Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#32: Frederick Turner

Mid-to-late eighties stretches the scope of 'belated' badly, but I didn't want to leave Turner out. He comes under the category of "something completely different", since what I'm going to review here are his two sf epic poems.

If the use of epic poetry is to be more than a conceit, it has to be in the service of a tale for which it is better suited than the novel. There is an sf/f 'tradition' of writing novels to demythologize the heroes of old tales and explore the people behind the myth, but it is difficult for the novel to go in the opposite direction and create myth without seeming too precious. The epic poem does that better. The epic poem has historically also enjoyed a greater freedom to digress, to lecture, to ponder, without paying the penalty that novels pay for the interpolated lecture or the expository lump. The form also has a greater ability to convey a culture's character and spirit through language. We can see, for instance, a world which has internalized the gains of the scientific revolution, in which poets can sing of double helices or Greek vases with an equal lack of self-consciousness.

Turner uses the strengths of the epic form to good effect. His poems describe and mythologize futures which are more than just extrapolations of our present.

(It's good poetry, too. I'd like to specifically reassure those who find the prospect of reading a poem a couple of hundred pages long alarming and unreasonable. I know that many people come out of school convinced that reading poetry is nothing but hard work. Too often they also come out believing that all poetry is read by the Mother Goose method -- coming down hard on every other syllable and thudding to a jarring stop at the end of each line. If you find reading poems difficult, read these as if they were oddly-formatted novels. Turner's poetry flows smoothly enough that it can be read that way, except that he more pays attention to how it *sounds* as well as to what it says, and except that you don't really have the option of skimming the slow parts. And except that, occasionally, he'll vary the rhythm, and you suddenly realize just how smoothly it was flowing until he decided to get your attention.)

"The New World" (****-) is placed four hundred years in the future, and presents a world that didn't progress or regress along the obvious paths, but went in a different direction. Much of the resource exhaustion we anticipate has occurred, and technology has followed low-resource paths such as bioengineering and microcomputerization. Humanity has settled the stars, and though this fact remains mostly in the background of the poem, it has profound psychological consequences: People can explore new possibilities without gambling the survival of the human race. Nations have once more fragmented into smaller polities, a flexible caste system has evolved, and new religions have risen.

As the title implies, the main interest of the poet is in the new world he creates, but the world is presented in the context of a somewhat traditional epic: The fundamentalist theocracies known as the Mad Counties have settled their differences and allied in a holy war against the Free Counties. In his introduction, Turner describes the Free Counties as "independent Jeffersonian aristocratic democracies". Note the 'aristocratic': These are not simple idealized realizations of contemporary American values. At this critical juncture they are undergoing a cultural flourishing.

As the war begins, the hero, James Quincy, returns from his exile. The outlines of the story that follows are familiar to us from a dozen historical epics and myths -- and Turner makes the story interesting in its own right --but he embeds it in a cultural context which isn't just a familiar one in disguise, and uses it to illuminate that context.

"The New World" is an ambitious work and, in my opinion, Frederick Turner pulls off what he set out to accomplish: He's written good science fiction while creating and presenting a possible future in a way that a novel could not have accomplished.

"Genesis" (***), Turner's second epic poem, is more ambitious than "TheNew World", and perhaps for that reason falls somewhat short. It's more ambitious partly by virtue of being placed closer to home, beginning as it does half a century in our future. This is a future in which the Ecotheistic Church -- formed from a merger of Green politics and religious fundamentalism -- is becoming a major force. Its belief that human intervention in nature is evil is making it increasingly difficult for the sciences -- especially the biosciences -- to flourish. Against this background, a secret operation is launched to terraform Mars. (No, it's not another "Red Mars". For one thing, it was written in 1988. For another, Turner is working to mythologize the actors, not to give them depth.)

The poem culminates with the birth, on Mars, of the Sybil, who preaches the first offworld revelations. Which brings in the other aspect in which this poem is more ambitious than the first. "The New World" is a heroicepic, and we see the world of the twenty-fourth century through the lives and actions of its heroes. "Genesis" is a gospel, written the obligatory decades after the fact, a tale of prophets and traitors, conflicting philosophies, miracles and revelations. That makes it a tough sell, as far as much of its intended audience is concerned. That includes me, I suppose: I found the final section, in which the Sybil's story is told, disappointing after the the first four, which focused upon the greening of Mars, and upon the people who fought for or against it. It's still a powerful epic, but I'd suggest reading "The New World", and seeing how you like it, before tackling "Genesis.

What Frederick Turner does in both books is world building, but it's world building in a much more interesting sense than that of giving the natives quaint customs, making sure the economy makes sense, and trying to create a culture that isn't too obviously cloned from a familiar one. This is world building in the sense of "tomorrow might be different". Most important, if tomorrow is different, the people who inhabit it will also be different -- not just villains who are caricatures of our villains and heroes whose attitudes and beliefs are idealizations of our own.

%A Turner, Frederick
%T The New World. An Epic Poem
%I Princeton University Press
%D 1985
%G ISBN 0-691-06641-8 (hc)
%G ISBN 0-691-01420-5 (pbk)
%O $9.95 (pbk, 1985)
%P 182 pages (plus intro)

%T Genesis. An Epic Poem
%I Saybrook Publishing co.
%O (Distributed by W.W. Norton)
%D 1988
%G ISBN 0-933071-24-B (hc)
%G ISBN 0-933071-26-4 (pbk)
%O $19.95 (hc), $9.95 (pbk)
%P 303 pages

Dani Zweig