Selenite Rhizome

I watched The Silent Sea on Netflix. This a Korean sci-fi series in 8 episodes, dubbed into English.

The story is set at some unspecified point in the future, which would seem to be in the 22nd century or not too far away from it. Humans have advanced to creating bases on the Moon and Mars and flights to these worlds were occurring regularly until the Earth was overtaken in a great ecological crisis: a drastic fall in the amount of drinkable or usable water available, causing widespread starvation. We get a quick recap of this history at the start of the first episode, with a string of news bulletins which also explain the rapid switch over to mass vertical farming and the imposition of water rationing.

The precise origin of this crisis is unclear and also its extent is hard to understand. Everyone seems to still be able to clean and groom themselves, not just the favoured elite who are still able to pursue academic fields and be available for space missions. When the mission sets off it appears to rise in to space from the middle of an orangey desert – assuming that the launchpad is in Korea, then that would imply the Sea Of Japan, at least, is no longer wet. That would fit with the remark by one character that she would like to see the sea again, and from another that they haven’t seen rain in years… but it would require an absolutely cataclysmic adjustment in climate in short time, that it’s hard to suppose that any advanced human civilisation would be surviving anywhere on the Earth’s surface.

The politics of this future is also unclear. As the caption in that news broadcast reveals, big corporations are also major players along side governments. Presumably this Korea is the southern Republic, there is no allusion of any kind to a unification or to any other major states. Korea was significant enough to have its own Moonbase and it is implied that other countries had them but they were deactivated. The private corporations are powerful enough to send their own missions out to the Moon as well, it is not explained why they can’t be fought and eliminated since we do seem to have a cadre of Space Commandos trained and experienced in combat in installations off the Earth.

Water is the theme of the title sequence: we see it flowing around various transparent shapes which turn out to be human; this shifts to images of various terrestrial locations, with suited astronauts present, before the astronaut body finally plunges and sinks through deep blue ocean water, and we resolve with the lunar surface.

The story starts literally by hitting the ground at speed: on board a shuttle to the Moonbase, but crashing and rolling. Just as the crew feel safe they realise their position is precarious.

As is normal for sci-fi styled shows since Lost, we end an episode with an exciting new development, but then the next one can start with a jump into a long flashback, usually exploring a character’s back story, or revealing some significant encounter that occurred early on in the narrative but which we didn’t see at the time, though we did see some minor oddness that makes sense in the light of it.

The narrative commences with Doctor Song Ji-Ann being called up by the space agency and asked to take part in a mission to re-enter the old Balhae Lunar Research Station, which had to be abandoned after a radiation leak 5 years ago. She used to work as an exobiologist but now she concentrates on more immediately practical areas. Her sister was on the station and is presumed dead. The other members of the team are old military tough guys and not given to much thought about bigger issues. The mission is to retrieve samples of the “lunar water” which had been under investigation at the station.

It’s not hard to tell that the top brass aren’t being totally straight about the mission or what they know about the situation up there.

The shuttle crashes on the Moon – there is a reference to communication being affected “by a meteor storm” which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Although the animation of the crash is a bit blurry, the lunar surface is very well presented, along with the march to Balhae station (which is about the size of a small town and must have been a considerable piece of engineering to set up. Apparently it had about 90 inhabitants, but we learn reasons to suspect there were more).

There is no attempt to portray the lower gravity of the Moon, and even if we assume the old stand-by of “magnetic shoes” these people are not behaving according to strict physicalism, since there is no suggestion of “artificial gravity”. It’s also not clear how often and how well the oxygen and other essential supplies at Balhae are replenished, since the astronauts are very lucky to find instant life-saving resources when they arrive there just in time. So this is not a Hard SF tale with rigorous fidelity to what textbooks say, which is just as well since the plot veers well away from that.

The interior design of Balhae is what I suppose we could call Standard Future World Interior. Like every other sci-fi series, not just Doctor Who, we see lots of corridors as a simple shorthand for indicating how big a space this structure takes up.

Technology in this world still operates mainly through keyboards and monitors and with data storage in rooms full of block units. The user interfaces on the screens seem to be running on a version of Windows or Linux written not too far in the future from 2021, and smartphones are still in use. In fact some control rooms still have the steel boxes with plastic coloured lights on them that entered service in 60s/70s sci-fi; but that’s inevitable, we can’t imagine what we haven’t invented yet.

What this story is good at imagining is a very unusual menace, which may not even be a menace at all, if we could understand it: water. Or rather, the weird lunar water, which killed everyone who was on the station 5 years ago. It kills people through an horrendous body-horror moment, after the initial succumbing to what seems to be a viral infection, which causes hallucination, and then violent projectile vomiting of… more water. Even more water than the human body contains. Some strange para-chemical reaction occurs to transform internal tissues into liquid that comes straight out all over the nearby environment, and the poor soul tormented by this death goes into a final dream state of descending in a blue ocean, explaining the climax of the title sequence.

There’s no time to theorize about how this stuff could cause the violent (but bloodless) deaths it induces: we also find out that there are zones and levels to Balhae that aren’t on the official schematics, and they are now full of dense vegatation that’s been growing for 5 years from seeds in the lab that got in contact with the lunar water during the crisis.

If you look carefully you might see some cobwebs on a few leaves, but that must surely be a mistake – there’s no suggestion of any animals being loose in Balhae, until we realise that astronauts are getting attacked and maimed or killed by a fast-moving humanoid figure that knows its way about.

It many ways this is a tribute to Aliens I – IV. The attempt to trap the hostile presence in the ducts and tunnels follows the hunts staged in the 1st film and Alien 3; when the guys ride out with guns blazing and are confused by sensors showing the presence is closer than they can see is in Aliens; the implication that the higher command don’t care about their welfare, and that spies or double-agents are in their midst is from all the films; and the whole reveal of the secret biological experimentation is the core of the underrated Alien IV. But it’s more interesting that here both parts of the great extraterrestrial mystery remain mysterious and we have no reason to judge them as hostile: the lunar water did not attack or besiege the base, and in the end the hybrid lifeform made with it seems to choose to stay away from humanity.

Apart from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle I can’t think of a story in which the “threat” is simply an unusual kind of water that clever technical people are just careless in handling; Ballard had The Drought, and The Drowned World, which had causal explanations in terms of pollution. The Crystal World was nearer to the sense of the familiar turning out to behave inexplicably. One possibility which seems to be unexplored in this story is that the water-crisis on Earth is linked to the discovery of the Lunar Water. Some kind of action-at-a-distance or solidarity of non-solids causes a reaction down below due to what is happening in the heavens above. That wouldn’t be any stranger than the way this ends.

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