A Biblio-Critical Study of Speculative Fiction Novels

Chapter 06 Breakfast Among the Ruins: Michael Moorcock


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Chapter Six: Breakfast Among the Ruins,
Michael Moorcock

A. Introduction: Moorcock the Editor and Propagandist

Michael Moorcock remains known primarily for his editorship from 1964 onwards of New Worlds magazine, but he also wrote some fine, innovate, obscure, and faintly anachronistic novels. Sometime critic and author Harlan Ellison states that the "new wave" arose without "the benefit of salon, left bank, coffee house, or writer's colony." (1) It did, however, rise with the benefit of Michael Moorcock, and the dominant writers, particularly the British ones, enjoyed a close artistic and perosnal relationship with New World's editor and Moorcock sometimes seemed intent on creating his own London left bank and putting the "swing" into London:

"There were open confrontations between the 'new wave' radicals and science fiction establishment...At the Globe, an obscure pub...diehard British science fiction fans gathered...the (New World's) staff wore...colorful clothes and were met with hostility (at the pub)...(The fans were) accosting Moorcock...condemning him for having ruined 'their' science fiction magazine...Moorcock would tear his hair...There would be a desperate, drunken drive home...Moorcock would sing a few bars of his version of the Beatle's 'Yellow Submarine: 'We all live in a failing magazine.'

"And the next day it was back to the world of leaking roofs and printers (at New World's office)--the penniless, despairing crusade in the cause of some kind of literary idealism.'" (2)

Moorcock takes primary or sole credit for igniting the careers of several prominent authors, including Charles Platt, Langdon Jones, Hilary Bailey, M. John Harrison, Thomas M. Disch, John Sladek, Pamela Zoline, James Sallis, Norman Spinrad, Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, Peter Tate, David Masson, George Macbeth, and, to a lesser extent, Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard. Moorcock wanted science fiction authors to face the modern problems, speculate on the present rather than presenting a future:

"We need authors who reflect the pragmatic mood of today, who use images apt for today, who employ symbols gathered from the world of today, who use sophisticated writing techniques of today, who employ characters fitted for the society of today...a writer must relate primarily to his own generation. " (3)

The crux of New Worlds magazine as well as Moorcock's own fiction lay in exploring the problems of this modern, present world, not so much the future. Such an approach lay outside the mainstream of science fiction, let alone conventional mainstream fiction:

"It was work which stood little chance of being published anywhere other than New Worlds. Either its structure was unconventional, or the material might have been idiosyncratic...writers were using romantic idiom, using symbolism, imagery, and irony...courageous stories, written by people who were displaying, often in a confused way, a courageous attempt to grapple with very large issues...a compulsion towards finding out what the dangers were and confronting certain realities. (4)

Moorcock did not possess infallible editorial skills or impeccable taste. He simply published authors whose vision resembled his own. He choose as his star J.G. Ballard, the subject of chapter seven, a unique voice that other writers attempted in vain to emulate. Moorcock thus, perhaps by intention, took the most atypical writer and made him the center. Stronger individuals such as Aldiss and Disch could avoid the mistake of simple imitation of Ballard, but not all escaped so easily. Moorcock's New Worlds, like Amazing, Astounding, Galaxy, FASF, and Goldsmith's Amazing and Fantastic, dramatically changed the genre, but this somewhat obscured Moorcock's own prolific and interesting career as a novelist.


B. Moorcock the Author

Michael Moorcock (1939), only a boy when Britain fought in World War II, still vividly remembers the bombing of London, a destructive image constantly reproduced in his fiction, just as J.G. Ballard's recreates his own vision of Shanghai's fall. Moorcock, a Burroughs fan, printed his first stories in Tarzan Adventures. He worked a number of odd jobs before he began to publish prolific ally, perhaps too prolific ally, in Ted Carnell's New Worlds and Science Fantasy. He established a reputation as a fantasy writer with the Elric series, and New Worlds choose him as its editor in 1964. Moorcock maintained this editorship and eventually became publisher as well, sinking much of his own money into the magazine. This sometimes led to his writing too much simply to fund the magazine, to the impairment of his reputation. When the magazine folded in 1970, Moorcock issued a series of anthologies using the New World's name and began extensive revision of many of his earlier novels. Since the early seventies, Moorcock published and revised an imposing number of novels.

