Monday, 7 March 2011

Reading Michael Moorcock

Last month I read an interview of Michael Moorcock by Hari Kunzu:  I have probably read more novels by Moorcock than any other other, partly because in his long career he has been prolific but also because like Kunzu, in my teenage years I was drawn into Moorcock's multiple fantasy worlds, his 'multiverse' as he termed it very easily.  I think the reasons for this were many. 

Like many teenaged boys of the 1980s fantasy was what lifted our lives from the tedium of suburban life.  There was none of this all-encompassing game worlds on sophisticated consoles or PCs that can take away hours.  The most involving was something like 'Lords of Midnight' (1984) on the ZX Spectrum and if you showed that even a pre-pubescent child now, they would think it was painfully unsophisticated. So, instead, we escaped into sitting in our rooms reading fantasy novels and meeting up at weekends to play paper and dice role-playing games RPG, most famously 'Dungeons and Dragons' with our friends all afternoon.  I was interested to read that Kunzu also played 'Traveller', 'Call of Cthullu' and especially 'Bushido' which was my favourite RPG (I still have the original boxed game) set in a medieval Japan where Japanese gods and mythical creatures were real.  Much of this fantasy stuff, however, was very derived from 'The Lord of the Rings', with orcs, elves and dwarfs (or dwarves as Tolkien wrongly titled them), wizards and warriors, what is almost seen as the standard fantasy setting.  Though you could buy prepared scenarios the bulk of adventures you played were thought up and written by one of the players, who would be the 'Keeper' or 'Dungeon Master'.  Being keen on writing fiction, this was a role I often took.

Anyway, in this context of very traditional fantasy fare, in a kind of medieval setting with magic, Moorcock's books were refreshing.  He is critical of authors like Tolkien who he has family said wrote 'Epic Pooh' (after Winnie-the-Pooh) stories.  Moorcock met both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in his youth and liked them as men if not their fiction. This is not to say that some of Moorcock's books are not set in a world of sword fights and sorcery and like Tolkien he draws on Norse myths, notably in elements of the Elric sagas. However, being very much a product of the late 1960s rather than the 1950s like Tolkien, Moorcock always sought to twist and subvert genres.  He is also very open in attributing his influences as diverse as they are. 

One series I got into very early on was the A Nomad of the Time Streams triology.  It features an Oswald Bastable a character from E. Nesbit stories who has grown to be an Edwardian army captain and travels to alternate versions of Earth in three novels which feature counter-factuals: 'The Warlord of the Air' (1971), 'The Land Leviathan' (1974) and 'The Steel Tsar' (1981).  Kunzu wrongly portrays 'The Warlord of the Air' as the first steampunk book; this honour belongs to 'Queen Victoria's Bomb' (1967) by Ronald Clark, but Moorcock certainly gave bulk to the genre and took it in different directions.  Today he is a friend of Alan Moore so there is a personal connection into contemporary steampunk.  However, as I have noted before Moorcock bewails the fact that he feels the 'punk' is missing, replaced more with 'opera'.

Moorcock certainly enjoys counter-factuals especially messing around with outcomes in Europe of the 20th century.  His Jerry Cornelius and Colonel Pyat characters often stumble briefly through some counter-factual setting not explored in depth, but mentioned in passing and outlined through some references.  The Nomad of the Time Streams stories are more explicitly counter-factual exploring worlds in which the First World War never occurred and the balance between black and white people in terms of power has been different.  Many of these stories are influenced by the airship novels of the late 19th century/early 20th century such as those by George Griffith including 'The Angel of the Revolution' (1893) and 'Outlaws of the Air' (1895) amongst others.  I have yet to read Moorcock's 'The Metatemporal Detective' (2007) but it seems to be even more steampunky and features Monsieur Zenith a character from Sexton Blake stories (in Moorcock's early career he was editor of a Sexton Blake story magazine) who fed into the character of Elric too.

Another source that Moorcock has long acknowledged has been the work of Mervyn Peake, notably the Gormenghast triology, 'Titus Groan' (1946; TV serialised in 2000 as 'Gormenghast'), 'Gormenghast' (1950) and 'Titus Alone' (1959).   Though Peake was a contemporary of Lewis and Tolkien his fantasy work is more of a humanist (perhaps Nonconformist given his background as son of Congregationalist missionaries) approach looking at the malaise of post-war society aware of the Holocaust and the exhaustion of the old established world. Saying this, his 'Mr. Pye' (1953; television production 1986) is a clearer tale of morality.  His Gormenghast novels are jammed with eccentric characters, some benign, some avaricious, many ineffectual. The uber-Gothic castle of Gormenghast has probably inspired visual artists and even computer game programmers more than authors; he was an artist and a poet too.  However, Moorcock has admitted the influence on him, most notably in 'Gloriana' (1978) in which a version of Elizabeth I inhabits a palace like Castle Gormenghast.  It is a story which naturally also references Elizabethan stories too.

