Down to a Sunless Sea

Down to a Sunless Sea  
Author(s) David Graham
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction novel
Publisher Robert Hale Ltd.
Publication date 1979 (UK)
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 320 pp
ISBN 0709178360
OCLC Number 13700130
LC Classification PR6057.R233 D6x 1979

David Graham's Down to a Sunless Sea (1979) is a post-apocalyptic novel about a planeload of people during and after a short nuclear war, set in a near-future world where the USA is critically short of oil. The title of the book is taken from a line of the poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Plot summary

The story is told in the first person by Jonah Scott, a British pilot for the fictional airline Air Britain who has arrived in New York City on his regular flight from London. The United States has collapsed into the equivalent of a bankrupt Third World and borderline-starving country (1200 calories/day) after using up nearly all of its oil reserves and a resultant collapse of the dollar. The taxi that Jonah and Senior Flight Attendant Kate Monahan take to the airline's NYC apartment is powered by methane generated from chicken droppings.

Kate is a lovely redhead, and Jonah is a "red-blooded male," and the book is full of Jonah's thoughts on the subject regarding Kate's lovely figure, as well as what they do together, in detail. Even after they each find other partners, Kate's assets are described quite clearly. It's a guy's book.

During the night, Jonah and the apartment superintendent and guard, John Capel, must fight off armed burglars disguised as military police looking for the food Jonah and Kate brought with them. Capel is wounded but Kate demonstrates her basic medical skills in cleaning and dressing the wound. Jonah offers to help Capel and a newly-orphaned girlfriend of one of his crew travel illegally to London aboard his aircraft.

Shortly after take off from New York, Jonah is informed that Israel has attacked Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo with nuclear weapons in retaliation for their poisoning of Tel Aviv's water supply.

Israel's strike triggers a worldwide nuclear holocaust while the plane is en route to London, the USSR and China attacking America and its allies. Unable to continue to Europe due to the fact that it has suffered nuclear attack, or return to New York, the crew desperately attempt to find a place to land their plane.

Faced with dwindling fuel, and the destruction of the airfield at Funchal by a desperate pilot disobeying landing instructions, Jonah and his crew wonder whether to crash land on an island in the Azores chain with the help of Juan, a local resident who has contacted them via amateur radio. By pure chance, Jonah sights a NATO airfield, Lajes Field, which has certainly been attacked, but which is mostly intact. Jonah and the nuclear scientists who are on board deduce that the Soviets needed Lajes intact and accordingly attacked it with a neutron bomb. After seeing Eddie Burns, a survivor who was deep underground at the time of the attack, Jonah lands the plane at Lajes.

Rising levels of wind-swept fallout from Europe require that they evacuate, and they decide to fly to Antarctica. But they do not know how many people they can carry if they must carry food and fuel as well. With Eddie's help, Jonah and the SAS soldiers on board manage to re-activate the base radar and use the teletype machines to make contact with a British naval officer in the Falkland Islands who is able to confirm, at the expense of his life leaving a sealed room, with the McMurdo Antarctic base the existence of sufficient provisions, plus a nuclear reactor for warmth. There is more than enough for the survivors, and then...

A Russian Antonov freighter aircraft lands at Lajes. It is initially mistaken for a Soviet troop transport to occupy Lajes. It is, however, stolen: carrying two female Soviet Air Force crew and a large number of civilian refugees. Next morning, after both aircraft are refueled, the survivors endure flying through an overcast layer of radioactive ash and byproducts on their way to Antarctica. There are more sacrifices when the Antonov cannot make the necessary altitude with the weight of cargo, passengers, and fuel: even after jettisoning everything, fifty Russian volunteers must sacrifice themselves by jumping from the plane's hatch, led by the co-pilot.

Soon after the characters arrive at McMurdo, it is realised that the tilt of the Earth on its axis has been affected by the numerous nuclear explosions. There are two different endings of Down To A Sunless Sea which suggest either a radioactive death for all the survivors with a theological twist, or, more optimistically, a chance for the almost one thousand survivors to rebuild the world in not just warmth but also peace and cooperation.

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