Turner, George The Sea and Summer

Greenhouse Fictions: The Sea and Summer, London, Faber, 1988

The president of the Queensland Chamber of Mines once referred to media interest in the greenhouse effect as ‘hokum.’ According to him, it’s all part of an elaborate scare campaign designed to boost Australia’s conservation lobby. That would be news to Melbourne writer George Turner who has used the Greenhouse scenario for rather different ends. His novel The Sea and Summer (Faber 1988) won the Arthur C. Clarke award in Britain last year. That’s an accolade which would not be given for propaganda. The book has a particular impact for Melburnians since the story takes place in the next century when much of the present-day city is under water.

In this particular future the population is either ‘swill’ or ‘sweet.’ The former live in hen-house conditions in vast apartment towers, the lower floors of which are periodically flooded. The latter maintain the external trappings of affluence and continue to play the system as well as they can. The human story is a powerful one. It concerns two brothers, Teddy and Francis, their mother Alison, and Billy, a complex and fascinating man who straddles both worlds and befriends the family. Unlike many writers of sf, Turner’s sense of character is strong. So this is a personal story, rather than another dreary Dystopia. And there is a hint of civilisation a milennium further on which serves to frame the main events. By that time the city has been re-located about the lower slopes of the Dandenongs.

The book creates an eerie sense of ‘double vision.’ The flooded city takes on such reality that you almost expect to see the Yarra lapping at your door. Don’t laugh. It might! But the novel is not to be filed under the familiar doom and gloom category. It is far richer and more complex than that. In a brief afterword the author confirms that the book is not simply a warning about possible changes in climate or sea level. He wants us to think and, having thought, to develop a longer-term view. He writes,

enormous changes will take place in the next two or three generations, all of them caused by ourselves, and…we will not be ready for them. How can we be? We talk of leaving a better world to our children but in fact do little more than rub along with our day-to-day problems and hope that the longer-range catastrophes will never happen. (But) sooner or later some of them will. The Sea and Summer is about the possible cost of complacency (p. 318).

The novel is an antidote to the sometimes dry, academic discourse of atmospheric scientists on one hand and the lure of hysterical over-reaction on the other. It creates an all-too-believable picture of a future which no sane person would want to inhabit. Yet that future is organically connected with our here-and-now of the late Twentieth Century. It arises more from prevailing habits of thought than from the emission of greenhouse gases, and it is the former which is Turner’s target.

If you consider the long-term processes we are involved in, it’s clear that Turner has a point. When species become extinct, they die out forever. Plutonium waste needs to be stored for 250,000 years. It would take centuries to restore Australia’s forests and soils to their pre-European condition. So there’s an important sense in which a powerful technological culture already occupies some aspects of the future. This suggests that we need to look ahead much more carefully to find safer, more sustainable, directions. The trouble is that we are all taking care of business now and discounting the future.

Our collective attitude to the future is a bit like the man who forgot to switch his lights on at night and fell asleep at the wheel of a car. He didn’t last long.

But of course, it’s not that simple. What is the social equivalent of ‘steering’ and ‘headlights’? Well, perhaps it’s the futures field which provides ‘maps’ of the terrain ahead, indicates some of the main areas of danger and explores possible directions. It reminds one of the old saying ‘you won’t know where you’re going if you’re always looking back.’ The principle of foresight has been around for a long time. It’s common sense at a personal level that ‘a stitch in time saves nine.’ With the greenhouse effect and other global learning experiences, we are now discovering the necessity of developing foresight at the social level. This is harder. Yet the effort expended in avoiding problems is certainly preferable to crisis management and clearing up the mess.

The Sea and Summer is not a depressing book since this future is unlikely to happen if we care enough to prevent it. The greenhouse effect is certainly real enough. But we are not helpless. We can react against the worst case scenarios to create other options. Turner’s book directs our attention not just to the impact of a global culture upon the natural world, but to the values, habits and perceptions which sanction the assault. This is a deeper issue – one which places very real question marks over the heads of our children.

So the novel is not one to be read, set aside and forgotten. Use it as a stimulus. Use it to reflect, or even to get angry. But see its subtext as an indication of hope. And then act.

There’s more to the greenhouse effect than one first might think. But the ‘hokum’ involved is clearly a less helpful kind of fiction.

Published in Anticipations, Futures, July 1989.