1975: Richard Cowper’s The Custodians

imageThis novella, was not something I just happened upon, nor was it something I intended to read. Nor was it even something I wanted to read, but it was the only piece of literature that was up for a 1976 Hugo that was not part of an ongoing series that I could find on iBooks (with the exception of The Forever War which was my intended read, but came out in 1974) and have read by the end of the week. That being said, I told myself that I had to read something, and it had been nominated for a Hugo, so it couldn’t be that bad, so I gave it a go. And am I ever glad I did. This piece by Richard Cowper doesnt fit the typical standards that define Sci Fi, but it was a great read, interesting concept and made for a great snowy Sunday afternoon.

Cowper’s story takes place in a French monastery, during both the 1920’s and the 1970’s and references a man who came to that same monastery during the 1200’s. We find the protagonist, one Mr. Spindrift, an aged man in the 1970’s in the Abby of Hautaire. He remembers when he first arrived at the monastery way back when. He had come out of the war a changed man, but still wishing to pursue his academic interests. He had arrived at the monastery by invitation after some time of correspondence with one of the residence, Brother Roderigo. Brother Roderigo claimed to have evidence of the existence of a man, Meister Sternwärts, who had come to the monastery 700 years earlier, and whom Mr. Spindrift had come across while studying old transcripts.

When Spindrift arrived, he and Roderigo become fast friends, but unfortunately Roderigo dies not long after. The Father of the monastery brings Spindrift a book called the Praemonitiones and tells him of a viewing area called The Oculus (such a badass word) that Sternwärts had made. When Spindrift delves into the book he quickly recognizes it as being a fake. It had to be fake, it was supposably (don’t you hate when people say that) 700 years old, but referenced the discovery of America, an event less than 550 years past at that time. But when Spinny brings it up to the Father, the father says “Nope, it’s the real McCoy. And if you look closely it wasn’t all written by Sternwärts, roughly every 50 years a new writer takes over, in fact this last section was written by Rodrigo himself” (The whole time I’m reading this I’m yelling in my head “IT’S CALLED “THE PREMONITIONS”… FIGURE IT OUT) Anyways, The Spinster looks at the book and Roderigo has written about the 1939 invasion of Poland. But he doesn’t believe it, in fact the treaty of Versailles forbids German arms. So the Father says, “Alright, come with me, I’ll show you the Oculus”. The Father brings him to the Oculus, which is essentially a coffin behind a door. Spindrift steps in and…

imageJump 50 years forward and this is where we again find Spindrift, who we find is waiting a correspondent of his own. If you haven’t realized he was the next in line to write in the book. In fact, in his time he’s published a book of his own, and translated on of Sternwärts. The next person in line is a girl, Judy Harland, but is posing as a guy, J. Harland concealing herfeminine qualities. When they meet, Spindrift does not recognize the deception, which makes him happy. He does not like the idea of the future being predetermined.

During a party, which I can only assume is his book launch he announces that War has broken out, between several nations including Israel, The U.S. and Europe. So he explains everything to Judy. Everything that he has learned about this being the focal point of precognition and its history. And then he shows her the Oculus and asks her to step into the coffin. This creeps her the fuck out. And rightly so. Would you get into a coffin just because an 80-year-old man tells you can see the future in it? Yeah, me either. But she does, after convincing him to leave. What does she see? Nothing. No animals, No people.” She passes out and Spindrift comes to her rescue. He accidentally gropes her and figures out the truth, crushing his dream. He then tells her she has to take on the responsibility and publish his next book, which will reveal the truth to everyone. As he tells her this blasts of light and destruction can be seen in the distance.

I had never read any of Richard Cowper’s work before, and this was just a taste of it, but it was a taste that made me hungry for more. His character work is fantastic. He does a very good job of building his characters, and making you see the distinction between them. I quickly saw the different between the Great War veteran and the youthful scholar of the flower power age. Her energy exuded from the page and I could easily see the type of girl he was describing. Not the visual, but what type of person she was. He also makes them believable, neither of them are like “oh, precognition, yeah, that’s a thing, I’ll do it”. He takes the time to convince them, and convince us. A little less so on Judy, but then explains her heightened resistance.

As I said, this is not your typical sci-fi epic. But it does teeter on the ledge of realistic and supernatural. It only hints at aliens, and advanced technology, but doesn’t outright say anything. Only really in the end do we actually witness any precognition. This is a story about the people in these experiences and not the flashiness and action of the excitement itself. And that’s what made it a really compelling read. My one criticism. I don’t think a group of monks would take kindly to a precog, nor would they take up his cause, but whatev’s!

Thanks for reading. Next I’ll be checking out Giant Size X-Men #1 so stay tuned.

images from http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1412481421l/3615729.jpg and http://images.noosfere.org/couv/p/pdf259-1978.jpg


One thought on “1975: Richard Cowper’s The Custodians

  1. Cowper is definitely in the tradition of British Comedic authors — his name is a pseudonym of course as he was the son of a very famous British novelist (I’ve forgotten which one). I thoroughly enjoyed Cowper’s Profundis (1979) about a vast submarine with a bizarre crew including a crazed computer that wants to reenact the passion play. I have a review on my site.

    I want to read this one!


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