Today’s review is of the posthumous novel by George Turner. The review first appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction 147, November 2000.
The publication of posthumous novels is fraught with problems. True, the readers are there, and when the writer is as significant as George Turner there is a natural desire, almost a duty, to ensure that as much as possible of their work sees print. But however near completion the novel might have been at the author’s death, it may still not reflect what the author wanted to see in print. I strongly suspect that Turner would have given Down There in Darkness at least one more re-write before submitting it to a publisher. Certainly I cannot imagine that a writer as meticulous as Turner, a writer whose non-fiction shows him to have been very aware of the nature and character of his craft, would have been content with a book in which there are elementary continuity errors. (On page 262 Harry writes his story to point where Gus takes over. On page 284 and several days later, Harry writes his story to point where Gus takes over.) Or, indeed, a book in which grammar seems at times to desert him altogether — “a metal box which only feature” (p29), “That was one of the nastiness of herd solidarity” (p67) — though one has to say that the copy editor has not served him well in some of these instances. Indeed, one stumbles across such clumsy features and formulations so often in the course of this book that it comes to feel like a fairly early draft.
That said, George Turner is indeed a significant writer and while Down There in Darkness may not be his finest monument, it is still an interesting and in parts an excellent novel, not least because of the way it continues the socio-political portrait of future disintegration that has been a feature of some of his very best work, notably The Sea and Summer (Drowning Towers).
The structure of the book is complex (one reason why he could have done with more help from his copy editor). It begins about a century from now with Harry Ostrov, a Melbourne policeman recovering from some unspecified psychological trauma, being handed a file by his superior. As he reads the file we flash back to 2036 with an account of a psychological experiment in sensory deprivation which leaves a noted artist in a coma. Now, in Harry’s present, the same experiment is about to be tried again to bring the artist out of his coma. The reason for police involvement is unclear, but Harry finds himself involved in the experiment. At the second attempt it is successful and the artist is restored, with no awareness of the passage of time and with a story of tapping into humanity’s group mind. There is something mysterious, not to say mystical, about this, but Harry’s real interest is in what is going on around the experiment. Frankie Devalera, a petty crook, was also involved in that first experiment, and was briefly able to touch the artist’s mind. Now Devalera’s adoptive brother leads a charismatic religious sect of which the scientist running the experiment is a member, and which has somehow come to stand in loco parentis for the artist and behaves as if it owns him. The sect, and in particular its leader who styles himself ‘Jesus’, seems to be the focus for all sorts of dirty deeds including the murder of an aboriginal koradji or medicine man. Harry has barely begun to investigate the ramifications of all this, and particularly how the sect is tied up with the era’s ruling elite and with a powerful biotechnology company that has already been suspected of dodgy eugenics, when he and his friend, Gus, are caught by the enemy and put into cold storage for a hundred years.
This is the plot for the first half of the novel. It is, at best, rather basic: we know from the moment they first appear that ‘Jesus’ and his cronies are the bad guys, and Turner does nothing to explain either their motivation or their power, nor does he do much to develop the crime story which is, after all, the motive force behind this part of the book. But that is not what interests him. Later drafts might have smoothed out the rough edges of the story, but they would not have deflected attention from what really concerns Turner: the background. Though there are tics and traits that are original to this particular novel, this is the sort of story he has already told, the story of a world which cannot cope with what mankind has done to it. As he puts it at one point: ‘Adapting to our circumstances, we fail to see that we are demeaned by them. That’s the history of the average man.’ (p67) Civilisation is a constant compromise with our circumstances, and what we don’t see is how this coarsens us and weakens our ability to survive unaided. In Turner’s books the world is constantly challenging our unfitness to survive. In The Sea and Summer it was through climate change and the natural catastrophe of rising sea levels; in Down There in Darkness it is through population growth and the human-inspired catastrophe that it brings. This is, at first, a purely social catastrophe: we see a dark and crowded world of food shortages, too many people for too few jobs, new and rigid social distinctions, and a world population struggling to keep itself alive. Curiously, Turner’s over-crowded world is not a cramped place, there is still room for families to have their own homes, but it is a demeaning place. Other than the upper class ‘Minders’ — Turner gives no clue as to how the term came about or what it might refer to, but in its suggestion of paternalism and control the word speaks volumes — this world’s huddled masses all wear basic overalls. Though there does seem to a further social distinction between those in work and those surviving on government handouts, all seem to regard themselves as at the bottom of the barrel, with no opportunity to better themselves. They are, intellectually and spiritually, crushed.
