Monday, June 16, 2014

Sea-Horse in the Sky - Edmund Cooper

“My dear,” he said lightly. “You must allow me the privilege of a certain quaint hypocrisy. A gentleman never does his nut in the presence of a lady.”

ACE Books, May 1978 - Cover artist David Bergen
Sea-Horse in the Sky, by Edmund Cooper is the first "vintage" (from 1969) Science Fiction novel that I've read recently that provided that "gee-wow" sense of wonder that turned me on to the genre when I was a nerdy kid. No, it hasn't made the upper echelons of Sci-Fi classics, but it’s a pretty cool book anyway, and it would have probably been a favorite had I read it back in junior high.

The novel begins with 16 strangers waking up in coffin-like containers on an empty street in the middle of a plain in seeming wilderness. On one side of the street is a hotel, and on the other side sits a grocery store. An empty cab is parked in front of the hotel, and an empty Saab is parked by the grocery store. The street seems to exist as something seen on a film set, disappearing into forest land in either direction. A hotel, a supermarket and the road, and 16 strangers waking in coffins, with no memory of how they got there.

As the strangers adjust to their surroundings they discover that even though they are from different countries, and speak in different languages, they can each understand each other, as though the speaker is being dubbed into the listener’s native language. They soon come to the realization that all of them were on the same flight from Stockholm to London, and that was the last thing that any of them remember.

It’s one of those setups that was all the rage a couple years ago with shows like Lost and Persons Unknown, and even further back from shows like Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. Stories like this are irresistible to me, more fantasy than anything scientific. As each stranger overcomes their shock and makes their way into the hotel, they convene in the lobby bar to find it well stocked with much needed libation. Inside the lobby of the hotel they find their luggage waiting. There is no desk clerk, no staff, no one else in the town. Theories are tossed about, guesses are made, hysterics erupt, but eventually they all come to the same conclusion that they've been placed in this setting by unknown means for reasons that have yet to be revealed. Eight men and eight women, strangers to each other except for two married couples.

In addition to the stocked bar of the hotel, they learn that the grocery store is well stocked with canned goods. Nothing fresh, but a supply of food that can be prepared, thanks to electricity and running water at the hotel. The cars are empty props, no engines, no working parts to them. They are all alone and stranded and, it would seem, paired off.

The nominal leader of the group is Russell Grahame, a Londoner, a Member of Parliament and a man at a crossroads in his career. He doesn't particularly want the role of leader, but accepts it dutifully. Introductions are made and roles are established.

I should mention here that Edmund Cooper was a prolific science fiction novelist and reviewer and gained the reputation of a misogynist, so I couldn't help but look for examples of it in the novel. I didn't have to look hard. The women, except for Russian beauty Anna Markova, (who wisely pairs off with Russell Grahame) are mostly relegated to positions of cooking and housekeeping. None are considered apt enough to handle the homemade crossbows and weapons devised by British civil servant Robert Hyman. One is even jettisoned via suicide early in the novel. Even so, I've been exposed to far more overt piggery by other authors, many of whom don’t have the disadvantage of living in another generation than ours. Also, there is a strange sidestep into a diary entry that is worth mentioning. It’s only one chapter, and is written by Robert Hyman, who reveals to the reader that he’s homosexual. Apparently, Edmund Cooper didn't feel like exploring this dynamic any further than this one brief diary entry, because no mention of it is made again. And as for the rest of them, the sex in the novel mostly in the boudoirs behind closed doors, except for one hot rutting scene between a couple of stone-age "savages" who show the stiff-upper-lipped set how it's done.  Also, Cooper was an atheist (not exactly unusual with science fiction authors) so I expected a little bit of religion bashing here and there. The only notable aspect of that is that no mention of God or a Higher Being was brought up. There was no argument among the castaways of a heaven, hell, death or afterlife other than Anna Markova admitting, as something of an afterthought, to Russell that she’s an Atheist. This seemed a little bit strange; however Cooper decides to hold those wildcards for the final chapters, which I won’t give away here.

As the novel progresses, our castaways discover that they’re not exactly alone. The grocery store, the hotel bar, the electricity and plumbing are kept stocked and maintained by invisible guardians. The only conclusion they can draw is that they’re housed in some form of zoo. Also, nightmarish glimpses of spider-like robots are seen, as are flying fairy type beings with flaming hair (don’t laugh!) who can disappear. It's all a bit troubling, and one castaway has a mental breakdown after discovering the spider-bots stocking the grocery store! Another is killed in a hunter’s trap, and still another is dispatched in an failed attempt to trap and follow a spider-bot. In addition to the strange and alien beings glimpsed, it’s discovered that other tribes live in the forests beyond the road leaving town. One is medieval in customs, and the other is almost stone-age in their evolutionary path, barely able to communicate with our modern day castaways.

Cooper paces the novel rather well, in spite of a lot of narrative summary. Perhaps the ending is rushed a bit, but I don’t really have a complaint about that. After all, it’s a paperback science fiction adventure. It’s pretty much a page-turner to be enjoyed and consumed and shelved, or traded in for a Mickey Spillane novel afterward. 

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