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The Lesser Spotted Science Fiction Writer

Part 6: Michael Moorcock

 Phlogiston Forty, 1994

Once I asked Michael Moorcock to autograph a book for me. This took him all of five seconds. Then he spent about a minute and a half sketching a picture of a giant chicken on the title page. He handed my book back to me. "It's a picture of a moor cock," he said, and he laughed hugely. You can always depend on Michael Moorcock for a sense of humour and a good joke.

Moorcock was born in 1939. I suspect he came into the world clutching a pencil and yelling loudly for paper. He seems to have been writing for much of his life. In 1950, when he was eleven years old and I was busy being born, he produced a handmade magazine called Outlaws Own. By 1957 he was doing it for a living and had become the editor of a magazine called Tarzan Adventures, a weekly journal published by Westworld Publications. Some of Moorcock's earliest fictions were published here; a series featuring the warrior lord Sojan the Swordsman. They are perfectly competent tales of heroic derring do, much given to sword fights and monsters, and set on a strange and remote planet. They read very much like Edgar Rice Burroughs' tales of John Carter of Mars, which is hardly surprising considering the magazine in which they were published.

By 1960, Moorcock had branched out and was writing for the Fleetway Library. Fleetway published small comic books about cowboys, detectives, war -- that sort of thing. They cost one shilling, and I used to read them quite a lot as a youngster when I was ill. My mother would go down to the local newsagent as I lay on my bed of pain covered with chickenpox spots or whatever, and she would buy three or four Fleetway comic books. I always got better very quickly.

Moorcock would write an outline for Fleetway which he would offer to an editor. If it was accepted he would write the script itself, the frames, the continuity boxes and the speech balloons, together with a description of what should be in the picture in the frame. He once sold a series of sports stories by convincing the editor that he knew everything there was to be known about all the various sports. One story involved ‘Skid Solo', a racing driver and the editor got furious when Moorcock had all the cars racing around Brands Hatch the wrong way.

The Fleetway stories poured out. Zip Nolan of the Highway Patrol, Olac the Gladiator, Kit Carson, Dick Daring. Sometimes alone, often in collaboration with Barrington Bailey, he wrote and he wrote. These stories taught him a lot about the realities of commercial fiction, how to structure a story, how to write to a deadline. The experience stood him in good stead when he branched out into longer works, writing for the Sexton Blake Library.

Moorcock left Fleetway after a terrible row which culminated in him throwing a typewriter out of the window. This was not untypical of this point in his life.

I was writing floods of hackwork for Fleetway and was getting sometimes £70 or £80 a week which was going on drink, mainly, and, as I remember, involved rather a lot of broken glass of one description or another. I do remember with great pride, my main achievement of the winter of 1960 or 1961, which was to smash entirely an unbreakable plate-glass door in a well known restaurant near Piccadilly. And the management apologised...

The Secret Life of Elric of Melniboné
in Sojan, Savoy Books 1977.

He bummed around Europe for a while playing guitar, but found it hard to make a living and was sent home starving by the British Embassy in France. He wrote pamphlets for the Liberal party and he published some rather badly written but enormously popular stories in Science Fantasy, one of two magazines edited by John Carnell. The other magazine was called New Worlds.

Moorcock was invited by Carnell to write a guest editorial for New Worlds and he offended a lot of people by a call for a revolution in science fiction. He deplored the lack of:

...passion, subtlety, irony, original characterisation, original and good style, a sense of involvement in human affairs, colour, density, depth, and, on the whole, real feeling from the writer.

Guest Editorial, New Worlds No. 129 April 1963.

Reading these words today, more than thirty years after they were written, is a very depressing experience. Nothing seems to have changed very much in the meantime.

Moorcock's sentiments were spot on, but given that his own publication record at that time showed only a few heroic fantasy stories and one or two rather immature "literary" works (together with vast amounts of juvenilia for organisations like Fleetway) he was hardly leading from strength. All his published writings seemed to suffer from the very defects he accused others of. Perhaps all that could be said in his favour was that at least he recognised this.

