The Sea and Summer

I’ve never been an advocate of the idea that you must be familiar with certain writers and works in order to call yourself a science fiction fan, but sometimes I find a gap in my reading that’s frankly embarrassing.

So it was with George Turner, the Australian, Melburnian author of acclaimed SF and literary novels. Until The Sea and Summer was quoted in Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne, I had never heard of him.

Born in 1916, he was already an accomplished critic and novelist (winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 1962) before he started writing SF in the late ’70s. Wikipedia describes his science fiction writing as being remarkable for “detailed extrapolation and … invariably earnest approach to moral and social issues”. Joe Haldeman called The Sea and Summer “didactic”, and apparently meant it as a compliment.

My curiosity was piqued, and The Sea and Summer — published in America as The Drowned Cities — has recently come back into print. I bought the ebook and settled in.

Francis Conway is Swill – one of the millions in the year 2041 who must subsist on the inadequate charities of the state. Life, already difficult, is rapidly becoming impossible for Francis and others like him, as government corruption, official blindness and nature have conspired to turn Swill homes into watery tombs. And now the young boy must find a way to escape the approaching tide of disaster.

What the publisher’s blurb doesn’t tell you is that this is a novel about two brothers, Teddy and Francis. As the novel opens, they’re “little Sweet” — in a society with 90% unemployment, their father has a job, which means they’re lower middle class. Then their father is laid off and cuts his own throat, and so the Conway family becomes rapidly downwardly mobile. They are not actually Swill, but fringe-dwellers, living just a few blocks from the vast skyscrapers that hold the Swill population.

Teddy is “gifted”, so he’s swiftly spirited away by the State, to train in police intelligence. Francis, left behind, is a skilled mathematician in an age where mental arithmetic has been forgotten, and so he becomes involved with a white collar criminal who needs to hide her records from the government.

As a kid in the ’80s and ’90s, I read a lot of didactic science fiction about climate change. I didn’t really enjoy these books (for one thing, my parents were/are climate change skeptics, and regarded environmentalism as a left-wing plot, and as a wee child I absorbed these ideas), but in those heady, pre-internet days, reading SF filled the gap between episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

(The best of those earnest middle grade novels was The Lake at the End of the World by Caroline MacDonald, which surely deserves an entry here if I ever find my copy.)

The Sea and Summer reminded me very strongly of those books. It’s grim, largely humourless, and contains long passages of conversation explaining human nature. I had hoped that Turner’s literary background would be reflected in the quality of his writing, and it was, but it was an assemblage of the traits that put me off “literary fiction” as a genre: a narrative that speaks for the characters instead of letting them demonstrate their qualities through dialogue, and, when they do speak, they all sound basically the same.

Part of this might be down to the framing device: The Sea and Summer is a novel written in the very far future, after humanity has survived the Greenhouse Years and is preparing to face another Ice Age. I wondered if we’re meant to think the author of the novel-within-the-novel is just not very good, but all the far-future characters are written in the same way.

(The far-future setting has no narrative of its own, save for one character — an Indigenous Australian actor who plays caucasians in whiteface — who is seeking to write a play featuring the novel’s characters. There are lots of earnest discussions about human nature, many featuring a Christian character who, as the stereytype goes, cannot speak without moralising. He’s thoroughly judgmental and unpleasant, but apparently we’re meant to find it appalling that he’s studying church history, because what a waste of intellect?)

It’s always hard to judge near-future science fiction without sniggering at the things it gets wrong. (Remember the Eugenics Wars of the late 1990s? Well, who doesn’t?) But I tried very hard, as I was reading, to separate any feelings of superiority I might have at spotting the “wrong” history from my response to the story itself.

This was difficult, though, because the novel deals with issues that are happening right now — financial collapse, harsh austerity measures, chaotic weather — and the responses of the characters, and society in general, bear no relationship to reality. If millions of people are crammed into 70-story buildings and all but left to rot, is it really going to take decades for social unrest to develop? Is it going to be years before people start thinking of re-learning the homesteading arts and becoming self-sufficient?

(As I write, within 24 hours of the government announcing its inhumane policy of sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, protests were being organised by the inner-urban left wing. The Swill v Sweet policies affect the urban poor of the western suburbs — if we tried treating that demographic the way we treat refugees, there would be riots.)

