The Tide Went Out by Charles Eric Maine – Review
By Nigel Armitage
Today’s touchstone issues – the threat of global environmental catastrophe; the elite versus the masses; fake news – are also at the heart of Charles Eric Maine’s doom-laden novel, originally published in 1958.
By that time in the West, post war optimism had long since given way to the ‘age of anxiety’ and the fearful prospect of nuclear annihilation amidst the Cold War arms race. No image summed up these fears more terrifyingly than that of the giant mushroom cloud that rose out of the Pacific Ocean during the USA’s 1940s nuclear testing programme at Bikini Atoll.
Maine’s novel draws its dubious inspiration from a ‘what if’ scenario whereby underwater nuclear testing has resulted in a fracture of the seabed and a gradual draining away of the oceans. The story explores society’s response to this nightmare development and how individuals must adapt in order to survive. A cheerful read it is decidedly not!
The setting is post war London, bombed out, but still very much ordered along strongly paternalistic and sexist lines. Philip Wade is the unhappily married, heavy-drinking editor of Outlook, a Fleet Street-based weekly magazine, and it is he who has the first inkling that something is amiss when the edition featuring his speculative story linking the Anglo-American H-bomb tests to reports of a fall in sea levels is pulled from the newspaper stands.
Media censorship is the Government’s first step to try and manage the social ramifications of the catastrophe about to unfold. “’Don’t be deceived by the normal appearance of the everyday world around you,’” Wade is warned ominously by a senior government official. “’It is a veneer that will soon be stripped off.’” He is quickly co-opted into the government propagandist machinery whose purpose is to retain that ‘veneer’ of normality for as long as possible.
“Retains the reader’s credibility”
In fact, at no stage is there any serious prospect of human ingenuity averting the impending global catastrophe, which may explain why the novel’s interesting premise has not been the basis for a Hollywood-style big budget disaster movie. Instead this is a story that plays out the dreadful and stark consequences of irresponsible human activity.
Civil society not only breaks down but is divided between a tiny minority of individuals deemed by the authorities as worth saving and the expendable overwhelming majority. A government plan is hatched whereby the former are given passage to survival camps set up in the polar regions. And what of the rest? “’You’re implying [comments a still naive Wade] that about half a million people are going to be evacuated from this country to the Arctic, and the rest will be abandoned.’”
It is a desperate situation that gives rise to an important theme in the book; what one character terms the ‘general adaptation syndrome’ whereby survival, at least in the short term, depends on acting differently, and increasingly ruthlessly, in the worsening circumstances. It is an indication of the story’s strength that Wade’s adaption in this regard retains the reader’s credibility, despite the extreme ends to which he will ultimately resort.
What the modern reader will find impossible to endure uncritically, however, is the novel’s pervasive sexism, which identifies it very much as a product of the 1950s. Musing on the respective shortcomings of his wife and a female colleague that Wade is attracted to, for example, Wade imagines an ideal solution: “You could swap them neatly – Janet’s body and Shirley’s invisible self – and produce something really exciting.”
Charles Eric Maine’s name is not generally found now amongst the likes of John Wyndham and J.G. Ballard in the pantheon of British Science Fiction writers. In its compelling account of a society’s literal and moral disintegration in the face of an otherwise preventable environmental catastrophe, The Tide Went Out shows that Milne deserves at least a mention as a doomsayer of considerable skill and prescience.
‘The Tide Went Out’ by Charles Eric Maine is published by the British Library, £8.99 paperback