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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Moorcock’

Over forty years on, all the movies that Kevin Connor and Doug McClure made together have coalesced in the cultural collective memory into one disreputable, slightly garish lump: probably with a rubber monster of some kind sitting on top if it. They flow together in the mind as well: which is the one with the bi-plane? Which is the one with the giant octopus fight? Which is the one with the iron mole?

The first of the set, The Land That Time Forgot, isn’t any of those. Made in 1975, it is the one boasting a screenplay co-written by legendary author Michael Moorcock (based, of course, on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs). As a long-time admirer of Moorcock and his work, I am perhaps biased when I say that his contribution gives the film an element of class and intelligence not present in the various follow-ups – the way the film opens and closes with the same sequence gives it a pleasing symmetry and indicates some thought has gone into it.

This material relates to a vestigial frame story which is not much gone into – it is mainly present to recreate the structure of Burroughs’ novel. The tale itself begins in 1916, with a German U-boat sinking a British cargo vessel. This is portrayed entirely from the point of view of the German crew, mainly because the submarine set is essential to the film and the cargo ship is just in this one scene: one of the hallmarks of the film is the way it manages to be thrifty without it being obvious too much of the time. Amongst the survivors are beefy American engineer Bowen Tyler (McClure) and comely English biologist Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon).

Having his ship torpedoed out from under him isn’t much of a problem for a guy like Doug McClure, though: together with the captain of the ship (Keith Barron) and a few other crew members, they board the U-boat when it surfaces to refresh its air supply and take it over, rather to the annoyance of the German captain (John McEnery) and his second in command (Anthony Ainley). (The captain is one of those decent, noble German officers one so often finds in this kind of story, while Ainley is honing the performance as a fanatically malevolent psychopath that would stand him in good stead throughout the 1980s.)

So far the film has been solid, gripping stuff, but now we encounter a significant wobble, as the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans is followed in fairly short order by the Germans seizing control of the ship from the British. And this in turn is followed by the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans, again. This inelegant plotting is all to get the film to where it needs to be: the U-boat ends up lost in the southern Atlantic, low on fuel and supplies.

However, there are glimmers of hope when they come across a mysterious new landmass, surrounded by towering, icy cliffs. The German captain suspects it to be Caprona, discovered centuries earlier by an Italian explorer who was unable to make landfall due to the cliff barrier. The existence of an underwater passageway means the U-boat could penetrate the interior of Caprona, thus possibly giving them access to the supplies they so desperately need.

Well, after a tense passage and a few dings to the sub, the voyagers find themselves in a lush, tropical paradise. Finally we get the first of the rubber dinosaurs we have been impatiently awaiting, and rather superior they are too. This is no consolation to the crew of the U-boat, who find themselves on the lunch menu of the plesiosaurs and mosasaurs infesting the river they are on.

Still, at least the skirmish provides the hungry sailors with some fresh provisions. ‘Should one drink red or white wine with plesiosaur?’ wonders Keith Barron. More pressing concerns supplant correct etiquette, however: there are places in Caprona where crude oil springs from the ground, raising the possibility of refueling the sub. However, in addition to the dinosaurs, there are ape men here too – and the natives may not be friendly…

Well, regular visitors may recall my recent cri de coeur about the BBC non-adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which effectively threw away all but the most fundamental details of the original novel and ended up being almost wholly unsatisfactory as a result. Here, perhaps, we have an example of the opposite situation – an adaptation which on the whole stays remarkably faithful to the source text, to the point where it impacts on the film’s success as such.

The issue is that this is a pulp adventure – superior pulp, to be sure, but still pulp. Burrough’s plot is episodic, consisting of a series of exploits and adventures undertaken by a group of thinly-characterised individuals. There’s no sense of it building to anything, or a central issue heading towards resolution – just a series of set-piece action and special effects sequences. These are often well-mounted, but the film still feels more like a theme park ride than an actual narrative.

The closest thing to a big idea the film contains is the revelation of how life functions on Caprona. To say that this is non-Darwinian is to rather understate the matter: populations don’t evolve in the usual manner here, but individual creatures progress through the different stages of evolution in the course of their lifetime as they travel across the landscape (they apparently feel compelled to constantly travel northward towards the sea). It’s a curious idea, but the film doesn’t really do anything with it – we never see it happening and it doesn’t inform the plot in any meaningful way. Full marks to Moorcock and co-writer James Cawthorn for retaining it, but you almost wish they’d found a way to do something more interesting with the notion.