Consequently it came as somewhat of a shock to many people when, about a year later, he took over as editor of New Worlds and proceeded to re-shape it in the image of his manifesto.

New Worlds became the epitome of the avant garde and in retrospect far too many of its writers took themselves far too seriously. But even in the midst of all the preaching of serious literary theory, Moorcock's sense of fun never let him down. For much of the life of the magazine, the artist Eduardo Paolozzi appeared on the masthead as Aeronautics Adviser.

The magazine was very variable in the quality of the fiction it produced. Mainly this was because it was put together as a sort of editorial collective. Moorcock and his friends would hammer out compromises, each putting in stories that the others liked but that they hated, simply in order to be allowed to include stories that they themselves liked!

However enough good material was published for the magazine to have a firm following and for a time it even had an Arts Council grant. It gained a brief notoriety when it published Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron which contained the word "fuck" (unheard of in popular fiction). Questions were asked in Parliament and the major book chains in England refused to sell the magazine any more. This was the kiss of death and eventually it perished from lack of sales. The final issue was a special "good taste" edition which had a very Victorian feel to it.

It was in New Worlds that Jerry Cornelius was born. (His initials are not a coincidence). He was the archetype of the sixties era and so successful was he that many of the New Worlds writers wrote stories in which Jerry figured largely. (Most of these were collected in The Nature of the Catastrophe Hutchinson, 1971). But he was always Moorcock's character and it was with the Jerry Cornelius stories that Moorcock found his own voice as a writer, outgrew the cheap fantasies of his youthful period and emerged as a mature and skilful writer. (One of the later Cornelius novels, The Condition of Musak, won the Guardian Fiction prize).

The stories are ironic and compressed, with large amounts of information concentrated in a small space. The imagery makes contemporary references drawn from pop music, art, astronomy, physics, and politics. They are a picture of an era and if nowadays some of them seem a little dated, that is no bad thing in itself because they remain true to the times that they portray. The stories are peopled by grotesques, caricatures of the types used so successfully a generation before by Charles Dickens (a writer with whom Moorcock has much in common and whom he admires a lot. In an interview with Colin Greenland, he discusses Dickens' Bleak House and praises it highly).

The most successful of Moorcock's grotesques is Jerry's horrible mum.

She sighed and lowered herself into the discoloured armchair. "Oooch! Them fucking springs. Damp as Brighton Beach too." The complaints were uttered in a tone of comfortable approval. She had been too long out of her natural environment. She reached up for the gin and began to unscrew the cap. Frank handed her a dirty glass from the sink.

. . .

She peered at the cracked mantelpiece on the far side of the room, locating the faded pictures of the fathers of her children. There was Frank's father in his GI uniform. There was Cathy's father in his best suit. There was the father of the dead twins, of the three abortions -- the one who had married her. Only Jerry's father was missing. She didn't remember him for all she'd borrowed his name. Through all her marriages she'd always been known as Mrs Cornelius. She'd only been sixteen, hadn't she? Or even younger? Or was that something else? Was he the Jewish feller?

Soon she was dreaming her nice dream as opposed to her nasty dream. She was kneeling on a big white woolly carpet. She was completely naked and there was blood dripping from her mangled nipples as she was buggered by a huge, black, shapeless animal. In her sleep, her hands fell to her lap and she dug at herself with her nails and stirred and snorted, waking herself up. She smiled and drank down the rest of the gin and was soon fast asleep again.

The English Assassin, Quartet. 1973.

My own favourite character from the Cornelius books is the disgustingly entertaining Bishop Beesley who is grossly fat and appears to live on Mars bars and similar confectionery. At the Gala Ball which follows the Peace Talks, the Bishop meets an ex-nun. Not unnaturally, they both take off their clothes, cover themselves with chocolate and prance around doing an obscene version of the cake walk. And then:

In the Yellow Room Bishop Beesley was struggling to get his surplice on over the hardening chocolate, leaving the half-eaten ex-nun on the floor where she lay. He adjusted his mitre, picked up his crook, stopped for one last lick and then hurried out.

