Thursday, 14 February 2002

George Turner: Yesterday's Men (1983)

Edition: Sphere, 1984
Review number: 1066

George Turner's third novel in the trilogy which began with Beloved Son and Vaneglory uses a different idea to the others. Set several decades later than the earlier stories it is about a patronising attempt to recreate the "Gone Time" as the pre-apocalypse twentieth century is known by the smug "Ethical Culture". As before, the purpose of the novel is to show the consistency of human nature, despite the declarations of Ethical Culture members that deplored aspects of the Gone Time such as warfare have been eradicated from humankind.

The fall of civilization led to a renewal of tribal warfare in New Guinea, and when towns were re-established white settlers asked the Australian government for protection. The Australians set up a military unit to do this, but in order to distance themselves from the idea of combat, they organise it out of men from the edge of the bush, considered almost Gone Timers themselves, and they even make it operate in a Second World War context, using only 1940s technology. The whole idea is designated a sociological experiment, a hypocritical way to look at it if ever there was one.

All this is background; the story which drives the novel is about the making of a drama documentary with the unit which goes horribly wrong. This is of course a theme with which today's reader will be exhaustively familiar, as docusoaps and reality TV fill the channels, and this reduces the impact of the novel. Much of the plot is about behind the scenes manipulation of the project, for political reasons rather than, as would now be considered typical, for the sake of ratings. Turner's picture of the entertainment world has been rather overtaken by the times.

The purpose of the plot is to contrast the sleazy and hypocritical way that the Ethical Culture uses violence for political gain with the straightforward honesty of the soldiers. This is all too predictable, particularly when the reader has recently read the harder hitting Beloved Son. The arbitrary idea that the unit should be made to fit in with a Second World War setting - which is clearly motivated by a desire in Turner to reuse some of his own experiences - is unhelpful, blurring the genre of Yesterday's Men so that the SF technological trimmings seem to be no more than plot devices. This is certainly the poorest novel by Turner that I have read, making this trilogy one in which only the first instalment need be read.

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