The Sea and Summer by George Turner – Classics of Science Fiction

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A few weeks ago, I wrote “Deadly Serious Science Fiction” that reviewed The Deluge by Stephen Markley, comparing it to the classic Stand on Zanzibar. A guy named Bruno on Facebook read my piece and recommended I read The Sea and Summer by George Turner. And now I have. Because of Bruno’s advice, I went to Amazon to research The Sea and Summer, and its description of the novel intrigued me. I was further persuaded by the fact that it’s Book #86 of the SF Masterworks series, and that Amazon had the Kindle edition on sale for $1.99. It’s still on sale. Here’s the description I found at Amazon:

Francis Conway is Swill - one of the millions in the year 2041 who must subsist on the inadequate charities of the state. Life, already difficult, is rapidly becoming impossible for Francis and others like him, as government corruption, official blindness and nature have conspired to turn Swill homes into watery tombs. And now the young boy must find a way to escape the approaching tide of disaster.

The Sea and Summer, published in the US as The Drowning Towers is George Turner's masterful exploration of the effects of climate change in the not-too-distant future. Comparable to J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World, it was shortlisted for the Nebula and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best novel, 1988

The Sea and Summer was first published in 1987 and is about the impact of global warming on the mid-21st century. The novel is told through multiple first-person tales with a third-person frame. The summer of the title is the period of global warming. The frame is set in the far future, with the autumn people, humans who have survived global warming and are waiting for winter, a new ice age.

The frame is about archeologists exploring sunken high rises. Andra wants to write a play about the people who once lived in the towers. Lenna tells him she’s already written a novel about civilization’s collapse, just at the beginning of the global warming summer. It’s about a man named Billy Kovacs. Lenna lends Andra her novel hoping it will provide him inspiration for his play. The main part of The Sea and Summer is her novel.

The Sea and Summer is so good that I’m surprised it’s not famous. I’m also surprised I didn’t already know about it. For a science fiction novel, it’s up there with Earth Abides by George R. Stewart in terms of literary quality. It covers the same territory as The Deluge and The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, but with deeper emotion and insight.

The story is set in Australia after things begin to go bad, and the seas are washing in on coastal cities. Because of a failing economy and automation, a huge percentage of the population are out of work. To solve that problem, the government builds gigantic high rises seventy stories tall, that house a thousand people on each floor. These towers are segregated away from the city center.

In this future Australia, there are three social-economic levels. The Sweet are people who have jobs and normal lives, the Swill, are the unemployed who live in the towers, and the Fringe, who have lost their jobs but can still afford to avoid the towers.

The story begins in 2061 with the Conway family. Alison is the mother of two boys, Teddy, and Frances. When the father loses his job, the family is forced to move into Fringe housing, within the shadows of the tower. They are terrified they will soon be forced into the towers when their savings run out.

The most interesting character of the whole novel is Billy Kovacs, the Swill boss of tower twenty-three, who tells the family he will protect them for ten dollars each a week and keep them out of the towers. Billy starts out as a vicious, disgusting individual that grows and grows on you. He is warm-hearted about helping people survive but is completely cold-blooded in making sure it happens.

Teddy and Frances are terrified of falling out of the fringe into the towers, so they each find a way to get back into the Sweet economy, cruelly abandoning their family. Ultimately, they learn a great deal about surviving in a world that is quickly falling apart.

Along the way we encounter several fascinating characters, especially Nick and Nola, who become mentors to Teddy and Frances. Eventually the plot turns into a thriller, as one conspiracy reveals itself to Teddy, and it draws all the characters into it.

There is a hard political/philosophical edge to The Sea and Summer that reminds me of Heinlein’s fictionalized philosophy. However, Turner does an excellent job of not pontificating like Heinlein. Turner is also far better at dramatizing his political views and developing a tight plot. Still, that tinge of Heinlein makes me think Turner must have been a Heinlein fan.

There are two reasons why I compared The Sea and Summer to Earth Abides. First, they both have a similar solution for helping future generations survive the collapse of civilization. And the second is The Sea and Summer felt as personally engaging as Earth Abides. They both are emotionally driven. The problem with The Deluge and The Ministry of the Future is they were too intellectual and dry. I never felt for their characters or that I was living in the world they described. Both are impressive intellectual speculations and writing experiments, but not moving. Earth Abides and The Sea and Summer are.

I love discovering forgotten science fiction classics. I felt the same excitement discovering The Sea and Summer as I did when I discovered The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff. I need to read more by both authors.

Rating: *****

James Wallace Harris, 3/17/24

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