The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, October 09, 2003

The Brave Little Barbecue Goes to Mars

Francis Spufford, Backroom Boys: the Secret Return of the British Boffin, Faber and Faber, 6 Nov 2003,
£15.99, 0571-21496-7 (Proof copy received)

This is one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year, and the one most likely to appeal to SF fans. I mean, how many books start with a wartime pub scene of the London members of the British Interplanetary Society cheering as the near-miss plaster falls around them because they recognise instantly what an explosion followed by a strange rising boom means for their dreams?

Even many SF fans, I suspect, will be as surprised - and gripped - as I was by the tale of the British space programme. I honestly didn't know that ... (no spoilers from me). Likewise, I didn't know the backroom stories of Concorde, computer games (pioneered by libertarian SF fans), mobile phones, the human genome project, and Beagle 2 (the barbecue-shaped British-built space probe, due to land on Mars on Christmas Day this year).

Spufford does more than tell engaging tales. He painlessly puts across a wealth of information about science and engineering. To cover six very different areas of technology and science in such an intriguing way, and to catch the distinctive style of each field's native geek, is a rare achievement. Above all, he tells a coherent story, of industrial decline countered - in part at least - by ingenious adaptation to the 'post-industrial' world. It sharply evokes a lost world of Dan Dare, Look and Learn, and Meccano, and goes on to show us how that world was never lost: that it is, in fact, part of the secret history of today.


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