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British sf masterwork: A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper

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Between 1954 and 1980, Edmund Cooper published thirty novels and collections. None of his books remain in print, none have been considered for Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says of him, Edmund Cooper “died with his reputation at a low ebb; but he was a competent and prolific writer”, which is hardly fulsome praise. In the decades since his death in 1982, Cooper has been almost forgotten. Secondhand copies of his novels are not hard to find, although it seems nothing of his was ever reprinted after 1980. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t published much in the US (during the 1960s and 1970s, DAW had lots of UK sf writers on its list). Of Cooper’s novels, the one which is perhaps mentioned most often approvingly is A Far Sunset. This was first published in 1967, but stayed in print throughout the 1970s.

In 2032 AD, the Americans, Russians, and “United States of Europe” each built an interstellar spacecraft. The American ship was the biggest, the Russian the fastest, and the European the cheapest. This last was named the Gloria Mundi, and her destination was Altair. After twenty years of travel, spent chiefly in hibernation, the crew of twelve arrived in the Altair system… and discovered an inhabitable and inhabited world. They landed. Six went out to explore, but never returned. Three went looking for them, and also disappeared. The remaining trio had no choice but to follow… and were promptly captured by the humanoid Bayani. Only one of the three survived captivity, Paul Marlowe, the ship’s psychiatrist. As Poul Mer Lo, he went native.

The Bayani are described throughout A Far Sunset as possessing a “mediaeval” society, but it seems much more ancient than that. From the description of Baya Nor, the Bayani city, Angkor Wat was plainly an inspiration. As was early Polynesia. The Bayani are ruled by a god-king, always called Enka Ne, who rules with absolute power for one year. He is then sacrificed, and a new Enka Ne is chosen.

The current Enka Ne is intrigued by Marlowe, and visits him in disguise as Shah Shan. He asks to learn English, and Marlowe is astonished by Shah Shan’s fierce intelligence and the speed with which he learns what Marlowe has to teach. Emboldened by this, Marlowe tries to introduce the wheel to the Bayani. The priestly order are immediately against it, but only accept it reluctantly after Enka Ne kills over a hundred of them. Change, then, is not going to be easy. And the current Enka Ne’s reign is not long.

Sure enough, after a new Enka Ne becomes god-king, the school Marlowe has set up is destroyed. Determined not to give in, Marlowe decides to travel a distant mountain which may hold the secret to the Bayani’s origin. This he does, and, yes, he does find the secret of the Bayani. But it’s not enough to effect change.

But on Marlowe’s return to Baya Nor, he learns that Enka Ne has died. And the Bayani oracle has chosen Marlowe to be the new god-king…

Cooper evokes his invented world with skill, and Marlowe is a well-drawn character. A Far Sunset has not aged gracefully, but neither is it as embarrassing as many other books of its time. Some of the science and technology feels a bit 1960s, and the gender politics are definitely from that decade; but the Bayani and Baya Nor are mostly timeless. The writing throughout is solid, and occasionally good without being flashy. While the secret of the Bayani is not obvious – so the reveal does come as a surprise – the existence of a secret is perhaps introduced too late in the story to have much dramatic impact.

Having said all that, there’s not much in A Far Sunset that is actually science fiction. It could be the story of a European explorer cast adrift on a Pacific island whose inhabitants who have lived the same way for centuries. Even the secret behind the origin of the Bayani, and their god Oruri, doesn’t really need to be sf. And that makes A Far Sunset ultimately a disappointing read. It’s by no means a bad book. It’s well-written, with a well-drawn world and protagonist, but it could just have easily been a “European marooned in the South Seas” story. I suspect I shall have to find another novel by Cooper to take its place on my British SF Masterworks list.

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20 thoughts on “British sf masterwork: A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper

  1. Back in the 80s i went through a bit of an Edmund Cooper phase and A Far Sunset was the first of his novels that i read. I have to say that i really enjoyed his works. I haven’t read them since the, but i do keep meaning to start collecting and rereading his books again. It’s be interesting to see how much i’d enjoy them now.

  2. It’s good to see people aree still reading my father’s books. I’m trying to get my biography of him published, but my publisher seems to have gone AWOL, so looks like we’re gonna have to start again..Have you tried any of his stories, such as The Enlightehed Ones, or The Butterflies? Shaun

    • To date, I’ve only read three or four of his novels, but I plan to read more. Thanks for dropping by and commenting. And the biography sounds like an interesting project.