However, while the film’s weaknesses may have been inherited from the source novel, its strengths are all its own. This is a classy looking movie, not nearly as garish or silly as some of its successors (At the Earth’s Core, I’m looking at you) – the period detail is well done, with a nicely grimy feel to it. The presence of many solid British actors (there are many familiar TV faces scattered through the cast list) gives the movie a further touch of class.

Even the dinosaurs, usually the weak link in this kind of movie, are a cut above what you might expect. They are the work of Roger Dicken, a man with a relatively brief but nevertheless hugely interesting CV as a special effects technician – we can overlook the rubber bats he provided for Scars of Dracula, given that a decade later he created the facehugger for Alien. Doubtless for cost reasons, Dicken doesn’t go with the traditional stop-motion dinosaurs, or even men in suits, but opts for glove-puppet dinosaurs instead. I fear I may be damning Dicken and the movie with faint praise if I say that these are some of the best glove-puppet dinosaurs in the history of cinema. The only time the special effects really aren’t up to scratch comes in a sequence where McClure is menaced by some implausibly rigid and stately pterodactyls, but even Ray Harryhausen struggled to make this sort of thing work.

It’s a sign of the general quality of the movie that the dinosaurs only feel like one element of a bigger adventure, rather than the sine qua non of the whole thing. It’s true that the acting is not great, but then it doesn’t really need to be: the movie sets out to be a pulp adventure, and on those terms it’s a successful one: you can see why it was such a commercial success. You still have to wonder if there was some way of preserving the essentially Burroughs-iness of the story while coming up with a more dynamic and satisfying plot, but I still think a film like this is far preferable to an in-name-only updating of the book.

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‘Beware, Jherek Carnelian. Life becomes serious for you. That would never do. You are a member of a perfectly amoral society. Whimsical, all but thoughtless, utterly powerful. Your actions threaten your way of life. Do I see a ramshackle vessel called Self-Destruction heaving its battered bulwarks over the horizon? What’s this, Jherek? Is your love genuine, after all?’

You usually know what you’re going to get from a Michael Moorcock trilogy, from the great man’s 60s and 70s production-line period at least: a bit of questing, a spot of noble, futile heroism in the face of seemingly-invincible opposition, the occasional reference to another Moorcock book, and in the end some sort of oblique metaphysical convulsion and the protagonist left in a variety of existential fugue. On its own terms, it’s fairly comforting, but every now and then you come across something that, despite first appearances, turns out to be quite different.

Which brings us to The Dancers at the End of Time, which I suppose hails from near the end of the period when Moorcock was first and foremost a fantasy merchant. Dancers probably qualifies as fantasy, but this is a consequence of tone rather than subject matter – any but the most cursory skim through the text reveals that this is an idiosyncratic form of SF rather than any variety of fantasy (it occurs to me this would be a telling moment to quote that review applauding Moorcock’s crusade to batter down the barriers between different genres).

Dancers_at_the_end_of_time

Most of the story takes place in what these days I suppose we would call a post-scarcity society, one located on Earth in the extremely distant future of the universe (for all that it’s theoretically SF, the astrophysics and thermodynamics are somewhat offhand). Most of human history is little more than misremembered legends and the various inhabitants lead lives of unimaginable luxury and self-indulgence – they are effectively immortal and have absolute control over their own bodies and their environments. They are vastly powerful and almost totally amoral, leading lives of complete hedonism, adopting philosophies and even personalities for the sake of art and entertainment.

In short, they are a difficult bunch to identify with, let alone like, but Moorcock pulls off this feat through the skill with which he portrays his protagonist, Jherek Carnelian (the familiarity of this name in Moorcockian circles is so obvious it barely warrants a mention, even in the books). Jherek sets out to learn about love and other virtues mostly lost to his society. Initially he seems as alien as any of his fellows (one of the ways Moorcock establishes the peculiar social standards of the End of Time is by giving Jherek an intimate conjugal interlude with his own mother in the opening chapter), but the author is quick to stress that while Jherek has virtually god-like powers in his own world, he is still a clueless innocent when it comes to dealing with members of other societies.

Which, of course, he does. Jherek ‘chooses’ to fall in love with an unwilling time traveller from 1896, Mrs Underwood, and his dogged (if somewhat clueless) pursuit of her is the crux of the first volume. Unfortunately one of the principles of time travel in this particular setting is that once one becomes unstuck in time, one tends to remain that way, and sure enough Mrs Underwood is soon banished back to Victorian England. As you might expect, Jherek opts to pursue his ladylove back through the ages, even if this means entering a world he knows virtually nothing of, where his great powers will no longer operate…

It’s a lot less po-faced and obvious than it sounds. There are numerous trips back and forth between 1896 and the End of Time as the trilogy proceeds (not to mention a brief visit to the Devonian Period) and what gradually becomes apparent is that The Dancers at the End of Time is a strange and exotic combination of a romantic comedy-of-manners combined with a fairly serious examination of what it means to be a virtuous person.

