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Shute, Nevil

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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Working name of UK aeronautical engineer and author Nevil Shute Norway (1899-1960), who served as a stretcher bearer in Dublin during the Easter rising in 1916, and was in active service at the end of World War One; for many years he combined writing with engineering work, specializing in Zeppelins – the failure of the R101 disillusioned and embittered him; after his demobilization from active service in World War Two, he moved for political and health reasons to Australia, where he set much of his later fiction; he now wrote full-time. Some of his earlier fiction, by taking advantage of his intense and very up-to-date knowledge of aeronautics (and of boffins or back-room boys), verges very closely on sf. What Happened to the Corbetts (1939; vt Ordeal 1939) is a genuine Future War tale, portraying the very Near Future bombing of Southampton in World War Two, the action of the tale beginning in March of a year which is not given, but is presumably meant to be 1940; the war had of course not yet begun in April 1939 when the book was published. A simultaneous special edition of the title was distributed free to members of ARP (Air Raid Precautions), a UK agency established in 1924 to prepare the country for the imagined consequences of the bombing of England – a devastation which, in the event, fell fortunately short of the millions of casualties anticipated from extrapolations based on World War One bombing raids. Peter Corbett and his family escape ruined Southampton in their "nine-ton cutter yacht"; safe for the moment in France, he dispatches his wife and children to Canada, and joins the British navy.

An Old Captivity (1940) is the tale of a man who dreams in a coma (accurately, it proves, and on the basis of data unknown at the time of the dream) of Vikings in Greenland and of their life there; Vinland the Good (1946), a later screenplay-of-the-mind (not intended for filming), carries Leif Ericsson to Maine in 1003 CE. No Highway (1948) deals with metal fatigue as the cause of airplane disasters and was published just before the first of the Comet jet crashes that occurred for exactly that reason; the protagonist's daughter seems, as well, to have ESP powers. It was filmed as No Highway in the Sky (1951). Round the Bend (1951) – whose saintly boffin hero, by marrying together technological genius and transcendent goodwill, is eventually treated as divine – verges on the fantastic.

Shute's two Australian sf novels remain his best known works of genre interest. In the Wet (1953), the journal of an Australian outback priest who copies down from a dying man a Utopian vision (or memory) of the British Empire circa 2000 CE, anticipates a time when Australia has become the leader of the Commonwealth, royalty has survived handsomely, socialism has faded away, and the Empire is secure. Much closer to the bone is the famous On the Beach (1957), adapted for BBC Radio as On the Beach (1957) and filmed as On the Beach (1959), a Near Future tale (see Holocaust; Post-Holocaust) in which the Cold War is climaxed by a nuclear World War Three featuring a universal use of cobalt bombs that by August 1963 have eliminated all life in the northern hemisphere, as confirmed by an Australian submarine sent north to trace a mysterious radio message, but finding the Pacific Rim, including San Francisco (see California), entirely desolated. Australia is left to await the inevitable spread of radioactive contamination – deferred for a short while by global wind-patterns – that will end human life on Earth. Shute was an excellent popular novelist; his stories demonstrate a seamless narrative skill, and his protagonists are, unfailingly, decent. [JC]

see also: End of the World; Prediction.

Nevil Shute Norway

born London: 17 January 1899

died Melbourne, Victoria: 12 January 1960

works (selected)

about the author


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