First edition cover
|Genre(s)||Science fiction novel, Techno-thriller|
|Publication date||May 12, 1987|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Dewey Decimal||813/.54 19|
|LC Classification||PS3553.R48 S6 1987|
|Followed by||Jurassic Park|
The novel is about a psychologist named Norman Johnson, who is engaged by the United States Navy to join a team of scientists assembled by the U.S. Government to examine an enormous spacecraft discovered on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The depth of coral covering the craft proves that it has been lying there for over 300 years and so could only be of alien origin.
A group of scientists, including psychologist Norman Johnson, mathematician Harry Adams, biologist Beth Halpern, and astrophysicist Ted Fielding, (along with the Navy personnel) are placed in a deep sea habitat at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to explore a spacecraft.
To their surprise, they soon discover that the spacecraft is in fact not alien, but an American spacecraft constructed fifty years in the future and apparently sent through time, appearing in the ocean 350 years before its creation. On further exploration of the spacecraft, the team discovers a mysterious spherical artifact, clearly of extraterrestrial origin, which quickly becomes the focus of the characters' mission and the book's plot. At this point a Pacific storm keeps the scientists on the ocean floor without contact or support from the Navy on the surface for what could be a week or more.
The crew soon focuses on first asking thought-provoking questions about the sphere (namely whether it should be opened or not) and then on attempting to actually open the sphere and learn about its nature, contents, and origin. Harry eventually succeeds in opening it and goes inside. Upon returning, he has a terrible headache and he remembers little about what happened inside the sphere and how he opened it. The rest of the team cannot figure it out either.
As they continue to study and theorize, they are contacted by an intelligent, seemingly friendly alien life form, which calls itself Jerry and is apparently from within the spherical alien artifact. It first contacts them via a code of seemingly strange number series, which Harry translates. But while they struggle to find answers to their questions surrounding Jerry and the sphere, bizarre and increasingly deadly events transpire involving sea creatures such as giant squid, sea snakes, and jellyfish, and soon it is apparent they are being manifested by Jerry himself. Members of the team start to die in various attacks while the survivors struggle to placate the unthinkably powerful, childlike, and temperamental Jerry, who seems not to have any concept of death and thinks them a source of amusement.
Norman suddenly has an important role as he realizes he must use psychology to keep the surviving team (now only himself, Beth, and Harry) alive by placating Jerry and keeping him from killing them all. But in a plot twist, he discovers that Jerry does not actually exist, and that the sphere in fact holds the power to allow subconscious thought to be manifested into reality itself. Thus, after entering the sphere, Harry acquired this power. In other words, Jerry is something imagined by Harry's subconscious mind. Harry has started subconsciously manifesting the squid (he mentions he was terrified of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and the squid as a child), Jerry, and other such dangerous visions and dreams that have come to life, and Norman and Beth have to somehow stay alive before Harry's subconscious kills them all.
Beth and Norman decide to tranquilize Harry with a powerful mixture of sedatives and painkillers from the first aid box, and after successfully doing so, they wait for contact to be reestablished with the surface. During this time, despite having Harry sedated, the manifestations continue. Contemplating from where the source is coming from, Beth eventually accuses Norman of having entered the sphere and gaining access to the power. Though unable to recall when this incident occurred, Norman is close to yielding until he witnesses a video of Beth entering the sphere herself and it is at this point that Norman discovers, much to his horror, that Beth has become psychotic and that she was attempting to brainwash Norman into believing that it was him that was causing the additional manifestations. After Beth concludes that, from her point of view, Norman may be a threat to her, he is now at the mercy of her new power as she starts irrationally planting potent explosives around the spacecraft and the deep sea habitat in an act of self-destruction. Norman escapes and enters the sphere, thus also receiving the power to make his thoughts real, and races against the timed explosives to talk Beth out of her suicidal rampage and rescue Harry. Harry regains consciousness at this point and knocks Beth unconscious, and they scramble to the escape submarine to the surface just before the explosives destroy the site.
Afterward, while in a decompression chamber, the three survivors ponder what they are going to say to the Navy about what happened underwater. Eventually, they decide to use their power to get rid of their power, changing reality so that the whole thing never happened and that a leak of toxic gas killed the crew as well as destroyed the habitat instead. They agree it can work only if they all do it together and think it and make it happen. As the novel concludes, it is clear that Norman and Harry have done so, but it is suggested that Beth may have chosen not to give up the power after all (more on this below under Main Characters).
Norman Johnson — Norman is the protagonist of the story and is probably the most important in terms of story revelation. Despite physically being the least fit to be in the underwater habitat, he is arguably the most level-headed of the group, though even he exhibits moments of irrationality. Nonetheless, Norman is usually the diplomat of the team, trying to make everyone get along with one another. Norman often wonders why he was called down into an underwater habitat where he seems to have very little impact. He also occasionally butts heads with the others about why it was important to have a psychologist with them underwater.
Harry Adams — Harry is a young, intelligent mathematician. However, he is also very arrogant, unsympathetic, disdainful, and often uncooperative with the others. Harry tends to be the most thought-provoking character in the story, often mentioning concepts that encourage readers to think about certain issues (some which remain solely within the context of the story and some which do not). While very secure intellectually, Harry tends to be lacking emotionally due to his isolation. Harry was a genuine mathematical prodigy growing up and living in ghettos. He was often picked on as a child because of his lack of athletic talent.
Theodore Fielding — Though good-natured, Ted is portrayed as an annoyingly enthusiastic opportunist. His pretentiousness tends to inhibit his relationships with the others, despite his good intentions. It is revealed later that his annoying nature is due to his drive to do something that will make him famous, and the reality that (in his eyes) the time for him to do that is running out. Ted is still much of the life and energy in the underwater habitat.
Elizabeth Halpern — Beth is both gentle and caring while at the same time fierce, combative, and confrontational. She has seemingly contradictory (yet plausible) traits about her, being a weight lifter (fierceness) while possessing physical beauty (gentleness). Being the only woman scientist, she is sometimes the scapegoat of the story — and some of those times only in her mind. As evidenced later, she is arguably the most out of touch with her emotions. It may have been indicated that Beth did not rid herself of the power, as during the novel, she used the power to gain beauty. In the end, Norman compliments Beth, saying that he just realized how beautiful she was.
Harold Barnes — Harold (Hal) is the one in charge of the underwater scientific investigation. Given that he's more of a military man than a scientific one, his interests tend to conflict with the other main characters. His manner is usually brusque, impatient, and distrustful. He also has a tendency to withhold crucial information from his crew and follow his own hidden agenda at their expense.
Tina Chan — Tina is a female Navy crew member that is also in the habitat. She develops somewhat of a strong relationship with Beth throughout the book. She survives for most of the book, but is killed when the giant squid manifested by Harry attacks the habitat.
Teeny Fletcher — The Navy engineer in charge of maintaining the habitat. A heavily built woman, she is friendly, and despite Normans initial skepticism, extremely competent.
The book was made into the film Sphere in 1998, directed by Barry Levinson, with a cast including Dustin Hoffman (Norman Johnson, renamed Norman Goodman), Samuel L. Jackson (Harry Adams), Peter Coyote (Harold Barnes), Liev Schreiber (Ted Fielding), and Sharon Stone (Beth Halpern, renamed Halperin). The film largely follows the novel, although there are many differences between the novel and film.
Reviews were mostly positive for the novel.