- A collection of 15 short stories, with an introduction by the author
- Published by Coronet in 1971
- Social SF
- 220 pages
Though I’m not the biggest fan of anthologies, a single-author collection can be a great way to scout out an author’s style, in both writing and themes. Even if I know absolutely nothing about an author, I’m usually willing to give one of their collections a look if the back cover is interesting enough. That’s how I discovered C.L. Moore and Keith Laumer, and there are a lot of other authors of a certain vintage whom I know largely through their short story collections. I had never heard of Edmund Cooper before I saw this book, but I took that gamble once again. And it turned out quiet a treat. Though not the one I was hoping for.
The thing that immediately struck me is that Cooper was British. The stories in this collection were written across the fifties and sixties, and my knowledge of that period largely comes through the lens of science fiction from the United States. Having a British author to add to my rapidly growing stack of twentieth century science fiction was an unexpected boon. Though in retrospect, the name ‘Edmund’ was probably a clue. In truth, the content of the stories doesn’t diverge to much from the baseline I understand of the other side of the Atlantic. There are stories about alien invasion, weird technology, tales of alternate pasts and possible futures. Everything you’d look for in a collection like this.
What sets them apart is the delivery. These stories are dark. Some of them are downright horrible. Anyone who thinks SF from the mid-20th century is just professors discussing science is in for a rude awakening. The opening story, from which the collection takes its title, kicks things off in grisly fashion. It’s a retelling of the Nativity, from the perspective of Herod’s men. After much talk of butchering babies and assaulting their weeping mothers, the soldiers catch up to and then kill the three wise men, before turning their weapons against Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus, killing them all. We then jump ahead to Queen Victoria’s time to see a Britain still under the yoke of Roman rule, with all the brutal tragedy that entails. Bleak stuff, and the collection doesn’t get much cheerier from there.
My favourite story in the collection is also the darkest. At only six pages long, ‘The Life and Death of Plunky Goo’ tells of a ventriloquist and his doll who become international superstars. But the hauntingly prescient depiction of child advertising soon rears its ugly head, and Plunky Goo and his puppeteer soon find themselves with different goals. A conflict of interest that leads to a sharp rise in child mortality. It is horrifyingly dark, and immediately set itself among my favourite short stories. The most remarkable part of all is that there’s not a science fictional element to be seen. It’s just a man, a doll, and a tough decision, that have wide-ranging ramifications. It’s social SF with a focus on the social.
And that’s the common theme here. Throughout all the short stories, Cooper’s main interest is in how the events and technologies affect the world as a whole. A lot of the short stories, particularly in the latter half of the book, didn’t really land for me. But whether it’s Plunky Goo or ‘Death Watch,’ when Cooper hits the heights, they are incredibly high indeed. I’d be interested to see some of his longer works, and to find out which shorts they follow in the tradition of. Because even if Jupiter Laughs isn’t up there with my favourite collections, ‘The Life and Death of Plunky Goo’ makes the whole book worth buying by itself.
Did you enjoy this book? If so, you may also like:
Ahead of Time, by Henry Kuttner
Nine by Laumer, by Keith Laumer
The Wandering Earth, by Cixin Liu