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Volume 28, Number 4, Summer, 2010

Novelist of achievement

By Phillip Salin

I’ve often been surprised at how easy it is for admirable artists and works of art to go unnoticed by most of the people who would really enjoy them. What a waste on both sides: authors, directors, composers are deprived of their proper audience and appropriate recognition; the audience is deprived of potential enlightenment and enjoyment.

This problem is particularly acute for worthy “old” works of art. One might expect critics to help maintain awareness of admirable works and artists, but the majority of critical analysis is only Monday morning quarterbacking, scoring points on an artist for what he didn’t but might have done in his most recent performance. Such criticism overlooks the simpler, more basic functions of publicizing and market-making, of helping to bring together a work and its proper audience.

That is my purpose here: to introduce you to an author, to pique your interest in buried, under-praised, or forgotten writings. In this brief survey, I’ll highlight a handful of Nevil Shute’s novels, as well as his autobiography, Slide Rule.

Individualist Visions

Born in 1899, Nevil Shute wrote twenty-five books between 1923 and 1960, the year of his death. Most of his stories involve aviation, which is not surprising, because writing books was Shute’s second career. His first was in the infant airplane and airship business of the 1920’s and 1930’s. He worked for a series of companies as junior assistant designer, chief calculator, deputy chief engineer, and managing director (i.e., president). When he quit the airplane business he was head of Airspeed, Ltd, with over 1000 employees.

Shute is so simple and straightforward in his style, so decent and modest in his characterizations, that you might think he’s not saying much. And then, bit by bit, you realize how perceptive he is. How very decent and good-hearted.

Shute’s people are believable, and, for the most part admirable. His situations, even the most melodramatic, are also believable. For this reason, they reflect on real life in ways that many works of fiction do not. Although several of his plots do contain a fantastic element (e.g., involving strange dreams or inexplicable hunches), these are generally plot devices rather than the core of the book. There is also a curious (and refreshing) absence of villains in most of his stories. The tension generally comes from attempting to accomplish a difficult task, rather than from any artificial need to overcome malevolent human adversaries. Shute’s plots emerge naturally from the attempts of his main characters to try to get a job done right.

On the Beach (1957) is Shute’s most readily available book, but is quite atypical of him. If this is the only Shute story with which you are familiar, you cannot avoid getting a very mistaken impression of his work, and possibly of his purposes in writing the story itself. Shute was not a passive man, but On the Beach portrays a world that has allowed itself to fall into a fatal situation from which there is no escape; life on Earth is doomed by the unintended consequences of a nuclear war. Shute’s dry, painful understatement about this tragedy could lead to an impression of fatalism, but familiarity with his other works makes clear that Shute’s objective was to inspire horror in order to motivate preventive action while it is still possible.

On the Beach succeeds admirably at inspiring horror and motivating readers to prevent a catastrophe. But it fails to offer any specific analysis of what ought to be done. I think this was wise. By avoiding simplistic solutions, Shute avoids the impression that the problem is amenable to such solutions. Much of the book’s power derives from its harsh refusal to offer an easy way out. This, indeed, is a common theme in his work; the reality of hard problems, and our responsibility for noticing and addressing them as well as we can.

With similar purpose, in a novel written shortly before World War II, Shute focused attention on important issues of civil and personal defense. What Happened to the Corbetts (1939, published in the U.S. as Ordeal), was meant to inspire unproved preparations against bombing attacks that Shute, quite rightly, considered imminent.

A Town Like Alice (1950) is a good introduction to Shute’s works. Part of the action takes place in Malaya, during World War II; the remainder in England and Australia. The complex plot is skillfully handled, with many compelling scenes. The story concerns a legacy whose beneficiary is Jean Paget, Shute’s most enduring heroine.

I won’t say more about the narrative, since it contains a number of surprises, except to emphasize the importance of commercial themes in what, at first glance, is primarily a romance-adventure story. One such theme is the importance of avoiding prejudice in accurately evaluating another person’s business judgment. Another is the virtue of company towns. I’d be surprised to find another work of fiction from the early 1950s with a more positive view of capitalism and entrepreneurship than A Town Like Alice.

No Highway (1948) is a cliffhanger about integrity, eccentricity, personal responsibility, judgment and management. It exemplifies what is most attractive about Shute’s work: he clearly sees the impact each individual has on the lives of his or her family, friends, and co-workers. He clearly illuminates the tremendous responsibility each of us has, not just in the “major” choices, but in seemingly “insignificant” ones as well: the decision whether or not to provide minor, timely assistance to a stranger; the decision about whether to act before one is sure of the facts; the decision to re-examine a cherished presupposition, even when one doesn’t have to.