The English Assassin, Quartet. 1973.

Mrs Cornelius and Colonel Pyat (another character from the Cornelius books) both feature largely in a quartet of novels which will probably be Moorcock's magnum opus. In these novels (Byzantium Endures, The Laughter of Carthage, Jerusalem Commands and the as yet unpublished The Vengeance of Rome) he attempts to give us nothing less than the history of (and an explanation of) the twentieth century. It is a grandly am-bitious under taking haunted by the shadow of Hitler's holocaust. They are painful books and Moorcock excels himself as an artist by making a hero (or at least a leading character) of Pyat, a horrible, whining, evil and misguided man who espouses all the causes that darkened the first half of this century. To write of such a man without alienating your audience shows skills of high order.

One of Moorcock's more commercially successful serious stories from the New World's era was Behold the Man. Originally a novella published in the magazine, it was later expanded into a novel. The hero, Karl Glogaur, a disaffected Jew, is given the opportunity to test a time machine. He travels back to the year 28 AD to check out the crucifixion. The machine crashes and Glogaur is stranded. He is taken in by the Essenes and later journeys in search of Christ (our old friend JC again). He finds Mary and Joséph, but their son Jesus is a congenital imbecile dribbling in a corner. Glogaur stays at the synagogue for a while and, by various diverse means, takes over the role of the historical Jesus and is eventually crucified.

The novella won a Nebula award, and is generally well received (though somewhat controversial with committed Christians). However Moorcock himself is rather disparaging of it:

There's no fucking irony in Behold the Man. That's why I don't like it. It's too morbid. There isn't a bloody joke in the whole damn thing. My ex-mother-in-law used that as her criterion for a book, and I think she was quite right: that's a good criterion.

Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle by Colin Greenland, Savoy Books 1992.
(The book is the transcript of an interview.)

The story exemplified many things the New World's writers believed in. In an earlier era and written by another writer, there would have been far too much made of the time machine. It would have been a central plot element, the "science" to justify the "fiction". However in Moorcock's hands it becomes almost unimportant, simply a McGuffin to get the hero from A. to B. (There is some rather obvious symbolism which makes it clear that it is also a surrogate womb and when Glogaur arrives in the past he is being re-born). The novel's real concerns are elsewhere and it is much stronger as a result of the change in the traditional emphasis.

Moorcock seems to like unusual time machines -- he has used a bicycle, a speedboat, mysterious tunnels, a hangman's noose, and many other outré devices as time machines. They all seem to work quite nicely thank you.

Behold the Man was followed by a sequel called Breakfast in the Ruin which is an examination of moral themes exemplified by a series of stories involving Karl Glogaur in agonising decisions in many different troubled eras. He starts out an innocent and ends up completely corrupt. Interspersed with these episodes are vignettes called What Would You Do which propose insoluble life and death problems to the reader. The book is Moorcock's most depressing and the introduction reads:

Michael Moorcock died of lung cancer, aged 31, in Birmingham last year. The where-abouts of Karl Glogaur are presently unknown.

Breakfast in the Ruins, NEL 1972

It is signed "James Colvin" (one of Moorcock's pseudonyms from the New World's days).

The book is a prototype for the Pyat novels, a guided tour of the bad times of the world from the Paris commune through Auschwitz, Kenya and the Mau Mau, Vietnam, and on into the future. In it Moorcock confronted his own mortality through Glogaur. For once he wasn't playing with it as he had in the Cornelius books and the Elric fantasies. For once it was real.

One of the many games that Moorcock plays is to re-use characters and situations in many of his novels. Characters are always popping up in other books (sometimes after they have died in an earlier work) without explanation. Death is no obstacle, as Moorcock himself has remarked, and if the character fits, the character will be used. Moorcock fans delight in following these twists and turns. All the Jerry Cornelius novels have a party about half way through and the guest lists of these parties are enormously funny to the well-read Moorcock aficionado. The guests are characters from his own (and other people's) books, other SF writers, personal friends, and characters from books he hasn't written yet.

