The future of the Commonwealth: Nevil Shute’s In the Wet

I first read In the Wet, along with most of Shute, in the seventies when I was a kid. Nevil Shute was, according to his fascinating autobiography Slide Rule, an oddly technically and scientifically minded man for a member of the British upper-middle classes in the twenties and thirties. He spent much of his life around flying machines (airships as well as planes) and when he came to write popular fiction, flying machines featured heavily in it. Some of his work is clearly science fiction, On the Beach is probably the best known, and the rest of it tends to be interested in science and engineering in just exactly the way in which SF is and mainstream fiction isn’t. Shute flourished from the thirties to the seventies, he was a bestseller. He’s always a comfort read for me, and I am especially fond of the work he produced at night during WWII, when he has no idea who was going to win, while working designing planes all day. His best work I think is Requiem for a Wren (aka The Breaking Wave in the US, in a particularly stupid example of “what were they thinking” retitling) a novel about getting over WWII, and A Town Like Alice (aka Legacy in the US, because how stupid can you get to replace a terrific title with a bland one) a novel about how civilization works. I’m delighted to see that all these books are in print from Random House UK—though they’re also the kind of thing your library may well have, and which you can pick up secondhand easily because they were printed in vast quantities.

Shute has huge quantities of the elusive “IWantToReadItosity” that I talked about with reference to Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve read his books, once I pick one up and read a paragraph I always want to read the whole thing again.

Having said all this, it’s only fair to say that viewed objectively, In the Wet is a very odd book, and clearly influenced by the British upheavals I talked about in the cosy catastrophe post.

This is not the kind of book where spoilers matter.

In the Wet begins with 80 pages (in the Canadian hardcover) of setup. A British Church of England parson explains, in first person, that he’s spent much of his life in Australia, that he has malaria, and the circumstances in which he meets a drunken old man called Stevie, and then comes to be at Stevie’s bedside during the wet season, as Stevie is dying. Stevie relates his life story—only he doesn’t, the priest has malaria and is delirious, a nurse who was also present the whole time heard nothing. Also, the life Stevie tells is a life that takes place in the future—the book was published and this frame is set in 1953, the main part of the story takes place in 1983. It’s Stevie’s next life as David Anderson that we hear about.

This isn’t a frame a science fiction writer would have found necessary or desirable, and it opens up questions about reincarnation that somewhat get in the way of the actual story. Having said that, H. Beam Piper wrote about reincarnation in an entirely SFnal (as opposed to fantastic) way, so it isn’t inherently an illegitimate subject. Shute returns to the frame briefly in the middle, as David Anderson’s nightmare, and at the end, where the priests christens David as a baby and gets enough evidence from external sources to convince himself that what he has heard is true. It works surprisingly well, though it puts the happy ending in an odd place.

So, we have a story set in 1983. In the afterword to this Canadian edition (which I’m sure wasn’t in my old British paperback) Shute says he intends this as speculation about the future of the British Commonwealth. That strikes me as an odd thing to want to do. The US is mentioned twice in the book, once geographically (they’re flying over part of it) and once politically—an Australian is asked if he’d want Australia to leave the Commonwealth and join with the States, and reacts with horror. While Canada and other Commonwealth countries get more prominence, this is really a speculation about the future of the two countries Shute knew well—Britain and Australia. Now, the Commonwealth does still exist, and it is of course utterly different from the way Shute imagined it. The Royal Family still exists, as well, but is probably if anything even further from what Shute imagined.

The story of In the Wet concerns David Anderson, an Australian pilot who gets a job with the Queen’s Flight at a time when Canada and Australia and the rest of the Commonwealth love the Queen and Britain doesn’t. There’s a constitutional crisis, Britain gets a Governer General, Australia gets the Queen, David Anderson falls in love and becomes engaged to a British girl. It’s essentially a sweet love story against a science fictional background, though there don’t seem to have been many technological or social changes since the fifties—people still change for dinner, for instance.

Shute’s future Britain is one in which housing prices have collapsed to nothing because of massive emigration, Britain has a shrinking population due to massive emigration, and the country has been socialist for thirty years. It has however remained a world leader in technological advances, despite everyone being pale and pasty and still living on badly managed rations. (He was so wrong about rations. WWII rationing produced the healthiest generation ever.) He simultaneously says that the working classes have had their standard of living raised so it’s very high, and talks about how underfed and poor everyone is compared to Australia. This 1983 is an “if this went on” of the post-war settlement taken to great extremes—and also one in which Britain remained economically part of the Commonwealth and not part of Europe, despite geography, while having no immigration at all. Rosemary, the British heroine, has never seen a new house. Shute seems to think it’s very important that the British population shrink until the island can feed itself. I don’t know why importing food isn’t the trivial matter it is in reality. And while I have myself emigrated, Britain has generally been a magnet for immigration.

There’s an interesting point here which again demands comparison with Piper. (I wonder if Piper read Shute? Or Shute read Piper either?) Gumption is not in fact genetic. If all your people with gumption emigrate, you’ll have just as many people with gumption in the next generation. The same goes with engineering skills. As long as you still have your school system working, it doesn’t matter in the long term if you lose technically trained people. Shute’s Britain, unlike Piper’s Sword Worlds, manages to retain technology, indeed their ability to technologically innovate goes far beyond the real 1983. Japan doesn’t seem to be significant in this world. We don’t actually see any technology, except for the planes, but there are constant mentions in the abstract of British innovation and engineering. What we don’t have, oddly, considering, is any aerospace—this is a 1983 where there hasn’t been a moon landing and there are no rockets.

