Thursday, January 19, 2012
Shute always considered In The Wet one of his better books. And he probably considered it as such because the book tackles topics such as democracy, socialism, and racism. He does so enough that some might find it equally provocative and controversial today. But in terms in being speculative, it'd be more likely to come across like an oddly crafted alternative reality, as his future is set in 1983.
The two interwoven stories in the foreground of In The Wet.
The book opens with narrator Roger Hargreaves, an aging priest who is assigned to a remote area in the Australian outback in the 1950s. The portrait he paints is remarkably vivid in that it captures a stark and unforgiving landscape almost parallel to what one might expect in the American West some 50 years prior.
It is in this harsh and unforgiving environment that Hargreaves meets Pisspot Stevie (Stevie Figgins), the area's most infamous drunk who spends a good portion of his time hustling pints in town or disappears for days to see Liang Shih. Shih, among other things, grows his own opium in the bush.
Still, Shih proves to be a good friend. When Stevie becomes deathly ill, he looks for help. And when no one else is available to accompany Sister Finlay to aid Stevie, Hargreaves insists on accompanying her. The three of them set out across the flooded landscape together.
When they do arrive, Hargreaves spends considerable time with Stevie, expecting to give him his last rights. And it is during his final opium-soaked hours that Stevie begins to tell Hargreaves about his life, but not the one he lived. The next one he will live.
The substance of science fiction to explore social commentary.
David Anderson is an Australian pilot who is assigned the Queen's flight team. In the forefront of this story is Anderson's relationship with a young English girl who works as an Oxford-trained secretary for the Queen. While it is a courtship story that slowly develops as the romance is placed on hold for the good of the Commonwealth and the Queen, it's obvious Shute brought the couple together so they can compare and contrast their respective countries.
In Shute's world, the United Kingdom has suffered an economic crisis caused in part by a socially driven exodus as the country became both more socialistic and adversarial toward the Royal Family. The crisis itself seems to have occurred in three parts over a span of 30 years.
The population, which still relies on World War II rationing, used democracy to continuously vote for a higher standard of living at the expense of entrepreneurial opportunities. The loss of these opportunities sparks a mass migration to America, Australia and, to a lesser extent, Canada.
Young men and women, he describes, decide to place more faith in liberty and individual ability to succeed than in the government's ability to keep people secure in their respective stations. The mass exodus compounds the economic weakness with a collapse of the housing market (which the government assumes).
Australia, on the other hand, embraces rugged individualism and an alternate democracy, which grants people multiple votes based on their contributions, e.g., one vote plus an additional vote for military service, a college degree, living abroad, raising a family without divorce, etc. The intent was to elevate the quality of the people in government rather than those who cater to a wanting majority.
The contrast between the two fictionalized futures exists, but the storytelling is never mired down by it.
Perhaps even more interesting is that Anderson is a "quadroon," which means his mother was "half caste" Aborigine. Shute doesn't create a world where racism has disappeared, but Anderson disarms people by embracing it. He adopts the nickname "Nigger" even though no one would be able to tell by the color of his skin.
Some people might be offended by its usage, but Shute is pretty clear in his intent. He wanted to show two-fold that people of color are as good as anybody else and that even a quadroon born in a ditch can not only grow to become self-made but also to be the hero of the story in action and romance. Shute was well ahead of his time.
In The Wet By Nevil Shute Flies To 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
In The Wet sometimes gets mixed reactions for its unapologetic layering of social commentary, but it's not a plea to embrace Shute's socio-political fantasies. Anyone could easily place more weight on the reincarnation story with a pastor attempting to reconcile it or the light romance between two people during political strife. More than that, it is effortless storytelling despite its complexities.
Then again, it might be some Americans without any understanding of the Commonwealth (and the ability to separate fact from fiction) will find some sections tedious or alien. Personally, I think Shute possesses a literary talent to keep it moving, but not everyone will. This isn't an intense story (even an assassination attempt is overtly calm), but it does fully realize the characters and a future of the author's making.
In The Wet by Nevil Shute is available on Amazon. You can also find the book at Barnes & Noble. iBooks also carries In The Wet and iTunes carries an audio version, read by Norman Dietz. Dietz breathes a fresh pace into the story, but as a decidedly young Hargreaves. He makes a better Anderson.