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’.

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