The Tide Went Out by Charles Eric Maine (book review).

Another book that has been waiting for its time to be read is ‘The Tide Went Out’ by Charles Eric Maine, originally published in 1958. Mike Ashley’s introduction highlights some of the history surrounding books released during that period and the concept of the ‘cosy catastrophe,’ in which everything gets sorted out by the end.

However, this book does not follow that formula, as I discovered. I checked the British Library’s website, and although they have not listed this book, they do feature other science fiction titles, and obtaining a copy of this book is still fairly easy.

We experience the events through the eyes of editor/journalist Phil Wade, who finds his magazine ‘Outpost’ pulled when his article on nuclear bombs, titled ‘Nutcracker,’ comes under government scrutiny. His publisher is so distraught that he decides to quit and sell his publishing empire to another company, which promises to keep all the magazines running. Wade had previously been informed of a position with Sir Hubert Piercey, but he signed a one-year contract to ensure the magazine’s survival.

In the meantime, the detonated nuclear bombs have damaged the Pacific seabed, causing the water level to drop by a foot as water drains into the seabed. Interestingly, while we are currently experiencing rising water levels due to global warming and polar ice melting, losing ocean water into an area beneath the seabed is equally damaging.

Unknowingly, Wade is recruited by Piercey and only learns about his new role after signing the Official Secrets Act and having his family whisked away to the Arctic for their safety. He is uncertain about convincing his wife, but he is surprised when she and their son willingly agree to be evacuated. His job is essentially to deliver good news to counter the actual bad news unfolding as the world falls apart.

The situation is dire in the UK, but it deteriorates even more rapidly in other countries, where governments resort to killing their citizens and rebellion is not tolerated. There are some twisted parallels to our own COVID-19 crisis, but this book was written 65 years ago, showing that some things never change. Wade’s job is to read intelligence reports and put a positive spin on them, although we don’t see much of this work compared to what we might expect today.

In some instances, you have to read between the lines. When Wade drives himself to work and encounters a mob, he is attacked and ends up in the hospital, narrowly escaping death thanks to a military rescue. In many ways, Maine uses the Wyndham template, selecting a character who is likely to survive to witness the events. Wade is not a particularly likable character. He quits drinking and smoking due to circumstances rather than intention, and he would engage in womanizing if given the chance, which he eventually does. Maine downplays this aspect, which was typical for the times to avoid being too explicit.

Through Wade’s eyes, we witness the UK crumbling and occasionally catch a glimpse of the chaos unfolding abroad as the oceans’ water sinks beneath the seabed. I must avoid revealing too many spoilers, so I’ll stick to generalizations. One significant point, which isn’t really a spoiler, is that there is no attempt to reverse the situation. From a science fiction perspective, it’s worth pondering what could be done. Since nuclear weapons caused the seabed’s rupture, why not try a similar approach to release the water or prevent it from draining away? Although there is a risk of radioactive contamination, the vast amount of water would likely dilute the radioactivity to safe levels.

Maine’s primary goal is to depict the collapse of civilization. We often view clean freshwater as a readily available resource, although some developing countries might dispute that claim. However, when there is a literal worldwide shortage and the situation continues to worsen, there is little hope for respite.

In contemporary times, addressing such a topic would likely require a book twice the size of this one, especially when considering the fate of the families saved in the Arctic. Maine does not shy away from the harsh realities of the situation. I must caution readers to set aside an hour to read the final 60 pages in one sitting, as the gripping narrative will keep you turning the pages.

GF Willmetts

March 2023

(pub: British Library. 236 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7123-5237-6)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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