The Overman Culture by Edmund Cooper
Berkley Medallion, 1972
Price I paid: 25¢
“A REAL SPINNER!…Michael is a ‘fragile’ boy—one of a seemingly small number of children who grow tired when they run, who bleed when they are hurt, who can’t take off their heads….As the fragile children discover each other, probe in the moldering ruins of London, and try to interpret what they find, they come to the conclusion that they have been created by some super-scientist, as guinea pigs for an experiment.
“And what happens if the guinea pigs turn on their creator—on the Overman of the legend they all know? They may be destroyed. They may be set free. They may escape. And who or what are the others, the ‘drybones’ who do not bleed, who can take off their heads? Edmund Cooper has secrets he can hide as well from you as from the fragiles…”
—P. Schuyler Miller, Analog
Well lookie here, I don’t have to summarize this book at all. Thanks, P. Schuyler Miller! You wrote half of my review for me!
It’s funny that Berkley Medallion went that route for the back jacket copy. Instead of paying some intern literally no money to throw some words together based on what the title might conceivably mean, they just went ahead and copy/pasted from the pages of Analog. Good job, publisher, I guess.
I guess it’s interesting that I don’t see this kind of thing more often. On the other hand, did the publisher have to pay Analog reprint rights for this summary? I might have been more expensive than having someone in-house do it!
This is my first Edmund Cooper novel, which is surprising, because I was sure it wouldn’t have been. He wrote a lot of books, and I’m gonna be honest here, it’s getting harder and harder for me to find authors I haven’t read before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s more of an awareness that I should probably start searching for material outside of my usual haunts.
Cooper certainly had some reactionary attitudes toward women, didn’t he? I’m pulling all my knowledge on that front from Wikipedia—incidentally, someone should really clean up his page—and the SFE. Maybe he wasn’t an outright misogynist, but he was certainly backward by modern standards.
I didn’t know any of that when I read this book. If I had, I might have looked at it differently. I might have been looking harder for his bad opinions, but it’s not like they were difficult to find anyway. The women in this book are constantly frightened and weak and looking for men to solve the problems so it’s not surprising to learn that he thought that women were really frightened and weak and needed men to solve the problems.
It’s a pity that some man couldn’t have come along and solved all the other problems with this book, am I right? I’m right.
This book was not terrible. In fact, it even had a few great things going for it. For instance, the very opening of the book was amazing. It’s a marvelous slow burn of a beginning:
Mr. and Mrs. Faraday had a nice little house in Buckingham Palace Road, London. They had a nice little rose garden and a nice little pond which contained goldfish. They had color television and wireless; and they watched the American expedition touch down on Mars, and they listened to Mr. Henry Hall’s dance band music. Their house had a nice bay window, where two potted aspidistras flourished, and through which Mr. and Mrs. Faraday sometimes glimpsed Queen Victoria riding in her hovercar or Sir Winston Churchill strolling to the palace.from the Prologue
Is that not great? What I really wish is that I hadn’t read the back cover before I started this book, because I think that opening would have been even better. I don’t think authors and publishers are on the same side when it comes to this kind of thing. I imagine it’s difficult to want to write something with the goal of catching people by surprise with your clever ideas and then have those clever ideas laid out and mutilated on the jacket. Not only does your cool idea about books that read YOU get bandied about where it won’t be as mind-blowing on revelation, but the publisher has also told everybody for some reason that those selfsame books are a threat to the very fabric of galactic peace, which is weird because your book doesn’t leave the confines of a single apartment building in Newark, New Jersey and is about a young person coming to terms with their life choices.
(If somebody wants to run with this idea, you have my blessing.)
So The Overman Culture is about a kid named Michael Faraday. We meet him as a small child with questions. Questions like, “Why don’t some children bleed?” Also, he’s very much in love with a little girl named Emily Bronte. Note, the book never spells her name Brontë.
Everybody in the book is named after some famous English person. Michael’s got buddies: Ernest Rutherford, Horatio Nelson, and Jane Austen. Eventually they meet an old guy named William Shakespeare.
Oh hey, I just noticed that all the women were named after authors and poets. Maybe a nurse? I think there was a Miss Nightingale in there. No room for Rosalind Franklin or Ada Lovelace in your world, huh, Mr. Cooper? How funny, my searches for Dorothy Hodgkin, Anna Atkins, and Mary Leaky yielded no results!
Okay, I have to be fair, I just flipped through the book and saw reference to Mary Kingsley.
So the hell of it all is that I liked the tone and writing of this book. It was competently done. While Michael is a child, the book is written in a childlike tone that isn’t annoying, it just sets the mood. It’s fine. As he grows up, so does the language.
Michael is trying to make sense of his world, which is, you know, pretty universal. His world just happens to be a bit weirder than ours. A problem is that none of the adults are willing to answer any of his questions. If he brings anything up that’s out of the ordinary, he’s usually told not to ask questions and just be happy.
This book is extremely British. Parts of it are pretty Brave New World, which might be notable because there’s a character named Aldous Huxley.
