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Literature / Down to a Sunless Sea

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Down to a Sunless Sea is a 1979 novel by British author David Graham. The book starts off in the then-near future year of 1985 where, in the middle of the cold war, America suffers an economic collapse and descends into anarchy after exhausting its domestic oil supply. The United States government is shipping everyone they can out of the country with what little fuel there is left, in packed passenger jumbo jets. Air Britain Captain Jonah Scott and his crew end up taking off from New York City for Britain just hours before a nuclear exchange ends up enveloping the whole world, and desperately try to find a place to land before they run out of fuel, preferably one where they won't soon be killed by the fallout.

Down To a Sunless Sea contains examples of:

  • Adam and Eve Plot: In the original ending, although this was cut from subsequent releases for a Lighter and Softer one.
  • Almighty Janitor: John Capel, the security guard at the New York apartment Jonah stays in is a Vietnam veteran and former college professor whose killed or driven off several looters attempting to break into the building, and after being injured during one of those fights, ends up being snuck aboard the plane by Jonah.
  • Alternate Universe: With a dose of Speculative Fiction.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 4. The ending heavily suggests that all of Earth outside of Antarctica has been left uninhabitable by the nuclear war.
  • Artistic License – Physics: The scientists explaining the truly horrifying amount of fallout after the overnight war claim that even a small atomic bomb is more powerful than Krakatoa. In fact, the volcano was about four times the power of the biggest ever hydrogen bomb, Tsar Bomba — although the overall effect of the world's entire nuclear arsenal would indeed be bigger.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: In the first quarter or so of the novel (before the nuclear war breaks out) Joe Marcovitch, the commander of the soldiers guarding JFK airport, providing security for the planes evacuating America and gunning down any unauthorized people who try to get into the airport. When he catches Jonah and his crew sneaking a few friends of theirs onto their plane, he lets them get away with it due to the crew having shared a steak dinner (something practically unheard of in America anymore) with him the previous day.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: The first half of the novel takes place in New York City, which has been overrun by gangs.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The revised ending; everything above the Antarctic Circle has been turned into an irradiated wasteland, but enough humans have survived to rebuild civilization on Antarctica, which is now becoming more habitable thanks to the multiple nuclear explosions knocking the Earth off its axis so that the South Pole is facing the Sun. The original ending is more of a Downer Ending.
  • But What About the Astronauts?: A four man expedition to the moon is mentioned a few times, and it’s generally agreed that their prospects are dismal.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Zigzagged, with an early mention that (partially in an attempt to ward off global conflict) the Catholic and Protestant churches have set aside their differences and merged into one big church.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Jonah Scott is a complicated example. He sleeps around (especially with Kate) following the death of his wife in the backstory and thinks little of spanking a woman he's not in a romantic relationship with, but he does seem to care for the feelings and happiness of his partners and displays some loathing for the Sexual Extortion being carried out by the airport manager, despite initially seeming indifferent towards it.
  • Cold Equation: On the way to Antarctica, the planes encounter clouds that have been contaminated with lethal radiation. The Soviet plane is too heavy to climb to a safe altitude, so 50 passengers voluntarily jump from it to lighten the plane enough for it to clear the radiation.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Two of the kids aboard the plane (from an orphanage being evacuated by the Red Cross) are the children of the Arctic research stations commander. The long odds of this are marveled over by the characters, who see it as miraculous.
  • Cool Old Guy: Doctors Rabin and Volkin are older scientists who think fast on their feet to save humanity, do a good job explaining things in layman's terms and aren't afraid to express scorn at the forces behind nuclear war in the first place.
  • Cool Plane: The airliner Jonah and his crew are flying, the Boeing 797, appears to be based on the 747 but with an extra engine in the tail and an extended passenger capacity. Interestingly, in Real Life a variant of the 747 with a fifth engine was briefly considered by Boeing but was nixed due to lack of interest from airlines.
  • Death of a Child: Downplayed; there are a lot of kids on the plane, but various others who aren't, such as Charlie Hackett's children, who presumably die in the nuclear exchange.
