Saturday 24 August 2013

Profundis – Richard Cowper (1979)

Richard Cowper is a pseudonym for John Middleton Murry Jr, son of John Middleton Murry, a significant English writer and critic during the pre WWII era. Murry Jr first wrote fiction under the pseudonym Colin Murry before then venturing into science fiction during the 1960’s. Profundis is my first encounter with Cowper. I was lured by both the desire to read some 1970’s science fiction and also the book’s fantastic old school cover art.

Profundis is a post nuclear apocalypse novel, the kind of science fiction work that was rife the 1970’s when the cold war was growing ever colder and the production of nuclear weapons was escalating out of control. Set in the then near but just far enough away future of the early twenty first century, the gigantic submarine HMS Profundis trawls the depths of the oceans, staying out of the way of the harmful radiation generated by WWIII.

The eponymous submarine turns out to be a microcosm of what it left behind, with all of the social, economic and political problems that had blighted humanity before the unthinkable happened. This premise allows Cowper to satirically critique humanity’s flaws. The plot is driven by the misadventures of the innocent yet talented protagonist Tom Jones (no not that Tom Jones). Tom attracts the attention of the fantastically named Admiral Horatio Prood, who is up for some messianic manipulations. Initially the most interesting fact about Tom is that he can talk to dolphins and fortunately for him it turns out that the dolphins quite like him. Despite Tom’s talents he’s totally naïve, even about himself; a characteristic that allows Cowper to show how the innocent can be corrupted by the system.

Despite such serious themes Profundis is not science fiction at its best, but it doesn’t stoop to pulp level either. Cowper’s stylistic abilities make the novel an enjoyable one to read in a Sunday afternoon movie kind of way. Cowper writes with a nice dose of sly humour and his style is subtle and lyrical in places. Apparently Cowper was well known for displaying a more human centric approach to his science fiction writing, rather than relying on technology and outrageous plot devices; something reviewers of the time often criticized him for. Profundis does indeed display such characteristics, but also present are the familiar science fiction tropes of androids, a conscious super computer and humans with enhanced psychic abilities. Perhaps Cowper had been listening to his critics?

The main trouble with Profundis is that it initially seems to one of those science fiction novels that is building to a mind-blowing twist, but then unfortunately it doesn’t quite happen. It also doesn’t help that the last third is a bit muddled both in terms of plot and pacing.  Profundis ends with a mildly satisfying conclusion when what was really needed was something dramatic to underline the novel’s thematic concerns.

To be fair Cowper was probably a much better science fiction writer than Profundis would suggest. Apparently The Twilight of Briareus (1974) and The Road to Corlay (1978) are the ones to read. Cowper was a good friend of the great Christopher Priest, who wrote a nice obituary when Cowper died in 2002. If Cowper comes highly recommended by Priest then I’ll give him another chance. No doubt he’ll crop up again in one of my favourite second hand bookstores in the near yet just far enough away future.

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