  3. I just saw the words Blake’s Seven, here. Edmund always used to mutter darkly when Blake’s Seven was on telly, coz he thought the BBC had pinched his idea of The Expendables for the series without paying him. There are in fact a lot of similarities between the two, and Blake’s Seven did come up hot on the heels of The Expendables.

    • I think if you check dates you will find that Blakes Seven may have been written before the Expendables was written and published because there has and always has been a long lead time before a series such as this hits the screen. It was certainly not a case of plagiarism by either author as Cooper readily acknowledged in the lectures he regularly gave to young writers where this question often came up.

  4. The plot sounds disturbingly similar to “Avatar.” I can understand their status as out of print. These narratives seem a dime a dozen in the SF genre.

  5. Pingback: Edmund Cooper - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

  6. Pingback: readings & watchings 2011 #2 « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

  7. Shaun is wrong so is the writer of critique over Edmund Cooper’s books. This year will see the whole of Edmund Cooper’s works including some early unpublished ones issued on E-books and audio and he is constantly published abroad. The latest being in France an edition which has included a new prologue written by Cooper which throws new light on his inspirations and poetry.
    If Shaun’s previous article on his father bears any resemblance to the proposed biography perhaps it would be best if he had an independent reader to give him the correct details. For instance Seed of Light was written in 1954 as was Deadly Image, the latter being his first big hit in the U.K. but if Cooper had not been so determined to have his book published in the U.K. it would have been published in the USA a few months after they had received a copy and contracts signed late 1954. While Seed of Light originally in three parts had been published in the u.k. as a one off and only later did Hutchinson agree to the whole being published.
    As for his poetry ,of the 2000+ he wrote Cooper wanted only 50 included in his own selection. Confirmation of this is through official documentation in the Edmund Cooper Archives.
    One web site claims that the copyright is a gray publication i.e. no body is aware of the copyright owner. Wrong, all copyrights of the Edmund Cooper archive which of course includes his poetry ,letters etc. even those written to various wives and girlfriends which all tell different stories about his writing progress and desires, which is not surprising since “inspiration” is a word not used judicially by some writers especially Cooper.; books etc held by the Trust, Cooper himself instructed.
    What is necessary is that the overwhelming desire for Shaun and his family to rewrite history rather than accept various facts which could show them all in a very bad light in the treatment of Cooper in his later years should be acknowledged and then and only then will a true biography of Cooper be acceptable. The Archives of the Edmund Cooper Estate are held by The Edmund Cooper Trust who can be contacted on dfpcantab@yahoo.co.uk and who have to date been extremely considerate and helpful in my own search for the truth.
    pandora.

    • Shaun is wrong so is the writer of critique over Edmund Cooper’s books. This year will see the whole of Edmund Cooper’s works including some early unpublished ones issued on E-books and audio and he is constantly published abroad. The latest being in France an edition which has included a new prologue written by Cooper which throws new light on his inspirations and poetry.

      I’m not sure what you mean by my review being “wrong”. Cooper’s books are currently out of print in the UK, and have been for many years. I’ve seen no publicity regarding the ebooks, so it’s hardly surprising I wasn’t aware of them. I’m also puzzled how Cooper managed to write a new prologue to a book given that he died in 1982.

      • Cooper re-wrote a number of his prologues before 1982 and left them with the Trust for inclusions in new editions. I understand that the new e-books by Gollancz Gateway series will not contain these but the new Cooper web site will.Hope this clears up your puzzlement.

  8. Hello all ,can anyone help im trying to find Merry christmas ms minerva by Edmund cooper.Thank you. Mike.

  9. I first read the expendable series after finding them at a jumble sale when i was about 10 or 11 in the 70′s and was hooked, all my pocket money was spent in john menzies until i had all that was available at the time, cloud walker is the one that really sticks in my mind but i remember them all with great fondness and great to see them finally out in ebook form i,m of to amazon now to load up my kindle and wallow in nostagia.

  10. How nice to know that the work of the Edmund Cooper Trust has at last been recognised and that the e-books published by Gollancz have at last been made available despite the concerted efforts of a few to undermine the sales of this venture. Merry Christmas Ms Minerva is to be published with the original ending which included an epilogue for a possible future novel. This should be available early 2014 as will a collection of Cooper’s unpublished short stories and poetry. Contact us for further information.

    • Its good to see that people are still reading Edmund Cooper. Although he has not been in print for a long time. I have read a lot of his work, and always check out bookshops in the hope of finding any I have not read.

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