Sunday, January 3, 2010

Edmund Cooper

The Urbane Manner of Three Cooper Novels

Several less iconoclastic writers were adding to their already considerable reputations in recent years and extending the margins of sixties’ sf, even if not as showily as the demolition crew over at Moorcock’s place. Such names as ... Edmund Cooper, urbane novelist and enthusiastic book reviewer ... – Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: the true history of science fiction (1973) p.303.

Cooper quickly established himself as an urbane stylist whose sometimes almost intuitive grasp of science fiction’s key themes and images could distinguish his best fiction and almost redeem his lesser works. – Gary K. Wolfe in Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Writers; 2nd ed. (1986).
What does urbane mean as far as Edmund Cooper is concerned? Notably finished or polished in manner, urbane is a synonym for suave.

I cannot account for my reading Cooper except by the accidents of forgotten history. One evening when I was looking in my library for something to read, I happened upon two of his novels acquired in 1974 and 1994. Presumably, I have them because they reveal by cursory examination what often appeals to me: they are science fiction portrayals of cultural situations, my favorite theme. These two proved easy reads, quickly read in a few nights. Because I enjoyed them, however moderately, I sought more. The only other Cooper title available in our regional system of three-score public libraries came to me by interlibrary loan.

Listed chronologically, they are Five to Twelve (1968), The Overman Culture (1972), The Cloud Walker (1973).

Edmund Cooper (April 30, 1926 – March 11, 1982) was an English author who does not seem to have had much of an American presence. The only U.S. periodical found to publish him was American Mercury, in decline for its last 25 years, increasingly conservative, anti-Semitic, and neo-Nazi at its going defunct in 1981. From a grammar school education, he entered the merchant navy, served as a radio officer before going into teacher training. He married three times, taught in various schools briefly and freelanced, 1950-1960, became an industry journalist, and a full-time writer in 1966 to the end of his life.

He began writing science fictions stories with his first collection and first novel both published in 1958. The story, Uncertain Midnight, became the cult movie The Invisible Boy (1957) more noted for the media revival of Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet than anything else. Through his continuous publishing record, Cooper demonstrated attention to his craft and regular industry. He left unpublished manuscripts including a couple poetry titles.

In a 1981 statement quoted in St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers; 4th ed. (1996), Cooper commented on his writing.

[S]cience fiction is the perfect medium for making a social or political statement. I am not interested in gadgetry. I am interested passionately in the future of mankind. People matter to me far more than machines or innovations, which is why I concentrate on characterization in my novels. I try to entertain and believe I am successful in doing this; but basically I want to put up ideas for consideration by my readers. Voluminous correspondence assures me that I have succeeded in this end.
The introductory Aldiss quotation correlates with other biographical sources. Although Cooper began to be published in the 1950’s, and although he probed issues of technology, he was soon eclipsed by the more daringly personal writers of the new wave. Judith Merril’s collection, England Swings SF: stories of speculative fiction (1968) is filled with stories by British authors, orginally published 1964-1968. Cooper is not among them.

Rather, critical sources regard him as increasingly conservative in the 1970s and antifeminist, so that by the end of his life, he was regarded as a minor writer in the science fiction genre. I have not read widely enough to settle this question, but I do question it based upon the three novels I have read.

A raging conflict between men and women is central to the story line in Five to Twelve. While ruling women are shown as obsessed with retaining their youthful beauty while enjoying incessant and indiscriminate sex without fear of pregnancy, they behave as thought they are the hedonistic male brutes of the past. Instead of an attack on any feminist agenda for equality, Cooper portrays a stereotype of role reversal and power dominance and shows that stereotype to be ridiculous.

We do not see the situation of most women outside of the establishment except in a couple examples. Dion Quern, the central male character, was the first child of a woman who became a breeder in order to provide him an education. She suffered accordingly from seventeen continuous pregnancies for the benefit of privileged women and died from that burden in her early forties. The Dom(inator) Juno procures Sylphide to bear Dion’s child for her; Sylphide seems to have no will of her own, resigned to the conventions of her subordinate status. One child dies; she miscarries the next.

Because Dion bumbles through a side plot as a duped terrorist, when eventually caught, the treatment for his crimes is reconditioning. Thereby, the irascible Dion loses his personality and his memory with it, living several years in a fog. Juno returns to him at the end of his life, telling him that he is a rarity. He carries double Y chromosomes that produce only male offspring, a majority of whom also carry double Y chromosomes. As this unique trait continues, Dion’s male descendants will in time restore the population to a 1 to 1 gender ratio. Juno, who has come to love and appreciate Dion for his male vitality, had obtained his semen and engineered a different future. She introduces to him the first generation of tall, strong male sons he has produced.

Most of the females in The Overman Culture are fretful or passive in relation to their male counterparts. They worry, weep, and faint. Michael Faraday, who becomes the steadfast leader of the group, also worries, ponders, and frets but never caves in as the group of “fragiles” progress from stage to stage in learning who they are – human beings. Michael says to the ersatz Queen Victoria and her prime minister, Winston Churchill (p.157 of the Berkley Medallion Book, 1976).

I am rebelling against imprisonment, I am rebelling against tyranny of the mind, I am rebelling against a collection of machines with interchangeable faces. Above all, I am rebelling against my own ignorance and your deliberate deception.
Michael’s girl, Emily Bronte, draws strength from him. He is the one, strong male among his fellows. Horatio Nelson, Michael’s staunch ally, is impulsive and violent unable to stand the stress of their secret discoveries. Ernest Hemingway takes on a supporting role to Michael; being cautious and detail-oriented, he is helpful, but also subordinate.

