ARC Review: Three Miles Down

Harry Turtledove was dubbed “the master of alternate history” in Publisher’s Weekly way back in 2008. He’s been a published author since 1979, writing under various pseudonyms as well as under his real name. He’s dabbled in science fiction, historical fiction, and mysteries as well as alternate history. Turtledove may be best known for his Southern Victory and WorldWar series, alternate histories of the Civil War and World War II. 

In Three Miles Down Turtledove gives us an alternate history story about alien first contact, set in the America of the early 1970s. 

First contact story lines vary wildly. There are the evil alien invaders intent on destroying or subjugating the human race as seen from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds of the 1890s to the 1996 film Independence Day, and many more before and since. 

At the other end of the spectrum are the aliens who “come in peace”, or at least mean us no harm. Like ET. All he wanted to do was phone home. Or, like the Vulcans of Star Trek: First Contact, who came to greet humanity after Zefram Cochrane’s successful development of warp drive technology.

Three Miles Down falls somewhere in the middle. The aliens here don't reveal themselves to be world conquerors nor friendly ambassadors. They may be passersby in the spirit of ET, but it’s hard to say because in fact we only get a glimpse of them. If I could compare this book to any other First Contact work I’d have to say that it shares a lot with the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As in that movie, the focus here is much more on the impact on a handful of common people when extraterrestrials are confirmed to visit earth.

Jerry Stieglitz is a graduate student in marine biology at UCLA, who is an avid sci fi fan and sells short stories to science fiction magazines. Like many of his peers in the early 70s he wears his hair long and sports a beard. When we first meet him he’s wearing powder blue corduroy bell bottoms, and listening to humpback whale songs. He’s interrupted by a knock at his door. Opening the door he finds a couple of CIA men, and a man named Steve from the RAND Corporation. They are there to “invite” Jerry to accompany them on their mission aboard the Glomar Explorer, ostensibly a deep sea mining vessel owned by the mysterious Howard Hughes.

But, he's told, the Hughes story is just that - a cover story for a quest by the CIA to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. Yet Jerry finds, after he agrees to sign on the dotted line and join their mission, that the cover story hides another mission - the REAL mission - to haul up a submerged spaceship from three miles under the ocean. This is not a human spaceship. 

Plenty of the reality of early 1970s America is spread through the book, as the Nixon presidency grinds to its historic end. Surprisingly, the Glomar Explorer, it’s mission to recover a Soviet sub, and the Hughes cover story are all real. 

The focus remains on Stieglitz, and the growth and changes he goes through, along with his fiancรฉe (and then wife) Anna, as the aliens are encountered and Cold War drama and skullduggery plays out. It’s actually kind of a sweet story of young love overcoming obstacles. That story, along with bits about Jerry’s sci-fi writing, and his encounters with some real life sci-fi writers and editors, is the heart of the book.

Which is why it’s so interesting that the book ends on a seeming cliffhanger as humans attempt to bring the aliens found aboard the sunken ship out of suspended animation. Whether this means that a sequel is on its way, or that the story Turtledove wanted to tell is done, and the aliens themselves aren't that central to it, I'm not entirely sure. But it's likely a safe bet that a sequel (and probably a series) is in the works. 

For me, though, this book is complete in and of itself. The pace is a bit slow, but the characters, the story, and the dip back in time to the early 70s were all well done and made for an enjoyable read.

RATING: Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐

NOTE: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley and Tor Books. I am voluntarily providing this review. The book will be available to the public on July 26, 2022.

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Title: Three Miles Down: A Novel of First Contact in the Tumultuous 1970s
Author: Harry Turtledove
Publisher: Tor Books (MacMillan)
Publish Date: July 26, 2022
ISBN-13: 9781250829726
Publisher’s List Price: $26.99 (Hardcover as of 06/2022)