Book Review: Seed of Light, Edmund Cooper (1959)

(Uncredited cover for the 1959 edition — I suspect it might be David Davies)

3.25/5 (Average)

Edmund Cooper’s Seed of Light (1959) is less of a traditional narrative of the voyage of a generation ship as are its fellow generation ship novels of the 40s/50s. The best examples are Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (1958) and Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (1941).  Seed of Light is more like a piece of pseudo-history interlaced with fragments of narrative of varying effectiveness.  The work is best described as a thematically-linked series of novellas tracking the future development of man in broad strokes à la Brian Aldiss’ Galaxies Like Grains of Sand (1960).  Unfortunately, Cooper’s original splicing of the generation ship theme onto a Future History template (made popular but Olaf Stapleton and Isaac Asimov among others) is extremely uneven.  Some portions are involving while others are plagued by laborious epoch-spanning pseudo-historical lectures.

Because each part is a separate novella (the last two are more closely connected) I’ll rate them separately.

Brief Plot Summary (some spoilers)

Part I (2.5/5): The language of the brief Part I’s Proem “Bitter Harvest” is an indication of Cooper’s frustratingly obvious anthropological philosophizing: “Families united into tribes, and tribes into nations.  Cities and civilizations came into being — monuments to the abilities of Man as an organizer, Man as a builder, Man as an artist-scientist-priest.  Man as a conqueror…” (7).  Cooper inundates the reader with pseudo-philosophical babble in a desperate attempt for the work to come across as epic in scope.  What’s worse is that the Proem’s grandiose pretenses devolve into the weakest portion of the work — Part I’s straightforward narrative of events leading up to a nuclear war that wrecks most of Earth.  Part I has the trappings of thousands of other novels of the era about the coming nuclear apocalypse — there’s a love interest who wants our young hero to leave his scientific enterprises in the Australian desert, there’s a mad scientist who gains control of a weapons satellite, and then, of course, there’s a nuclear apocalypse.

Regarding extrapolated future politics, Part I has moments of interest.  It is not America or the Soviets which take the reigns in ushering in the end of the world but the Commonwealth.  Nestled amongst all the predictable plot populated by the most predictable and dull characters is an occasionally poignant anti-war message.  Cooper is pessimistic concerning technology: “Science teaches us to all be hypocrites, Michael.  And we are trapped by the greatest hypocrisy of all when we persuade ourselves that any research is pure.  The plain fact is that civilization started a gold-rush for power, and nobody can stop it or get out of it.  The scientist wants power, the politician wants power […]” (36).

The anti-war/anti-technology comes off as slightly odd considering the “book is dedicated to those Church Dignitaries, Politicians and Eminent Men who Advocate the Retention of Nuclear Weapons.”  I suspect Cooper bought into widely endorsed sentiment of the age that considered nuclear weapons war deterrents.  I find this an unusual position to hold considering this philosophy in his novel is wrecked by a single man.

Part II (4/5) is a great improvement over Part I.  After the nuclear war that killed most of the world’s population, five domed cities (hark! my two cover art posts! Domed Cities Part I, Part II) remain in Europe but the resources are dwindling, all of  humanity is destined to die.  In a last ditch effort a few of the cities develop space programs to launch generation ships of ten individuals —  in Europe One those desire to be saved results in a coup that destroys the program.  In Europe Three, the ship is completed but a similar sentiment by those that are destined to remain begins to fester.  As a result, the vessel is launched prematurely, destroying the cities dome.  Humanity’s future requires the death of thousands.

Not only is Part II’s premise more intriguing– the launch and first fifty years of the generation ship–but the Proem “The Seed” contains some relevant philosophic kernels: “Survival had assumed the proportions of a religion — which was fitting and, indeed, necessary; for it is one thing to contemplate the star-voyage and another to make it.”  More intriguing is “what sort of faith would sustain such a restless animal through years of imprisonment, through decades of darkness, through the overwhelming silence of drifting centuries?” (61).

The five men and five women rigorously selected (age, abilities, physical prowess, etc) take on the names of famous Earth figures/gods/cities, Socrates, Athene, Alexandria, etc.  Unfortunately, the vessel, the Solarian is barely described.  How they will be fed?  How they will be entertained (sounds silly, but in reality this is a major question that would play a key role into one’s sanity)?  How exactly the descendants prevent severe problems due to inbreeding?  The crew seems to work on technical problems, read technical texts, produce children, and care for their children the entire time.

Over the generations major problems arise.  First, the women are plagued by the radiation and as a result many die before they can bear enough children.  Also, one “mongoloid” child (due to radiation?) is euthanized.  I suspect Cooper is less referring to physical appearance than mental abilities.  It is never apparent that Solarian‘s food producing abilities and the like are threatened, the fact that they do not raise the child and instead kill it is rather disturbing.

