An Interview with Edmund Cooper by James Goddard
James Goddard has very kindly agreed to let me reprint his interview with Edmund Cooper from Science Fiction Monthly Volume 2 Number 4. This first appeared in 1975 when Cooper’s career as an SF writer had more or less peaked.
As individuals, the characters in many of your books lack the identity of singular people and seem to be more representative of mankind in general: why is this?
Cooper: Well, it’s legitimate of you to say that they lack, as it were, great deal of variety—there are one or two characters I’ll come to in a minute who do have this variety—most of them are similar types. Richard Avery in Transit, Matthew Greville in All Fools Day, John Marcombe in The Uncertain Midnight, are all, basically, the same kind of character, the same kind of matrix. It’s got to be perfectly obvious to anyone that the person he knows best is himself. I know myself best, so I’m afraid that these are all pseudonyms for myself. They’re how I think I might react, given these dreadful, intriguing, funny, banal or bizarre situations these characters find themselves in. It’s easier to put my reactions down than to invent a character and put his reactions down. There are a lot of masquerading Edmund Coopers lurking around in my novels; which is why, frequently, American reviewers call me a male chauvinist pig.
A number of your recent books propound a point; of view which is not only out of fashion with your fellow sf writers, but which is also in direct opposition to the way in which, according to the media, the world is going. With a few exceptions you have produced a body of work which is a fiction of optimism!
Cooper: I don’t feel particularly optimistic about the state of society As for being in or out of fashion, I’ve never even considered the prospect. I write the books and take the themes I feel I want to deal with. For example, All Fool’s Day, for me, is a failure. When I started out, my basic idea was to explore what we mean by the idea of sanity; everyone talks about being sane or insane, so I wanted to find out just what we meant by this. I hit upon the sf mechanism for knocking off all the demonstrably sane people, and leaving all the people I call transnormals, who were really the nutcases. I felt that if I analysed the behaviour of these transnormals, I would be able to arrive at some rough and ready definition of what was meant by the term ‘sanity’.
I spent 65,000 words and nineteen months writing this novel, I think it had a little depth, but it was a total failure in terms of the original premise. I did not know any more about insanity or sanity at the end of the book than I did at the beginning. This is the point, you see, I take themes.
In Five to Twelve I took the theme of women’s emancipation, taking it just a little farther than it’s now gone, and reversed the roles by taking it to the point where, OK. we emancipate them, they get this and that, but it’s in the nature of human beings to always want 10% more. Then I introduced a science fiction mechanism that reduced the number of men, and therefore reduced their effectiveness, thus giving women a chance to become dominant. This was my theme – the plot was totally subsidiary; I simply wanted to examine what sort of society and people we would get if the roles were reversed.
Does this not suggest that you are rather anti the emancipation of women, you think they have a definite place in society, and should more or less stay in it?
Cooper: I don’t think they should be kept in their place, and I’m not anti the emancipation of women, though I’ve been accused of being this; I’ve been accused of being a reactionary fascist beast, particularly by the Americans because there are so many women reviewers; time and again they call me a male chauvinist pig, or my central character – which is me anyway. The whole point is that the average cranial capacity of the human female is 125cc less than that of the average human male: what I’m saying is that on the whole they’ve got a smaller computer, and, granted that they are the same type of computers, the bigger computer is better than the smaller computer.
Let them have equal opportunity. I’m all in favour of it. I dislike this idea that they are blocked in the City. For example, if you are woman, you just cannot get on the Stock Exchange unless you’ve been very lucky; in industry, if you are a woman, you cannot rise above a certain level unless you’re very lucky. They’re blocked for two reasons: one, because men are afraid of them, and two, a valid reason, because they consider that most women ere going to get themselves impregnated, and move off shortly after they’ve mastered the job and got themselves a decent salary. My point is that, in equal competition, and let them have totally equal competition, let them compete against men, they’ll see that they can’t make it. We have had free education in this country for a great many years, but where are the good female mathematicians? Where are the good female scientists? Where are the female Beethovens, etc ?They’ve gone back home to wash the dishes and produce children. And that, generally, is a very simplified version of what I feel.
