Friday, October 1, 2010

George Turner’s The Sea and Summer and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach

Most discussion of contemporary climate change fiction has focused on its non-existence. Such questions are posed as: Where are the novels of rising sea levels? Why has the literary imagination failed to grasp this slow-motion ecological disaster? The point is usually driven home by comparisons with the bulking presence of nuclear catastrophe in post-war literature. If so much ink was spilled over the threat of nuclear war, why have writers reacted to the similarly planetary threat of climate change with disinterest and inactivity? (See here and here for examples.)

Posed in this form, such questions are unanswerable. They presume that the task of the novel is to identify the opportunities and threats presented by social developments, and to outline possible future response: fiction as think-tank. Or they envision the novel as a civic-minded advisory, which should encourage behavioural changes in its readers in the same way images of diseased lungs are used to discourage smoking. Either way, fiction is assimilated to the new public management, and the literary imagination is penned within a de-politicised public sphere of dull-witted consumers. These questions also presume an empirical basis that appears never to have been properly established. Is it in fact true that more novels about nuclear war were published between 1945 and 1965, than novels about climate change between 1990 and 2010? And if so, what would this demonstrate? It would be naïve to assume that only those novels which address such ‘issues’ at a direct, thematic level sense our historical proximities to social annihilation. The capacities of literary fiction to think through the crises we face may well exceed the conventions of realist representation.

At Changing the Climate, a conference held recently in Melbourne, Andrew Milner refocused this basic question—why so much nuclear fiction? Why so little climate change fiction?—by comparing the reception histories of two Australian novels. Nevil Shute’s classic nuclear novel On the Beach is, as Milner suggested, almost certainly the most successful Australian novel judged in such terms as sales (over four million), translations (Esperanto!) and adaptations to different media (film, television, radio). By contrast, George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, Milner’s example of the climate change novel, saw nothing like this level of popularity. Milner is a sociologist of literature, and his explanation for this discrepancy proceeded along lines laid out by Bourdieu in The Rules of Art. Turner’s novel, published by an upmarket house (Faber&Faber) and written by a man with an established reputation as a ‘literary’ author using such techniques as a complex temporal structure, multiple narrators and frame narratives, occupies a very different place within the literary field to On the Beach. While this remains Shute’s best-known and best-selling novel, prior to its publication he was already a highly successful popular novelist, with such hits as A Town Like Alice, and On the Beach, first published by Heinemann, largely conforms to the norms of sentimental fiction.

One problem with this type of explanation is that it tends to be tautological (as was acknowledged by Milner). Once the parameters of the literary field have been defined in such terms as niche market/mass market, avant-garde/residual and so on, then the question ‘why is Shute more popular than Turner?’ supplies its own answer: because his novels sold better; because they were located closer to the mass market end of the field; because they targeted commercial popularity as their measure of success. And it is an explanation that can only proceed on a case-by-case basis, novel by novel, so that this answer to the Shute/Turner question cannot be extrapolated to address the broader problem of the relative fortunes of ‘nuclear novel’ and the ‘climate novel’ (admittedly, not something Milner broached).

In interventions following Milner’s talk, another explanation was suggested: perhaps Shute outsold Turner (and nuclear novels do better in general than climate change novels) because nuclear weapons were (and are) a problem of geopolitics, far removed from the everyday life of most readers, while climate change is an issue that, if taken seriously, requires that readers radically alter the way they live. The argument, in short, is that Turner’s novel (and climate change fiction more generally) issues its readers with an unwelcome imperative to admit their individual culpability and to change their lives, while the moral choice posed by On the Beach (and nuclear fiction) entailed no personal consequences to its readers, just the guiltless thrill of imagined extinction. This, apparently, was an explanation Turner himself offered for the fate of climate change fiction in the literary marketplace.

But this explanation also has its weaknesses. For one, it ignores the massive disjunction of scale between the global causes of anthropogenic climate change and the nugatory effect of any changes an individual might make to his or her ‘lifestyle.’ Indeed, such individual efforts may be worse than useless. I may have some success in reducing my personal ‘carbon footprint’ by adopting any of the innumerable forms of ‘sustainable living’ urged upon us as modes of ethical consumption. But my ascetic exercise will register in the market as the liberation of a fractional amount of energy at a certain marginal price-point—energy that, things being what they are, will be snapped up by the next ready buyer. It’s a paradox neatly outlined by Jim Hansen in an article available here:

Without [government] leadership and comprehensive economic policies, conservation of energy by individuals merely reduces demands for fuel, thus lowering prices and ultimately promoting the wasteful use of energy.

