Edmund Cooper

Overman300There’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.

whoneedsmenFor 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.

transitBut 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.

far sunsetAnd 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.








19 responses to “Edmund Cooper”

  1. Adrian Cole Avatar

    Excellent article. I started picking up Cooper’s books as Coronet brought them out and was rarely (if ever) disappointed. You are quite right in saying that he should be rescued from oblivion. He deserves to be recognised far more.

  2. Andrew I. Porter Avatar
    Andrew I. Porter

    I read his books as issued by Ballantine here in the USA—Seed of Light (which I read at the age of 13, in summer camp), Deadly Image, Tomorrow’s Gift (both with excellent Richard Powers cover paintings), The Cloud Walker—and other US publishers including Lancer and Berkley. The three Hodder editions I have (published 1968-70) have photo covers. His books are still valued by we now elderly collectors.

  3. Paul Fraser Avatar

    A perceptive and illuminating post. Your comments about Cooper’s attitude towards the ‘Sex Wars’ of the time brought back vague memories of one or two of his books. Although I probably couldn’t have articulated it at the time, I think it was the reactionary nature of the likes of ‘Who Needs Men’, etc. that put me off reading him. And maybe not for the views particularly but the bludgeoning of one’s head with them.
    A couple of other things:
    1. That’s a lovely image at the top of the article, where did you get it from?
    2. You state ‘many New Wave writers displayed the typical angry young man’s dismissive attitude to ‘chicks’ in their stories.’ I can’t say I noticed this at the time (a young man’s unenlightenment, probably), did you have any specific examples in mind?

    1. John Guy Collick Avatar
      John Guy Collick

      1. The image is Chris Foss’s cover for The Overman Culture. You can see this and a huge range of his fantastic artwork at http://www.chrisfossart.com.
      2. I think Ballard himself often typecast women as vampiric and controlling (Jane in Concrete Island) or clinging (Laing’s sister in High Rise). In the US Harlan Ellison could sometimes treat women and sex in a rather dismissive and gloating way (‘Bleeding Stones’). Philip Jose Farmer and Barry Malzberg ditto. To be fair I think these writers were negotiating their way through the classic Feminism vs Marxism split in politics in Europe and (to a lesser extent) the US. Obviously New Wave gave rise to a brilliant generation of women SF writers who would have struggled to find a voice in the Campbell era.

  4. Paul Fraser Avatar

    It never occurred to me that Ballard may have had this kind of attitude: as most of the characters in his fiction are all a bit mad it is hard to notice. I’ll bear it in mind as I think I’m going to reread his short fiction again from the start. Not sure if I read TBC: I’ve got a copy but it doesn’t ring any bells. Ellison/Malzberg I read a lot of when I was younger but, again, this didn’t register.
    I think the rise of women in SF was more progressive, and didn’t necessarily rely exclusively on the New Wave for a breakout: although there were only handful around the time of Campbell, Boucher & McComas published quite a few in the fifties, Zenna Henderson, etc. And there was Celle Lalli editing Amazing and Fantastic in the early sixties, etc. Judith Merril around at the same time, etc.

  5. dee cooper Avatar
    dee cooper

    Orion books have not only issued all his books, including those first printed under pseudonyms but have also published a compilation in hardback of three of his most popular titles. They will also publish new editions of his short stories and a new compilation of his poetry is to be published early 2017. However for those who have always supported Cooper and his writings, constant comments relating to his apparent stance on women has meant that his books have been relegated when in fact Cooper has always been appreciated by sf fans.The story you quote has been seen out of context and cannot be taken seriously when the family member in question had just publicly written that his father’s lifetime work was considered “….trash.”

  6. dee cooper Avatar
    dee cooper

    I have just read James Goddard’s comments re. your article on Edmund Cooper. I am suprised that Goddard still suggests that Cooper’s alcoholism meant that Cooper would possibly have written more sf. When Goddard knew Cooper he was going through what he termed “a dark night of the soul” and an extremely unhappy marriage from which he wished to be extricated. Cooper had a family genetic problem in that alcohol could not be processed by his body and although he stopped drinking, his family and now it appears his so-called friends continue to participate in what Cooper called the “Albatross Syndrome” i.e. that even if you weren’t suffering from alcoholism people would always remember that perhaps you once did and this obviously affected what one did when you were sober. Goddard is right in one thing Cooper did not want to write sf anymore, and he had already had had accepted two new plots and researched the whole on subjects which were on those he had always wanted to write about.

