Mr. Norway

by wjw on January 26, 2016

220px-SlideRuleSome of you may have noticed that I contributed to a discussion of hard vs. soft science fiction over at

One of the things I’ve noticed about so-called hard SF is that a lot of it isn’t all that hard— the science is often extremely speculative or sometimes even non-existent— but the label attaches anyway, because of the book’s attitude toward the science.  The science, and the problems the science causes or solves, is front and center, and the characters have to work within a rigorous framework of science or technology in order to resolve the story.

As an example, my novel Metropolitan was called hard SF by some, even though the novel was fantasy and I completely made the science up.  But I treated the fantasy elements as if they were real, and that sort of rigor convinced at least a few readers that I had some kind of postgraduate degree in Plasm Theory.

To me, that says that what hard SF deals with is process— and, to quote myself, “the story becomes not one of plot or character or setting—although ideally those are present as well—but a story in which the action is broken down into a series of technical problems to be solved.”

That sort of story is something I’ve decided to call Geek Fiction.  I’m working on a kind of General Theory of Geek Fiction which I will present when I have the time, but right now I’d like to illustrate Geek Fiction through the works of a single author, one I happen to like a lot.

I refer to Nevil Shute, whose full name was Nevil Shute Norway.  And who, by the way, had about the greatest job ever, because he designed zeppelins for a living.  He was chief engineer of the R100, which was the British zeppelin that didn’t crash in a fiery explosion (that was the R101, designed by government committee).

Nevil Shute wrote the post-holocaust novel On the Beach, which I read during a period in which I compulsively read every post-holocaust novel I could find.  (Nuclear annihilation was very much on my mind.) But I never read any of Shute’s other works until my sometime editor, John Douglas, introduced me to the rest of Shute a couple decades ago.  I’ve been reading him off and on since.  His works can be divided into two groups:

  1. Stories in which competent people behave competently.

  2. Stories in which ordinary people are caught in extraordinary situations, to which they respond with true British pluck.  And competence.

The first category are perhaps the least interesting, though books like An Old Captivity and Most Secret serve well as illustrations to my thesis.  The first is a novel that is largely about the technical difficulties of mounting an aerial photographic survey of Greenland in the 1930s, and the sheer amount of physical work that went into flying small craft into dangerous situations, without the use of any more modern navigational aids than a sextant.  (The plane at least had a radio, though the antennae was a long wire that had to be hand-cranked in and out of the craft,)  The second of these works is set in World War II, and involved an attempt to equip a French fishing boat with a giant flamethrower for use in destroying German warships.  The technical details of the horrific weapon are laid out in detail, along with hair-raising examples of its use.

Shute’s engineering background helps make these stories plausible, and it’s to his credit as a writer that he can make these sorts of details interesting to readers who don’t happen to be engineers.  (That’s the challenge of writing Geek Fiction— not that you have to define a problem, break it down into its component pieces, and rationally solve them; but that you have to make the process interesting to a reader who doesn’t have a degree in engineering.)

Shute saves his works from being mere slide-rule exercises by his gift for creating character, or at any rate a certain type of character— middle-class, educated, rational, and fundamentally decent.  His characters possess feeling, but their emotions are restrained in ways typical of Englishmen of Shute’s generation.

And while his characters are rational and competent, they’re not the Nietzschean supermen of popular fiction.  One of the protagonists of Most Secret suffers a breakdown as a result of trauma inflicted while burning fellow humans to death, and the protagonist of An Old Captivity also suffers a kind of breakdown, of which more later.

That essential humanity makes Shute’s characters sympathetic, that along with their fundamental middle-class British decency.  They’re willing to contribute to a good cause, or help a town stranded in an economic desert, or fight Hitler in sometimes gruesome ways, but they don’t lose their fundamental selves in so doing.

My personal favorite in this category of Shute’s works is Trustee From the Toolroom, which I joyfully recommend to you all.  The hero is Keith Stewart, a true geek, in fact a homebody who makes an extremely modest living crafting scale models and selling his designs to modeling magazines.  Stewart’s sister and wealthy brother-in-law are lost when their yacht piles up on a reef in the Pacific, and he finds himself step-parent to his 10-year-old niece.  The brother-in-law’s fortune has disappeared, and Stewart realizes that he’s converted it to gems and smuggled then away on his yacht, all to avoid postwar British restrictions on capital.  Without the money, Stewart can’t possibly raise his niece in the upper-middle-class fashion to which she’s entitled, and so his problems become the following:

  1. Somehow get to America

  2. Cross the States

  3. Cross the Pacific to Hawaii, and then Polynesia

  4. Somehow get to the remote island where the wreck occurred

  5. Perform some marine salvage on a wrecked, sunken yacht

  6. Get a fortune in gems back to England in time to pay for his niece’s tuition

  7. And do this all without any money!

And after dealing with his niece’s grieving by telling her to keep a stiff upper lip and not let her emotions run away with her, he does exactly that.