I’m all in favour of women. I love them. I do not want to subjugate them, I want to make love to them, I’d lay every attractive woman in the world if I could, OK, can’t be done; I don’t want to subjugate them by penis or by restrictions or anything like that, I just don’t think they can compete on the same terms.
This question really stems from an earlier one to do with the optimistic aspects of themes in your books. You seem to emphasise the nobler aspects of the nature of Mankind, you don’t find many murderers or rapists in your books, with the possible exception of Kronk!
Cooper: With the exception of Kronk, with the exception of Five to Twelve, with the exception All Fool’s Day, and that’s three out of twelve of my published books; in those books you have murderers. rapists and cranks. I try to look for the good things in people, and to draw out the good things, and this is not dwelling on the nobler aspects in any women’s magazine sense: I try to do it in such way that I’m not presenting bloody great goody-goodies who are going to march spotless through my books. Most of my heroes have a sense of guilt, for either something they have done, or something they have omitted to do. Most of the women are imperfect, again either for something they have done, or omitted to do. So it’s not as if I’m producing cardboard cutouts, they are real people, but they are not necessarily as nasty as you could get.
I’m not in the business of writing about nasty people. I am, I think, more in the business of manipulating ideas. and, generally speaking, I can do this more successfully if I have fairly well balanced people to go at. The odd crank creeps in. In All Fools Day the Brothers of Iniquity score pretty superlatively as the nastiest people you could get, because anything that’s nice they totally abhor, and anything that’s nasty they think is bloody marvellous. A whole chapter is devoted to what they did in the village of Ambergrieve, they raped, crucified, killed, disembowelled, shot to pieces, what more can you have?
Don’t you think that sometimes, from a fictional point of view, the nastier a character is, the more interesting it is to follow him through a fictional narrative?
Cooper: Yes, I do; but then, you see, if I was going to concentrate on character to this extent, I think I would abandon sf and go into mainstream fiction. To me, sf is a literature of ideas, it’s a genre in which I can explore possible themes. I see myself, and this is probably a bit grandiose, as a kind of Cassandra, I’m pointing out possible dooms. In Five to Twelve I’m pointing out a possible doom in terms of letting emancipation run riot. There is a little trigger mechanism that turns emancipation into domination and dictatorship. In Kronk I take much of what is already apparent in our very plastic civilisation, look at it through a magnifying glass, and bring it up 2x or 3x to see what kind of world it will produce.
We have a problem with delinquent children, we have problems with people being programmed to buy things they don’t need by the whole philosophy of consumerism, we have people’s minds being controlled by tv to the extent that a popular face on tv will for some time dominate the minds, attitudes and reactions of people who watch ; the ‘Alf Garnett’ syndrome, things like this. These are the things that I’m hitting at, because I dislike them, I see them gaining ground; I’m a sort of latter-day frustrated messiah, perhaps a very poor one. I’m not interested in characterisation for its own sake, but only to the extent that it will advance the theme I’m currently playing about with.
A scene in Transit shows the humans, who are marooned on a planet being used by superior forces to conduct an experiment to find the most desirable master race, leaving their camp to destroy beings from another world in a neighbouring camp who have been attacking them. When they reach the enemy camp, they find it deserted. Then the mood changes from one of aggression, to one of pathos and mercy when the humans find a wounded alien. Here, the nobility and kindness, sympathy and understanding begin to seep through, and the warlike intentions are forgotten. It sounds as though you are saying that there is no such creature as mankind, and that humanity is the best. Would you agree with this interpretation?
Cooper: No, I don’t agree with that; it may seem like that and it may have come across like that, but if so, then it’s a failure on my part. Basically, this book was intended to be an adventure story, full of suspense. We were talking of character just now, it was also to be a book in which, because there were only four Earth people involved, I could explore their characters. You may recall that these four people are transferred to this planet, I think it’s seventy light years away, and we’re given a picture of them.
One is an advertising executive who has dirty pictures in his case; another is a gin-sodden failed actress; the third is a very timid mouse-like secretary; and the fourth is a failed artist who has lost his first wife and more or less given up hope. Through this book I wanted to evolve their characters; I preface the book with a quote from Auden : ‘We must love one another or die’. Richard Avery eventually learns to love not only Barbara, with whom he eventually mates, but Mary and Tom.They learn to have affection for each other, they develop compassion, and, as you quite rightly say, when they are provoked into attacking the alien camp, their compassion for the dying alien woman dissipates all their warlike intentions, and this comes across. When, at the end, they are evaluated, they are not evaluated because they are a master race, they are evaluated as superior because they have compassion.
