The Overman Culture (1972) by Edmund Cooper is without doubt the strangest, most unreasonable, far-fetched, peculiar and probably unnecessary story ever told. The mystery hangs together very well, but its explanation is not far from drivelsome. It’s a mercifully short book, and I say merciful because a pay off like that, even with a reasonable build up, is probably not worth the wait.
Yet still pick it up. The idea of trying to overcome a world made of fantasy is such a compelling theme, and it doesn’t matter if it’s somewhere between The Truman Show, The Stepford Wives and The Matrix, the very fact that it’s got Zeppelins in it betrays its fast-beating steampunk heart.
Edmund Cooper (1926 – 1982), who also wrote under the names Richard Avery, George Kinley, Broderick Quain and Martin Lester (those are just the ones I know about) wrote quickly, like many SF authors, and his books are typical to the genre, and very often about one person against the world, and very often a post-apocalyptic world at that.
Time and again Edmund Cooper has been in trouble for his supposed attitude towards women and gender equality. This is always problematic when one of your favourite writers turns out to have had an unethical or downright amoral (or should I just say ‘wrong’) stance concerning something. I think of the problems I’ve had with Céline over the years, and no matter how much one can ignore these things, or write them off as culturally specific or inherited traits, it still doesn’t make it easy. In Cooper’s case with gender equality, it seems that while he believed in equality, he didn’t give it much thought, and even less when it came to expressing it. Although quotes have surfaced which make Edmund Cooper look like a misogynist, and Céline look like a Nazi, I can in both cases think of quotes which redress or would at least attenuate these sentiments.
In the case of Edmund Cooper, his Wikipedia entry notes that the novel Five to Twelve (1968) ends with the phrase "if we do not make any more mistakes, we can create a balanced world of men and women", which would seem fair enough.
Whichever way the cookie crumbles, Edmund Cooper was one of these writers that was in big demand when he was alive, for the quick fix SF he wrote, which was always of interest to the fans of the genre. In the 1980s, the science fiction section of our local bookshops always featured a row of his titles, but nowadays I’m lucky if they even turn up in the second-handies.
The Overman Culture is one of the better written Edmund Cooper novels in my opinion. They pretty much always had far-fetched and fantastic premises, but this wasn’t always dealt with in a style that was completely riveting. Many writers come alive when writing about children and childhood, and Edmund Cooper wasn’t an exception. It must have been great fun to write The Overman Culture, simply because of the massive jam that Cooper creates — Spencer Tracy, Queen Victoria, Apollo 12, Gone with the Wind and Emily Bronte, all hemmed into the same mad circumstance.
What I recall as being most dear about The Overman Culture was however the research that the young protagonist does to establish what the hell is going on in his world. It’s a simple metaphor for something that every teenager goes through to a degree, when the facts of the universe are there to be discovered for the first time. Going to the library, or the cinema, both are valid explorations and discoveries as a young person, there is lurking an expectation that new knowledge will be found, but often that new knowledge just generates more and crazier questions. And as this goes on, and as the hero’s relationship with his parents deteriorates, we inch closer and closer to the truth.
It’s one of the great catharses of science fiction that in a good book like this, we reach the end with the truth in hand, although the reality of life is that generally, although we get the facts, the truth eludes us like a shifting horizon, remaining as a philosophical promise as opposed to a dramatic revelation which will resolve everything on page 190.
‘The night spent in the library had been harrowing, exciting and finally restful. For the first time in their lives, forty-three human beings felt both free and united. They had been made free by their discovery of the truth; and they had been united by the discovery of their origin.’
This is why it’s such a great metaphor. Should the world turn out to be an illusion, as it often does, so very much would be explained.