“Undersea Guardians” by Ray Bradbury is a horror short story, which appeared in the December 1944 issue of Amazing Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.
Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!
“Undersea Guardians” starts with the atmospheric description of the wreck of a sunken ship, the U.S.S. Atlantic, lying on the ocean floor. Soon thereafter we meet a group of what initially seems to be merpeople, led by a man called Conda. The group of merpeople also includes several woman, a brunette called Alita and a blonde called Helene as well as an old woman who never gets a name and clearly has maternal feelings towards Alita.
The swarm of merpeople is scattered, when “a shadow crosses the ocean surface, quick, like a gigantic sea-gull.” The shadow is an airplane and it drops a depth charge, which is our first hint that this is a contemporary set story, taking place during World War II.
Alita is stunned by the explosion and just wants to sit on the ocean floor, but the others urge her onwards, because they have sighted a German submarine and they have work to do. After all, a US Navy convoy will soon pass by and the German submarine is lying in wait for them.
Gradually, it emerges that Conda, Alita and the other merpeople were aboard the U.S.S. Atlantic, when she was torpedoed and sank. But they had unfinished business, so they did not die, but instead lived on as merpeople. In Alita’s case, that unfinished business is her love for a Navy seaman named Richard Jameson, of whom she sometimes catches a glimpse, when his ship passes the spot where the U.S.S. Atlantic sank.
Conda, who in life was the captain of the U.S.S. Atlantic, and his squad of undead have made it their mission to take out German submarines. They use Alita and Helene, two young, attractive and most importantly naked women, as bait to seduce the crew of the submarine. Though at least in Alita’s case, Schmidt (of course, he’s called Schmidt, being a crewman aboard a German submarine), the poor crewman who happens to see, her believes he’s gone mad from weeks underwater and runs screaming through the submarine and tries to climb out of the hatch. The rest of the crew valiantly try to stop him but fail, since their aim is about as bad as a Stormtrooper’s. But then this is a WWII story written by an American author, so you cannot have competent German sailors.
Now Helene, Conda and the rest get into the submarine via the open hatch and proceed to wreak havoc. Alita doesn’t participate – she clearly dislikes violence. Unlike Helene, who is clearly a mermaid femme fatale driven by hatred, because her lover died inside the U.S.S. Atlantic, while Helene did not. The old woman tells a distraught Alita that yes, they did to the submarine crew what was done to them, but they had to do it, because they saved hundreds of lives. Apparently, the lives of American sailors are the only lives that count.
They are guardians, the old woman says, guardians protecting American ships and convoys. That is why they survive as undead and murderous merpeople, while everybody else aboard the Atlantic died. Because they all have loved ones – husbands, lovers, father, brothers, sons – who are sailors aboard US Navy ships and therefore targets.
The convoy passes by and the destroyer aboard which Richard serves is part of it. Alita flits around the destroyer, trying to catch a glimpse of her lover, when another German submarine appears. But the convoy and Conda and his band of murderous merpeople get lucky, because the crew of this German submarine are crap shots, too, and so their torpedoes keep missing the convoy that is right in front of them.
But the submarine crew finally get their act together and the last torpedo is going to hit the destroyer with Richard on board. But Alita heroically throws herself in the way of the torpedo, sacrificing her not-life to save Richard and the destroyer.
On the bridge of the destroyer, Richard briefly thinks that he saw something just before the torpedo exploded harmlessly. A large fish or maybe a log.
Of the four Ray Bradbury stories I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project so far, I liked “Undersea Guardians” the least. It’s an effective little story and – like all Ray Bradbury stories – well written and atmospheric. But I prefer my speculative fiction without a side order of WWII propaganda, thank you very much.
Though to be fair, Alita has her doubts about what she and the other merpeople are doing and is clearly aware of the hypocrisy of condemning others to a fate she so clearly loathes. And indeed, Alita repeatedly has to be coaxed into participating in the raids by the old woman, who never even gets a name. Furthermore, Helene, the mermaid femme fatale, is clearly insane. And Schmidt, the hapless German sailor who happens to spot Alita, is not a xenophobic caricature, just a young man driven nigh crazy from months of isolation. Compared to some of the truly grisly propaganda stuff we’ve seen in the dramatic presentation and graphic story categories at the Retro Hugos in recent years, “Undersea Guardians” is pretty nuanced.
There are also moments where it seems as if Bradbury is aware of the implications of his premise. For if the crews of allied ships survive as murderous undead merpeople bent on revenge, then so should the crews of German ships, which would soon lead to groups of merpeople waging war on each other under the sea. The ambivalence of the story almost suggests that the editor of Amazing Stories, Raymond F. Palmer, pushed Bradbury to make it more patriotic.
And while it’s never explicitly stated, the U.S.S. Atlantic was not a civilian ship, but a US Navy vessel, which makes her a legitimate target in wartime. Alita apparently was on board, because she wanted to work as a nurse in England and see her Richard again. We never learn what Helene and the old woman were doing aboard. Most probably, they were planning to become nurses, too. So what happened to Alita and the others was not some kind of Lusitania, let alone Wilhelm Gustloff incident.
That said, I was pleased that “Undersea Guardians” has three female characters, two of them named, and all of them different from each other. In fact, “Undersea Guardians” is the only story I have reviewed for the Retro Reviews project so far that passes the Bechdel test.
This is the third 1944 Ray Bradbury story I’ve read where a non-combatant saves the day and wins the battle, if not the war. Sam Burnett from “Morgue Ship” is a medic collecting dead bodies after the battle, Click Hathaway from “The Monster Maker” is a news photographer who only tagged along with an Interplanetary Patrolman to shoot the action and Alita from “Undersea Guardians” is a wartime nurse turned undead mermaid. Methinks Bradbury was trying to make a point about the heroic potential of non-combatants.
Ray Bradbury would revisit the concept of drowned sailors turned into a vengeful undead army two years later in “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, his sole collaboration with lifelong friend Leigh Brackett. Only that in “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, the undead army consists of sailors from both sides of a local conflict on Venus and that they turn on their own side as well as the enemy, led by a sinister pied piper figure. And the undersea army of the undead only shows up towards the end of “Lorelei of the Red Mist” and is therefore definitely Bradbury’s work, who finished the novella, when Leigh Brackett was called away to Hollywood to write the screenplay for The Big Sleep.
Soldiers continuing to fight the war they were in even after death also shows up in Richard Lester’s 1967 anti-war film How I Won the War, the climactic scene of which with the undead soldiers marching on to war was filmed near where I live with the Uesen Weser bridge standing in for a Rhine bridge, even though anybody who has ever seen either the Weser in Uesen or the Rhine knows that both don’t look even remotely the same.
Even though Amazing Stories was America’s first science fiction magazine, there is not a hint of science fiction in “Undersea Guardians”. Instead, the story is pure horror and would feel more at home in Weird Tales than in Amazing Stories. Maybe Weird Tales rejected it and since there were no other fantasy and horror magazines on the market in 1944, “Undersea Guardians” ended up in Amazing Stories and even was the cover story of the December 1944 issue with a striking (and accurate) cover courtesy of James B. Settles.
Unlike the much better “Morgue Ship”, “Undersea Guardians” has been reprinted a handful of times over the years, usually in anthologies of maritime horror. And the story is certainly a fitting addition to an anthology like that.
“Undersea Guardians” is an effective horror story somewhat marred by its WWII context. But considering how prolific Ray Bradbury was (he published thirteen speculative stories in 1944 alone plus several mysteries), they can’t all be winners. And even a weaker Bradbury is still better than most of the other SFF stories out there.