Science Fiction Studies

#100 = Volume 33, Part 3 = November 2006

Paul Kincaid

“A Mode of Head-On Collision”: George Turner’s Critical Relationship with Science Fiction

To write about George Turner’s criticism is to step into an unexpectedly crowded arena: there are, for instance, significant studies by John Foyster and Bruce Gillespie (to both of whom this article is indebted). In what follows I will not be disagreeing with either of them, but I will be taking their criticisms further than they seem prepared to do, and I will use those criticisms as a basis for exploring Turner’s entire relationship with science fiction. Both Foyster and Gillespie have a curiously uncertain tone: they are not comfortable with the content of Turner’s criticisms. Foyster, for example, devotes a substantial portion of his essay to showing how comprehensively wrong Turner was in his infamous attack on Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953). Both critics seem nervous in the face of Turner’s swingeing style, but they are still primarily in the business of praising the man. I don’t know if they really liked George Turner—if his autobiographical writing is anything to go by, he was not an easy person to like—but as fellow Australians, they were clearly proud of him.

They were proud, I suspect, because he was their discovery. During the 1960s Australia had very little contact with the world of science fiction. American and British books arrived late and were expensive, and Australia’s indigenous publishing industry could not support much in the way of a thriving sf market. There were a handful of writers in the field—Wynne Whiteford, A. Bertram Chandler—but they were dependent on overseas publication or a handful of eccentric and usually short-lived presses. As Turner later put it, “Australian science fiction lacked stamina, talent and a public” (“SF in Australia” 47). Science fiction fandom in Australia was similarly thinly spread and largely incoherent, “a Lilliputian Wars of the Roses,” Turner called it (46). But in 1966 John Bangsund, with the active involvement of other Melbourne-based fans such as Lee Harding, Damien Broderick, and John Foyster, began to publish Australian SF Review (ASFR), a fanzine that provided just the focal point Australian fandom needed. At the time, Bangsund was working as a sales representative at Cassells, a major publishing house, and when a colleague pointed out that Turner called himself a science fiction addict on the jacket of his new book, Bangsund approached Turner and persuaded him to write a piece for ASFR. Turner was at that time an acclaimed mainstream author, joint winner of the prestigious Miles Franklin Award, so he could be seen as a real catch for the field. Furthermore, the resultant robust criticisms of science fiction from an older man somehow legitimized the fledgling iconoclasm of Foyster and Gillespie and their associates, bringing Australian criticism and later Australian sf to international attention. Bruce Gillespie tells a story of Turner’s being swamped by fans at the 1975 Aussiecon even though he had yet to publish any science fiction, and this attests to the international fame his reviews generated.1

The rather proprietary pride of Australian commentators is easy to understand, therefore, but reading Turner’s criticism en masse provokes two responses. First, one experiences a certain shell-shocked weariness at the relentless bluster and pugnaciousness of his attack. In a typical article published in 1970, he declares that “the real artist finds the SF genre too constricting, and that SF has never since Wells said anything that hasn’t been expressed as forcefully, and probably more perceptively, in the ‘mainstream.’ Anybody want a fight?” (“Golden Age” 32). Second, one comes to a conviction that Turner’s relationship with science fiction wasn’t what it has been made out to be.

Wanting a Fight. Let me begin with the famous story of Turner’s return to the fold, as everyone including Turner himself seems to characterize it. In Turner’s “Profession of Science Fiction” essay for Foundation in 1982, he notes that Bangsund was working for the publisher “which was in process of putting paid to my literary career” (“Not Taking” 8). Cassells were at that point rejecting what Turner believed would be his magnum opus, Transit of Cassidy (eventually published in 1978); as Bruce Gillespie puts it, “The George Turner career had stopped in mid-sentence. At the age of 49, it seemed, George was on the skids” (“Four Careers” 4). Later, in that curious combination of memoir and polemical history of sf, In the Heart or in the Head (1984), Turner sums up this literary career to that point: “I had produced six novels, all but one commercial failures, and if I had learned my trade as well as was in me, that was not well enough” (108).

Actually, at this point Turner had published five novels. The first, Young Man of Talent, based on his wartime experiences in New Guinea, came out in 1958 and received respectable if not ecstatic reviews. It went on to be published in Great Britain and America and received sufficient sales for his publisher to support four more books, all set in the fictional town of Treelake: A Stranger and Afraid (1961), The Cupboard Under the Stairs (1962, which shared the Miles Franklin Award), A Waste of Shame (1965), and The Lame Dog Man (1967). This last appeared in the same year as Turner’s first sf criticism. There was thus hardly a long period of mourning between the end of one career and the move into another. But in fact, despite the Franklin Award, none of his books had been a commercial success, and the last two were only published in Australia. The rejection of his sixth manuscript had been in the cards for some time. Turner was not a figure of towering literary respectability, following his heart into the despised ghetto of science fiction; he was something of a failure suddenly being offered a new way to turn, a small pond in which he could be a very big fish indeed. And even so, his embrace of science fiction was not sudden and wholehearted. I want to suggest that George Turner was never comfortable with sf; wherever his head took him, his heart remained forever in the mainstream.

