Richard Cowper isn’t a very accessible author, something which you could say of many 1970’s and 1980’s authors whose novels and collections print any more, like this one-time publication collection. Regardless, my exposure to Cowper has been favorable, the novels I’m combed having been of rich diversity from humor (Profundis ), to shades of science fiction (The Road to Corlay ), and fictional historical revival (ATapestry of Time ). When I found a copy of Cowper short stories, I was eager to see this diversity shown throughout. True to form, exhibiting his multiple talents of humor, science fiction, and history, Out There Where the Big Ships Go is a small tour of what Cowper is capable of: bringing laughter (“Paradise Beach”), bringing heartache (“The Hertford Manuscript”), but also serving up a large dose of boredom (“The Web of the Magi”). I’ve had better experience with his novels, but there may still be gems of his out there with one other collection, The Tithonian Factor and Other Stories (1984).
Out There Where the Big Ships Go (1979, novelette) – 3/5 – (29 pages)
The crew of The Icarus was sent beyond the planet Eridanus to a “planet that they called ‘Dectire III’” (26). Inhabiting that planet were the humanoid Eidotheans and the wondrous game they called Kalire, or The Game. While the crew remained on the planet, the captain, Peter Henderson, being the most proficient in the Game, was sent back to Earth so that they too could learn of its exquisite delights. The one hundred forty-four squared board, “each of which has its own name and ideogram” (27), is played with one hundred forty-three pieces of double-sided coins: red and blue. The game mimics the Eidotheans’ belief in the dichotomous struggle of the galaxy between the two heavenly sisters of Kalirinos and Arimanos.
Having hardly aged a year since his departure, the still youthful captain returned to an Earth two hundreds older than when he left. The world was ripe for the introduction of The Game, with the Japanese “and their long tradition of Zen and Go” (27) allowing them to understand The Game more clearly than other early competitors. Later, the Russians and Chinese would come to understand The Game, but still, Peter Henderson remained The Master.
At a tourney in the Caribbean, young Roger Herzheim’s mother is attending The Game as a competitor thought nowhere near the highly ranked Master, Peter Henderson. At breakfast, Roger spies the famous man in the corner. Staying at the same hotel, the two later serendipitously meet. Peter offers advice: What’s red for you may be blue for me. “You only say it’s red because you’ve been told that’s what red is. For you blue is something else again. But get enough people to say that’s blue, and it is blue” (22).
Roger extends this kernel of insight to another man on the beach, the same man who’s the competitor of Peter—Guilio Amato. Guilio interprets this to mean that the names for things aren’t the things themselves; rather, the names are ideas and the thing is the thing itself. Using this semantic device to his advantage, Guilio enters the competition.
The Custodians (1975, novelette) – 5/5 – (36 pages)
In a Persian valley rests the monastery Hautaire, a sanctuary once visited by Meister Sternwärts in 1273 A.D. Having visited the mysteries of the East, Peter Sternwärts convalesces in the monastery and pursues a personal interest in ocular focus of the ancient Apollonius. The paradoxographical literature convinces Peter to locate the ocular focus within the grounds of the temple and building the site himself. From the visions within, Peter creates his work entitled Praemonitiones.
Much later in 1917 A.D., a doctoral student comes to the monastery after being interested in the figure of Peter and his Biographia. Once in the sanctuary, Brother Roderigo curates the ancient manuscripts to the young Spindrift. When Brother Roderigo dies only days later, Spindrift is left with the early works of 13th Century Peter Sternwärts, and within contains predicts setout by the scholar.
Another young student of life comes to the monastery in pursuit of further knowledge regarding the ancient, enigmatic Peter Sternwärts. Now 1981 A.D., Spindrift has remained in the sanctuary replacing the Brother Roderigo as the contemporary of Peter Sternwärts from six hundred years ago. Spindrifts own visions within the ocular focus have been hazy but, like his predecessors for centuries before him, he has added his visions to the prophetic tome of Illuminatum. Now a young man, J.S. Harland, has come to explore the spiritual wealth of Peter Sternwärts, but Spindrift’s vision calls for the coming of a young woman. During prayers, the two are in attendance with the Abbot who announces a war breaking out in the Middle East. This devastating news can only be reaffirmed by contrasting Spindrift’s own foresight with J.S. Harland’s foreboding within the ocular focus.
Paradise Beach (1976, novelette) – 4/5 – (19 pages)
The sybaritic wife, Zeyphr, of a wealthy banker is drowned in her exclusion from her husband’s recent art purchase: a ten-square meter anamorphic landscape of a Caribbean beach where each viewer of the piece projects their own stories onto the landscape. When her husband moves the framed piece to his personal study, a series of odd discoveries jostles her womanly intuition.
Zeyphr’s friend Margot consoles her, Zephyr proclaims to have made a copy of the study key. The duo make their way up to the room where the anamorphic landscape is placed in front of a darkened window. The image in hauntingly realistic, but surely not realistic enough for her husband to scatter sand through the study, or track seaweed into the shower, or sop seawater onto his robe.
Margot is later contacted by the police regarding Zephyr’s 100-meter suicide dive in a bikini from the study’s blackened window. Alcohol may have had something to do with it.
The Hertford Manuscript (1976, novelette) – 5/5 – (34 pages)
A curious manuscript bound in a 1665 book, but with paper produced two centuries after this time, comes into the ownership of a man. His great-aunt having bequeathed the book to him along with the story of having known both H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley, continues with having known the original Dr. Pensley, or The Time Machine fame. His curious real-life disappearance enthralled both H.G. Wells and his great-aunt, as it confirmed their suspicions of having truly traveled time.
The manuscript, a diary penned by none other than Dr. Pensley himself, begins on an August day when the doctor becomes stranded in time due to two cracked crystals. He soon finds that the year is 1665 and the bubonic plague has smitten the city of London during months prior to his unfortunate August arrival. Determined to return to his proper era, Dr. Pensley braves the “evil miasma” (116) and sulphurous air of London to find a lens grinder so that he may craft the octagonal prisms. With the services found and payment agreed upon, Dr. Pensley settles into the city for a week until the prisms can be properly crafted.
Still suspecting the manuscript as a forge, the man turns to experts to verify its physical authenticity, the author’s comparative penmanship, and the relevant historical accuracies.
The Web of the Magi (1980, novella) – 0/5 – (65 pages)
A man Her Majesty’s service during WWII is encamped in Persia where he is detailing the geographic plans to lay cable. His two Persian guides are hesitant to continue their journey into djinn territory, but the man scoffs at their meek sense of adventure. On the next day, the man sees a natural cataract through his telescope and sets off to crest the ridge while leaving the two guides behind. One upon the ridge, he ascends to a plateau in which rests a valley unseen to modern man.
Reveling in his discovery, the man descends to gather his guides, but they seem to have left camp, leaving the man to once again scale the cataract alone and to uncover its mystery by himself. Traversing the face of the cataract with his mule and coming to the crest of the plateau, the man is greeted by four faceless robed figures who lead him to the Petra-esque cave sanctuary at the end of the plain of irrigated olive trees.
Therein, the man is treated to the womanly company of Amazonian concubines and the piqued interest of Anahita, whose surreal aura casts the man’s reality into uncertainty. The plateau’s valley being their home without chance for leaving, the man is a true outsider among hermetic insiders. Revelations of their reality slowly unfolds itself… and by slowly I mean I skimmed that last 45 pages of the 63 page novella.