Melbourne’s Middle Future

Tom Shippey

  • The Sea and Summer by George Turner
    Faber, 318 pp, £10.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 571 14846 8
  • The Dragon in the Sword by Michael Moorcock
    Grafton, 283 pp, £10.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 246 13129 2
  • Fiasco by Stanislaw Lem, translated by Michael Kandel
    Deutsch, 322 pp, £11.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 233 98141 1

Science Fiction, it has been said, is always and necessarily a metaphoric reflection of some aspect of contemporary society. This sounds a depressingly goody-goody theory, the kind of thing which harassed critics make up in order to beat off supercilious remarks from colleagues in the common room. It is also all too clearly undisprovable. Even writers like H.P. Lovecraft have to have some contact with fellow humans, and therefore cannot quite keep contemporary society out of their books. The critic pointing at this with cries of justification may still be guilty of spotting the 1 per cent and letting the 99 go by. Is Science Fiction, then, always a metaphoric reflection of (or on) society? And what in this context might ‘metaphoric’ mean?

There can be no doubt, at least initially, about George Turner’s gripping and mordant The Sea and Summer, certainly his best book so far. It is set very much in a Science Fiction landscape, that of the ‘drowned world’ of the middle future, where the abandoned tower blocks of Melbourne stick up out of the sea, and archaeologist-historians ponder on the strange lives of the people who lived in them before the ‘greenhouse effect’ took hold, melted the ice caps, and loosed the overpopulated 21st century’s shaky grip on civilisation. Most of the book is a documentary fiction by one such historian, concerned to explore her theory that in that century the division which all later historians have seen as critical, that between ‘Sweet’ and ‘Swill’, was not so rigid after all. There were liminal people, she argues, like the Conways; and writes a story to prove their importance.

In some ways the story would make even more sense if it were set in England. Turner’s scenario is based on an interlocking of overpopulation, unemployment, governmental conservatism and (this is a new factor, but quite clearly one produced by ‘yuppiedom’ and the long, long bull market of the Eighties) corporate greed. Turner has taken the obvious present division between people with jobs and houses and people with neither, and extrapolated it to a society where the division is labelled instead of just acknowledged. His book could be taken – it is certainly largely intended – as a metaphor which says: ‘this is horrible, but it is in principle only what we are doing already,’ and also as a satire on what we might call the ‘Kiwi-fruit sorbet’ society of parts of the present. All this would be true. But would it be adequate?

Actually, the thought which quite often breaks through as one reads The Sea and Summer is that it is a metaphoric reflection of Victorian society. It has the same plot as David Copperfield. When it starts, young Francis Conway is the child of a pretty young mother and an ineffective but still employed father. However, Dad immediately loses his job and commits suicide rather than descend from the suburbs to the tower-blocks of the Swill. Francis, instead, is thrust down, just as Dickens’s hero was sent off to Murdstone and Grinby’s; and just as Mrs Copperfield betrayed her son, her class and her dead husband with Mr Murdstone, so Mrs Conway all too soon forms an association with the Tower Boss, Billy Kovacs. The characters have all been shifted round in relation to each other, so that Kovacs functions at once as Murdstone and as Micawber, while Francis also has a violent and assertive elder brother to be a kind of sibling-Steerforth. Nevertheless the fascination of the two stories is the same: it lies in the child’s revulsion at being socially degraded, and his strong connection of that feeling with sexual betrayal and the absent ‘Pa’.

Did this need to be Science Fiction? Or could it be that Turner is attracted by his vision of the future because it revives a scenario from the past, nothing to do with contemporary society at all? A case could be made out for the latter view, but it also would not be wholly true. For there is another striking similarity between David Copperfield and The Sea and Summer – namely, that neither of them ever mentions politics. Yet what was just an absence in 1849 must be a deliberate silence in 1987. Turner is careful to give a slowly-developed picture of the real relationship between Sweet and Swill, or working and non-working classes: it is one of stealthy co-existence. The relation cannot be called co-operation, for neither faction is working towards a specific goal, but they are united in not wanting to rock the boat: they know that if they do, it will instantly sink. Behind all this, it seems, there lies a theory – the kind of theory Science Fiction was created to express – that all the things which are given prominence in contemporary society, like elections, oil gluts, manifestos, bull markets, wars and changes of leadership, are just some kind of epiphenomenon, distracting attention from what is really important: population statistics, food statistics, weather statistics, R and D programmes, and all the other things which governments traditionally regard as outside their brief.

