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Posts Tagged ‘The Dancers at the End of Time’

‘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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