Moorcock's novels convoluted plots exhibit little order and often run into other novels. Moorcock tends to organize his works around specific images that he strings together with a linking story. In his worst novels, the entire structure seems contrived, but in his best works, he poses that the cosmos itself suffers from disorder, justifying his idiosyncratic mechanization. Moorcock commonly uses two types of story that allow him a great degree of artistic freedom: fantasy and the time story novel. Like Zelazny, on whom he exerted some influence, his novels almost always involve quests: the main character searches for some physical object and finds his inner self through his satisfaction of the external quest.

Moorcock's style does not stray much from the conventional with the surrealistic Cornelius Chronicles a notable exception. He exerts a high degree of linguistic control and commonly introduces narrative in many different styles as well as poetry into his works. He generally uses third person limited narration though he occasionally writes a work in first person.

Moorcock characters, particularly women, seldom become more than two-dimensional. Early in his career, he developed two powerful archetypes that appear in almost all of his later works, the Champion and the Fool. The former, a tragic hero with fatal physical and mental flaws, falls into recurring doomed battles. The latter, a witty, wise-cracking spear-carrier, provides a humorous contrast to the hero's gloomy personality. The hero personifies past virtues while the fool represents prototypical modern man. Moorcock's other characters exist mainly to continue the story with most of his fantasy characters mere stereotypes. In two latter series, however, Moorcock uses a Dickensian structure so that shallow characters make more artistic sense.

Moorcocks concerns himself with only a few new concepts. One is the perception of reality. His characters, like Philip K. Dick's, shuttle around the cosmos and never learn a single, dominant view of reality, or they learn an all-important summarization of universal purpose which the following chapter quickly negates. This drains some of the power from Moorcock's novels' ideas because he treats his most important ideas equally with the trivial, and best ideas never do reach their full development. This also, however, contributes to the sense of "play" that Moorcock's novel often seem to exhibit as though he considers the novel and the world as something of an amusing parlor game.

Moorcock almost always writes in a series format. These series all ultimately link to one another, as do those of Edgar Rice Burroughs, either through character or his theory of the multiverse:

"...a universe in which multiple realities exist, sometimes destroying one another, though never permanently, and in which some of the cosmic dramas are played and replayed by various characters in various situations." (6)

As a result, one can more easily distinguish Moorcock's series by tone than by location or characters. Some are dark, some are parody, and others satirical. Common elements in all include decayed versions of England, end of the world scenes that do not completely end, and anti-imperialist and anti-Western themes. They also usually include dialogues between Victorian and modern or futuristic characters, which show the contrast between physical and ethical survival. Modern man possesses physical comfort and relative freedom, but with the destruction of his repressive social system. he has lost the compassion necessary for ethical behavior. Today's man remains imprisoned by his own freedom and must develop a new ethics or a new basis for the old system.

Moorcock wrote a few novels not in any series. Sojan (out of print) contains a Tarzan-inspired early hero. The Blood Red Game (Science Fiction, 1965) established his theory of the multiverse. The Ice Age (1966, Science Fantasy; 1969; rev. 1977) describes a new Ice Age in which temperatures start to rise. In the Black Corridor (New Worlds, 1969), actual final destruction of the world occurs through a nuclear holocaust. (1)


C. The Eternal Champion, the Elric Series, and
Moorcock's Swords and Sorcery

The first version of the hero appears in the Eternal Champion sequence: The Eternal Champion (1962-1963, Science Fiction Adventure: 1970) and The Silver Warriors (1970). Erokse/John Dakker becomes a simple barbarian, fighting against chaotic forces on worlds of hear and ice. John Dakker, however, remains a man of our times while Erokse represents an unleashing of his primal, ancestral memories. This is Moorcock's' simplest and least satisfying presentation of his ambiguous, doomed protagonist.

The Elric series contains Moorcock's best fantasy invocation of the hero. Elric, the Albino prince of the Melniboneans, worshipping the dark Chaos Lords, walks a doomed world in which the young, human kingdoms gradually replace Elric's people. He acquires a mind-controlling blade, Stormbringer, that enables him to become the greatest swordsman in the world, but it causes a tragedy each time he draws it. Elric plays the Chaos gods against the Order gods and, in turn, these gods use him. He eventually helps destroy the Chaos lords, creating a new world of law and human rule.

