Melbourne University Press, 1999, A$45; Paul & Company, 2000, $44.95
reviewed in SFRA Review
Over the last few years, science fiction writers have finally been deemed worthy of biography, though these have generally been those whose fame (Arthur C. Clarke) or notoriety (L. Ron Hubbard) have extended beyond the genre. Now the Australian writer, George Turner, has joined this august company. Turner is another whose fame extended beyond the genre, but in his case his reputation in the wider world was established long before he turned to science fiction and is now, probably, all but forgotten. (One thing Buckrich stresses repeatedly towards the end of the book is how, beyond a small circle of devotees, even his best science fiction has been virtually ignored in his native country.)
Turner was born in 1916, and while he was still a child his father lost his job and deserted the family, leaving young George to be brought up in straightened circumstances by his mother, an indomitable woman he seems to have hated all his life. In this, Buckrich identifies the source of the two most persistent themes in Turner's work: the search of a father-figure and an often disturbing misogyny. Whether this fairly straightforward Freudian account really does justice to Turner's life and work is another matter. Turner appears to have been both self-destructive and anti-social judging from the account Buckrich gives of intense alcoholism bringing him close to death on at least two occasions, of low-grade work to which he devoted little time or attention, of a painful reserve and lack of any identifiable emotional relationships, of intellectual snobbism, and of the fact that the most vivid and enjoyable period of his life was during the Second World War. Yet there are hints that this was by no means the whole story. Passing references to Turner training local sports teams, and the exceptional loyalty of life-long friends don't seem to belong to the Turner we have been presented with - but Buckrich does not explore any of these aspects of his life.
Buckrich is decidedly not the most assiduous of biographers. Most of the facts about Turner's early life are culled, often directly, from Turner's own autobiographical writings. And when she has something new, she does nothing with it. There is, for instance, a passing reference (lost in the second half of a paragraph about something else entirely) to the possibility that he was briefly married during the war. Yet Buckrich does absolutely nothing to confirm or disprove the story. And though she repeatedly mentions suspicions of Turner's homosexuality, she never decisively settles the issue one way or the other. Moreover there are numerous small errors throughout the book - a picture caption referring to a 1976 convention that actually occurred in 1979, habitually calling the Arthur C. Clarke Award the 'Arthur C. Clarke Prize' - which, though not serious in themselves, leave one distrustful of the book as a whole.
Only when, at the age of 42, Turner published his first novel, does Buckrich seem to engage with her subject. One begins to suspect that what she really wanted to write was a critical study, not a biography. Certainly there is interesting analysis in particular of his early mainstream novels, and Buckrich makes a convincing case for regarding them as autobiographical. Though there are times when she spends so long decrying the treatment of women in his novels that one is left wondering why they were good enough for one of them to win the prestigious Miles Franklin Award. When, in the mid-70s, a chance meeting with John Bangsund brought a lifelong interest in science fiction to the fore, and revived Turner's writing career, he seems to have entered on one of the most satisfying periods of his life. He brought a new rigor to sf criticism, and applied that rigor to a sequence of novels (written at higher speed than at any time in his literary life, though Buckrich doesn't seem to notice this renewed vigour so late in his life) that may have been excellent (The Sea and Summer) or dreadfully poor (Down There in Darkness) but which were always filled with commitment and interest. But though science fiction was presumably what drew Buckrich to Turner in the first place, at this point she starts to lose interest in her story. Each successive novel receives less attention than the last, even though there are interesting biographical factors to be explored such as the apparent settling of his demons, and his handful of excellent short stories are almost completely ignored.
George Turner deserved better than this, and Buckrich reveals such little passion for (or even interest in) her subject that one can't help wondering why she started out on this enterprise in the first place.