1971 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel
D. G. Compton’s novel The Steel Crocodile (1971) is a thoughtful yet ultimately unspectacular exploration of the intersection of religion and science. Although the work is nowhere near the level of Compton’s masterpieces (Synthajoy, The Unsleeping Eye), it infinitely surpasses the later The Missionaries (1972) which attempted to explore similar themes. I find his strong female characters extremely welcome in comparison to the standard misogyny tinged 60s/70s fare. They often surpass their male counterparts in intelligence, moral sense, and ultimately garner the sympathy of the reader.
Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Matthew Oliver, a sociologist, after receiving a job offer from the mysterious Colindale institute is contacted by Edmund Gryphon, an old college friend. Gryphon has uncovered strange cancellations of EU government grants for previously successful science projects which don’t appear to follow a predictable pattern. Gryphon suggests that pattern behind the unusual cancellations could be uncovered using the resources of Colindale if Matthew accepts. Gryphon, a member of the underground Civil Liberties Committee wants Matthew to be his contact inside of the institute. After Gryphon is murdered by unknown forces Matthew feels obligated to accept the position.
Matthew’s wife, Abagail, is very religious. In this near future vision of Earth most religions have devolved into social organizations. Matthew himself isn’t religious yet gains a certain strength vicariously through his wife.
The first half of the novel describes Matthew’s slow uncovering of the purpose of the Colindale institute which advises the government of the EU bloc. The institute, located in Switzerland, contains a supercomputer and various scientists are allotted computer time to develop secret projects. Even more suspicious is the fact that Matthew’s predecessor, like Gryphon, was murdered.
Eventually Matthew and Abagail uncover the purpose of the supercomputer (in grave opposition to the tenants of Christianity). Despite Matthew’s deep distrust of the scientists involved in the project and the project itself he is slowly convinced of its benefit to mankind leaving Abagail to decide whether to contact the CLC or not.
Compton explores the themes of religion and science and surveillance in a future Earth not much different than our own. He is clearly more interested in his characters (Abagail and Matthew) than the actual technology. They are fully realized characters and the religious theme is handled adeptly (and most importantly, Compton doesn’t preach, lecture, or info dump). The reader slowly pieces together the world from dialogue and the experiences of the characters. In short, Compton is often a good writer.
However, the final mystery is extremely easy to solve and anti-climactic. The outcome is never in doubt. Compton does pull a few surprises relating to the evolving minds of our characters (I can’t reveal them here without ruining the work’s end). This is well-done social sci-fi which should be read by any fan of 60s and 70s social science fiction — and of course, anyone who enjoys Compton. Expect finely realized characters, minimal plot, and a rather anti-climactic ending… Recommended.