In the upper strata, meanwhile, governments are losing out to multi-national corporations. The rich are now so distanced from the experience of the masses that they seem also to have lost their humanity. (This is a common theme in Turner’s work: the effect of our compromises with history is venality, criminality and arrogance.) In the recent past a conspiracy of business interests has tried to save the world by creating a plague that would reduce the population. The plan was foiled — Harry seems to have been involved in this in some way, and damaged as a result, but Turner is infuriatingly vague on such details — but now the world’s biggest biotechnology company and its boss, Wishart, is trying again, and the cult of ‘Jesus’ and the sensory-deprivation experiments all seem to be somehow tied up in the enterprise. But we learn nothing of this until the book suddenly changes pace at the mid-point.
Harry has now laid down his pen, and it has been taken up by Gus. Gus is a product of this coarse and unenlightened society, an ill-educated autodidact with a habit of saying ‘hisself’ rather than ‘himself’ (though he can still come up with simple, elegant turns of phrase and complex moral insights — ‘Perhaps personal tragedies really didn’t affect him’ (p191) — that seem indistinguishable from the voice of Harry we have already come to know). This is, in fact, rather crude vocal characterisation, reminiscent, for instance, of the rough, clichéd regional accents that Keith Roberts used to distinguish an otherwise indistinct cast of characters in his clumsy first novel, The Furies (1966), and I would have expected Turner to have done more to develop the character before completing the novel.
It is Gus who tells us that Harry found his parents murdered before being drugged by the bad guys. Then Gus was himself captured and drugged, and when he awakes it is a hundred years later and the world has changed. Wishart’s plan has worked: he has unleashed a drug that has made the vast majority of the world’s population sterile. Only a few people are rendered immune from this drug, and they have been carefully chosen to repopulate the world with genetically designed racial types. (It is not just the god-like arrogance of Wishart, playing with lives with no conception of human feeling, that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth; it is this racial element which is still clearly fascist even though it does not discriminate by colour or religion. Turner’s own stance on this matter is oddly muted and ambiguous; at times he seems to suggest that this is an inevitable consequence of the degeneration that arises from our history of compromise, at others he seems content to imply that, though brutal, it is the only solution to the state we have got ourselves into. His strongest condemnations of Wishart — and Wishart is always condemned for the arrogance of his actions not the nature of his politics — are put into the mouth of a man whose every other action we are clearly not meant to applaud. It is, at best, a bleak, sour view of humanity: there are no heroes, no good guys, everyone is to some degree a villain, our doom is a natural and right consequence of our humanity.)
Gus, then, wakes to a barren, depopulated world. Wishart and his daughter, beneficiaries of illegal rejuvenation treatment, are still alive but all else he knew has been swept away. Sammy, assigned to be his amanuensis, fills us in on what has happened, including a very perfunctory winding up of the crime plot. The way the crime story is simply swept away without ever being resolved is proof enough that Turner’s mind was not on the plot but the background, for having disposed of the story off stage the novel now becomes a journey through a strange new world, a form that is at least as old as the genre itself, and told by Turner with considerably more relish than the early part of the novel. Sammy’s role is no more than a mobile info-dump, ever ready with whatever is needed to explain the genetics, the society, how the world reached this state, or anything else we might need to know. When Harry, too, is revived, a plot of sorts begins to emerge also, but it is very much a plot at the beck and call of the situation. Harry’s last conscious sight was of his newly-murdered parents, and once he wakes he cannot get that out of his mind. He is unable to accept the new world to any degree, and is bent purely on revenge. He deems Wishart evil and his plans for the world unworkable, so he sets out to attack both. The weapon for this attack is the sensory deprivation equipment, which is found in the basement, unused for a century but still in perfect working order. For Harry has realised that the darkness into which the artist descended in those first experiments was not self-knowledge but something equivalent to the aboriginal dreamtime, and through the dreamtime all human knowledge can be accessed. This will give the surviving peoples of the Earth the ability to diversify and rebuild civilisation in a way that Wishart’s plan does not allow.
There is, in this final part of the book, a fair amount of aboriginal mumbo-jumbo that does quite convince. But I’m not sure Turner wanted it to convince. The aborigines represent something uncivilised and therefore admirable, for they have avoided compromise; but to use the dreamtime as a way of survival for civilisation is to misuse their naturalness for unnatural ends. Turner always seems happier closing off our avenues of escape than he is opening them up, and between the first and second parts of the book Harry is transformed from hero to villain. If Harry can indeed find a way out for humanity, Turner is saying, we may not necessarily want to follow him.
And somehow, in that irresolution, the novel ends. It is complete. It is a complex, thoughtful and thought-provoking book, too uncomfortable and uncompromising a work to be enjoyable but nevertheless a novel to be relished. It tackles hard moral questions in a way that Turner has done throughout his career. Yet it is a book in which ideas are left dangling, certain passages and characters feel undeveloped, there is a rawness to the writing in places. It is a good book, but we are left agonisingly wondering how much better it might have been if it had ever been fully finished.