The comic elements are easily well-enough done to dispel any fears this might be a dry or wordy disquisition on the story’s more serious themes. While some of the humour verges on the broad, it is on the whole handled with sufficient subtlety and wryness for this not to grate, and Moorcock achieves some fine moments of farce as the narrative enters its less likely phases. The humour is genuinely amusing and the slow-burn romance between Jherek and Mrs Underwood is genuinely affecting as the story progresses.

The philosophical aspects of the story are perhaps a bit less accessible, but not to the point where they feel encumbering. It’s very obvious why Moorcock chooses to foreground the clash between a society where there is limitless personal power but no sense of morality, and one where the converse is true, and what’s interesting is that he doesn’t really take sides between the two – it’s made clear that while the inhabitants of the End of Time commit acts that may seem shocking or callous, they are also in a very real sense innocents. Mrs Underwood wonders aloud if it wouldn’t be a greater sin to teach these people sin and guilt. On the other hand, the question is raised of whether it’s possible to lead a virtuous and genuinely fulfilling life in a truly post-scarcity society: here I suspect we return to the old Trek chestnut about the relative merits of a life of ease and a life of enterprise, but needless to say Michael Moorcock handles the topic with a bit more poetry and thoughtfulness.

As I say, as Moorcock trilogies go this is an atypical one and rather charming with it (not that it isn’t without a few longeurs along the way). If the Eternal Champion is involved in proceedings he is even more heavily masked than usual, but the faithful can amuse themselves spotting the cameos from other multiverse characters – there’s a Glogauer, a Bastable, and a Persson, but no actual Cornelii – and elsewhere (both HG Wells and someone who appears to be Wells’ own time traveller appear at various points). But its main achievement is to cover some finely-done character work and semi-profound philosophical territory while always feeling like a charming and frivolous piece of whimsy. A not inconsiderable achievement, and very readable.

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With Michael Moorcock’s Corum series, we approach a legendarium well-established and in robust health. The earliest Elric stories and the first batch of Hawkmoon novels had already been written by this point, along with the pivotal stories of Erekose in which the nature of the multiverse and the identity of the Eternal Champion really came into focus. One almost gets a sense that the on-going motif of the Champion was almost an afterthought as far as the early works are concerned, but the Corum series – initially, at least – feels as if it’s partly been written specifically to explore the concept of the multiverse and the links between the various incarnations of the Champion.

corum scarlet

The first of the Corum trilogies is The Prince in the Scarlet Robe, and concerns the doings of Corum Jhaelin Irsei (neophyte seekers after Moorcockian wisdom might want to try making anagrams of that name), one of the last members of a sophisticated, dissipated race in a fantasy world which has slowly and imperceptibly fallen under the sway of Chaos.

After his home is destroyed, his family are slaughtered, and he himself maimed by Chaos-worshipping human barbarians, Corum falls in with some more agreeable people who are themselves under threat by the dark masses – and falls in love with the local noblewoman, as you might expect. Sure enough, he sets out to rid the world of the Chaotic influence, equipped with a peculiar prosthetic hand and artificial eye of dark sorcerous power and unknown, but clearly ominous, provenance.

The thing about Michael Moorcock’s epic fantasy output, and it’s taken me a rather long time to figure this out, is that he operates in a distinctly different vein to all the other writers whose work is very much framed in post-Tolkien terms. The thing that writers seem to seize upon, when it comes to Tolkien, is the sheer breadth, depth, and detail of his world-building. This is what they seek to emulate, mostly disregarding the extent to which Tolkien was casual about forcing background detail into his stories – vast amounts of detail about Middle Earth don’t appear in the main texts themselves, only in the appendices and the apocrypha.

Moorcock isn’t primarily interested in world-building for its own sake (nor grimy verisimilitude – his characters invariably sally forth in eyepopping ensembles of crimson and turquoise rather than greys and browns). He’s more about the story and the theme, not to mention the structure. Corum’s corner of the multiverse contains fifteen dimensions, each dominated by a Chaos Lord (one of them is an iteration of Elric’s chief patron, Arioch), and in each of the three volumes he goes off on a quest resulting in the banishment of one of them. It all gets a bit metaphysical, with a lot of flitting about between dimensions, but Moorcock’s writing is as vibrant as ever and the whole thing rattles along. The plotting is cleverly done too.

