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The Sea and Summer (S.F. MASTERWORKS) Paperback – 14 Mar 2013
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The ARTHUR C. CLARKE AWARD-winning novel of climate change in the not-too-distant future.
About the Author
George Reginald Turner (1916-1997) was an Australian writer and critic, best known for the science fiction novels written in the later part of his career. His mainstream novel, THE CUPBOARD UNDER THE STAIRS won the MILES FRANKLIN AWARD, Australia's highest literary honour. His best-known SF novel, THE DROWNING TOWERS, was published in the UK under the title THE SEA AND SUMMER, and won the second ARTHUR C. CLARKE AWARD in 1988. George Turner was named as a Guest of Honour for the 1999 World Science Fiction Convention held in his home town of Melbourne, but died before the event.
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The story, set in an imagined mid to late 21st century is told from a future perspective, by an archaeologist historian turned author. When I say imagined, it's not that much of a stretch!
The collapse of civilisation as we know it, has already occurred with population and global warming especially, cited as the main causes. We find ourselves in a society divided between the haves and have nots: 'sweets' and 'swills' respectively. What follows is a thriller of familial betrayal, government corruption, poverty, criminality and collusion. We discover that the collapse is not yet complete, there is still further to fall.
The story is the vehicle for the wider themes (environmental threats, our response, the failure or shear inability of governments to act, what cost survival etc.) What sets it apart are the really well drawn characters, and the very many pithy, prescient and quotable passages:
"....'they' knew; back in the 1980's 'they' were warned but 'they' were busy. 'They' had the nuclear threat and the world population pressure and the world starvation problem and the terrorist outbreaks and the strikes and the corruption in high places shaking hands with crime in low places, and the endless business of simply trying to stay in power"
Doesn't that strike a chord? As the author tells us in the postscript, "the sea and the summer is about the possible cost of complacency". That was written nearly 40 years ago and still, the tide is rising.
There are a few intervals in the action, where I felt the presence of a clumsily constructed soap box, inserted without warning and as hastily withdrawn. But for the most part, I was drawn into the narrative and although I knew I had been invited to think about the topics tackled, I did not feel lectured. A very good read that I would recommend to everyone.
However, Gollancz have, of late, been publishing books from the 1980s and 1990s in the Masterworks line, often because they published them originally as hardcovers and have reclaimed the paperback licence rights. Gollancz began publishing SF a little over 50 years ago in the early 1960s, but only started experimenting with paperbacks from 1986 onwards: the original 'Masterworks' were called 'Gollancz Classic SF', were numbered and printed in B format (the paperback format common today, though back then almost all SF was still in the pocket-sized A format) and had cover art that was a lot subtler than bestowed upon most genre fiction. Consequently, the line faltered commercially and after about 20 books, had to be forced down into A format with traditional covers, merging with the VGSF imprint and then dying as a series. Back then, most SF readers had read more books and seen fewer films and TV series, so they had a more innate understanding of what made an SF novel a 'classic'.
Turner's 'The Sea and Summer' was published by Faber - yes, that's right, the poetry and literary fiction independent house (they retained a passing interest in SF until the late eighties, though they'd dropped the likes of Priest and Zelazny by the early eighties) - so this is not a case of Gollancz sticking the book into Masterworks because they own the rights. To be fair, they publish a lot of minor - and some first rate - SF in ebook editions via their Gateway imprint. Sadly, most Gateway titles don't get reissued as paperbacks, apart from the big £18.99 omnibuses, which are generally excellent. This is a shame, as some of the Gateway ebooks are better reads than some of the recent Masterworks.
I have to admit this veteran SF reader is not a big fan of this book - it has virtues, but is a little too long. Had it been published ten years earlier, it would probably have been 50-100 pages shorter and better for that ( increasingly since the 1980s editors have insisted to writers that long is better as readers theoretically want value for money, when what intelligent readers want is quality first quantity second). As some critics have pointed out, Turner's characters often have similar voices and here all of them are fairly spiky and one-note, though arguably this might reflect the stresses of the globally warmed dystopian Australia they inhabit. What is great about this novel is the fact that as warning, it's a cracker - although most SF writers are keen on saying they don't see prophecy, warning or advice as part of their job, the 'If this goes on...' tendency of SF has real world value and artistic relevance. Turner's depiction of rising tides, financial collapse and overpopulation puts this book alongside works like Harry Harrison's 'Make Room! Make Room!' and the major works of John Brunner ('Stand On Zanzibar', 'The Sheep Look Up'), but it's really no match for these as a novel.
Personally, I feel Gollancz editorial selected this book for Masterworks as Australian SF is neglected and Turner was an award-winner and respected. His contemporaries recently published in Masterworks include John Crowley (who for me is either brilliantly lucid and poetic - as in 'Beasts', shamefully out of print - or a bit opaque, as in 'The Deep'), the undeserving Rachel Pollack (one of a number of female writers whose inclusion feels like tokenism, Karen Joy Fowler and Nicola Griffith being two others - and where is Leigh Kennedy, Gollancz?). However, despite my misgivings about the novel, which is not as gripping as it could be, nor as unsettling as Ballard's short story "Billennium", which is horribly effective on the population issue, I was glad to see Turner in Masterworks.
For readers who want to try a generally mainstream writer who turned to SF late in his life, you can do no better.