the Navy knows more than it is letting on, but the surprises are only starting: when the craft is breached, it proves to be not of extraterrestrial origin, but is human-made, with English signage and stocked with Coca-Cola! But the interior of the ship has still more surprises, alien and powerful, and after a hurricane scatters the surface fleet the explorers are left marooned thousands of few below. There, as strange happenings start to claim their lives, the slowly-dwindling survivors begin to question their own sanity.
Sphere is a remarkably creepy book, a genuine thriller: from the beginning, its developments incite curiosity, and later dread. How did a human spaceship, whose operating principles and material are far beyond the present’s abilities, come to be buried beneath centuries of coral and the oceans themselves? What was its mission, what is the meaning of its baffling cargo (a mysterious black sphere), and…why do people keep dying? Strange animals keep appearing around the underwater habitat, including a giant squid that can heavily damage it; the built environment around them keeps adding surprises, things suddenly being there that weren’t before…and then there’s ‘Jerry’, some strange entity attempting to communicate with the crew. “Jerry’s” conversational skills have an uncanny aspect, familiar yet menacing. Ultimately, even the psychologist-narrator seems on the verge of cracking up before an explosive conclusion.
I’ve only read a few of Crichton’s works (Andromeda Strain, Timeline, Jurassic Park, Lost World), but this ranks near the top. It is a psychological thriller, not only because the characters seem to be collectively losing their mind, but because Crichton’s author-lecture addresses perception, imagination, and reality. The alien here is utterly alien; this isn’t a Star Trek humanoid with a bumpy nose, or even a SF monster that has a mouth, eyes, and the desire to eat what it sees. The alien presence here is not comprehensible; the characters don’t even know if they’re seeing an actual sphere, or some part of a transdimensional object that merely looks like a sphere in our plane of existence. Crichton’s writing may be plain, but what a scientifically-inspired imagination!