"Submergence" by J.M. Ledgard

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A British spy and a scientist-mathematician fall in love over Christmas at a Ritz in the French countryside, and then must go their separate ways. From there they each submerge into depths beyond their previous experience. In this simple framework bloom meditations of a challenging scientific and philosophical nature, such that they pretty well dominate the narrative. This is a contemplative novel, but it sustains a suspense in which life fences with death; and it is a scientific novel in which nevertheless two souls meet and complete each other. It accomplishes all these ends completely and gratifyingly. Deep, thought-provoking, excellent stuff.

We meet James and Danielle independently as they check into the same exclusive hotel on the Atlantic coast of France. We already know however that later on, James, a British intelligence operative, is captured by jihadists in Somalia, and begins many months of a nightmarish existence. Danielle for her part believes the key to life on the planet, and maybe answers to some of the more intractable social and scientific challenges, lie in the deep ocean, where life is chemosynthetic instead of photosynthetic, and where we, as a world and scientific community, have just now begun to scratch the surface of knowledge.

As the story progresses, James wages a constant private battle to keep his life and his  identity as he’s shoved from place to place, beaten, kicked, poisoned, and alternately hectored and ignored. Danielle prepares for immersion into the depths beneath the Greenland Sea, sending letters - written out in felt tip on pages from her notebook - to her lover James. Along the way each story poses its issues and challenges. For James, the immediate imperative of keeping his life leads to thoughts of faith - he’s a British Catholic - and a modern world where young men and boys are radicalized to jihadism by clerical Muslims. These thoughts find expression in some of the worst
conditions in the world - water-starved wadis in East Africa, ruined Italian villas where the water has stagnated, inhospitable jungles where insects rule.

Danielle’s challenges encompass the broader but no less pressing survival issues for the race as a whole. She believes the deep has lessons for surface-dwelling species that could hold the key to accommodating humanity in the narrow band of the surface biosphere. They - the secrets yet to be discovered - could help humankind build and maintain habitable outposts on other worlds, for example, and may hold clues for next steps in evolution that may have to be hurried along with biotechnological advances.

Mr. Ledgard leaves these questions, particularly the planetary-scope questions, open, as of course he must. But herein lies his agenda: the posing of the day’s most topical and pressing quandaries for consideration. However, I fear I may have sold the visual and fictional effects short here because, make no mistake, each step of the way they impress, convince, and compel. This is exceptional: ambitious, deep, heartfelt, magisterial, accomplished. Take it up by all means!

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