As in many of Dickens’s plots, then, Turner’s downward spiral appears to be ‘Nobody’s Fault’. But Turner even more than Dickens feels this is an evasion. His Sweet bureaucrats are quite unnaturally soft-handed, with nothing of the O’Brien about them at all: but they have destroyed the world. At a later stage of the decline, and of the book, one of them (or some of them, we never find out) conceives the idea of releasing a tailored Aids-style virus which does not kill but renders sterile, and although the plot is foiled it really does seem by then to be perhaps the best solution. At least it is a solution, and no one else has got one. The Right has retreated into paper-profits, the Left into self-administration, and down the middle has come, not the Alliance nor the SDP nor Kiwi-fruit sorbets for all, but tower-blocks with the lifts turned off to save money and ‘creative design’ jobs in their turn superannuated by computer technology. Everyone ought to be insecure now is Turner’s message. So far the ‘metaphoric reflection’ theory is right. But he is also asking, as it were, why the dogs don’t bark in the night, why there are so many retrospects on TV and so few forward predictions, why anything but the very nearest future is so apparently absent from state and corporate (and indeed personal) concern. This is more than just passively ‘reflecting’. The centre of Turner’s book is a cry for more information.

Michael Moorcock’s The Dragon in the Sword has nothing at all to do with any of these concerns, and on the face of it, it is hard to see how the two books could belong in the same genre. Perhaps Moorcock’s should be reclassified as fantasy, for it is set in a series of worlds called Draachenheem, Gheestenheem, Fluugensheem, and the like – and incidentally quasi-Germanic names in fantasy should now be banned, as all but overt confessions of imaginative poverty – where people tame dragons, are ruled by bears, terrified by cannibal ghost-women, and so on, and between which Moorcock’s bumptious London-born hero moves all too readily. Still, these worlds are tainted by unexpected technology, and the characters strike scientific poses: Science Fiction cannot disclaim all responsibility for this novel. How then does the ‘metaphoric reflection’ theory work on Moorcock?

At first sight, the most reflective thing about The Dragon in the Sword is its narcissism. Its hero John Daker, alias Flamadin, has lost his memory. This is convenient, because it enables people to be awe-stricken by his presence while he remains no more than modestly gratified. He can also rediscover his own superhuman qualities with pleasing freshness. As time goes by, he finds many other ways of having his cake and eating it, such as showing ruthless energy in the extermination of his opponents while exercising fits of liberal conscience, and flirting with his evil sister’s sexuality while remaining prudishly disapproving of all that sort of thing. Any serious doubt as to whether he is doing right or wrong is removed immediately by wheeling on villainous creatures, like Duke Perichost, ‘a long-jawed fellow with thin unkempt light-coloured hair’, Neterpino Sloch, ‘a bulky, plump creature whose tiny eyes were never still’, and finally Lord Pharl, ‘a youth of such decadent appearance I could hardly believe my eyes ... almost a grotesque parody of the type, with thick wet lips, drooping eyelids, pale, spotted unhealthy skin, twitching muscles and fingers, and reddish curly hair’. Uriah Heep is come again! The simplest way of reading all this is to treat it as wish-fulfilment power-fantasy, and not as a reflection on contemporary society: given mass publication, it could have found a market at any time.

Yet Moorcock’s book is strongly datable. Its concern is with the safe use of power – the dragon in the sword – and its hero’s concern is to break the sword, free the imprisoned dragon, and allow it to become beneficent instead of destructive: an evident allegory of 20th-century disillusion with people claiming to use power for social betterment, as in Animal Farm or Lord of the Rings. Moorcock could be ‘blind-dated’ even more closely than post-1945, though, for he is very careful indeed to avoid a contest between Good and Bad, preferring Law and Chaos, while there is a good deal, also, on the need for ‘Balance’ between even those two. Given increasing disillusion with law, or legalism, the former feature is already old-fashioned, while the flirtations with Chaos, non-sobriety, doomed heroes, and so on, are exactly in the mode of the late Sixties when Moorcock enjoyed his greatest influence and respect. The Dragon in the Sword does reflect aspects of society, well enough to suggest a precise context: but one might say that it does so unconsciously on the part of the author, and without this reflection having any part to play in the appreciation of the reader. It just shows that Moorcock’s book is fiction: the fact that it is Science Fiction does not affect its ‘datability’ any more than the setting of Ivanhoe in the 12th century might persuade us to take it out of the 19th. Still, this is not what the theory propounded at the start was aiming at. If one were looking for a work which had no social comment as opposed to social background, The Dragon in the Sword might be a candidate. It looks terribly like a book designed for ‘loners’.

