Michael Moorcock


by John Davey

from Locus No. 647, ed. Liza Groen Trombi, December 2014

MICHAEL MOORCOCK — listed recently by the London Times as among the fifty greatest British writers since 1945 — is one of the most important and influential figures in SF and fantasy literature. Author of around a 100 books and more than 150 shorter stories in practically every genre, he has been the recipient of several lifetime achievement awards, including the Prix Utopiales, the SFWA, the Stoker and the World Fantasy, and has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He has been compared to Balzac, Dickens, Dumas, Ian Fleming, James Joyce, Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien, to name but a few.

Moorcock was born on 18th December, 1939, in Mitcham, South London, shortly after the outbreak of World War Two. As the war came to an end, his father left the family home and young Michael was brought up an only child by his mother, whose employer — Ernst Jellinek, an Austrian Jew and disciple of Rudolf Steiner’s strange brand of Christian mysticism — became an important, early educational influence on Moorcock (who was the first pupil ever to be expelled from Michael Hall School in Sussex, an enlightened, liberal Steiner school).

His upbringing was as varied as his schooling was unorthodox, with relatives across the whole social spectrum (from factories to 10, Downing Street).

Moorcock’s first venture into writing and publishing came before his tenth birthday, hand-producing and selling fanzines — the first of which was Outlaws Own — at school. Other titles followed, about book collecting generally, about favourite authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, or centred around music (another great passion). One such, Burroughsania, led directly to the sixteen-year-old Moorcock writing for a professional juvenile magazine, Tarzan Adventures, and even being offered its editorship a year later. It was in T.A. that his first fantasy stories, those of Sojan the Swordsman, appeared.

Moorcock’s first professional sale of an SF story was to New Worlds (edited by John Carnell) in 1959, a pseudonymous collaboration with Barrington J. Bayley called ‘Peace On Earth’. Carnell also commissioned a new fantasy series for Science Fantasy, the companion magazine to New Worlds. As a result, in June 1961, ‘The Dreaming City’ became the début of Moorcock’s most famous and enduring character, the tragic, albino prince of ruins, Elric of Melniboné, and began an initial  series of nine novellas collected as The Stealer Of Souls (1963) and his first novel, Stormbringer (1965).

Prior to those, upon leaving Tarzan Adventures Moorcock joined Sexton Blake Library, from which his first standalone publication, Caribbean Crisis (1962) — a collaboration with fantasy artist James Cawthorn — appeared as by Desmond Reid (a house-name). He also began working for a number of children’s comics, periodicals and annuals, writing copiously for many leading titles.

Following a lengthy trip around Europe, starting successfully in Scandinavia and ending disastrously in France, Moorcock continued to write his own short fiction, as well as for many children’s titles, whilst also working for the U.K.’s Liberal Party (although his politics would shift, over time, in the direction of Kropotkinism).

In 1962, he married Hilary Bailey, with whom he had three children: Sophie, Kate and Max.

Then in 1964, Moorcock took over editorship of the flagging New Worlds, and single-handedly transformed it, and the genre itself, into a controversial medium for challenging and experimental speculative fiction by writers such as Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Michael Butterworth, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas M. Disch, Harlan Ellison, John Sladek, Norman Spinrad, D.M. Thomas and others. The magazine was crucial in the development of the so-called SF New Wave, whilst championing authors as disparate as William S. Burroughs and Mervyn Peake.

Often described as a science fiction writer, Moorcock has written remarkably little true SF — a form in which he has never been much at ease — although he has happily interspersed his more ambitious, protracted projects with some of the most intelligent and literate examples of its sister genre, Heroic Fantasy; deeply moral tales in which, more often than not, love still manages ultimately to conquer all.

During the early ’60s, certain key themes running through the whole Moorcock oeuvre (to varying degrees) were introduced: the concept of a multiverse of alternative realities — infinite variations of our own universe and experience — a notion and indeed term long since embraced by modern, mainstream scientific theory; Law and Chaos (as opposed to Good and Evil), each displaying attractive and ugly, creative and destructive, qualities; the Cosmic Balance, a nebulous force attempting to maintain equilibrium between the two; the Eternal Champion, forever fighting for one side or the other, in various incarnations throughout the multiverse; and Tanelorn, a mysterious city of peace appearing on all planes, neutral in any conflict and offering solace to those who can find it.

In 1965, he began to rework the very first Elric stories in an attempt to break free completely of the SF form and introduce a new character, Jerry Cornelius — the ambiguous, amoral, androgynous English Assassin — another firm favourite with author and fans alike. Cornelius made his first book appearance in The Final Programme (1968), opening novel of the main tetralogy which concluded with the Guardian Fiction Prize-winning The Condition Of Muzak (1977).

These complex books argued, especially the first, for a blending of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits to produce a balanced human being. They also tackled head-on the legacies of British imperialism — Empire gone sour — as did Moorcock’s proto-steampunk trilogy featuring Oswald Bastable, the Nomad of Time.

While New Worlds grew from a bi-monthly paperback to a monthly magazine — during which Moorcock’s controversial, Nebula Award-winning novella ‘Behold The Man’ appeared therein — he was writing several fantasy series in order to fund (amongst other things) its ever-demanding publication: the Hawkmoon books, Erekosë, Corum, and more Elric.

The magazine and its content became increasingly ambitious, blending genre and literary fiction, science and the arts, but upon serialising Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, together with Langdon Jones’s story sequence The Eye Of The Lens, it ran into attempted censorship from wholesalers. There was an outcry in the Press, and the U.K. Parliament became briefly involved, all resulting in the magazine finishing as a nationally distributed monthly, although it has resurfaced periodically, in a variety of forms, ever since.