  • Dirty Commies: The Soviet passengers on the plane are not portrayed sympathetically although the Russian refugees who the crew meet in the Azores are.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: The plane is carrying several SAS troops assigned to train the NYPD in commando tactics to use against rioting citizens.
  • Emergency Cargo Dump: Or rather emergency passenger jump during the flight to the south pole.
  • Fallen States of America: The United States has suffered a complete economic collapse and anarchy is widespread.
  • A Father to His Men: Jonah is a captain who takes an interest in the situations of his crew and tries to be reassuring towards them.
  • For Want Of A Nail: Discussed by John and Jonah when they note the series of events that happened to introduce John to Jonah and put John on a plane out of America at just the right time.
  • Friends with Benefits: Jonah and Kate, the head stewardess. For a while it looks like their relationship might be something more, but ultimately she was largely just seeing him to help him with the depression caused by losing his wife in a food riot.
  • Genre Shift: It's around a hundred pages of focusing on the Crapsack World before suddenly the missiles start flying.
  • The Ghost: Lieutenant Redfern and his superior, who don't even qualify as The Voice due to communicating with Jonah and the others by fax when asked to use their equipment to contact the Antarctic bases, although their message still retain a great deal of Stiff Upper Lip.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: 50 passengers on the Soviet plane jump from it to their deaths so that the plane is lightened enough to climb above some irradiated clouds.
    • Lieutenant Redfern leaves his bunker in the Falklands to answer Jonah's call on the teletype machine and contact McMurdo station and confirm that it's safe for the main characters to fly to. He suffers a lethal dose of radiation in the process.
  • Hero of Another Story: As the narrator and the passengers on his plane struggle to find a place to land, they sometimes talk to other people on the radio also struggling to survive and help people (although most to all of them are doomed to be killed by the fallout). Most notable are the Funchal airport staff, who are tirelessly coordinating with planes still in the air to help as many of them possible land before they run out of fuel.
  • Hope Spot:
    • After the UK is destroyed by nukes, Jonah's plane diverts to Funchal, which has been spared by the exchange. However, two planes collide above the airport and render it unusable, forcing them to find another destination.
    • The plane eventually lands at Lajes Field in the Azores, which has been scoured of life by a neutron bomb but still has enough food and supplies to sustain them for a while. They are forced to abandon the field by fallout being blown in from Europe.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Marcovitch's feelings about killing anyone who tries to storm the airport.
  • Just Before the End: The story starts out with a massive energy crisis that is making people evacuate America as Israel and its Arab neighbors are on the brink of nuclear war and the Catholic and Protestant churches are merging in an effort to head off religious conflicts in Europe. About 100 pages in, the story goes flying toward After the End as nuclear missiles start flying and the narrator and the people on his jumbo jet are left scrambling for a safe haven.
  • Language Barrier: Many of the passengers aboard the plane ( which is to be expected considering that the majority of them have relatives in other countries to justify being accepted into those countries) have English as their second language at best. Right before takeoff Jonah describes one Armenian family where the only one who can speak ‘’any’’ English is their four year old grandson. This causes brief delays when making announcements to the passengers, although this is rarely dwelled on.
  • Last Girl Wins: The last woman Jonah shows interest in is the one he ultimately ends up with.
  • Majorly Awesome: Major Brand, the head SAS soldier, who helps take out the Soviet would-be hijackers.
  • Men of Sherwood: Only a few of the SAS soldiers are named, but their Elites Are More Glamorous skills are on full display when the one fight they get into is a handy Curb-Stomp Battle.
  • Neutron Bomb: in addition to several countries throwing nuclear weapons at each other, a major military base on an island is apparently the target of a neutron bomb. Some people show up and supposedly all the buildings, equipment and structures are intact, it's just that everything living is dead. Apparently nothing is alive above ground, not even worms, because the pulse killed everything, to a distance of ten feet below ground. The only survivor was a man who was in the vault of the military base, 60 feet underground, at the instant of the blast.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The story takes place in 1985, six years after the book was published.
