Review: ‘In the Abyss’ by H. G. Wells

‘In the Abyss’ is a short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), first published in Pearson’s Magazine in August 1896. The tale is one of Wells’s fabulous voyages, which sees an intrepid inventor travel down to the ocean bed to observe the marine creatures found living there.

The plot of ‘In the Abyss’ can be summarised as follows. An inventor named Elstead had devised a special sphere made of tough steel, which can be lowered into the sea and then dropped to the ocean floor below. Below the sphere, lead weights attached to it by cables hit the ocean bed first, slowing the rate at which the sphere falls. Elstead plans to visit the ‘abyss’ five miles below, at the bottom of the ocean, by travelling underwater in his sphere and using an electric light to observe the marine left found there.

He explains the process to the crew of the Ptarmigan, a boat whose crew will help him to lower himself and then retrieve him when the sphere comes back up to the surface. He is due to spend half an hour down there. Elstead disappears under the water but the time that he is due back to the surface arrives, and there’s no sign of him, leading to suspense and worry among the crew.

Eventually, twelve hours after he disappeared beneath the surface, Elstead’s sphere appears, and he is rescued. He is sweating heavily and too shaken to relate his experiences for a week following his return. Then, in somewhat fragmentary fashion, he recalls what he saw ‘in the abyss’ and the narrator records the details.

He saw a number of unusual fish and other marine creatures, which Wells describes in some detail:

Two large and protruding eyes projected from sockets in chameleon fashion, and it had a broad reptilian mouth with horny lips beneath its little nostrils. In the position of the ears were two huge gill-covers, and out of these floated a branching tree of coralline filaments, almost like the tree-like gills that very young rays and sharks possess.

The narrator goes on to tell us:

But the humanity of the face was not the most extraordinary thing about the creature. It was a biped; its almost globular body was poised on a tripod of two frog-like legs and a long thick tail, and its fore limbs, which grotesquely caricatured the human hand, much as a frog’s do, carried a long shaft of bone, tipped with copper. The colour of the creature was variegated; its head, hands and legs were purple; but its skin, which hung loosely upon it, even as clothes might do, was a phosphorescent grey. And it stood there blinded by the light.

After these encounters, Elstead found himself being towed along the ocean floor to a mysterious underwater city which Wells describes with lucid wonder:

It was nearly five o’clock before he came over this luminous area, and by that time he could make out an arrangement suggestive of streets and houses grouped about a vast roofless erection that was grotesquely suggestive of a ruined abbey. It was spread out like a map below him. The houses were all roofless enclosures of walls, and their substance being, as he afterwards saw, of phosphorescent bones, gave the place an appearance as if it were built of drowned moonshine.

Such a description is not unlike many early science-fiction writers’ descriptions of ruined cities on other planets, or on the moon: see George Griffith’s Stories of Other Worlds and his descriptions of the desolation of the moon, for one example.

Wells’s narrator continues:

Among the inner caves of the place waving trees of crinoid stretched their tentacles, and tall, slender, glassy sponges shot like shining minarets and lilies of filmy light out of the general glow of the city. In the open spaces of the place he could see a stirring movement as of crowds of people, but he was too many fathoms above them to distinguish the individuals in those crowds.

These creatures worship Elstead like some sort of deity. He needs to cut the cable to allow his sphere to float slowly back up to the ocean’s surface, and this happens, but more by chance than design, when the cable rubs against the abbey building.

‘In the Abyss’ is classic H. G. Wells, doing for ocean exploration what he would shortly do for space travel with The First Men in the Moon. Indeed, in some ways we know more about our own solar system than we do about the marine life on our own planet. Elstead is the Cavor of this story, venturing into the unknown, this new uncharted territory, and imparting his knowledge to all of mankind:

But ‘In the Abyss’ also comments implicitly on religion and the nature of religious belief. At one point, the narrator considers how Elstead must have looked to his hosts, those ‘bowing, chanting people, with their dark chameleon-like heads and faintly luminous clothing’:

Abruptly the sphere rolled over, and he swept up, out of their world, as an ethereal creature clothed in a vacuum would sweep through our own atmosphere back to its native ether again. He must have torn out of their sight as a hydrogen bubble hastens upwards from our air. A strange ascension it must have seemed to them.

This passage is not unlike the description of ‘cargo cults’ set up by remote tribes who encounter Western explorers with advanced technologies, who arrive by boat or plane on some isolated island.


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