The narrator, Dr. Dennis Scott, is manager of an aviation research establishment. Slowly, just as in real life, facts begin to present themselves to Scott’s attention suggesting that perhaps there may be a materials flaw in a new commercial airliner. The plot involves tracing the steps by which one of several possibilities becomes a probability, and then, only at the end, a demonstrable fact. The central conflicts of the story stem from the necessity for each character to take responsible action before the uncertainty has been resolved.

Shute skillfully intertwines two very different kinds of uncertainty: uncertainty about technology and about people. The reader comes to realize that we often have to take action based not on our own judgments, but on the judgments of others. The crux is, how should we decide whose judgments to rely upon, and how far?

The story centers on a modest, dedicated, irritating, highly eccentric man, Theodore Honey. As the story unfolds, each of the other characters has to decide how to think about Honey and how to treat him. Their decisions, as well as Honey’s responses to those decisions, determine the outcome.

For many years the actress had been out of touch with the hard realities of life. She had not been short of money for thirty years and she would never be again. All her working life had been spent in the facile world of honky-tonk, of synthetic emotion and of phoney glamour.

Now she was getting a glimpse into a new world, a world of hard, stark facts, a world in which things had to be exactly right or people would be killed . . . She was beginning to perceive that little insignificant men like Mr. Honey were the brains behind that world . . .

Shute’s main characters are not supermen or superwomen. They are strong human beings, and Shute concentrates his efforts on showing what makes them strong: integrity, hard work and training, and an occasional helping hand, particularly one guided by a similar sensibility. There is no arrogance or solipsism in his writing; as a result, we see human beings engaged in co-operative enterprise, each person good at some things and not so good at others. It’s a refreshing contrast from the normal run of super-heroes and anti-heroes. Here we have recognizable, believable heroes and heroines, who differ from us in degree of competency and perceptiveness, but not in kind. I think this is the main source of Shute’s enduring (albeit relatively unsung) popularity.

Round the Bend (1951) has two main themes: the hard work and attention to detail required to build up a business (in this case, a cargo airline), and the need for traditional religions to adapt to the requirements of modern life. The story takes place in the Middle East during the late 1940s, when the oil boom was just starting. Much of the book describes the birth of a new oriental religion that emphasizes the virtue of excellence in one’s work. In the light of recent history, it is sad to reflect on how different Middle Eastern politics might be if something like Shute’s path had been followed instead of the Ayatollah’s.

He said quietly, “you’re saying, in effect, that we must work on the assumption that Shak Lin’s divine.”

“God damn it,” I said angrily. “I tell you he’s not. I know him, and he’s just a damn good engineer who’s going round the bend a bit. That’s all there is to him.”

“A damn good engineer who’s going round the bend a bit,” he said thoughtfully. “It wouldn’t have been a bad description of the Prophet Mahomet, only he was a damn good merchant.”

The singularity of Shute is readily apparent: who else would combine a positive vision of business enterprise and an original view of religion in the same work?

Although Shute was not a libertarian, he was a vocal opponent of government meddling in business, confiscatory income and inheritance taxes, and other aspects of socialism. This fitted right in with what one obituary writer referred to as his “almost pathological distrust of politicians and civil servants.” In 1950, unwilling to put up any longer with the British Labour government’s disastrous policies, he voted with his feet and emigrated to Australia. Both The Far Country (1952) and In the Wet (1953) contain biting criticisms of conditions in England under socialism.

The latter book explores the political implications of then-current trends in the British Commonwealth, extrapolated 30 years into the future. Shute explicitly criticizes traditional democracy for its tendency to give too much political power to people who have done nothing to earn the respect of their peers. Shute’s proposed solution is unorthodox: as in our world, every individual gets one “basic” vote, but as many as six additional votes can be earned—by education, military service or foreign travel, raising children and staying married, earning significant income, ministering a church, or—the highest honor of all—gaining special grant from the Queen.

We got a totally different sort of politician when we got the multiple vote. Before that, when it was one man one vote, the politicians were all tub-thumping nonentitities and union bosses. Sensible people didn’t stand for parliament, and if they stood they didn’t get in.

This scheme strikes me as neither workable nor desirable. It is insufficiently radical, and too arbitrary—how many years of education? at what schools? does a minister of the Universal Life Church qualify for an extra vote? Nevertheless, In the Wet remains interesting because of the importance of Shute’s underlying concern that there is something wrong with the idea that all men’s opinions are worthy of respect and should be weighted equally in politics. That Shute was willing to say this in print in 1953 showed both courage and an uncommon independence from intellectual fashion.*

* Readers interested in the “multiple vote” idea may also wish to read Mark Twain’s brief satiric essay ‘The Curious Republic of Gondour” (1875), reprinted in Mark Twain: Life as I Find It, ed. Charles Neider (Garden City: Doubleday, 1961).

