A Tunnel in the Sky

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Three Miles Down
by Harry Turtledove

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 21, 2022

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I received an e-ARC of this title from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. It might surprise some that it is the first of Harry Turtledove's novels I've read. I think I read a short story or two, but it has been a long time, and it's possible I'm confusing them with stories written by others. Like many of his books, this is alternate history. It's set in 1974-75, at the height of the Cold War, but in this case it is possible the war is about to heat up quite a bit. Another historical event is going on in the background; the Watergate hearings, and later Nixon's resignation and pardon. Jerry Stieglitz is a graduate student/teaching assistant at UCLA, his studies being in oceanography, with an interest in whale song. He is approached by mysterious men who invite him to participate in an ocean-going expedition in the North Pacific. He is to act as cover for the mission, supposedly as an aid to completing his dissertation, with the stated purpose of the operation being mining for manganese nodules off the ocean floor. That is also a cover, since the actual goal is to recover a Russian submarine that sank to the bottom several years earlier. In alternate history it is effective to include some true events. The ship Stieglitz boards in Long Beach is the Hughes Glomar Explorer, its CIA mission, code named "Azorian," was to recover the Soviet sub K-129. That was a real ship and a real mission, which you can read about on Wikipedia. Stieglitz was aware it was a CIA mission, and he had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The twist for this story isn't revealed until the ship is well under way, and after Jerry is compelled to sign another NDA. In searching for the sub, the CIA also discovered the likely reason that sub was at the bottom of the ocean, what appears to be an extra-terrestrial craft close by.

The reason for selecting Stieglitz for the mission might seem superficial, but I suppose intelligence agencies have to think of all contingencies and possibilities. In addition to his academic studies, Jerry was also a published author of science fiction, if only a couple of stories so far. Like many other SF authors he had also read a great deal in the genre, and it was assumed his imagination would help in the planning of the mission, particularly if they were successful in raising the ship to the surface. Jerry compiled over 300 file cards with speculations of what they might encounter, along with suggested responses, which impressed the head of the mission. Jerry got the honor of being the first to enter the craft once that was accomplished, but I won't reveal how he was able to gain access, since it is not just illogical, it's preposterous. On the second trip inside the aliens are discovered, two in what appears to be suspended animation pods, the third outside his pod and clearly dead. Subsequent efforts by others alarm Jerry, he takes his objections to the mission director, which gets him suspended from the operation and sent home. When he is waiting to board the helicopter that will take him off the ship, he recognizes a person he assumes is his replacement; another science fiction author. I won't identify him, but the clues are he died about five years ago, and he was very conservative, whereas Jerry was fairly liberal.

At this point, about halfway through the book, I expected something would happen to compel the director to change his mind, recall Jerry, and the exploration of the craft would continue. No, we follow Jerry on his trip back to L.A. via Hawaii, where he reunites with his fiancÚ, they plan for the wedding that had been postponed, but shortly after that Jerry learns some news that convinces him his life is in danger. I won't say anything else, other than I was disappointed by that detour, that distance from the part of the story that interested me the most. Plus the fact this is obviously just the beginning of another series. It ends on a huge cliffhanger, which I'm interested in seeing resolved, but who knows how many volumes the series might eventually be. Turtledove has written well over a hundred novels, only twenty-five being stand-alones, the rest part of series that range up to twelve titles. I would have preferred this to be a stand-alone. It's relatively short, quite a bit could have been streamlined or eliminated, plus there were too many glaring inconsistencies in what Jerry was able to do, considering the CIA should have had him under constant surveillance. If the sequel was ready now I would read it, but it is likely my interest will fade, and I might even forget about it in the meantime.


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Harry Turtledove

July 26, 2022

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