Coming back to your question, I am prepared to believe that there are other races in this galaxy and in other galaxies which are probably superior to mankind. I do not think we shall have any contact with them on a strictly scientific level because of the time and space factors involved. I don’t believe in faster-than-light drive, it’s a load of hooey, a convention that we use. And, what is more, the different time scales involved can cause problems. You and I have personal time scales: then we have a historical time scale that covers the events of history; then we have a biological time scale that covers the evolution of life; each scale getting bigger and bigger. Then we have a geological time scale that covers the evolution of the Earth; then we have a solar time scale that covers the evolution of the solar system, and then we have a galactic time scale and a cosmic time scale.
In all this, the order of magnitude as we jump from one scale to another increases so tremendously that the chances of one race from one galaxy contacting another race from another galaxy, are far less than that of one man standing in the corner of a field and firing a rifle, and another man standing in the corner of another field five miles away and firing a rifle, and both bullets colliding. The order of magnitude of chance for this to happen is phenomenal, yet it is far greater than for contact between us and an alien species. So, this was simply a mechanism for exploring what I felt to be desirable in mankind. If something was desirable, and we could master it, then we would be fit, not to become masters of the galaxy, but just to order our own affairs and look after our own house.
Despite that, you’ve got this alien race, the Golden People, who, apparently, apart from their warlike attitudes, have few or no failings as far as the novel is concerned, and you have the Earth people, who have a variety of actual failings, and yet still the Earth people with all their failings turn out to be the most desirable.
Cooper: This was sheer optimism. To tell the truth, the Golden People represent what for want of a better word I will call the fascist element, and the Earth people represent what I will call the liberal-democratic element. This may be wish-fulfilment, but I rather hope that the cultured and tolerant liberal-democratic element has sufficient staying power to triumph over the fascist element, without being too distorted in the process. So really it was an allegory, a very small-scale allegory, between the forces of liberalism and the forces of autocracy.
In outlook at least, many of your books seem to suggest, and I think this is borne out by something you said, earlier, that you are not only anti-religion but are humanist, that you celebrate the godhead of men; any comments?
Cooper: I’m an atheist, God is an abstract noun he’s not a Father Christmas up there in heaven, he’s an abstract bloody noun who has been exploited by men in order to exploit other men, through centuries. More people have been killed by internecine wars in the Christian Church than in the First and Second World Wars put together. There have been more destruction and more misery created by the brotherly love that is promulgated by this dreadful religion than by anything else throughout history, it really is appalling. We’ve got it now in Northern Ireland. Surely any thinking person must feel that if that’s what Protestantism is and that’s what Catholicism is, let any sane society outlaw both, because they are death and destruction. And talking of male chauvinism, for centuries the Church has kept women in bondage. Women are unclean when they have babies, they have to go and be churched afterwards so that they are fit for human consumption again. They don’t have rights, the Church has kept women in total subjugation. So I, male chauvinist pig that I am, want to grant them emancipation, and the Church wants to keep them down because they think source of ill-paid labour for the males of world is useful to have.
I could go on and on about the Church and its relations to sexual attitudes, but I won’t, I’ll merely say that those idiots, like the Archbishop of Canterbury and this bloody fool who calls himself a Pope and sits in the Vatican, who say you can’t have birth control – lets all die of starvation, are doing far more harm than Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and Adolf Hitler all rolled up into one. People like Attila and Hitler were benevolent despots compared to these idiots who utter and pontificate, and say: this is the word of God, this you shall do, this you shall not do. When a war starts, the priests of England start praying for victory over the Germans, the priests of Germany start praying for victory over the English, and the priests of Italy start praying for insurance from both sides.
All sides saying God with Us!
Cooper : Yes, Got mit Uns, Got strafe England, God is love.