The early ’70s saw publication of what is probably Moorcock’s best-loved trilogy, The Dancers At The End Of Time, a lyrical, romantic comedy of errors in which the decadent, immortal inhabitants of Earth in its very last days meet the reluctant Victorian time-traveller, Mrs. Amelia Underwood. There was a second Hawkmoon series as well, culminating with The Quest For Tanelorn (1975), a remarkable interweaving of all previous plots, leading to a truly monumental and breathtaking climax.

1975 also saw release of The New Worlds Fair, an album by Michael Moorcock & the Deep Fix. Always a keen musician, Moorcock in his teens was a singer/guitarist with the Woody Guthrie-inspired Greenhorns, and recorded an unreleased demo in the mid-’60s as part of The Bellyflops. The early ’70s saw him writing for and performing with the space-rock band Hawkwind, receiving a gold disc for the Eternal Champion-based album Warrior On The Edge Of Time. Other music projects have continued throughout the years, including (at the time of writing) a proposed new album, Live From The Terminal Café.

In 1978, the stunning (and this writer’s personal favourite) Gloriana; or, The Unfulfill’d Queen was published, a novel which sweeps the reader along on a tide of intrigue and passion, awash with descriptive passages of unsurpassed vividness and often grotesque beauty. Also that year, Moorcock married his second wife, Jill Riches.

Thereafter followed the author’s most ambitious and time-consuming project, his coming to terms with the Holocaust via epic and unreliable fictional memoirs of Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski (or Colonel Pyat). Byzantium Endures (1981), The Laughter Of Carthage (1984), Jerusalem Commands (1992) and The Vengeance Of Rome (2006) comprise a mammoth and astonishing journey across the first half of the twentieth century, viewed through the eyes of a master charlatan and bigot, tracing the Holocaust’s origins in the past and showing how much of society (on all sides, wittingly or otherwise) conspired in its inevitability. The sequence has been described as an authentic masterpiece of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Also introduced during the early ’80s, and appearing increasingly in subsequent (and revised) works, were various members and generations of the Family von Bek and their curious relationships with both Lucifer and the Holy Grail. The superb The War Hound And The World’s Pain (1981) is set in the seventeenth century, and the strange, somewhat disturbing The City In The Autumn Stars (1986) takes place around the time of the French Revolution. The Brothel In Rosenstrasse (1982), a dark tale of erotomania, features another von Bek but, unlike the other titles, has no fantastic content.

The deterioration, meanwhile, of Moorcock’s second marriage gave rise to a trip (alone) to the U.S.A., later recorded in the excellent, autobiographical Letters From Hollywood (1986), based on correspondence to long-time friend J.G. Ballard and cataloguing the pros and cons of being wooed by the movie capital. This was also when and where he met his third wife, Linda Steele (they married in 1983).

1988 saw publication of another ambitious project — considered by many to be Moorcock’s magnum opus — the critically acclaimed and technically brilliant Mother London, a celebration of the virtues and charms of London and Londoners which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. It, too, has occasional elements of autobiography, found in each of its three main protagonists, Mary Gasalee, Josef Kiss, and particularly David Mummery who resembles the younger Moorcock in several childhood reminiscences.

In 1994, the Moorcocks moved from London to Linda’s American homeland, where they now reside just outside of Austin, Texas, dividing time between there and Paris, France.

A new, Chaos Theory-inspired trilogy, beginning with Blood: A Southern Fantasy (1995), appeared. Although mostly written in the U.K., Blood is set in the southern states of the U.S.A., but — like so many of the author’s works — in a world close to but not quite our own, this time one in which the black races have dominance over the disadvantaged whites. Destinies are woven inexorably together, as characters are drawn towards a mythical realm called the Second Ether, there to fight in the Game of Time, the unending conflict between Plurality and Singularity (or Chaos and Law).

Returning to his career’s roots, Moorcock scripted a Second Ether-connected comic series throughout 1997/’98, Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, and later mapped out Elric’s origins in The Making Of A Sorcerer (2004–’06), both from DC Comics.

Around the same time, a brand-new Elric trilogy — in fact the only preconceived Elric trilogy — appeared, linking the albino with various von Beks. The Dreamthief’s Daughter (2001), The Skrayling Tree (2003) and The White Wolf’s Son (2005) were retitled recently as part of a massive and ongoing re-issue in the U.K. of virtually the whole Moorcock back-catalogue, a definitive, career-retrospective series of 30+ omnibus volumes (and/or individual e-books).

Moorcock’s journalism appears in the Financial Times, The Guardian, the L.A. Times, The Spectator and many other titles. In 2010 & ’12 respectively, two unrelated volumes of non-fiction appeared: the fifty-year-spanning Into The Media Web and the rather more currently focused London Peculiar.

Also in 2010, his most recent novel was an SF comedy featuring Doctor Who, The Coming Of The Terraphiles. Perhaps something of a surprise to regular readers, it nevertheless melded that character’s established milieu with Moorcockian ones including the Second Ether.

Lastly, at the time of writing, expected in early 2015 is The Whispering Swarm, a novel combining autobiography and fantasy. It is the first volume of a trilogy called The Sanctuary Of The White Friars.

At the age of seventy-five, Michael Moorcock may have slowed down a little, but thankfully he shows no signs of stopping.

— John Davey,