To Kill the Potemkin by Mark Joseph (Donald I. Fine: $16.95; 257 pp.)


Mark Joseph’s first novel is about an underwater war, with overtones of the aircraft dogfights of World War I and a large admixture of assumed (but sparsely described) technological capabilities. Happily, it is fast-moving and not overly long. It is another in the spate of fiction based on nuclear submarines and the electronic revolution. Superficially, there is a resemblance to “The Hunt for Red October,” after which its structure (not its story line) is patterned.

The Potemkin of the book is a Soviet submarine of the new “Alpha” class, built of an alloy of titanium, capable of fantastic speed, depth and resistance to damage. The “Alpha” is not fiction. She is all too real, and the U.S. Navy has yet to build her match. When existence of a Soviet sub possessing these characteristics became known, she created extreme interest in our Navy, against which her extraordinary military capabilities were obviously directed. Very understandably, her capabilities immediately became a prime subject for writers of fiction.

As the novel opens, Adm. Gorshkov, head of the Russian navy, has directed a full-scale test of Potemkin’s capabilities against the United States 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. Her skipper, for whom we feel some sympathy, is doing his ingenious best.

The U.S. Navy’s reaction is understandably to frustrate the Soviets, and the action quickly spins off into a confrontation with the USS Barracuda, many years older and nowhere nearly as war-capable as the Potemkin, but possessed of an equally skillful and humanely motivated skipper, and a special advantage in the person of her top sonar man. To this point, the story works, and its ground is firm. But the sonar man is an improbable character named Sorenson who could only exist in fiction. His ability to interpret what he hears in his sonar set, and what he sees in its displays, verges on pure fantasy. So does his personal life, ashore and on board, not that this matters to the plot. He is reputed to be the one enlisted man in the United States Navy whom Admiral Gorshkov knows by name and reputation--and fears. A lot to swallow.


The book suggests that confrontations similar to the one described may have actually occurred. The truth of this we’ll never know; at least, not in our lifetimes. Novelists may write what they please, but they can only speculate, and need not be taken seriously. In non-secret matters, however, i.e., when writing about matters that are generally known by--and indeed are part of the lives of--real people, in this case Navy people, they incur the obligation to learn something about applicable procedures, the facts, and the physics of the sea and ships (including submarines). Ignorance about things that must be kept secret can be forgiven. Lack of proper attention to easily ascertainable information brings reproach. Unfortunately, too many writers do not understand this. To any reader who feels strongly that fiction should be a reflection of truth, an author’s disregard of fact, custom, or the natural laws can be a serious disservice.

Joseph tries to reproduce Navy jargon, commands and techniques. But he missed far more than he got right, and when he is wrong, it jars. Some examples: (1) Our Navy uses “one third” and “two thirds” speed for engine commands, not “half” speed; (2) submarines departing from Norfolk do not submerge in the channel (it is not deep enough); (3) all the turbines connected to a propeller turn whenever the propeller is turning.

As for simple physics, the statement that there is time for people to “drown” in a submarine split asunder at deep depth is not correct. The truth, known by all submariners, is that the air inside the sub will be instantly compressed to many atmospheres and hundreds of degrees; compartment bulkheads will shatter before the onslaught of solid water, peppering the spaces behind them with flying pieces of lethal steel. Death will be instantaneous for all on board.

Despite these errors, however, “To Kill the Potemkin” is an interesting and indeed well-written story, however inaccurate it may seem to professionals. It holds our attention because of its dramatic presentation. In that it adds to our desire to know more about the Navy, the seas around us and our submariners, it serves the country well. Would, however, that Joseph had done a better job of researching how the Navy and its submarines really function. It is complimentary to our Navy; it makes a good effort to insert an understanding of the human factor that is all too often missing in novels of this nature; but it adds little to our knowledge of the men and ships it is ostensibly about.