This subverting of genres is notable in his Elric series with the eponymous hero being anaemic and dependent on drugs or a life-draining sword to survive.  He betrays his own kingdom and his amoral throughout.  Moorcock's universes do not see a simplistic fight between good and evil, it is more complex than that, a contest between Law and Chaos.  Of course, most people see Law as equating to Good.  However, when you have it indicated in the context of say, hippies being chaotic and Nazis adhering very strongly to a law, then you can see that it is a more challenging concept.  Moorcock wrote the Elric stories as an intentional contrast to the muscle-bound hero, Conan of the novels by Robert E. Howard.

The first Moorcock book I stumbled across was 'The Final Programme' (1969), the first in the Jerry Cornelius series.  Cornelius is probably the most 1960s of Moorcock's characters.  He is a bisexual (sometimes even trans-sexual and trans-racial) drug addict, alcoholic assassin who appears to be an epitome of London of the era.  You see him as what Austin Powers was before he was watered down for family entertainment.  It was one of only a handful of books that I have read in a single day.  Moorcock's text is very engaging in his best novels.  In his worse it is very fragmented and I felt that the latter Cornelius novels were too fragmentary to engage with and almost became a sequence of 'catchphrases' of very Cornelian scenes: 'A Cure for Cancer' (1971), 'The English Assassin' (1972), 'The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius (1976)' 'The Condition of Muzak' (1977) and 'The Entropy Tango' (1981). 'The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the 20th Century' (1976) features Jerry but is mainly about his sister and her lover and it is slightly less fractured. 

Moorcock also wrote a couple of slightly more mainstream spy novels, 'The Chinese Agent' (1970) and 'The Russian Intelligence' (1980) though with a dry British humour rather than dramatic action.  I remember the spy organisation being very short of money so much so that one agent had to take the bus to gather intelligence.   Unlike Kunzu, I did not have to scour second hand bookshops because for some reason by 6th Form college had a very extensive collection of Moorcock books that no-one in the mid-1980s was borrowing (aside from me it seemed).  I did hunt bookshops over a number of years for the various Elric novels, because Moorcock wrote and re-wrote them.  I identified three sequences overlapping at points and I think I read them all, there may be more now.

Some of Moorcock's novels have more the style of mainstream fantasy novels, for example, the Hawkmoon series.  These are set in an alternate, fantasy Europe (possibly a post-apocalyptic version of our Earth) ruled over by Granbretan, i.e. Great Britain which is connected to the continent of Europe by a vast bridge.  The hero is Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke of Köln (the real German name for Cologne where he is based) who becomes involved with the still independent region of the Kamarg (which is the Camargue region of southern France). 

Hawkmoon appears in four novels: 'The Jewel in the Skull' (1967), 'The Mad God's Amulet' (1968), 'The Sword of the Dawn' (1968) and 'The Runestaff' (1969).  He was also the lead character in the The Chronicles of Castle Brass series, 'Count Brass' (1973), 'The Champion of Garathorm' (1973) and 'The Quest for Tanelorn' (1975).  Another swords and sorcery series was that of Corum Jhaelen in 'The Knight of the Swords' (1971), 'The Queen of the Swords' (1971), 'The King of the Swords' (1971), 'The Bull and the Spear' (1973), 'The Oak and the Ram' (1973) and 'The Sword and the Stallion' (1974) which draw heavily on Celtic myths.  One thing about Moorcock's work is that whilst his stories are epic, they are often covered in short novels.  This contrasts with the 'doorstop' sized books that seem to characterise so many fantasy series seeking to ape 'The Lord of the Rings'.

