Book Review: Profundis, Richard Cowper (1979)


(Don Maitz’s cover for the 1981 edition)

3.75/5 (Good)

Richard Cowper’s science fiction (and fantasy) was recommended to me by 2theD over at Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature (be sure to follow him!).  But ever since I procured a copy of Profundis (1979) more than a year ago, I’ve passed over it when searching for my next read — perhaps due to the silly “Three Kinky Kittens, talented sexboats with uninhibiting charms” blurb on the back cover (“uninhibiting” isn’t even a word) in addition to Don Maitz’s uninteresting 80s cover art…  Tangent: Maitz drew the pirate for the Captain Morgan Rum brand.

However, Profundis proved to be a highly involving science fiction parable set in a post-apocalyptical world where all humanity lives in a massive submarine ruled with an iron fist by crazies who rely on a mad computer to actually run the show.  The submarine’s human staff is assisted by sentient dolphins who take readings from the surrounding waters and legions of (often violent) helper androids.

The tone is comedic despite the serious nature of the satire which pokes fun at religion and British class society.  It feels like the science fiction equivalent to the British film The Ruling Class (1972) with Peter O’Toole (who thinks he’s Christ reincarnated).  I wouldn’t doubt that Cowper was inspired by the classic black comedy.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

Around 40,000 humans and an unnumbered amount of androids reside on Profundis, a massive submarine constructed as England’s ultimate weapon.  However, while at sea during when the Nuclear Exchange breaks out, Proteus — the sentient computer on board — ignored the order of the commander to launch its weapons and instead dove into the ocean’s depths.  Those on board Profundis believe that they are the only ones alive in the world.  And of course, due to the fact that there are few women on a military vessel, humanity is propagated in vitro and raised without mother and father figures (it’s never exactly discussed how they are born/raised)…

Profundis was decked out with the most sophisticated technology of the day (especially waste recycling systems and the computer Proteus).  The vessel also has bays where sentient dolphins can enter the vessel and give data on the surrounding waters.  The novels naive/child-like hero, Tom Jones cares for the dolphins in the very bowels of the submarine — he himself has never been to the upper levels.  Most of those who work with him are androids due to his lowly status in the echelons of society.  Due to the fact that he rarely has human interaction his is profoundly (pardon the pun — but it is the perfect word) ignorant of the world around him.

Besides the dolphins who are his primary friends, there’s a rather more mysterious (and never seen) figure by the name Taper who tries to make him do things which go against his moral code.

Proteus, the ships computer, occupies itself with conjuring interesting activities.  Admiral Lord Horatio Prood, a bungling pastiche of the British noble who sings in his bathtub while playing with toy dolphins, is more than happy to go along with Proteus’ plans.  Prood considers himself God and Proteus the Holy Spirit — all they need is the Son of God.  And Tom Jones, in his endless naivete, seems like the perfect candidate to complete the Trinity needed for passion play!  But, is it really a play?

It also helps that Tom Jones is easily manipulated by subliminal advertisements — which he is first exposed to when he journeys to the upper decks.  Soon he too believes he’s the Son of God with a message of social equality.  Of course the powers that be aren’t thrilled….

Final Thoughts

Tom Jones is highly likable despite his utter ignorance.  And Proteus, who works rather more behind the scenes, is an intriguing sentient computer who loves to fool with the generally idle and easily manipulated human crewmen.

My main complaint concerns Cowper’s occasional reliance on juvenile humor which can be cringeworthy — for example, “The breakthrough came with the Fusion (Atomic) Reactor Turbine.  F (A) RT, the dream child of Professor Thomas Tibworth’s brilliant team…” (46).  Yes, a fart joke…

That aside, Cowper’s vision and prose is both affective and effective if a little too silly.

Recommended for fans of satirical and comedic social science fiction.  And the plot is rather fun as well…

PRFNDSKQTR1980(Ian Pollock’s cover for the 1980 edition)

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Profundis, Richard Cowper (1979)

  1. I have the edition with Ian Pollock’s cover art, which initially drew me to the book. When it comes to humor, this tickled ever so nicely. Even with the juvenile elements, there aren’t many humorous sci-fi books which can strike the balance between a good plot and silliness. Cowper’s own novel, Clone (1978) failed in this regard. His collection is not without its faults, surely.

    • Yeah, the Pollock cover is far better. I do like the society under the sea trope… I’m tempted to read The Twilight of Briareus (1974), which is supposedly one of his best.

  2. I read Profundis many years ago. Having moved away from science fiction, when I later when I tried to find Cowper in my library (UK) all his books had gone. I’m now rereading Profundis on Kindle along with the White Bird trilogy.
    I thought that Cowper wrote engaging stories (even if not literary classics)
    Thanks for the site!

    • Ah, I seemed to have missed this comment. I think Cowper is a solid writer. I’ll have a review of his short story collection The Custodians and Other Stories up soon. Although it underwhelms, he is certainly worth reading. I have no read the White Bird trilogy other than “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” which is published in The Custodians and Other Stories and along with The Road to Corlay.

      Thanks for the kind words!

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