I also sense something of the Luddite in your books, as, apart from the godhead of man, one of the recurring themes is the triumph of man over the self-created monster of his own technology. When technology, in the form of very superior machines (the androids in The Overman Culture and The Uncertain Midnight are good examples), threatens man, then these machines must be smashed. Ned Ludd would have been proud of you, but do you really think man is threatened by his own technology run amok?
Cooper: We’re getting too bloody clever for words, we’re delegating more and more responsibility to machines; machines are allowed to make judgements, machines are allowed to take decisions. This was the theme I took in my first sf novel, The Uncertain Midnight, I took it to its logical conclusion, I went from computer to robot to android. I eventually gave the androids total electronic independence from man, and they therefore became competitors with man. I think this sort of thing is already happening, you start out with a simple thing like a computer, an the scientists who operate and programme this computer think, ah yes, if we link this computer with another computer we get better results. Eventually you get an entire computer network, a great deal of data is fed into this, and it becomes very, very complex; I think it was Arthur Clarke who said, that if you connected all the telephone systems in the world, you would have an electronic brain that would do something very peculiar; he was joking, but he got the general drift.
The point is, the more complex you make these machines, particularly when you get to where individual men cannot comprehend the complexity of the things, there you’ve hit danger level. Once they cannot comprehend it, they are at the mercy of the system. You get strange things like people being credited with £2,999,999 in their bank account, and someone else being debited. Gordon R Dickson wrote an absolutely brilliant story about a man who failed to make a payment to a book club, I’m sure you’ve read this one, and eventually he ends up under a death sentence. Now this was a brilliant story, I took off my hat to Gordon Dickson ; it’s not that he was predicting anything, but by using that kind of distortion that is peculiar to science fiction he was showing the kind of danger we can expect by saying, OK, let the bloody machines do it.
You review books for The Sunday Times: could you say something about this aspect of your work?
Cooper: It scares me enormously, to tell the truth. The real reason I do it, and this is going to sound egocentric – it’s not meant to be, is it’s a form of self advertisement ; my publishers don’t advertise me too much, as people may have noticed. It’s not advertisement in the sense that I’m using the columns of the ST to say, look here’s clever Edmund yet again, dreaming up the bomb, or assassinating this or building up that; it’s simply that the name appears over a column of reviews. Those reviews, strangely, I try to do as honestly as I can. It’s relatively easy to review a novel by, say, Asimov, Clarke or Aldiss, in that I know these writers intimately, and I can go through pretty quickly and say, oh yes, that’s good, or that’s bad. I know their idiom, I know their style, I know what they’re trying to do.
The books that really terrify me are the first novels. I don’t know Fred Smith, therefore I’ve got to read him from start to finish because although the first fifty pages may be dreadful, it may be that on page 51 he starts pulling brilliant rabbits out of the hat. I know this guy has put months of his life into this work, and he deserves my time to go through and see whether he’s made it. So I try to do these reviews very honestly. I said that I know people like Aldiss and Asimov, this doesn’t mean that I skip them, but when you are familiar you don’t have to give it the deathlike concentration you have to with some writer whose work is totally unknown.
You say you’re a novelist, and that as a novelist you you write sf. Why do you write sf?
Cooper: I’ve written romantic women’s magazine stories, I’ve written mystery fiction, I’m a novelist, I’m a writer, it’s better to call me a writer, I know how to write things. It so happens that I like writing sf, I’ve written fifteen sf books now, there will be some more to come. I feel that, probably, I’ve exhausted, or am wearying, my readers, with many of my pet themes. I can’t help thinking that I shall have to branch out and write other kinds of novels with other kinds of problems, in order to keep myself intellectually and emotionally alive. So, I am a novelist who, at the moment happens to write sf, but I’m going to write other kinds of fiction too.
Why have you written so comparatively few short stories?
Cooper: I wrote the short stories when I was learning to write science fiction. When I knew how to write sf, I knew I could express far better in novel terms than in short story terms the things I want to say and do. There’s another reason too, novels are very much easier to write than short stories. There are some very good short sf stories, but most of them are gimmicky and dreadful, that’s because of the limitation of size, and the limitation of the market. Magazines like Analog for example, put a narrow limitation on their writers, F&SF and Galaxy impose a different kind of limitation. Another thing that has bothered me is that from a reader’s point of view far too many bad sf stories are being produced in far too many anthologies, and are being reprinted and re-used over and over again, to the undying and eternal shame of the authors, or to the benefit of their pockets. I don’t want to get into this kind of little money-making race, I can make money out sf writing the kind of fiction that I want to write, so I’m not too bothered about the science fiction short story. If some good theme comes to me and I think I can express it adequately in a short story then I’ll do it, but I’ve got a mental block against them.
