Call your friendly neighborhood publisher, order him to send up a slick and tightly constructed commercial novel, disaster variety, and you're likely to receive something very like Richard Moran's "Cold Sea Rising." Just don't ask for too much flavor or a memorable experience.
In 1999, a fissure opens in the sea bed beneath the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The intense heat of volcanic activity melts enough ice to crack the shelf free from the continent, and the massive iceberg, approximately the size of Spain, begins drifting north into the Pacific. Meanwhile, back in Antarctica, more heat threatens to melt the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The resultant rise in the level of the world's oceans -- more than 20 feet -- will flood major land masses, islands and all the world's port cities. Disaster!
The characters are everything you'd expect. There's the gruff but tenderhearted scientist, an expert on Antarctica. There's the scientist's beautiful daughter -- is this beginning to sound familiar? -- who likewise is an expert on Antarctica, living in a research station on the ice, where she spends most of her time. This explains why she's estranged from her husband, not to mention her two adorable children. Her husband, who lives in California's Marin County but is an ace reporter for The New York Times and, despite his constant globetrotting, a good father, happens to be in love with a beautiful Russian scientist, who happens to be an expert on Antarctica.
There is also -- and also predictably -- the American president who isn't much of an expert on anything, except being duped into a possibly fatal diplomatic error by an untrustworthy but trusted adviser. Opposing him, of course, is his Soviet counterpart, a man both wise and benign but, alas, surrounded by the members of the Politburo -- drunk and hawkish, one and all -- who sees the impending disaster as an opportunity to . . . well, to heat up the Cold War.
Questions abound. Will the president wise up? Will the Russians succeed in slicing off chunks of the iceberg with lasers and using the giant ice cubes as military bases? (Their plan seems to be to stand on them and make menacing gestures at American port cities, which, of course, are about to disappear beneath the sea in any case.)
Will the estranged husband and the beautiful Russian scientist be united once again? Oh, and -- it seems almost an afterthought -- will the disaster be averted and the world saved?
Vignettes also abound. We see the brave captain and crew of a ship in the Japanese Antarctic krill-fishing fleet as they battle against sea and ice. We see mystic, 128-year-old Chauncey Dutcheyes, on Campbell Island, 400 miles south of New Zealand, predicting a disaster and rushing his people up a mountain. (None of Chauncey's daughters is in sight, but he does have a beautiful great-great-great-granddaughter, who is, of course, just the right age to be featured in a disaster novel.) We see a brave Australian newscaster staying at his desk and on the air, bidding a tender farewell to his wife, until the building he is in topples before a tidal wave. And we see a giant king penguin named Konge, who, wiser than the Soviet and American leaders, sees trouble and saves his kind from destruction to fish and frolic another day.
The problem for writers of disaster tales -- one that Richard Moran has failed to avoid -- is the temptation to get lost in the complexities of plot at the expense of the human element. Plot may be much, but it is not all, and Moran never succeeds in making his disaster truly personal to any of his characters. And, in consequence, it can never matter to his readers.