Book review

Nothing So Strange (James Hilton)

What I dislike about the present setup is not so much that the powers-that-be want us to make bombs, but that they don’t seem to want us to do anything else. They never invite us to use the scientific method plus unlimited funds on the general problems of world affairs or the organization of society.

As those words, written in 1947, indicate, James Hilton’s Nothing So Strange is a surprisingly relevant book, and gloriously filled with his usual steadfast, gallant, and slightly melancholic characters in a world upended by war. And like several of Hilton’s works, it posits and pits the individual against a larger “they” of society and civilization. The individual is stalwart and noble, yet ultimately small and frail. Hilton’s heroes and heroines are alone and often lonely against a backdrop of unreasoning and unreasonable circumstance yet unwavering in their commitment to a something bigger, stronger, nobler, and better that defines them personally as individuals.

The circumstances that dwarf and threaten the characters in Nothing So Strange are nothing less than world war. And even though the main character, Mark Bradley — Brad — is a man of science passionately dedicated to the pursuit of truth (the title is a Daniel Webster quote: “There is nothing so powerful as truth — and often nothing so strange”), the tools of the scientific method are entirely ineffective against the surrounding hate and chaos and destruction. But he keeps trying.

Bauer gave a shrug which Brad had already begun to adopt for his own use; it was a gesture of not knowing where to begin in the enumeration of losses, problems, tragedies, injustices; the Masonic sign between those who accept despair but refuse defeat.

Ultimately, Brad will have to do far worse than just abandon science to win his peace.

Hilton is, despite the unexpected cynicism and despair of Nothing So Strange, an optimist, or at least hopeful — a vantage point espoused by his narrator, the young journalist Jane Waring who has seen and come to understand way too much in the run-up to world war:

I have been a witness of several upsets that could be called revolutions, and one thing that strikes me as an almost clinical sign of approaching crisis is the way it is smelled ahead by those who have never been extreme enough to make a change of views difficult, or important enough to have such a change suspected. Perhaps the bulk of people go this way and that, not so much aiming to be with the tide as to avoid any feeling that it exists.

An insight well beyond her twenty-some years, and available to her not only because of a keen intellect and open access to the international community — a double legacy from her father, a shadowy capitalist éminence grise (who says of himself “At various times in my life I’ve been called an economic royalist, a communist, a fascist, and a merchant of death…”) but also through the legacy of her mother Christine, a genuinely charming and life-affirming free spirit, whose initial attraction to Brad sets off a chain of events as personally explosive and devastating as the H-bomb. Jane’s mother has

…a quick-minded knowledgeableness unspoiled by knowledge. It made her understand politicians rather than policies and diplomats rather than diplomacy.

Jane says later: “I wish I knew as little as my mother did and understood as much.”

This goes to the heart of Hilton’s hope for the future. If we listen, if we learn, and if we then share our insights, we can somehow make a difference, make it better. Brad illustrates:

During the last war, for instance, Einstein put out his general theory, and certain proofs of it required astronomical observations that could only be made on a certain date from a certain place in the Atlantic Ocean. British scientists wanted to make these observations, and I’ve been told that the German Navy was contacted and agreed not to torpedo the ship. As it happened, the war was over before the specified date, but the idea of pure science as something above and beyond ordinary affairs had survived a pretty good test…. Of course, the whole thing had to be kept dark. Neither the British nor the German public in wartime could have endured the thought of anything international quietly going about its business as if all the nonsense weren’t happening.

Reinforcing the point by negation: Harvey Waring, Jane’s father, says of the Nazis: “I don’t really like these people. Even when they do the right thing they do it the wrong way. And they won’t listen…” And the coldly brilliant Austrian scientist Hugo Framm, with whose fate Brad is inextricably bound, says “Bradley, I think there must be a world order if there is to be any world worth living in.” Contrast this with Jane’s accepting, unprejudiced position, with no need to influence or impose:

The world’s so full of strange actions and strange motives — don’t condemn people just because they do what you can’t immediately understand…Wait till they’ve had a chance to explain.

I said it was a surprisingly relevant book.

3 thoughts on “Nothing So Strange (James Hilton)”

  1. It’s been a long time since I read this book. But only recently, I read “Terry”, a very early book by Hilton, with only few editions. Hilton used quite a lot of ideas from “Terry” for “Nothing So Strange” (and, incidentally, we hear of secluded Tibetan monks with the secret of longevity for the first time): “Terry” Terrington is a microbiologist with little time for anything but his work, he flees from too close contact with Helen, wife of successful and charming Severn, in order to work in Vienna under one Karelsky, who later steals his work. Later, Terry ends up with June, Helen’s daughter. All this is narrated by one James “Jimmy” Hilton.
    The characters are quite similar to “Nothing So Strange”, but there is no war in the background.

    1. It is so nice to hear from you — you always have such intriguing Hilton information to share! I had not heard of this book, and it is apparently out of print and quite expensive. You are lucky to have gotten hold of it. So interesting that he recycled so many of these early ideas (Terry was published in 1927, 20 years before Nothing So Strange). But definitely the wartime background makes the book, raising important ethical questions that would not otherwise have the sting and relevance. But how fascinating that Jimmy Hilton morphs into Jane Waring…

  2. Actually, there is a 2006 Terry edition by a very small publisher, The Battered Silicon Despatch Box. But I was fortunate enought to get, for a dollar or so, in a German second-hand bookshop, back when I regularly browsed them, an obscure 1947 Swiss paperback edition, in English. I was quite surprised when I saw that book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s