Thursday, January 16, 2014

Three Novels by Edmund Cooper

Tarbandu at The PorPor Books blog recently purchased Edmund Cooper’s All Fools’ Day, which brought Cooper to the forefront of my mind. I read a Cooper novel in late 2011 and another in early 2013, and had a third on my shelf, unread, so this week I gathered up my notes about Cooper and read that third novel, The Last Continent

A Far Sunset

I read this in late 2011, and thought it a solidly average piece of work, as I related in my December 6, 2011, review on Amazon, pasted here:
This 1967 novel is about Paul Marlowe, a British psychiatrist who is on the crew of one of Earth's first interstellar space ships. When his ship lands on an alien planet and is disabled he is captured by the intelligent natives, people who look much like humans and have agriculture and cities but no wheel. Marlowe becomes a member of the alien society, and the novel follows his efforts to alter that society and uncover its secrets.

I like the plot, and it is not a bad novel, but nothing exceptional or special; there is something bland about the whole thing, frankly. Cooper's style is somehow detached, putting distance between the reader and the characters, so that the emotional impact of big moments is diminished. Cooper also makes it a practice to announce ahead of time when something exciting is about to happen (one chapter begins, "It was on the second night that disaster struck,") limiting the amount of surprise, tension or suspense the story can generate.
This was the first Edmund Cooper book I have read, and I am likely to read more, should I encounter them.
I have the Berkley Medallion edition, with the red Richard Powers cover.
Five to Twelve

In January or February of 2013 I read Cooper’s 1968 novel, Five to Twelve. I have the Berkely Medallion paperback with the sexy Jeff Jones cover, which I like quite a bit. Unfortunately the novel was mediocre, a little below average. I didn’t post a review on Amazon, but in my archives I find these notes:
I did not like this as much as Cooper’s A Far Sunset. As a side effect of widespread use of birth control pills, women begin to outnumber men, and women’s physical strength and IQs increase dramatically. By the time the novel depicts, women have all the good jobs, run the government, and have made men second-class citizens, courtesans and such. The main character is a man who, like in a lot of SF books, is contacted by a ruthless underground group of rebels and spends the book deciding whether to side with the ruthless and violent rebels or the ruthless and corrupt status quo. The book was full of weak jokes that the author considered satire, and so any tension the adventure/suspense portions might have had were undermined.

The Last Continent

This week I read 1969's The Last Continent.   My copy is a tattered Dell, #4655, with the somewhat embarrassing Ron Walotsky cover.  I guess Richard Powers and Jeff Jones were busy that day.  And it is not all Ron's fault; the typeface and its placement are also inferior to those on my Berkeley Medallion Cooper books.

This novel takes place some two thousand years in the future. The Earth is mostly a barren waste, due to the use of nuclear weapons in a war between the white and black races back in the late 20th or early 21st century. In this war the moon was broken apart and pieces of it rained down on the Earth. The southern polar region still bears life, and is the site of a dense jungle with a rich ecosystem of mutant plants, birds and reptiles; there has been an increase in the amount of solar and cosmic radiation that reaches the planet surface, speeding up evolution.

In a small city in the middle of this Antarctic rain forest dwell the last human beings on Earth, people of European ethnicity who have a mixture of primitive (they hunt with spears) and modern (they have electric lights and the telegraph) technology. Only an elite class of eunuchs is permitted to study the modern technology.

On Mars has developed a modern civilization of people descended from Earthlings of African ethnicity. This civilization is going through a period of totalitarian government; their ruling ideology is Vaneyism, a series of myths based loosely on the life of Thomas Mulvaney, a black activist who lived on Earth during the period leading up to the cataclysmic race war. Vaneyism holds that the white man went extinct as punishment for his sins and the Earth is a dead world. As the book begins a Martian exploration ship, hoping to find mineral resources that are scarce on Mars, has just taken up orbit around Earth. Its crew includes a ruthless and paranoid “political officer,” and the crew members are all careful not to say anything that could be interpreted as “anti-Vaneyism.”

The lead black character of the book is Mirlena Stroza, ship’s psychologist (Cooper seems to like to write about psychologists and psychiatrists.) Stroza isn’t quite sold on Vaneyism, and is very excited to explore the Earth. She uses her sexual wiles and a little skullduggery (she drugs the political officer) to make sure she is on the space boat that leaves the ship and goes down to Earth. She is the first of the party to set foot on Earth, and almost immediately meets the lead white character, Kymri son of Kymriso. Kymri has never seen a black person before, and Stroza has never seen a white person before. Reversing the nature of such encounters in earlier history, it is the science-trained black explorer who is backed up by advanced technology (space suit, space ship, firearms) and the savage white native who carries a spear and wears a cape made of feathers. Kymri is captured and finds himself at the mercy of the Martian astronauts.

The encounter of these two civilizations will inevitably lead to radical changes in each, but will those changes be catastrophic or beneficial? The discovery of a living white race explodes Vaneyism and could cause trouble for the ruling Vaney party back on Mars. The political officer wants to exterminate or enslave all the white people. For their part, the rulers of the white city fear the Martians will use their superior weapons and superior numbers to conquer them, and weigh the wisdom of buying time by murdering the small landing party before they can send much information back to Mars. Fortunately for everyone concerned, Mirlena Stroza turns out to be a good diplomat, the white rulers act responsibly, and a revolution breaks out on Mars that overthrows the hardcore members of the Vaney party.  We get a happy ending in which whites and blacks are going to work together to build a just multicultural civilization.

This is a moderately entertaining and interesting book. I am always inclined to like stories about explorers making contact with aliens, and Cooper’s using this scenario to talk about race relations adds a layer of interest. The various characters and the two civilizations, though not extensively drawn (the novel is only 156 pages) are fleshed out enough to maintain the reader’s interest and sympathy. I hoped that Mirlena Stroza’s love affair with Kymri son of Kymriso worked out, and that the Martians didn’t just nuke Antarctica into oblivion. Cooper uses short chapters and the pace is quick, which I appreciated.

There are problems with the book, though. The metaphors in the big sex scene are embarrassing, and the recorded speech the characters find, left by the last black man on Earth twenty centuries ago, is too histrionic and melodramatic. The revolution on Mars, though necessary for the happy ending, feels tacked on; there is only one chapter set on Mars, and the revolution isn’t really closely linked to the Earth expedition.  If I had been Cooper's editor I would have advised him to have the discoveries on Earth more clearly inspire the Martian revolution; that way Mirlena Stroza and Kymri are masters of their own fates.  As written, the change of government on Mars feels like deus ex machina.  

Also, though the book is anti-racist, The Last Continent is vulnerable to charges of racism. Some might find the final fate of the political officer to be offensive on this score. Cooper also suggests that the blacks on Mars, over two thousand years, have failed to produce any significant art or develop any new technologies.   

Despite its shortcomings, The Last Continent is a worthwhile read, especially for those interested in the depiction of race issues in science fiction and connoisseurs of sex scenes in which someone’s tongue is described as an impudent snake.

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