It’s utterly perfect Geek Fiction, with a long list of problems to solve, a sympathetic character to solve them, and a lot of interesting characters and scenery along the way.  There’s no stopping to deal with unpleasant, untidy emotions, such as a ten-year-old’s mourning for her parents, because there’s a long list of things to do that are more important, and besides the wife can handle all that, possibly by brewing up a pot of tea.

The second category of Shute’s fiction— that of ordinary people caught up in world-changing events, and responding by evoking rational middle-class virtues— produces stories that are, on the whole, more interesting.

Possibly the most fun of these is Pied Piper (1942), in which a 70-year-old Englishman, on a fishing holiday in France, is caught up in the German invasion of 1940.  He reluctantly agrees to escort two small English children home, but one of them falls ill and delays the journey.  The Germans advance, and the protagonist keeps somehow acquiring more refugee children while dodging enemy troops, until eventually his problem isn’t getting two kids out of a country that’s being invaded, but smuggling seven children out of a country that’s already been occupied.  And oh yes, he doesn’t speak French, and can’t pass for a Frenchman.  He’s just this old English guy wandering around a war zone with a pack of kids.

It’s a perfect little book, in which the hero’s problem keeps getting more complicated as the story advances, and the perils just keep getting more perilous.

(As an aside, Shute’s World War II fiction was all written during the war, at night in his spare time, with the Blitz exploding around him.  The issues of the war were far from settled, and it was far from clear which side would win.  It’s probably best to read these stories with that in mind.

(Also, during the war his day job was basically with the Department of Weird Weapons.  I don’t know any of the details, but I do wonder if the flamethrowing fishing boat was something he tried to bring into being.)

Another story in this category (Ordinary People/Big Doin’s) would be On the Beach, which presents the characters with a serious problem for which there is no solution.  No one can survive the radioactive cloud descending on the protagonists, and so it turns out to be a story in which they attempt to hold onto their values and decency essentially for their own sake, and not because it will resolve anything or make the world better.

A further example would be What Happened to the Corbetts (US title: Ordeal), published just ahead of World War II.  The book could be described as a near-future SF novel, in which the middle-class Corbetts find themselves caught in an aerial bombing campaign by an unnamed foreign power (Germany from context).  Thanks to a plausible science fiction device, the attackers are able to bomb accurately through clouds and bad weather, and bad morale and cholera soon threaten social stability.  The book was considered prophetic enough on publication that the British government bought 1000 copies for distribution to air-raid wardens, to let them know what to expect.  (Luckily for Britain, none of Shute’s more depressing predictions came true.)

These last two works bring up Shute’s willingness to deal with some of the stuff of science fiction.  Shute’s science fiction falls into a near future category, the “if this goes on” school of prediction.  No Highway (1948) presciently raises the then-brand-new issue of metal fatigue in jet aircraft. (Designers of the Comet, alas, did not read the book.)  In the Wet, published in 1953, features a flash-forward to the Britain of 1983, where the dual threats of Socialism and Anti-Monarchism are examined and condemned.

(His prognostications are wide of the mark.  Shute, like a great many in his class, was deeply offended by the notion that he would be asked to help pay for the war, for looking after the casualties, for rebuilding, and for improving the prospects of the working classes, who were by that point no longer tugging their forelocks as respectfully as once they had.  The rise of the working class was viewed not as a direct threat not to the Establishment, but to the security of the middle classes.  And of course if Shute got a look at today’s royal family, I expect he would have had that fatal stroke all over again.)

Shute was also willing to write about metaphysics and the paranormal.  When the protagonist of An Old Captivity has his breakdown, he recalls a past life in which he and the book’s heroine were Irish slaves of none other than Leif Eriksson, and he is able to guide the others to Vinland the Good (which turns out to be Cape Cod).  It’s an odd turn for an otherwise realistic novel.

Reincarnation is also an element in In the Wet, and Round the Bend features an aircraft mechanic of mixed race who founds a religion, and who may be divine.

