Pulp Metaphysics

By Rob LathamDecember 13, 2015

The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

MICHAEL MOORCOCK IS ONE of the most celebrated of contemporary fantasists, having received the British Fantasy Award five times. Like earlier literary crossbreeds such as Fritz Leiber and Mervyn Peake, both acknowledged influences, Moorcock has produced a playful and erudite body of work that defies easy categories, eschewing clear distinctions between SF and fantasy in favor of the mutable dreamscapes of fabulation. Much of Moorcock’s work — from sword-and-sorcery adventures such as his highly popular “Elric of Meniboné” series to his “Jerry Cornelius” stories, featuring the adventures of a polymathic libertine — are part of a large-scale project that Moorcock has dubbed “the multiverse,” in which various fantasy and SF heroes mutate and shift identities in a vast, intercommunicating network, an elaborate fictional mosaic. 

By contrast with the future histories of hard SF, Moorcock’s multiverse scorns linearity and closure: his heroes slip through dubious time frames, exchange personalities, and blithely cross between genres, generating not a cohesive schema but a ludic, mercurial masque. Some of the stories in this framework, it must be admitted, were produced under punishing deadline pressures for frankly potboiling reasons — e.g., to raise funds for other projects, in particular New Worlds magazine, which he edited from 1964 to 1971. But the multiverse also includes his most ambitious work, especially the Colonel Pyat Quartet, whose titles (read consecutively) render a sphinxlike judgment on the fate of the modern world: Byzantium Endures (1981), The Laughter of Carthage (1984), Jerusalem Commands (1992), The Vengeance of Rome (2006). Colonel Pyat (a.k.a. Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski), whose problematic life spans the 20th century and who persistently — and rather improbably — comes into contact with an array of famous persons and events, narrates his experiences with a combination of bluster and apology, relish and regret. At once carefully researched historical novels and freewheeling absurdist parables, the books are potent meditations on the ethical-political paradoxes of modernity and bear serious comparison with similarly themed efforts by E.L. Doctorow and Thomas Pynchon.

It had seemed for almost a decade as if the Pyat Quartet would be Moorcock’s closing statement, with the author content to rework earlier novels into “authorized” editions (now being published in the UK by Gollancz). Aside from a couple dozen short stories and a “Doctor Who” novelization, The Coming of the Terraphiles (2010), Moorcock produced no new fiction until the publication of The Whispering Swarm in the UK in 2014. Billed as “Book One of The Sanctuary of the White Friars,” it is evidently designed to kick off a new series, and thus longtime fans of the author — of whom I count myself one — would normally be expected to rejoice. Unfortunately, the novel is a major disappointment, a diffuse, meandering muddle of a book uneasily mixing autobiographical reminiscence with pulp-style adventure and theological speculation. Several times in the story, the narrator — Moorcock himself or some cross-temporal avatar — compares the effect to “something out of Phil Dick,” but The Whispering Swarm is a far cry from Dick’s brilliant late-career farragos of memoir and metaphysics.

First of all, it is at least 100 pages too long, filled with repetition, discursive asides, and maundering self-analysis. The various parts of the narrative never cohere, and the occult-cum-new-physics rationale for the time-slipping episodes comes across, as the narrator himself admits, like the ravings of a “spiritualist quack.” The presence of the author as narrator adds a dubiously metafictional gloss to the proceedings, which Moorcock rather too coyly exploits: “Was I now a character in someone else’s fiction?”; “Who was writing this novel?”; “We rewrite our own memories, of course, all the time. We create fresh narratives to use in our survival . . . We are protagonists in our own novels,” and so on. A pretense of playful recursiveness is frequently used to justify the two-dimensionality of the fictional characters and their jaunty adventures: “Were all these people [cavaliers, highwaymen, cutthroats, and rogues] just shadows of my childhood imagination?”; “I might be listening to one of my favourite old fantasy writers telling a tall tale”; “I had become mixed up in an adventure I might have invented” during the author’s years as a prolific workhorse in the “fiction factory” of postwar comics and genre storytelling. A tension between literary ambition and lazy hackwork runs throughout the book — as it does through the author’s career — and dramatizing these competing pressures could have been a clever way of meditating on 60 years of steady production, decades that have seen Moorcock move from pulp journeyman through the experimental effervescence of speculative fiction to the baroque cynicism of postmodernism. But the proof is in the pudding, and The Whispering Swarm is, alas, a glutinous mess.

There are two strands of narrative that sketchily and inelegantly intersect. The first — a vivid revisioning of Moorcock’s childhood in 1950s “austerity Britain” and his coming-to-manhood during the heyday of the 1960s counterculture — is totally engrossing, and this reader at least wished that the book had stayed rooted in these scenes of personal/cultural reality. This only-slightly-mythical self-portrait dominates the first third of the novel, leading one to expect a thinly fictionalized memoir of a truly fascinating life. But the second story thread — involving the discovery of a portal into an alternate-world London, the Sanctuary of the White Friars, where unorthodox monks consort with both historical figures and legendary brigands — intervenes and overwhelms the autobiography. Moorcock’s model for this crossbred sort of story might well have been M. John Harrison’s tales of “Viriconium” (several of which were published in New Worlds), in which a dreamy fantasy landscape coexists with the mundane everyday. But Harrison’s treatment of this theme was original and powerful, whereas Moorcock’s seems a rather tired pastiche.

