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Old 05-11-2018, 02:37 AM   #1
Pulpmeister
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Erle Cox: Out of the Silence

and two other novels

Out of the Silence (1919)

Erle Cox (1873-1950) published just three novels, the first of which, Out of the Silence, was for many years listed as one of the classics of the genre. Its lustre has faded now, but it's status as the first Australia sf novel to stride the world's stage remains.

First published as a serial in The Argus, a Melbourne daily newspaper, in 1919, it subsequently made it into book form in Australia, (Vidler, Melbourne), London (Hamilton) and Paris (Libraire de Champs Elysées), in 1925, and New York (Henkle) in 1928. It was turned into a comic strip serialised in the Argus, in 1934, and the same year adapted to a radio serial for the Australian market. It underwent several reprints in the 1930s and 1940s, and there are minor variations between the various editions.

This is not bad going for a middle-aged Australian journalist's first novel.
It passed into the Australian public domain when this country was Life + 50, and will pass into Life + 70 in January 2021. It has been reprinted since; and digital editions of all three Cox novels actually appeared here in the Patricia Clarke Library when it was Canadian-based and Life + 50; these editions are now off-line, although perhaps they could be placed back on-line when the time is right.

But what is it all about?
In short, it's a lost civilisation novel, although that civilisation is now definitely excinct. It is so ancient a civilisation that two elaborate capsules preserving two survivors in suspended animation are all that remain; and those capsules, vast spheres, were above ground when built, and have been deeply buried by time.

There is an opening prologue set in the past with the preparing and sealing of the capsules, and then the story moves to contemporary (ie 1919) Australia, where a vineyard manager in the Rutherglen wine district, digging foundations, finds a curious, immovable metal artefact. Excavating further and further, the artefact proves to be a marker and lock, and part of a huge sphere many feet below.

This is a long book (120,000 words) and an astonishing half of it is expended on just the process of excavation, solving the problem of the lock, and ultimately entering the sphere. When you read it in serial form in the original newspapers, this makes sense; there's an exciting, if small, cliffhanger at the end of each day's episode. In book form, it is less satisfactory.
Ultimately, the sole inhabitant of the capsule, who has been in suspended animation for countless centuries, is revived, and needless to say she is a beautiful, entrancing woman.

The book poses an ethical problem. This highly advanced civilisation achieved its perfection by ruthless practice of eugenics (a philosophy gaining ground at that time by which imperfections should be bred out of the human race by eliminating the weak and imperfect). One method used by the ancients was a mysterious ray which selectively exterminated all but the white races.
Initially horrified that this perfect, beautiful woman, Earani by name, could find no fault with the extermination, the excavator soon falls under her spell. All the wisdom and science of that lost civilisation, she explains, is contained in the giant sphere, and another like it which holds a male member of the lost race. Including the secret of the lethal ray. Together, Earani tempts, they could rule the world, and recreate the perfect world she had left behind.

The book has been attacked in recent times for "racist overtones", based on the above, but the attacks seem to ignore the initial horror at Earani's revelations by the excavator before he falls under her spell; and the continued distaste by the small number of his friends who are in on the secret of the sphere and alarmed by their friend's surrender to Earani.
To avoid a spoiler, I'll leave it there.

In terms of modern sf, it is resolutely old-fashioned of course, as it was conceived during WW1, in which Australia's all-volunteer army suffered horrific losses in the defence of Britain. Its exposition, the excavation of the sphere, is too drawn out. It really is an 80,000 word novel expressed in 120,000 words. And the final resolution leaves the reader unclear as to where, if anywhere, the author stood on the moral and philosophical issues raised.

Fool's Harvest (1938)

ERLE COX'S second novel is Fools' Harvest (1938). This seems to be sf in the alternate history mode, but really its roots lie in the "awful warning, wake-up" novels which abounded before World War 1, postulating various forms of the invasion of Britain. William Le Quex, Edgar Wallace and several others wrote on this theme.
Cox sets out to demonstrate the folly of Australia's somewhat complacent attitude to the threat proposed by Japan, then brutally subduing China and aiming south. He does so by having having the powerful "Cambasian" armed forces lauch a surprise full-on attack on Sydney, using the huge guns of its battleships, and aircraft from its carriers, to batter Sydney into ruins― blitzkreig indeed.

The novel gathers together the stories of several refugees fleeing from the destruction, trying to make their way to safety in Melbourne; there are reports of Western Australia and Queensland being lost to the enemy; and then, as they struggle into Melbourne, chased by regiment after regiment of the Cambasian army in tanks, Melbourne receives the same blitzkrieg as Sydney.

The small Australian air force of the day is swiftly destroyed; the navy is hoplessly outgunned and outnumbered; and the army to small to make a significant resistance.

As I say, this is an "awful warning, wake-up" novel, and it does answer in part the question of whether Erle Cox was notably racist. One commentator has described this as a "Yellow Peril" novel, but this is wrong; there is no Fu Manchu stereoptye here. There are two scenes in which the conquerors round up the last surviving mountain guerillas, and we readers finally meet the enemy face to face. They are presented simply as officers; no racial or physical description at all. No "slanty eyed, bandy-legged Japs" of propaganda stereotype after all, but enthically anonymous soldiers who speak ordinary English.
The circumstances which triggered this novel have long gone and it is now simply an interesting (and it must be said, gripping) view of what might happen to Australia but fortunately didn't. Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and Singapore instead.

The Missing Angel (1946)

Cox's last novel is entirely different. It is a comic, even farcical, variation of the Faust theme. A throughly ground down young Melbourne man, bullied by his overbearing mother into romantic nullity, would sell his soul to the devil to escape the trap.

Enter Lucifer in the guise of Nick Senior, (an amusing disguise for "Old Nick") who can grant his wish in return for his soul. The deal is done, and the consequences are farcical as the young man's wishes turn out to have all sorts of "collateral damage" which Nick Senior, keeping his end of the deal, has to sort out. Sort of like Thorne Smith, but without the ribaldry.
It's quite good fun.

Short Stories

Cox also wrote quite a few short stories for his newspaper, although he was primarily a book reviewer and feature writer. They range from romance to sf and fantasy, and are light in tone, as befits a family daily paper. There is a batch of six comic stories featuring Major Mendax, an overbearing mad scientist of epic proportions, whose projects have comic consequences.
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