This word, “mainstream,” is one that particularly upset Turner; he returns to it again and again in his critical writings. “SF has never left the mainstream, merely played a few creative variations—and not so many, at that” (“Not Taking” 8), he says by way of explaining why he finds the term mainstream “offensive.” Nevil Shute’s books, for instance, were “really of what science fiction fans call, with such self-conscious snobbery, ‘the mainstream.’ As though science fiction ever really forsook the mainstream of fiction!” (“SF in Australia” 47). And Turner speaks of his own time in “what science-fictionists so snottily call ‘the mainstream’” (“Not Taking” 7). The “mainstream” is invariably in quotation marks; generally this might suggest a word Turner was uncertain about, but I think it is more that he does not trust the use of the word at all. Among “science-fictionists” it indicates a “snotty” or “snobbish” attitude towards where he came from. He is offended by the term because that is where he still sees himself: Judith Buckrich quotes one reviewer as complaining that “Young Man of Talent was littered with literary allusions and ‘literary words’” (81); thus, even at the start of his career he was trying desperately to be a “serious” writer—and would carry on doing so throughout the rest of his career.

Turner picked up the language of fandom with remarkable speed and wrote with great insistence of being a fan, of contributing to fanzines, of being a part of the culture. Yet there is a moment in his novel Brain Child (1991) where a character says of sf writers and fans, “They didn’t like science! It was intrusive, obscure, boring and unimaginative—got in the way of real creativity!” (58). The speaker is one of the villains of the book, though in a work where no one is admirable that doesn’t necessarily count for much, and anyway it’s an attitude towards the whole culture of science fiction that Turner expressed in his own voice often enough. In the Heart or in the Head describesbeing at a convention where he suggested Genesis as a precursor for sf: “Nobody laughed; they thought I was serious. I haven’t attempted deadpan satire with fans again” (32). At another point, he comments: ‘For the science fiction fan … rational thought is not enough” (33). These are the attitudes of someone who saw himself as outside the community, for all his protestations. And he anticipates, perhaps even invents, a similarly antagonistic response from within the genre.

Demolishing Bester. Turner’s debut for Bangsund’s ASFR was an attack upon Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. He summarizes his cause for attack on the novel thus: “the nonexistent ‘realism’ of its presentation of telepathy (riddled with inconsistencies), the quality of the presented cultural background (close to non-existent) and the ‘depth of characterization’ which was no more than the skin depth required by the plot” (“Not Taking” 9). These are all issues concerned with how the novel does or does not connect with mainstream literary values. Characterization has always been an issue where mainstream and genre fiction have been seen to differ, and Turner is doing no more than stating a truism for mid-century sf. In fact, when he points out that “they are very striking characters, admirably suited to the uses to which Bester puts them” (“Double Standard” 19), he is actually suggesting that the “depth of characterization” is greater than the norm in sf of that period. The cultural background—“the familiar twentieth-century milieu with some technological trimmings” (19), as he puts it—serves, as so often in science fiction, as part of the plot rather than simply a mimetic landscape through which the characters move. That this is a novel Turner repeatedly says is “an ingenious thriller constructed and plotted by an ingenious man” (18) would suggest that the background is well enough constructed to make the tale work, but this is not how it is done in the mainstream, or at least not the mainstream from which Turner came. He repeatedly describes his own writing method as creating a setting and then letting his characters loose in it until such time as he has to draw the narrative thread to a close. If the setting is necessarily a part of the plot, as in much sf, this is not a method that will work very well, and Gillespie notes that Turner’s criticisms of science fiction became noticeably less strident when he had started to write sf himself.

