For many years, back before I decided that choosing favorites was a no-win proposition, The Abyss held a rather bizarre distinction for me: it was both my favorite book and my favorite movie. This is bizarre, of course, because novelizations of movies are very rarely good, much less great, and film adaptations of books very rarely manage to capture the full power of an exceptional novel. But Orson Scott Card and James Cameron created such an exceptional pair of complementary works that neither seems diminished by the strength of the other. It would therefore be completely impossible for me to review the book without referencing the movie, and so I am not even going to try. Card’s novel is absolutely faithful to what appears on-screen, but also expands the story to provide extra background, more depth of character and relationship, and a completely new angle on the events as they are perceived by the abyssal aliens themselves. The result is a moving tale about love, the bonds the form in a tightly knit group of people, and what it truly means to be human.
Card opens his novel well before the beginning of the events in the movie by introducing each of the three (four, really, but more on that later) main characters with stories from their childhoods. We learn how Bud developed both an ability to allow a group of people to mesh and his hatred of the sea; how Lindsey came to be a masterful bitch and engineer; and how Coffey turned into a man capable of simultaneously loving his friends and dispassionately executing his enemies. These are not just throwaway backstory chapters though, as they are frequently referenced throughout the story and demonstrate a motivation for each character that makes their later actions seem not just logical, but inevitable given their histories.
After these three introductory chapters Card rejoins the plot of the beginning of the movie with the accidental sinking of the ballistic missile sub USS Montana by an unknown craft. Unlike the movie, however, we immediately know how and why this happened because it is told partially from the perspective of the aliens that did it. This is the first time we meet the Builders, as they call themselves, and the first hint that Card’s novel will not just be a redecorated version of Cameron’s script. While the movie only treats the Builders as a mysterious complication to the human events that are taking place, Card builds a full-fledged alien race with its own culture, voice, and reasons for intervening (or not) with the humans. Though the Builders do not appear in the novel with much greater frequency than in the movie, their greater transparency creates a mirror Card uses to reflect on both individual humans and humanity as a race beyond their somewhat clichéd treatment in the movie.
The sinking of the Montana, along with parts of Bud’s childhood chapter, also serve to introduce the fourth main character in the novel: the ocean itself. No mere setting, The Abyss shows the ocean as a malevolent, hungry bitch. Every time somebody enters the frozen water and returns alive is a victory, and every struggle to survive is very clearly not man vs. nature but man vs. man. There is, of course, a long history of this sort of treatment throughout literature, but the unique properties of the ocean at abyssal depths gives a new face to the old character that makes it feel quite different. Bud’s history only adds to the personal feeling of the struggle.
Having set up each of his main characters, Card finally introduces the main plot. Following the sinking of the Montana, the Navy is desperate to keep its secrets out of the hands of the Soviets. Unfortunately, they don’t have the resources to attempt to salvage the sub themselves, at least not with a hurricane bearing down on the site of the wreck. Instead they’re forced to use an experimental underwater drilling rig, the Deepcore II, as a platform for a team of SEALs to visit the sub and destroy any sensitive hardware and documents. Deepcore is run by Bud and his crew, a close-knit, thoroughly civilian group of oil workers who are not happy about being forced to abandon their test well and sent to explore “World War III in a can.”
In the process of getting Lt. Coffey and his SEAL team down to Deepcore though, the Navy accidentally picks up a stowaway: Lindsey Brigman, the engineer who designed Deepcore, and Bud’s almost-ex-wife. Bud’s crew may not be happy about moving the rig, but Lindsey is furious, and her wrath is a force of nature on par with the sea itself. Though her knowledge is an asset to Coffey’s mission, her attitude definitely isn’t, and she becomes a source of friction for the two well-oiled machines of the SEALs and Bud’s crew. For Bud himself she is more than just an annoyance; she is love and pain, devotion and cancer.
Though the plot continues forward from there, these are really the main components of the core of the story. The Abyss really isn’t about the cold war, or nuclear weapons, or even aliens; it’s about relationships. James Cameron has said he wrote the script as a love story, and the movie reflects that. But Card’s novel expands the focus from Bud and Lindsey’s relationship to close relationships in general. He shows two contrasting models for these relationships in Coffey’s military SEAL team and Bud’s civilian rig crew, though the contrast isn’t what you may expect. Coffey and Bud share many of the same characteristics as leaders, but they differ in one key area: why they do what they do. Coffey chooses to follow orders because he believes he is protecting a greater cause; Bud sees and will work for a greater cause, but his primary focus is always on his crew. As he puts it, “When it comes to the safety of these people, there’s me and then there’s God.” All other concerns are secondary. This is really the only reason why you couldn’t picture Bud in Coffey’s position, acting in what he believes are the interests of the greater good while slowly losing his grip on reality due to pressure-induced psychosis; Bud’s highest priority is his crew, so his ‘greater good’ would never include putting them in danger.
The internal dynamics of the two groups are also portrayed remarkably well by Card. Though his dialog matches the movie word-for-word, he also gives an explicit subtext to each line. In some books this might be anywhere between distracting and destructive to the narrative, but it works in The Abyss because this character study is part of the narrative. In any group as close as the rig workers or the SEAL team, every sentence will have significance that isn’t understood by outsiders. Card’s recognition of this and decision to spell out these undercurrents of meaning reminds the reader that, despite their omniscient perspective outside the story, they really don’t understand what’s happening because they are not part of the group. The reader needs to be told what’s really being said, where a true insider would already know without having it spelled out. The strengthening of this wall only serves to make the groups appear closer together, and the subtext makes for a fascinating look at how families (for that is what they really are) behave.
I may be a special case because my history allows me to strongly identify with an aspect of each of the three main characters’ personalities, but I find The Abyss to be a novel on par with Card’s strongest works of the time, Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. Similarly, I also believe Cameron’s movie is better than the mega-hits he made leading up to it, Terminator and Aliens. Neither is technically perfect, but I think they surpassed the high water mark of 2001 that Card identifies in his afterward as the best movie-novel combination to date because they took the simplest, most common story possible-a love story between man and wife-and built a truly remarkable work of fiction that succeeds on every level from personal struggle to philosophical debate with global consequences. I heartily recommend both.