This brief biography of George Turner’s life was condensed from the speech given by Bruce Gillespie at the presentation of The Chandler Award to George.
Writer George Turner Honoured By Chandler Award
George Turner richly deserves the Chandler Award for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Australian Science Fiction’, as he is Australia’s most distinguished science fiction writer and critic. He has managed not just one career in the field of science fiction, but many!
George Turner started his literary career writing mainstream books. George’s first novel was Young Man of Talent, an exciting piece of fiction about World War Il combat. It was quickly followed by four other mainstream novels, A Stranger and Afraid (1961), The Cupboard Under the Stairs (1962), A Waste of Shame (1965), and The Lame Dog Man (1967). The Cupboard Under the Stairs shared the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious literary award. His last mainstream novel, Transit of Cassidy, was published in 1978.
Most admirers of George’s novels were unaware in 1967, that their favourite writer was interested in science fiction. Had been interested since he was a boy! Indeed one of George’s first published writings was a letter to Amazing Stories that appeared in the late 1930’s. The full story of his infatuation with science fiction can be read in George’s wonderful memoir In the Heart or In the Head, published in 1984.
In the Heart or In the Head also tells the story of how George Turner became, first a critic of science fiction, and later a major writer in the field.
It’s all the fault of a man named John Bangsund. In 1967 John Bangsund was the editor for Australian Science Fiction Review, probably the most successful critical fanzine of its time. John was introduced to George at the offices of Cassell Australia, a publishing firm that no longer exists. John asked George to write book reviews for the magazine. George had never written a book review or a critical article in his life.
George¹s first piece which appeared in Australian Science Fiction Review 10, became famous immediately. In that article, George was the first critic to tear strips off the revered science fiction writer, Alfred Bester, and his equally revered novel The Demolished Man. George discovered he could make people howl in anger by writing the unvarnished truth.
There was no stopping him. Long articles and short reviews spouted from him, firstly for Australian Science Fiction Review, then for SF Commentary, and later for many others. He became The Age’s SF critic. At the age of 51 George had begun his second career.
In the early 1970’s articles for amateur magazines don’t pay bills and George’s career as a mainstream novelist seemed to have come to a stop. In 1972 George came close to dying of a stomach ulcer. During his time of recovery, John Bangsund persuaded him to try his hand at a science fiction novel.
Many of his friends were always puzzled that George took so long to begin writing SF. George had been reading SF since he was very young. He had very clear ideas about where SF writers were going wrong and how they could improve. But literary death would be the result of publishing an SF novel in Australia in the early 1970’s. An overseas publisher was needed, plus a powerful stimulus to write.
Encouragement from John Bangsund plus a powerful need to begin a new venture made George sit down to write Beloved Son. He took this long novel with him to England in 1975. On the last day of his trip, he left it on the desk of Charles Monteith, then the editor of science fiction at Faber & Faber. By the time George had reached home, there was a letter for him accepting Beloved Son for publication. At the age of 59, George Turner had started his third career.
But there was still a yawning gap in George Turner’s literary career. He had written no short stories.
When asked about writing short stories, George would always produce excuses. ‘Once you’ve thought up the idea’, he would say, ‘there’s no point in writing the story itself. Besides, any good idea should be written as a novel.’
Two important editors, Lee Harding and Terry Carr, decided that they wanted short stories from George. For Lee’s anthology, called Rooms of Paradise, George wrote “In A Petri Dish Upstairs”. George used one of its major ideas as the basis for his novel Yesterday’s Men.
Terry Carr? It is sobering to realise that Terry Carr is now dead. He died at the age of 50, at an age when George Turner was only just beginning his SF career. But Terry Carr was an early starter. Terry had been a great editor in America for many years when George and he taught at a writers’ workshop in Sydney. He persuaded George to write A Pursuit of Miracles for Universe, Terry’s annual collection of quality short fiction. American editors and fans began to notice George Turner’s work. The way was being prepared for the later international success of George’s novel The Sea and Summer.
At the age of 62, George Turner had begun his fourth career. His most successful short story is “The Fittest”. In this story George experimented with the technique of blending narratives from a number of different voices. He tells of the end of the world as we know it. “The Fittest” works perfectly on its own, although George showed that it had many other possibilities when he used it as the basis for The Sea and Summer.
And The Sea and Summer kicked off George’s next career: that of internationally successful novelist. With it, George became the first Australian to be nominated for a Nebula Award. In Britain, he won the first Arthur C. Clarke award. The Sea and Summer was runner-up for the Campbell Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Translated into several languages, it put George on a whole new map.
George now retired from the daily job that had paid his bills during all the years of writing. The Sea and Summer was followed by Brain Child and The Destiny Makers, the two sequels to Beloved Son which also had their beginnings in short stories. So successful has this trilogy been that George’s American publisher has taken on the Beloved Son trilogy. Two of those novels will appear in American editions for the first time. And in July Genetic Soldier, George’s seventh and most recent SF novel, will appear in America.
This time last year, it seemed as if George’s literary career had finished. Recovering from a stroke suffered in March 1993, George declared that he would write no more. Yet at a recent gathering of the science fiction literati, he admitted, a bit shamefacedly, that yes, he had written some chapters of a new novel. Nothing, it seems can stop him.
George Turner died on June 8th 1997, aged 80.