The bulk of Turner’s attack on Bester, however, is concentrated on his representation of telepathy. John Foyster notes that the attack focuses narrowly on three incidents in the novel; he points out that Turner’s claim that Bester recognized the inherent “flaws” but ignored them is undermined by how in two of the cases he details the techniques Bester uses to draw attention away from the problem (Foyster 5). Let me take one specific issue: when Turner attacks Bester for the telepathic game of building sentence figures because “(t)his commits Bester to the admission that his telepaths think in words, not in total impressions” (“Double Standard” 18), it is the attack of someone who wants sf to follow exactly the rules and conventions of literary realism. But if you consider that sf may be doing something else, Bester’s ploy becomes not only excusable but a valid deployment of the tools of the genre. If you consider science fiction as a language, as for instance Samuel Delany has suggested, then Bester’s device is part of the figurative function of the genre. In attempting to convey an experience that his readers can never share, straightforward realism would be inadequate; but the sentence figures can be used to represent something of the speed, complexity, and efficiency of using telepathy, words in this way standing figuratively for the total impressions that Turner demands. Turner’s adherence to the idea that science fiction must be rigidly realistic actually gets in the way of presenting something impossible, something neither author nor audience can have known, in a way that lets both share the sense of it. Yet to do precisely this, Turner argues, is not to write science fiction but fantasy: “a work of SF must be consistent within the bounds of the speculative ideas embodied in it, and those speculative ideas must hold up under scrutiny. If they do not, the work is no longer SF but fantasy or daydream, and loses validity accordingly” (18). To put it another way, if The Demolished Man is science fiction, “then SF will be, for the majority, never more than a titillation of the emotions” (19). Such flawed sf appeals to the heart, he seems to be saying, when it should be appealing to the head.

This deliberate demolition job on one of the genre’s cherished icons brought Turner, or so he says: “cheers, catcalls, fanfares, furies, staunch supporters and others who would have had me turning over a slow fire” (“Not Taking” 9). So convinced is he of this response that he repeats it word for word in In the Heart or in the Head (127).But the letter column in the subsequent issue of ASFR hardly bears that out. One correspondent is typical when he says the article was “rather like a bucket of refreshingly cold water.… Mr. Turner’s axe job in no way makes me irritable. I still like the book” (Smith 48). Sf author Robert Bloch wrote, “I’m grateful for the incisiveness demonstrated by George Turner in his disquisition” (43). The nearest thing to an attack comes from critic John Brosnan who, significantly, links Turner’s piece with a review by John Foyster in the same issue. As Brosnan characterizes it, Foyster said of Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 that “as mainstream writing it stinks but as sf it is good” (Foyster’s review is actually more subtle and considered than that, but he does complain of mainstream writing that gets in the way of the sf ideas), and Brosnan is annoyed by Turner and Foyster “because they were both condescending towards sf” (44). This is significant because it shows that what Turner was doing was no more than what other contributors to the magazine were doing, and had been doing for a year before Turner joined their ranks (at the time Foyster’s review appeared, Delany was already being hailed as an important figure in the American New Wave), and also because it suggests that the readers responded to the general argument in just that way. None of the letters, for instance, responded solely to the Turner article, dealt with it first above other matters, or spent any longer on it than they did on responding to anything else in the issue. Most simply ignored it.

Denying Fantastication. Meanwhile, Turner insists his own science fictions are better understood, better appreciated, by those outside the genre, by the mainstream. Of his first sf novel, Beloved Son (1978), for instance, he says that “the non-SF reviewers were quicker to observe the actual theme and were in general happy with it. Make what you will of that” (“Not Taking” 11). The conflict between his supposed engagement with science fiction, in all its manifestations, and his disparagement of those involved with the genre, is contained within his comment, quoted above, that, for sf fans, rational thought is not enough. Time and again he complains that “fantastication is required, a peering at reality as it is not and probably could not be. So the identity of this addiction [he more than once talks of fandom as an addiction, an interesting echo of his own claim of an addiction to sf, which first brought him to John Bangsund’s notice] becomes further blurred by emotional demands” (In the Heart 33).

As his criticism of The Demolished Man suggests, fantasy, any form of the fantastic or what he calls “fantastication,” is anathema to George Turner. Although he repeatedly credits Alice in Wonderland, read to him when he was three, as the source of his love of sf, he reports that it was a shock to the system when “I was weaned to the idea that [it] was fantasy, not real. Meaning that a work which has held English-speaking humanity enchanted for 116 years deals in unrealities?” (“Some Unreceived” 13; emphasis in original). That thought seems too much for him to bear, and he goes through extraordinary contortions to claim that Alice contains no fantasy. Lewis Carroll, rather, “extrapolated received knowledge and theory to points beyond the edge of reason” (In the Heart 15). That may sound pretty much like fantasy, but here, and in a number of other places where Turner discusses the relationship between fantasy and sf, he seems to be tying himself in syntactical knots that signify his own emotional turmoil. Alice, the beloved book, is fantasy but at the same time it cannot be fantasy because for Turner that is a denial of all that is rational and real. “Fantasy in its pure form depends on the denial of physical likelihood or even possibility” (In the Heart 15), he says at one point, and later makes plain his disdain for the fantastic with an aside: “There are other fantasy approaches; the reader is welcome to all of them” (213). He insists that “fantasy operates in spite of reality” while the sf writer must “at every step relate firmly to the real world” (“Some Unreceived” 15). He  maintained this attitude stoutly throughout his career. As late as 1990 he was writing:

Let us by all means read fantastic literature for pleasure and speculation but let us also not permit its fabulations to cloud the realities of logic and knowledge with which, willy-nilly, we must confront the world and the future. Historically, attempts to follow fantasy to its “logical” conclusion have plunged the world into bloodshed and misery. (“Letter” 21)

Fantasy is not just a reprehensible literary form that “feed(s) uncritical minds with garbage” (21), it is an outright danger to the world.

Turner’s definition of sf was primarily concerned with placing the genre in a relationship with the mainstream:

Sf is a generic term covering fiction which is concerned with today as well as tomorrow, with where we are and what we have as well as where we are going and what we will find when we get there and ultimately with personal and general visions of mankind, of intelligence, of philosophical directions and psychological fumblings and even of God. It is in fact concerned with the common preoccupations of literature, but where fiction has in the past probed, described and discussed, sf attempts to extrapolate the results of human behaviour. The literary basis remains unchanged but the approach is different. (“S.L.” 14)2

This is a definition that could admit fantasy—“visions of … psychological fumblings and even of God”—though I am not sure how much Turner was aware of that opening. His main concern, however, stated twice within this definition, is to explain that science fiction is a part of the mainstream: sf is “concerned with the common preoccupations of literature” and “(t)he literary basis remains unchanged.” The tone is notably less polemical than in many of his other pronouncements on sf, and I think this can be traced back to its original appearance, in a literary journal outside the genre, Meanjin Quarterly. When writing for an sf audience, Turner could be a big noise, an iconoclast, safely attacking the genre from within in order to proselytize for his vision of (re-) engagement with the mainstream. For a non-genre audience, however, his tone was always noticeably more defensive; here he is always the mainstream figure justifying his move into genre by extolling literary virtues. It is the same argument, but presented in two different ways for two different audiences.

Central to this vision of union is an insistence that science fiction should be a realist literature on exactly the same terms as mainstream fiction. He came to see any incursion of the fantastic as a threat to this ideal, and so his definition of science fiction became steadily more polemical and precise: “the fiction of altered conditions treated as reality rather than fantasy, by extension of known fact instead of simple postulation of arbitrary change.” He says that his definition has the virtue that “(a)t least mine removes fantasy from the stew” (“Not Taking” 10). To an extent, this is the same perception of science fiction as a mode of realist writing that has been common among critics such as John Clute and Peter Nicholls, who began their critical careers around the same time as Turner. But Turner not only insisted that science fiction was realist, he insisted that it was, that it had to be, an attack on anything that was remotely non-realist.

This attitude is expressed in many of his reviews. Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969) is criticized because “the sense of all possible reality vanished, became a shifting thing” (“Back” 39); the novel’s central metaphor “fails because it cannot stand against the weight of reality as we know it” (40). Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), on the other hand, “has all the earmarks of a mainstream novel using the SF method merely as a framework” (“Back” 44). Gene Wolfe’s Peace (1975) earns his ultimate praise: it is “utterly realistic” (“Remembrance” 73). In his 1983 essay for the mainstream magazine Overland, Turner makes a claim for “science fiction with reasonable claims to literary and intellectual excellence” (“Some Unreceived” 13), by which we can safely guess he is referring to Le Guin and Wolfe, along with his other favorite writer, Thomas M. Disch—though his analysis still has the feel of the standard defensive posture that many sf critics adopt when faced with the incomprehension or disdain of outsiders. Yet even here, Turner feels compelled to point out that “science fiction is not basically a product of fantasy but is opposed to the purely imaginative method of fantasy” (13; emphasis in original). It is always necessary to point out that science fiction can only have a claim to be literature when it completely eschews anything that is not pure and unsullied realism. Yet, however good Le Guin and Wolfe may be, and however bad Bester and Dick may be, their relationship to realism is not the only or even the best way of assessing their work. But it was the one standard that Turner applied throughout his critical career. The dichotomy inherent in this position was highlighted in two significant critical debates in which Turner became engaged, the first involving Stanislaw Lem, and the second Lucius Shepard.

