Australian Science Fiction Great George Turner (Part I)

Posted: April 9, 2014 in Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Writing
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Australian science fiction writer George Turner

by Zeke Teflon

George Turner (1916-1997) was already in his 60s, a well established, award-winning Australian novelist, when he wrote his first science fiction novel, Beloved Son (1978). He wrote seven other science fiction novels prior to his death. All deal with ecological (especially climate-change) disasters, ill-advised attempts to deal with them, and the results of both the disasters and the attempts to cope. Most of the novels are set in Melbourne and its surrounding area. Almost all of them have deeply flawed protagonists (“heroes,” would be overstating it) who are often members of the police or military. And all the novels are decidedly downbeat, leavened by very occasional, always mordant humor.

George Turner’s Science Fiction Novels

Turner’s first three science fiction novels, Beloved Son (1978), Vaneglory (1981), and Yesterday’s Men (1983), are all set in the same “universe,” but are a trilogy only in the loose sense of the word. The background for all of them is “The Collapse of 2012,” which “The Background” section of Yesterday’s Men describes as being caused by “genetic tampering with staple crops, followed by a wave of mutated-disease epidemics and the Five Days of hysterical, random nuclear bombing. [This] left the world reduced by starvation and disease to a tenth of its former population.”

Beloved Son-1The first book set in this “universe,” Beloved Son, describes the social breakdown that follows the catastrophes, the rebuilding over the next four decades under the guidance of the World Council, “a super-UN, but with teeth,” and the rise of cult religions.

The second book, Vaneglory, revolves around the discovery of “mutant humans … with lifespans of thousands of years,” the secret attempts to discover their genetic secrets, and the corrupting influence on the power structure of the lure of immortality. One noteworthy aspect of Vaneglory is that it first reveals Turner’s terror of, and absolute rejection of, the scientific pursuit of immortality, which he considered a road to disaster.

The third book, Yesterday’s Men, has to do with socially rigid, caste-based orbital colonies and the tension between them and the decaying “Ethical Culture” that produced the “super-UN” World Council. The book is primarily notable for its extensive, gut-wrenching passages describing combat in the jungles of New Guinea, where Turner served during World War II.

These first three novels are all fairly short and are worth reading for their entertainment value alone. They’re also noteworthy for introducing several recurring features in Turner’s later novels: preoccupation with ecological catastrophe and its consequences; horror at the prospect of immortality; policemen or military men as protagonists or strong secondary characters; clear portrayal of the corrupting influence of power and secrecy, and clear portrayals of corrupted officials; and lack of constructive, practical solutions for any of the problems Turner so vividly outlines
Drowning Towers by George Turner, cover

Turner’s fourth science fiction novel, Drowning Towers (1987–published outside the U.S. as The Sea and Summer), is his most famous. It’s the first, or at least the first major, novel to deal head on with climate change. Previous sci-fi novels, notably John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (1972), had tackled ecological catastrophe, but none had dealt with climate change as the primary ecological problem. Drowning Towers also introduced three of Turner’s other preoccupations: massive unemployment resulting from automation; overpopulation; and a possible “cull” of excess population.

Drowning Towers is remarkable for its complex structure. It’s a story within a story, with the “frame” set approximately a thousand years in the future. (Joseph Conrad provided what are probably the most familiar examples of this device in his “Marlow” stories, such as Heart of Darkness.) The “frame” is written in a mix of close third-person and first-person points of view alternating between two p.o.v. characters, while the story that constitutes the body of the book is a first-person narrative by five secondary characters–but not the primary character!–with the various narratives divided into chapters. Structurally, Drowning Towers is a tour de force.

The main story is set in the Melbourne of the 2040s-2060s, already severely afflicted by climate-change-caused flooding, with the social backdrop of massive unemployment and a class system divided into the “sweet” (the rich and the small middle class who have jobs) and the “swill” (the uneducated, unemployed masses living in nightmare, overcrowded public-housing skyscrapers holding 70,000 people each–hence the title of the novel).