Round the Bend is also an attack on racism, as is The Chequerboard, which depicts the segregated U.S. military.  It should be noted that while Shute’s view of race was extremely progressive for a white Englishman of the mid-twentieth century, it looks a little odd now.  The narrator of Round the Bend employs mostly “asiatics” in his air service, and pays them well.  He gets angry when they’re not permitted into all-white Australia, but he unselfconsciously pays them a quarter what he’d pay a European.  While Shute condemns segregation in the U.S. military, he accepts the de facto segregation in rural Australia, where the protagonists of his much-admired A Town Like Alice refer to Aborigines as “boongs,” (nowadays at least a deeply offensive term), and where his heroine opens a whites-only ice cream parlor.  (Aborigines eventually get their own ice cream parlor in the back, where they are served by an aboriginal hostess so a white women won’t have the distasteful duty.)

Which is all by way of saying that for all of Shute’s essential decency and humanity, he is unable to entirely escape his own time and place.  He did his level best to point out wrongs where he saw them, and if he didn’t have the benefit of a 21st Century perspective on all of it, a modern reader shouldn’t be surprise.

As a science fiction reader, I’m used to writers getting the future wrong or simply skewed in an odd way.  Picking the wrong trends to to project into the future is a professional hazard.  (I just may have done this myself.)  And I’m also used at home with the essential geekiness of Shute’s novels, and the rationality and calculation that occupy the protagonists’ minds as they work their way, step by step, through the problems that Shute has set before them.

Shute’s books are rational, but it’s rationality branded with decency and compassion.  What more do you want in your future?

TRX January 26, 2016 at 10:57 am

I read “On the Beach” in my early teens; it soured me on Shute for the next three and a half decades…

A few years ago I discovered “Trustee from the Toolroom”, which affected me about like it did you; our reviews are even fairly similar. Here’s mine from the homeshopmachinist forum:

03-07-2013, 07:17 PM
Keith Stewart was one of those pudgy little men nobody thought about much. He had his little workshop in his basement, wrote articles for “Miniature Mechanic”, and his wife worked in a shop to make ends meet. He’s just barely getting by, but he’s doing what he wants to do.

His sister and wealthy brother-in-law plan to sail from England, through the Panama Canal, off to Tahiti, and eventually back and north to Vancouver, where they intend to relocate. At his brother-in-law’s request, Keith solders up a sealed box for his sister’s jewelry and embeds it into some of the concrete ballast of the boat. Keith agrees to keep his 10-year-old niece until her parents make it to Vancouver.

Months later, word comes that the ship has run into a reef near Tahiti. Two bodies were found, and all that was left of the sailboat are the keel and some concrete bits. Their will makes Keith trustee of his niece’s inheritance… all 56 pounds of it. Her parents had apparently sold off everything they had and converted it into diamonds before they left.

That jewelry box belongs to his niece, and it’s his duty to retrieve it for her if he can… but Keith is a man who seldom leaves his house. He has no passport, no car, no relatives he can impose on, and almost no money. He doesn’t even have any friends; just some casual acquaintances among the local model engineering hobbyists. So he starts calling up the only people he knows…

Today we’d call it “networking”. And that’s really what the book is about; how a reputation can precede you, and a dash of “six degrees of separation.”

This book was written by Nevil Shute in the late 1950s. It’s written in the style of British fiction of my grandfather’s time, which means it’s not going to grab anyone by the throat and yank them into the action. But it was worth reading, and I’m keeping my copy…

TRX January 26, 2016 at 11:33 am

Oh, and many of Shute’s books (including “Trustee”) are now in the public domain, and available at Gutenberg. Here’s the Nevil Shute jumpoff page:

wjw January 26, 2016 at 10:35 pm

I wonder how these managed to be in the public domain, since Shute died in 1960, and everything from 1923 on is supposed to remain in copyright in the U.S.

My guess is that the estate didn’t do the copyright renewals that were required by law at the time.

What about On the Beach was so objectionable?

TRX January 27, 2016 at 9:36 am

All I remember was that it went from boring to depressing. Maybe I just didn’t have the background to make sense of it at somewhere between 11 and 13.

I expect you’re as up on the copyright mess as anyone, but it looks like a lot of copyright holders didn’t bother with extensions. Some of it was bungled by agents and publishers. Louis L’Amour lost control over much of his early work that way.

Gutenberg’s copyright window has slid into the early 1960s, and there’s some Keith Laumer stuff showing up, and Andre Norton, Jack Vance, Asimov, etc.

There’s also some strangeness depending on where the copyright was registered and when; due to differing treaty agreements, there’s some stuff in the public domain in some of the British Commonwealth countries that isn’t yet available in the US. Gutenberg runs servers in those countries to host those.

Dave Bishop January 29, 2016 at 3:17 am

“The rise of the working class was viewed not as a direct threat not to the Establishment, but to the security of the middle classes.”

