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British sf masterwork: A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper

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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