The story’s primary character is a “tower boss,” Billy Kovacs, and the story revolves around the conflicting desires and efforts to survive (not “get ahead”) of Kovacs and five major secondary characters (two of them policemen) in the brutal world Turner describes. It’s a mark of Turner’s writing skill that only one of the very well drawn secondary characters (Nick, one of the policemen) is especially admirable, but they’re all sympathetic–struggling against almost hopeless odds.

Perhaps because he realized the bleakness of Drowning Towers, at its end (right before the closing of the frame) Turner tried to introduce a ray of hope through what is essentially an epilogue describing a few mild reformist measures that would surely have been tried–and would have failed–well before their place in Drowning Towers‘ chronology. This is the most obvious flaw in the book, though it’s minor. There are other more serious flaws, but they have to do with Turner’s underlying political, social, and economic assumptions (more on that tomorrow in Part II).

Brain Child by George Turner, coverTurner’s next novel, Brain Child (1991), is a very tightly plotted thriller. It’s structurally simpler than Drowning Towers, but it’s nearly flawless. The closest it comes to having a real flaw is that it’s written from a first-person p.o.v., with the bulk of the narration provided by David Chance, the protagonist, with the rest supplied by the primary secondary character, Jonesy, a high-ranking police official. What makes this a flaw is that Jonesy’s narrative comprises only two of the book’s thirteen chapters. There’s no structural reason for this; Turner did it simply because it was convenient. In less skilled hands, this could have been a major problem. But here, it’s almost unnoticeable.

Brain Child is set in 2047 in an impoverished and severely overpopulated world, with the novel’s events taking place in and around Melbourne. It’s primarily concerned with the results of genetic experiments which produced three distinct groups of superior children, one reclusive, coldly logical and analytical (A group), one artistically gifted and supremely arrogant (B group), and one ultra intelligent and unfathomable–and hence very frightening–(C group), who committed collective suicide 25 years prior to the events of the narrative.

The novel’s protagonist, 25-year-old, naive, and rather full-of-himself David, grew up in an orphanage. At the beginning of the book, much to his surprise, he’s contacted by his father, Arthur Hazard, a member of A group, who quickly recruits him to uncover “Young Feller’s legacy,” “Young Feller” being a member of the mysterious, super-intelligent C group. It soon develops that David’s task is much more dangerous than he imagined, and he quickly finds himself playing a double game with a powerful politician, Samuel (“Piggy”) Armstrong, who is desperate to find the “legacy.”

Armstrong is one of the most loathsome characters ever portrayed in science fiction, and one of the best portrayals of a bullying, selfish, power-grubbing politician in, probably, all of fiction. The other standout characters are David’s father, Arthur, the ultimate cold fish who still comes off as sympathetic because of his faithfulness to his own, strange moral code, and David himself, who throughout the novel is on a voyage of very unpleasant self-discovery. (With Turner, there’s no other kind.)

The Destiny Makers, by George Turner, coverTurner’s next sci-fi novel, The Destiny Makers (1993), is a thriller that’s set in the same universe as the two novels which follow it, Genetic Soldier (1994) and Turner’s final novel, Down There in Darkness (1999). It’s concerned almost entirely with the problem of overpopulation, and a possible draconian solution to it. The plot revolves around the question of a “cull” by the anglophone nations, and the resistance against it by Australia’s weak but relatively moral premier, Beltane.

As is Brain Child, The Destiny Makers is written from a first-person point of view, and there’s one primary narrator (Harry Ostrov, a policeman); there are also three chapters (out of twelve) narrated in first person by secondary characters. Again, there’s no structural reason for this; Turner did it only because it was convenient. Here, however, the seams show because the plot is less gripping and the characters less compelling than those in Brain Child. (This is not to say that The Destiny Makers is a bad book. It isn’t. It’s a good one. But Brain Child is a masterpiece, and The Destiny Makers isn’t.)