Perfectly sums up my theory as to why we, in the UK, keep getting Tory governments. People who vote Tory are snobs whose main goal is to keep the ‘lower orders’ in their place. The British class system never went away!

Mark Pontin January 29, 2016 at 3:28 am

If you liked Nevil Shute’s Competent Men, you’ll probably like Nigel Balchin’s Competent Men. Balchin was as big a seller as Shute in his day. But Balchin wrote better sentences, his novels are actually artful beneath their tersely naturalistic surfaces, and his protagonists and their situations are more complicated and desperate that Shute’s.

Balchin’s two best novels, IMO, are both set during the London Blitz. They are THE SMALL BACK ROOM — which became a Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger film in 1949, has the first recorded use of the word ‘boffin’ and is the first novel that I know of to center on the problems of scientists doing military research during wartime — and DARKNESS FALLS FROM THE AIR.

Here’s Clive James praising Balchin —
The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin

On the Geek Fiction side of things, Carter Scholz is the only SF person I’ve ever come across who knows Balchin (and likes him). I’d guess that Algis Budrys read him, because the protagonists of WHO and ROGUE MOON are reminiscent of Balchin’s protagonists — competent,driven men who bear no resemblance to the knowitalls of Heinleinian-Campbellian SF. Here’s Sammy Rice, for instance, the crippled, neurotic hero of THE SMALL BACK ROOM, after he’s just done something ridiculously heroic — defusing a new kind of Nazi bomb on Chesil Beach (and Balchin takes you through it) –at the novel’s end….

‘If I’d been a bit sillier, or a bit more intelligent, or had more guts, or less guts, or had two feet or no feet, or been almost anything definite, it would have been easy. But as it was, I didn’t like what I was, and couldn’t be what I liked, and it would always be like that.’

Bryan January 30, 2016 at 11:56 pm

I loved On the Beach. I will admit that it is depressing.

My favorite, however, has to be A Town Like Alice.

wjw January 31, 2016 at 12:26 am

I hadn’t heard of Nigel Balchin, but I see his books are available in electronic editions. I’ll give them a look.

wjw January 31, 2016 at 12:30 am

Ah, I see Balchin wrote “Darkness Falls From the Air,” which I haven’t read, but have at least heard of.

Bruce Arthurs February 3, 2016 at 5:15 am

You’ve said almost everything I might have said about Shute’s work. My own one-line description would be “Ordinary people, placed in extraordinary circumstances, can do extraordinary things.”

MOST SECRET has an odd structure, building to an ensemble cast by telling Character A’s story until he meets Character B, backtracking to Character B’s story and following until A and B meet Character C, etc. The fact that it was written in 1942, but publication was prevented until 1945 gives some credence to it’s being based on real-life war projects. (I’ve always been surprised it’s never become a film.)

NO HIGHWAY, as I recall, has a peripheral connection to sf/fantasy; the main character has, if not full belief, a strong interest/obsession with Spiritualism.

Gustaf February 5, 2016 at 3:06 am

Regarding Shute’s work being available on Project Gutenberg – I don’t believe they are (or at least I can’t find them using their admittedly confusing search). I think the page is “simply” an author biography and portal.

A pity, as “Trustee from the Toolroom” sounds like exactly what I’d like to read right now 😉

wjw February 6, 2016 at 12:19 am

It =is= available. It just isn’t free.

Beth February 9, 2016 at 4:48 pm

Thanks for this great review/insight into Shute. I read every one of his books except for On The Beach because the subject matter seemed so depressing and different from the rest of his work. I eventually read it and it’s still my least favorite. While I love them all for the fact that it’s not people vs people but people vs circumstances conflict, my favorite is The Far Country. I also really like A Town Like Alice and Beyond the Black Stump. All three are considered his Australian novels. I am not an engineer or a scientist, but I love his descriptions of engineering and flying. In fact, I have to read a Nevil Shute novel whenever I’m on a plane because it make the whole experience feel less anxious for me (nervous flyer).

stuart hearn July 21, 2019 at 3:43 am

Shute was clever, i searched for a technical mistake, in all of his works, I found just the one and cannot remember that mistake

He was a snob, an achy typical one at that.
Lost a lot of respect when he shot a tame pig that walked by, then stood on the dead animal
I have all of the books, In The wet, made my hair stand on end, as did An Old Captivity
In the above listed site, I was Amazed at how coarse his features were
As a sailor myself, I knew he’d sailed
Ttrustee for me was great as I play in the toolroom myself
my fave author, but a mere human with lots of disappointing shortcomings

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