The novel discusses — at great length — the extent to which this status quo is deliberately maintained by the government, but again, it’s not convincing. Coupled with the explanation that the lower classes need to be coaxed into revolution by intellectuals, and the portrayal of the Swill as anarchic and dangerous, I was increasingly uncomfortable with the subtext. There are lots of scenes where characters realise to their amazement that Swill are, in fact, people, but there is such emphasis on the special qualities of Billy Kovacs, the Tower Boss who is an object of fascination throughout the book, that it starts to feel tokenistic. Our best look at an “average” Swill is a scene with a 14 year old prostitute, who is animalistic, violent and frankly a bit stupid.

The novel’s treatment of race, such as it is, is similarly troubling. We have the intellectual, elite Aboriginal in the framing scenes, which is a nice change from the usual absence of Indigenous Australians from any future setting. (I’m troubled by the whiteface aspect, but I can’t quite articulate how. And it’s just a one-off line that I may be blowing out of proportion.) On the other hand, in the novel-within-a-novel, we also have a reference to Asians — okay, a series of racist slurs — moving into central Australia and promptly destroying the environment with artificial weather programs.

Later, Teddy recoils from the realisation that his future mentor is ethnic. I mean, he’s Greek. Now, racist bigotry against Mediterranean immigrants was big in the ’50s and ’60s, but it was dying out in the ’80s — save for a few last gasps in the form of bad comedy — and is pretty much laughable now. Nick is a great character, by far the most likeable in the novel, but I’m still confused by the attitude towards his Greekness.

I don’t mean to be ticking off social justice talking points, but I really can’t not discuss the women of The Sea and Summer. It won’t take long, because there aren’t many. There’s the scholar in the framing device; Alison Conway, mother of the heroes and lover of Billy Kovacs; Nola Parkes, a public servant or businesswoman; and Vi, Billy’s wife, who is immensely fat (“gross” is one word that’s used) but also his political confidant. Oh, and there’s Carol, the love interest for one of the Conway brothers — but don’t worry, she has a couple of scenes, then vanishes from the stage as soon as they become a couple.

I found this interview illuminating:

Do you think there is a difference between the way you set your female characters and your male characters, or not? For instance in The Sea and Summer, the two mothers: were they two characters that were already set?

No they weren’t. The middle-class mother (Alison Conway) was an afterthought.

[The rest of the interview goes into some detail about Turner’s processes for creating female characters, and how that differs from his writing of men.]

It’s a bit silly to complain that a 78-year-old man, speaking in 1994, holds attitudes that aren’t compatible with mine, when I am a 31-year-old woman in 2013. On the other hand, one needs to balance that against the ageist idea that old people are automatically less enlightened, etc. I respect Turner’s attempts to create women with strength, but I disagree that the outcome is successful.

(Not to ding the interviewer as well, but “the two mothers” he refers to are Alison — and Nola Parkes, whose maternal status is completely irrelevant to the role she actually plays in the novel.)

I have to say that I wouldn’t have guessed Alison was a later addition, but I found her character incredibly frustrating. She’s terribly passive, sometimes passive-aggressive, held up by Billy as a figure of ideal womanhood to be protected, kept ignorant and generally put on a pedestal. This was quite annoying, because there were occasional glimpses of a really strong, brave character, but the narrative kept undermining her.

Although I have to say, the narrative didn’t do a great job of supporting her sons, either. Much is made of Francis being unlikeable and generally unpleasant, but until the very end, and an incident that frankly didn’t match up with his earlier behaviour, he didn’t seem like an especially weak or nasty person. Desperate, yes, and somewhat conniving, but his behaviour made sense in the context of his life, and seemed quite understandable coming from a young boy and teenager. Until the very last moment, his punishment doesn’t seem to fit his crime.

I think perhaps the age of the protagonists misled me into approaching this as a young adult novel, ie, it wouldn’t take it for granted that its audience hated and feared teenagers. The lack of sympathy for Francis — and apparent support of Teddy, who is essentially a member of a secret police force — was confusing.

With all these complaints, why did I keep reading?

Well, stubborness, and a strong sense that I wanted to talk about this book.

And it’s an Australian novel that’s set in Melbourne, my adopted city. I really loved the glimpses of the future city (even as I wonder, if rising oceans necessitate the building of sea walls, is the central business district really going to be that dry and well-maintained?), the vast towers dominating Newport and Richmond.

There’s also a glimpse of the past city, as Teddy walks through the long-abandoned Jolimont Railyard, a landmark that no longer exists in 2013 — wiped out by urban renewal, not decay.

The Sea and Summer was described as a novel of Melbourne that advanced its science fiction presence beyond Neville Shute’s On the Shore, updating the apocalyptic city for a new threat. I wonder if perhaps Melbourne is due to be destroyed again, fictionally speaking, and what the 21st century approach will look like.