Fri 21 Aug 2015
RICHARD COWPER – Out There Where the Big Ships Go. Pocket, paperback original; 1st printing, October 1980. Cover art: Don Maitz.
A wonderfully designed and colorful work of art for the cover of a fascinating collection of short stories, also colorful, sparkling and intricately designed. I’ve never read any of Richard Cowper’s novels, many but not all of which have been published in the US, and perhaps I shall. Or perhaps Cowper was an author like Harlan Ellison, and his forte was short fiction only. On the basis of this collection, it is worth finding out.
The first story is also the title of the collection, and the cover illustrates it well. A young boy unknowingly turns out to be the generational catalyst for mankind on our evolutionary path to the stars, based on one chosen leader’s proficiency in The Game, designed by an alien race to determine whether or not we are ready.
Trying to summarize the story in one paragraph such as the above I realize is a hopeless task. I’ll refrain from trying further and say only that while it’s an old idea, Cowper comes at it from a new direction and tells it in fine fashion.
“The Custodians” is a gem of a story about free will versus a preordained universe, one that stretches over nearly a thousand years time but one that takes place only in an isolated monastery in Europe. The question is, will Marcus Spindrift’s final vision come true, or can it be averted? Or if he had published the Exploratio Spiritualis, would the world have taken its warning about greed and the search for power seriously enough to avert a full-fledged worldwide disaster?
Once again its the telling, sharp and precise, yet again at an angle, that makes the difference between this story and anything similar written in a 1940s issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.
“Paradise Beach” is the shortest story in the collection, and the slightest, about a piece of art, a neo-anamorphic window, if you will, upon, well, a paradise that may be more real than even the artist (may have) intended.
“The Hertford Manuscript” takes the hero of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and as a sequel of sorts to that story flings him into the past, that of London in 1665 and (temporarily?) strands him there. By the time you have finished this one, you will have suffered through the Great Plague nearly as much as being there yourself. Beautifully written.
But in many ways, even more so is “The Web of the Magi,” the last story in the collection and by far the longest. In the year 1886 an engineer trying to map the path for a telegraphic link across the land of Persia finds himself in a lost world, one whence came the Magi of the Christmas story. Overseeing this world is a beautiful woman, of course, and the two of them make beautiful music together, but in trade for the key to such a paradise, there is always a …
The story gets a little too mystical for me at the end, but until that time it had me as enchanted as the hero of the tale himself. This is a story that is nearly as much fantasy in style as science fiction, but somehow Cowper manages to keep at least one foot on the ground at all times. If you like lost race stories, you will love this one.
This is a book that will be appeal to you if you prefer atmosphere rather than action in the science fiction that you read. I’m fond of space opera myself, but books such as this one seem to stay with me longer than do tales of derring-do on worlds light-years away from ours, as fun as they may be.