austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

Just to be a simple man who sadly lost his way

So on reading Nevil Shute's No Highway I find I'm surprisingly convinced by the story. It's about the discovery of fatigue leading to crashes of a new-model trans-Atlantic airplane, and in that regard is seen as forerunner to the actual Comet catastrophe. However, the similarities really start and end with the problem of structural fatigue on British Overseas Airways Corporation craft --- and getting the company right is unimpressive since they had a monopoly on British trans-Atlantic aviation. (Shute notes in endnotes that he made up company names where he could, but when there was a monopoly or a designated government agency for something he felt compelled to use the actually existing body. He does apologize for making the fictional representative of one agency worse at his job than we'd hope he would be.) The Comet suffered cracks around the windows; the Rutland Reindeer of the book have a faulty tail.

What really impressed me is how quietly convincing all the technical points are, in a way I haven't found in science fiction (outside Arthur C Clarke's work). The initial evidence for the fatigue consists of one theory that, it's pointed out, nobody but the proponent (a Mister Honey) believes, although he got to it by finding that not all the energy of the plane could be accounted for and speculating that it went into the process creating fatigue cracks. Sensible enough. Honey's theory supposes the energy affects atomic nuclei, which sounds most dubious, and all the other characters note how weak a grounds this is and how, in the postwar era, many `basic science' researchers get infatuated with dragging atomic effects into everything. Again it feels right.

And the unfolding of the crisis is even credible too. Henry Petroski likes to sulk that the theory projects a fatigue failure at 1440 hours of flight, an impossibly precise estimate, but the characters point out that `1440 hours' is just what you get if you calculate the numbers based on this theory with ad-hoc hypotheses included and it'd be remarkable if anything more than the order of magnitude was right. But then there's one real data point, a plane which crashed --- apparently pilot error, but other pilots are (predictably) skeptical of that --- just short of 1400 hours of flight time. A second plane --- and the most action-packed sequence in the book, even though it's near the start of the book and the action consists of the plane not crashing --- is very near the 1440-hour projection but has no signs of cracks developing. The evidence is ambiguous, unclear, and really very believable as something that might happen.

Mister Honey is the most interesting character, although he's presented as a bundle of quirks. I can't say they're implausible, though: his particular project has produced work that might be good although experiments haven't been completed yet and the theory is difficult to follow yet. But he's also got a modestly intent nuttier side, with fascinations in projecting the Return of Christ or communicating with spirits. He's also noted to have published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in the 30s about three-stage rockets to explore the Moon, which it's pointed out not so crazy as it would have seemed before the war. This may be a roughly stock type, but it's a well-presented type, and it adds to the ambiguity and dramatic tension of not knowing whether the Reindeer planes have to be grounded, as it makes it all the harder to estimate whether the fatigue theory is any good.

Other characters are a big vaguer, but they also haven't got such interesting roles to play. I do quirk an eyebrow at how the two major adult female characters presented are cheerily eager to ditch their careers and fawn over the widower Honey and his daughter, although they are given specific reasons to be dissatisfied and I can't say it's implausible that a flight attendant with no assignment for the week might want to check on the daughter of the man who was very certain of the plane's imminent crash and giving advice on where to go to most likely survive. (It's the men's bathroom, and it shows what a different world back then that they had separate men's and women's rooms, big enough that you could sit two on the floor.)

In all I'm rather impressed with the little bits that do date the book (such as, well, the planes' need to stop in Newfoundland before going on to Canada or the United States) and fussing over remembering that Canada is part of the dollar area and this makes sending the investigation a touch more frustrating. And then there's the way characters can just order treacle and seem to actually mean it. I'm glad I did get around finally to reading it.

As an intriguing point of technique the book is mostly written in first person, with third-person omniscient for the scenes the primary narrator could not witness. There's even an explanation at the end for how the book came to be written by the first-person character, the sort of thing I thought had gone out with identifying place names and noble characters by their first name and a long dash. It also adds in the closing chapters a new air-crash investigation, with Royal Air Force pilots who can't understand why their new fighters keep crashing and would those boffins please stop giving that foolish advice about not flying faster than Mach 0.90 since nobody's going to stay that slow just because some silly pencil pushers who don't even fly say they should? It doesn't reflect on the main story, and it's not resolved by the end of the book; it's just ... that in real life there'll be a fresh problem before they're quite done with the old.

Trivia: The ceremony on 25 January 1915 commemorating the start of transcontinental long-distance telephoning involved connctions between New York City, where Alexander Graham Bell spoke; and San Francisco, where Thomas Watson was; and Jekyll Island, Georgia, where AT&T president Thomas Vail was recovering fromillness. Source: Telephone: The First Hundred Years, John Brooks.

Currently Reading: Shakespeare: The World As Stage, Bill Bryson.

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