Sumner Locke Elliott is one of my solitary pleasures. I discovered him on my own and I’ve never really had much opportunity to talk to other people about his books. If I mention him, it’s unusual for other people to have heard of him. Nevertheless, he’s been one of my favourite writers for decades now. I am a fan of his. When I was sixteen I wrote him a seven page fan letter in care of his publisher—and he was kind enough to write back, too. He was born in Australia in 1917, wrote eleven novels and some plays, and died in 1991.
Going (1975), the first book of his I read. I picked it up in the library because it looked as if it was SF. (The US paperback, which I now own, looks like a trashy romance. The British hardcover I read from the library looked plausibly like SF.) It’s a dystopia, where people are euthanised at sixty-five. So far so Logan’s Run, but this book is set in 1994, and covers the last day of the life of Tess Brackett, and in that day, her whole life up to that last day. The first forty-five years of her life—her adolescence, falling in love, and marrying, all happen in the real world of the past of the time in which Elliott was writing. Then he goes on from there into the future. Her daughters grow up in a future world that’s changing, and by the time the day comes when she’s going to be killed the world is quite different—but it’s crept up on her slowly, she doesn’t know what she could have done about it.
The interesting thing here isn’t so much the dystopia as the way the story begins in the past and goes on into the future, making the future up as it goes along. Not many books do that. SF tends to be firmly set in the future, and mainstream books firmly in the past or present. I can only think of two other things that over-run this way, and you couldn’t ask for three more different books. Ken MacLeod’s The Stone Canal, in which the characters begin in university in Scotland in the seventies and end up on the libertarian planet New Mars, and the fifth volume of Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest series, The Four Gated City, which begins with Martha coming to London after WWII and ends with her living on a Scottish island after a nuclear war. Going, with the dystopia Tess doesn’t understand and wonders if she could have changed, makes one rethink the entire concept of mainstream novels about people’s lives—because everyone, at sixty-five, lives in a world that isn’t the world they grew up in and which was largely grown from other people’s choices.
Many of Elliott’s books are set in Australia—the claustrophobic homophobic insular Australia of the thirties and forties, but Going was written after he moved to the US and is set there. What Elliott is brilliant at is characters, his characters live and breathe and you’d recognise them if you saw them at the bus stop. Some of them are appalling, but they’re all real enough to bite. Their lives, which is to say the plots of his novels, are fascinating.
Orwell talks about some writers (Galsworthy) being born without an extra skin that protects most people from seeing how unjust the world is. I think that extra skin is privilege, and writers with the advantages of education but without every layer of privilege often produce work that’s more interesting and less fixed in the expectations of its time, and that addresses the injustice of the world in ways the people who have the privilege don’t even notice. George Eliot would be an example—because she was a woman at a time when that caused her social difficulties at everything she wanted to do, she could become aware of the repulsive anti-Semitism that was normal in England at that time (and later) and write Daniel Deronda. Sumner Locke Elliott was gay at a time when that was at first illegal and later socially frowned upon. Until the very end of his life (Fairyland) he didn’t write openly about his sexuality. Perhaps because he was passing, in Australia and then in the US, he paid attention to things a lot of people take for granted, social expectations, relationships, injustice and the inequalities of love. There are standard ways of writing about these things, and he didn’t use them, he looked for himself and wrote about families and compromises as nobody else did.
The dystopia in Going is a very odd one. I think in a way it’s a homage to Brideshead Revisited. Tess came from a rich family and has always been rich, and what had happened is that everything has become vulgar and socialised and nice, and not in a good way. We see everything through Tess’s point of view, and she isn’t an entirely reliable narrator. She’s reliable about her feelings, but she doesn’t allow feelings to people of lower classes (Hooper, Eunice, and especially Harry). For Tess, the US has come to be a place with clean air, regulated weather, fake food, euthanised seniors and no First Amendment largely because her daughter Joan married Harry Platt, who used to be the young man who delivered ice cubes. The more I think about it, especially in the light of Brideshead and all those British post-war books about how awful it is to be forced to consider the working classes people instead of conveniences, the more I wonder how awful this dystopia is, from other perspectives, and whether it might not be better for the majority of people—the younger ones anyway. The plight of old people is one of Elliott’s themes, and Tess in the end runs towards the bus taking her to death.
If you can find Going, or any Elliott that happens to be lying around in your library or used bookstore, you’ll find it well worth your time.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.