|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Jerome Winter interviews Michael Moorcock
Radiant Time: An Interview with Michael Moorcock
January 20th, 2013
AS EDITOR OF the magazine New Worlds from 1964 to 1978, Michael Moorcock helped to revolutionize the SF field by publishing experimental work by J.G. Ballard, Brian W. Aldiss, and others. From 1965 to 1976, Moorcock also wrote the Cornelius Quartet, which follows an antiestablishment urban adventurer-rock star in a madcap race against the concept of linear time itself. Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné series staged an irreverent intervention into epic fantasy, chronicling the brooding adventures of an albino king. By the early 1970s, Moorcock had begun to unite his dauntingly proliferating work into a rich “multiverse” of interconnected speculative-fantastic fiction. One sterling example of this vast fictive palimpsest was Gloriana (1978), dedicated to the phantasmagoric Mervyn Peake. In 1988, Moorcock published the celebrated novel Mother London (shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize) in which mundane realism merges with the fantastic in an encyclopedic encapsulation of a city. And King of the City (2000) returns to a sordid London scene to unleash a savage satire that spans the globe and the entire twentieth century. In 2013, Victor Gollancz will begin publishing a collected edition of all his work.
The metamorphosis of Blitzed London became the Chaotic landscapes of Elric the Albino. As in need of his soul-drinking sword as Chet Baker was in need of his junk, he witnessed the death of his Empire, even conspired in it. The adrenaline rushes of aerial bombardment and imminent death informed Jerry Cornelius stories where London’s ruins were recreated and disaster had a celebratory face. And the Holocaust became the background for the black comedies of my Colonel Pyat books. We tried to create a new literature which expressed our own experience … all the great writers who contributed to my journal New Worlds were rejecting modernism not from any academic attempt to discover novelty but in order to find forms which actually described what they had witnessed, what they had felt.
—from “A Child’s Christmas in the Blitz”
Michael Moorcock: As usual I find myself qualifying or quarreling with myself. Aldiss didn’t reject modernism. He was some years older than Ballard and me and wanted to bring SF in line with modernism. Ballard and I in particular argued against nostalgia as a form of sentimentality that distorts all experience. I thought all fiction of that time rotten with it! Ballard agreed. There were of course a number of reasons that brought so many individuals together at the same time. Some of those reasons would be the ones that later split us apart. Same as rock bands, really. Our common passion brought us together; our individual passions — our egos if you like — ultimately made us take pretty different paths.
So I’m disinclined to generalize too readily. Ballard and I were both bored by space fiction. Aldiss was highly literate but he loved generic SF and, like Harlan Ellison in the US, wanted to improve writing standards, characterization, and so on. Ellison wanted SF to be braver, to tackle the hard subjects. Spinrad did, too. Ballard wanted originally to emulate Ray Bradbury but his interest, like mine, was in addressing a general literary audience. The so-called “new wave” (we never called it that or anything else — I hated the idea of “movements” if not manifestos) had at least two agendas along with the personal agendas of the writers. I wanted to use some of the techniques and targets of SF to create narratives that seemed to me appropriate to our times. Peter Blake, the pop artist who did the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper sleeve, talks about the cultural optimism of those days and that inspired much of what we were doing. We had contributors to New Worlds like Eduardo Paolozzi, another prominent pop artist inspired by SF who, fundamentally, was trying to do something very similar as us and enthusiastically came aboard as our “Aeronautics Advisor.” A lot of rock musicians took inspiration from NW. In London the arts seemed to blend more — music, painting, poetry — than, say, in New York. We shared facilities with most of the underground papers like Frendz, Oz, IT, Ink, and so on, which meant we also shared contributors to some degree.
[The Blitz] was the first I fully understood how detached governments become from ordinary people…. I never went home. I worked in the East End all that time. The carnage was disgusting. Expecting London to collapse, the authorities made no real provisions for defense. The ordinary people pulled the city through. They forced the tube stations to give them shelter. Against official disapproval they set up street groups, volunteers, amateur firefighters. It wasn’t Churchill or the King of bloody England who kept up our morale. It was the men and women whose homes and families were bombed to bits discovering their own resources. But it was hard work. Frequently we had only our bare hands to dig away bricks and concrete and all kinds of filth, trying to find anyone who might be alive.
