The novel “People of The Sea”, also known as “Dolphin Island: A Story of the People of the Sea”, by Arthur C. Clarke was published for the first time in 1963.
Johnny Clinton is a boy who lives with his aunt and cousins because his parents are dead but doesn’t get along with them. When he sees a transport ship stop because of some damaga, he sneaks aboard to travel as a stowaway taking advantage of the fact that it’s semi-automated with only a skeleton crew on board. His journey doesn’t last long because a more serious damage causes it to sink off the coast of Australia.
Forced to try to survive on a piece of debris he uses as a makeshift raft, Johnny is saved by some passing dolphins, who push him to an island. Rescued by the inhabitants, he meets Professor Kazan, a scientist who is studying cetaceans and in particular dolphins and their language in a research that soon involves Johnny as well.
“People of The Sea” is what was once called a juvenile, with the teenager Johnny Clinton as the protagonist of a story set around the middle of the 21st century. In search of a better life than that with his aunt, he ends up in the midst of a scientific research on cetaceans that leads him to live adventures he couldn’t even have imagined.
The part of “People of The Sea” concerning dolphin research is the most important and most intriguing one because it explores the theme of dolphin intelligence with various ramifications. Through Professor Kazan, Arthur C. Clarke speaks of these cetaceans as people who call themselves the people of the sea. The author uses scientific bases, as usual in his works, from which he develops ideas that in this case concern the language of dolphins and what’s an actual culture of the people of the sea, which includes its own history up to a distant past.
Getting involved in Professor Kazan’s research in what is also a coming-of-age story, Johnny is fascinated by the dolphins and the environment in which they live. From this point of view, Arthur C. Clarke offers a positive message to young people by giving an idea of the connections among the various species that live in the ocean. However, today certain experiments described in the novel conducted on intelligent animals such as cetaceans are truly appalling even if the author explains their end to justify the means.
There are other science fiction elements as well but “People of The Sea” is short even by the standards of the time and today it would be considered a novella. The consequence is that some parts of the plot that don’t directly concern the research on cetaceans are barely mentioned. For example, the transport ships of that future are gigantic hovercraft, but Arthur C. Clarke says little about them. In some cases the author has been far too good in his predictions for the future making certain parts of the story dated in the sense that they have already come true. For example, the fact that a ship might require only a skeleton crew or that the movement of dolphins might be followed using satellites today seems already normal.
The limited length of “People of The Sea” leads to a very fast pace, with very few pause moments between the many events told even in the middle of conversations. Arthur C. Clarke wasn’t exactly famous for the depth of his characters and in this novel there’s only room for a little bit of characterization of the important ones.
Overall, “People of The Sea” is a nice novel for the evocative setting and the story about the dolphins, for the rest the limits place it really far from Arthur C. Clarke’s best works. The author’s fans and people interested in the themes covered might still like it.