The third volume, The King of the Swords, is distinguished by a full-on team-up between Corum, Elric, and Erekose (Elric’s end of this occurs in The Vanishing Tower) – we also learn, incidentally, that both Elric and Corum are what you’d normally call elves, not that Moorcock has a great deal of truck with such traditional fantasy staples. Corum is more prone to fret over his identity as the Eternal Champion than most of the other incarnations, but then again he is frequently accompanied by the slightly irritating character of Jhary-a-Conel (another somewhat indicative name), who goes on about little else.

The first volume concludes satisfyingly enough, but in a manner which frames the question faced by all sequels – having decisively defeated the forces of darkness and concluded his personal journey, what does the hero do next? Well, if you’re Corum, you brood in your castle for a century and then pop off through time to a fairly distant future where the descendants of your in-laws revere you as a demi-god and are praying for your assistance against some rampaging monsters.

corum silver

This is the basis for The Prince with the Silver Hand. The first trilogy doesn’t have much wrong with it, but the sequel series is to my mind even better – the metaphysical convolutions of the multiverse and the Eternal Champion are kept to a minimum and what results is a properly distinctive, atmospheric and resonant piece of fantasy. The back-story of the piece is, broadly speaking, cod-Celtic – lots of stuff with harps and rams and oak trees and people chucking tathlums about – and this even extends to the antagonists. These aren’t the usual Chaos Lords but something rather eerier and more distinctive – the Fhoi Myore (I needn’t point out that this name is derived from the Celtic Fomori, of course) are diseased exiles from another dimension, wielders of tremendous powers yet at the same time raddled subhumans wrapped in a cloak of winter.

The Prince with the Silver Hand involves all the usual questing and brooding one would expect from a Moorcock fantasy, but it is slightly darker and harder-edged than usual (this is to some extent true of the first trilogy, as well). There’s still the usual fun to be had spotting stock words and phrases as they gallop by (numerous references to Corum’s ‘long, strong sword’ and an altogether startling number of items made of samite), but the tone of the thing is ultimately a tragic one, and effectively done. Corum begins the books as a man with no reason to live, but in the course of the story he discovers a very real desire for life – then, at the conclusion… but I have probably come too far towards spoiling the story already.

Even the multiverse references in this volume are subtly done – the main instance being a visit to a decadent island, inhabited by dragons, ruled by a sorcerer named Sactric from a throne supposedly carved from a single giant ruby. The inhabitants are known as the Malibann, which is all terribly suggestive if you know your Eternal Champion mythology. Luckily, you don’t need to pick up on the clues in order to enjoy the story.

Michael Moorcock has often spoken about the extreme speed with which some of his early work was written – 15,000 words a day being his standard output. If so, it’s entirely possibly the entirety of the books of Corum were written in about a fortnight. This would be an impressive feat even if the books were bad. They are not; this type of fantasy probably won’t be to the taste of even some fantasy readers, being just a bit too airy and allegorical, but that doesn’t prevent them from being vividly written and solidly plotted – an impressive feat of the imagination, and a pretty much essential element of the multiverse.

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The current re-packaging and re-release of pretty much the entire Michael Moorcock fantasy oeuvre is, obviously, a fine and much-welcome thing, for reasons I’ve touched upon in the fast. However – and this is just the tiniest of grumbles – it might have possibly have been an idea to include some sort of recommended reading order for those planning an assault on the entire collection.

I know the idea of a Moorcock chronology is in essence a slightly silly one, given that the stories don’t follow a linear progression but consist of a number of mini-sequences, starting and finishing in wildly different times and places – usually different universes – and only occasionally touching upon and banging into one another. (The order in which the books were written isn’t much of a guide, either.) But, if it could be managed, it would avoid the reader coming unsuspecting upon the climax of the Count Brass volume and being introduced to Elric, Corum, and Erekose – not to mention the true nature of the Runestaff and Stormbringer – prior to meeting them in their own stories.

Not that it really matters, I suppose, as one of the underlying tenets of the whole edifice is that they’re all fundamentally the same character anyway. Only the incidental details change. Nevertheless, Moorcock’s got more milage out of some of them than others, and here – of course – I’m thinking of one of his most famous creation, Elric. Elric gets a bunch of these new books more-or-less to himself, including the eponymously-titled Elric of Melnibone.

elricmelni

This is more of a grab-bag of different material than the other books in the current collection. The two main components are Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer, a comics script detailing the education of Elric in various elemental truths, and the titular Elric of Melnibone, one of your actual novels.