A Hopeless Lem. In 1973, as Solaris (1961) became the first of his novels to receive widespread distribution in the West, Stanislaw Lem had a long essay in a special triple-issue of SF Commentary. “Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case—With Exceptions” was a polemical attack on the worst examples of the genre, couched in predominantly economic terms: “sf is a clinical case of a region occupied exclusively by trash, because in kitsch, the culturally and historically highest, most difficult, and most important objects are produced on the assembly line, in the most primitive forms, to be sold to the public at bargain prices” (17). The exception of the title is Philip K. Dick, whom Lem praises for the way “he makes trash battle against trash” (19); in an appendix to his article he specifically takes issue with George Turner’s critique of Ubik. In an argument that prefigures the one Shepard will later use against Turner’s brand of realism, Lem argues that “the writers of contemporary novels do not describe the principles that underlie the functions of refrigerators, radios, and cars” (35). If nothing else, this point illustrates that Turner and Lem were approaching science fiction from diametrically opposed positions.

Though Turner was a champion of Solaris, he rounded on Lem in the next issue of SF Commentary in an essay that parodies Lem’s original in title (“S.L.: A Hopeless Case—With No Exceptions”), structure, and length. The essay is a forensic examination of Lem’s piece that lands many telling blows: “My intention in treating this section in such detail has been to point out the nature of Lem’s critical method, which poses argument (seeking some sort of assertiveness) instead of dialectic (which seeks truth)” (13). One notes only in passing that argument rather than dialectic was Turner’s own more usual mode. The trouble is that, cranky and curmudgeonly as Lem’s essay is, in rising to the bait Turner doesn’t actually say much that is essentially different. When Lem asks, for instance, why sf can’t get rid of the trash for good, Turner replies: “Lem knows the answer as well as you and I do. While there is a market for rubbish—and there always will be—rubbish will be manufactured in quantity” (16). Lem does indeed know that answer, because that is precisely what his essay is devoted to arguing, and he uses precisely the economic terms—markets, manufacturing—that Turner applies.

Predictably, Lem’s claim that sf is a “special case” bridging the two spheres of culture, the trashy and the “Realm of Mainstream Literature” (Lem 9), is what rouses Turner to most indignation. Turner makes some very valid points: don’t all forms of fiction belong to both realms? So what makes sf a “special case”? But then he goes on to claim that by this division Lem is arguing “if it’s good then it isn’t sf” (“S.L.”17), which isn’t exactly what Lem is saying. Turner has to overstate the case because he and Lem are effectively claiming the same thing: that there is a scale of sf that stretches from the reprehensible to the literary. Turner presents us (here if nowhere else) with many more points on the scale, but this does not differ from Lem as much as he seems to imagine. Nor do they really differ on what constitutes the literary end of the scale: if Lem’s list is more Eurocentric and Turner’s more Anglophone, they still seem to agree on Wells and Stapledon, for example (though Turner, in a curious misreading, seems to believe Lem dismisses Stapledon as part of the trash, which patently he does not). They differ mostly in what constitutes the reprehensible. For Lem this is primarily an economic category—writing for hire, a production line of cheap texts. For Turner, it is fiction that strays too far from the mainstream; indeed, his dismissal of Lem’s argument revolves around the statement that “sf now produces work of quality simply because it has ceased to be a genre” (20).

The half of Lem’s essay devoted to Philip K. Dick, and the appendix in response to Turner’s views on Ubik, are dismissed by Turner in the four short paragraphs of his own appendix: “I have no intention of re-reading a not particularly outstanding novel to discover whether or not the plot can be made to work by having the reader do the author’s job for him” (30). Thus does Turner airily pass over Lem’s sense that science-fictional assumptions constitute an understood background to an sf story. It is a clash about the nature of science fiction that would recur in Turner’s later debate with Lucius Shepard.

At War with Shepard. Late in Turner’s critical career, realism and warfare, the two things he thought he knew about, came together in an attack on Lucius Shepard’s novel Life During Wartime (1987):

I could not see that Shepard was writing about war at all, sensitively or otherwise; he was writing, it seemed to me, about the human ego naked, stripped down to its basic, murderous selfishness. What knowledge he showed of war and soldiers would leave a wide margin if written on the back of a postage stamp. (“Sci-Fi” 15)

Typically, his assault on the novel’s lack of realism focuses on characterization or, as he sees it, lack thereof: “The fact is that in any group of soldiers you will find as many varieties of speech as you would expect in an army where rich, poor, educated and ignorant exist together” (15). The interesting thing about this claim is that it echoes a criticism of Turner’s own debut novel, Young Man of Talent (1958), which was based on his wartime experiences in Borneo. Frank Kellaway was a friend of Turner’s at the time he wrote that book, and later wrote his own autobiographical novel, Bill’s Break (under the pseudonym Alistair Skelton). In it Turner appears as “Jimmy,” who writes a novel identifiable as Young Man of Talent, which the Kellaway character criticizes for lack of naturalism and for its stylized and one-dimensional characters:

The only thing that’s wrong with it is that it’s fake. Life’s not like that: it’s much more untidy. People aren’t as consistent as that either. And another thing, Jimmy plays at being God himself. He’s his own smart arse young man.… Jimmy always knows exactly how his ruddy characters think and feel and precisely what they do. Nobody ever knows that much about anybody else. (qtd in Buckrich 79)3

Whether or not Turner was criticizing Life During Wartime for his own perceived failings, his article drew an immediate and stinging response from Lucius Shepard, who counterattacked on precisely the ground on which Turner staked so much of his critical perspective: naturalism. “That Mr Turner attempts to invalidate my perceptions by doing nothing more than banging the gavel of his Experience smacks of a curmudgeonly refusal to admit that there may be other truths, yea, even other realities apart from those with which he is familiar” (“Letter,” September 1989, 27). Shepard accuses Turner of exactly the same thing as Kellaway: believing that there is only one reality and that he alone can know it precisely. Shepard and Kellaway both argue that reality is “much more untidy,” a more ambiguous approach that Turner is unable to accept, as he demonstrates when he reacts to Shepard’s letter: “I agree with Shepard that wars decades apart do not resemble each other—but the men who fight them change little” (“Such Heat” 31). This draws another response from Shepard, pointing out that Turner was, in effect, “insisting that his impression of the behaviour of men in World War II … be taken as a template for the behaviour of men who were fighting against guerillas, who were plagued by drugs, by a hapless chain of command, and whose morale was afflicted by strident vilification on the home­front” (“Letter,” March 1990, 22). Turner’s absolutist beliefs and Shepard’s view of human nature as a more malleable thing clash in mutual incomprehension.

Underlying this dispute about their experience of war and how it might be understood, however, was a more fundamental dispute about the nature of science fiction, one that recalls Turner’s attack on Bester. In the original review Turner criticizes Shepard strongly for using psi in his novel:

Psi in all its forms is the refuge of the unoriginal mind…. It may be argued that a writer can introduce a fantasy element to describe or suggest a truth … but he may not, in my view, plaster it onto a background of savagely realistic narrative and expect it to be accepted as a truth in itself. (“Sci-Fi” 16)

In his final response, Shepard makes a point that is telling because of what it reveals about Turner’s attitude towards science fiction:

Such props are there to be used, they are the furnishings of our genre. FTL, psi, alternative worlds, and so forth are things we depend upon our readers to understand, just as a mainstream author depends upon his readers to understand the basic furnishings of a city street without having to describe them in minute detail and explain how they came to be. (“Letter,” March 1990, 22)

This is the same point Lem was making about the workings of refrigerators and radios. As there was in the difference between Foyster and Turner over The Demolished Man, so there is between Shepard and Turner a fundamental disagreement about the nature of science fiction. On the one side is a view that certain devices, which may or may not be fantastical, are there to provide background, and what would be the background in a typical mainstream novel is consequently brought into the foreground. For Turner, the background remains the same whether it is a mainstream or a science fiction novel: “SF has never left the mainstream,” as he insisted.

Brief Exhilarations. There was one significant difference between the Turner who attacked Stanislaw Lem in 1974 and the Turner who attacked Lucius Shepard in 1989. In 1978, the same year that his last mainstream novel, Transit of Cassidy, finally appeared in Australia, his first science-fiction novel was published. Beloved Son went on to win a Ditmar Award in Australia, one of several awards his science fiction novels would win. The eight novels that followed—Vaneglory (1981), Yesterday’s Men (1983), The Sea and Summer (1987), Brain Child (1991), The Destiny Makers (1993), Genetic Soldier (1994), and Down There in Darkness (published posthumously in 1998)—earned wider publication, better sales, greater acclaim, and more awards than his mainstream fiction ever did. But although he would incorporate science-fictional tropes in these books—depopulation linked with a genetically engineered quest for greater intelligence or longer life were persistent themes—these aspects of the stories tended to be treated stiffly and solemnly, as if he were more concerned to establish the reality underlying the idea than to explore the consequences of it. He was at his best in the work that was least science fictional, most notably The Sea and Summer, which Peter Nicholls, in his entry on the author for The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, hails as a “genuinely distinguished and deeply imagined story” (1246) of the social underclasses in a near-future Melbourne slowly drowning through the effects of global warming. It is, in all but setting, a mainstream novel.

