The Gold at the Starbow's End: by Frederik Pohl

It was perhaps inevitable that it fell to an old-timer like Pohl to chart the decline of America following the assassinations of the 1960s and the supreme folly of Vietnam. No other sf story so effectively captures the death of hope at that time, or the subsequent exploitation of conspiracies to fragment and dispel opposition. The latter is a phenomenon which Noam Chomsky has commented upon repeatedly, viewing conspiracy theory as the most ineffective form of political dissent. But where does that leave Pohl, whose story quite perfectly poses a generational conflict which is suddenly thrown into context by a space mission made futile by conspiracy.

In an America wracked by riots and social unrest, the President and his scientific adviser, Dr Knefhausen, announce a mission to Planet Aleph in Alpha Centauri, crewed by the very bravest and best, the cream of the nation's youth. Besides the announced objectives of the mission, they hope the country will rally to the cause, as it did briefly for the moon landings, and that a shared sense of purpose and hope might renew the social contract, or at least consolidate the status quo. The young are duly dispatched into space, and the President collects his kudos. Mission accomplished. Except perhaps for the astronauts. At first they send back regular mission reports which contain personal messages as well as data relating to onboard experiments. They make a number of startling scientific breakthroughs, for which the President is delighted to accept credit. Later the messages become bitter as the astronauts realise the mission is a dupe - they will never reach Alpha Centauri and were never intended to; in disgust they turn to the I Ching and the Tarot and various exotic philosophies for comfort. They practice tantric sex. They start families. One of them dies and is somehow brought back to life. They invent a faster than light drive, but refuse to share the secret because it would be irresponsible. And it is now that the astronauts have turned into space-faring hippies that the President quickly passes blame for the mission onto Knefhausen, who laments the conspiracy of hippies above and hippies below. His execution is not enough to save the President, or even to save the country from civil war. And at any rate it does not matter - nothing matters, because the astronauts are now returning home, armed by their mission rather than for it, and their revenge threatens more than a smoking gun.

There are a lot of rather clever blanks in Starbow's End. Like many a conspiracy we are left to fill in these blanks from imagination; Pohl's only stipulation is that our imaginings must be the most cynical for the story to proceed. The rule of thumb is to assume the worst and then watch the astronauts evolve beyond opposable thumbs. And then assume another worst and watch them evolve beyond that, etc, until evolution is complete, which, ironically enough, may have been Knefhausen's purpose - he was, after all, an ex-Nazi. And this I think is the point - we suspect; we suspect everything, but we can prove nothing.

Pohl later expanded Starbow's End into the novel Lifeburst, a process sometimes known as a fixup.

Shades of Darkness: by Richard Cowper

Richard Cowper's post-colonial ghost story Shades of Darkness was something of a departure for a science fiction author who spent much of his working life labouring under the shadow of his more famous father, the critic, John Middleton Murry. By all accounts the father was not much taken with the son's choice of genre, a point of view easily dismissed by casting an eye over Cowper's achievements; over a dozen books in twenty years, amongst them three undoubted classics (one novel, two collections). Thankfully Cowper Senior is entirely forgotten, whereas his son remains a solid presence in British sf, despite the fact that he is long dead and largely out of print.

Cowper's best novel is perhaps The Twilight of Briareus. This strange fusion of The Midwich Cuckoos and the Nativity is easily his most accessible novel and certainly the best he produced for Gollancz; sadly Cowper's other novels for that publisher largely failed to match his early work at Dobson, where two striking books, Breakthrough and Phoenix, established him as an outstanding mainstream interpreter of the New Wave. The only fault of these early novels is a certain flippancy in tone, as though Cowper were determined to be deprecating about his subject matter. Gollancz excised this fault, but the author's work became variable, ranging mostly between interesting (Profundis) and absurd (Worlds Apart). Where Cowper really excelled was in the field of novellas and long short stories. During the 70s and 80s he issued three splendid collections - The Custodians, The Web of the Magi, and The Tithonian Factor. These last two collections are among the best ever assembled by a British author. The title story The Web of the Magi is a winning combination of H. Rider Haggard's She and James Hilton's Lost Horizon, wherein a 19th century British engineer scouting a remote area of Tibet discovers a forgotten civilisation which dupes him into engineering time itself. Aside from its beautiful title story, The Tithonian Factor contains the environmental apocalypse story, A Message to the King of Brobdingnag, and the very English science fantasy of What Did the Deazies Do? These two volumes were never issued in paperback so far as I'm aware, but some of the stories were reprinted in a US marketed collection, Out Where the Big Ships Go. Sadly the best stories are missed from that volume. I should say that Cowper's White Bird of Kinship trilogy of books has been much praised, but I found that it didn't do much for me.

Shades of Darkness appears to have been Cowper's final novel. It was issued in 1986 by Kerosino books in a limited print run of 1000 copies. A further collector's edition ran to several hundred signed copies and contained a supplementary pamphlet of short stories. It is a ghost story with an African twist. Journalist Jim Fuller is deported from Uganda while uncovering a story of genocide there. Upon return to England he is sacked by his newspaper, which is now undergoing radical change as a Murdoch vehicle. He is persuaded by friends to turn his material into a crusading novel and rents a cottage called "Myrtles" on the coast near Colchester for the purpose of writing a first draft. He soon finds that the cottage is more haunted by Africa than he is - specifically by the conscience of a previous owner who had been very publicly caught up in the Mau-Mau revolt of the 1950s. Cowper makes use of a number of old tropes to move this story along at a fair pace - the remote cottage, the ancient, folded dress found hidden inside a trunk in the attic, the convenient cache of newspaper clippings, mysterious messages on the typewriter, and so on. But he inserts these so deftly that they do not feel like devices; rather they feel like secondary characters - we know them, we know their ways, and it is a surprise when they do not behave as anticipated. The cottage becomes an African bungalow; the dress is never worn by the plot; the newspaper clippings are reduced to ephemera, and the typewriter messages are neither threats nor gibberish but are rather an inspiration for Fuller to complete his book. He finds ultimately that he himself may be the tool of exorcism, under the guidance of a local witch, but he is so convinced by his African experience that he allows one more horror to complete his inspiration. It becomes a question of whether his imagination can survive its encounters with source material.

Shades of Darkness is a personably written novel. It features Cowper's trademark relaxed prose which tenses unexpectedly before slowly unraveling into anti-climax.  For the reader these multiple shocks are turned into a vivid, page-turning experience, and the book dictates a read of one or two sittings. Recommended.