FROM mid-1978 to early 1980, a group of engineers at Data General Corporation developed a new super-mini computer. In ''The Soul of a New Machine,'' Tracy Kidder provides a factual accounting of this achievement, and anyone interested in the annals of American industry will find the story absorbing. But Mr. Kidder, a freelance journalist and the author of ''The Road to Yuba City,'' has endowed the tale with such pace, texture and poetic implication that he has elevated it to a high level of narrative art...........

Mr. Kidder proceeds by taking the reader ''down into'' the machine, and indeed the book consists of repeated descents -not only into an environment of wires and silicon chips, but also into dark corporate basements where secret work proceeds feverishly behind locked doors, and into home cellar workshops where engineers pursue their compulsive tinkering. One of the senior engineers introduces Mr. Kidder to the game ''Adventure,'' in which the computer appears to create an underground world called Colossal Cave, through which the player must travel by typing out directions on a terminal keyboard. This world consists of mazes, twisting passages, dark chambers and rusty doors; it is populated by dragons, snakes and trolls, all creations, of course, of the computer engineers who invented the game. Reading this book is, in part, a voyage through such a subterranean world. Mr. Kidder is our Dante - not, to be sure, a mature genius artistically reconstructing Western civilization at the end of an era, but a young explorer standing on the threshold of a new age, looking for the outlines of uncharted regions of human experience.................

..........................His companions in this journey are a cadre of engineers, about two dozen in number, who, working day and night under incredible pressure for almost two years, produced the new machine, code-named Eagle. These characters, introduced in succession as their roles in the unfolding drama become significant, are surely drawn larger than life, but this is totally appropriate in a journalistic report that is also a work of imagination.

Most engineers, like most people, are anything but heroic; they are often stolid sorts who, as Mr. Kidder admits, hang calculators from their belts and wear plastic ''nerd packs'' in their breast pockets to keep their pens from soiling their clothes. The leading lights of the Eagle team, however, chosen for their brilliance, energy and ambition, are portrayed as eccentric knights errant, clad in blue jeans and open collars, seeking with awesome intensity the grail of technological accomplishment.

Practically all of them, we learn, were obsessed from their earliest years with the need to see how things work, taking gadgets apart and putting them back together. In technical creativity they have found a fulfillment that occasionally verges on ecstacy - ''The golden moment. ... When it worked I'd get a little high. ... Almost a chemical change. ... It was the most incredible, soaring experience of my life. ...'' By plunging into the world of numbers, theories and things they appear to find a path to their own emotions. By looking outward they reach inward. In doing they encounter being. The contrast with the narcissism of most contemporary fiction is striking. Wives and children drift occasionally across the background, mellow and serene, as if intense interest in one's work were the key to domestic felicity. Again the contrast with contemporary literary cliches is remarkable.

The leader of the group is an engineer named Tom West, who is introduced in the prologue at the helm of a small white sloop sailing in rough seas. Quiet, aloof and intrepid, Mr. West is described by one of his sailing companions as ''a good man in a storm.'' (I could not help thinking of John Hersey's novel ''Under the Eye of the Storm,'' in which the computer scientist, flawed by an ''electrical intellectuality,'' disintegrates during a crisis at sea, while the hero, ''a humanist, a vitalist'' performs valiantly.) In his youth, Mr. West had been required to leave Amherst College for a year as ''an underachiever,'' and almost became a guitar-playing dropout. But he responded to the chaos around him - it was the early 1960's - by deciding to become an engineer. His friends were astonished: ''The very word, engineer, dulled the spirit.'' Yet Mr. West felt that ''in a world full of confusion'' there is satisfaction to be found in learning how things get put together, how they work. By 1978 he was at Data General in charge of the Eagle team, an austere, demanding Ahab who leads his young crew in chase of a contemporary white whale.

The Eagle team is divided into two working groups, ''the Hardy Boys,'' who put together the machine's actual circuitry, and ''the Microkids,'' those who develop the microcode that fuses the physical machine with the software programs that eventually tell it what to do. These men - only one of the engineers is a woman, in spite of equal-opportunity recruiting efforts - are fanatics but not purists. They cannot afford to be; it is crucial that they not only produce a superior machine, but also work quickly enough and cheaply enough so that it will ''get out the door'' to market. The most elegant technical solution is worth nothing if the end product is not used. This need to stop striving for perfection - to say at some point ''O.K., it's right. Ship it.'' - is a bittersweet aspect of the engineering experience that also applies to other elements of our public and private lives.

Being totally absorbed in their work, the Eagle engineers are vulnerable to exploitation, and Mr. Kidder describes in detail the often devious means by which the members of the group are recruited and persuaded to ''sign up'' - not merely to enlist, but to throw their entire beings into the enterprise. The men put up with cramped quarters, inadequate supplies, unpaid-for overtime, moody and often uncommunicative bosses, and in the distance somewhere, corporate overlords known to be ruthless and aggressive; but morale remains surprisingly high. One young engineer, burned out and feeling the pressure in his stomach, leaves suddenly, announcing that he is going to a commune in Vermont. But the others persist, grumbling and weary, yet perversely playful and tenacious, arguing constantly yet working ''in sync.'' The project becomes a crusade.

At a time when American productivity is in decline, when the nation's innovative powers are said to be waning, and nobody seems to be able to motivate himself or anybody else, the experience of the people who created Eagle merits attention. Not that life can be lived in a state of perpetual commotion. But in microcosm the Eagle team exhibits the intensity and high spirits that pontifical social commentators keep saying Americans have lost. Of course, after the triumph and the glory comes the tragic recognition that for each individual the quest must start afresh, and that life may never again be as exciting.

Near the end of the book, with the successful conclusion of the project in view, Mr. Kidder joins the Eagle group on a day's excursion from their Westborough, Mass., headquarters to a computer trade show in New York. After looking through the exhibits, the young men scatter throughout the city to enjoy an afternoon's relaxation. Mr. Kidder sits in a cafe with one of the engineers and looks out at the crowds of people and the traffic. Life goes on, he muses, and computers, for all their magical qualities, are not about to change the essence of the human condition. There has been no ''revolution,'' as was being predicted just a few years ago, and ''artificial intelligence'' still seems comfortably far from becoming a reality. The human spirit still calls the tune. And as the computer engineers return to their bus, bubbling over with the effects of their holiday and a few beers, the reader cannot help concluding that the imminence of a sinister technocracy is one of the silliest myths of our time.

In the introduction to ''The John McPhee Reader,'' William L. Howarth insists that although most of Mr. McPhee's work is called ''non-fiction'' it should more properly be called ''Literature.'' That is exactly the way I feel about Mr. Kidder's ''The Soul of a New Machine,'' and I believe that Aldous Huxley - who looked forward to the coming of a worthy literature of science and technology - would agree.

Correction: October 4, 1981, Sunday, Late City Final Edition

Despite the headline on the review of Tracy Kidder's ''The Soul of a New Machine'' (Aug. 23), the new work is not related to ''The Hardy Boys'' juvenile book series of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

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