22 September 2014


Dead Water
by Simon Ings

A brainy thriller with literary standards of style and characterization, action-packed and fascinating. Set in about a dozen countries, its plot spans almost a century. Though ambitious and largely successful in artistic terms, I'm not sure how it has done commercially; I think it deserves to be a bestseller. Many of the settings and a large number of characters are Indian, and they are dealt with convincingly and respectfully — no curry-house comedy cut-outs here. A heavy salting of science and technology betrays the author’s roots in science writing and science fiction. There is no need to be a technophile to enjoy this book, but it certainly adds something if you are.

The plot of Dead Water is complicated. It deals mainly with piracy and other forms of skulduggery in the world of shipping, though an important strand of the novel concerns gangsterism and slavery in modern India. The cast of characters is large, but the body count is high and not many make it to the end of the novel. The good guys don’t necessarily win.

Interestingly, the novel is plotted round several famous historical disasters: the failed Italian polar expedition of 1928, the Firozabad rail disaster of 1995 and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Another pivot-point of the plot is the deposition of the Sultan of Oman and his replacement by his son (the present Sultan, Qaboos) in a coup devised and largely carried out by the British in 1970.

One of the things I liked best about the book was how well-researched it seems to be; there’s heaps of highly convincing incidental (and not-so-incidental) detail. However, a few of the details that I could check myself were wrong. The ship aboard which the climactic action takes place is supposed to be sailing south, with Sri Lanka to port and Tamil Nadu to starboard. This is impossible, because the Palk Strait, between the two countries, is far too shallow for shipping in that area, and even if it were possible the ship would have to be sailing southwest, not south, to obtain that view. Also, the Sri Lankan town of Trincomalee is not visible from (or anywhere near) that point, but we are told the ship’s captain sees the sun set over Trincomalee — impossible. Finally, the author misuses the name Tamil Eelam, applying it to the Tamil Tigers, when in reality it is the name of the state that organization hoped — and failed — to carve out of Sri Lanka.

These are trivial details, inessential to the plot, and did not detract much from my enjoyment; however, it did make me wonder how much other detail in this information-packed novel was equally erroneous.

I have another complaint. There is an active (and entirely unnecessary) supernatural element in the book. It is not offensively superstitious, but it does add a kind of sub-David Mitchell quality to what would have been a much better novel if it had stayed put in the material world it describes and deals with so well.

These minor reservations aside, I heartily recommend this to lovers of complex, well-plotted thrillers, fans of multiculturalism, people who are fascinated by science, technology and the elaborate networks of trade and communications with which our world is webbed. Lovers of science fiction will see much in the structure and presentation of this novel to remind them of their favourite genre.