—from Mother London
In some ways Mother London could be the novel where I most successfully incorporated a touch of SF, using “telepathy” to represent the multi-ethnic voice of the city. There was no compunction to take that element literally (any more than the womb/time-machine in Behold the Man). Psychogeography would have been influenced by Guy Debord, of course. I could see the way consumerism, especially the aggressive kind embraced by Thatcherism/Reaganism, was repackaging our heritage, our memories, our traditions, the sinews of mythology by which we live, in order to maximize financial profitability. Tourism thrives on simplified, sentimentalized, sanitized stories. Within a short time every little town and hamlet, rather than profiting incidentally from any tourism, had to make its own living from tourism — a notoriously unreliable means of earning an income — rather than by its industry. Because it was cheaper to manufacture elsewhere or not manufacture at all. Thanks to monetarism most of us became whores, very often in our own eyes. Monetarism took over the public rhetoric as well as the public’s imagination.
In my mind those two (Maggie & Ron) dealt the human psyche a terrible blow. They learned the art of buying and selling souls. A rather melodramatic statement, but many who were told to see services as commodities (health, education, public safety, the arts, etc.) felt exactly as if they were being told to sell their souls. They were told to sell their most profound hopes, dreams, and fears at a profit. Of course, to do that they had to resort to the most sentimental arguments, the most distorted forms of nostalgia, atrociously maudlin, insulting to their constituents and the faith they claimed to draw upon. Such jumped-up accountants in politics have always been the enemies of art but never had a campaign been more successful. The job of the novelist became that of the revenant and the satirist, the archivist, almost. And, more than ever, the moralist. The strong moral element that attracted me to Pilgrim’s Progress, The Amazing Marriage, The Stars My Destination, or Felix Krull informed everything I did, including the supernatural adventure stories I wrote to finance myself and my own less commercial projects. Apart from early juvenile fiction, I never wrote on less than two levels. But I had to change direction somewhat in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
We had most of us assumed that, through activism and democratic discussion and persuasion, we could slowly but surely improve the world. In the 1970s we were talking about “the problem of leisure,” of wiping out disease and poverty throughout the world: zero population growth was another idea to stop us using up the world’s resources. That was our goal. Our expectations might have been unrealistic but they were positive. The 1980s turned all that optimism into the most banal forms of nostalgia and triumphalism (Falklands, for instance), and the fall of the USSR was an opportunity to gloat rather than come together to serve the world. I think that was the cleverest and most evil trick big business and its political henchmen played on all of us. To keep us from resisting them they had to corrupt individual memory as well as history. Orwell was right about 1984 but he didn’t foresee, as some of the leftwing New York SF writers of the ‘50s foresaw, the subtleties of such manipulation. Anyone could see that Communism was a loser, but I also saw growing up how democratic socialism could demonstrate the benefits of, for instance, “socialized medicine,” so that a succession of incoming right wing conservatives did not dare dismantle it.
“We’re clearing things up. Tidying the world."
"You might just as well be in the political age. You can’t bring it back, Frank."
"Not for long."
"But you know what I’m going to do to you, don’t you?"
"Randomize. The equilibrium of anarchy."
"More or less."
"You won’t succeed. History’s against you, Jerry."
"That’s the difference between you and me, Frank. I’m against History."
—from A Cure for Cancer
I’m sort of cautious about using “alternate history” as a description of the Cornelius stories since they were not conceived as that. Jerry is meant to inhabit the world we know. I describe him as an urban adventurer, using the description Edmond Hamilton created for 'noir' thrillers -- urban adventure stories. The stories are parables but nothing else, I think. Yet it’s not wrong to use 'alternate history' I guess, since a transition was being made from using the language of SF to using my own language and narrative techniques. JC/2 was in my own view a “mandarin” book. A flashy playing with genre (for the most part) rather than a serious use of its tropes. I still find the Elric symbols of Law (a single straight arrow) and Chaos (arrows pointing in every direction) very useful. I’m suspicious of the conventional mindset that believes there’s only one good answer to a question. Simple arguments are attractive to the general public, sadly.