The Meliboneians, one of Moorcock's most powerful creations, function as symbols of childhood. Immature, cruel, and sensual, they destroy with no guilt. The worst of mankind, such as the sorcerers of the Sorcerer's Island, attempt to imitate Elric's folk. Elric helps the gods destroy his own people and grows in the process. Elric, the symbolic adolescent, cannot accept responsibility and his place in life. When he does accept his place, his world, as well as the Melibonean's, comes to an end. Rational and mature man, however, does not totally triumph. Stormbringer, a symbol for both violence and sex, survives within the race even after the individual dies or matures:

"The entity that was Stormbringer, last manifestation of Chaos which would remain with this new world as it grew, looked down on the corpse of Elric of Melnibone and smiled.

"'Farewell, friend. I was a thousand times more evil than thou! And then it leapt from the earth and went appearing upwards, its wild voice laughing mockery at the Cosmic; filling the universe with unholy mockery. (2)

The volume in Moorcock's re-written, resequenced series include Elric of Melnibone, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, Weird of the White Wolfe, The Vanishing Tower, The Bane of the Black Sword, and Stormbringer. Elric emerges, a tragic, engaging hero, but the other characters in the series do not rise above the level of sword-and-sorcery stereotypes with the exception of Moonglum, Elric's petty companion. The overall tone remains uncompromisingly grim and perhaps one can see in the replacement of the corrupt Meliboneans with the younger races something of the end of empire concept so pronounced in the works of Wyndham, Ballard, and Aldiss. The Elric series comes in as a cut above most sword and sorcery but not comparable to some of Moorcock's latter works.

The Dorian Hawkmoon series basically replays the Elric series but at a weaker level. It consists of the Jewel in the Skull (1967; 1977); The Mad God's Amulet (1968; 1977); The Sword of the Dawn (1968; 1977) and a following trilogy of Count Brass (1973), The Champion of Garathrom (1973) and the Quest for Talenlorn. An evil jewel in his skull constantly menaces Hawkmoon and threaten to eat his brain. He inhabits a decadent future earth menaced by the Dark Empire of Granbreatan, a horrific and more obvious take on the British Empire. Dorian, like Elric, broods, battles, and considers his past incarnations. Moorcock throws in some satire on imperialistic Britain, but the series covers much the same ground as the Elric series. Moorcock avoids plot predictability by disobeying the apparent, physical laws of his own cosmos for no real thematic purpose. When Christopher Platt refers to Moocock's raising "working capital through..quick novels which Moorcock wrote in a spirit of loathing and despair (for New Worlds)," (3) he may refer to these novels. During the same period as New World's editor, Moorcock wrote a trilogy of pastiches based on Burroughs's Martian novels: Warriors of Mars (1965), Blades of Mars (1965), and Barbarians of Mars (1965). Competent sword and sorcerer, little recommends them under than Moorcock's paying obvious tribute to an influence.

Corum, yet another avatar of the eternal champion, features in two trilogies. The Swords Trilogy (1971; 1977) takes place on a dawning earth in intimate contact with fourteen other parallel earths. The Mabden gradually replace the decadent, elf-like Vadagh. Corum possess an artificial and magic eye and hand. At the conjunction of the Million Spheres, Corum travels to the city of Tanelorn, the conjunction of all the planes of earth. He ruins his hand and eye in exchange for the defeat of the Chaos Lords. The Twin Gods destroy the Chaos Gods and eliminate the Gods of Law, as well, telling Corum: "Now you can make your own destiny." (4) Jharry-a-Conel, the Fool, whose names bears a bit too close a resemblance to Jerry Cornelius (below), leaves the godless earth for other realms:

"'But,' said Jharry, 'I go to seek other worlds where gods still rule, for I am not suited to any other. And...I would hate it if I came to blame myself for my misfortunes. That would not do at all! Gods give a sense of mission not far away-demons--destinies which cannot be denied--absolute evil-absolute good-I need it all.'

"Corum smiled. 'Then go if you will and remember that we love you. But do not despair entirely of this world, Jharry. New gods can always be created.'"

