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George Reginald Turner (1916–1997)

by Judith Buckrich

This article was published online in 2022

George Reginald Turner (1916–1997), author and critic, was born on 8 October 1916 at Caulfield, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents Edgar Francis Turner, mine accountant, and his wife Ethel Constance, née Gill, formerly a musical entertainer. George spent his early years at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, where his father was an accountant at Oroya Links Ltd, a mining company. The family home, on an enclosed half-acre (0.2 ha) with a large vegetable garden, was in a disused mining strip of the ‘Golden Mile’ between Kalgoorlie and Boulder; the empty craters created an imaginary world for the little boy.

After his father was dismissed from his job, in 1922 Turner moved to Melbourne with his mother, who became a housekeeper and was not permitted to have her son living with her; his father never rejoined the family. Turner boarded for the next ten years with two elderly ladies, visited by his mother once a week. His father’s sister gave him lunch and a trip to the cinema every Saturday. Her home had a bookcase that, after he turned nine, gave him the entrée to science fiction through works by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. About that age he became a student of St Paul’s Cathedral School. Learning songs by Mozart, Brahms, Bach, Purcell, Handel, and Mendelssohn, he ‘was filled with the joy of singing’ (Turner 1984, 47). Eventually expelled, he enrolled at University High School, where he achieved good results in some subjects and was a sub-editor of the school magazine but failed the Intermediate certificate.

Through family connections Turner found employment as an office boy, and then in the accounting department, at the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd, but he showed no aptitude and after three years he was fired. Jobs were difficult to find, and he took work as a waiter. It was at this time that he started to drink alcohol. Within weeks of the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted on 20 October 1939 in the Australian Imperial Force. He saw action with the 2/5th Battalion in North Africa, Greece, and Syria in 1941 and, promoted to sergeant in January 1942, New Guinea in 1943. Returning to Australia, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in September and posted to the 2/8th Battalion, with which he was back in New Guinea in 1944 and 1945. Home again, on 12 September 1945 he was transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

Following the war Turner worked for the Commonwealth Employment Service in Melbourne and then at Wangaratta, before taking a labouring job in a local textile mill. In 1948 he had begun work on his first novel, Young Man of Talent, but was drinking so heavily that he did not complete it until 1958. It was published by Cassell & Co Ltd in London in 1959, and was soon followed by A Stranger and Afraid (1961). Both these works had main characters that were to a degree recognisable as Turner himself. His third book, The Cupboard Under the Stairs (1962), an examination of insanity and the responses of a small community to it, was followed by an extended period of heavy drinking that resulted in a near-death experience, sometime after which he briefly joined Alcoholics Anonymous. The Cupboard Under the Stairs won the 1962 Miles Franklin award (shared with Thea Astley’s The Well-Dressed Explorer). A Waste of Shame (1965), his next book, was about two alcoholics. By this time he had moved back to Melbourne. He worked as an employment officer for Volkswagen car manufacturers until 1967, and completed The Lame Dog Man (1967), the final of four books set in the fictional town of Treelake.

Between 1967 and 1971 Turner met the science fiction fan and critic John Bangsund, an editor who published the Australian Science Fiction Review, and began writing reviews. He received a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship to write Transit of Cassidy (1978) and ‘fell in love’ with a woman for what he later said was ‘the first time’ (Turner 1984, 132). Moving briefly to Sydney during this short love affair, he tried unsuccessfully to start a business. Back in Melbourne, he began working for Carlton and United Breweries Ltd. Several characters in Transit of Cassidy were homosexual, and the book enlivened discussion about Turner’s sexuality. Many friends throughout his life thought he was gay, but he denied it.

Turner’s first science fiction novel, Beloved Son, was published in 1978; it won a Ditmar award the following year for best Australian long science fiction or fantasy. In the meantime he had started drinking again, and nearly died from a burst stomach ulcer. He followed Beloved Son with Vaneglory (1981) and Yesterday’s Men (1983), winning the Ditmar award for the latter in 1984. That year he published a sort of memoir, In the Heart or in the Head: An Essay in Time Travel, garnering the 1985 William Atheling Jr award for criticism or review. His most famous and most translated work, The Sea and Summer (published as Drowning Towers in the United States of America), appeared in 1987. It shared the South-East Asia and Pacific regional award of the Commonwealth Writers’ prize, and won the Arthur C. Clarke award, in 1988. Lucy Sussex would later note that the book was ‘celebrated internationally, variously termed the first and greatest novel of what has become a literary sub-genre’ (2017). It was one of the first novels to tackle the subject of climate change, but had little impact in Australia. His reputation was now made in the United States and his subsequent books—Brain Child (1991); The Destiny Makers (1993), which won the Ditmar in 1994; and Genetic Soldier (1994)—were published exclusively by William Morrow & Co. in New York.

Thin and wiry, Turner had bright blue eyes and olive skin. He was ‘very private’ with ‘gentlemanly … manners, although he could also be ferocious’ (Sussex 2017). Most of his main protagonists were emotionally isolated men who nonetheless achieved much in their sphere and were surprisingly helpful to others. His science fiction books were based in extrapolated science fact and usually pessimistic. Even minor characters were complex and grappling with overwhelming problems. In 1993 he recovered following a stroke, and in 1994 he moved to Ballarat to live near his friend Jim Dunwoodie. He died there on 8 June 1997 and was cremated. At the time of his death he was working on a story that would be published as ‘And Now Doth Time Waste Me’ in the second volume of Dreaming Down-Under (1998), a collection of stories edited by Jack Dann and Janeen Webb and dedicated to his memory.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Buckrich, Judith Raphael. George Turner: A Life. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1999
  • Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. ‘George Turner.’ 27 August 2020. Accessed 14 November 2020. http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/turner_george. Copy held on ADB file
  • Gillespie, Bruce. ‘Writer Won Worldwide Acclaim.’ Australian, 30 June 1997, 12
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX4213
  • Sussex, Lucy. ‘An Anthropocene Tale and Its Writer: The Sea and Summer.’ Sydney Review of Books, 6 June 2017. https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/anthropocene-tale-writer-sea-summer/
  • Turner, George. In the Heart or in the Head: An Essay in Time Travel. Carlton, Vic.: Norstrilia Press, 1984

Additional Resources

Citation details

Judith Buckrich, 'Turner, George Reginald (1916–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/turner-george-reginald-31464/text38919, published online 2022, accessed online 23 May 2024.

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