Monday , April 22 2024
A 1950s futuristic novel sheds interesting light on the politics and ideas of the time.

Book Review: In the Wet by Nevil Shute

I read a lot of Nevil Shute’s work in my early teens, his storytelling gifts leaving me gripped and transported away from everyday life. Most memorable was On the Beach. I read it under the bedclothes with a torch, finishing around 3am, its post-holocaust, end-of-the-human race world so vivid, and terrifying in a silent Australian night suburb that I still remember it clearly.

Discussing this with a friend, she confessed she’s also been a fan, and said being Australian-born I had to read In the Wet, set in the Australian Outback, which I’d missed as a child. The same storytelling skill is evident here, even if the structure is so tricksily clever, and rather clunkily symbolic (the bush animals gathered around the flooded hut, watching a moment of death and rebirth) that it reminds me of that modern phenomena the just-graduated-from-creative-writing-MA first novel.

Written in 1953, the novel, read now, works as a portrait of its own time. It is horrifying in its language around race issues, although not viciously so – and probably progressive for its time in that the uncomplicated pilot hero who saves the Queen (a high-ranking pilot who has risen from a poor background) is part-Aboriginal. And while quite positive in its portrait of women characters, it is a reminder that the idea any senior official might be female was then entirely unimagineable. They can however be very capable, Oxford-educated secretaries.

And it also reveals Shute’s deeply rightwing politics – something that as a young teen I was unaware. That’s evident in his future history – most of the book is set in his idea of the Eighties, in which the British and colonial (Australia/Canadian) politics have gone in different ways. British still has a one-person-one-vote democracy, and consequently a populist government of low-capacity Labour Party MPs, while the colonies have opted for a system in which people who in various ways have been “successful” get their voting counting in multiples of up to seven. On Shute’s account this produces a much “better” government of successful men who rule far more wisely.

Lying behind the difference are two very old ideas – the fear of democracy and the demagogue, and the assumption that rank and success are a measure of merit – but must, I’d think, also reflect ideas that must have been around at the time Shute was writing, although I’ve not come across them before.

Britain too is entirely socialist – in the old sense of the government owning means of production and indeed here all of housing, and is strongly centrally planned. In a Britain where a neoliberal oligarchical consensus today rules, that sounds very odd indeed, but is interesting that in the Fifties this looked like a likely future.

So In the Wet is an interesting read still, and being a typical Shute transports you for a couple of hours to another world with a gripping narrative and interesting characters. His work has gone out of fashion since his death, and I’m not sure that I can make sufficient claims of literary merit or importance to suggest it should come back. That’s not to say he’s not still worth reading.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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