Between these two extremes of involvement and withdrawal one might consider the puzzling case of Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco. There ought not to be any doubt about this. In the transstellar expedition which forms the main part of the story, the UN heroes come upon a planet which appears to have undergone a nuclear winter, which is surrounded by automatic space defences, and where the inhabitants can no longer be discovered – underground? exterminated? Mutated? Another version of the ‘horrid warning’ plot, seemingly, just like Turner. But it is very hard to read Lem quite like this, for one thing because he seems by the standards of Anglo-American SF to be so ruthless. His heroes capture an alien space vehicle, to study it: perhaps allowable, though they ought to be careful to cause no damage. When a probe into the planet’s atmosphere is pursued they take terrible umbrage and determine on a ‘show of strength’. This unfortunately goes wrong, as the planet’s defences stop some of their missiles, and the unbalanced reaction destroys the planet’s moon (not helping the nuclear winter any). In any Anglophone work all this would have become by now a firm argument about non-intervention, but Lem’s characters still seem, without perceptible irony, to be repeating Nemo me impune lacessit and calling for the smack of firm government. Only the Vatican delegate disagrees, and he does not appear to be viewed sympathetically.

Once again, it looks as if this is a case of the culture which produces a work of Science Fiction permeating it so deeply that members of a different culture cannot read its clues. Science Fiction might perhaps be less international as a genre than others: this view tends to be confirmed by the difficulties that Lem himself has with the Anglo-American models on which he clearly draws. Lem has often seemed in the past to be a beady-eyed observer, sitting on the SF periphery, watching everything that happens in centre-field, and quickly and deftly sewing it up into new shapes for much less sophisticated readers. Here, for instance, he latches onto black holes and neutron stars, with the ‘gravitational tides’ idea from Larry Niven; to the idea of being thrown back in time from stellar disturbance (van Vogt’s ‘Far Centaurus’); to ramscoops (Niven again), Australopithecus (Clarke’s 2001), the reasons why intelligent transmissions have not already been detected (probably David Brin), and the Algis Budrys motif of not knowing who is the man behind a reconstruction. What is surprising, though, is that sometimes Lem does not seem to have taken in the science behind these suggestions. The attempts to get round Einstein, for example, are thin even by SF standards.

Lem seems in short to have fallen for the glamour of Big Science, without knowing it from the inside like Benford or Sheffield, the Anglo-American scientific professionals. He hopes it will alter society for the better (the UN in space); he provides warning images of what could happen the other way (a destroyed and divided planet). But he is not fascinated by the minutiae of science itself, of what technology would be necessary for life on a Saturn moon, and of how it would feel to the users. This could give him a wider social perspective – but if you believe, like Turner, that social organisation is now a function of the possibilities of technology, then Lem’s insights become more pious than practical.

The ‘metaphoric reflection’ theory of Science Fiction is correct, by and large, and allowing for indulgences like Moorcock’s, Science Fiction authors do use their work to comment on what they see happening, and to comment in ways they think impossible within the confines of the realistic novel. Where the theory falls short is in its hidden assumption that society is a determiner, of ideas and of fiction. No doubt it is. But in works like Turner’s, and in the mainstream of Science Fiction, there lies also the very strong belief that society is determined, not by its members or its institutions, but by technological constraints, whether these are of materials or energy or information or style. This belief denies freedom, doubts democracy, and treats many aspects of contemporary society as mere froth. Yet it does show a surprisingly pure faith in the power of intellect to work things out and make them change. In this at least Science Fiction remains charmingly old-fashioned, unaffected by contemporary doubts, its morale unshaken since the dear dead days of Wells.