Richard Cowper (alias of John Middleton Murry, Jr.) has written thirteen novels, only some of which have found popularity at their time of publication. Clone is said to be Cowper’s first entry into the American science fiction market, Cowper being an Englishman. Later, his White Bird of Kinship trilogy (starting with The Road to Corlay ) also made his name somewhat familiar to the worldwide readers of speculative fiction. SFE says that Clone is an “amusing near-future satire” but besides a bit of silly dialogue and a tired play on the homophones gorilla and guerrilla, there’s very little else to attach itself to the “satire” label and wholly takes itself too seriously for also being labeled “amusing”; something was lost somewhere between concept and product... not to mention to cover.
Rear cover synopsis:
“Alvin was a weirdo.
He claimed to be able to remember the future…but he couldn’t see ahead into his past. He led a dazed, happy life as a manual laborer in a crew of apes.
But then he felt strange awakenings in his mind—and his body. He suddenly knew that somewhere there were three other boys exactly like him, clones grown from a single ovum in an illicit laboratory experiment.
And Alvin knew he had to find them (and the beautiful girl he kept having disturbingly erotic fantasies about). His quest plunged him into the middle of the insane urban chaos of 2072.”
Content with his work in rural England, Alvin is the only human among ape workers. Often the buff of their jokes Alvin’s naivety spurs one religious ape named Norbert into protecting the boy. Alvin’s earliest memory is waking up supine on a table overlooked by a man and a woman. The time “Before” simply never existed for Alvin, but his hallucination of a beautiful, buxom lady echoes back to a time before his eidetic memory is capable of reaching back to. Norbert’s concern for Alvin drives him to contact the scientists in charge of Aldbury Station, where they work. When one sultry scientist takes advantage of the poor androgynous boy, another scientist assumes that Alvin’s non-sexual nature has been compromised and sends him to London with Norbert.
Little does Alvin know, he was once an experimental subject of cloning four males. Professor Poynter dispatched the boys to different areas in the past, but a recent clairvoyant remark from one of them is repeated by another, and yet another. Each unknowingly a twin of the others, the clones are gathered into one room where they physically manifest a nude image of Professor Poynter. Embarrassed and amazed, she tries to temporarily wipe their memories but induces them with too much gas so they all forget everything in their eidetic memory.
With 100 million people filling the city every working day, the streets are cramped with humans and apes alike. Though granted intelligence and capable of speech, many apes are subject to persecution and lead difficult lives in the city’s slums. When Alvin and Norbert arrive in London, the streets of are alive with two protests being conducted by apes: (1) Hampstead and Highgate Protestors Rally and (2) Crewys Road Anti-Vasectomy League. Weaving through the crowds to their destination, the Ministry of Procreation, the two are caught up in a flash riot where hundreds are left dead but the unexpected rise in violence between the protestors.
Dr. Crowe, associate of Professor Poynter, conducted the test which unleashed the experimental gas upon the rival crowds, their respective conditioning making them ripe for the violent effects of the gas. Alvin and Norbert, unconditioned, are left reeling and inured in the wake of the outburst of needless violence. Alvin is in need of help when he spies a sign which reads, “Desperate? Life proving too much for you? Call Samaritans 0000.” Cheryl is the Samaritan who descends on her anti-gravity belt to assist Alvin in his time of need, but the need Alvin wishes for and the need Cheryl wants to grant are two very different ends of the spectrum—the Samaritans assist suicides. A puppy-dog-eyed Alvin is relieved at their mutual understanding and follows the girl home while leaving Norbert behind.
Professor Poynter doesn’t believe her eyes when she see Alvin in the streets, so she comes to the park only to find Norbert there, injured and pontificating the greatness of the Lord. The two realize that they both know Alvin and are desperate to make contact with him, but little do they know that Cheryl and Alvin have been captured by gorilla guerrillas in the city. Slow-witted, the guerillas allow Cheryl to conduct her own ransom with her influential father while Alvin is slowly regaining his memory for the time “Before”. He know remembers his three clone twins and must seek them out to understand the nature of his power of projecting hallucinations and if his twins share and amplify the same power.
I recognize the humorous elements in Clone, but they just don’t seem to come together enough to verify the “amusing’ label of the novel or even glimpse the “satire” label. Like I said, something must have been lost between its inception and its production. Where there’s a love struck boy pining for attention there are also references to rape. Where there’s a fanciful quest of reunion, there is also scenes of strong determination and fortitude. Where there’s an underplayed bombastic scientist, there’s also Alvin and his tame underdevelopment.
Cowper becomes sesquipedal when displaying his humor, a trait which is uplifting at times but also tedious at other times:
Bent low over her work she presented an impressive expanse of bare pink buttock to the world at large and to the male apes in particular. At such moments atavistic impulse tended to re-emerge from the depths of the anthropoid hypothalamus, elbow its way through the Zobian-cultured cortial tissue, and flaunt itself vividly in the anthropoid anatomy, while across the simian faces conflicting emotions of wonder, doubt, and despair flitted like shadows. (p.15)
Cloning, as a theme in science fiction, hadn’t been run into ground by 1972 but the entire psychic and psychokinetic trope had always been a favorite theme of science fiction authors—little if any of those same books I enjoy. Cowper is found of using psychic powers, to one extent or another, in his novels, which I can tolerate to a point. But when the power is left unexplained, the psychic power becomes more of a plot crutch than a plot pillar—it happens because it happens! Why the clones have their powers isn’t explained; it’s accepted.
The four person romp of collecting the other three clone twins is well and good in itself, but the slow build-up to the cavalcade weakens it dearly. So too does the resulting conclusion, an ending which is as shoulder-shrugging and out of the blue as the very powers the clones use when united. Actually, when taking the pointless powers, the pointless build up of events, and the pointless conclusion, one could infer that the book, as a whole, is pointless in itself. One would be correct.
Besides writing one pointless book bordering on humor and action that Americans seemingly enjoyed back in 1972, there is no reason not to be perturbed by Cowper’s widest read novel when played against the rest of his library: twelve other novels and five collections. The novels I’ve read (including Profundis ) and one of his collections (Out ThereWhere the Big Ships Go ) haven’t been bad, but have been middling with a glimmer of talent in humor and romanticism. Does Cowper have a singularly great novel where he pulls out all the stops? I’m beginning to think that answer is no.