I’ve recently come up with the fun notion of “Radiant Time” as an image to suggest a universe of limitless possibilities — the human brain, in fact — situationalist strategies for the 21st century — a means of understanding the modern psyche and society. It’s balanced by the notion of Linear Time and its proponents. Pretty evident where my sympathies lie, of course! Space is a dimension of Time!
Linear vs. non-linear was almost the most important battle of our time. I’ve tried most of the existing methods and created some of my own. Art reflects the crises of society. We are always writing about our world, whether we’re conscious of it or not. The best way of doing it is consciously, surely? That also helps us identify how much “self” plays in the equation. As an editor I learned how much negative self-consciousness works against creativity. Unlike the modernism of 100 years ago, contemporary artists have to find ways of forgetting about the self. Give the outside world their strictest attention. Genre fiction offers techniques for writing about the world without much self-reference. In that sense I suppose it is a reaction against modernism, but I believe what we do is more positive than that, since it works to combine a variety of techniques and approaches, rejecting nothing. This is a moment in our history where we need to look reality right in the eyes.
The ideas of Byron and Shelley have probably caused more young men to lose their lives in hopeless, idiotic, romantic causes than the ideas of Karl Marx. Romanticism is the disease of the Modern Age. It is the direct result of increased leisure among a certain class. If one does not believe me, one only has to look around at the so-called hippies and ‘dropouts’ who always complain of poverty yet find time to bargain with me for coats worth twice the price I am charging, and pay in the end with money donated to them by the State!
—from Byzantium Endures
I’m also interested in “understanding the enemy” as it were. What idealism informs the reactionary? I am very superstitious. I felt I should pay back for the gifts I’ve had. I wanted to get to the roots of the Holocaust in the Pyat books. I was afraid it might happen again. I felt I had a moral duty to write those books. Everything since finishing them has seemed relative easy! 25 years of having to look reality steadily in the eyes. It's exhausting.
“Elric refuses to understand the danger, Princess Cymoril. Yyrkoon’s ambition could bring disaster to all of us. Including Yyrkoon." Cymoril sighed. "Aye, including Yyrkoon. But how can we avoid this, Cymoril, if Elric will not give orders for your brother’s arrest?"
"He believes that such as Yyrkoon should be allowed to say what they please. It is part of his philosophy. I can barely understand it, but it seems integral to his whole belief. If he destroys Yyrkoon, he destroys the basis on which his logic works. That at any rate, Dragon Master, is what he has tried to explain to me."
—from Elric of Melibone
I was astonished to find that even fantasy readers could be literal-minded. Early letters to the magazine where the stories first appeared would criticize me for not describing in more detail the geopolitical background of Melnibone. I still have to point out to readers that I don’t do “world-building”! My landscapes represent the emotional states of the characters (as in Wuthering Heights, for instance). I only recently learned, by the way, that supernatural fantasy stories were split into various sub-divisions — Sword & Sorcery, Dark Fantasy, High Fantasy, and so on. Reviewing a collection of “Epic fantasy,” one critic recently said that I am not an epic fantasy writer but a founder of the “sword and sorcery” school. The irony being that I came up with the terms “epic fantasy” or “heroic fantasy” as a suggestion to describe the genre in discussions with Fritz Leiber, L.Sprague de Camp, and others. Fritz used the term S&S (referring to Cloak and Dagger fiction) and it stuck! He included Tolkien and [Robert E.] Howard in his term for the genre.
This could be the right moment to remind people that I hated the endless discussions of what to call various divisions of supernatural or science fantasy and refused to join in. In my view books should be classified according to whether they’re fiction or nonfiction and by author. I know many readers who broadened their reading because they picked out an author in mistake for another. Harry Harrison said that he would never have read and enjoyed all of E.M. Forster if when young he hadn’t been looking for C.S. Forester and A Passage to India sounded like a rattling good sea-story to him! When Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast (as well as Elric) first appeared, mainstream critics were arguing that they were post-apocalyptic science fiction stories because they couldn’t decide what category they fitted!
