Sunday, 21 August 2011

Penguin no. 1356: The New Men
by C.P. Snow

'Our fellows can't make much difference to the world, and those chaps can. Do you think it will be a better world, when they've finished with it?'
I thought it might. Not for him, probably not for me and my kind: but for ninety per cent of the human race.
The new men of the title are physicists, engineers and scientists.  At the time this book was published in 1954, C.P. Snow was certain that the future was being shaped by these men, and they were its greatest hope: it was science that had increased human life expectancy, and only science and technology that had any hope of alleviating the poverty of developing nations. The irony that science may also deliver the technology that imperils humanity was not ignored. But these men were new in another way; they represented a new model of success, one dependent on ability, hard work and an aptitude for spotting opportunities, rather then who your parents were and where you went to school. Embedded in this book is a criticism of the traditional classical education, and of how it was failing to prepare those in power for the decisions necessary in the modern age. These are ideas that formed the basis of his 1959 lecture The Two Cultures, but these same points are made more subtly here.

C.P. Snow tended to frame his novels around topics of contemporary relevance. The New Men looks at Britain's fledgling wartime research efforts into nuclear technology, when the realisation that nuclear weapons may be feasible fueled concerns that Germany may get them first. Essential war-related research such as radar took priority and constrained the supply of scientists, and in this climate nuclear research was perceived as something of a gamble: it was unclear if anything of practical value could be achieved in a reasonable time frame.

This story explores the conflict between private motivations and public consequences. Scientists are presented as choosing their research focus with an eye on its implications for their career. They are ambitious and competitive, driven to find the answers, and driven to find them first. In this case, it is to develop the technology necessary to create a nuclear weapon before either Germany or America; security is a concern but so is prestige. But the technology they are developing has its hazards, and its possible devastating consequences for humanity. The physicists work towards delivering a technology that they hope will never be used.

This novel is one of a sequence of eleven known as the Strangers and Brothers series. The novels are all narrated by Lewis Eliot, sometimes telling his own story, sometimes the stories of men of a more romantic temperament. They could be referred to as administrative novels: they are concerned with power and how it is exercised; with the strategies, manoeuvres, and compromises that take place behind the scenes, and with the private motivations of those involved. Lewis Eliot is a detached observer, but one with insight; the behaviours he observes are described and analysed, but with understanding rather than criticism.

Through these books C.P. Snow was chronicling the environment he knew: he started his career as a physicist, but moved on to work in a number of senior government positions. It is this aspect of explaining the world that makes this novel interesting, together with its reflections on loyalty both to ideals and to other people, and its discussion of the bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the war. It is informative rather than entertaining; the prose tends to be understated, the dialogue controlled and unemotional. The language and the approach seem appropriate to the stratum of society being described, but it can become a little bland, and sometimes I would find myself looking ahead to see just how much more of it there was to go. This is only a small criticism of the book; its real value comes from its attempt to seriously discuss in a calm and rational way an issue which was perhaps the most important of its day.


  1. I read all of these and I agree they get a bit hard going. C P Snow was pushing his "two cultures" concept, and was v influential in science policy circles at the time. The concept is still much debated today - at least it is among the 'UK professional scientists' half of the two cultures!

  2. Just the other day I read an obituary of Anne Seagrim who had been Snow's private secretary for a while in the late '40s. It is interesting how she unquestioningly considered him 'a great man', which seems to have been the general idea at the time. Now 60 years on he is all but forgotten - but so, for the most part, is the classic curriculum, so he did have his triumph in a way... except it no longer looks like such a triumph.



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