Less typical of standard fantasy were Moorcock's, 'Dancers at the End of Time' series: 'An Alien Heat' (1971), 'The Hollow Lands' (1974), 'The End of All Songs' (1976), 'Legends from the End of Time' (1976), 'The Transformation of Miss. Mavis Ming' (1977) and 'Elric at the End of Time' (1981), more cross-series connections from Moorcock.  The novels and short stories present a very hedonistic society in which a few individuals are left on what is Earth close to the end of its life.  They are nearly ominpotent due to the powers imbued by rings they wear connected to self-running cities that they never enter nor have much understanding of.  However, the powers allow them to create or adjust anything even themselves.   They pass their time indulging in arts and parties and petty rivalries.  In some ways it is like 'The Tale of Genji', set in the imperial court of early medieval Japan, cut off from any real concerns, the protagonists make a great deal of minor things whilst always being luxuriously elegant and hedonistic. Strangely the cast of eccentric characters in this fantastical setting always reminds me also of the children's series 'The Magic Roundabout'.  Being at the end of time, time travellers from history (though not necessarily from our version of Earth, in a time travelling character's single reference to 'Waterloo Circus' you are shown that).  These arrivals stir up the situation and in one case even trigger a hunt for the Holy Grail, though something else is found instead.  The tone of these novels, though working with many of the themes featured across Moorcock's work, is lighter and these are easy to access stories, though no less thought provoking.

Moorcock's 'Behold the Man' (1966 in magazine/1969 as novel) deserves particular mention.  It won the Nebula Award in 1969. On wikipedia for the entry on Moorcock it says 'some of Moorcock's work has criticized Christianity, most notably, "Behold the Man".' I suppose for any reader who finds any variation from the gospels, criticism, the books is a criticism. However, that is a very superficial reading of the book. In the story a Jewish time traveller, Karl, from 1970 ends up in 28 CE. He finds that Jesus of Nazareth is a low intelligence son of a carpenter. Karl is mistaken for the messiah and ends up living out the life of Jesus, ultimately being betrayed and crucified. This is certainly a heretical view if you believe Jesus was in fact the son of God. However, it is less of a challenge for someone like me who sees Jesus as an ordinary man, reminding us all that we are sons and daughters of God, and showing us we do not need to be divine in order to live a good life.

As well as issues around paradoxes, the novel clearly asks questions about predestination and personal choice, issues that have divided denominations of Christianity through the centuries. I would bracket it with 'Life of Brian' (1979), though in tone the two are very different, but both ask us the extent to which as ordinary people, how do we engage with living morally and also the challenges of expectations thrust upon us. I guess this novel probably would not get published now, but I believe it deserves all the acclaim it received if not just for Moorcock being bold enough to take on the story.

Some view Moorcock's fantasy novels as not really sitting properly in the fantasy genre.  Partly this is because of Moorcock's concept of the Eternal Champion, in that many of his characters are in fact incarnations of characters featured in other series of his.  In one story the characters travel to a kind of arena where all the different versions of this champion and his companions are shown.  I find this concept pretty tiresome and, in fact, unnecessary.  I feel that Moorcock gives more value to his characters if he treated them as distinct identities.  Certainly having characters from different series appearing in other series feels at time very laboured and has led Moorcock to re-write some stories, not to refresh them but simply to make such connections even more apparent, for example introducing his Bishop Beesley character into 'The Land Leviathan' through a re-write. 

Another reason why some commentators set Moorcock's works apart from other fantasy is that his heroes have 'issues'.  I have mentioned the amorality of Jerry Cornelius and Elric, but many leading characters of Moorcock's fantasies are haunted by a sense of doom or of being manipulated.  They make mistakes and can even put friends in jeopardy as a result.  They all tend to be flawed heroes if not anti-heroes.  To a great extent this reflects the period in which Moorcock was really establishing himself, in the late 1960s and 1970s when science fiction was reflecting more on the psychological than the physical and the opportunities and challenges from hallucinogenic drugs. 

As was seen in my review of that 1952 anthology of science fiction stories, the concern with the psychological had been developing in science fiction since the 1940s but across fiction both in print and in movies in the 1960s looking to the inside of people's thoughts and motivations was a widespread trend.  By the 1980s, however, with Reaganite demand for simple heroics and politicians using phrases like 'empire of evil' and 'star wars' as (supposedly) serious political statements, fantasy was pushed back more to the Robert E. Howard style of muscular heroes who can do no wrong. 

Moorcock has noted how misogynistic so much of such writing was and particularly has spoken out against the Gor series of novels by John Norman (29 novels 1966-2011) which feature a society in which not only are women predominantly enslaved to dominant men, but are also shown to enjoy or at least come to accept as 'right' male physical dominance of women, including physical punishment.  Moorcock's heroes are not simplistic, they are complex and at times unlikeable but that adds credibility to them when he is dealing with at times very fantastical worlds. 

