Thursday, February 28, 2013

Drowning Towers (Sea and Summer): A Review

George Turner's Drowning Towers (U.K. title: The Sea and Summer) is an apocalypse-in-progress set in a world slowly collapsing under the weight of over population and global warming.  Taking place strictly within the narrow confines of Melbourne, Australia, the time frame is both a highly stressed mid-term future (2041), with some additional post-apocalyptic reflections from a further on (2061) recovering future. The book is of interest for being both a very early (1987) global warming warning, and also for making various best ever lists (Science Fiction: 101 Best Novels).   It is, at least in Australia,  a common subject for academic papers (pdf of one). Written over a quarter-century ago, prior even to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the novel is stunningly prescient on a number of subject matters that would not come to the forefront of worldly concerns until much latter.  There are two very loose sequels: Down There in the Darkness and Genetic Soldier.

The U.S. hardback release cover (also the cover of my copy)

George Turner (1916-1997) is often noted as one of the Deans of Australian Science Fiction.  Before becoming a science fiction writer and critic late in life, he was a successful award winning mainstream author. As Wikipedia notes (correctly based on this novel) he is known for his very thorough and detailed extrapolations, and for his interest in morality and social issues.  The story here was derived from a short story, The Fittest, that was published in the Australian anthology, Urban Fantasies. This novel won the 1988 Arthur C. Clark Award .

In a future, half of a century from when it was written (1988), global warming, along with some other more localized environmental disasters has collapsed the world economy.  Where there once was a third world that the Western economies could ship off their products in return for under priced commodities, now the third world is everywhere.  The particular everywhere of this story is Melbourne, Australia.  World population has blossomed to ten-billion, and ninety-percent of it, referred to as “Swill” in Australia, is unemployed.  In Australia, the incomeless have been put on a minimalist dole, and into gigantic tenement towers.  Towers sited with the typical bureaucratic greased palm incompetence, are too close to the rising waters.  Thus the American title, The Drowning Towers.
The Sweet, those who are lucky enough to still have a job, are desperately trying to avoid loss of their privileges, and becoming "Swill": while at the same time regarding their position as just and proper. We eventually learn there is also an elite, something like our 1-percent but chosen with a stronger basis on merit (intelligence/talent) than money. They don't have the same fears, but use their position of advantage with a callous self aggrandizement disguised as duty.   
Our story starts of with a young family whose bread winner has been made redundant by technological advances.  Desperate to avoid the huge tower blocks, they set up in the fringe: the downfallen remnant neighborhoods of standalone housing that stands between the tower blocks and the nice areas of town.  Very quickly they learn that being out of the ghetto, does not make you safe, and as one person in the protection racket notes, it is harder to "protect" all the separated homes, than the condensed, squeezed together apartment flats with 8 people living in a one room apartment.
As noted above, the novel does an amazing job of extrapolating from some basic assumptions.  What happens if world population continues its rise, and global warming gets out of control?  For having been written over 25 years ago, it is only dated in just a few areas of unanticipated technology.  And since we are mostly spending time with the down and out, they likely wouldn't have any of it anyhow.  If coffee or tea are luxuries, and the early internet style televisions no longer work, you probably aren't going to have much of a cell phone system running either.
The novel does not dodge a lot of tough questions.  If you're economy is slowly falling apart, how are you best going to keep everyone fed.  And if it looks like it is going to keep getting worse, what types of methods might be justified in bringing the situation in control.  Rather than pontificating from a bully pulpit, the author tends to play out these situations through a  worms eye view of people who are living on the edge.  They are both the mechanisms and the victims of the plot.
I obviously liked the book.  It is not an action packed novel, playing out more like a contemporary family character study.  The characters are under a lot of pressure and are not always on their best behavior:  family life under duress.  The ending is a little bit of a fuzzy feel good, but doesn't actually seem to be the main point of the novel.  The point of the novel is the getting there.
We have our two descriptive ratings, Realism and Readability: 1 to 7; with 4 at the mid-point and 7 high.
Realism is mixed.  The novel is clearly portraying a world that is not exactly ours.  The dystopian mindset of today would bring forth slightly different horrors than that of 1987.  The robotic predator drone showed up in 1984 with William Gibson's Neuromancer, but this author misses that fright.  Both missed cell phones.  On the positive side, it does an exceptional job of portraying possible mechanisms behind a slow social and economic collapse.  It does a better job portraying today's economic collapse on some levels, than some of today's contemporary novels.  We will call it a 5.
Readability is not its literary merit, but literally: "how painless of a read is this?"   It is not a page turner.  While it doesn't go too deep into high symbolism, there is a fair amount of moralizing over social and personal issues.  In particular, parts of the middle section began to get slow for me.  It takes a little while to get the story to where it is going.  It is a literary 4.
Thumbnail of very cool original Sea and Summer cover.  Larger version is here .


PioneerPreppy said...

People living on the edge is always good though. I might have to check this one out.

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: Although I alluded to it above, one point that it really brings home is that most people don't become better people under stress, and the ones that do, are not necessarily the ones you think will.