Australia, where Shute emigrated at about the time he was writing this book, is thriving. The reason it’s thriving is because it’s had a lot of immigration from Britain (but not from elsewhere in Europe or Asia, unlike in reality) and also because it has thrown out the system of “one man, one vote” and replaced it with a system in which everyone has one vote, and then people get extras for being nifty. It’s stated outright that this has produced a better kind of politician, handwave handwave, and this is why Australia has more food, a better climate and new housing developments. The votes are quite explicitly social engineering. Everyone gets one vote. Then you get another for higher education. (David, who has none, got that for becoming a flying officer, which is considered equivalent, and probably is.) There’s one for working outside the country for two years—David got that in the war. (Oh yes, BTW, WWIII has happened, we don’t know who participated but it wasn’t nuclear and seems a lot like WWII in terms of theatres and scale.) Then there’s a vote for raising two children to the age of fourteen without getting divorced—husband and wife both get it. There’s one for being rich—if your personal income is above a certain high figure. There’s one for church officials—any Christian churches. And the Seventh Vote is a special honour, like a knighthood, awarded in special cases to recognise excellence.

David would have three votes in this system, and so would I—do take a moment to calculate how many you’d have, and whether you think the world would be better if you had that much more input. (I think it’s reasonable to consider the “wealth” vote at $60,000.) This is a direct response to the “Oh no, the working classes are people!” effect. A typical working class person isn’t going to get more than a maximum of two votes. It’s also not as totally bizarre as it looks today—I mean it is, but it wasn’t in the context in which Shute was writing. Until 1950, there were additional MPs for university graduates and in Ireland even now, Trinity College Dublin has its own Seanad member. This does mean that qualified people had an extra vote, as Trinity graduates do today. (The present Trinity Seanad member, David Norris, is so cool that it’s hard to argue against.) So Shute’s idea was an extension of this, and not something completely out of the air. He says that women voting and the secret ballot were first introduced in Australia and then spread to Britain. Of course, while Australia does have compulsory voting, they just have one vote each like other democracies.

All of this is interesting and weird background, but the thing that makes reading In the Wet painful now is David Anderson’s unfortunate nickname: “Nigger.” Shute may have been prejudiced against the working classes, but he really was vastly less racist than was average for his time. Indeed he was miles ahead of almost everybody on not being racist—for 1953. There’s a thing that happens sometimes where people are way ahead of society on some issue like this, where because they’re out there alone they’ve made up their own rules, which look much odder to us (who have advanced with society or been born since) than the default ordinary racism (and see also sexism) of the time, which we’re at least used to.

David Anderson is “a quadroon”; his mother was a “half caste” Aborigine. David has a “built in tan.” Now in some ways, Shute deals with this excellently, even by today’s standards. He has David say proudly that his he’s “an older Australian than any of them,” his “grandmother’s tribe ruled the Cape York Peninsula before Captain Cook was born or thought of.” Shute’s reason for making David a quarter-Aboriginal is intended to demonstrate that people of colour are as good as anyone else, and also to give David a disadvantage that he’s overcome—he was “born in a ditch in North Queensland” and he is entirely self-made. It’s hard to think of another character of colour done this well in popular fiction at this time. I think David must have been quite a surprise to white readers in 1953. I have no idea how Aboriginal readers, or people of colour from other backgrounds, would have taken him, but it was a time when it was notable to have a non-white character visible at all. David is an entirely admirable character, and the book’s hero and romantic hero, and the Queen’s own pilot. Also, Shute doesn’t make this easy by making it a world where colour prejudice has disappeared. David’s had to deal with racism all his life. He explains his origins twice in the book, once when offered a job and again when he meets a girl. He says the reason he hasn’t married is the colour problem. (That everyone immediately reassures him that he doesn’t look all that dark is another indication that prejudice hasn’t gone away.)

David’s main way of dealing with prejudice is to get it right out into the open by using the nickname “Nigger,” so as to have the issue of his mixed-race origins in people’s faces. The text seldom or never refers to him that way, but his friends do. It wasn’t a nice word in 1953, and Shute was clearly trying to show a world where things were better, and it might be a nickname like “Blondie” and the word has been reclaimed—though it does say that David used to fight people who used it in an unkind way. However it is surprisingly difficult for a modern reader (well, me anyway) to read sentences like “Good night, Nigger darling,” without wincing. The word hasn’t become neutral, hasn’t been reclaimed and is so much more unacceptable now than then.

As for actual racism, there are two bits of it. There’s the one sentence where David gets to be a “magical negro”—David has an instinctive feeling that something is wrong aboard the plane:  “He was one quarter Aboriginal, not wholly of a European stock, and in some directions his perceptions and sensibilities were stronger than in ordinary men, which possibly accounted for his excellence in flying and his safety record.” It’s only one sentence, but it’s pretty bad. There’s also the implication that Stevie’s rebirth will be lower down the karmic chain, as Stevie has been an alcoholic wastrel, and I’m not sure the Aboriginal blood isn’t supposed to represent that.

But anyway, it’s in print again, and there certainly isn’t anything else like it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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