Mon
Jun 1 2009 5:18pm

You may not know it, but you want to read this: Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin

Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin is about the history of technology and society. I keep wanting to say it’s thought-provoking and full of nifty information, but what I really want to say is that it’s unputdownable.

It’s about six engineering projects that have taken place in Britain since WWII. It’s very time and place specific, and very specific to its six subjects too, but nevertheless I recommend it to anyone who wants to write science fiction and most people who like to read it. This is a history book about how science and engineering are embedded in culture, arising almost organically from the cultural matrix of their time. And it’s written fluidly and amusingly, with prose that makes it a joy to read and re-read. I read it the first time because it had been recommended to me as interesting and I thought (quite correctly) that it would also be useful for worldbuilding. But I read it again because reading it is such a joy.

The projects range from rockets through Concorde to computer games, cell phones, and the Human Genome Project, and they’re all described with good-humoured understanding and sympathy and in the complete context of their time and the people involved with them. Also, they’re full of charming anecdotes and amusing asides, and unexpected angles of seeing things.

The first project covered is the Blue Streak/Black Knight rocket project of the forties and fifties, which succeeded in putting one satellite into orbit once. It begins with a description of a meeting of the British Interplanetary Society which was interrupted by a V2 rocket, at which the members cheered. Later there’s an amazing glimpse of some of our cultural heroes:

It was at about this time that an encounter took place between two outlooks almost equally marginal to the spirit of the time in Britain. Arthur C. Clarke, by now a well established science fiction writer as well as the author of the pioneering paper on satellite communications, had been growing increasingly irritated by the theological science fiction of C.S. Lewis, who saw space travel as a sinful attempt by fallen humanity to overstep its god-given place. [...] Clarke contacted Lewis and they agreed to meet in the Eastgate Tavern, Oxford. Clarke brought Val Cleaver as his second, Lewis brought J.R.R. Tolkien. They saw the world so differently that even argument was scarcely possible. As Orwell said about something completely different, their beliefs were as impossible to compare as a sausage and a rose. Clarke and Cleaver could not see any darkness in technology, while Lewis and Tolkien could not see the way in which a new tool genuinely transforms the possibilities of human awareness. For them, machines at the very best were a purely instrumental source of pipe tobacco and transport to the Bodleian.So what could they do? They all got pissed. “I’m sure you are all very wicked people,” said Lewis cheerfully as he staggered away, “But how dull it would be if everyone was good!”

You couldn’t make it up.

The strangest thing about this book is how directly relevant it is to my life. There’s a section about the computer game Elite—I played that! (Along with everyone else with a computer in the late eighties.) And a friend of mine was in the room when the designers brought the first demo of it to Acornsoft! As for the Human Genome Project stuff, my husband barely misses being namechecked. It talks about how the cell network was set up in Britain and how the cells were mapped, but it also talks about how contracts to re-sell were shared among many tiny distributors. That was one of my first jobs, when I was in university, selling cell phones part time when they were car phones. (I still don’t own one.) It’s fascinating to think that this book touches even my unscientific untechnical life at all these points, and for practically everyone who grew up in Britain between 1945 and 2003 I think it would touch it somewhere—because science and engineering runs all through society, which is one of the book’s points.

The “boffins” and “backroom boys” of the title are the unglamorous engineers who get things done invisibly. The men (and they are mostly men, with a few women visible as it comes closer to the present time) in this book are definitely that. Few people would be familiar with their names. But that’s the point, they don’t need that to be significant to our lives.

This is a book about Britain, but I think it would be no less interesting to North American readers, if slightly more exotic.

Imagine Romford. No, go on, imagine Romford; or if you can’t quite bear that, at least imagine the approach to Romford in the north-eastern corner of London where thinning city is shading over into built up Essex.

It’s funnier if you do shudder at the thought of imagining Romford, but even if you’ve never heard of Romford, you can treat it as a voyage of discovery.

It’s remarkably interesting and a surprisingly fun read.

11 comments
Joe Henson
1. Joe Henson
Love it how everyone tries to damn Lewis and Tolkien with faint praise these days. Ah well. All those geeky engineers didn't become household names like the geeky language professors, which is sad, but still, no one really needs to apologize for anything.

Robert Harris' 'Enigma' is a quietly powerful novel, that gets better after each re-read. The movie was godawful. This book sounds like it's exactly what I'd love to read, along the same vein.
Sam Kelly
2. Eithin
This does sound fascinating, and I must read it! I'm not at all surprised either that Clarke and Lewis couldn't understand each other, or that they were both good enough people to know this. I suppose they got stuck in an intellectual Snowdrift.

My great-uncle worked as a draughtsman on the Black Knight project.
Joe Henson
3. JWezy
"I’m sure you are all very wicked people,” said Lewis cheerfully as he staggered away, “But how dull it would be if everyone was good!”


A lesson for us today, if only we could return to the ability to disagree without demonizing.
Marissa Lingen
5. Mris
In fact I did know; it's on my to-read pile.

But when I ordered it for Mark for Christmas, I thought it was something different completely. The title conjured up a gonzo YA fiction sort of thing with modern British teenagers sort of resurrecting the 1950s "teens building a rocketship" novel and making it make sense in a very realistic but cheerful modern context.

The book that existed in my head was wonderful but veryvery British, so I can't write it myself. I wish someone would write it for me. I think I'm just going to go around saying so until someone does.
Fred Himebaugh
6. Fredosphere
Nice review. You've got me interested.

John C. Wright has more on how CSL's Space Trilogy was a conscious response to the fiction of Clarke and Wells, and their "gnostic" glorification of technology. Very interesting. One thing you've got to give Lewis credit for: he was reading SF and taking it seriously, not something you see in most Oxbridge dons of that time (or this).
Joe Henson
7. madscientistnz
Sounds facinating, I've put this on the TBR list.

Turns out Francis Spufford wrote 'The Child That Books Built', a wonderful look at re-reading your childhood classics as an adult. I think nearly every book he talks about was one of my childhood favourites and (on the copy I've got) the cover is the cool painting of a man made out of books!
Joe Henson
8. brian2
Sounds like a wonderful book -- I'll soon find out firsthand. Many thanks for reviewing it.
David Lev
9. davidlev
That story about Clarke and Lewis is now my favorite anecdote of all time. I also didn't realize that Lewis's Space trilogy (which I haven't read) was a response to Clarke. Kind of how Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials are a response to Lewis. It's always fun to read what one speculative fiction writer gets from another
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
David Lev: Yes, it really makes you see how much it's all a great dialogue -- and even when it's a hammer and tongs argument, it's an argument conducted in art.
mm Season
11. mmSeason
How did i miss Elite? Not sure i even heard of it.

I have lately been thinking i want to re-read Lewis's space trilogy - to get far more out of it than i did when young.

And madscientistnz, thanx for mentioning The Child That Books Built, which sounds exactly my kind of thing and a must-find. 80) I love revisiting children's books that mattered to me in the old days.

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