Saturday 20 April 2019

The Tide Went Out, and The Darkest of Nights, by Charles Eric Maine

Charles Eric Maine (real name David McIlwain, 1921-1981) was a British author who published sixteen SF novels between 1953 and 1972, plus half-a-dozen detective stories using the pseudonyms Richard Rayner and Robert Wade. Four movies were made from his stories: Spaceways (1953); The Electronic Monster (1958); Timeslip (1956); and The Mind of Mr Soames (1970). In a comment on his entry in Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, he said:

"I have always tried to find a theme or situation which no other author has thought of….most of my SF books are short-term projections from present-day fact and technology, looking, perhaps some 10 to 50 years ahead. I am particularly interested in the social and psychological impact of advancing science on crude Homo Sapiens."

In a review of his work in the same encyclopedia, Carl B. Yoke starts by saying that his "writing is distinguished primarily by its original and imaginative concepts" and concludes: "Maine is a journeyman writer who has created some excellent novels, but even if he were far less skilled, his ideas alone would make reading his works worth the effort."

Mike Ashley, in his usual informative introductions to the novels under review, noted that like contemporary British writers such as John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids), John Christopher (The Death of Grass), John Blackburn (A Scent of New-Mown Hay), and J G Ballard (The Drowned World) – all of which I recall reading in the 1960s – Maine wrote a lot about surviving global catastrophes of one kind or another. Both of the novels reviewed here fit into this category, which I regarded with mixed feelings as during my adolescence I was sated with doom and gloom fiction (mostly to do with World War 3 which, to be fair, was expected to happen any day). However, since the British Library was kind enough to send me their recent reprints of these two books in their commendable effort to make classic works available to new audiences, I hunkered down in my panic room surrounded by an arsenal of weapons and a year's worth of food and water (only joking!) and started reading.
The Tide Went Out (first published in 1958) certainly has an original plot. The principal character is Philip Wade, a London-based journal editor, who finds himself the unwelcome centre of attention when an article he has written, linking reported oceanic disturbances to H-bomb tests on the sea bed, is abruptly withdrawn from his magazine. He finds himself drafted into a new government organisation concerned with censorship – controlling which news is allowed to be released to the public. Wade learns that his article was accurate; the H-bomb tests have cracked the oceanic crust, a progressive failure which is allowing the world's oceans to drain away into voids underneath the crust. That means no rain, no rivers, no seas, no ships bringing imports, and eventually no accessible water left at all – the world will become a lifeless desert. Except for the polar regions, with their vast quantities of ice.

So governments have set up heavily defended, nuclear-powered settlements at the poles, reserved for those who deserve it most (starting with government politicians and senior bureaucrats, plus their relatives and friends, of course). The rest of humanity is certain to die, but it is important to the maintenance of social order that this be concealed for as long as possible – or, at least, until those chosen to survive have been safely transported to their new polar homes. Wade's job makes him one of the chosen, but means that he has to remain behind until the last moment; his wife and child are transported to the arctic settlement to await his arrival.

Inevitably, the truth gradually escapes and civilisation begins to break down. Wade and his colleagues become confined to a defended complex of buildings in central London. The gradual disintegration of society is paralleled by Wade's own moral decline as he wrestles with his conscience over what is happening, while worrying about whether the government really means to evacuate him. Eventually, he is driven to desperate measures to survive.

The Darkest of Nights (published 1962) has a more realistic background – a highly infectious and deadly virus has developed and is sweeping around the world.  The virus is found to exist in two forms with mirror-image protein structures, designated AB and BA; the former is invariably lethal, the latter is very mild and confers immunity against the AB version (while making the carriers infectious).  The problem is that it is impossible to know in advance which form the virus will take in your body.

The principal characters are Clive Brant, an executive involved in making TV programmes, and his estranged wife Pauline, a scientist working for the International Virus Research Organisation. The viewpoint keeps alternating between them throughout the story.

Arrangements are made to protect privileged people (this time including virus research scientists like Pauline as well as politicians etc etc) by housing them in protected bunkers with elaborate arrangements to keep out the virus. Given that those with BA virus only remain infectious for a couple of weeks, it is expected that the virus will die out having killed off half of the world's population, after which the privileged can emerge from their bunkers; a relatively benign outcome by Maine's standards! In the meantime, research continues into a vaccine which will immunise the uninfected.

Extensive international censorship plays down the scale of the catastrophe to keep the population calm, but news of the pandemic plus the protection of the privileged leaks out, leading to popular revolts which soon become organised into civil war. The outcome seems to be settled until a new anti-virus takes hold, with unexpected consequences. As you may have gathered by now, Maine doesn't do "happily ever after" endings, and so it proves this time.

To sum up, these are serious, well-written, adult books with complex characters, Clive Brant and Philip Wade being quite similar; competent but rather self-centred, and able to shift their moral attitudes to meet the changing situation. Ethical dilemmas are a major aspect of these books, with "what would you do?" situations cropping up frequently. As with John Wyndham's writing, the readership of Maine's books spread far beyond the usual SF ghetto and they were apparently more popular with mainstream readers than with SF fans.

In hindsight, Maine may be regarded as a member of a kind of "brutal reality school" of British SF, capturing very well the tensions of their situations and the despair and sense of doom (especially with The Tide Went Out) from knowing that the fate of nearly all of humanity is inescapable and imminent. The downside is that these stories reminded me why I went off such dystopian fiction a long time ago – it's just so depressing!