Drowning Towers

Well, Joachim Boaz over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations had to go mention George Turner.

So, we’re off to a George Turner series.

Raw Feed (1989): Drowning Towers, George Turner, 1987.

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Cover by Ron Walotsky

The original title of this novel was The Sea and the Summer.

Every once in a while comes a book in which structure, style, literary technique, character, and concept come together as a brilliant whole. Turner has written a novel designed to provoke thought about the disasters of the future we may be creating today through complacency.

Turner, in his postscript., specifically states this is not a disaster novel or a cautionary tale.

I respect that since some features of his future seem improbable — specifically massive unemployment due to automation (though Turner does make the valid observation that international economic competition spurs automation and that Third World markets will develop and vanish as markets for foreign dumping of goods). [These days, Turner seems more prescient here.] Still, most of the book exhibits a sophisticated examination of economics and politics.

Turner postulates a political system of patronage and corruption between official and unofficial governments much like the Imperial Roman system. It seem entirely credible as does Turner explanation of how history and circumstances trap people into currents of selfishness and complacency.

The book’s greatest strength, though, is its humanity. Turner gives us an immense cast of very real characters from all strata. Some seem corrupt, evil, debased, but all are eminently real, understandable, sympathetic.

Ivan “Billy” Kovacs is the central character and crowning achievement of the novel. He is the man who will do anything that is necessary to survive and protect his own. He feels pain at his brutality, loves Allison Conway as a symbol of a life he aspires to but can never have, a man wasted in his environment, a murderer, torturer, thief of sentimentality and pragmatism. His hopes and attitudes are central to the book.

Turner constantly pounds his central theme of complacency’s danger and cowardice.

The structure of the plot is also very interesting. Turner does a neat job of setting up a society where — like Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! — the status quo is horrifyingly maintained and here by both strata of society for logical and emotional needs. Turner does a neat job of also showing the fear and cowardice which motivate the Sweet and the disguised envy and contempt of the Swill.

Turner takes the Cain and Abel plot of two feuding brothers going in opposite directions, fuses it with a family style saga (though covering only two generations) and uses it, with the multiple viewpoints (one of the book’s major points of strength, interest, and power), to make a thematic point.

We start out with Francis narrating his own story and simultaneously we see the Swill as brutish, violent, stupid. When the viewpoint shifts, we see Francis Conway depicted by other characters as consistently selfish and a brat. At the same time, the Swill become less evil, more human. We see their artists, values, necessities of evil and the corruption of the Sweet.

As our feelings of the good and bad of individual characters change (we originally see Kovacs as a gangster — which he is — then a pragmatic hero) so do our feelings about the Swill and the Sweet. We never truly see each as exclusively good or evil merely pragmatic and selfish and interconnected. If there is any hero, it is the pragmatic, enduring Swill.

However, as Allison Conway observes, it is not heroic to simply accept the necessary. The theme of the book is the evil that ordinary folk can do and why and how they are changed. Turner gives us types — policeman, victim, traitor, scheming politician — and makes them human and quite real.

The frame of the coming ice age and the moral that evil and good are intermingled in all was good.

The torture scene with soldier Sykes participating in his brutalization was disturbing and courageous.

The book’s only weakness (only when compared with the rest of the book) was the subplot of the plague. It would have been ok to have a story of normal events (love, death, growth) in an extraordinarily grim world without the element of intrigue. Yet it enabled Turner to depict the whole state (and introduce, all too briefly, the icy character of Arthur Derrick) and explore, in passing, international relations (via covert war) in this world. It also allowed the bringing together of the Conways, the development of an effort to save culture for the dark age coming, and an explanation of the emotions at work in this world. (On a rational, general level a sterilizing plague is a good idea but each family wants children, each country wants their population.)

The final chapter depicts a heroic effort at thought for the future made possible by the intrigues of the plague, and the subplot also explains the evolution of world society from a greenhouse one to a post-ice age one.

Turner has written a very good disaster novel.

 

More fantastic fiction is indexed by title and author/editor.

7 thoughts on “Drowning Towers

  1. SF Encyclopedia wants to make a radical shift between this novel and his earlier works. Do you remember a radical difference of “feel” or “tone”? I finished Beloved Son (1978) — I enjoyed it although I grew less and less enthralled as I read…. might get a 3.75/5 for me or maybe a 4.

    1. Haven’t read all his works, but I started with the newer stuff and then worked backward.

      I do think there is a shift. I don’t know if I would call it radical working from memory.

  2. When I was reading a lot of SF in the 1960s, disaster novels were everywhere. Some forecast Nuclear War (World War III was right around the corner for many of these novels like ON THE BEACH). Then there were the post-disaster novels like PLANET OF THE APES (book and movie series). J. G. Ballard and John Christopher regularly showed the world threatened and in collapse.

    1. John Christopher and John Wyndham, I would say, both produced some excellent work in that vein. I’m not overly fond of the Ballard disasters I’ve read. Though, especially given his life, I will acknowledge their passive heroes who rather welcome disaster are psychologically realistic.

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