Down to a Sunless Sea by David Graham (1981) 319 p.

Elevator pitch: you’re flying a commercial airliner between America and Europe when a nuclear war breaks out. What the hell do you do?

For all its flaws – and they are many – Down to a Sunless Sea is a great execution of an intriguing concept. At any given time (pre-pandemic, of course) there are about a million people in the air, aboard hundreds of thousands of different flights. I’ve always found something enchanting about a large passenger jet in mid-flight, especially at night: a tiny little bubble of a few hundred people, in a sort of limbo zone, with modern flight being so safe and routine that it doesn’t even really feel like you’re in a vehicle; more like you have to sit in a chair for a few hours while being teleported to another city. But after those few hours are up you return to solid ground and the real world, and disperse. Down to a Sunless Sea, narrated from the perspective of pilot Jonah Scott (Shackleton would’ve been a better name) fully appreciates this same feeling, while also putting you in the shoes of a pilot and dispelling any notion that blasting across the Atlantic in a gigantic jumbo jet is anything other than a miracle of science. Scott finds himself lucky enough to be departing JFK Airport en route to London Heathrow just as a limited nuclear war breaks out in the Middle East – a war which very quickly escalates. A routine flight suddenly becomes a frantic race against time and fuel and wind speed and longitude as Scott and his crew try to locate somewhere, anywhere, safe enough to put the plane down.

This little private world of mine had not changed; Delta Tango still hissed eastwards at 39,000 feet through a starry night, and the vast crowd of passengers would be mostly asleep, dreaming of new lives, new places. How many had hoped to go to London? How many were bereaved? The five big engines still burned their tons of fuel each hour, blasting astern the microscopic debris of combustion, water, hydrocarbons. The glowing green panorama of instruments told a tale of normality.

Down to a Sunless Sea (an ominously perfect title, as the nuclear ash cloud builds overhead and Scott is ever-aware of what the outcome will be if he fails to find safe harbour) can clearly be split into three acts, and has a bit of a rocky start, since the plane doesn’t even take off until 100 pages in. The first act is a dubious showcase of Graham’s odd decision to set his story in a fictional near-future world in which America has suffered a peak oil crisis and near-total economic collapse; Scott and his flight attendant friend-with-benefits Kate travel into a Manhattan that’s more like Mogadishu, all so that they can… stay at an absent friend’s apartment? Even though doing so clearly puts their lives at risks, and doesn’t result in any more creature comforts than they have back home in England? It felt to me like Graham’s decision to speculate on American economic collapse was a post-war British writer smugly fantasising about a world in which American material comforts had proved unsustainable, the collapse of their social order a kind of just deserts, and the creation of a world in which American refugees desperately want to move to Britain. It’s weird, and unnecessary, and even within the narrative universe it makes no sense whatsoever for Scott and Kate to risk travelling into Manhattan; Graham only does it because he wants to explore this world (which doesn’t make a lick of sense in the first place to anybody with the slightest understanding of economics) and introduce a couple of new characters they smuggle onto the plane, who then don’t do much of anything anyway. Overall the first act is a puzzling waste of time, and annoying to boot, given Graham’s habit of making Scott narrate like a 1930s gumshoe. He would have been better served by simply setting the story in the regular 1980s, when Moscow and Washington were on a hair trigger with each other anyway, and getting to the actual plot sooner.

Fortunately the novel improves in the second act, after the plane departs New York, and the first news of the nuclear war starts to trickle into the cockpit. Graham was an RAF pilot in World War II and served as a flying instructor; I don’t think he was ever a commercial pilot, but he does a damn good job of putting you inside the head of one. Even before anything untoward happens, the takeoff procedure inside the cockpit at JFK is a perfectly written pages-long reminder that while you or I might be flipping through a paperback or watching a movie, the air crew are still about to lift several hundred tonnes of metal into the sky, riding a controlled burn of thousands of litres of fuel, and are solely responsible for the lives of three or four hundred people. Most accidents, as Scott reminds us, happen on takeoff or landing, and no decent pilot is ever entirely at ease during those moments. Even before the war breaks out, Graham makes sure we appreciate the heavy responsibility of the moment you hit the thrusters and haul several hundred souls into the sky.

That in turn is obviously very important, as this becomes the first flight of Scott’s life in which the takeoff and landing aren’t the most nailbiting part. The rest of the second act is a perfect exercise in thriller writing. No visible sign of the war is witnessed at first by the air crew; instead they learn of the horror taking place via the SELCAL, the cockpit radio, and sealed instructions for this eventuality. (“As of now, you may act independently to take whatever action you may consider necessary to achieve the survival of crew and passengers. Preservation of the aircraft is totally irrelevant.”) A sense of surreal disbelief and shock creeps in as Scott’s plane continues cheerfully cruising through the night, their own vista unchanged, while they scramble through the charts looking for an alternate destination and the chaotic scene on the ground is relayed to them by other airborne flights and ATC operators as far afield as Gander and Madeira:

“This is Funchal, 514. We will help all we can, but situation critical. We have taken forty-three aircraft unscheduled, eleven others inbound. Airfield congested. We are taxiing aircraft into sea to make room. We have no food or accommodation. State of emergency declared by local military commander. Our orders are to accept no more aircraft. Over.”

John Rogers coined the term “competence porn” for a genre of fiction in which the reader observes smart, experienced characters solve problems. Down to a Sunless Sea is very much that, and it’s in Scott’s conversations with (and explicit admiration for) the air traffic controllers that makes it clear Graham was a pilot who was well aware that flying is not a solo job; Scott is dependent on the expertise and assistance of his co-pilot and engineer, and on dozens of people on the ground. And competence porn, I think, is most interesting when the professionals involved are responsible for the safety of others; when their competency is saving the lives of us regular joes. Most of us are competent at something, but not something particularly important. Scott’s competence goes hand in hand with his sense of duty and responsibility, most clearly expressed when his engineer, understandably, offers the opinion that maybe they should just go nose down into the sea and give everybody aboard a mercifully quick death. Scott won’t hear of it; it’s not his decision to make. As a pilot and a captain, his passengers entrusted him with their lives, and he intends to do everything in his power to keep them safe.

Does the third act live up to the second act? Not quite. Is this book saturated with cringey sexism that feels more like the 1950s than the 1980s? Absolutely. Are the non-American and non-British characters portrayed as risible caricatures? You bet. Are the smaller details of this brief war that Graham boils up in his red-blooded Tory brain absolutely laughable? More than you could possibly believe, the standout of which is Cuban soldiers landing in Cork to help retake Northern Ireland.

But do any of those things detract in any major way from the book? I don’t think so. Once the shit hits the fan, Down to a Sunless Sea is a gripping experience, an excellent execution of a unique apocalyptic premise, and a damn good potboiler. Ironically, it would be a great book to read on a plane.