I can’t spend all my time in front of the Wii. Sometimes I’m at work or visiting the in-laws, in forced exile from EO. Other times I just need a break. When the jones gets especially bad, I reach to the bookshelf for an old nautically themed paperback, something dog-eared and sandy that will tide me over until the next time I log on. Most of these I’ve read before, some of them not since I was in 7th grade.

Today’s selection:

Dolphin Island

by Arthur C. Clarke

Plot: Young Johnny Clifton escapes his dreary life in the midwest by stowing away on a passing land/sea hovercraft. When the ship wrecks off the Great Barrier Reef, Johnny is rescued by a pod of dolphins, who guide him to the titular island. On shore, he finds a research laboratory headed by a Professor Kazan, who is attempting to learn the language of dolphins. Together with his more experienced pal, Mick Nauru, Johnny has many adventures on the reefs around Dolphin Island until an unstoppable force of nature strikes, providing an action-packed excuse to arbitrarily end the book.

Review: Of course, Arthur C. Clarke is most famous for collaborating with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. In SF circles, he’s celebrated for game-changing novels like Childhood’s EndCity and the StarsRendevous with Rama—great reads all. But in his early years he also wrote his share of young adult fiction, one of which is Dolphin Island

Aside from the hovercraft (I don’t see too many of those passing down the street) this barely rates as science fiction. The ‘futuristic’ technology on display probably won’t blow your mind, and most of the experiments in dolphin communication were old news even in 1963, when this was published. To direct the dolphins Susie and Sputnik, Johnny uses a crude wristwatch gadget I saw once in an old issue of Popular Mechanics in my grandpa’s basement. Things do take a certain fanciful turn when Professor Kazan’s computer interprets the speech of the dolphins, who narrate epic poems about the ages-long war between dolphins and killer whales and a ‘singing’ asteroid that crashed in the Pacific Ocean eons ago.

In its outlook, this is very much a book of its time. The professor is the great white father, the natives are cheerful but none-too-bright, and the marine life exists primarily to serve Bwana and his team of similarly starchy white researchers. Some of the experiments, like a skull-implanted transmitter that conditions orcas to behave against their nature (“Not to eat dolphins, that is the law!”) and a plan to cordon off the world’s oceans, are downright chilling in retrospect. Near the end, when Professor Kazan succumbs to pneumonia, I half expected him to gasp about “The horror! The horror!”, but he’s a hero to Johnny, so he recovers to carry on his mad science.

Where this book really earns its place on the Nineball Island bookshelf is in its accounts of Mick and Johnny’s leisurely exploration of the tidepools and reefs around Dolphin Island. Clarke was an early diving enthusiast, and he falls into an easy rhythm whenever he’s describing the wonders of the ocean. There’s a stunning description of bioluminescent organisms lighting up a waterspout that, like all inconceivable sights, I know I’ll keep in my mind forever.

Dolphin Island isn’t a good introduction to Clarke, but it’s a fine, easy read that will keep your head underwater until you can break out the pulsar and start zapping fish again.

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