Despite the thread of pessimism cunningly interwoven the length of the story, Richard Cowper’s 1976 “The Custodians” is a gem of a novelette. Written in crisp, interest-building prose, it brings to light the free will vs. determinism debate in subtle, fantastical terms.
Set in the early 20th century, “The Custodians” is the story of Marcus Spindrift, a young man interested in the arcane works of Meister Sternwärts. Knowing that the monastery of Hautaire holds the majority of the man’s recorded works, it’s there he requests an audience, and after receiving an invitation, is warmly welcomed by Friar Rodrigo, a man who, strangely enough, knew he was coming. Spindrift’s world turned upside in the aftermath of his visit to the monastery, it is what he decides to do with the esoteric knowledge he gains there, however, that makes all the difference.
Developed and presented in plausible enough terms, “The Custodians” is indeed a story of precognition, and through it Cowper explores humanity’s role in determining the future and if, indeed, it plays any role at all. Intrigue snowballing into gotta-know proportion, Cowper should, along with presenting an engaging idea, be commended for his smooth, direct syntax. Though sharing a sci-fi device in common with Philip K. Dick—the precog master, “The Custodian” is a much better written piece style-wise and comes recommended for anyone looking for a little thought candy on free will and the direction society is headed.