Both of these are set early in Elric’s life and concern his rivalry with his cousin Yyrkoon, his relationship with his other cousin Cymoril, the succession of the Ruby Throne of the Dragon Isle, and all that sort of thing. Put together they basically comprise Elric’s origin story – by the collection’s end he has formed an alliance with Arioch (somewhat against his better judgement), and has the fabled Black Sword in his possession. Even when this was originally published, the astute reader of Moorcock would have known exactly where this was going, but the author doesn’t quite turn this into that sort of dripping-with-foreshadowing prequel: they would work quite well as an introduction to the character.

It’s quite hard to judge Making of a Sorcerer without seeing the associated artwork intended to complement, but the story is sturdy enough to stand alone. (Speaking of standing alone, you have to look quite hard to find any references to the Eternal Champion or the wider multiverse in this volume: the most intrusive is what seems to be a peculiar intimation as to the ultimate fate of Jerry Cornelius’s brother Frank.) Elric of Melnibone is – well, if I call it Moorcock on autopilot that has a sort of negative connotation, and that’s not the impression I want to give. Moorcock can write resonant, evocative epic fantasy in his sleep (or at least at the rate of 15,000 words a day), and that’s the least he’s doing here.

Also in the collection is a short story, Master of Chaos, presumably included here because it occurs earlier in the history of Elric’s world, and a number of essays and commentaries by Moorcock on the nature and state of the epic fantasy genre (also discussing the influences that led to the creation of Elric as a character). Fellow bearded titan Alan Moore contributes a piece on the nature and influence of Elric, both as an isolated character and a component in the Eternal Champion mythos. These are interesting, but hardly what you’d call essential; I get a sense of a book being bumped up in size to justify the price tag rather than to meet any clear vision of what it should be.

Well, perhaps that’s unfair. If you want to get a comprehensive sense of who Elric is and where he came from, both fictionally and in real-world terms, then Elric of Melnibone covers this in pretty much exhaustive detail. The thing is, though, that you don’t have to. The really great Elric stories (and I’m thinking here of Stormbringer above and beyond all others) tell you everything you need to know about him anyway. Does that mean the whole volume is, in fact, inessential? Perhaps – if you’re looking for one and only unforgettable Elric story, this isn’t really the book you want. If you’re just after a solid piece of epic fantasy with some associated cultural gubbins, then Elric of Melnibone will make you happy enough.

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‘It’s a long tale and it has little point, since I can explain few of the events in it.’

So, as you may recall but probably don’t, not long ago I started my assault on the Michael Moorcock Collection with Hawkmoon: The History of the Runestaff. My conclusion was that on its own terms this was a jolly enough set of tales, but that those terms were themselves regrettably limited: there’s a lot of fun to be had with the peripheral details, but the central narrative is fundamentally lacking in depth and originality. I felt that to be a bit of a shame.

countbrass

Well, having gone straight on to the collected edition of Hawkmoon: Count Brass (comprising the title novel, The Champion of Garathorm, and The Quest for Tanelorn), I must confess to occasionally finding the words ‘be careful what you wish for’ floating dimly through my head. If the first volume is essentially just a load of competently assembled by-the-numbers sword-and-sorcery tropes, so generic it almost resembles a deadpan spoof, the second cuts absolutely to the heart of Moorcock’s fantasy creation and bears a close resemblance to – well, it would be stretching a point to claim it’s much like anything else for any length of time.

It starts off in a deceptively familiar mode, however, picking up a few years after the first volume, with Hawkmoon (still a bit of a berk) living the life of a country gent in post-post-apocalyptic France, happy with the missus and kids, but lamenting the loss of his mentor, Count Brass, and other friends. However, his rustic idyll is disrupted as rumours start to spread in the region – the count has seemingly returned from the dead and is blaming Hawkmoon for his untimely demise…

Well, before very long it transpires that nearly everyone who appeared to die at the end of the first volume either faked their own death or has been resurrected through the ominous scientific sorcery of the bad guys, and that the time streams and the multiverse itself are threatened. We are, to be perfectly honest, into the realm of totally contrived fantasy here, with the plot operating in accordance to a set of arbitrary rules which Moorcock appears to have made up to suit himself, heavily reliant on concepts like destiny and so on.

The characterisation is not much deeper than the first time around and this, combined with the extravagant weirdness of the plot, makes this a story which it is hard to really engage with other than as a collection of ideas. The conclusion is very much of a piece with the rest of it, and – to be fair – it is almost impossible to predict where the ongoing story is about to go next.

The Champion of Garathorm is another leap into the unknown, as Hawkmoon goes briefly but convincingly mad and begins to find his own identity beginning to be subsumed into the greater one of the Champion Eternal. References to John Daker and Prinz Lobkowitz, and the appearance in rapid succession of Jhary-a-Conel (from the Corum series) and a scion of the von Bek dynasty (here renamed van Bak, but it’s surely still them) make it obvious that something with much wider ramifications is afoot.

