SF Masterwork of the Week: The Sea and Summer

One of the arguments used to denigrate science fiction regularly employed by the sort of people who were going to denigrate science fiction anyway, is that it dates far more quickly than other genres. We could argue about (a) whether this is true and (b) whether it matters until the Booker Prize shortlists a genre author or the heat death of the universe, whichever comes first*. But if we were to argue the former, then this week’s SF Masterwork of the Week would be exhibit A.

George Turner‘s The Sea and Summer, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1988 and runner up in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award the same year, is a twenty-five-year-old novel that couldn’t be more current or pertinent.

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. 

That description could easily be from one of today’s newspapers, rather than a book written when Al Gore was still a serving senator and An Inconvenient Truth lay eighteen years in the future.

Science fiction – good science fiction, at least – doesn’t attempt to predict the future, but it may attempt to warn us of it. By depicting what might happen as a result of natural catastrophe, political inaction, social injustice, rampant prejudice – or any type of political, scientific, commercial or cultural trend – running out of control, good science fiction can force us to upon the possible results of our actions (or inaction). Good science fiction confronts us and compels us to think the unthinkable. And The Sea and Summer is very good science fiction.

Food shortages and crop failures, tsunamis, earthquakes and blizzards are occurring more and more frequently. Not so long ago, in George Turner‘s native Australia one end of the country was fighting floods while another end burned. It’s human nature to shy away from such disasters but George Turner makes us confront them. It’s a sobering thought that the most important book Gollancz publishes this year could well be a reprint from a quarter of a century ago . . .


* William Hill has the heat death of the universe a slightly more likely occurrence at 135/1, with a genre author being Booker-shortlisted way out at 1,000/1 – not quite as remote as an investment banker showing contrition over crashing the economy (1,500/1), but less likely than a politician accidentally telling the truth at 800/1.