Over time the crew develops telepathic capabilities.  Despite all the problems concerning crew members who go insane due to the environment of the ship, mothers dying, children who are distinctly different than their parents, etc a unique culture arises on the vessel.  Again, Cooper is uninterested in discussing the new culture in depth (besides that they become telepathic).  He does point out that due to the environment of the vessel and the fact that the crew is in complete control of their destinies Man has become fundamentally Godlike — as in the ability to create, but a Godlike state neither good nor bad.  Cooper does effectively evoke how completely the Solarian, containing the last humans alive, is isolated in the expanse of space.

Part III (3/5) lacks the emotional resonance of the middle section.  Not only is the last portion the shortest but the length of time it covers reduces all shreds of narrative to vague grandiloquent info dumps.  For example, describing (not showing) the increased telepathic abilities of the later generations: “This process of what ultimately came to be called multistage cathexis had certain curious effects upon those who participated in it.  Before Kepler could develop the cathexis, both Odessa and Granada had to relax voluntarily into a trance-like condition while Kepler, having assumed the ‘womb posture’ that seemed most conducive to good results, preserved a strange duality of conscious control and direction while totally oblivious of his most immediate surroundings” (127).  There are no true characters in this section.  Instead, we have names and small blurbs on them and what they did.  Planets, people, generations, eras, epochs, pass….

As the Solarian attempts to find a habitable planet, they develop technology to help them.  But the habitable planet they find is a much different one than they expected!

Final Thoughts

Due to the vast scope of the work (generation after generation of the last remnants of mankind) there is little opportunity to elicit a genuine emotional response from the reader.  Cooper is most successful in Part II where generations pass and change yet the reader remains emotionally engaged.  Part I is too simplistic and predictable and Part III is more of a history lecture than narrative.  The final product is intriguing but uneven.  Cooper’s prose is often so grandiloquent that the anti-war message is lost.

For diehard fans of generation ships, Edmund Cooper, and 50s science fiction only — I suspect most other science fiction fans will be disappointed.


(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1960 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1969 edition)

(Jim Burns’ cover for the 1977 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

22 thoughts on “Book Review: Seed of Light, Edmund Cooper (1959)

    • Oh, Cooper is pretty famous — perhaps a very second to third tier sort of author — namely known for his misogyny in his later works — which thankfully, doesn’t crop up in Seed of Light to any great degree. Or, shall I say, doesn’t seem any worse than the majority of 50s sci-fi I’ve read. But yes, I bought the book entirely due to the premise. The colonizing is but a dinky part of the work — they wander from planet to planet looking for a place to colonize…

  1. Too bad you didn’t strike gold. I love the idea of generation ships, and feel the concept hasn’t been explored enough. But your comments discourage me from finding a copy of Seed of Light.

    • Well, I did say that it would be worthwhile for fans of generation ships! And, it is an interesting synthesis of generation ship narrative a la Aldiss’ Non-Stop onto an Asimov-esque future history. It needed to be longer…. Especially Part III which covers a majority of the time.

  2. Edmund Cooper definitely should be more familiar to Sci-Fi fans. I’m not sure if any of his work is still in print, but check out ‘A Far Sunset’ if you can find it. One version has an exceptional Richard Powers cover.

  3. Hi All – I have been an avid Edmund Cooper fan for as long as I can remember. I think I have read every book. Some stronger than others – but ultimately a good read and wanted to finish – never a labour. So give all the books a go. And the reason for this message – well just opened a few boxes of my old books and there they were. Brought back good memories (and good reads) And will read again.

  4. Joachim, regarding the dedication to this novel:I do not think Cooper “bought into” anything, and believe the dedication to Seed of Light is intended ironically, as should be clear from the message of the novel itself; it’s a dedication not in praise of such people, but in condemnation of their views.

    • You might be correct, but, I read it so may years ago that I am no longer in a position to argue with evidence from the novel itself of a more widespread endorsement…

      Thank you for the comment.

      • Cheers, I am currently reading through all of Cooper’s novels, having only read one or two before, and while this one was interesting enough in its way, others such as A Far Sunset are better. Regards, Dave.

          • I powered through ‘A Far Sunset’ recently; a revelation at the end of the book (albeit a somewhat cliched SF trope in its own right) makes the book more interesting that it seems initially. However, I tend to agree with you about the treatment of women (I knew nothing about Cooper before reading it, but was not surprised to learn that he was something of a raging misogynist when I looked him up). There’s also the lead character’s problematic white savior complex.
            If you are inclined to read anything else by Cooper, I’d suggest ‘The Overman Culture’ – it’s not without its own problematic aspects, but it’s not quite as obnoxious as Sunset. But like Sunset, it has an intriguing twist.

            • I have a copy of The Overman Culture but haven’t read it yet. I don’t think I’m returning to his novels anytime soon. If you know of a short story of his that covers an element of the media landscape of the future, let me know! I have an ongoing SF short story review series that covers media-related topics.

  5. This was voted by Damon Knight as one of the best science fiction novels of 1959. From your review it seems he may have overrated it.

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