I have to admit that I found the “White Friars” sections tough slogging, not only because they distract from the gripping memoiristic impulse of the book’s first third, but also because they are threadbare and cloying — gaining vigor only in the final 50 pages, as the narrator joins a conspiracy (also involving Dumas’s Three Musketeers) to save Stuart king Charles I from Cromwell’s Puritan Roundheads. Too, the scenes involving “Moorcock”’s interactions with the White Friars I thought quite dull, despite the author’s tendency to drum up readerly excitement by scattering the pages with gratuitous exclamation marks. Their abbot, Father Grammaticus, speaks in riddling koans combining theology with astrophysics, and the narrator’s expressions of irritation and bafflement at these “half-mad” pronouncements mirrored my own. I did not, however, share his gradual acquiescence to the ecumenical, Deistic theology that seems to underpin the abbot’s ravings, being more inclined to believe the narrator’s occasional speculations that they were hallucinatory fancies emanating from a diet of bad acid and overwork. This reader could not restrain himself from answering, in the affirmative, Moorcock’s frequent rhetorical questions along the lines of: “Were all these people perhaps delusional? Including me?”

What is so sad about the book’s botched structure is that it almost seems as if Moorcock did not trust himself to write a genuine autobiography, and thus took refuge instead in the comforting confines of his genre multiverse, especially its most pulpy incarnations. It is not as if the author has no experience melding these disparate registers, as his seriocomic take on the postwar period, Mother London (1988), shifts gears brilliantly between striking evocations of real-world landscapes and arresting historical fabulations. His sumptuous Elizabethan fable Gloriana; or The Unfulfill’d Queen (1978) — which won the World Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award — showed Moorcock’s seemingly effortless skill at alternate-world romance, as did his superb reimaginings of modern European history in his “Von Bek” sequence, The War Hound and the World’s Pain (1981), The Brothel in Rosenstrasse (1982), and The City in the Autumn Stars (1986). These dazzling precursors make the flagging of invention clearly evidenced in The Whispering Swarm all the more disappointing.

In the balance of this review, I would thus prefer to focus on the autobiographical sections, the riveting treatments of Moorcock’s childhood growing up in a family of roisterous show people; his young adulthood as a crank-‘em-out fictioneer, avant-garde editor, and aspiring musician; and his fumbling efforts to become a devoted husband and father. These sections make the book not only worthwhile, but essential, reading for any fan of the author. Moorcock’s satirical depictions of his family — both his blood and married relations — deserve to stand alongside his most vibrant pieces of writing. Here he is, for example, on his perpetually myth-making mother:

Mum was intensely material, mercurial and of the moment. A tolerant woman, too, she fought with herself not to trap me . . . [S]he had become a superb liar, one who told and retold her lies until they formed an intricate fantasy so twisted through with strands of intense, bleak reality they often seemed thoroughly true. She became hugely anxious that someone would find out she invented her stories. From fear of discovery she talked too much. If she stopped talking she knew she would die.

Though Moorcock never quite states it outright, one gets the sense that his mother’s compulsive storytelling lies behind his own Balzacian facility with the pen — or, rather, the typewriter: he could reportedly churn out a popular fantasy novel in one boozy, speedy weekend in order to pay the bills. Moorcock’s lifelong commitment to leftwing causes — evident in a 1983 pamphlet on Thatcherism (The Retreat from Liberty: The Erosion of Democracy in Today’s Britain) as well as his occasional diatribes here against the “fast-fix, get-rich-quick schemes which would characterize the ’80s” — had its roots in his Uncle Fred’s pugnacious ’30s-era communism. I wished for much more of Fred, who ran a sideshow the young Moorcock worked in, and whose “twin saints” were “Barnum and Marx”; a skeptical autodidact, Fred seeded in the young “Mike” a questing humanist spirit compounded of secular philosophy and cosmopolitan spirituality. Mum and Uncle Fred well prepared Moorcock to take full advantage of the profligate possibilities offered by the 1960s counterculture.