Moorcock's fascination with his characters is demonstrated to great comedic effect in The Chinese Agent. Arthur Hodgkiss (alias Jewellery Jules, master gem thief) is all set to steal the crown jewels. However at the tower he is mistaken for the Chinese agent of the title and who is there to pick up the secret plans of Operation Glass. British Intelligence put their top man on to the job -- suave, ladykilling Jerry Cornell (yes, him again) and the book turns into total farce. It is the only Moorcock novel ever to have made me laugh out loud. It feels somewhat dated now -- very sixties -- but still it overflows with comic invention and wit and has in it a character even more outrageous and revolting than Jerry Cornelius' mum -- Jerry Cornell's Uncle Edmond:

[Uncle Edmond] led him down a damp, evil-smelling passage and into his room. It was full of newspaper-wrapped parcels that gave off a horrible stench. Nobody knew what Uncle Edmond kept in the parcels. Nobody ever tried to find out.

Jerry reeled, wanting to lean against something, but was repelled by everything that offered itself as a surface.

Uncle Edmond sat down in a battered rocking chair beside his bed. The bed seemed to shift slightly as if it already had an occupant. Uncle Edmond stared at the bed and then picked up an old walking stick. He hit the bed, and it was still. "Little buggers," he said ...

The lice moved uncomfortably as the creaking bed shook to Uncle Edmond's cough. They were tired and hungry lice. They had come with the mattress which Uncle Edmond had found propped beside someone's dustbin. They had expected nothing but the fires of the public incinerator, and then had come this last minute rescue. They had prepared to feast the first time Uncle Edmond had laid himself down on his new acquisition. They had been disappointed. Even the lice could not bear to get close to Uncle Edmond. They huddled at the far end of the bed even now. At least, they thought, the public incinerator would have been quick.

The Chinese Agent, Mayflower 1979

In his back yard, Uncle Edmond has a Pile. It gurgles and glops and is slimy and smelly and sometimes he feeds it things...

Perhaps Moorcock's most famous and enduring character is Elric of Melniboné. As a young man, Moorcock absorbed all the classic fantasies by Burroughs, Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and similar writers. Partly as a reaction against their stereo-types he tried to write a heroic fantasy that broke the rules, where the hero was not strong and fearless. Elric is a physically weak man. Without the dark strength given him by his sword Stormbringer (it eats souls and passes on their vigour) he would soon die. Furthermore he makes errors, his friends and relatives die on his quests (sometimes by his own hand) and he has a tortured conscience. All this makes him more believable, more human (for want of a better word -- Elric is not a human being). The whole added up to a fascinatingly complex hero and over the years the books and the stories proliferated. Indeed, Moorcock thought so much of his hero that he revised and re-wrote many of the stories in order to remove contradictions and smooth out the narrative sequence. (Many of the Elric stories have been published in many different versions -- a bibliographer's nightmare).

Moorcock returned to Elric time after time. Some of his earliest fantasy stories feature the Melnibonéan and so do some of his latest and there is no doubt that with this haunted albino, Moorcock hit a nerve.

...Elric was me (the me of 1960-1, anyway), and the mingled qualities of betrayer and betrayed, the bewilderment about life in general, the search for some solution to it all, the expression of this bewilderment in terms of violence, cynicism and the need for revenge were all characteristics of mine... [The Dreaming City] was packed with personal symbols (as are all the stories bar a couple)... Elric, for me, symbolised the ambivalence of mankind in general with its love-hates, its mean-generosity, its confident-bewilderment act. Elric is a thief who believes himself robbed, a lover who hates love. In short he cannot be sure of the truth of anything, not even of his own emotions or ambitions.

The Secret Life of Elric of Melniboné
 in Sojan, Savoy Books 1977)

There are resonances between the Elric fantasies and the Cornelius novels. Indeed, the plot of part of the first of the Jerry Cornelius novels (The Final Programme) is also the plot of an Elric novelette called The Dreaming City (the first story in The Stealer of Souls) and this is quite deliberate. Partly it shows the meaningless nature of plot incidents in themselves and partly it demonstrates the meaningful relationship between Elric and Jerry as aspects of the eternal champion. But mainly it is just for fun (after all Elric is a guest at one of the big parties that infest the Cornelius novels and you wouldn't want to upset a guest would you?)

