Michael Moorcock Introduces His Collection
An Introduction to the Collected Michael Moorcock
BY 1964, AFTER I had been editing NEW WORLDS for some months and had published several science fiction and fantasy novels, including Stormbringer, I realised that my run as a writer was over. About the only new ideas I’d come up with were miniature computers, the multiverse and black holes, all very crudely realized, in The Sundered Worlds. No doubt I would have to return to journalism, writing features and editing. “My career,” I told my friend J.G.Ballard, “is finished.” He sympathized and told me he only had a few sf stories left in him, then he, too, wasn’t sure what he’d do.
In January 1965, living in Colville Terrace, Notting Hill, then an infamous slum, best known for its race riots, I sat down at the typewriter in our kitchen-cum-bathroom and began a locally-based book, designed to be accompanied by music and graphics. The Final Programme featured a character based on a young man I’d seen around the area and whom I named after a local greengrocer, Jerry Cornelius ‘Messiah to the Age of Science’. Jerry was as much a technique as a character. Not the ‘spy’ some critics described him as but an urban adventurer as interested in his psychic environment as the contemporary physical world. My influences were English and French absurdists, American noir novels. My inspiration was William Burroughs with whom I’d recently begun a correspondence. I also borrowed a few sf ideas, though I was adamant that I was not writing in any established genre. I felt I had at last found my own authentic voice.
I had already written a short novel, The Golden Barge, set in a nowhere, no-time world very much influenced by Peake and the surrealists, which I had not attempted to publish. An earlier autobiographical novel, The Hungry Dreamers, set in Soho, was eaten by rats in a Ladbroke Grove basement. I remained unsatisfied with my style and my technique. The Final Programme, which took nine days to complete (by 20th January, 1965) with my baby daughters sometimes cradled with their bottles while I typed on. This, I should say, is my memory of events; my then wife scoffed at this story when I recounted it. Whatever the truth, the fact is I only believed I might be a serious writer after I had finished that novel, with all its flaws. But Jerry Cornelius, probably my most successful sustained attempt at unconventional fiction, was born then and ever since has remained a useful means of telling complex stories. Associated with the 60s and 70s, he has been equally at home in all the following decades. Through novels and novellas I developed a means of carrying several narratives and viewpoints on what appeared to be a very light (but tight) structure which dispensed with some of the earlier methods of fiction. In the sense that it took for granted the understanding that the novel is among other things an internal dialogue and I did not feel the need to repeat by now commonly understood modernist conventions, this fiction was post-modern.
Not all my fiction looked for new forms for the new century. Like many ‘revolutionaries’ I looked back as well as forward. As George Meredith looked to the 18th century for inspiration for his experiments with narrative, I looked to Meredith, popular Edwardian realists like Pett Ridge and Zangwill and the writers of the fin de siecle for methods and inspiration. An almost obsessive interest in the Fabians, several of whom believed in the possibility of benign imperialism, ultimately led to my Bastable books which examined our enduring British notion that an empire could be essentially a force for good. The first was The Warlord of the Air.
I also wrote my Dancers at the End of Time stories and novels under the influence of Edwardian humourists and absurdists like Jerome or Firbank. Together with more conventional generic books like The Ice Schooner or The Black Corridor, most of that work was done in the 1960s and 70s when I wrote the Eternal Champion supernatural adventure novels which helped support my own and others’ experiments via NEW WORLDS, allowing me also to keep a family while writing books in which action and fantastic invention were paramount. Though I did them quickly, I didn’t write them cynically. I have always believed, somewhat puritanically, in giving the audience good value for money. I enjoyed writing them, tried to avoid repetition, and through each new one was able to develop a few more ideas. They also continued to teach me how to express myself through image and metaphor. My Everyman became The Eternal Champion, his dreams and ambitions represented by the multiverse. He could be an ordinary person struggling with familiar problems in a contemporary setting or he could be a swordsman fighting monsters on a far-away world.