And so it proves, although one briefly wonders if putting this out under the Hawkmoon banner isn’t on some level false advertising: Hawkmoon himself vanishes out of the narrative after a mystical soul transplant effectively turns him into a woman with a different set of memories. All in a day’s work if you’re the Eternal Champion, I suppose.

It all ties in to the ongoing plots, sort of, and resolves with Hawkmoon back in his original body and some of his issues resolved. However, it’s still setting up the final volume, The Quest for Tanelorn, which is probably one of the keystone texts of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy output. Hawkmoon is the viewpoint character throughout, which is probably why this qualifies first and foremost as a Hawkmoon book, but the plot is hugely dependent on characters and concepts introduced elsewhere – Corum himself shows up, along with one of the versions of Erekose, and – making up the set, at least as far as Moorcock’s pure fantasy is concerned – Elric puts in an appearance too.

What ensues isn’t really traditional sword and sorcery, but instead a rather more erudite and thoughtful kind of allegorical fantasy – there are plenty of big concepts here, but they’re not really the subtext of the story, but openly present and discussed in depth by the various characters. The true nature of the Eternal Champion and his relationship with, amongst others, Stormbringer, is extensively articulated, along with the essence of the Runestaff, the Cosmic Balance, the struggle between Law and Chaos, and so on.

All this is certainly distinctive and genuinely thought-provoking in places, as the author lets some of his own anarchistic beliefs show, but the characterisation throughout is still generically thin – although when the four main characters of the story are all ultimately different incarnations of the same being, this is perhaps not particularly surprising. Also, the thing about The Quest for Tanelorn is that it doesn’t really work on its own terms, either as a standalone novel, or as a conclusion to the Hawkmoon series. You can see why Moorcock’s using Hawkmoon as the main protagonist, as he’s more grounded and human than any of the other major aspects of the Champion, but I strongly doubt this would be interesting or particularly involving to someone without at least a basic grounding in Moorcockiana.

So, then, while all this probably qualifies as essential Moorcock, it’s really not a good place to start: really one for advanced students only, to be honest. Comparing Count Brass to The History of the Runestaff is tricky, as they are really such totally different animals. One is atmospheric and vivid, but a bit pedestrian, while the other is wildly imaginative and thought-provoking – but very much a case of the theme and message coming first and the story coming a distant second. Still very readable in both cases, of course.

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For the past three years or so I have made a bit of a hobby of picking up Michael Moorcock books from second-hand shops – given how prolific the great man has been, you’re never likely to go long before something new turns up – and I’ve managed to acquire quite a respectable collection simply on this basis. Until recently, the only Moorcock books I’d bought brand new were Stormbringer and The Coming of the Terraphiles.

The downside to this approach is basically being at the mercy of the fates (or, if you prefer, the machinations of the Cosmic Balance) in terms of what books actually materialise. As a result I ended up with bits and pieces from several of Moorcock’s series and – most irksomely – the first and third volumes of The Dancers at the End of Time but not the middle one.

Nevertheless, I would have been happy to plough on in this vein, but then Orion-Gollancz had to go and start releasing what they’re calling the Michael Moorcock Collection – the vast majority of Moorcock’s fantasy output, generally spruced up and assembled into cheerful new volumes. Here, then, is the chance to enjoy the entirety of the Corum series without haunting every charity shop and second-hand bookstore in southern England; here is the opportunity to pick up the complete Elric without having to worry about accidentally buying the same stories twice. Needless to say, I am supporting this new venture with enthusiasm.

hawkmoon

The first volume I got stuck into was Hawkmoon: The History of the Runestaff, simply because I read two of the four books collected in it a couple of years ago and found them to be amongst Moorcock’s most vivid and curious early work. The setting is a heavily fantasy-flavoured post-apocalyptic Earth – some of the nations, such as France and – ahem – Germania have virtually retained their original names, others, like Amarekh and Asiacommunista, have altered theirs somewhat.

The villains of the piece are the lords of the Dark Empire of Granbretan (= Great Britain), depraved nutters virtually to a man, ruled over by an immortal homunculus and organised by the beast masks they affect. At the start of the series they attempt to make an alliance with legendary warrior Count Brass, Lord Guardian of Kamarg (= the Camargue, in southern France), but their emissary, Meliadus, can’t keep it in his trousers where Brass’ lovely daughter is concerned and is thrown out on his ear.