The Swords Trilogy reads better than the Hawkmoon books. Its standard plot typifies the Moorcockian fantasy, but he presents it half-tongue-in-cheek. Jharry entertains more than Moongulm and functions more as a Sancho Panza than a Don Quixote. Godhood, the trilogy asserts, merely projects an attempt to escape from human problems. The books, even less disciplined than the Hawkmoom books become visibly contrived and repetitive. The first book, the Prince of Swords, won the British Fan-Award. The books provoke and entertain but lack control.

Corum transfers to yet another series of parallel earth in the following trilogy, composed of The Bull and the Spear, Oak and Ram (both 1973) and Sword and the Stallion (1975). The plots do not vary much from those familiar to readers of the Swords trilogy, but the tone and style closely resemble the more stylized romances of writers such as E.R. Eddison. Moorcock successfully recaptures the mood and language of this tradition, but the stories suffer from more contrivance and lose the humor of the Swords trilogy. The Quest for Tanelorn purports to end all tales of the Eternal Champion (making him a trifle less than eternal), but given the innumerable number of possible overlapping worlds of the multiverse this seems unlikely.


D. Myths of Renewal: Jerry Cornelius and Behold the Man

Moorcock's two bests series began in New Worlds. The Cornelius Chronicles detail the life and times of Jerry Cornelius, a young, mod, unsuccessful guitar player for the rock group The Deep Fix. Each novel unveils another level of the fantasy world this anti-hero creates to avoid the modern world. In the Final Program (New Worlds, 1965; 1977), Jerry travels around in a stylized version of London more like the swinging London of myth than that of reality. Jerry symbolically merges with the scientific Miss Brunner to form a superbeing that literally eats the world. In A Cure for Cancer (1971, New Worlds; 1977), Jerry fights new enemies, and Moorcock begins to introduce the real world through newspaper exerts. Despite this intruding reality, Jerry revives his sister in a mockery of the fisher king myth, goes to bed with her, and rides off into an unreal sunset. In The English Assassin (New Worlds, 1972; 1977) Jerry himself goes into a trance in shock over his increased perception of the modern world in yet another variation on the Arthurian legend. Other characters search for him for renewal while airships fly outside their windows, Scottish clans revolt in the hills, and the fall of the British Empire finds its surrealistic projection. Jerry recovers but ends up much closer to our reality. The Condition of Muzak (1977) begins to reveal the true story. Jerry is a failing rock musician, his sister an unwed mother, and his "evil" brother a simple though realistic workman. He did, however, actually sleep with his sister. The death of mother, who always faced the world for him, signals his entry into the real world:

"He called good-bye to his sobbing brother and left the basement, climbing aboard his Phantom, on his way to find Catherine. He turned on the stereo. The Beatles were singing 'Hello, good bye again.' The sky was dark gray. He switched on the windscreen wipers. It was raining heavily. He, too, had begun to cry by the time he reached Greyfriars Bridge, on his way to Blackheath, the bearer of bad news for the mother of his unborn son." (6)

Jerry's flights from reality gives Moorcock the opportunity to run from one mental scene to another, satirizing various aspects of London society. The book contains some of his finest dark comedy and most powerful images. The books mirror the disorder of modern life. Jerry, as anti-hero, searches for an escape from a world gone mad. In his very insanity, however, he isolates the causes of society's problems much as Ballard's narrator in The Atrocity Exhibition (chapter 7). Jerry does not learn how to face the future, but he learns he must face it.

Similar problems confront Karl Glouger, the hero of Behold the Man (New Worlds, 1966; 1968; 1969) and Breakfast in the Ruins (1972). Behold the Man won a Nebula award. Karl a young man horrified by the lack of values in Western society, needs a father figure. He meets a scientist who builds a time machine that allows him to meet his favorite historical figure, Jesus. Jesus, he discovers, is a diseased moron. Karl himself assumes the messiah role, and they crucify him. Throughout the novel, the author makes clear that the "time travel" only exists in Karl's mind. He literally, however, kills his body through his desire to die. He longs for a sign of affirmation from the world, and he finally must creates his own. Monica, his girlfriend, attempts to bring him back but to no effect:

"He heard Monica's voice again. 'It's weakness and fear, Karl, that's driven you to this. Martyrdom is a conceit.''

