Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, July 11, 2014

1970: The Steel Crocodile (Compton, D.G.)

Allegiances of faith, which for the greater good? (4/5)

I was first exposed to D.G. Compton thanks to Joachim’s posts regarding the author’s work, namely Synthajoy (1968). Since I was unable to procure that novel in a timely manner, I managed by first gathering a few novels of which I get first get a taste for his prose. While Farewell Earth’s Bliss (1966) may not be his flagship novel, it was a satisfying introduction to his work and whetted my appetite for more of his work. The next time I ordered second-hand books from online (thank you Powells), I managed to pick up one more Compton novel—the same one featured here.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Bohn, the omnipotent computer whose flashing circuits and messianic pronouncements dictate what tomorrow will—or will not—be.

But Matthew Oliver is flesh and blood and full of questions—not nearly as certain as the machine he’s appointed to serve.

And the right hand of science seldom knows what the left hand is doing…”


Through the popular yet nebulous underground organization calling itself the Civil Liberties Committee (the CLC), Matthew is hired by his contact, named Gryphon, to penetrate the Colindale Institute where mysterious work is being done on a large computational device; however, Matthew only knows that his social statistics expertise is need, which is an odd requirement for a computing job. When Gryphon is found murdered, Matthew feels compelled to complete his task for the CLC, but his religious wife isn’t as progressive as his professional consciousness.

Soon, through the passive-aggressive director Professor Billon, Matthew learns the truth of the massive complex machine: it dictates mankind’s future. Rather than being godly omniscient, a team of programmers tediously gather all quantitative data in papers—ranging from peer-reviewed submissions to undergraduate work—in order for the great machine to extrapolate qualitative data: “[O]nce you have an associative capability you can use it in non-quantitative fields. Anything may be expressed in terms of anything …. pride, love, hate, work incentives, conscience, aesthetics and so on” (113).

His assistant relates the broad power the machine has over human progress: “Did you know we put the stopper on climate control as too controversial … without the weather, what’d there be left to complain about? Except the Government, of course … Maybe that’s why they left us the weather” (165).

Physically separated from the outside world, the Colindale Institute is an obviously secret affair; more so, even the security arrangement is a secretive detail: phones are tapped, movements are followed, and houses are rigged with microphones. Matthew’s wife, Abigail, is well aware of the security amid their new home as she was the first to personally discover the microphones, so conversations of doubt about the entire project must be dampened for fear of reprisal.

Matthew’s faith toward his sociology field and his job at Colindale take precedence over his sensitivity toward the intelligence of his wife, a firmly resolute Catholic woman. His temper flares at her thoughtless indifference to the unheralded project, but his professional pride convinces himself that what man has created must be right—the facts of life must dictate what life will become. In contrast to her devotion of her faith, she feels that she must disobey her husband—though she’ll continue to feed him after work and make dutiful love with him—she sights her sights on exposing the truth behind the project. She’s able to shake her tail and contact her brother, the black sheep of the family who has enlisted himself in a variety of causes and who has recently asked for a considerable amount of money so that he can go to Africa for yet another cause; he is, however, still in town.

Both Abigail and Matthew are surprised to learn that his predecessor was murdered, the reason of which for his quick employment. Abigail wants him to forego his position but Matthew maintains that everything is fine: his secretary is supportive—though a little too liberal and flirtatious—, his programmer colleague is knowledgeable and capable, and his colleagues are professional and goal-related. One link to his predecessor remains: the missing contents of a secret project between the late professor and the director, Billon. For the sake of both professional and personal curiosity, Matthew confronts the director for an explanation.

While some of his colleagues may be content to perform the secretive task because it’s simply an “intellectual exercise and a harmless way of keeping” the director’s curiosity piqued (175), at the same time some delve deeper into the nature of the machine’s task:

While it might be possible to deduce grass from the needs of a horse, to work the other way is utter nonsense. The ability to deduce a horse from the properties of grass is quite beyond us. (176)

While waiting for the initial results of the run program, Matthew stands at a conflict of consciousness; thought he’s committed to his work, he feels the ultimate goal of the project to be too distant, too far-fetched, too quantitative. While he and a few of his colleagues play poker, he observes:

He enjoyed cards for their own sake: their precise shape and texture, the excitement of each new hand, the skills of dealing and shuffling, he enjoyed it all. So that, within limits, he had objection to losing. (171)

Though he’s a quantitative, number-crunching analyst and fearful of the results of the ultimate project, he still convinces himself of his high-held pride in enjoying a simple game for its simplicity without realizing that every move in poker in a game of statistics—his precise area of expertise. Even the most knowledged of professional can be self-delusional; even the experts gamble with outcome.


Let me be honest: I hate, hate, hate the book’s own synopsis; it’s exaggerated, errant and misleading. The reader would suspect the book to be about the giant, god-like computer but, then the reader may be disappointed by, the lack of focus on the computer itself. Sure, there are scenes of jargon from the scientists in-the-know, but largely the plot revolves around Matthew and Abigail’s dealing with the truth of the machine; it’s a story of faith, a story of conviction and action on that conviction.

The initial dynamic of the relationship between the married couple of Matthew of Abigail is infusing to the plot; idiosyncratic yet acceptable tensions arise and set the course of Compton’s plot, yet the roles they accept slowly become stereotyped, almost one-dimensional: Matthew the scientists accepts his fate as a scientist while the receptive Abigail accepts her role as the church patron and blind follower. I suppose, one of the premises of the plot is that they are both blind followers of their faith—one of religion and one of science—but the outcome feels too one-dimensional.

Therein lays the fault: the one-dimensional frisson between husband and wife over the singularly controversial topic: the direction of mankind. Abigail’s uneducated role as housewife and uneducated role as conspirator plays tune to the weak, intellectually inferior in much of popular science-fiction literature (granted, not all); the male role as the logical scientist versus the emotional role as the housewife… could it get any more stereotypical?

Coming to the stereotypes of their roles, one particular exchange of theirs which stood out as unreasonable, non-natural…. who speaks like this? Sometimes the dialogue is just too eloquent for its own good: As the unreal Abigail speaks, “Who knows what we mightn’t whisper to each other in our personal post-coital stupor” (131). Really?

Aside from occasional detached robot-like conversations like this, there is a predictable plot thread which I found well conceived yet poorly executed; the entire conspiracy against the machine was predictable from the onset, meaning of course Abigail’s brother didn’t have any intention on going to Africa and of course he was planning to sabotage the project somehow. While the method of sabotage was indeed a mystery to me, the actual execution—with people and devices—was fairly pedestrian.

I can’t figure why it was written in that manner, but it still provided a good tension between the conflicting “what is right” of Matthew and Abigail and what others think—whose sense of “what is right” is justified by a terrorist act?


An excellent first third was ever-so slightly diminished by a tense yet unreal lackluster third, ending with the tarnished head of poor execution. Thankfully, while the predictability was its only flaw, the result stands on its own—a solid novel with a few flaws, like many other novels. He has proven to be a good writer and I look forward to much of his work which line my shelves: The Silent Multitude (1966), Synthajoy (1968), and Chronocules (1970).


  1. Great review!

    Unfortunately, Chronocules was very very poor.... And I think you might find The Silent Multitude rather Ballard-lite.

    I think you need to get your hands on his masterpieces! i.e. The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (variant title: The Unsleeping Eye) -- Gollancz press released it in

  2. And do avoid his Nomansland as well. It doesn't do anything overtly wrong, it's just science fiction trying to appeal to a mainstream audience, and for that plays cheap literary tricks.