My passing reference to George Turner a couple of days ago reminded me that he would have turned 100 this month. So that’s as good a reason as any to look at some of his best books.
Turner was an oddity. He started his career as a mainstream novelist, won awards and was highly regarded for a time. But his work went out of fashion and he found that publishers were no longer interested in his books. So he turned to science fiction. He was already 68 when his first sf novel appeared. The books he wrote throughout the rest of his life made him, without question, the most important science fiction writer to emerge from Australia before Greg Egan. Yet his relationship with science fiction was always edgy at best. He was a prolific reviewer, but his reviews were largely negative, as if no science fiction could ever match the mainstream standards of his earliest work. And he engaged in very public and acrimonious disputes with other writers, notably Stanislaw Lem and Lucius Shepard. Throughout it all, however, he continued to produce a steady stream of intelligent, engaging and very popular sf novels.
Also called Drowning Towers, this was the novel that won the second Arthur C. Clarke Award, and cemented his international reputation. It is also probably his best book. It is set in the middle years of this century, when global warming has led to a rise in sea levels, so that the city of Melbourne, where the story takes place, is now partially drowned. This physical transformation of the city reflects a social and economic transformation, with a growing population crowded into an ever smaller living space. Automation means there are fewer jobs, which has led to a collapse in the economy. And population pressures mean that the rich, many of whom have acquired their status as a result of crime, are segregated from the mass of people who live desperate and constrained lives. Vivid, realistic and convincing, this is an extraordinary and disturbing account of life on the edge.
Turner’s first science fiction novel, which won the Ditmar Award, is a book that lays out many of the themes and ideas that he would pursue throughout his career. An interstellar expedition returns from space to find a world that has radically changed. Ill-advised experiments with genetic engineering have devastated food crops, and the world now has very few old people and those people who do survive are mercilessly selfish. Time and again after this, in his books we would encounter societies that are post-apocalyptic as a consequence of human tampering, by genetic engineering or climate change, and within these reduced circumstances the selfishness of humanity is laid bare. They are striking and at times difficult books to read, but there is an austere consistency to them.
His second novel was also the second part in a loosely-linked sequence known as the Ethical Culture series. Genetic meddling has led to reduced food crops and mutated viruses, and out of this emerge the Children of Time. These are young people who have themselves been genetically modified, becoming virtually immortal and acquiring advanced mental skills. But as is so often the case in Turner’s work, they are cynical, self-centred, and prove unable and unwilling to use their superhuman skills to the benefit of humanity. The third part in the sequence was Yesterday’s Men, which also won a Ditmar Award.
After the success of The Sea and Summer, Turner made another change in direction, turning to political thrillers. But the same interests kept emerging. Brain Child, for instance, echoes some of the ideas in Vaneglory, telling of a journalist who uncovers the story of a scientific experiment in genetic engineering that has led to humans with superior intelligence. The twist is that the journalist himself is, unknowingly, one of the beneficiaries of this experiment. But, as in the other books, what proves to be at stake here is the selfishness, the ethical failures of those who are superior to ordinary humanity.
Like his first sf novel, this story gets going with the return of a spaceship that had been sent to discover if there are any habitable planets in nearby solar systems. Returning in failure, they find that time dilation has meant that centuries have passed on Earth. Technological society has collapsed and a more pastoral though much depopulated society has emerged that is much more in tune with the environment. The crew of them ship find themselves ostracised and rejected because their beliefs and attitudes put them at odds with how humanity has changed. This was the last novel published during Turner’s lifetime; a final novel, Down There in Darkness, another story of 21st century social collapse, was published posthumously, but shows signs of having needed at least one more draft, so it is a rather rough and unfinished end to his career.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.