Warts and all

I’m on a long-term project to read all of Michael Moorcock’s classic fantasy-fiction, which comes together under the general rubric of his Eternal Champion cycle, an idea influenced by Joseph Campbell’s study of mythological archetypes, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I’m reading it in a now-discontinued series of bind-ups, which compiled the many and disparate stories, novellas, novels, and series into something resembling a narrative chronological order. Moorcock later abandoned this idea and subsequent reprints have been organised in order of writing or publication, but the fifteen volume series The Tale Of The Eternal Champion is still widely available in several editions.

If I’m honest, I’m not quite sure how Volume 5: Sailing To Utopia fits into this scheme. The longest work in this omnibus is The Ice Schooner, which feels like the best fit for the Eternal Champion series in thematic, aesthetic and narrative terms—it makes no reference to the other parts of the Moorcock mythos, however, and there is no indication within the story that its protagonist is intended to be a facet of the Everyhero. The same is true of The Black Corridor, a short science-fiction horror novel, based on ideas developed by Moorcock’s ex-wife, Hilary Bailey. This is characterised in close-up, like a modern novel, in contrast to much of Moorcock’s fantasy, which is written with a broad-brush, mythic approach that keeps a certain distance between reader and character, and it contains the most interesting writing in this volume. It’s not without its weaknesses, but it’s an enjoyable and sometimes challenging essay in speculative fiction.

The other two stories feature characters who are definitively identified with the Eternal Champion, Max von Bek, and the legendary Jerry Cornelius. ‘Flux’, the short story in which Max von Bek appears is (among other things) an engaging piece of political speculation, which is as interesting for what it tells us about the time when it was written as for its historical conjectures. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect anything else of fiction written in the 1960s and 1970s, but all of the stories collected here feature a pretty lumpen approach to sexual politics and a strikingly naive understanding of gender. The three of them which deal with the relatively near future (in some cases now the past) see the most apocalyptic threat to global society as being unrestrained population growth, and the specifically social and resource-related difficulties that entails. From a 2020s perspective it’s easy to say ‘it was never nuclear war, it was always going to be ecological degradation’, but Moorcock’s often not too far off the mark in his predictions. After all, there may be enough resources to go round, but when most people can’t afford them it comes to the same thing as scarcity.

‘Flux’ is also the most overtly Eternal Champion piece in the collection, especially with its semi-explicit reference to the von Bek family’s custodianship of the Holy Grail. The Distant Suns, in which Jerry Cornelius is the main character, features a Cornelius seemingly unrelated to his other manifestations, one entirely without the character’s legendary androgynous charm and style, or its hip counter-culture references. This is also by far the worst story in the book. It was written in collaboration with Philip James for serialisation in The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1969, then published for the English market in 1975, and I think the nicest thing to do is blame it all on James (since I don’t know anything about him and can’t find any other reference to him online). The Distant Suns is out-and-out bad, amateurish writing, which I found very difficult to plough through. It perks up a bit towards the end, but even then the best I could say about it is that there are passages which aren’t terrible.

I’m guessing that Sailing To Utopia was just where Moorcock decided to put a few things that didn’t fit anywhere else. The Distant Suns should have been buried and forgotten, and the other three pieces are hardly among his finest writing. The Ice Schooner is the best of the bunch, as it basically doesn’t have any ambitions, other than to be the kind of fun, pulpy science-fantasy by which Moorcock earned his bread in the 60s and 70s, and it does a very good job of that. I have no regrets in reading this book, as I’m interested in Moorcock as a writer (some of his work is spectacularly good), and these pieces offer interesting insights. I have to say I also admire his determination to put it all out there, warts and all, without succumbing to the temptation to edit or re-write any of this stuff—it displays a lack of vanity that sets Moorcock apart, and which, I suspect, has something important to do with the heights his writing sometimes achieves.

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