The Destiny Makers sets up Turner’s next book, Genetic Soldier, by having two sub-light-speed interstellar survey/colonization ships leave Earth during the book’s course. At the beginning of Genetic Soldier, one of these ships returns to Earth to find a primitive planet depopulated because of a religious cult’s cull/hare-brained genetic experiment seven centuries earlier. The book centers on the determination of the returnees to remain on Earth, and the determination of the primitives to drive them off it.

In Genetic Soldier, Turner returns for the most part to close third-person narration (as in Yesterday’s Men) with occasional snatches of first-person narration thrown in. It works–it’s almost unnoticeable.

The strength of Genetic Soldier is in its characters, Thomas, the duty-bound primitive “genetic solider,” and two women from the starship, middle-aged Nugan and her 18-year-old daughter, Anne. It’s a testament to Turner’s characterization abilities that all three are equally plausible.

Unfortunately, Genetic Soldier is as much fantasy as it is science fiction. The reason is that the central underlying “scientific” conjecture, Rupert Sheldrake’s “morphogenetic fields,” is pseudo-science, and that “theory” was already busted when Turner wrote Genetic Soldier (more on this tomorrow in Part II). It’s one thing to base science fiction on scientific conjecture, no matter how speculative. It’s entirely another to base it on already debunked pseudo-science. Turner is well over this line in this book, and it robs Genetic Soldier of much of its enjoyment for readers who want even remotely plausible science in their science fiction.

Another problem is that Genetic Soldier‘s plot is as straight as Highway 95 through Nevada. Once Turner hammers home, about a quarter of the way in, that the book’s central underlying concept  is “morphogenetic fields” (which he shortens to “morphic fields”), it’s all too easy  to guess, if you understand that “theory,”  how the book will unfold. (When Turner telegraphed that fact, my  reaction was, “Oh no! You’re not going there?!”–and sure enough he did.) That predictability robs the reader of much enjoyment, for its much more pleasurable to be surprised occasionally, to sometimes not know what’s coming next, than to see a book unfold in almost exactly the way you’d guessed it would. In other words, Genetic Soldier‘s predictability robs it of drama.

Turner’s final book, Down There in Darkness, which was published posthumously, is a sequel to The Destiny Makers.  Its two primary characters are from that book, and it fills in some of the gaps between The Destiny Makers and Genetic Soldier. Unfortunately, Down There In Darkness simply doesn’t satisfy. It’s disjointed, the central characters have no real goals in the latter half of the book, and as a result there’s almost no dramatic tension.  (While plowing through it, my reaction at one point was, “Oh lord! Not another hundred pages before this thing ends!”)

All this leads one to suspect that Turner’s publisher, Tor, took an unfinished manuscript badly in need of revision, edited it to the point where they thought it could pass, and published it–either that or they slapped the book together from fragments. It’s quality is so inferior to that of Turner’s other novels that one or the other of these possibilities seems quite likely. Turner’s publisher did neither him nor his readers a favor by publishing this shoddy piece of work.

But the best of Turner’s novels, Drowning Towers and Brain Child, are enough to establish him as one of the great science fiction writers of the twentieth century, and three others are lesser books but still much better than average sci-fi novels: Beloved Son, Yesterday’s Men, and The Destiny Makers.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of  Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

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  1. […] Australian Science Fiction Great George Turner (Part I) […]

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  2. […] Australian Science Fiction Great George Turner (Part I) […]

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  3. […] Australian Science Fiction Great George Turner (Part I) […]

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  4. […] necessarily a problem (see George Turner’s effective use of multiple [five] p.o.v.s in Drowning Towers), but it is here. Doctorow switches from one to another purely to advance the story, with the […]

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  5. […] Drowning Towers (UK title: The Sea and Summer). (1987) Drowning Towers was the first major novel about climate change and is still one of the best, if not the best. It’s not anarchist and barely antiauthoritarian, but it is acutely class conscious and a literary masterpiece. […]

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