The Sea and Summer is a novel set in 21st century Australia amid global warming, rising sea levels and temperatures, economic collapse and a welfare state where a caste line has emerged between the middle class with jobs, “the Sweet”, and the unemployed welfare takers “the Swill”. It concerns the divergent lives of two brothers, Teddy and Francis Conway, growing up Sweet until their father loses his job, suicides, and they fall into the “Fringe”, the genteel poor between the two camps. They react differently, one passes special exams to join a social elite in police intelligence, the other uses his freakish talent for numbers to do black market accounting jobs and get wealthy through white collar crime. The main plot-line involves a virus that causes sterility among the Swill, introduced via the vector of an illicit narcotic.
Henry Lawson, a century before George Turner wrote The Sea and Summer, instituted a distinguishing theme of Australian identity and literature with
“They lie, the men who tell us, for reasons of their own
That want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown;…”
The Faces in the Street – Henry Lawson
distinguishing Australians as aware that the world is not a Golden Mean of liberal affluence, needing only hard work for all to be rich, but a polarisation of much poverty and little wealth. Look outward from Australia (&NZ) to see every neighbour except the distant USA, from South Africa through Asia to South America, is impoverished or heavily populated or both. Britain and the USA have rich neighbours east and west and only a poor south so see it as a localised problem; but to a truly Australian perspective, including for many aborigines, poverty is universal, and exception from it sees one live in “the lucky country”. Turner’s critical attitude to SF, a predominantly North Atlantic middle class phenomenon, may derive from this identity. In “The Sea and Summer” the great unwashed are literally so for fresh water distribution has become too erratic and limited to do more than drink much of the time, (already the case for many people world wide); but not starving. They constitute the vast majority and the Sweet are a small shrinking fearful minority who themselves almost never get to “see how the other one hundredth of one percent lives.” (p 246) This other 10,000th comes in the form of Mrs Parkes who is horrified to realise the extent of the poverty when her new Swill partners hand her a list of payment demands, “toothpaste…scratch pads, soap, Soap!”. I had a similar reaction in 1998 working at the Australian Conservation Foundation receiving a begging letter from PNG asking for pens, pencils and dictionaries for their primary school, Australian soldiers suffered similar revelations in East Timor.
The novel structure is framed in a future reflection and the 21st century story is told through a first person voice rotating between these many characters:
Alison Conway – A Sweet wife fallen and living on savings without income, making whatever compromises she must to survive and keep her children, takes up with a Swill gang chief for her own protection.
Francis Conway – psychopath, lacks any empathy, disliked by all except his mother, idiot savant with numbers, (for me represents a final generation of capitalist business, like Enron executives)
Teddy Conway – His name a reference to the Teddy Boys, a right wing middle class thug cult of the 1950’s, this is Teddy’s template of behaviour which experience humanises. Both brothers embody the Thatcherite right wing stereotypes, the only kind left in the Sweet by the middle 21st Century.
Nola Parkes – a crooked but genteel business woman who runs both a government department and a black market in its products. When a swill partner says “I’m as bad as you” she thinks . “He did not say you rich sweet are as bad as I swill scum. The inversion, assuming me naturally corrupt, was worse than the outright insult. I am corrupt, I faced that long ago, but it hurts to be told.” (p 98)
Nick Nickopolous – Police instructor and ex-Swill, the son of a tower boss. While trying to both channel the anger of his Swill charges and wake his Sweet charges from their sweet dream “He sat there agreeing that a Monstrous state kept order by lies and cozenage” (p 217) he struggles most with the moral ambiguities and problems of the age, combating facile denial and naive, idealistic illogical and ultimately hypocritical ideas. “morality flourishes among those who won’t suffer by it.”
Arthur Derrick – Chief of state security forces, ex-lover of Nola.
Billy Kovacs – not given first person voice, Billy for billy-goat, Swill Royalty, a Tower Boss with many thousand subjects, many girlfriends and a wife in the tower who rears his many children, is capable of maniacally evil brutality in pursuit of his ends but is the “Tower boss without a heart who gets sick for a week after tanning some brat’s arse and comes home to weep over it.” (p 376)
The Sweet-Swill division is not just a division of socio-economic status but of mind; and the state accommodates it in a kind of schizophrenia, it’s Sweet face denying practices its Swill face takes for granted as everyday practice. In this it reflects and anticipates what has become standard practice outside First World heartlands and increasingly inside them, Government “black ops”. The state is forced into concealing even necessary direct action by the privately owned media’s ever more hypocritical idealism; but recourse to black ops creates a veil of secrecy behind which black-marketeering flourishes, compounding the state’s incremental bankruptcy. The state relies on support of middle classes which prove unable to face a reality including any economic limitation so operates in the shadows, needs to seem ever “sweeter” to this insulated support base to keep its “alls right with the world” approval rating; but in reality acts callously, like current US airstrikes killing non-combatants. In Turner’s novel contact with the “swill” humanises state operatives, even taking Swill into the secret service and training them to become the “people’s leaders”, the tower bosses.
Teddy spoke of Billy to a Swill youth who replied
“”he’s one of the old school – bust their heads first then tell them how to behave….The new young ones are different – you’d almost think they’ve been trained.”
And simple as that, not knowing that he did, he told me with the certainty of revelation what career Nick had planned for me.” (p 225)
thus have US intelligence services already organised “spontaneous” Democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe and Arabia since it helped the Solidarity movement in the 1980s. But for stating this known fact first world middle class people, today’s “Sweet”, would accuse one of being a conspiracy theorist and paranoid; … life apparently is all “sweet dreams”.
Turner’s Australian characters eschew the American middle class heroic individualist professional cliche that dominates SF, in fact all bourgeois fiction (link maybe to Sam’s critical appraisal); his characters are people of political, social or commercial systems, Sweet or Swill they are not free agents; but deeply contextualised and limited by their position and this contributes to their powerlessness to change the inexorable decline of the civilisation into ecological catastrophe “afraid to struggle, wearing authority as a mask for the activities of despair” (p 401) However those who break from this pattern, who drop out to the more heroic individualist model, form a counter-culture amongst the Swill, the “New Men”, become inconsequential, indulging egotistical consciences in lightweight localised activities as the planet moves inexorable to disaster. However they represent some kind of hope in their resolve to “do what they can instead of sitting on their arses waiting for time to roll over them” Turner never resolves whether these activities form the basis of the surviving future culture which has no memory or continuous history from the 21st century.
This may be because Turner posits our civilisation ending in warfare, he merely floats this as a possibility at the end of his novel but it reflects current reality; the armed response to planetary ecological catastrophe and social destabilisation is almost the only one given serious consideration by U.S. hegemony; and the “worst” elements of Turner’s novel, the despicable boy Francis, propounds at the end
“Nothing can save this crumbling planet except the elimination of three quarters of it’s people. And we know that can happen.” (p 417)
he knew it because earlier Derrick, the security chief had said
“Government means doing what you must, not what you would. Every country has survived the nuclear Century by keeping on talking and never taking an irreversible step. It will survive the next decades of secret biological warfare” (p 407)
George Turner was born in 1915, and he grew up during the Great Depression and his generational influences are strong in The Sea and Summer. Firstly the boys fall into poverty in their teens, the age the Great Depression affected Turner’s own life. The irony of the title, reflecting upon the Surf Lifesaver image of Australia, is somewhat lost on later generations (hence the picture I included). Also his attachment to welfare and planning and his frank disregard/dismissal of the illogical profferings of capitalism are typical of Depression era intellectuals, postwar generations can share those attitudes except planning, but also though the Sea and Summer is written on an ecological issue, political-economy questions dominate it and ecological catastrophe is treated as the thing that can go wrong with the least consequence.
“As the global temperature crawled upwards a fraction of a degree each year, our once temperate and now subtropical state fluctuated between extremes of drought and torrential flood. The farms were ruined by both.
The Swill measured disaster in food deliveries …. rationing of milk or, most infuriating … – trial runs of staple substitutes which neither substituted nor in any way appealed.” (p 210)
He explores issues associated with rising sea levels; observes that sewers still run to the sea so every storm surge event causes toilet backup and covers the land in water smelling of sewerage; but treats the “real problems” not as the biosphere dying off but of food, and the ecology can still be overridden by the planned economy to feed people; just as the Soviets did with the Aral Sea. It is significant that Turner can correctly foresee the crises and eventual collapse of capitalism “the planet had been insolvent for a generation or more with… Third World Debt” (p 192) and predict a financial collapse led by the real estate sector in the 90s (it actually took place about 10 years later with the Sub-prime Mortgage collapse) but couldn’t foresee the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, not because he is a communist but because his generation invested so much in the Planning paradigm, and so little in ecology. Thus I found it useful to compare his base attitudes to those of an ecologically romantic poet born 33 years later, Michael Dransfield.
Dransfield was not a mature voice and only had intuitive hints of global warming from his viewpoint of the late 60s and early 70s, but he did name his 2nd published collection “The Inspector of Tides” and there is a passage –
“i’d woken early
worried about some
start a new school of poetry
something to do with temperature…”
– from Letter to People about Pelicans by Michael Dransfield
but without a body of thought around him to stabilise insight his concern seeks the most concrete focus, industrial pollution, but reaches the conclusion, opposite to what utopian planner Turner reaches, that economics had to be subordinated to ecology, not vice versa
“in the sky above the plant not much is blue
behind the buildings in a grey channel something
oozes past seeming to have been a river…”
“and sometimes due to atmospheric conditions (for which
the management is not responsible) the wind will rise
or in the wasteland hours of industrial sunday
rain might start falling inadvertently as if
still thinking of a plant as some kind of
– from Prosperity by Michael Dransfield
but Dransfield as a “believer” youth would leap to conclusions rational “suspension of disbelief” (a cornerstone of SF extrapolative fiction) Turner never would, reflected in Dransfield’s short life; but his awareness of human power to damage life is more profound than Turner’s assumption that humanity will survive no matter how badly we handle the Greenhouse issue, Dransfield, being born 32 years later in the first years of the nuclear era can imagine:
” it is always
dark now, the air a factory black
like X-rays of the children’s lungs. …”
radar & homing devices, vehicles crowd roads,
sightless, to carry workers from their
shelters to factories. a distant, hardly
safer government issues voluminous
decrees which litter the towns like printed snow.
also the works of the Official Poets, whose genteel
iambics chide industrialists
for making life extinct.”
– from Endsight by Michael Dransfield
Turner runs the risk of being an Official Poet, alongside A.D.Hope, in Dransfield’s vision which more approaches the unliveable atmosphere of Venus than Turner’s “steady state” Earth, “making life extinct” more accurately reflects the worst case scenario, revealed by climate research, of rapid global warming, methane hydrate release, a “fireball earth” where human extinction, along with all higher life, would be inescapable; this science was not available to Turner, but neither did he intuit it’s nature as Dransfield did.
Generational beliefs limit Turner’s work; born before the U.N. existed he cannot conceive of the state higher than the nation, the novel is set entirely within Australia with only vague statements about “Great Powers” beyond. His work is prefaced by a quote from Sir Macfarlane Burnett “We must plan for five years ahead and twenty years and a hundred years”, and Turner returns to planning in his postscript,
“None of these things need happen. All of them can if we ignore the warnings [to plan]. No country in the present world is likely to do this because no government can, by the nature of its provenance, plan beyond it’s own tenure.” (p 426)
Latter generations are aware that the planning paradigm’s faults are it confers a sense of control and so is popular but is vulnerable to megalomaniac’s insane approach of trying control of realities larger than their powers, rather than perceiving and adapting to them. Planning wastes resources dictating trivial small things and ignoring huge critical realities because it can’t control them. Turner is aware of this reality “the possible permutations are endless” but doesn’t reconcile the contradictions. Megalomaniacs take over all planning regimes, including the Soviet Union and drive them to delusion, we can currently see this with Government commitment to expenditures on planned utopian automotive infrastructure instead of preparatory Solar Power stations and the needful in-landing of urban sewerage. One prepares for foreseen reality; apparently planning can only be motivated by megalomaniacal delusions of utopia or perfection, so preparation is saner than planning, as Von Moltke’s famous adage says “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”; the planning ilk this is a source of despair, yet battles are still won, just not by “control”. Preparation for the foreseeable ameliorates its consequences and can make better futures possible because one can take preparative action within the finite term of a government. There may be “no votes in projects 20 years in the future, let alone a hundred” (p 426) but one may take physical action with that future in mind and let mass recognition of the problem follow the issues emergence. Interestingly in his text, when summing up in “The Autumn People” Turner says
“The greenhouse years made a shortish downward curve in human fortunes, the Long Winter may make a longer but, because we are better prepared, a shallower dip.” (p 423)
In his prose he uses the word “planning”, rationally conforming to what he thinks is credible; but in his art uses the word “prepare” intuitively closer approaching the truth.
But it seems realists can only prepare for what they have already experienced, can only think something is real once it is has happened and will maintain that it is impossible up to that moment, and of course that they knew it would happen all along after it has manifested. So perhaps the thick headed business class can only learn lessons the hard way, if at all. Turner’s book ends pessimistically, while his society can assuage the social problems that gave rise to the Red Revolution through welfare, it cannot reconcile the human economy to live within its natural limits “No world will ever have enough luxury to go round” (p 244) and here it echoes Lawson’s pessimism in his 1888 warning of the imminence of Red “Revolution’s heat”
“And so it must be while the world goes rolling round its course,
The warning pen shall write in vain, the warning voice grow hoarse,…”
Faces in the Street – Henry Lawson
Can we afford this pessimism? And what are the options? Turner only answers in the negative, they are not “Sweet Dreams”.
By Justin Moore.