I don’t know the reason why George Turner isn’t a well-read author of the 80s and 90s. He was 62 when he published his first novel in 1978. Perhaps age wizened him to high standards because he’s an author who has researched what he’s writing, stands by his convictions, whirls the plot into wonderment, and spins a humanistic tale into the mix. Everything he’s written has been touched with these elements; all 4- and 5-star books, solid. This Australian author is a gem and Drowning Towers is his multifaceted masterpiece. His other books take place in a similar drowned Australia, so the scope of his work isn’t as grand as authors of the similar era, say Greg Bear, David Brin or Iain M. Banks. But his perseverance in writing about topics he considers important (global warming, population growth, food production, employment of the masses, and finance) shines through the monotony of theme; his conviction is inspiring in both scientific and artistic terms. Sadly, George Turner only produced seven novels and one collection of short stories before his death in 1997 with one additional, and albeit fantastic, posthumous novel—Down There in Darkness (1999).
Rear cover synopsis:
“Francis Conway is Swill—one of the ninety percent in the year 2041 who must subsist on the inadequate charities of the State. A young boy growing up in a world dangerously overburdened by ten billion souls, he lives with his family in the shadow of the towering public housing monoliths. But life, already difficult, is rapidly becoming impossible for Francis and the millions like him. For corruption, official blindness and catastrophic nature have conspired to turn Swill homes into watery tombs, and Francis seeks desperately to rise above his circumstances and escape the approaching tide of disaster.
But there, at the end of everything there is no higher ground.”
The approaching decades prior to 2061 have been fraught with the man-made disasters of selfish over-population resulting in the ballooning of mouths to feed to the overwhelming total of ten billion; the environmentally taxing greenhouse effect has caused the poles and glaciers to melt so now coasts are being inundated and once inhabitable and fertile terrain is becoming flooded and filled with silt; the drastic change in weather patterns has wreaked havoc on the agricultural belts which used to provide food staples now simply churn up dust. This hellish future of the planet Earth is wrought with distinct class divisions, governmental avoidance of responsibility, and pragmatic decline into extinction.
Melbourne is a city with its share of high and low elevations. The higher elevations are a haven from the flood waters for the Sweet residents who have a job, who contribute to society, who have found a employable niche in the divisive society which purges all who cannot or will not contribute. The lower elevations are home to the corrupted constructs call the Towers, monoliths of the diseased notions of mankind on a smaller scale where eight people are meant to crowd into a three-room flat, where adults steal food from the children, where even the police don’t extend their jurisdiction; “a world quarantined by Sweet fear, State expediency and the gulf of birth and circumstance” (180).
Between the lives and locations of the Sweet and the Swill lie the tainted notion of the Fringe, more Swill than Sweet which lie at the skirts of the steel and concrete monsters with “the grime of centuries, pitted with friction and a thousand agents of corrosion” (7). It is here in the Fringe where Francis and his brother Teddy are downcast with their mother after their father losses his job and commits suicide, a selfish and cowardly act which imprints negativity onto the boys’ idea of a fatherly figure. Here in the Fringe is manifested “the gap between the rich and the poor … the middle ground the haunt of an endangered species, snobbery … a defense against terror” (84). It is not a place for a boy to mature and prosper; it is not a place for a single woman to mature with dignity.
The deprivation of the Swill and Fringe give way to ripe opportunity for people like Billy Kovacs. Unperturbed by the desperate and dingy conditions yet fatalistic from the social and economic causes of this people’s strife, Kovacs finds the kindling of leadership within himself to make the Swill and Fringe a better place, a more idealized subjective reality that both serves his own interests and the communities well-being; a man of contradiction: “a family man and a libertine, an extortioner with a penchant for generosity” (137), a “contradictory breed thrown up by the pressures of a decaying culture” (163). He’s also a “creature of appetites with the freedom to gratify them, of instinctive responses with the egoist’s ability to justify them” (242). It is this man who injects himself into the life of Francis, Teddy, and their mother; a figure who will impose himself on their daily life and eventually woo their mother, a situation which she finds inevitable and beneficial to the family yet the boys find it loathsome, degrading.
Because of his intelligence, Francis’s brother Teddy is sent into the Sweet to be educated as an Extra for hope that he’ll be a productive member of society. He’s eventually sent through training to become police intelligence. He has hopes for a Sweet life but is informed that he must be a Swill plant, a revolting idea to Teddy. His superiors expose his corrupted history of having fallen from the Sweet into the murky Fringe and use his past to beat paths into the Swill with his family affiliation with Billy Kovacs. Though detesting the treatment and placement, Teddy grins and bears the burden of his circumstances for knowing that a Sweet life will be led in the future.