The market’s celebrated logic of unintended consequences here takes on a demonic character: it perverts my private exercise of ecological virtue into a public environmental vice. The true compensations of the sustainable lifestyle are to be found not in any global reduction in carbon emissions but in the coddling of conscience by bad faith, and perhaps in the forms of ethical aggression it licenses against the less ecologically enlightened. Whatever the nature of the moral challenge posed by climate change, it is not a challenge to the morality of individuals but to the morality of political entities and of societies. As Hansen suggests, any truly effective resistance to climate change will need to be collective and political in nature, rather than individual and market-driven. To suggest that climate change fiction urges a moral choice upon its readers as individuals, while nuclear fiction allows readers to enjoy the frisson of apocalypse free of any notion of personal responsibility, is to misunderstand the nature of climate change (and indeed, of nuclear arms as well, as suggested here).

My own explanation for the question posed by Milner is based on the principle that all imaginings of the future succeed to the extent they narrate the history of their own present. The core of Turner’s novel, set in what is now the relatively near future, is the social antagonism between ‘Sweet’ and ‘Swill.’ Sweet are the elite, who live (despite various shortages) in ways that would be recognisable to Turner’s Australian readers of the 1980s and today as much like their own. By contrast, the lumpenproletariat Swill live in effective apartheid from the social betters in vast over-crowded tower blocks, the bottom floors of which are regularly inundated by the storm swells of rising seas. Economically, the line of division is that Sweet are employed, while Swill—over 90% of the population—are without work. The causes of this vast social underemployment are automation, overpopulation and the collapse of money as a medium of exchange. But the mechanisms enforcing this split between Sweet and Swill are entirely political. The antagonism is a deliberated engineered construct, the State’s way of maintaining social order, and it is accepted and endorsed as such in the novel by both sides. Redistribution of Sweet wealth would not noticeably improve Swill living standards. This is one reason why the Swill of the world have no cause to unite; they have nothing to gain from liberation and all their world to lose. The main plot of the novel revolves around a secret program of medical sterilisation that infringes this implied social contract. The novel’s speculative conclusion then looks forward from a provisional union of elements of Swill and Sweet in opposition to this program, to a future quasi-utopian condition of a human species finally arrived at the epoch of wise maturity.

The social logics governing Turner’s novel are presented as extrapolations of dynamics already present today, as is made clear in the novel’s afterword. But Turner has these dynamics precisely backwards. In the world of The Sea and Summer, the economy unites—all are threatened by automation; the collapse of money is no respecter of caste—while politics divides. But today, as in the 1980s, it is still the case that the primary social antagonism is economic, not political, while one of the main functions of the state has always been to figure a precarious social unity that allows this antagonism to be overlooked, forgotten, tranquilised. So the organising structure of Turner’s society makes sense only as a thought experiment of a world turned upside-down. But because its futurism remains realist rather than fantastic in spirit, the novel stands condemned, in its own predictive terms, by this misunderstanding of the present .

On the Beach, on the other hand, captures a critical truth of its era, providing one of the most striking literary representations of what we might call the nuclear personality, the historical form of post-war subjectivity. In The Lonely Crowd, published seven years prior to On the Beach, David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney argued that their contemporary society had witnessed a shift in the dominant form of the human character, from the ‘inner-directed’ subject of the Protestant work ethic to an ‘other-directed’ personality type, more responsive to—and more dependent on—on the opinions of his or her peers. Riesman’s preferred analogy for the new post-war character is the radar: the subject scans his or her environment for signs of life, seeking out the signals of like-minded bodies. The older traditional subject, by contrast, is likened to a gyroscope, guided by an internal sense of right without reference to the outside world (the nineteenth-century ‘moral compass’ provides a related figure of thought).

But The Lonely Crowd does not claim that this shift to ‘other direction’ necessarily leads to greater social cohesion and a happy immersion in a warm bath of fellow-feeling. In a paradox indicated already by the title, a new form of anomie emerges alongside this new structure of subjectivity. As other-direction comes to predominate, there is less and less genuine otherness out there to guided by. The exfoliation of the post-war subject opens out onto a void: the others one looks to for direction are as directionless, as exfoliated, as oneself. So the shift to other-directed personalities leads paradoxically to greater isolation, greater social atomisation, and ever more solipsistic misery. And it is this existential condition—the paradoxical loneliness of the other-directed personality—that is presented with such unexpected literary power and historical precision in Shute’s On the Beach. It is a loneliness not adequately expressed by any of the ostensible characters, who remain entrapped in the dreary sensibility of conventional mid-century fiction, emoting via Hemingwayed clichés of sentimental understatement. Instead, this new post-war subject is most effectively embodied by the novel’s true hero, the submarine USS Scorpion.

Stranded at the bottom of Australia by belts of fatal radiation that are steadily and irreversibly moving southwards towards them, the last survivors of nuclear war set out by submarine in a final effort to determine whether life persists elsewhere. They are responding to mysterious radio signals sent from a transmitter near Seattle: significantly, the journey is an attempt to re-establish the possibility of communication, to find another subject capable of providing some direction to the aimless waiting around for death of the survivors. Travelling up through the Pacific, the submarine surfaces to observe abandoned portside towns via its periscopic eye. This is the world as seen by the lonely other-directed subject, the cyclopean search of the radar man for an other with whom to commune:

It was ten days since she had submerged thirty degrees south of the equator. She had made her landfall at San Nicolas Island off Los Angeles and had given the city a wide berth, troubled about unknown minefields. She had set a course outside Santa Rosa and had closed the coast to the west of Santa Barbara; from there she had followed it northwards, cruising at periscope depth about two miles off shore. She had ventured cautiously into Monterey Bay and had inspected the fishing port, seeing no sign of life on shore and learning very little. Radioactivity was uniformly high, so that they judged it prudent to keep the hull submerged...

