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Cowper, Richard

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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Pseudonym of UK author John Middleton Murry Jr (1926-2002), son of the famous critic; Cowper also published four non-sf novels under the name Colin Murry, beginning with The Golden Valley (1958); and, as Colin Middleton Murry – Colin being an early nickname, though he was normally addressed as John – two autobiographical volumes, One Hand Clapping (1975; vt I at the Keyhole 1975), which deals mainly with his relationship with his difficult, intense, eccentric father, and Shadows on the Grass (1977).

After working for some years as a teacher, and finding his non-sf novels to be only moderately successful, he adopted the Cowper pseudonym for Breakthrough (1967). Not conventional Genre SF, being more richly characterized and romantic than is usual, its story of ESP and a kind of reverse Reincarnation is sensitively told and given unusual reverberations by its use of a leitmotif from Keats. It remains one of Cowper's finest works, and its romantic theme – it is a meditation on the power of the mind to sense Parallel Worlds, and upon the flimsiness and limitations of this one's reality – crops up often in his work, sometimes in images of déjà vu; as does its venue, a Near-Future Southern England on the cusp of transformation. These characteristics feature in many of the short stories assembled in The Custodians (coll 1976) and later collections, the title story being much praised in the USA and nominated for several awards.

In these works, Cowper clearly takes off from and comments sensitively upon H G Wells's often reiterated conviction that England was so irretrievably muddled that only a radical (perhaps fantastically sudden) transformation could save her in the end; this sense also informs what is generally considered his best singleton, The Twilight of Briareus (1974). In this tale England has been transformed, through a disruption in world weather caused by a supernova explosion, into a snowbound Arcadia; from the same apparent source later come psychic influences which lead to complex interaction between humans and Aliens. The story – like all of Cowper's best work – is charged with a strange, expectant vibrancy; its explorations of human Perception demonstrate an openness not unlike that described in John Keats's remarks about "negative capability" – remarks that Cowper has quoted in print. Keats's plea was for a kind of waiting expectancy of the mind, which should be kept free of preconceptions. Cowper does not usually link telepathy with the idea of the Superman, as is more normally found in US sf uses of the convention; instead, it can be seen in his work as an analogue of "negative capability".

Although the air and style of Cowper's sf is a long way from traditional Hard SF, it frequently makes use of traditional themes. Kuldesak (1972) deals with an underground society on a Post-Holocaust Earth (see Pocket Universe), and one man who finds the surface against the will of an all-powerful Computer. Clone (1972), which saw Cowper's first real breakthrough into the US market, is an amusing near-future Satire. Time Out of Mind (1973), like the earlier Domino (1971), rather mechanically applies psi tropes (see Psi Powers) to thriller-like plots involving Time Travel and the rescue of a future UK from the totalitarian implications of the twentieth century. Worlds Apart (1974) is a not wholly successful comedy, burlesquing several sf Clichés in a story of an alien world on which an sf novel is being written about Urth, while back on Earth an sf writer writes about the alien world. Profundis (1979) places Cowper's now-expected mild-mannered Telepathic protagonist in a huge submarine, which has survived nuclear Holocaust and, misinformed by dolphins anxious to keep human violence at bay, stays submerged while its captain dementedly plans to cast the hero as Christ in a real-life reenactment (see Ship of Fools).

Cowper remains best known for his Corlay sequence, comprising the prefatory "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" (March 1976 F&SF), The Road to Corlay (1978; with "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" added, as coll 1979), A Dream of Kinship (1981) and A Tapestry of Time (1982). Here, what might be called the pathos of expectancy typical of his best work is finally resolved, for the essential parts of the sequence take place in a Ruined Earth England some 1000 years after changing sea-levels have inundated much low-lying country, Archipelago venue which hearkens – perhaps consciously – back to Richard Jefferies's After London, or Wild England (1885), though that tale is not irradiated with islands, and which also clearly resembles the West Country featured in Christopher Priest's coeval A Dream of Wessex (1977). In this land, an oppressive theocracy is threatened by the solace offered through a young lad's redemptive visions of a new Religion, whose emblem is the White Bird of Kinship. The sequence proceeds through the establishment of a new church, its stiffening into its own repressive rituals, and its rebirth. Throughout, a sweet serenity of image and storytelling instinct – Cowper has always been a gripping teller of tales – transfigure conventional plot-patterns into testament. The Corlay books so clearly sum up Cowper's imaginative sense of a redeemed England that it is perhaps unsurprising that he wrote relatively little after them, beyond Shades of Darkness (1986), an elegiac ghost story. [PN/JC/DRL]

see also: Children in SF; Clones; Disaster; Eschatology; Gothic SF; Immortality; Metaphysics; Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference; Music; Paranoia; Under the Sea.

John Middleton Murry Jr

born Bridport, Dorset: 9 May 1926

died Brighton, Sussex: 29 April 2002




individual titles

collections and stories


about the author

  • Richard Cowper. "Backwards Across the Frontier" (November 1975 Foundation #9) [pp4-21: mag/]


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