She yawned. If the Lords of Entropy were to manifest themselves on Earth again as they had in the legendary past she felt she might welcome them as a relief, at least, to her boredom. Not, of course, that she believed in those terrible prehistoric fables, though sometimes she could not help wishing that they had really existed and that she had lived in them, for they must surely have been more colourful and stimulating than this present age, where dull Reason drove bright Romance away: granite scattering mercury.
I think Mervyn Peake owes a lot to the great English, French, and, to a degree, Russian and German absurdists and surrealists. He’s echoing them as much as he seems to be rejecting modernism (even though reference works often list him as a modernist!). It’s true, if you like, that he failed to reflect many of the examples of modernism, even though he knew and enjoyed modernists. Maeve, his wife, read Proust almost continuously in English and French, forwards and backwards, and he loved Joyce. They both admired Picasso. But he wasn’t exactly in any school. He was his own man. He can’t be imitated and didn’t beget a genre. He has influenced very few generic fantasts. Perhaps because there is almost nothing supernatural in the Titus sequence. I think the comparisons are to Sterne, Peacock, Carroll, Lear, Jarry, Firbank.
If you look at the books Peake chose to illustrate, there’s Alice, Snark, Book of Nonsense — and a number of other nonsense books for children. He was attracted to nineteenth-century romantics as well as Balzac, Dickens, and Stevenson, and I remember him telling me about an early “pilgrimage” to meet Walter de la Mare, author of Memoirs of a Midget and many others. That was in the days when English fantasy was recognized as a quality rather than a category and included T.H. White, Lewis, and Tolkien as being very much the same tradition. If I ever have time I’d love to write a piece about this. It’s also interesting that pretty much every English 20th century realist had a fantasy in them from Woolf to Waugh, Angus Wilson to Amis. Everyone, it seems, has at least one idea best expressed in a fantastic manner.
And that was history, too, right? What a fucking century. You start with the first concentration camps, an Imperial War, carving up Africa (or actual Africans in Leopold’s case), add a chorus of all the agonized millions crawling from the dirt of no man’s land, into the Russian Civil War, Stalin, the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, World War Two, Hiroshima, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia, Rwanda and East Timor. And Kosova, of course. What a century, pards. What a bloody century.
—from King of the City
King of the City wasn’t designed to reflect Mother London. Or really expand on it. King is, if anything, the male novel to Mother’s female novel! The voices are very different. I never really saw them as connected. The publishers chose to use the earlier book in their advertising. King is a more autobiographical book and a far angrier book, reflecting my own frustrations in the twelve years between one appearing and the other. To be betrayed by the right is one thing; to be betrayed by the left is another! I could hardly bear the distress in the world when I wrote King and it is a far more political novel than Mother London. ML was a celebration of my home city. KotC was a kind of mourning for it as I watched the family silver being sold off.
The world's first all-purpose human being strode eastward, whistling.
"A tasty world," it reflected cheerfully. "A very tasty world."
"You said it, Cornelius!"
—from The Final Programme
I’ve just finished a large novel called The Whispering Swarm. It’s an odd thing. Part autobiography, part metaphysical, part fantasy, part historical, it even has a bit of cod philosophy thrown in! That’s sitting for a while before I do the last draft. I’m working on a short autobiographical novel called Stalking Balzac (similar to my story “Stories” in Neil Gaiman’s recent anthology) which I’m about half-way through. I’m well into a long novella, “Kabul,” in the same sequence as My Experiences in the Third World War. I’m working on a new record album with Martin Stone and Pete Pavli called Live from the Terminal Cafe. We’ve been rehearsing it in Paris and plan to record in London next Spring. I’m doing a couple of Jerry Cornelius stories and maybe one last Elric novella to celebrate the first edition of The Stealer of Souls fifty years ago. Victor Gollancz in London will begin publishing a collected edition of almost my entire work in 2013, beginning with the most recent Elric books. It will be a definitive edition, thoroughly revised and corrected, in print and electronic form, and I’m very much looking forward to that!