Though it is not expressed in such terms, Moorcock seems to be a representative of the trends of the late 1960s into the 1970s, in seeking a degree of libertarianism especially in terms of sex, sexuality and use of narcotics, but also tempered with attitudes which counter racism, sexism and authoritarianism.  The converse side of this as shown by authors like Norman and Howard, aiming very much at the same kind of audience, young men, is a longer running attitude that might is right and that men should be dominant over women.  Such attitudes were the norm in previous centuries and have endured, given new life especially in the era of the hard-right Republican presidencies of Reagan and the two Bushes.  Each side sees the other as being 'wrong' and many of the attitudes of the 'promiscuous Sixties' are blamed for contemporary problems in the ways that liberal thinkers have attacked the attitudes of the partriachical, militarised society for today's problems too.  The politics is never overt, but it is a relief that at least one voice of some of the values many of us hold to but seem rare in the 2010s remains in Moorcock's work.

Moorcock kept writing through the 1980s a period less fertile for his work.   In this period you see the Von Bek triology set in a mythical town, Mirenburg in the state of Waldenstein, almost an archetype of Central Europe cities and states.  In 'The War Hound and the World's Pain' (1981), 'The Brothel in Rosenstrasse' (1982) and 'The City in the Autumn Stars' (1986), Moorcock draws on a mixture of characteristics of 18th century/early 19th century German science, literature and fantasy, especially Faustian pacts and references to medieval myths and the kind of Weimar Republic styling of 'Cabaret' (1972).  Moorcock, as always brings themes such as the Holy Grail into a new context.

The Von Beks become a sprawling trans-era/trans-dimensional family as much as the Corneliuses were and Oona Von Bek appears in three novels along with Elric: 'The Dreamthief's Daughter' (2001), 'The Skrayling Tree' (2003) and 'The White Wolf's Son' (2005) often delving into the dangerous fantasies of the Nazis.  This 'untidiness' of Moorcock's work with characters straddling so many times and places, running into other characters often frustrates readers of Moorcock's novels.  Personally I think he tries too hard to connect everything up and personally I try to take each novel as a distinct entity, judging characters featuring in it for their own sake in that story rather than what else they might be elsewhere.  This may be the opposite of what Moorcock may intend.

In the 1980s Moorcock also began producing the Between the Wars series: 'Byzantium Endures' (1981), 'The Laughter of Carthage' (1984), 'Jerusalem Commands' (1992) and 'The Vengeance of Rome' (2006) which, despite the titles, are really a crystallisation of all those bitty counter-factuals that peppered the Cornelius books.  These stories, perhaps reflecting the times, despite having a cocaine and sex addict as their protagonist do not have the glorious romping nature of the Cornelius stories and are instead downbeat, low key.  They follow Russian, half-Jewish, Colonel Pyat from 1900 onwards being wrapped up in various aspects of 20th century history. 

To some degree, this marked Moorcock's progression to more realistic or at least partial magic realism in his novels 'Mother London' (1988) and 'King of the City' (2000)  very much about London, though not precisely as we know it (escalators at Mile End underground station!?).  Showing that he never adheres to one genre, he was also producing the very fantastical Second Ether stories about pirates in some alternative version of space: 'Blood: A Southern Fantasy' (1994), 'Fabulous Harbours' (1995) and 'The War Amongst The Angels' (1996), for me too 'rich' in terms of their fantastical nature to be that enjoyable.

Michael Moorcock's work will not appeal to everyone even among young men.  However, if you are seeking something different in your reading that may be based in one genre but is liable to jump over the boundaries from time to time, then Moorcock's work is well worth looking at.  There is such an assortment that many people will find something of interest among it.  Expect to be challenged and expect for the ideas that are raised, even in a seemingly adventurous fantasy story, to nag at you long after you have finished the book.  I am glad Moorcock is still writing, his latest book, a Doctor Who one, 'The Coming of the Terraphiles' (2010) possibly indicates that whilst he may not be mainstream, mainstream science fiction audiences are once again ready to delve into his ideas.  This book is apparently jammed full of Moorcockian references including the Captain Cornelius and the multiverse.

1 comment:

ColKillgore said...

I have read few of Moorcock's books but I throughly enjoyed the Nomad trilogy and still have them on my shelf.