While A Town Like Alice shows the birth of a company town, Ruined City (1938, U.S. title: Kindling), shows the near-death of one. As with most of Shute’s stories, the plot builds on personal experiences. Indeed, I recommend reading this book after his autobiography, Slide Rule, which discusses in detail his opinions about management’s conflicting responsibilities to shareholders and employees. Just before writing Ruined City, Shute was in much the same position as his protagonist, responsible for raising and making money, and preserving the jobs of over 1,000 employees during very tough times.

Ruined City is a “there but for the grace of God go I” story, in which the main character concocts an elaborate scheme to resurrect a moribund town and create jobs in the midst of the Great Depression. Shute seems to be pushing his readers, asking them “And how far would you go to get out of this mess?”

Every machine that’s put into a factory displaces labour. That’s a very old story, of course. The man who’s put to work the machine isn’t any better off than he was before; the three men that are thrown out of a job are very much worse off. But the cure isn’t Socialism—or if it is, I’m too much of a capitalist myself to see it. The cure is for somebody to buckle to and make a job for the three men.

My favorite part of Ruined City are the chapters in which the protagonist has to obtain consent of a foreign government to back his scheme. Shute provides us with a vivid, step-by-step account of bribing Balkan officials during the 1930s. Entirely a piece of fiction, no doubt.

Trustee From The Toolroom (1960) was Shute’s last novel. It tells of a quiet man who is suddenly confronted with an obligation that requires him to travel halfway around the world and back on minimal funds. The plot has many amusing twists exemplifying the book’s opening motto: “An engineer is a man who can do for five bob what any bloody fool can do for a quid.”

If On the Beach is Shute at his grimmest, Trustee from the Toolroom is Shute at his most optimistic. Unlike his other books, in which success comes only by overcoming extreme difficulties and dangers, this one shows a man steadily pursuing a goal by a series of small, thoughtful steps. The protagonist is entirely successful at achieving his goal: retrieving a lost treasure, and returning it to its right owner. In the process, he discovers both modest fame and sufficient fortune to become a wealthy man. He even acquires a child. When the story begins, he appears a very isolated man; but by its end he turns out to have a rich and varied network of friends and admirers who are much like himself, decent and accomplished individuals.

If this story has any villain, other than ocean storms, it is governments. Shute takes obvious pleasure in showing us the careful steps by which the hero, despite modest means, manages to overcome every government-created roadblock he encounters. Many of Shute’s books contain similar passages showing the protagonist ignoring or subverting laws of all kinds, but Shute never discusses how one is to decide which laws, if any, should be obeyed. His ethic seems to be that whenever laws conflict with personal or family interests of decent people, laws should be ignored, short of creating more trouble than this is worth.

Shute’s other novels are also interesting. The Chequer Board (1947) attacks racial prejudice. Pastoral (1944) vividly portrays a wartime romance. An Old Captivity (1940) intertwines description of a hazardous flight to Greenland with strange dreams about the Norse in America. Most Secret (1945) draws on Shute’s experiences managing the development of innovative weapons during World War II. Landfall (1940) and Requiem for a Wren (1955, U.S. title The Breaking Wave) represent two completely different treatments of the same plot germ: the psychological effects of errors committed in time of war.

Shute’s early books Stephen Morris (1923), Marazan (1926), So Disdained (1928) and Lonely Road (1931) contain colorful descriptions of the early days of aviation, as does The Rainbow and the Rose (1959). Rainbow and the Rose and Lonely Road also include memorable uses of stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Man Of Achievement

My special favorite of Shute’s books isn’t fiction, though it reads as if it were: Slide Rule—the Autobiography of an Engineer. Published in 1954, Slide Rule focuses on the period in Shute’s life when he was a doer, building aeronautical machines and aeronautical companies. It is full of experiences and observations, but the jewel of this book is the detailed, knowledgeable and pointed first person narrative of the direct competition between a government designed airship, the R101, and a privately-designed airship, the R100.

In the late 1920’s, when the Zeppelin was still expected to out-compete the airplane for long distance air travel, airships were a very big deal with military and propaganda significance. The R100 was the 747 of its day and Shute had much of the hands-on responsibility for its development.