At the same time, Francis isn’t slated for the Sweet life because his only skill is performing rapid calculation in his mind, a task best left for computers. However, Billy sees the advantage of such an untraceable skill and lends his talent out to a Sweet importer who wishes to not leave a trail of number massaging in her business. Francis’s talent quickly earns him a position on her staff, though respect for the contemptible boy is rarely easy. His attitude and tact label him as trouble, but his skills are needed and may prove to be useful as a bargaining tool, but his presence is merely tolerated as a favor to Billy Kovacs.
Personalities conflict yet personages synergize when it’s discovered that a disease is becoming prevalent within the Towers, a disease seemingly caused by the addictive nature of prevalent “chewey” which is imported through military channels and bartered from soldiers to Swill prostitutes. This revelation and dawn of class warfare spurs action on all fronts of morality. Kovacs pushes the envelope for further knowledge at the cost of decency and the police, with Teddy, manipulate both Sweet and Swill in order to uncover a truth which threatens to destabilize their fragile social ecosystem, a State-sponsored status quo which fostered economic management more than human progress.
Joe Haldeman has called this novel “The best didactic novel” because, I’m assuming, of its criticality of blind human direction, or as Turner puts it so eloquently in Drowning Towers:
we existed in a state of scrambling from crisis to crisis, preserving our good opinions of ourselves by hailing the expedients of desperation as moral and intellectual triumphs …. Our twenty-first century made sense only as a race to stay ahead of the consequences of its own corruptions—the Greenhouse Effect among them—and hope that the future will find room for a directionless humanity. (276)
Turner says further that no government in existence can look beyond its own tenure, that the government is only concerned with “preserving and continuing their own power” (386). To substantiate his claim, Turner quotes the noted Australian virologist Sir Macfarlane Burnett as saying that we “must plan for five years and twenty years and a hundred years” (386) rather than the trifling four years which each successive administration seems ill-capable of tackling.
If repetitive science fiction themes of global warming are gnawing at your synapses, Drowning Towers may be a source of annoyance for you. Turner has the habit of explaining the grandeur of his future distraught Australia then suddenly speaking of the past perils gone unseen or ignored because of natural human shortsightedness. It may be a didactic novel in parts but at other times it comes off as preachy, almost proselytizing the reader into conforming to Turner’s own belief that the world is ready to stab us in the back, or rather stab us in the chest but we’re just too damn sure of ourselves that we keep our eyes tightly lidded. I don’t find it disconcerting; rather I find his convictions reassuring. I can respect Turner for believing in it and writing about it—it’s almost a romantic notion nowadays.
The characters in Drowning Towers are diverse—from Sweet to Swill, from those in the Fringe to those living off of Sweet hand-me-downs. Francis seems to be the central focus of the synopsis and much of the novel revolves around his growth from boyhood and naivety, but the dichotomous Billy Kovacs is the real showstopper. He’s a born Swill man caring for his own kind while expanding his influence to subsume the Fringe around his Tower, a “business venture” of sorts but with the best intentions of creating order out of chaos. His caring nature contrasts his gutter language and filthy appearance, his dedication to family isn’t reflected in his ability to torture informants, and his knave exterior doesn’t represent his auto-didactic mind. While other grovel at making do with what they have, Billy is there to ensure a continuity in their baseline living, one solace of reassurance in a society bent on their economic misfortune, corporeal depravation, and societal deprivation.
It’s a heavy-handed novel, rich in plot organization and topical organization, deep in consequence, and insightful into human nature, human history, and, most notably, collective human shortsightedness. I’m not sure which tract is being manifested through Drowning Towers: George Turner’s word of warning of the world to come or George’s Turner’s smile of certainty of what the future has in store for us. He may have written “this novel cannot be regarded as prophetic; it is not offered as a dire warning”, but the didactic nature of the novel transposes a sense of urgency for change, an indicator of coming peril. If you’ve ever been in the presence of someone you consider “prophetic” or simply been inspired by their timeless words, then you understand the tacit aura of someone’s notion undying truth. George Turner’s Drowning Towers comes so very close to manifesting this deity-like position in the genre of science fiction, an accolade extended to Down There in Darkness, a book which imbues prophecy and bleakness as to the direction of our planet’s nature and our human nature. Brilliant.