Being a moustache-twirling villain, Meliadus swears vengeance, but happens to do so on the legendary Runestaff, thus setting in motion a peculiar chain of events. Meliadus chooses as his instrument of revenge captured rebel leader Dorian Hawkmoon. To cut a very long story extremely short, Count Brass rumbles Meliadus’ scheme to use Hawkmoon as his pawn, defuses the mind-eating brain-jewel implanted in Hawkmoon’s bonce, and together they set about taking on the Dark Empire and its tightening grip on Europe and Asia Minor…

Well, I have to say that once you get past the quirkiness of the setting, this first helping of Hawkmoon never quite takes flight. Most of it is very much by-the-numbers sword-and-sorcery, populated by a bunch of protagonists who are each really defined by a single character trait: Count Brass is Redoubtable, Olahdan the half-giant is Loyal, D’Averc the renegade Dark Empire noble is Ironic, the Warrior in Jet and Gold is Cryptic, and so on. Hawkmoon himself is accurately pegged by John Clute’s introduction as ‘a bit of a berk’: he’s humourless and contrary, narrow-minded and prone to surliness. He spends most of the book wandering around in search of plot-coupons, rather against his will.

Much more interesting than the various travails of Hawkmoon and his assorted sidekicks are occasional interludes at the court of the Granbretans and the depraved power-politics going on therein: these are what really give the book most of its distinctive flavour – and, to be honest, its humour. Moorcock says these books were written quickly but not cynically, and I believe him, but one inevitably detects a tongue drifting cheekward when the villain is declared to be the baron of Kroiden and the ancient gods of Granbretan are named as the fab quartet of Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl and Rhunga, with their supreme deity revealed as Aral Vilsn (it’s a 60s thing).

But this isn’t really a spoof on any level – most of the time it just reads like a Saturday morning serial with art direction by Hieronymus Bosch, the narrative being propelled along by various unlikely meetings, captures, escapes, deus ex machina rescues, and so on. One almost gets a sense of Moorcock making it up as he goes along – the early books indicate the fabled Runestaff is to be found somewhere in Asia, until it suddenly pops up somewhere in the vicinity of New York with not much explanation being given.

There are lots of things you could legitimately have a go at the Hawkmoon books over – the slenderness of the characterisation, the plot-coupon-gathering narrative, the fact that, when our heroes eventually find it, the fabled Runestaff doesn’t really do a damn thing to help them in their struggle, proving to just be a plot device to explain the implausible nature of the story (the villains complain about the outrageous good luck which contrives to keep Hawkmoon alive and kicking).

But the Dark Empire is one of the more memorable manifestations of Chaos in the Moorcock canon, and in its closing stages the story perks up a bit, as civil war breaks out amongst the bad guys. Moorcock pulls off a neat coup by presenting a major battle solely through dialogue between two onlookers, and – after four books in which Hawkmoon and his chums get into endless sword fights and are regularly described as receiving dozens of small wounds, which never really seem to hamper them much – the near-total slaughter of the supporting cast comes as a genuine surprise.

This being early Moorcock, you will look in vain for too many references to the author’s greater design – as I think I’ve said before, a lot of the pleasure of a Moorcock fantasy comes from trying to discern the resonances and connections with the rest of his work – though Hawkmoon inevitably gets referred to as a ‘Champion Eternal’ and there’s a minor character called Jehamia Cohnalias, a name overloaded with significance for the initiated (despite appearances, he doesn’t seem to be another full-blown aspect of the Eternal Champion himself, though a connection clearly exists).

This first installment of Hawkmoon is not exactly premium Moorcock, for all that it barrels along breezily and never actually drags. It has a brash, not-fully-thought-through quality in some respects – the Dark Empire is an interesting creation, but Hawkmoon spends much of his time off in much more generic locales fighting considerably less interesting bad guys. Then again, any book featuring a supervillain from Croydon, giant riding flamingos, and the legendary mutant war jaguars of Asiacommunista has clearly got imagination on its side some of the time – it’s just a shame these bizarre touches are limited to the peripheral elements and don’t really inform the central characters or plot.

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There’s an old story about about Michael Moorcock, which I may have said before – as a young writer, he decided that he could routinely produce 15,000 words a day without it causing him undue strain. And so he did. Even taking weekends off (or possibly using them to edit New Worlds or hang out with Hawkwind) that translates into three modestly-sized novels every fortnight.