  7. Glynis Avatar

    Unbelievably I have only just seen this website but then I haven’t really been looking for anything on Edmund Cooper. As his eldest daughter I was not aware that his problem with alcohol was due to a genetic failing. This failing was certainly not evident in his parents, grandparents, sibling, cousins, children or grandchildren. He liked alcohol but seemingly did not have the ability to know when to stop.
    His books have been neglected for various reasons which is a shame. Personally I am not a sci-fi fan but those in my circle who are appreciate his writing. I believe his views on women probably stem from the fact that he was the son of Victorian parents. His arguments are remarkably similar to those who opposed female suffrage and attitudes prevalent during the first decades of the 20th century. For example as late as 1915 it was believed that the female brain was incapable of raising a child and understanding how to vote.
    There is no published biography of him which is a sad omission, although I understand there are various copyright issues. However, names, dates, and facts are not subject to copyright so maybe a short vignette of him would be possible some day.

  8. Roy Robinson Avatar
    Roy Robinson

    Edmund Cooper was a Northern working class lad who went to the local grammar school then left at 16 and like Jack Kerouac served in the Merchant Navy in World War Two.This gave him a very different outlook to middle class sci-fi writers.I could imagine him supporting both Thatcher and Brexit.Because of his background he did not see computer technology robots etc or feminism as liberating as has been born out by the actual deterioration of life chances for blue collar men in the decades since his death. Liberal attacks on him amount to little more than the old statement “This animal is vicious when it is attacked it defends itself”.

  9. Richard Avery Avatar
    Richard Avery

    The person who goes by the name Dee Cooper is really called Dawn, and as she and Edmund were never married, I’m uncertain why she has adopted the surname ‘Cooper’. If they had indeed got married it would have been an unlawful marriage, as Edmund and Valerie did not get divorced. In one of Dawn’s replies, above, she seems to have gotten a bit confused about the gender of the child of Edmund’s who met Terry Pratchett, when she says that he has declared all of Edmund’s work to be trash. This comment of hers seems a bit out of place in the context – ironically, as she herself is complaining about something being read out of context too. Dawn, when you read this, could you perhaps name the person who called Edmund’s work trash, and also quote the actual sentence in which this word occurs, plus when and where it was made so public. To save you searching through the article ‘Almost Tomorrow’ by Shaun Cooper in Book and Magazine Collector magazine July 2006, I can tell you that the word ‘trash’ is not mentioned once in it. As for JGC’s article about Edmund, I personally think it is very fair and accurate assessment and very well presented. My only complaint is that the comment by James Goddard seems to not be here.

  10. dee page Avatar
    dee page

    I have only just read these comments,II am not sure who it is who has called himself Richard Avery in this uninformed comment. First Dawn and Edmund had a relationship which lasted longer than his marriage to Valerie and it was his request that she call herself by his surname, and it was he who called her his wife. A divorce was filed in 1982 but his untimely death before the final decree absolute was granted meant that his desire to marry Dawn could not be fulfilled.At this time Dawn was living with Edmund the only person who appeared to care. HIs children influenced by Valerie as often happens in marital breakdowns did not visit and Cooper told the hospital in his final illness that he wanted to see none of them and certainly notValerie whom he had seen rarely since they split. The marriage on the whole an unhappy one for Edmund. The family’s cover up or wish to pretend that this important relationship both in his literary and everyday existence was so important to Cooper . continues. After all Valerie also called herself Cooper while remaining unmarried and while Cooper was also married to his first wife so I wonder why this continues to be such an issue with them. There was no confusion as to the daughter who met Terry Pratchett and this child did not call her father’s work trash but another of his children did; a pity that even now Richard Avery. a character invented by Cooper and used as a pseudonym later is being used to continue what can only be construed as rewriting history. As to his daughter’s comments about her father’s work much of the anti-women stance was encouraged by his editors and basically neither he nor they knew when to stop. it was a far more simple life then….As to his drinking this information was provided by various specialist and the reason that his relatives historically showed no signs was because they belonged to the Primitive Methodist religious group where alcahol was forbidden ;.incidentally Dee Cooper is not nor ever has been a name used by Dawn either in her own writing career or in joint works with Edmund Cooper. I am part of the trust managing the Cooper estate and while we have a duty of care regarding Cooper’s work the minutiae and constant uninformed remarks about Dawn and the staff of the trust is getting rather tedious. However if you are really interested in this author’s works the Trust remains to answer your questions

  11. Neil Nichol Avatar
    Neil Nichol

    Read them, collected them and enjoyed them as a young teen. First girlfriend stole the lot off me when young teen. Pinned the covers on her bedroom door. The artwork was sublime. Made me pick it up in the first place. First novels to bring me out of childhood. Miss him.