  • Opt Out: Australia is the only major power not to launch any nukes and tries to sit out of the war. It doesn't save them.
  • Post-Peak Oil: The main premise of the story.
  • The Remnant: A civilian version is featured. When word of the nuclear exchange is announced to the passengers on the plane the main action takes place on, two diehard Soviet diplomats and their KGB bodyguards take the news of their country’s fate poorly and try to hijack the plane. For added irony, the actual military forces who survive (some SAS soldiers also onboard the plane, a British Air Force plane running out of fuel who briefly calls them on the radio, a US airman who was in the basement of his airfield when a bomb hit it, two Russian aviators who picked up the population of the home village of one in a cargo plane and then tried to fly somewhere safe, some irradiated British soldiers in the Falklands who the narrator briefly makes radio contact with, and the soldiers at the Antarctic McMurdo station who weren’t Driven to Suicide by despair) all avert this by being helpful and sympathetic characters who never entertain any delusions of grandeur.
  • Safe Zone Hope Spot: Jonah and his crew spends a while attempting to make it to Funchal Airport in Santa Cruz, the only surviving airport they're aware of that can take planes their size. The Hero of Another Story air traffic controller they contact tells them that, based on where everyone else whose called him asking for help is, he has room for them (and a few more passenger planes) to land, but a little while later he calls back to report that the runway is blocked due to a collision between a private plane that tried to sneak in behind a landing passenger plane. This forces the dismayed main characters to try to find another place to land (although the place they do find proves safer from fallout in the long-term). An epilogue scene that is missing from some editions makes clear that Antarctica, after everything that was sacrificed to get there, will be hit by fallout eventually.
  • Saintly Church: The major religions are briefly mentioned as having tried to set aside their differences to starve off religious terrorism, and it's reported that the Pope was in the middle of a broadcasted plea for the fighting to stop when a missile hit Rome.
  • Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: One passenger is a rock star whose music is considered awful and whose claim to fame is having a bunch of topless drummers. He's drinking and doing drugs when the plane takes off, and ends up overdosing after hearing about the war.
  • Scary Black Man: Charlie Hackett, the last cabbie still picking people up from the airport and dropping them off, carries around a gun, drives an armored cab and is described as having the face of a hoodlum, but subverts this once you get to know him, and is a fairly heroic character.
  • Sole Surviving Scientist: The plane that's crossing the Atlantic when the nuclear war that wipes out practically the entire world has four scientists from an energy conference aboard, who are thrust into this role as they scramble to figure out where the radiation fallout will travel to, where it would be safe to land, and what other long term effects the missiles might have.
  • Sole Survivor: Eddie Burns is the only surviving US airman at the base where Jonah first lands his plane.
  • Solid Gold Poop: Charlie's cab is converted to run on chicken feed.
  • Underestimating Badassery: The Soviet Union thought America was too weakened to retaliate against them and seized on the opportunity to launch a nuclear strike at them.
  • Voice with an Internet Connection: Or rather a pre-internet connection, in the person of Juan Silvia Santos, a Portuguese University student and Ham radio operator who briefly becomes the sole source of information for Jonah's plane. Juan picks up their distress message and through his knowledge of the area, and some maps he gets out, helps them find a nearby place to land before they run out of fuel, while they provide him with some information about how to avoid the radioactive fallout (at least in the short-term).
  • Water Source Tampering: World War III kicks off when Egypt and Syria contaminate Tel Aviv's water supply with radioactive material and Israel retaliates by launching their nuclear arsenal at them.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Almost everyone heard alive on the radio at some point who wasn't on one of the two planes that make it from South America to Antarctica. Presumably they all died, but it is remotely possible some may have survived. Also, it's implied at one point they mention they need to contact Juan and his village, possibly to get them to come and join them, but this is never referenced again.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: The American dollar became worthless when they ran out of oil, which kept the U.S. Government from being able to buy more. This was actually subverted with gold itself, with Senator Ted Kennedy being mentioned as having negotiated to trade all of the gold in Fort Knox for more oil, only for the exchange to fall through because America didn't have the oil to ship that gold overseas.