For sheer sustained wit and inventiveness, though, nothing surpasses the stories set at the End of Time. They comprise three connected novels (An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs), a stand-alone novel (A Messiah at the End of Time, sometimes published as The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming) and a collection of novellas called Legends from the End of Time An Elric story (Elric at the End of Time) is also set in this era.

The trilogy details the adventures of one Jherek Carnelian (yes, it's him again) from the remote future. He falls in love with Amelia Underwood, a time-traveller from 1896 who is briefly stranded at the End of Time. The story moves backwards and forwards between the End of Time and Victorian England. H.G. Wells appears (Jherek borrows his time machine) as do other famous real and surreal people.

The novels combine the comedy of manners with science fiction melodrama and much of the wit comes from this odd juxtaposition. Exaggerated images and changeable landscapes contrast with the proper love interest between Amelia Underwood and Jherek. He is a child (the decadent society at the End of Time seems never to have grown up) and he has a child's delight in novelty. Like a child he is easily bored and his enthusiasms wane. Amelia is the soul of rectitude, very conscious of her obligations and duty; concepts that are all but meaningless to Jherek. The misunderstandings these contrasts generate are central to the plot. Moorcock takes a huge delight in exploring them and the pace never flags.

Graham Greene considered his books to be made up of "novels" and "entertainments" and made a sharp and clear distinction between them (though he made no judgement as to the worth of either). Some of the same division can be seen in Michael Moorcock's work. If the Pyat novels are Moorcock's masterpiece novels, the End of Time stories are his masterpiece entertainments (which, of course, does not detract from their worth as novels).

Perhaps Moorcock's silliest book was a novel he never actually wrote. The Time of the Hawklords was published as by Michael Moorcock and Michael Butterworth. Moorcock supplied only the general idea and Butterworth wrote the book. As I recall (it is many years since I read it, and I have no wish to re-read it), someone has planted a device that sings Julie Andrews songs in the centre of the earth. Because the songs are beaming out all the time, the Earth's population is slowly going mad. Only the rock music of Hawkwind can counteract the deadly effect of the Julie Andrews songs, and guns are built with miniature Hawkwind tapes in them. Everybody carries these guns and whenever they suspect someone is being overcome by Julie Andrews, they draw their gun and blast the person with heavy metal rock. Do you wonder I don't want to read it again? It was originally announced as the first of a trilogy. A second book was published (Queen of Deliria by Michael Butterworth) but no third novel ever appeared, and I am not surprised.

What characterises Michael Moorcock? There is no easy answer because he is no easy writer. Despite his often expressed disdain for the medium, he continues to write SF and Fantasy. And yet his major works are moving further and further away from the genre. The Pyat novels and singletons such as Mother London are only peripherally connected with the field. (Despite this they all contain elements of fantasy; though perhaps it might better be called ‘magic realism' in the Gabriel García Márquez mould). He is a commercial writer (the early years of fast, voluminous production taught him his craft) and he makes a good living at it. But there is more to him than this. He is very aware of the art of his craft (if I may be permitted such an inelegant phrase) and it is important to him, as witnessed by his constant experimentation with form and content, with text and subtext. Every new book is a new experience with something new to say:

And so each venture is a new beginning,
A raid on the inarticulate ...

T. S. Eliot Four Quartets

To me this is the major attraction of Michael Moorcock -- he is a versatile writer and every new book is a new exploration. He never stands still.

In the end, though, you can always depend on Michael Moorcock for a sense of humour and a good joke. He once edited a collection of stories by authors such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling etc. It was called, if memory serves, Before Armageddon. Moorcock once donated a copy of this book to an auction at a British SF convention. It was quite a rare book. It was autographed -- by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling...

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