I can’t say that I’ve ever been too aware of Australian sci-fi, which is more my failing than that of the genre. But I’d heard Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow spoken of in reverential tones, a kind of feminist, socialist meditation on war, peace and politics, conveyed through an historical novel told within a science-fiction framework. And I must admit, I was intrigued.
Then I read that Patrick White thought the book was pretty good, and that made me even more interested, as I couldn’t really recall stories of him liking anything, so I figured it must be good.
And it is, with caveats.
The novel is the work of two woman, Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, writing as the entity M. Barnard Eldershaw. This is their last collaboration, and it shows, I think, in the way the text tends to wander. As I understand it, Barnard wrote and Eldershaw acted as editor, though in the case of this work, the scissors of the censor at time of original publication ensured that the pair’s original intentions would remain unseen until 1983, when a Virago reprint reinstated 400 chopped lines.
The book takes place in the 24th century, where inhabitants reside in some kind of technocratic socialist state. War and poverty have been eliminated through the institution of scientific laws. We’re in the Tenth Commune – formerly known as the Riverina – and we zoom into a writer called Knarf, his mate (and thin prop audience) Ord, and Knarf’s politically-motivated son, Ren. And today just so happens to be the day a telepathic vote-recording machine is to be tested, and where the son’s future will be either made or broken.
However, this is all just preamble. The real guts of the tale – though we return to the future at opportune times, and for a final familial act – takes place in the Sydney Of The Past. Knarf, a future novelist, has written a book – Little Life Left Behind – which takes place from the 1920sto the early 1950s. Spurred into narrative action by the unearthing of an enormous military statue – one of the sentinels from the now-demolished Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park – Knarf has written a story of the Common Man.
A particular Common Man. Harry Munster. A regular bloke, one who’s been in World War I. One who moves from the country into the city, who spends time in the streets of Kings Cross and Darlinghurst. A delivery driver, a denizen of the six-o’clock swill, a fighter and a lover – but, crucially, a politically-minded one.
What follows is the story of Munster and his family, friends and lovers. Through the examination of these individuals, the government of the time – and by extension, of ours – is scrutinised and found wanting. The device of a book-within-a-book allows the author to skip sections of filler in Knarf’s work, making it appear as if he’s cherry-picking the best bits to read to his willing audience. Barnard and Eldershaw also capture well the sense of romance any historical retelling – small actions appear either heroic or monstrous in the lens of retrospection, and this distortion, a function of historical rearview, is well conveyed. It means that the alternate-history elements of the book – what happens after the end of World War II – are more palatable, and don’t seem ridiculous or improbable.
The depiction of the streets of a 1940s metropolis surviving war and then falling to revolution is at once loving and astringent. Small elements of life – too detailed for a far-future historian to glean given the wholesale destruction of its setting – are evocative, and the eventual destruction of the city is breathtaking. This is grim stuff – detonated buildings, slashed canvases, burned books – to be reading today, let alone in the aftermath of World War II, as the original readers would have done. There’s a ghoulish glee to be had reading of the process of socialist revolution, and the uncertain gap between liberation from capital and descent into rule-bound authoritarianism is neatly illustrated.
This did, however, take a while to read. Though it’s generally well written, it’s also a quite dense work, and the Dial Press edition, at least, is laid out in a pretty fatiguing manner. Coupled with the occasional tendency to batter the reader (rather than beguile), the work can be heavy going. However, it’s worth seeing through to the end. As a resident of Sydney, there were plenty of little snippets, tiny portraits which made the continuing worth the effort.
The book – as raggedy and often confusing as it might appear – is very much worth a read, particularly today. I suppose the appeal of socialist reforms springs evergreen – until their institution reveals unforseen flaws, perhaps – but it’s difficult not to read the book as a critique on how our society works today, even, let alone in 1947. War is ever-present today, even mutating into new forms – ideals rather than dictators or nation-states now is in vogue – and Munster/Knarf/Barnard/Eldershaw have critical words for those who pursue war, and the commercial gains such affairs provide. How good are the forces for good? And what do they really want for us? This is sci-fi without the lasers, and – crucially – without a solid answer.
That part’s up to you.