Recommendation: The Wave is to serious non-fiction what NatGeo and the Discovery Channel are to David Attenborough and Auntie Beeb – trashy, obnoxiously American but kind of fun all the same
Where to read: On one hand, this is totally beach reading. On the other hand, a solid “nope” to being anywhere near the ocean right now
Read with: A ft to metre conversion chart, an atlas and Youtube – it is well worth seeing what these waves actually look like because it is hard to visualise
In brief: The book is about giant rogue or freak waves. It’s a simple premise but Casey takes it in a range of different and really fascinating directions. This does result in a slightly discordant tone but it’s enjoyable regardless.
This is two, borderline three, books in one. Part of it is about the science of freak waves, part of it is about the effect of those waves on global shipping and human society more generally (observing the probability that climate change will make everything worse) and the rest follows big wave surfers, primarily Laird Hamilton, because it’s fucking cool and why not.
As I was reading through some of the scenes about surfing I did find myself thinking “this is all very Point Break” (the remake, not the original) or Into Thin Air or K2: The Killing Peak. This actually makes quite a bit of sense when you consider that Casey was part of the publishing team behind Into Thin Air, that Hamilton was a technical consultant on Point Break and that quite a few of the surfers Casey mentions did stunts for the film. Honestly, the surfing was the best part of the book – I would have read double the length on that alone and my Youtube algorithm is now completely screwed.
The bits on the issues with global shipping and the vulnerability of bulk carriers in particular are frankly reminiscent of Clarke and Dawe’s masterpiece “The Front Fell Off”. I know it is far more complex, and freak waves are an entirely different beast, but it was hard to get the “waves…at sea…chance in a million” line out of my head.
And then there’s the discussion of tsunamis, storm surges and the danger to human coastal populations. It’s hard to picture some of the waves she talks about, partly because she’s American and insists on using the imperial system (seriously, use metric for fucks’ sake) and partly because it genuinely is kind of unfathomable for a landlubber such as myself.
Casey also demonstrates a penchant for hyperbole (or sloppiness) which makes it difficult to take everything she says seriously. Right at the start of the book, for example, she talks about the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig on the Grand Bank off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982. Her description of the sinking runs something like “a giant wave hit the rig and it capsized almost immediately with all hands 2012 tsunami style” which is kind of simplifying the full course of events. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but I was more sceptical than I usually would be after that.
This is also just a bit of a general point really – the whole thing is a bit “Shark Week”. I’m fairly confident I didn’t just read the literary equivalent of Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives but I’m not 100% sure.