Real world engineering: Nevil Shute’s No Highway

No Highway (1948) is a short book about people who are doing theoretical research into aeroplanes for the British government in the late forties and who discover that there’s a potential problem with a plane that’s recently gone into service. It’s a story about science, and engineering, and people who take both seriously, and that makes it more like SF than anything else—also the actual theory of metal fatigue seems very speculative. (Not to mention wrong.) It’s also a sweet romance, of a very typical Shute kind, a character study, and also a tense thriller about planes crashing, or not crashing.

I re-read it on the plane home from Britain. (What can I say; I once watched Titanic on the Swansea-Cork ferry.) I’m not particularly afraid of ships sinking when I’m on them, or planes crashing either—I’m much more likely to die of boredom on a plane than from any other cause. I happened to pick up a copy for a friend while I was there, and when I was putting it into my case I felt an urge to re-read it. I read it over Labrador, where a plane crashes in the book, and this made me smile. I’m so glad we can fly across the Atlantic these days without stopping in Newfoundland to refuel, but I wish we had solicitous stewardesses fussing over our every whim like they used to have!

Nevil Shute was an engineer and an aircraft designer, and it’s clear he knows what he’s talking about when he’s talking about planes and tech—the handwaves when it gets to atomic theory and advances in science are something else. He was an immense bestseller in his day, from the forties to the seventies, but he doesn’t seem to be much read now. I have always loved his books, even the ones that have problems. (Sometimes, but not here, problems with race and class.) They take place in a black and white children’s book world, though they were written for adults. They are pleasantly wholesome. Men are interested in technical problems. People lead largely uneventful lives, though they save the world in little ways all the time. Anyone can fall in love with almost anyone, but falling out of love is much tougher. Making a home is an important thing to do. Characters have integrity, and want to make the world better.

Mr. Honey, the central character of No Highway, is not the narrator. The first person narrator is his boss, who doesn’t quite know what to make of Honey, with his odd obsessions and theories. Honey is an unusual man. He’s fat, middle aged, dyspeptic, out of condition and untidy. He’s described as “a typical boffin,” but he’s worse than that, wearing torn and dirty pyjamas and socks with holes. As well as metal fatigue he’s interested in cosmic rays, moon rockets, the Great Pyramid, automatic writing, and believes that Jesus will return in 1994.

Oddest of all for a hero of a bestseller Honey is a single father—he has a twelve year old daughter who he is raising alone. This is important to the plot, and to him as a character, but it’s taken for granted. The fact that it’s astonishingly unusual in fiction for a main character to be a single father doesn’t seem to have crossed Shute’s mind. (It’s unusual even now, never mind in 1948.) Honey’s wife was killed in 1944 by a V1, eight year old Elspeth survived, and the two of them have been alone for the last four years, not managing very well, but getting along. When Honey is sent to Canada to find the parts of a crashed plane, his ad hoc arrangements for Elspeth come unstuck, and she ends up being cared for by his boss’s wife, a film star, and an air hostess. This domestic story—complete with floor scrubbing and very realistic childhood sickness—runs alongside the plane plot throughout the book.

I have read hundreds of books in which there’s a romance running alongside an action plot—it’s so standard that I don’t even notice it. I can’t think of anything but No Highway where instead there’s a childcare problem. There is a romance, even a romantic triangle, as two women appreciate the unlikely charms of Honey, but it’s pretty much incidental to everything else that’s going on.

This is a quick read and a very enjoyable one—if you’ve never read Shute it’s a good place to start, and if you’ve read his SF and found it odd, it’s a good place to try his mainstream work while keeping the care about technology that makes it feel so unlike most mainstream fiction.

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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