Richard Cowper was born John Middleton Murry Jr., the son of the eminent critic John Middleton Murry. It was probably not an easy background for someone who wanted to be a writer. Although his father at first encouraged his ambitions, when the young John showed him the manuscript for his first novel (written under the name Colin Murry, a family nickname), Murry Sr criticized it so severely that Colin didn’t publish it until after his father had died.
He wrote several mainstream novels under the name Colin Murry, all of them long out of print, but in the mid-1960s he turned to science fiction, taking on a new name, Richard Cowper.
The early novels were entertaining and achieved a certain level of popularity without being particularly serious or groundbreaking. He often wrote humorously and with a distinct satirical edge, and what was noticeable about his work was the humane quality, but the books tended to follow familiar sf scenarios. The best of the early novels was possibly the second, Breakthrough, a psychological thriller in which a man lives simultaneously in two worlds. Both are real, but the question is: is he sane or mad. The idea of parallel worlds was something that he returned to in other novels, such as Worlds Apart, though this early exploration of the theme is the more interesting.
As Cowper’s career developed, his work became richer and more complex, and at the same time his reputation grew higher. Time Out of Mind is the novel that came immediately before his big breakthrough, though it does stand on its own as a harbinger of what was to come. It is a crime novel with a strange time travel element, that starts when, as a boy, Laurie Linton encounters a ghostly figure who instructs him to kill Magobion. Years later, Linton is a member of a UN agency assigned to investigate a drug addict who seems to have acquired supernatural powers. But the trail quickly leads him to the Ministry of Internal Security, lead by the powerful Colonel Magobion.
Cowper’s real breakthrough came with this novel, which is also, some would claim, his best. A supernova in the constellation of Briareus has a devastating effect upon the Earth’s weather, among other things disrupting the Gulf Stream and plunging Britain into a more or less permanent winter. But it has other effects, too, apparently rendering the whole human population infertile. Eventually, we discover that alien entities are taking over human bodies, in consequence the old humanity will disappear, but will be replaced by a new way of life tied together by group consciousness.
At about the same time that The Twilight of Briareus came out, Cowper produced this collection of four novellas which helped to confirm his position as one of the best of that generation of British science fiction writers. The four stories that make up the collection are: “The Custodians”, which takes us to a remote French monastery where the monks jealously guard a room that allows anyone who enters to see into the future; “Paradise Beach” describes a wall screen that is attuned to the individual perceptions of the people who look at it; “The Hertford Manuscript” tells of the discovery of a rare 17th century manuscript which seems to contain the journal of a 19th century time traveller; and “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, set in a future where the very landscape of the country has been radically transformed, was the starting point for his acclaimed White Bird of Kinship sequence.
If The Twilight of Briareus was Cowper’s best individual novel, his masterpiece may well be the three novels that make up the White Bird of Kinship sequence. Building on the future imagined in “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, the first novel, The Road to Corlay, follows the boy, the piper of that original story, who is the herald of a new and better age. As the world tries to recover from the Drowning, which has made Britain into an archipelago of islands, the promise he brings of a new age on the eve of the Fourth Millennium is a revolutionary thought. In A Dream of Kinship, the forces of repression try to destroy the new religion that has grown up at Corlay, but out of the ashes a new dream arises. Finally, in A Tapestry of Time, the legacy of the boy piper is nearly lost, until the true meaning of the White Bird of Kinship is learned.
In 1986, barely 20 years after he started writing science fiction, Richard Cowper declared that he had run out of ideas and simply gave up writing. He died in 2002, just four weeks after the death of his wife.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
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