Is this book the prototype for the climate fiction novel?

Cover image for the Sea and Summer
The Sea and Summer, by George Turner
Who wrote the first climate fiction novel? The small cadre of writers and editors interested in this new branch of science fiction cite J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World as one of the first, if not the first, novels to explore how humanity copes with a warming world. But Ballard’s novel was published long before human-caused climate change was identified in the 1980s. In his world, an uptick in solar radiation melts the ice caps and floods the coasts. People are merely victims of an uncontrollable solar cycle.

But who published the first fictionalized speculation on the impact of human-caused climate change on the planet and human civilization? That mantle falls on Australian George Turner, author of The Sea and Summer, published in 1987 before the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” hit the popular culture. For writers who want to tackle climate change in fiction, Turner’s novel is the prototype for showing the possible interplay of rising sea levels, destructive droughts, and dying ecosystems with other long-term cultural trends on the course of human history. All climate fiction writers should read this novel.

Turner follows the classic science fiction technique of speculating on the impact of new scientific ideas or discoveries on the human future. By the early 1980s, the preponderance of evidence showed the world was warming due to extra CO2 in the atmosphere, what Turner identifies as the “greenhouse effect,” a term which should have stuck because it brings home what happens when solar radiation is trapped in a greenhouse gas-soaked atmosphere. Although Turner does not specifically blame industrial civilization for the warming, he repeatedly chides the ancestors of his characters for failing to react appropriately and prevent the worst of the warming’s effects. The failure is characterized as a missed opportunity by men and women who prefer to deny what’s happening or simply muddle through like they always have. Turner portrays extreme weather events and floods caused by encroaching seas as visible, inexorable events that force his characters to adapt and adapt again. Nature is still in control, and the name of the game is survival.

The Sea and Summer (published in the US as Drowned Towers) also unwittingly presents a metaphorical framework for today’s worries over growing income inequality. In his Melbourne of the mid-21st century, society has forked into the rich, powerful “Sweet” and a mass underclass known as the “Swill,” the brilliantly named human dross herded into high-rise tenements that—if Turner had lived to see them—satirize the high-rise condos for the wealthy that fascinate Americans in today’s west coast cities. Trapped between these extremes is the Fringe, interpreted through 2014 eyes as the shell of a dead middle class and a half-way stop to permanent poverty. In the novel postscript, Turner points to automation and a creaking financial system as the causes for the class bifurcation, but reread, it’s an elegant, emotionally accurate construct for the economic anxieties expressed as the 1% versus the 99%. The framework is important because it demonstrates that climate change means more than lost species and sea wall-topping hurricanes.

Turner’s masterpiece, a winner of the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award, shows his origins as a literary writer. The main character is Billy Kovacs, a thuggish “tower boss” with a soft center who longs for respectability. He falls in love with Alison Conway, the widowed mother of two boys whose father kills himself after losing his job, dropping them into the Fringe. The Conway boys, Teddy and Francis, neatly switch roles as sympathetic support characters, while Nola Parkes, an entrepreneur turned corrupt bureaucrat, shows how people compromise to keep their places in the social strata. The characters are all believable. Turner stumbles by leaving a key narrative conflict, a clumsy genetic engineering story, until the last half of the book, which devolves into conspiracy theory about how the powerful might try to protect themselves from the impoverished if push comes to shove. Turner also grafts on an unnecessary sub-narrative taking place a thousand years in the future. The “Autumn People” chapters add little to the story.

The Sea and Summer is often mentioned in the same breath as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, which catalyzed English-speaking society’s anxiety about nuclear war. Unlike On the Beach, which was published 12 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and made into a movie, the Sea and Summer came out just as global warming emerged as a popular subject, although evidence about long-term impacts were seen as speculative. It failed to have the same impact on the global warming discussion as Shute’s novel had on nuclear war’s thinkability. Turner’s book was even out of print for years after his death in 1997, and only recently came back as part of the SF Masterworks series published by UK’s Gollancz, an imprint of Orion Publishing. The Sea and Summer’s revival should help it take its rightful place as a foundational work in a climate fiction canon.

Can you think of another prototypical climate fiction work?

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