So it’s clear to the reader that some people in this world are robots, or something like robots. Michael and his friends don’t have the knowledge to know what robots are. We’ve got that bit of dramatic irony on them, but it’s not much helpful. Like the children, we don’t know why they are being raised by robots.
As I read the book, some theories I developed were
- Alien zoo
- Some kind of sociological experiment
- Like a Skinner box or whatever
- Loser children
- No foolin’, this is a recurring nightmare I had as a kid. Like, that I was part of an experiment to see what would happen if you raised a particularly stupid child to believe that it was of normal-to-slightly-above-average intelligence
- Some kind of genetic experiment
- Clone High was a good show; I hope it holds up
- Space colony
- Anybody else read “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon?
Some of these possibilities were voiced by characters, and one of them is true. Hint: It’s the most boring one!
The earliest big hint we get is when the kids are told a story by their teacher about someone called “The Overman,” who created robots who learned to create robots of their own, so The Overman went to sleep for 10,000 years. When one of the children asks if The Overman is God, they aren’t given an answer.
Seeing these kids age and try to make sense of their lives was enjoyable. Seeing them age and try to make sense of their…ahem…bodies…was less enjoyable.
There was some pretty explicit teenage sex in this book, is what I’m saying. I guess it could be interpreted as sweet and wholesome on some level—the awakening of physical and emotional love—but I’m not that level and it’s goddamn creepy.
The kids did, in the end, turn out to be twenty years old when they did the horizontal Nae Nae, but I don’t think that improves anything.
In one of the more surprising moments in the book, Michael and his crew discover a library with books by the real historical figures who share their names.
This moment, and many others, did a good job of heightening the mystery. Sometimes we get some kind of an answer, but it only opens up further questions. It turns out that London isn’t real, and that all the roads and the river doubles back on themselves and don’t go anywhere. The library has a tunnel in the basement that leads to an area outside London.
I’ll admit it, I was hooked. Answers and questions began building on each other, working to a kind of crescendo where—
The robots spend the rest of the book explaining everything.
Seriously, Michael and his pals find the robot named Shakespeare and he tells them the answer to every mystery. And to make things worse, it was the most boring solution. Maybe it was wildly original in ’72, but I was let down.
The Overman is some guy named Julius Overman. He and his two wives were alive and rich when the world ended, so they took precautions. They stored a bunch of sperm and ova and then froze themselves so they could resurrect humanity. But there was a problem! It turned out that the cryogenic process wasn’t all that good, so if they are to be woken up, they’ll be irreversibly brain-damaged.
So the robots, run by the world-mind that was created in the 20th century and utterly failed to keep humanity from destroying itself with bioweapons, decided to bring the kids to life without Overman and his wives. The fake London was a test to see if humans really could survive long enough to take over the world again.
Oh, but why did the robots need humans anyway? Of course it’s another cliché! This one I know was old even then, because I’ve been reading those robot short stories. To be fair, it’s not just “creativity” like usual, but rather humans provide “purpose,” which is even more nebulous and meaningless?
So the humans tested out okay and decide to strike out and reclaim the Earth. And they’re gonna do it without the robots, because Man Must Be a Free Creature. Ugh again. Just…just use the robots, dude.
Anyway that’s the crappy end.
So much of this book was almost good. Parts of it reminded me strongly of The Prisoner, such as wondering just how in-control the robots really were, and how much the kids were getting away with because that was all in the plan to begin with. I thought it was pretty good.
But that ending.
Imagine a mystery novel, one that’s doing okay at being a mystery. Maybe it’s not on an Agatha Christie level but whatever. You’re enjoying it, and enjoying the fact that it’s crafted well enough that you can make some guesses as to whodunnit.
And at some point you said to yourself “Well it’s clearly not the butler, because that’s the cliché to beat the band. Perhaps that is a misdirection.”
And then the last 20% of the book is the butler explaining exactly how and why he did it.
The other thing I want to mention is that I was going back through my notes and caught myself before doing something embarrassing. See, there was a lot to this book that was wildly anachronistic, which was the point of it. The world set up by the robots was like WWII but with Queen Victoria and also hovercars. It’s the main thing I liked. I had a note here, though, about how the characters often used torches while sneaking around, and how interesting that was because they acted just like flashlights.
I finally realized that in Britain they call flashlights torches. I knew that, I’d just forgotten it.
It’s a fear of mine that I’ll think of something common and real as a weird sci-fi invention of a book because I somehow missed knowing about it. Like the equivalent of “Everything else about humans in this world was normal, except some of them had green eyes? Bizarre.”
It’ll happen someday, but not today. I think.
Anyway, this book was okay but someone else probably did the same thing better.
3 thoughts on “The Overman Culture”
“…what would happen if you raised a particularly stupid child to believe that it was of normal-to-slightly-above-average intelligence?”
What would happen indeed? The kid could become president!
I was ready to read the book myself until you got to the tunnel in the library basement. It’s a shame the ending was so subpar.
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I think that Jo Walton had this experience growing up in Wales, where she took certain things in American science fiction novels as being part of the author’s vision of the future when they were really just descriptions of ordinary American life.
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It makes me very happy to know I have something in common with Jo Walton, even if very vaguely.