Perhaps the most interesting of Turner’s sf novels, in the light of his attack on Shepard, is Yesterday’s Men, which effectively plundered his first novel, Young Man of Talent. It shifted the wartime experiences in New Guinea into the future, but the view of how men behave in wartime is virtually unchanged from the earlier novel. Clearly there was only one reality and, already approaching 70, Turner was not about to change his views of it for the sake of science fiction.

Let us recall that Turner was horrified to discover that Alice in Wonderland was fantasy, that it was not real. That discovery was made about the time that he discovered the mainstream—or rather it was not a discovery but a Pauline conversion, for he describes it like a religious experience: “the blinding revelation that the world is people and attitudes and ideas, not manipulated things” (In the Heart 61-62; emphasis in original). What this says about science fiction is interesting but, in the context of the 1920s, hardly surprising. But it seems to have fuelled his attitudes towards the two literatures ever after. “A great gap opened between brief exhilarations in imaginary universes and the life-long satisfactions of the literary world I wanted to join. The gap remains; the satisfactions have had to be cut to fit the wearer” (“Not Taking” 7). Science fiction would remain, throughout his life, a place for “brief exhilarations”; it is a place that Turner elsewhere characterizes as “noisy but impotent” (“Sf in Australia” 47). Or, as he says in his Foundation essay, “SF had a foolishly false image of itself, a pose of self-importance which would flicker out at the snap of a reality switch” (“Not Taking” 9).

This tenuous, tenebrous world that is science fiction—as Turner characterizes it—is not a place in which anyone would choose to stay. Not, at least, when compared to the “life-long satisfactions” of the mainstream. I think, when Turner says that the satisfactions have had to be cut to fit the wearer, he is not saying that they no longer have the same attractions, but rather is tacitly admitting that he is slumming it in sf because he could no longer make a go of it in that more satisfying literary world. And though he will admit literary qualities within sf (Le Guin, Wolfe, Disch) since, after all, it would be too painful to admit that he had turned his back completely on the literary world, yet those qualities are few and far between and largely unrecognized by the sf world itself. In reviewing Disch’s 334 (1972) he uses the word “art,” then hastily adds that it is “a word I’ll use for precious few SF writers. Ballard, occasionally Aldiss and—and …?” (“Tomorrow” 67). In contrast, Turner is quick to attack all those qualities in which science fiction usually prides itself: originality of ideas, for instance. Recall his statement that “SF has never since Wells said anything that hasn’t been expressed as forcefully, and probably more perceptively, in the ‘mainstream’” (“Golden Age” 32). Speaking of Wells, another of that rare breed of science fiction writers Turner admires for his realism, he says that where the modern sf writer piles on the fantasy, Wells remains rooted in the real; “It’s the difference between a novelist and a hack” (33). The sf writer who employs the fantastic, it would seem, is condemned forever to be a hack; he can never be a novelist, as Turner himself, of course, had once been.

Conclusion. George Turner, through his criticisms, perhaps even more than through his fiction, was an iconic figure in Australian sf. The current explosion of science fiction coming from Australia—and we must never forget that Turner loudly and repeatedly promoted a native strain in Australian sf—clearly owes a debt to the critical atmosphere fostered by Bangsund and Foyster and Gillespie and others in Australian Science Fiction Review and SF Commentary. Although these critics were more than capable of making a stir in their own right, they held up George Turner as their figurehead. In this way, Turner can be seen as playing a fundamental role in the development of Australian science fiction over the last thirty years.

But whatever benefits flowed from his work, George Turner was actually antagonistic towards the genre. He certainly judged it by one standard and one standard only: how it stacked up against the realist literature of the mainstream. “The critic with the whole body of literature threatening his judgement,” he said at one point, “has … no multiple standard to help him out” (“On Writing” 21). I think he felt himself forced out of the mainstream, where he consistently stated that the best and most interesting work was being done, and took to science fiction as a refuge. As he put it, “science fiction is to me just another aspect of fiction writing; I am not a genre devotee” (“SF in Australia” 45). If there is no difference between science fiction and the mainstream, then Turner could pretend to himself that he had not moved elsewhere, that he was still firmly rooted where he wanted to be. But because the field did not quite match his views of the mainstream—it could not; it was, after all, doing something other than the mainstream—science fiction was doomed forever to fall short of his standard. That, I believe, is what lies behind the ferocity of the attack, the pugnacious attitude, in his reviews. When he described his style of reviewing as “a mode of head-on collision” (“SF in Australia” 47), it was more true than I think he imagined: it was a genuine clash of cultures between what he still wanted to be and where he now inadvertently found himself.

