A. J. Budrys

two novels

of science

THE SEARCH, by C. P. Snow. Signet Books, #T 1864, New York, 75¢. Paper.

THE WAY UP, by Joseph Whitehill. Dell Books, #D 353, New York, 35¢. P.

C. P. Snow is Sir Charles Percy Snow, author of a long and well-received series of novels under the general title, STRANGERS AND BROTHERS, the latest of which, THE AFFAIR, is a current bestseller. (But don't let that prejudice you.) Sir Charles is a novelist of quiet realism, deliberately avoiding dramatic incident, working for greater reader-involvement in the overall story. THE SEARCH was his first novel, in 1934, and concerns itself with a detailed and solid, if unsuccessfully realistic story which I. I. Rabi, a Nobel Prize physicist, is quoted as calling: "The one novel which I knew was really about scientists living as scientists."

Snow is an admirer of the old Tolstoian novelistic school -- the creation of a fictional world so closely similar to the real world that, ideally, the reader soon ceases to distinguish between the two, and is thus prepared to receive the author's message. This technique requires its own type of skill, which Snow had in abundance even in 1934, and a worthwhile message. We have Rabi's testimony on that.

During World War II, Sir Charles was the administrator of scientific personnel for the British Ministry of Labor. (The hero of THE SEARCH is shown as having a deep streak of administrative talent.) In 1958, as the result of what seems to have been an accumulation of years of comment like Rabi's, from people like Rabi, Sir Charles revised the 1934 version, and this later draft is the book we are discussing here.

Joseph Whitehill, on the other hand, is a comparatively young man with few honors or endorsements, except in the field of literature. (Where C. P. Snow's purely literary reputation also far exceeds his.) He is the author of an Atlantic Magazine series of stories about Able Baker, a merchant marine engineering officer who strikes me as a great deal more of a genuine human being than was Colin Glencannon. All of Whitehill's protagonists are similarly skilled -- they are engineers, rather than physicists. (I suggest to you the collection of Whitehill stories called Able Baker and Other Stories, published by Little, Brown.)

So we might expect to find, between two novels by two men like Snow and Whitehill, a reflection of the long fraternal bickering between engineering and physics, and a clear one, for Whitehill is as skilled in creating the atmosphere of on-the-spot engineering as Snow is in evoking the mood of the world of research.

THE WAY UP is Whitehill's first novel, published in hard covers as THE ANGERS OF SPRING, by Little, Brown. At his publisher's insistence, I am told, Whitehill made extensive changes in his first draft which he now regrets with what I am told is considerable bitterness. Whatever the objective truth of the matter, the fact is that THE WAY UP is a bad book, as a book. (So, in the end, is THE SEARCH.) But just as Snow is to be regarded as something other than a novelist, so with Whitehill.

Whitehill is a child of the second quarter of the Twentieth Century -- which is to say he has been published in ASTOUNDING and F&SF, as in THE ATLANTIC. Being technically inclined, he has been caught up in the technological onrush of recent years. And, in my opinion, he is as well fitted to describe the way and shape of modern science as C. P. Snow, once a Physics Fellow at Cambridge, was to describe the great days when revolutionary techniques were exploding the orderly progress of physics. (And, incidentally, making it very difficult for physicists without advanced mathematical training to continue in their specialty.)

THE WAY UP is a modern American contemporary novel -- that is, it is a succession of dramatic incidents. Some of them are rather obviously contrived for the author's convenience, rather than the character's. Taken in the sum, they create a chain of crises which no real life would encounter in the short period and restricted setting within which the novel operates. But this is not a fault in itself -- it is merely a different technique, whose purpose is to evoke in the reader the feeling that each thing in the story could and did happen to some technician somewhere. Or, better, that this kind of thing happens to technicians -- would happen to the reader, if he were a technician. This is a recruiting poster, in a way, and it hardly matters who posed for Uncle Sam. Where literary criticism can legitimately be brought to bear -- that is, in regard to the question of whether each incident is credible of itself, and whether the succession of incidents is coherent -- Whitehill comes off badly, as I've already said. But looking behind the technique, with its failures and successes, it's possible to see the successful evocation of a world, a time, and a feeling, and, having seen it, to compare it to Snow's on the question of which of the two is more nearly "about scientists living as scientists."

The bare plots of these stories are quite similar -- and, reduced to their essentials, banal. In each case, the protagonist is a gifted young specialist making a career. He chooses to further it not by climbing higher in the established order but by creating his own amphitheater -- an Institute of Biophysics in Snow's case, a special executive position within an established engineering corporation in Whitehill's. In each case, the young man slips, and then, as the book draws to a close, rebuilds or begins to rebuild his career along different lines -- for "different" read "mature."

This is the time-honored "science novel" plot of ARROWSMITH, THE CITADEL, RANDALL AND THE RIVER OF TIME, THE GADGET MAKER, MY BROTHER, MY ENEMY, and others. Other plots are possible. One wishes they were tried. But Whitehill's fleshing out of it differs sharply from Snow's, and from most of the others cited above, in two ways. The less important is that the technological portion of THE WAY UP is written like a typical 1944 ASTOUNDING novelette, as you might have surmised from the earlier discussion of Whitehill's technique.

The second difference is sharp and meaningful in a larger world than that of science fiction. It is the crucial distinction between THE SEARCH and THE WAY UP. It is this: The protagonist of THE SEARCH foresees a dimly distant day of scientific research teams, tracking physical problems like a tightly organized crew of archeologists unearthing structure of the Universe in a systematic investigation of the relationships between each brick and beam of it. But the protagonist himself is still a man of the days of individual research -- he is overawed by Constantine, the archetype of the new breed, a nearly universal synthesist who sees each new discovery in relation in its relationship to all of science, and extrapolates the next direction research must take in order for the unearthing to proceed with maximum efficiency. Neither the protagonist nor, it seems to me, Snow, really understand this. Mainly, they are conscious of their own awe, as a beginning chess player would be in the presence of a battleship's gunnery control computer.

But the protagonist of THE WAY UP lives and breathes in the world of engineering research teams attacking practical scientific problems like a tightly organized team of commandos paralyzing a city. In such a world, it is not necessary for a man to be even as profound as Snow's protagonist -- it is only necessary for him to know the proper attitude, and the current technique will carry him. Whitehill's protagonist is not the pioneer that Constantine was; the ability to grasp and visualize all of 1934's coming new age is unnecessary to him. He lives in the world that is. He has the freedom of the second-generation man -- once he has required the few axioms which represent the distillation of the lives of the first generation, he can relax, be an uncommitted or committed man, as he chooses -- he even has the luxury of being able to make mistakes. Unlike Constantine, he can cut corners, play office politics, and even mature, because the welfare of the system does not rest entirely (perhaps not even partially) on his shoulders.

Both Whitehill and Snow have succeeded, in their own ways, in making their protagonists real, as people. But Snow because of his technique, has made his man real as an individual while Whitehill's is real only as a type. Which of the two is more noble, as a man, is a point made even more moot by the mist which began to obscure Snow's logic and characterizations as he labored toward the end of his first novel. But while Snow's man and his story may be more real to Rabi as he thinks on the days that were, Whitehill's man -- and the sense that science as a discipline is now so systematized that it transcends scientists -- are, I think, a much better presentation of scientists living as scientists today. And it is with all this in mind that I commend both these books to your attention.

-- A. J. Budrys

Data entry by Judy Bemis
Hard copy provided by Geri Sullivan

Data entry by Judy Bemis

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