Moorcock’s representations of that counterculture largely take the form of his participation in avant-garde literary and musical scenes — there are only passing references to his immersion in the drug and sexual cultures of the period, although it is fairly clear that this immersion was, at the time, a full-body dowsing. There is some unfortunate (if entirely appropriate to the period) macho boasting of his initiation as a “sexual adept,” at the hands of various swanky femmes fatale, which caused some problems for his attempt to remain monogamous after he wed fellow author Hillary Bailey (here renamed “Helena Denham”). A hilarious sequence involves the couple’s visit to the Milford, Pennsylvania home of SF authors Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm during a period when minor SF (now famous noir) author James Sallis was housesitting: under Sallis’s sway, the place had degenerated into a sex-crazed crashpad filled with polymorphously perverse hippies, and Mike and Helena had their hands full chasing these avid young freaks out of their bed. One of the few ways the book’s two main narrative strands intersect is in the sexual double life Moorcock is compelled to lead — in the real world with Helena and their two children, and in the half-world of the Sanctuary with dashing adventuress Molly Midnight, though the author’s self-pitying rationalizations of this adulterous triangle become eventually quite annoying.

Moorcock’s renaming of his actual wife is echoed in the frequent changes he makes to the monikers of famous figures in contemporary SF, although this tactic is by no means consistent. John Brunner, Barrington Bayley, Judith Merril, Charles Platt, and others involved in the scene surrounding New Worlds magazine appear under their genuine bylines, while others are re-dubbed: J.G. Ballard becomes “Jack Allard,” Thomas Disch “Rex Fisch,” John Sladek “Jack Slade,” and Pamela Zoline “Polly Zucker.” Anyone familiar with the history of the British New Wave will have no trouble guessing who is who, but one wonders why Moorcock felt compelled to deploy these curious noms de guerre. At times, it must be admitted, I wondered if this was because his portrayal of certain figures borders on the slanderous — or, at least, on bitchy dirt-dishing. Fisch, Slade, and Zucker, for example, are depicted as a ditzy threesome: the closeted Fisch longs for Slade, who is in love with Zucker, who is engaged to marry Fisch. The tensions in this trio emerge in a slapstick Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Moorcock, which descends into boozy, weepy soap opera. All of this would be funny if Moorcock’s portrayal of Fisch didn’t border on the homophobic: he never appears in the narrative unaccompanied by adjectives such as “flouncing,” “mincing,” or (more discreetly at least) “dramatic.” Personally, I longed to hear more about this threesome’s pioneering contributions to New Worlds — Disch’s corrosive satire Camp Concentration, Sladek’s Kafkaesque parable “Masterson and the Clerks,” Zoline’s proto-feminist collage “The Heat Death of the Universe” (all 1967) — but Moorcock seems more interested in their ambivalent sexual roundelay. Reading the novel, one wonders how anyone found the time to write such classic stories while chasing after spurious sexual or spiritual liberations.

The biggest missing link in this hesitant roman à clef is Moorcock’s deep involvement in the musical countercultures of the period. Allusions are made to the various bands in which he performed — e.g., The Deep Fix, Hawkwind — as well as passing mentions of avant-garde pioneers of electronica such as Robert Calvert and Pete Pavli, with whom Moorcock was a friend and occasional collaborator. It should be remembered that the Ladbroke Grove scene that incubated Moorcock’s New Worlds also gave birth to jazz-rock hybrids that revolutionized popular music, yet all we get are glancing references to significant figures in this movement, as when the narrator comments on a visit to the Elgin Music shop: “One afternoon I walked in to find Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Martin Stone all there together.” Given that Moorcock has written elsewhere of his fascination for these artists — especially Hendrix, who appears as a character in a few of his stories, such as “A Dead Singer” (1974) — one might have wished for a more comprehensive treatment of the topic here.

Moorcock writes more movingly of the gradual gentrification of Ladbroke Grove and environs, their transformation from scruffy counterculture venues to havens for “yuppy middle-class liberals.” “The coarse vibrancy, the louche airs and graces, the pepped-up urgency of the place was fading,” he writes. “At least one old-fashioned pub had already become a wine bar.” His astute observations of urban transformation in the novel are hardly surprising to anyone who knows Moorcock’s work more generally: he is one of the finest contemporary chroniclers of modern London life, on a par with Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. As we learn in The Whispering Swarm, he even has a curious connection to Marxist urban geography: world-famous theorist David Harvey was the best man at his wedding, shared his enthusiasm for the work of Mervyn Peake, and contributed essays and stories to New Worlds during its heyday. These fascinating asides, gleaned here and there amidst the rush and tumble of the story, make reading the book rewarding despite its many flaws.

Indeed, until this book I would have said that Moorcock was incapable of writing a dull page, but the longueurs here are frequent and ultimately exhausting. Perhaps the author can be prevailed upon to put aside the second volume in “The Sanctuary of the White Friars” and instead produce the full-fledged autobiography The Whispering Swarm initially seems to be, before being sidetracked into tepid scrapes and maudlin metaphysics. I, for one, would gladly queue up to buy such a book, as I think would any fan of the author or of modern SF in general, in whose pantheon Moorcock ranks near the very top.


Rob Latham is currently completing a book on New Wave science fiction of the 1960s and ’70s.

LARB Contributor

Rob Latham is the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago, 2002), co-editor of the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010), and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (2017).


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