Black Oceans

Jacek Dukaj
Black Oceans
  • Supernowa
    Warszawa 2001
    117 x 195
    496 pp
    ISBN 83-7054-149-6

Although the author of Black Oceans revives the classic themes of science fiction, his novel owes a great deal to the pivotal issues and style of cyberpunk prose, i.e. a literature born as much of a fascination with the latest technology as of a phobia about the age of information technology. We are already living in a world run by super-computers - what will happen when they go crazy? asks Jacek Dukaj in his novel. In Black Oceans, even the most exacting reader of fantasy will find what he is always looking for, and which there can never be enough of in books of this kind: wars and conspiracies, scientific experiments of which the scientists have lost control, as well as endless speculation on the condition and potential of the human intellect. Dukaj has skilfully woven some digressive material from the realm of topics such as politics, economics and psychology into his fast-paced, well-told story. Black Oceans undoubtedly belongs to the more erudite trend in Polish sci-fi, and is descended from the best traditions of the genre, with Stanislaw Lem at the forefront.

- Dariusz Nowacki


It was through Senator Tito that she got in touch with him. At the time it wasn’t yet called the Hunt Team, nor did the Contact Program even exist. They occupied half a floor in a building belonging to the Washington branch of the NSA. Even so, most of the surface area was taken up by post-PDP super-computers using their quasi-genic algorithms to process terabyte packs of the DNAM of millions of US citizens. Hunt managed a dozen-plus team of data processors and technicians, with two geneticists under oath on half-time employment, who were involved in the project to supplement their university salaries. And by remote control he also had Krasnow; Krasnow had been there from the very start. A strange creature, Krasnow. (…) In the formal academic world he was almost entirely unknown – but here, in the Shadow Lands, the number of times one is quoted is generally in reverse proportion to the total of one’s annual funding. Krasnow’s recent thesis, entitled “Gene Chaos: the dynamics of the American Genome”, had secured him a cushy job, a sizeable salary and, most importantly, a pretty high-up position in the hierarchy of the ronins of the science world like himself – for at least a year, and potentially even five, for at the Hacienda Krasnow had immediately managed to scheme up a resolution positing the necessity of broadening the research to cover the entire world population.
It was financed by the Department of Defense, which was why Hunt had ended up there too. Just one too many failed intrigues, and that was it: he got fired. As he was removing his stuff from the office, he intercepted a number of sardonic sneers from members of staff – “See those raw, open wounds? That’s the incurable demise of a career on display.”
De facto he was dead, and he felt like a zombie. A position as executive manager of a program like Krasnow’s is, quite frankly, already an indication of life after death for Washington’s political brokers. Time moves more slowly here, while the real world, the world of power and money drifts away, out of reach and out of sight. Thirty-something oldsters meet in bars during extended lunch breaks and, no longer in a hurry, share memories of their prematurely and tragically ended lives.
Vassone called Tito, Tito called Hunt.
“There’s this woman, she’s already done something for the government before, Vassone, Marina S. Vassone, she asked me, you get the idea, it’s a favour Nicholas, if you’d be so kind to…”
“What does she already know? Is she authorized?”
“Yes, she is, don’t worry about that. It looks as if she just came across some references to what you’re working on over there now, whatever it is, because you see, I’m not in on the whole thing, I’m just repeating what she said. Anyway, she’s also trying to raise the cash for some research and you’re partly covered, I guess, but heck, how should I know – anyway the point is for her to be able to look into the details. The FBI has vetted her, so if you could… I owe a favour to some guys who owe her, you see…”
“OK, no sweat, give me her coordinates.”
She didn’t want to talk on the phone, but came in person. This gave an unambiguous idea of the degree of confidentiality involved. Hunt received her in his new office, a lousy little cubicle where the low murmur of the cooling system for the non-stop NSA super-computers was audible through the walls. Hunt was quite glad of this visit, which represented a pretty big variety in the daily boredom of his simulated work. Apart from the job, things weren’t going too well anyway: Charlotte had found herself a new tiger, his mother was off the rails again, and the shares in which he had sunk more than half his savings were on a persistent dive, but he wasn’t going to sell them because if after such a salvage operation by some miracle they started to bounce back again, his nerves would never stand it. It had reached the point where, to escape depression, he had started to write a dark political thriller on his office computer, a story steeped in alcoholic cynicism whose hero was a prize specimen of a young Washington rat, rotten right down to the helix of his DNA, and whose every endeavour was indecently successful because he didn’t give a damn about anyone or anything. Somewhere around chapter four Hunt had noticed that he was unintentionally making this character increasingly sympathetic, transferring more and more of his own traits onto him. He called an on-line shrink, who advised him to go on writing, then finish up by destroying and humiliating his sinister alter ego. He gave the shrink the finger, borrowing his hero’s manner of expression. Then he wiped his manuscript from the screen. At that point enter Marina Vassone.
The unsullied beauty of a sculpture betrayed her forty odd years, despite the lack of any signs of ageing. Genetic fashions are irreversible, after all; the most recent generation (or rather the one before it, as it’s the parents who call the shots) favored a different ideal of beauty: the asymmetrical face, disproportionality and an apparent lack of harmony in its elements, with individual features designed by highly paid “genetic sculptors”, masters of the art of designing bodies that have yet to begin. Marina’s parents, on the other hand, had given in to the fashion of their own times, hence the computerised perfection of her face and profile: she had a classic Egyptian skull, eyebrows as if from a Japanese brush stroke, her hair and eyes bright as stained glass. In a suit made of synthetic black silk with wide sleeves and high-cut legs she looked far more like a businesswoman or a lawyer than the scientist Hunt had sketched out for himself – she was the physical opposite of the shabby Krasnow.
“I understand you have a strong professional interest in the work we’re conducting,” said Hunt, hurriedly switching on the microphones and legal security camera, once he had frozen his face into an expressionless mask and conducted the ritual welcome according to NEti rules. “I see that you’re a neurophysiologist by training, whatever that means in practice, and a professor at the Boston University Department of Cognitive Sciences and Nervous Systems, Adaptative Systems Center. Hmmm, it also says here psychiatry, mathematics… Whence the mathematics?”
“Neuron networks,” she replied laconically. “Analogues of the brain.”
“Either way, what’s it got to do with us?”

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones