He is called the Grand Master of Australian science fiction. At 74, he is at the top of his form. George Turner speaks to Dirk Strasser, co-editor of the new science fiction and fantasy magazine Aurealis.
Cartoon by Cameron Singleton from original article
It's strange that Australia's most revered science fiction writer does not read much science fiction nowadays. "I feel it's bad for me," he says. "I get bad tempered."
The books which take pride of place on the shelves in George Turner's inner suburban Melbourne flat are the classics : Dostoyevsky rather than Delany, More rather than Moorcock. The great science fiction novelists are for him in the past : H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and Olaf Stapledon.
He says that very few writers these days are writing novels rather than adventure stories. Most of the modern crop of writers - and he includes mainstream as well as science fiction writers - aren't tackling the big themes. Science fiction should be at the forefront of such endeavours, but it isn't. "There's no sign in all of science fiction that the human race is at the present on the edge of the biggest changes that have ever occurred to it since it started." Not only are science fiction writers no longer searching for answers, they've even stopped asking questions.
It was the scope science fiction offered for the exploration of ideas that attracted George Turner to the genre. "You start with an ordinary idea and open it up to see where it really goes if you sit down and think about it for a while." While most modern science fiction writers are weaving tales of far futures and parallel universes, George Turner's concern is the near future of overpopulation, the collapse of the monetary system and the Greenhouse effect.
Although he agrees that conservation is one of the important issues of our time, he sees the real problem of the present day as "people" - 95 million more of them every year. "Work that out on compound interest," he says, "and you will double the population of this planet in forty years. Ten billion people to be fed on a planet that can't feed five at the moment."
But George Turner isn't one to simply sit back and lament the current state of science fiction. In his autobiography, In the Heart or in the Head, he called for a new breed of science fiction writer, a science fiction writer that does not deal with comfortable ideas and painless solutions. With The Sea and Summer, his most highly acclaimed novel to date, he has answered his own call and has led the way for the new breed.
He classes The Sea and Summer as "far and away his most satisfying work". It has gained world wide critical acclaim : winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Commonwealth Literary Award in London, one of the John W. Campbell Jnr. Awards in America, as well as being one of the finalists in the prestigious Nebula Awards. His popularity is now at an all time high, with good sales in America, translation into three languages and an Australian television mini series in the planning stages.
George Turner doesn't deal with comfortable ideas in The Sea and Summer. His Greenhouse Melbourne couldn't be further away from the future societies depicted in most current science fiction : "societies exactly the same as now, only with more gadgets." The Greenhouse effect has left its indelible mark on twenty-first Century Melbourne. He has taken his views of the inevitable world monetary collapse to their logical conclusion : the further stratification of the haves and have-nots into the totally different economic system of Sweet and Swill.
It's not a pleasant world, characters are motivated by the necessity of their circumstances, but it is very real and frighteningly imminent.
While The Sea and Summer has surpassed the sales figures of his previous novels and has further enhanced his claim to the crown of Australia's greatest science fiction writer, George Turner, even at the age of 74, has no desire to reduce his workload. He has another novel, Nursery Games, currently being considered by an American publisher and is half way through yet another novel, still untitled.
Though Nursery Games is set at about the same period as The Sea and Summer, it is an entirely different Greenhouse world, a milder one in which he uses new information that has been discovered about the Greenhouse effect since writing the other novel.
In his latest, incomplete, novel George Turner again starts with an idea and opens it up "to see where it really goes". This time the theme is overpopulation and the consequences of reducing the birth rate. He explores the psychological backlash of an entire planet being prevented from having children. "What happens to the family?" he asks. "The family is the major responsibility that holds everything together, and if that responsibility is out the window, then what happens to any kind of personal morality? I think we would be in a state of barbarism fairly soon."
His desire to explore ideas thoroughly makes it difficult for him to write shorter works. That is why the recent collection of his short fiction, A Pursuit of Miracles (Aphelion Publications), is his first. His short stories tend to "turn into monsters" and many of the ones in this collection are obviously seeds for much longer works. "The Sea and Summer" had its genesis in the shorter work "The Fittest", and another story in the collection, "On the Nursery Floor", was a precursor to Nursery Games.
George Turner has always, in his own words, "pleased himself" as far as his writing is concerned. "There are two kinds of science fiction writers really," he says, "there are those who have something to write about, and there are those who like the money. The money is not hard to get. You've only got to read what was written last month and change the names of the characters." While most science fiction writers are doing little more than "committing incest with each other", it has taken Australia's Grand Master to show the way into the next century.
The Sunday Herald Review 6 January 1991