In The Cloud Walker, Kieron has an intended bride, promised to him from a young age, but first he wins the favor of the imperious and selfishly spoiled Alyx Fitzalan, daughter of the feudal Seigneur. She tried to boss him; when she cannot override his independence, she has secret sex with him at as many opportunities as can be managed. Though she is to marry a Seigneur elsewhere, she holds out for him as long as she can. Meanwhile, Petrina, waits unhappily, but patiently for Kieron to return to her once he becomes a hero and Alyx is out of the way.

In these novels, Cooper embodies and demonstrates the assumed sexism of his time, redeemed by dramatic characterizations of complex males.

In Five to Twelve, a world of skyscrapers and individual jet packs capable of reaching to the top of the troposphere, the dominant technology is pharmaceutics and brain washing. Birth control and life extending drugs brought on the numerical superiority of women and subsequently their subjugation of men as they dominate all aspects of civilization. A society of female peace officers who monitor male behavior and impose degrees of correction, keep recalcitrant men passive at the cost of their memories and creative energies. Of course, this basis is a put-up exaggeration of the normal side-effects on drug dependence, a conventional “what if?” in science fiction, but without actuality.

The confines of The Overman Culture exist thanks to a master computer and self-replicating and developing machines that emanate from it. We do not know this until the end; instead, we see a mixed up world that looks like the past but is an artificial bubble where the central characters are an experiment to see if human beings can be restored to the planet. To get to this point has taken the technology 10,000 years of development and a 150 years of genetics following the discovery of the cryogenically preserved bodies of Julius Overman and his two wives. They provide the cells that regenerate life.

The Cloud Walker unfolds in the third age of humankind, after civilization has twice before exceeded its grasp and all but perished. Among these three books, this story is the most problematic. The other two novels pit humans against imaginatively rigged situations. In this one the present potential of societal destruction from armaments or pollutants, however arguable, does exist. Cooper posits to a Luddite approach to technology control while allowing enough exceptions to feed, house, and clothe the population, even with a functioning government and excellence in the arts. He does not, perhaps cannot, reconcile technological development with its unanticipated consequences or rigorous control of knowledge with the advances possible only from free and mindful individuals.

Cooper may prompt thinking and questioning about these issues as he dramatizes ideas. I doubt the verisimilitude of his situations and question that he has thought through his story lines and the full implications of his settings.

What interested me and held my attention in these three novels was the skill with which Cooper wrote them. Though carrying common themes and attitudes, traceable to the proclivities of the author, each is quite different and inventive in topicality, approach and style.

Five to Twelve is the most outlandish in setting and character, reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World. If some new wave author’s name were attached to it, it would have more attention and acclaim than is the case with Cooper. It has a jive or jazzy language of its own in a story heavily dependent on dialogue. The characters are brutal, often confrontational when not devious or underhanded. Every conversation is a bickering battle, demeaning and full of name-calling. No one is ever very happy. I read it with a driving curiosity while wishing the characters would snap out of their unrelenting funk.

The Overman Culture approaches mythic proportions in its setting and quiet, long-term passage to discovery. Cooper tells this story through the maturation of the young characters as they gain gradual self-awareness and make discoveries in evidence and knowledge. The ensemble seems to suffer a lot, mostly because of their own deep-seated quandaries and uncertainties. I read it eager to unravel the mystery of the culture that haunted me for an explanation even as I was beginning to suspect the answer.

The Cloud Walker, reported to be Cooper’s most successful novel in the U.S., is as filled with action as any romantic and baroque swashbuckler. I read this one as though it were in Technicolor, thanks to a greater use of background description and razzle-dazzle. Battle scenes emerge in the story and obtrude the real plot before it can continue and resolve.

Each novel moves to its end with someone entering the scene and explaining a key part in the resolution. That is June in Five to Twelve, the automaton Mr. Shakespeare in The Overman Culutre, and the narrative voice in The Cloud Walker in wrapping up 60 years of what Cooper terms “historical necessity.” I wish Cooper would have made more of that.

All in all, they are three ordinary science fiction novels, middling in my estimation. I enjoyed their variety and appreciated the distinct characters in each one. I enjoyed The Overman Culture most, possibly because I read it first, and appreciated Five to Twelve most, though I read it last. I had high hopes for The Cloud Walker since it was the most alive, but proved to be the most cluttered and less artistic.

My major complaint with Edmund Cooper in these three novels is that he falls into a predicament of much science fiction. In writing about the future, he is dependent upon a frozen past (my terminology) that is more distant from any present in which discover and read his future fiction. Typical is the discovery of the “London Library” in The Overman Culture, filled with the dusty volumes of past literature. A novel written in 1972 refers in chapters 15 and 16 to a number of titles among which are More’s Utopia (1516), Das Kapital (1867-1894), and Koestler’s The Act of Creation (1964), likely the latest publication cited. Was there no literature between the sixties and the supposed end of a civilization that launches this novel?

Cooper was pessimistic about the future, but optimistic about humanity. He anticipated a dark age before we would or could do any better than our present. Unfortunately, he could not bridge these two ideas and really find and probe the ongoing danger signs of the present and the human responsibility for them regardless of our actual human potential or the perilous lack of it.

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© Copyright 2010 by Roger Sween.

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