The controversy of capitalism versus State enterprise has been argued, tested, and fought out in many ways in many countries, but surely the airship venture in England stands as the most curious determination of this matter. The Cabinet Committee heard all the evidence, and had difficulty in making up their minds. Finally, in effect, they said, “The Air Ministry at Cardington shall build an airship of a certain size, load-carrying capacity, and speed, and Vickers, Ltd. shall build another one to the same contract specification. By this ingenious device we really shall find out which is the better principle, capitalism or State enterprise.” I joined the capitalist team.

Thus begins an amazing, outrageous, true story. Shute tells it as one who is outraged still, 25 years after the event. He does not mince words:

A man’s own experiences determine his opinions, of necessity. I was thirty-one years old at the time of the R101 disaster, and my first close contact with senior civil servants and politicians at work was in the field of airships, where I watched them produce disaster. That experience still colours much of my thinking. I am very willing to recognize the good in many men of these two classes, but a politician or a civil servant is still to me an arrogant fool till he is proved otherwise.

In a passage with implications for defense policy today, he concludes:

The one thing that has been proved abundantly In aviation is that government officials are totally ineffective in engineering development. If the security of new weapons demands that only government officials shall be charged with the duty of developing them, then the weapons will be bad weapons, and this goes for atom bombs, guided missiles, radar, and everything else.

Shute shows how government mismanagement caused the R101 program to fail at every step, and by every measure—financial, technical, political. The end came on R101’s maiden voyage, October 31, 1930, when she crashed and burned near Beauvais, France. Of the 54 persons on board, only six survived; all the officers, all the government officials, and all the passengers perished. Following this crash, all airship development in England was terminated. R100, the entirely successful “capitalist airship,” which Shute’s firm had built more quickly, on a tighter budget, and to the required specifications, was rolled over with a steamroller and scrapped—even though it had already flown to Canada and back, without difficulty.

Suddenly out of work, Shute decided to try his hand at starting an airplane manufacturing company. The second half of Slide Rule is the story of the birth, growth, and eventual disappearance-by-merger of Airspeed, Ltd. It is a story that can provide valuable lessons and moral support to anyone with visions of starting a risky, capital intensive business.

Much has been written…about the provision of risk capital for Industry, but few of the authors who pronounce so learnedly upon this subject have ever had the job of looking for the stuff. Men who start businesses upon a shoe string and battle through to success are frequently reluctant to recall and publicize their early disappointments and rebuffs...

I had to think and talk quite hard...I had to convince my chairman...that a policy of caution, of doing what everybody else was doing, could never bring us through to an established position in the industry. If we did only what the large, conservative firms of the industry were capable of doing we should inevitably lose to them...Our only hope was to lead the way...

Shute goes on to tell the story of how he and his colleagues built Airspeed from scratch into a profitable airplane manufacturer. Before it was merged into de Havilland in 1940, Airspeed had designed and developed the twin-engined Oxford, one of the main British training airplanes of World War II; over 8,000 Oxfords were built.

Shute strongly preferred commercial aviation to military aviation. He makes perceptive criticisms of military procurement procedures and the perverse incentives they produce:

From that time onwards, I think I began to lose interest in the company that I had brought into being. Civil work was coming to an end and all new design projects were of a military nature... Ahead of the managing director of Airspeed, Ltd. stretched an unknown number of years to be spent in restraining men from spending too much time in the lavatories in order that the aeroplanes might cost the taxpayer less, with the reflection that every hour so saved reduced the profit ultimately payable to the company. In time of war the sense of national effort will galvanize a system of that sort, and does so; in time of peace it tends to make a managing director bloody-minded. I think it did with me.

Few books on 20th century English authors mention Shute’s writings. Julian Smith’s biography, Nevil Shute (Twayne, 1976) appears to be the only serious analysis to date. Shute seems to have no natural base of reviewers, critics or popularizers, being neither a “literary” author nor a genre writer of thriller, romances, or speculative fiction. Yet his books contain all these elements.

Unlike most works of fiction, they also contain a sense of realism about matters of business and technology. Too many authors reveal complete ignorance of what people who work as engineers or managers actually do for a living: try to get something useful done within real constraints of time, money, uncertainty, and personalities.

I think of Shute as the author of novels of achievement. In each book, the protagonist works to achieve an admirable goal in an admirable fashion, with intelligence, sensitivity, energy, and integrity. As Shute shows, such novels can be entertaining, instructive, and celebratory of man’s capacity for purposeful, moral action. The world would be a better place if there were more works like these, and more writers like Nevil Shute.

Philip Kenneth Salin (1950-1991) was an American economist and futurist, best known for his contributions to theories about the development of cyberspace and as a proponent of private (non-governmental) space exploration and development.

This essay first appeared in Liberty magazine in May, 1989, and is reprinted by permission of Salin’s widow.

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