Merle Colby

The Big Secret is another classic era novel that I came across in one of my rambles through an antique store.  The Merle Colby writing is not really a mystery, but it does qualify in the suspense category – suspense with a slightly corrosive tang to its absurdist humor.  In Colby’s 1949 book, a group of physicist friends have come together at a conference in Washington D.C., particularly excited to hear the findings of renowned and admired scientist, Dr Trebst, that will help them and others push their work beyond present boundaries of knowledge.  Unfortunately, they are startled to discover that Dr. Trebst’s work has been classified as top secret by the government so that no one may have access to it.  Trebst is resigned, but the others are not having any of this and elect to have one of their own, Daniel Upstead stay on after the conference to consult with the president to advise him on how vital the free flow of information is to the progress of science.  From here on in, we might call this Neil DeGrasse Tyson goes to Washington, though I think that Dr. Tyson, while sharing Upstead’s integrity, intelligence, and honesty, is far more savvy.

So, armed with intellect, reason, and knowledge, our “Daniel,” a man both “up”standing and “stead”fast, faces off against the lions’ den of lobbyist, bureaucrats, military, politicians, social parasites, and business magnates to try and convey to the President of the reality that science will not bloom without the free flow of information and knowledge.  In doing so, he walks smack into the firestorm of various constituents of the above groups battling over whether the President should sign an executive order to limit not only the sharing of scientific knowledge but even research itself.  Upstead is up against shifting walls of ignorant, bigoted wealthy people trying to suppress new ideas to consolidate their power or blindly strike out at what they don’t understand; politicians and lobbyists determined to manipulate citizens with fake news stories and public relations scams that would make Fox News and their political allies blush; and “America Alone” types who count anything foreign as dangerous – though they have a habit of not recognizing anyone as a American who lacks an Anglo-Saxon name and pedigree.  Any of this sound familiar?

Throughout the book there’s a constant strain of why did we fight this last war if we’re turning into the enemy we just thought we defeated?  Upstead comes of age fast and, with the help of some allies from different places in the class strata and of different ethnic backgrounds, fights the good fight.  I won’t ruin the suspense and tell you how it comes out.  I’ll just say that it’s worth the read.  Isn’t it far too bad that a book written in 1949 has become more relevant than ever 70 years later?  As Upstead challenges:  “No man can really care about his country unless he cares about the world.”

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