Beneath The Surface
A rather ignored sub-genre of science fiction is the aquatic adventure. The hard sci-fi of the 60s and 70s not only turned its eyes up to the stars but also down into the depths of the sea. As a young kid rummaging through my local library, I remember stumbling upon slim books filled with fantastic illustrations of space stations as well as deep ocean domes of vast underwater cities.
These images are what we now call retro-futurist and mostly exist as camp. However, there have been some allusions in recent science fiction that have given a nod this imagining. For example, towards the end of the film Intersellar the hero exists in space station that hearkens back to these illustrations.
I mention this because Matt Hebert’s debut novel Beneath the Surface exposes a new generation to the long ignored depths of the seas, a place just as foreign to humanity as outer space. Hebert presents us with not so much a dystopian young adult adventure novel as a post-apocalyptic adventure of reclamation. Some readers may not really see a difference between the two however each is just different enough to present us with utterly divergent paths of adventure.
Adventure is the key. In Beneath the Surface, our hero, Sembado, is eighteen and living in a sprawling undersea city because the surface of the Earth has been destroyed by war. Hebert reveals this information organically in Sembado’s play with his friends and family providing us a reasonable grounding in this not too distant future world without ever overwhelming readers with too much world-building too soon.
The heart of the novel is the young man’s dream of the surface, of the past. It is a romance with the unknown and finding one’s way, something deeply familiar to many genre readers. Sembado feels a pull to elsewhere and through his questioning finds himself on a path that will take him places he could never imagine.
Sembado is part of the only generation that has never known the surface of the Earth. He and his friends speak a slang that is infused by their environment (a nice touch by Hebert), and he seems most at home in the deep:
“The cold Pacific Ocean water felt nice and soothing as it enveloped his body, like a good friend he hadn’t talked to in a long while.He was now completely submerged. Sembado became momentarily lost in the comforting feeling, pushing the water with his hands back and forth in the front of his goggles. A red light flashed; the chamber had pressurized to the outside water pressure. Sembado felt his chest being pressed tightly, a feeling he had grown used to.”
But while the young man’s life starts out filled with discussions of what kind of subs he and his friends want (their version of talking cars) and their competitive gaming VR team, Sembado quickly works himself in-between an authoritarian government, the IFCG, and a rebellious faction, the Elephant Guild. Both are vying for control, one of the populace and the other of their own destiny, with the surface as the prize.
In one way, Beneath the Surface falls in line with standard dystopian novels in its embrace of adolescent libertarianism. We see this most obviously in the Divergent, Hunger Games, and Maze Runner series both book and film. Yet, Beneath the Surface succeeds on its own merit departing just enough from this narrative to find its own voice. Sem has the veneer of his world removed, but he is not satisfied with the reductionist either/or.
Hebert writes at a quick clip driving readers along through his tale at a very satisfying pace. However, readers should be prepared to encounter a catalog of characters and those with trouble remembering names might need to focus a bit more. Having originally conceived the story more than ten years ago, the author has been able to refine his story while keeping in tact its social and political relevance.
Like nearly all good YA dystopian fiction or sci-fi adventure, Hebert’s novel satirizes our contemporary moment without being ham-fisted or even implicitly of it. Our fears, anxieties, and aspirations find their most acute expression in such fiction. Hebert has given us a strong debut and a promising series. Young and adult readers will find this novel (and the series it begins) one loaded with twists, fantastic imagery, and earnest action.
Matt Hebert, an architectural engineering graduate of the University of Nebraska, lives in Omaha with his wife, Gabriella, and their two dogs. Matt first realized his love of writing fiction at age five when he would use his family’s Smith-Corona Word Processor to create characters and worlds to share with others. Through interests and hobbies including chicken keeping and carpentry his passion for writing has never wavered. Matt started Beneath the Surface in 2004, during his junior year at Bellevue West High School where he pulled inspiration from the unique architecture and surroundings.