There’s a poignant anecdote that Terry Pratchett once told about a book signing. A young woman in the queue told him that her father was once a famous science fiction writer, but no-one these days had heard of him. When he asked who it was she replied Edmund Cooper. Certainly in the early 1970s the Coronet editions of Cooper’s novels, with their striking Chris Foss covers, were a permanent fixture of the W.H. Smiths SF and Fantasy section and he was one of the first serious writers I read – starting with A Far Sunset and then working my way through pretty much all of his core SF novels – Transit, The Overman Culture, Seahorse in the Sky, The Last Continent etc… And then his books more or less vanished. It’s a shame because at his best he wrote gripping, intelligent and thought-provoking stories and he deserves wider and more persistent recognition.
A number of factors have weighed against this – accusations of sexism, his position as a UK writer during the emergence of New Wave, and tensions and disagreements about the details of his life and works between the Edmund Cooper Trust, members of his family and a number of critics and writers who’ve posted assessments of Cooper on the internet (it’ll be interesting to see what turns up here). All these have conspired to push his work into the shadows, and although his books are now available in the Gateway ebook series, he really doesn’t get the credit he deserves as an important, if flawed, post-war British SF writer, working in the tradition of writers like John Wyndham and H. G. Wells.
For me, as for others, one of the main issues is the attitude to women in many of his books. To be fair, Cooper was very much the product of a certain generation at a certain time and many SF writers of that era struggled to represent women – A. E. Van Vogt is a good example and many New Wave writers displayed the typical angry young man’s dismissive attitude to ‘chicks’ in their stories. So why did this become such a problem with Cooper’s books? The rise of women’s lib was clearly an issue for him. In a long interview with James Goddard in Science Fiction Monthly in 1975 the first thing he mentions is that ‘American reviewers call me a male chauvinist pig’. His defence is the familiar ‘I love all women’ combined with crude biological determinism (women’s brains are 125cc smaller than men’s so they have an inferior computer in their head) and finishing with ‘let them have totally equal competition … they’ll see that they can’t make it.’ Unsurprisingly this attitude wasn’t going to endear him to anyone, especially given that the 60s and 70s were the heyday of Second Wave Feminism. Cooper even went as far as to write a couple of satires about a world dominated by women – Five to Twelve and Who Needs Men? He was clearly trying to use his writing to tackle this new discourse head-on but was too divorced from the historical and material processes that drive feminism to do anything other than fall back on cliches and biology. At the end of Five to Twelve the hero discovers that he can father only sons – the beginning of the redressing of a world out of balance – but it’s a purely reductive deus ex machina solution.
But is this sufficient to banish Cooper into SF Limbo? He’s not the only writer to be marginalised for offending modern sensibilities. Sax Rohmer’s racism has seen his Fu Manchu books drop off the planet and D. H. Lawrence is well out of favour. But then Cooper is a much better writer than either, and his sexism, no matter how stubbornly prehistoric, only lurches to the foreground in certain books and towards the end of his career (even 15 year old me found himself wincing through The Tenth Planet). His best books deal with survival, human frailty and a series of fascinating situations based around the Captive Universe theme (i.e. ordinary humans trapped in unfamiliar alien environments as part of uplifted colonisation projects). When he wasn’t grinding his axe about the fair sex he wrote intelligent and perceptive books.
He was, however, writing in a tradition of British SF that was very much on the wane, rapidly being eclipsed by the rise of New Wave and the more experimental work of writers like Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard and Tom Disch. Cooper’s books read more like John Wyndham’s novels – allegories of British post-war angst played out by resolutely middle class characters who address each other as ‘Old Boy’ as they down their whiskies and compare their situations to their experiences in the Lower Fourth at school. It’s a style that falls uneasily between two stools – neither fitting in with the resolutely American hard SF of Arthur C. Clarke, or stamping all over convention and propriety in the psychedelic hob-nailed boots of the burgeoning underground scene in London. Cooper himself didn’t take part in the SF literary world, keeping himself pretty much to himself, and the revolution in writing at that time more or less passed him by.
And yet Edmund Cooper at his best was brilliant – hugely entertaining with a direct and often viscerally real grasp of scene, location and character. When he got down off the ill-advised hobby horses he built for himself he produced fantastic science fiction that stands the test of time – Transit and The Cloud Walker being my favourites. His attitude to women was silly, but compared to that of John Osborne or Martin Amis (or the current crop of neanderthal trolls spawned by the dark places of the web) it’s positively enlightened. Despite his faults I think it’s time to bring his writing back in from the cold.