He coughed once more and the pain returned, but it was duller now. His breathing was becoming more shallow. Just before he died, he began to talk again, muttering the words until his breath was goine. 'It's a's a's a lie.'" (7)

The sequel, Breakfast in the Ruins (1972) serves up a near total condemnation of mankind. Karl meets a black man who allows him to travel back into time into the worst situations in human history. This enigmatic characters gives to Karl all the information that destroys optimism; when he finishes, Karl feels symbolically drained of all energy. Karl takes all this in but does not give, in return, the "white" side of mankind. He leaves the other man without imparting any hope, suggesting none exists. These two frightening and well-written works contain little optimism. The first ranks with the best psychological works in speculative fiction. The second, devastatingly spliced with realistic with newspaper clippings and textbook quotes, ends its chapters with moral dilemma ending with the recurrent question: "What would you do?" The remain among the most demanding in speculative fiction and a far cry from even the gloom of Melniboneans. The pair kick away mankind's two biggest reasons for morality: faith in God and faith in man.


E. Moorcock the Serious Parodist

In two recent series, Moorcock turned to literary parody, albeit with serious themes. At least one critic calls Moorcock a "reactionary" (8) because of these works. The first series concerns Oswald Bastable, its supposed author. In the first book, Oswald travels to a parallel 1973, and he journeys to an alternate 1904 in the second, encountering famous historical figures in new places in society, and in this alternate world he encounters most of the inventions of Victorian science fictional dystopias. Warlord of the Air (1970) and The Land Leviathan both entertain but also offer wit and thought.

A second series concerns Jherak Carnelian, yet another too similar name, a man from the decadent, end of the worlds cities: An Alien Heat (1972), The Hollow Lands (1974), and The End of All Songs (1976). The Cities' dwellers own all the material possessions they require, unlimited powers, and the ability to travel in time in a Chromnibus. Jherek, however, travels to the Victorain age and falls in love, an "alien heat" unknown in his own decaying times. He and his beloved, Amelia, travel through time trying to resolve their moral differences. The end of time occurs, but a Lord Jagged succeeds in tying the ends of time together into a circular arrangement. Jagged deposits the two lovers in the Paleolithic to create a new mankind. She will teach him a purpose and life, and he will teach her how to enjoy:

'There will be so much, Jherek, that we shall have to learn together. Much that I will have to teach you. But do not ever, my dear, lose that joyous spirit. It will be a wonderful example to our children, and their children, too.
"'Oh, Amelia! How could I lose it, for it is you who make me joyful! And I shall be a perfect pupil. You must explain it all to me again and I am sure that I shall learn it eventually.'
"'What is it I must explain to you, my dear?'
""Guilt,' he said.
"They kissed." (9)

The End of Time series offers even more invention than the Bastable novels, but the powers of the City dwellers justify this. Moorcock, however, does not sufficiently develop the thematic material and pays too much attention to time theories and the multi-verse. The works feature a number of hilarious situations: aliens invade and no one cares; characters hold tea parties in the Neolithic; Well's Time Traveler arrives in the Cities disgusted that everything does not end in the same way it does in the Time Machine; even Karl Glouger and Oswald Bastable arrive in time for "the end of all songs," and then Lord Jagged (God?) inserts a da capo. Dancers at the End of Times, an enthusiastic, witty work contains the same series themes that characterize Moorcock's fiction. Jherek Carnelian, however, appears to overcome the devastating personal problems that plague Moorcock's other modern heroes.


F. Conclusion

Moorcock penetrates to the depths of the modern issues. Even in such escapist genres as sword and sorcery he adds serious issues and some good characterization. His four best series, the Glouger, Cornelius, Carnelian, and Bastable all make important contributions to the genre. While other writers remain outside the destroyed landscapes, assessing the external damage, Moorcock presses boldly in with teacup and hand grenade to breakfast in the ruins.


(1) I am using American rather than British titles whenever possible to remain consistent.
(2) Michael Moorcock, Stormbringer (New York: DAWs, 1977), p. 220.
(3) Ibid, p. 221.
(4) Moorcock, The Swords Trilogy (New York: Berkley, 1977), p. 402.
(5) Ibid, p. 403.
(6) Moorcock, The Cornelius Chronicles (New York: Avon, 1977), p. 952.
(7) Moorcock, Behold the Man (New York: Equinox, 1976), p. 160.
(8) Elisa Sparks, "The New Wave" in Contemporary Authors, Volume 2 (Detroit, Gale Research, 1980), p. 226.
(9) Moorcock, The End of All Songs (1976).

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