Can you speak at all on any sf writers you admire?
Cooper : I don’t admire sf writers, I admire certain books. Take the case of Brian Aldiss, Non-Stop, I think, was an excellent book, An Age was an excellent book, Report on Probability A was rubbishy, it wasn’t even sf, it was a wornout essay in metaphysical speculation. Barefoot in the Head was a psychedelic fantasy with no real value, Frankenstein Unbound certainly wasn’t sf, it was fantasy masquerading as sf, with a great many loopholes. I think he’s only written two very good novels; so, do I admire Brian Aldiss or not? No, I admire two of his books.
In the case of Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov the same criterion applies. Asimov was very good when he was writing his robot stories, there he was an absolute waymaker : but twaddle like Elijah Baley , and this idiotic crap that’s supposed to be cult stuff, Foundation, really and truly has nothing to do with sf. One sf novel that immensely impressed me was Earth Abides by George R Stewart, another was A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, and there was one by Mordecai Roshwald, Level 7, which struck me as a very good novel; I found these to be impressive novels, they set levels of excellence that very few other writers have been able to come up to.
Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan is a superb piece of satire, his later satire, I’m afraid, is not quite up to that level, that is the best of the Vonnegut books. Bradbury, of course, doesn’t write sf, he never did write sf, he’s a sort of poetic fantasist who has more or less played himself out, he now does pastiches of Bradbury, just as Hemingway, at the end, did pastiches of Hemingway. These are the outstanding things that come to mind.
Science fiction still seems to be striving for a definition, just now you mentioned Asimov’s Foundation and referred to it as fantasy, whereas many would probably think of it as the epitome of sf. Have you a pet definition of sf, or a working definition of sf?
Cooper: I have some working ideas, I’m not going to stand up and say definitions. Somebody once defined politics as the art of the possible: for my money, sf has got to be the art of the possible. If it becomes impossible and absurd, if it involves concepts, ideas, gadgetry, and on on, that really offend all the laws of science, and even offend human intelligence, than it’s not sf, it’s gobbledegook. A great deal of gobbledegook is passed off as sf these days.
In Five to Twelve I’m talking about a possible future world dominated by women, far fetched, but possible. Kronk is far fetched, computerised religion, but also possible. In books like that there was nothing that could offend a scientist or any intelligent person; they were novels of the possible. But when you get faster-than-light drives, and I’ve committed this dreadful thing myself, it’s impossible, it offends the laws of science, so it’s not sf.
When Arthur Clarke stands up and says we’re going to have matter transmitters, what he doesn’t realise, brilliant scientist that he is, is that when you have two molecules trying to occupy the same space at the same time, you get an atomic explosion, so matter transmission is not possible. Arthur can argue, right, we’ll have the matter receiver in a perfect vacuum, so that when we build up the stuff in it, no two molecules can occupy the same space at the same time; my answer is that you cannot get a perfect vacuum, not even in deep space; hence, out with matter transmission Arthur. As far as I am concerned sf is the art of the possible, not the art of the probable, not necessarily doomwatching, but just the art of the possible, speculation on what is possible, on what could be.
What do you think offers the most, the novels or short stories with pretensions to offering hard scientific extrapolation, or those more concerned with the soft sciences?
Cooper. The stories that deal with possible worlds, and the way they affect people, not the stories that deal with possible gadgetries. I’m not concerned that twenty-five years from now we will have an android that can perform X calculations per second, only uses so much current, will do all the washing up and will mind your baby as well. I would be far more concerned with considering the impact of this android on society. What happens if you get an android that can wet-nurse the baby? What kind of babies do you grow ? This kind of thing.
So you would stress the soft sciences really, psychology, anthropology, things like that?
Cooper: Yes, the value of the science is only in that it will produce a certain environment that’s going to affect people, I’m concerned with the effect on the people!