      1. That it is Gillespie telling this story lends it credibility; Turner too readily embroidered the stories he told about his own life, and his biographer, Judith Buckrich, tends to take his assertions too much at face value.
      2. This definition, cited here from a 1974 essay on Stanislaw Lem (discussed below), appeared originally in an article entitled “SF: Death and Transfiguration of a Genre,” published in Meanjin Quarterly, a mainstream literary journal, in September 1973.
      3. Buckrich gives no publication details for Bill’s Break, and it may not have seen print.

Bloch, Robert. “Letter to the Editor.” Australian Science Fiction Review 11 (August 1967): 43.

Brosnan, John. “Letter to the Editor.” Australian Science Fiction Review 11 (August 1967): 44.

Buckrich, Judith Raphael. George Turner, A Life. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne UP, 1999.

Foyster, John. “George Turner, critic and novelist.” SF Commentary 76 (1984): 4-6.

Gillespie, Bruce. “The Four Careers of George Turner.” Australian Science Fiction Review 24 (Winter 1990): 4-5.

─────. “The Good Soldier: George Turner as Combative Critic.” Foundation 78 (Spring 2000): 6-17.

Lem, Stanislaw. “Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case—With Exceptions.” Tr. Werner Koopmann. SF Commentary 35, 36, 37 (July-September 1973): 8-35. Reprinted in  Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy. 1985. London: Mandarin, 1991. 45-105.

Nicholls, Peter. “George Turner.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 2nd ed. Ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. London: Orbit, 1993. 1245-46.

Smith, Sgt R.F. “Letter to the Editor.” Australian Science Fiction Review 11 (August 1967): 48.

Shepard, Lucius. “Letter to the Editor.” Australian Science Fiction Review 21 (September 1989): 27-29.             

─────. “Letter to the Editor.” Australian Science Fiction Review 23 (March 1990): 21-23.

Turner, George. “Back to the Cactus: The Current Scene, 1970.” 1970. SF Commentary 76: The Unrelenting Gaze (October 2000): 38-44.

─────. Brain Child. 1991. London: Headline, 1992.

─────. “The Double Standard: The Short Look and the Long Hard Look.” 1967. SF Commentary 76: The Unrelenting Gaze (October 2000): 16-20.

─────. “Golden Age, Paper Age: or, Where Did All the Classics Go?’ 1970. SF Commentary 76: The Unrelenting Gaze (October 2000): 31-34.

─────. In the Heart or in the Head: An Essay in Time Travel. Carlton, Victoria, Australia: Norstrilia, 1984.

─────. “Letter to the Editor.” Australian Science Fiction Review 23 (March 1990): 21.

─────. “Not Taking It All Too Seriously.” SF Commentary 76 (1982): 6-11.

─────. “On Writing About Science Fiction.” Australian Science Fiction Review 18 (December 1968): 20-25.

─────. “The Remembrance of Things Present.” SF Commentary 76 (1975): 73-75.

─────. “Science Fiction in Australia: A Survey, 1892-1980.” 1979-80. SF Commentary 76: The Unrelenting Gaze (October 2000): 45-55.

─────. “Sci-Fi and Psi-Fi: How Point of View Influences Reviewing.” Australian Science Fiction Review 20 (June 1989): 15-17.

─────. “S.L.: A Hopeless Case—With No Exceptions: Stanislaw Lem and the Lower Criticism.” SF Commentary 38 (September 1974): 10-33.

─────. “Some Unreceived Wisdom.” SF Commentary 76 (1983): 12-15.

─────. “Such Heat in the Kitchen!” Australian Science Fiction Review 22 (December 1989): 31-32.

─────. “Tomorrow Is Still with Us.” 1975. SF Commentary 76: The Unrelenting Gaze (October 2000): 67-69.

George Turner (1916-1997) was one of the most important science fiction writers Australia has produced, but before he published his first sf novel he had established his notoriety as one of the most acerbic of genre critics. This essay looks at Turner’s genre criticism and detects within it signs of an antagonistic relationship with sf. He had been an award-winning mainstream novelist, and his criticism often comes down to attacking science fiction for not being sufficiently mainstream. Starting with his attack on Alfred Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man, and demonstrating that Turner exaggerated the affront his attack provoked, the essay goes on to examine his problems with any suggestion of the fantastic in relation to sf as well as his sharp exchanges with Stanislaw Lem and Lucius Shepard, both of which hinged on Turner’s attempt to see the genre as if it were based on exactly the same principles and ideas as mainstream literature. Finally, the essay looks briefly at how these attitudes impinged upon the sf novels Turner would subsequently write.


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