Research Notes · 05/31/2013


Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, J.M. Ledgard writes about Submergence, a novel out now from Coffee House Press.


Literature in a time of species survival

What if I tell you there is another world in our world? Not only sprites, angels, inner structures; I am talking about the ocean. No great revelation, I suppose, since you have a map on your wall which is greatly more blue than green. But consider the mismatch: 98% of the living space on earth is in the ocean, chemosynthetic life on the sea floor outweighs photosynthetic life on land and some of these organisms have been stable in evolutionary terms for a billion years; the most common form of communication on the planet is the bioluminescence of fish and jellies, shivering lights with subtlety of expression to match that of bird song.

I was born in Shetland, a remote archipelago between Scotland and Iceland, and have always keenly felt myself to belong to the northern seas, to storms, spume, numbing wet sand. But my life has taken a different course. I became a foreign correspondent in hot and dry places in order to become a novelist. I spent the last decade in Africa, reporting on political risk, natural resource and security questions. One of the stories I followed was terrorism. I tracked al-Qaeda commanders, met jihadist fighters in Somalia, and saw there the tyranny of a stillborn caliphate. Trudging and driving across Somalia, northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, I came to love the blazing lands. 

As a novelist, in those same years, I kept thinking about the ocean. I saw that the weight of the waters in the world is likely more enduring than the events and beliefs on land. I grew fascinated in archaea, viruses and other microscopic forms of life in the deep ocean. I accompanied a science expedition to the Arctic Ocean and was a visiting fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I spent time with biomathematicians, geobiologists, and submersible pilots. These parallel lives — the surface and the deep — came together in my second novel, Submergence, set in the badlands of Somalia and at the bottom of the Greenland Sea. My British publisher was excited by the result but despaired at the commercial prospects of mixing jihad and oceanography. Where on earth do they meet?

As it happens, in a precise spot on the sea floor. For just as I was finishing the novel, Osama bin Laden was shot dead and buried at sea. I have since imagined his weighted body bag sinking, headfirst, passing not into Hades, but into what oceanographers call the Hadal deep, which for us is much the same; from light to darkness, a soundless continent without up or down; crushing, blind, with, shooting at your face, beastly fish with lanterns lit and fangs exposed. And this, mind you, is just the matinee, the macro fauna; the real work is microbial, the lasting mico-organisms which lay waste to every thought, and all those processes done on the sheikh’s body settled on the diatomaceous ooze of the sea floor.

“But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near. And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast eternity.” That was the Elizabethan metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell — what a marvel. My regard for the vasty deep into which sank the murderous Osama is an example of what I call planetary writing. I believe that literature in an age of species survival has to speak with greater urgency and knowledge to the natural order as it intersects with human acceleration (where natural order is broadly climate, harvests, sperm and detritus, marching ants, soil, saltwater, molten core, spinning in space, and human acceleration is population growth, new cities, lack of jobs, “wasted lives”, competition for water and food, destruction of habitat, and ignorance of seasons and ancient migrations). Of course, literature is the most generous and latidurinarian holding place and this kind of writing will only ever be a small part of the canon, but a future and futurist part; this is a time for more novels to be aspire to be more planetary in time as well as in space. There needs to be a greater sense of urgency and identification of what is vital than that presently exhibited by the high domestics of contemporary literature. Sagas of middle class families, travelling short distances carefully, squander the life-altering potential of fiction. If the novel is to stand in comparison with non-fiction, some versions of it will have to answer not just who I am and how do I feel, but who and when and where are we biologically, and what the hell are we doing with our self-awareness.


J.M. Ledgard is author of two novels, Giraffe and Submergence. He is director of the future Africa lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Africa correspondent at large of The Economist.