Having revisited the works of William F Temple with their reprints of Four-Sided Triangle and Shoot at the Moon, the British Library have turned their attention to a contemporary of Temple’s, David McIlwain, better known by his pen-name Charles Eric Maine who wrote “scientific thrillers,” among the best known the radio play Spaceways, later filmed by Hammer under the same title, time travel adventure Calculated Risk, The Mind of Mr. Soames, also filmed, and The Darkest of Nights.
Originally published in 1958 and reprinted in 1977 under the title Thirst in a revised edition, The Tide Went Out is an engaging and well-written if uncompromisingly bleak consideration of the possible unintended side-effects of nuclear testing as witnessed by Philip Wade, opportunistic journalist, alcoholic and unreliable husband and father of one.
The editor of the news magazine Outlook, his recent speculative article on Operation Nutcracker was the subject of a gagging order, the edition containing it pulled from newsstands and the offending pages removed and a less contentious article substituted for his own which had postulated a link between a rise in tectonic activity and a drop in ocean levels with the triple detonation.
The instruction coming from the desk of Sir Hubert Piercey, Wade is even more surprised when Sir Hubert performs a fait accomplit and arranges for a position for him within the newly formed International Bureau of Information where he will assist in communications and carefully worded press releases emphasising positive actions to frame the mindset of the populace before the coming catastrophe becomes apparent.
Wade’s speculative hypothesis correct, the undersea detonations in the South Pacific have opened a crack in the ocean floor through which the sea has flooded, cooling the magma below as it is is converted to steam and causing a rise in pressure which expands the crack even as more water flows into the space left by the contracting rock.
While Maine’s peer John Wyndham had considered rising sea levels in The Kraken Wakes five year earlier, here the prognosis is the reverse as the unstoppable effect accelerates, draining the oceans over the subsequent months with all the consequent effects, the lack of rainfall causing crops to fail leading to famine as well as dehydration, the spread of disease in the absence of sanitation, nations isolated as sea travel becomes impossible.
Like Wyndham, much of The Tide Went Out is presented as dialogues between intelligent and informed characters as they speculate on the impact of the scenarios they envisage, though some viewpoints become more extreme as the crisis takes hold and everyone reacts to the pressure differently, the scenarios in their broad sense familiar to anyone who has seen Val Guest’s 1961 classic of British science fiction The Day the Earth Caught Fire which parallels aspects of Maine’s novel.
The government forced to introduce rationing even as they attempt to quell unrest with the propaganda issued by Wade’s team, they simultaneously ease restrictions on pornography in hopes of distracting the population, presumably issued by another team not discussed by the author, while there is a simultaneous uprising in religion, the black market, first trading in alcohol then in water, and mass unemployment as industries collapse with no raw materials to be imported or finished goods to be exported.
While some place morality and duty to the dying above their own lives, another of Wade’s colleagues describes “death as a public service” which the underclasses should be privileged to carry out in the circumstances, while Wade remains for the most part a detached and self-serving, responding unemotionally until he himself is caught on the wrong side as martial law is imposed.
An examination of modern society in irrevocable catastrophic collapse and surprisingly forthright for the time it was written, Maine’s narrative is not reassuring; like the stories Wade places in the sole remaining circulating newspaper any hint of hope is a purposeful distraction to comfort the masses and hold them back from rioting just long enough for “the right people” to be evacuated, an arbitrary judgement based more on wealth and connections than any contribution or future value of an individual.