The Political, Social, and Economic Concepts in George Turner’s Science Fiction Novels
by Zeke Teflon
There are three central socio-political-economic assumptions in George Turner’s sci-fin novels. One is that advanced society can’t exist without coercive authority. The second is that human beings will continue to reproduce willy nilly in all social conditions. Turner has Nick, one of the narrators, state this quite directly in Drowning Towers. The third is that there’s so little wealth to go around that it would make essentially no difference if it were more fairly distributed. Again, Turner makes this assumption explicit in Drowning Towers. (It’s always risky to extrapolate a novelist’s views from statements his characters make, but I strongly suspect that Turner wouldn’t have had his characters expound on these beliefs in book after book if he didn’t hold them.) A fourth, much less important assumption is that conventional religions will wither away over the coming decades, leaving only fringe cults.
Turner full well realized the hopelessly corrupt and corrupting nature of capitalism and government, but he could see no way out. He could see no alternative to them, and says so openly in the opening pages of The Destiny Makers, where policeman Harry Ostrov, the protagonist, remarks that socialism, communism, and anarchism have all been tried and found wanting. This largely accounts for the dark tone of Turner’s novels, because he saw the evils of capitalism and government, yet could see no viable alternatives.
But Turner is overly pessimistic. In the case of communism, the only varieties of it ever attempted on a mass scale were under the auspices of dictatorial states, which gave lip service to the concept, but in practice had distinct privileged classes that wielded power (the party, the government apparatus–what Milovan Djilas termed “the new class”), and dispossessed, nearly powerless masses. As Emma Goldman put the matter in My Disillusionment in Russia: “True Communism was never attempted in Russia, unless one considers thirty-three categories of pay, different food rations, privileges to some and indifference to the great mass as Communism.”
As for socialism, what most people think of when they hear the word is the socioeconomic systems of the Scandanavian countries. This is not socialism. More accurately, it’s welfare-state capitalism, in which corporations and economic elites continue to control society, but in which some of the damage caused by capitalism (hunger, homelessness, lack of opportunity, etc.) is papered over by reformist measures.
The other common variety of “socialism” is endemic to the third world, and is characterized by corrupt authoritarian regimes imposing it in top-down manner. To the limited extent that socialism has succeeded in these countries (overall, it hasn’t), it’s succeeded due to decentralization and democratic local control. (For further discussion, see African Anarchism: The History of a Movement and Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle.)
As for anarchism, by all accounts it was successful during the only time it was tried on a mass scale for a period of years, in Catalonia and other regions of eastern and southern Spain during the Spanish Civil War. It was eventually crushed by the combined forces of German, Italian, and Spanish fascism, but during its existence it was viable as a socio-economic system. (For further information, see Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, by Gaston Leval, and The Anarchist Collectives, by Sam Dolgoff.)
Interestingly, the one place in Turner’s sci-fi novels where he describes a functional, though small-scale, alternative political/social system–among the “genetics” in Genetic Soldier–that system is based upon distinctly anarchist concepts and practices: decentralization, lack of a central coercive authority (i.e., government), voluntary cooperation, and mutual aid. That Turner didn’t see these as attributes of anarchism doesn’t negate the fact that they are.
Turner’s Malthusian belief that human beings will mindlessly reproduce no matter what their circumstances is simply wrong, as Turner should have known. The evidence disproving this bleak assumption was already available when Turner wrote Drowning Towers (published in 1987).
For instance, in the article “Fertility in Transition,” in the Spring 1986 issue of World Focus (journal of the American Geographical Society), James L. Newman traced the causes of the decades-long decline in fertility in the European countries. He concluded that there were three reasons for a decline in the birth rate. One was industrialization: “Out of it came the public health discoveries that reduced mortality, followed by a new lifestyle which no longer necessitated large families. . . . Whereas on farms and in cottage industries children contributed their labor to the family enterprise, in the city they became consumers. Only a few offspring could be afforded if the family was to maintain or . . . improve its standard of living.” The second reason for the decline in fertility, according to Newman, was birth control. It “was the answer to these new social and economic realities.” And the third element in lowering the birth rate was the relative emancipation of women–the greater the status and freedom of women, the lower the birth rate. (A corollary of this, of course, is that patriarchal religions which demean women contribute to population growth–just look at the birth rate among Mormons.) If Turner had done even minimal research in this area, he should have known all of this.
Turner’s third bleak socio-economic assumption, that there’s simply not enough wealth to go around and that the wealth and privileges of the rich make little difference to the lives of the poor, is also simply wrong. Australia (the setting for all of Turner’s novels) and the U.S. are similar in terms of living standards and per capita wealth, and the very unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S. is approaching that depicted in Drowning Towers. In 2013, the U.S. population was approximately 316 million and total net worth was approximately $66 trillion, with the top 1% owning 35% of net worth (and 42% of financial–non-home–worth), the next 4% owning another 28%, and the bottom 95% of the population owning 37% of net worth, with almost all of it concentrated toward the top. This situation is even worse than it appears, because the bottom 40% of the population, approximately 125 million people, have “negative net worth”–in other words, their debts exceed their assets.
Crunch the numbers (divide total net worth by population) and you end up with average net worth of over $208,000–which is what individual net worth would be if wealth were divided equally.
So much for Turner’s assumption that there’s not enough to go around and that a more equitable distribution of wealth would make little difference to those on the bottom.
Ultimately, Turner’s faulty social, political, and economic assumptions boxed him in. They made it impossible for him to even conceive of constructive solutions to the ecological and scientific/technological problems he so well describes. But describe them he did–beautifully and memorably. That’s a major achievement.
The one place where Turner was overly optimistic is in his assumption that conventional religions will wither away over the next few decades, even under the horrendous conditions he describes, leaving only fringe groups. Religion normally thrives in conditions of poverty, illiteracy, and hopelessness–just look at the American South, since the 19th century the poorest, least literate, and most religious part of the country. The same holds in the Muslim world — its poorest and least literate parts, such as Afghanistan, tend to be the most religious. So there’s no reason to think religion would have mostly withered away in the horrible conditions Turner describes in his novels. But this is a relatively minor matter.
As for the rise of murderous cults, Turner was on the money. In 1995, the year after publication of Genetic Soldier, in which Turner describes in some detail a cult biological attack on the entire world, the Aum Shinrikiyo cult attacked the Tokyo subway system with Sarin nerve gas. When they busted the cult following the attack, Japanese authorities discovered that the cultists had also been trying to manufacture biological weapons. More recently, it appears that Muslim fanatics were responsible for the Sarin attack in Damascus in 2013. One shudders to think what religious fanatics are cooking up in clandestine labs today.
A Final Note
All of George Turner’s science fiction novels are beautifully written, and the best of them are masterpieces that serve as still-pertinent warnings about the dangers of climate change and genetic experimentation.
Turner’s best novels are Brain Child and Drowning Towers. Both are easy to find in used bookstores. Check ’em out.
* * *
Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently writing the sequel.