Long before I wrote Gloriana (in four parts reflecting the seasons) I had learned to think in images and symbols through reading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Milton and others, understanding early on that the visual could be the most important part of a book and was often in itself a story as, for instance, a famous personality could also, through everything associated with their name, function as narrative. I wanted to find ways of carrying as many stories as possible in one. From the cinema I also learned how to use images as connecting themes. Images, colours, music, and even popular magazine headlines can all add coherence to an apparently random story, underpinning it and giving the reader a sense of internal logic and a satisfactory resolution, dispensing with certain familiar literary conventions.
When the story required it, I also began writing neo-realist fiction exploring the interface of character and environment, especially the city, especially London. In some books I condensed, manipulated and randomised time to achieve what I wanted, but in others the sense of ‘real time’ as we all generally perceive it was more suitable and could best be achieved by traditional 19th century means. For the Pyat books I first looked back to the great German classic, Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus and other early picaresques. I then examined the roots of a certain kind of moral fiction from Defoe through Thackeray and Meredith then to modern times where the picaresque (or rogue tale) can take the form of a road movie, for instance. While it’s probably fair to say that Pyat and Byzantium Endures precipitated the end of my second marriage (echoed to a degree in The Brothel in Rosenstrasse), the late 70s and the 80s were exhilarating times for me, with Mother London being perhaps my own favourite novel of that period. I wanted to write something celebratory.
By the 90s I was again attempting to unite several kinds of fiction in one novel with my Second Aether trilogy. With Mandelbrot, Chaos Theory and String Theory I felt, as I said at the time, as if I were being offered a chart of my own brain. That chart made it easier for me to develop the notion of the multiverse as representing both the internal and the external, as a metaphor and as a means of structuring and rationalising an outrageously inventive and quasi-realistic narrative. The worlds of the multiverse move up and down scales or ‘planes’ explained in terms of mass, allowing entire universes to exist in the ‘same’ space. The result of developing this idea was The War Amongst the Angels sequence which added absurdist elements also functioning as a kind of mythology and folklore for a world beginning to understand itself in terms of new metaphysics and theoretical physics. As the cosmos becomes denser and almost infinite before our eyes, with black holes and dark matter affecting our own reality, we can explore them and observe them as our ancestors explored our planet and observed the heavens.
At the end of the 90s I’d returned to realism, sometimes with a dash of fantasy, with King of the City and the stories collected in London Bone. I also wrote a new Elric/Eternal Champion sequence, beginning with Daughter of Dreams, which brought the fantasy worlds of Hawkmoon, Bastable and Co in line with my realistic and autobiographical stories, another attempt to unify all my fiction, and also offer a way in which disparate genres could be reunited, through notions developed from the multiverse and the Eternal Champion, as one giant novel. At the time I was finishing the Pyat sequence which attempted to look at the roots of the Nazi Holocaust in our European, Middle Eastern and American cultures and to ground my strange survival guilt while at the same time examining my own cultural roots in the light of an enduring antisemitism.
By the 2000s I was exploring various conventional ways of story-telling in the last parts of The Metatemporal Detective and through other homages, comics, parodies and games. I also looked back at my earliest influences. I had reached retirement age and felt like a rest. I wrote a ‘prequel’ to the Elric series as a graphic novel with Walter Simonson, The Making of a Sorcerer, and did a little online editing with FANTASTIC METROPOLIS.
By 2010 I had written a novel featuring Doctor Who, The Coming of the Terraphiles, with a nod to P.G.Wodehouse (a boyhood favourite), continued to write short stories and novellas and to work on the beginning of a new sequence combining pure fantasy and straight autobiography called The Whispering Swarm while still writing more Cornelius stories trying to unite all the various genres and sub-genres into which contemporary fiction has fallen.
Throughout my career critics have announced that I’m ‘abandoning’ fantasy and concentrating on literary fiction. The truth is, however, that all my life, since I became a professional writer and editor at the age of 16, I’ve written in whatever mode suits a story best and where necessary created a new form if an old one didn’t work for me. Certain ideas are best carried on a Jerry Cornelius story, others work better as realism and others as fantasy or science fiction. Some work best as a combination. I’m sure I’ll write whatever I like and will continue to experiment with all the ways there are of telling stories and carrying as many themes as possible. Whether I write about a widow coping with loneliness in her cottage or a massive, universe-size sentient spaceship searching for her children, I’ll no doubt die trying to tell them all. I hope you’ll find at least some of them to your taste.