Reality is always worth more than wishes

backroom boysBackroom Boys: the Secret Return of the British Boffin
by Francis Spufford

This was my final read for my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge. It’s been recommended to me by multiple people, including Tim, so I thought I would save this for last. It’s about British engineering projects, large and small, of the 20th century.

This is a sort of love letter to British engineering, but a deprecating one with notes of doubt. Spufford looks at projects from the Black Arrow space rocket to the computer game Elite to the Human Genome Project. Sometimes, like that last example, the Brits formed part of an international effort, but it is very much the Brits that Spufford is writing about.

Spufford is playing up the idea of the unsung hero, the small project dwarfed by international (especially US) comparison, which isn’t actually always as true as he implies (but obviously in the case of, say, the space programme, it really is). A book about technology, especially one including ongoing projects, does risk feeling dated quickly, and in the 11 years since this was first published, things have changed. In fact, the paperback edition includes an author’s note at the end with updates that had already happened in the first year since publication.

“It was beginning to dawn on the engineers that they were watching a virtually perfect performance…Wishes were turning into facts faster than seemed wholly lucky…The party was long and loud, because the attempt to orbit Prospero had been the last thing between the rocketmen and the end of the programme, and this, the celebration, was the last of the last. When the sun came up the next morning over the desert, the hangover would encompass the whole of British rocketry.”

This is an interesting, entertaining book that brings to life largely forgotten (or possibly never known to begin with) stories. Spufford doesn’t just explain the science and technology well, he bubbles with enthusiasm, pouring praise on the men and women (but as he admits himself, mostly men) who made these projects happen. I was actually a little saddened when later chapters concentrated more on the policy and politics of making projects happen, not because that’s not a valid part of the story, but because it meant there was less of that almost childlike enthusiasm and adulation.

There’s a definite lean towards Cambridge-based projects. Spufford lives in Cambridge and, while I would not say any of his choices of subjects to cover are undeserving, it does seem a little more than coincidental that half of them are or were in Cambridge, and makes me wonder what alternative options he might have covered with a net cast more widely. Also, I was not always convinced by his sweeping statements, though I’m pretty sure he’s right on the details.

For instance, Spufford writes about Elite as if it’s the one and only example of a decent British computer game, as if this effort by two Cambridge students was the country’s one stab at a games industry and, while successful, was a one-off. This is so very far from true. In the major success league, by 2003 there had been four Grand Theft Auto games (DMA Design/Rockstar North), five Tomb Raider games (Core Design), Goldeneye 007 (Rare), Lemmings (DMA Design), Burnout (Criterion Games), Worms (Team17) and dozens more that I don’t know. So while Elite was clearly a major step forward, hugely influential on gaming as a whole and an interesting human story to boot, it is by no means a lone wolf in British engineering history. That said, it’s a particularly well written chapter, plus it was a lot of fun reading it while sat next to Tim playing the recent sequel Elite: Dangerous, and hearing from him what a big deal the original Elite was.

“That’s how making goes. It would be dispiriting for the maker if it weren’t that reality is always worth more than wishes. A real, constructed thing (however dented) beats a wish (however shiny) hands down; so working through the inevitable compromises, losing some of what you first thought of, is still a process of gain, is still therefore deeply pleasurable to the maker.”

Overall, Spufford is very readable and I’m glad that we already have one of his other books on our shelves.

First published 2003 by Faber and Faber.

Source: Borrowed from Tim

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge

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