Moorcock’s workrate, when you put it like that, is impressive enough, but it’s only when you look at the ‘by the same author’ list at the front of a recent edition of one of his books and see the immense number of works recorded there that it really strikes home that this man is a cottage industry as much as a literary figure. We can disagree about the actual quality of much of his early work, or indeed about whether some of his more self-consciously literary output isn’t just pretentious bibble-bobble (The Condition of Muzak and Entropy Tango, I’m looking at you), but what’s certain is that this is a huge body of work. One doesn’t so much read Moorcock’s books as travel through his world.

And every now and then you find yourself unexpectedly disconcerted. Which brings me to the collected edition of Von Bek, which I had the pleasure of reading just recently. The edition I picked up contained two novels and a short story, and was billed as the first volume in the Eternal Champion sequence – this despite the fact that the novels involved are middle period Moorcock and the title of the Champion is never used in the body of the texts.

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The first novel, The War Hound and the World’s Pain, is recognisably a Moorcock fantasy in the archetypal vein – the protagonist is a lone warrior, cynical, dangerous, on an ominous but still noble quest, accompanied by a loyal subordinate. In this instance he is von Bek, a German mercenary late of the Thirty Year War, who finds himself retained by Lucifer to find the Holy Grail and make possible the creation of a better world. (His first name is ‘Ulrich’, which in itself is enough to make Moorcock-savvy readers go ‘Ahh,’ and nod sagely.)

Moorcock’s quest-fantasies are ultimately all so samey that it’s easy to see why the great man goes to such lengths to give each series its own twist and distinct flavour. In this case it’s mainly through the use of a historical real-world setting (not that this is much gone into), and the framing of the central conflict in explicit terms of Heaven and Hell. You could certainly argue that this is a good deal less imaginative and interesting than one would expect from Moorcock, but it gives the story a certain resonance. It all boils down to a finely-judged mixture of sex, violence, and theology, with a harder edge to it than in some other iterations – von Bek and his companion don’t demur at a little cold-blooded murder and rape along the way. It’s less colourful and bizarre than, say, one of the Hawkmoon books, but also arguably more mature, if a little earnest.

The sense of a writer changing gears is only increased by The City in the Autumn Stars, the novel which comprises most of this volume. This is very much not a case of more of the same, as a quest narrative is notably absent. Set in the 1790s, this is the tale of another von Bek (a descendent of the original narrator) who finds himself fleeing the French Reign of Terror and winding up in Mirenberg, a fictitious central European city seemingly modelled on Prague.

For nearly all of the first half of the book there are only hints of a fantastical element (shades of The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, a – the Doctor Who fan in me rushes to the surface – ‘pure historical’ von Bek novel, apparently not a part of the Champion sequence and so not collected here) – but then the main characters travel by balloon into another world, where they discover the fantastical counterpart to the ‘real’ Mirenberg. It seems that a rare metaphysical convergence is at hand, which will set the course of the world for many years to come. Everyone has their own idea as to how this should be exploited (except von Bek himself, who is letting himself be led around by his male member for a lot of the book), but doing so will require possession of the Holy Grail – so it’s fortunate that the von Beks have a genetic affinity for the thing…

On one level this reads like a freewheeling historical pastiche, with very atypical fantasy elements – the fantasy is actually really subdued and quite dark, now I consider it. However, there’s clearly more than this going on, but attempting to make sense of it is challenging. Much of the plot revolves around alchemical terms and concepts, and it seemed to me that in some ways this is intended to be read allegorically. Moorcock wears his erudition, both historical and esoteric, very lightly, but this is a hard book to categorise even by his standards.

Nevertheless, it is in many ways quintessential Moorcock, not least in the way it connects with the rest of his work on many levels. Mirenberg, a city existing simultaneously in many worlds, is also known as Amalorm – the obvious implication is that Mirenberg and Tanelorn , both idealised multidimensional cities (the latter from the Elric stories, amongst others), are actually one and the same. The climax revolves around an attempt to alchemically create a perfect, hermaphroditic being – in short, pretty much what actually happens in the climax of The Final Programme, the first Jerry Cornelius novel. Do all these concepts and themes add up to anything more than a collection of Easter Eggs for constant readers of the bearded titan? It would take a braver man than me to give a definite no.

The collection is rounded off with The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius, a piece of avant-garde hipster weirdness from the Sixties, retro-written to tie into the other stories (in the loosest possible sense – the main character is another von Bek and the Grail is mentioned). Set in a devastated Berlin where Einstein, Weill, and Hitler drink in the same bar, one detects the injudicious use of shock, but it’s short enough not to be wearisome. By the same coin, it’s not enough of a reason to buy this edition even if you like Sixties hipster weirdness: it’s the strange historical pastiche of City in the Autumn Stars that’s central to this collection. As a whole, not my favourite selection of Michael Moorcock, but very representative of his extraordinary range.

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