by George Turner
published by Arbor House 1987
I continued my search for novels on the topic of climate disaster, and I was surprised to find one set in Melbourne Australia. I'd never heard of it before, nor the writer, George Turner, who once upon a time won the Miles Franklin. Apparently he turned to science fiction in his later years, and Drowning Towers was written at the ripe old age of 70. He died in 1997.
The novel is set around the middle of the 21st century. The temperatures continue to rise and Melbourne is getting rather subtropical. The seas are also rising, and parts of the city are flooded at high tide. This sounds bad enough, but it's not the main theme of the novel. The population has exploded and subsequently split into two classes "Sweet" and "Swill". The Sweet are rich and stupid and don't feel terribly different to the average Australian today. Most of the populace are however, Swill - a dirty, smelly bunch who live in gigantic housing estates in segregated neighbourhoods. The Swill speak in crude argot, something like cockney mixed with bogan, and enjoy living conditions considerably worse than a modern-day Mumbai slum.
I really wanted to like this, but I lost interest half-way through. Firstly, the premise simply feels too unlikely. Whatever you can say about Melbournians, they're an egalitarian bunch. Folks would never tolerate a class divide on this scale. Turner writes with a tone of social commentary, but there's nothing familiar about the society he's writing about.
Secondly, there's more than a few inexplicable blind-spots in Turner's vision of the future. Why is there scarcely any mention of the rest of the world? Why is Melbourne suddenly devoid of any interaction with other western cities? Early on Turner mentions that Asian countries have expanded into parts of the Australian desert. Yet throughout the novel we don't hear anything else about it, even though this would surely be an ongoing source of tension and conflict.
The other big problem I had with Drowning Towers, is that the characters are so uninteresting. They're generally an unloveable bunch, either wallowing in gloom or selfishly trying to get themselves into the Sweet class somehow. The novel centres around a "tower boss" by the name of Billy Kovacs. Apparently Kovacs controls one of the Swill housing towers, through the use of violence and police liasons. Something about his character didn't ring true for me however. His personality seemed at odds with his supposed power.
A remarkable novel, but not a great read.