The submarine is troubled, isolated, cautious; it is the last operational vessel in the vastness of an empty ocean. Readers should not be misled by the apparent surrealism of this vision: the submarine, journeying around a depopulated world beneath poisoned seas, summoned by the chance encounter of a telegraph key, a window casement and an empty bottle. Shute’s openness to the pathos of machinery, to the submarine as a vehicle of feeling, is that of the practising engineer, not that of avant-garde aesthetics. He is an author always attentive to the agency of technology and the life of equipment. In his novels, the stresses, needs and capacities of machinery tend to summon greater emotional responsiveness and to command higher powers of literary evocation than do his unremarkable human characters. Hence the scuttling of the submarine in the final pages of On the Beach occurs in a more elevated generic register than the banal record of the human suicides that accompany it, conjuring a heretic nobility in its recollection of Calvary:

The ocean was empty and grey beneath the overcast sky, but away to the east there was a break in the clouds and a shaft of light striking down on to the waters. She parked across the road in full view of the sea, got out of her car, and took another drink from her bottle, and scanned the horizon for the submarine. Then as she turned towards the lighthouse on Point Lonsdale and the entrance to Port Phillip Bay she saw the low grey shape appear, barely five miles away and heading southwards from the Heads... She sat there dumbly watching as the low grey shape went forward to the mist on the horizon, holding the bottle on her knee. This was the end of it, the very, very end. Presently she could see the submarine no longer; it had vanished in the mist...Then she put the tablets in her mouth and swallowed them down with a mouthful of brandy, sitting behind the wheel of her big car.

The last appearance of the sub is illuminated by celestial spotlight; then it is engulfed in mist, ‘the very, very end.’ The woman, on the other hand, scoffs cyanide pills and brandy in ‘her big car.’ The tonal shifts from clause to clause, as attention switches from the woman to the submarine, make clear where Shute’s authorial sympathies lie.

By virtue of this displacement of subjectivity onto the submarine, On the Beach endows the mundane realities of post-war anomie with a tragic grandeur of which Shute’s human characters are incapable. The paradox of the lonely crowd ceases to be a drab pathology, instead taking on the heroic lineaments of the submarine’s failed quest for an other. This paradox also suggests one source for the novel’s hold over its many readers: its conviction that the end of the world will bring no change to its readers’ lives; that it will alter neither their character nor their convictions; that they will act in the apocalypse just as they do today. And if the end of the world brings no change—if there can be apocalypse without revelation—then who can say that we are not already living after the promised end, that it has not in some way already occurred, and that we have simply failed to notice? The remark apocryphally attributed to Ava Gardner during the filming of On the Beach—that Melbourne was the ideal place to film the end of the world, implying that with Melbourne the world has in effect already come to an end—is in this sense a genuine interpretative insight into the novel itself. The nuclear personality of the lonely crowd pre-exists the nuclear war that would have provided its authentic field of experience and reason for being.

This representation of nuclear subjectivity provides the most valid point of comparison for the climate change novel today. The other-directed subject, the radar man, can be understood as in some ways characterised by a heightened consciousness, a sharpened atunement to his or her social surroundings. What comparable new forms of experience does climate change elicit? Can we locate within contemporary fiction a new sensitivity to climate, a new aesthetics of average temperature, of precipitation, of sea level? Of course, climate cannot be ‘felt’ directly. What we experience day-to-day is weather; climate is a statistical abstraction of weather that appears to lie outside our categories of possible experience. However, we are also accustomed to living amidst just such real abstractions. Custom itself, the customs of second nature, provide some of the basic parameters of everyday life. In this sense, one could speculate that climate could emerge as a new regulative idea, and that social life could soon come to be shaped by climate as if we could apprehend it directly. Given that we recognise our actions are changing the climate, we may now start to act as if we could in fact feel those changes, as if rates of icemelt could be sensed on the skin, changes in rainfall patterns registered by the glottis, rising average temperatures felt in the joints. There are moments in George Turner’s novel that hint at such an emergent sensibility: in particular, the novel’s watery imagery, which washes through the novel from the terms ‘Sweet’ and ‘Swill’ themselves to some acute passages suggesting a hydrology of emotions. But this potential only rarely informs the conceptual shape of the novel’s imagining of the future, which remains premised on its misreading of the present. A more ramified account of a possible sensibility of the changing climate—of the ‘climate change subject’—is provided in Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene, in a geological rather than hydrological register. But I’ll leave Frisch for my next instalment.

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