  12. Tim Burstall Avatar
    Tim Burstall

    I’m puzzled why the later books didn’t make it into films, Kronk is amazing and the Tenth Planet would make a very interesting film in our ecological times. Cooper for me as a teen in the sixties was way ahead of his time. Fabulous storyteller.

  13. Bob Johnston Avatar

    I only read a few of his books but they have lingered in my memory. Sure there were a few cringe moments (The Tenth Planet, I’m looking at you) but overall he was just a great writer. 45 years later he is one of only a few whose books are still on my shelves, yellowing and falling apart from re-reading.

  14. Jon Johnson Avatar
    Jon Johnson

    I started reading SF in the 60s and almost immediately found Edmund Cooper and JG Ballard to be well above the rest. While JGB has remained in print poor Cooper has virtually vanished from the bookshelves. When I first read them All Fools Day, Five to Twelve, Who Needs Men, The Overman Culture, Uncertain Midnight and the brilliant The Cloud Walker were among my favourite novels. They still resonate 50 years later. His atheism and questions about sex and robotics were years in front of their time. Although the writing by todays standards may seem a bit stilted at times it’s a great shame he doesn’t have the recognition he deserves. Look at Agatha Christie, Neville Shute indeed Ian Fleming all dated, but imagine them disappearing from the shops or libraries! I can’t recommend Cooper enough, they are all available on Amazon Kindle go on do yourself a favour and enjoy this wonderful British SF pathfinder!

  15. Jimmy Avatar

    I read Transit many years ago, loved it and re-read it several times over the years, most recently a few months ago. I liked it so much, despite what I perceived to be a superfluous romantic line in it, that I bought several other Edmund Cooper sci-fi books on eBay……original Coronet editions with the great artwork.

    I must say, despite really liking Transit, I find the others which I bought to be just about unreadable. I’m 61 years old and lived through the very times referred to by other posts above, including the era in which Cooper wrote these books. I’m not a feminist, or rabidly PC whatsoever but I found myself gritting my teeth and squirming in a kind of vicarious embarrassment at the way women are portrayed and described in Cooper’s books. Sexual references and tasteless remarks abound and The Tenth Planet refers to “fondling women’s tits” and, of course, the ‘hero’ has to have sex with a Minervan, described in squirmingly embarrassing phrases. I just couldn’t stand it any more and have given up on it, along with another three.

    I don’t think Cooper’s style is necessarily a product of the age in which he wrote them; many other sci-fi authors didn’t feel the need to include blatant sexual themes, described in fairly offensive language, in order to spice up their books.

    I’ve given up on Edmund Cooper and am very disappointed to do so. They’re a sci-fi equivalent of ‘ Love Thy Neighbour’ or ‘The black and white minstrel show’ or ‘Rising Damp’ ..squirmingly embarrassing and leaving one wondering “how on earth did we find that sort of stuff entertaining?”

  16. Alice Avatar

    Read the article and comments with interest. Some of Cooper’s novels were good and very competently written but I couldn’t hack The Expendables at all, which I think he wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Avery. His final novel, written under his own name, was “Merry Christmas, Ms Minerva.” The first part was a reasonably perceptive premonition of early 21st century society. The second part was just appalling and pornographic. Nothing at all to do with sci-fi or anything else for that matter. A sad epitaph for him.

  17. Nicky Kay Avatar
    Nicky Kay

    I am re-reading “The Overman Culture”. I loved it as a teenager in the 1970s. I am enjoying it for a second time. Yes, the mild sexism does grate now, but it is till a good novel. However, I don’t think it was edited very well at the time.

  18. Glynis Greenman Avatar
    Glynis Greenman

    What has happened to the Edmund Cooper Trust?

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