This YA novel was first published in 1963, and was set around fifty years in its then-future. Nearly fifty years on, it has aged remarkably well. Right on the first page, I was taken back to the sensawunda I had when I first read this book as a young teenager around thirty years ago — not least because in the first paragraph Clarke beautifully evokes the sense of wonder his teenage protagonist feels at the sight of an international cargo vessel and the daydreams it inspires about the places it has seen.
When sixteen-year-old Johnny Clinton finds that the giant hovercraft has made an emergency landing near his home, his curiosity leads him to sneak aboard for a look around, and leaves him trapped as an accidental stowaway when it lifts off again unexpectedly. The orphaned Johnny’s not too upset at the idea of being carried away from the home he’s reluctantly offered by his widowed aunt, so he doesn’t come out of hiding until the craft crash-lands in the Pacific Ocean. The crew have abandoned ship, and Johnny is left with nothing but a packing crate and his own clothing to keep him afloat and sheltered — until a pod of dolphins find him and and save his life by pushing his makeshift raft the hundred miles to the nearest land.
That land is Dolphin Island, an island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef which is home to a research station studying dolphins. The station tracks down where Johnny came from before he’s even released from the infirmary, but he’s offered the chance to stay, an offer he’s quick to accept. He rapidly builds a new life for himself, one that mixes ongoing formal education with involvement in the scientific work on communicating with the dolphins. There’s more than a little adventure as well.
This is an excellent short novel, with an engaging protagonist, an interesting story, and some superb world-building. Clarke drew on his own experience of skin-diving on the Great Barrier Reef to paint a wonderful word picture of the Reef and its marine life. Clarke’s extrapolation of technology hasn’t suffered too badly as reality caught up with it — it’s different to what really happened, but not so much so that it jars. And glory be, the story hasn’t been visited by the Sexism Fairy. There’s a distinct absence of female characters, but not in a way that says that women shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about difficult things like science. Definitely one for my keeper collection.