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The Best of Michael Moorcock cover

In my early, voracious SF reading, Moorcock went down with the rest—Wolfe, Silverberg, Doctor Who novelisations, Patrick Tilley, Asimov and anything with a Gollancz yellow cover. As I began to recognise author names, and took my first glancing looks at SF fandom and criticism, I discovered that Michael Moorcock was difficult and began to grow afraid. All his work was tangled together, one giant multiverse of interlinked Eternal Champions with not a single loose thread (in print) to start tugging at. Even the proto-steampunk The Warlord of the Air (1971) turned up characters I had never heard of, but with whom I was meant to be familiar. Moorcock, in the process of being acknowledged a genius, was consigned to the "too hard" basket.

Interestingly, this collection manages the multiverse by evading it. Una Persson—who first distracted me from the plot of The Warlord of the Air—does not appear at all; Elric, the original Eternal Champion, has a minor story with no sword play ("A Portrait in Ivory," 2007); and Jerry Cornelius is assigned "The Visible Men" (2006), the shortest piece in the book (even if there are many of him in it), and the occasional third party reference. The result is a little curious for a Moorcock ingénue hoping to be initiated into the mysteries of his inner circle. And yet, what fabulous infinities are presented to us here, what marvels!

The work in this collection is drawn from Moorcock's whole career, but the focus is on his more recent writing, with an acknowledged "emphasis on what can be seen as a golden decade for Moorcock's short fiction (the 1990s)" (from the Introduction by John Davey, p. 8). The story ordering avoids publication chronology lest the early stories seem to overemphasize a "less mature talent" (p. 8). This 'mix tape' approach means the earliest works intrude like scratchy New Wave punks amidst the lush orchestration of the later writing. Over time, Moorcock has become a more complex stylist, more subtle and orotund in his writing, with the velvet glove smothering the iron fist completely at times.

"The Deep Fix" (1964) is dedicated to "William Burroughs, for obvious reasons" (p. 267). The story features pyrotechnic writing, psychedelic drugs and bizarre mind altering machinery. Steeped in the same fury and decay as much of J. G. Ballard's writing of the time, it could stand as the typical New Wave New Worlds story, for all that it was published in John Carnell's Science Fantasy. The other sixties story is perhaps Moorcock's most famous tale."Behold the Man" (1966) tells how a time traveller fulfils the role of Jesus as the Christ we all know from the Bible. Its plain speaking style is an effective contrast with the rest of the book—as is its unusually clear message. The story eviscerates gullibility—with religion, psychiatry and the occult all in the firing line—whilst also generating a method by which the failed prophecy of the messiah can be fulfilled to the letter of the New Testament by someone who knows what will be written.

If the book had been filled with nothing but stories like these it would still have been fascinating, if perhaps more wearing and certainly more limited. Instead, they stand out as furious period pieces, shouting out how unlimited science fiction really can be. The rest of the work here shows how Moorcock has developed this argument over the rest of his career. A good proportion of these genre-stretching stories could, now, be labled "slipstream." Semi-magical events happen to drug addicts or Glastonbury travellers, for example, or unreliable narrators describe space ships or visitations from other dimensions. The same stories would sit easily in a literary venue, where they could be read with equal interest from a non-genre perspective.

Indeed, there are stories here whose provenance is Literature—copyright statements include references to the London Arts Board, The Daily Telegraph and The Time Out Book of New Short Stories—and some which, regardless of their original venue, show few genre fingerprints. "A Winter Admiral" (1994) is a brief meditation on old age; "Doves in the Circle" (1997) is filled with the effects of secrets on a small community; "The Opium General" (1984) relates the relationship of a once-innocent woman to a paranoid drug dealer. Each of these has a reminder in its introduction that it is a non-fantastical story. Such a statement asks the reader to interpret the story differently from the acknowledged genre stories around them. The butterfly in the title of "A Winter Admiral," emerging at the wrong time of the year, provides a hook for many an interpretation. It is a tiny, perhaps meaningless event—but if it were truly without meaning, the story could not exist, so the search for metaphor begins—and there is no shortage of responses available. The story is, perhaps, the epitome of the literary short; a brief foray into another mind, made totally real for a few brief pages, such that the ideas, the events linger long afterwards in the reader's mind.

"Lunching with the Antichrist" (1993) is a longer, more detailed story, and an excellent example of the effect of reader perspective. It is the biography of Edwin Begg, once vicar of St Odhran's, Balham, and at the same time a brief history of Britain from the Great Depression to Thatcher.

quite suddenly in 1933 the ordinary hard-working cleric became an urgent proselytiser, and orator. From his late-Victorian pulpit he began preaching a shocking message urging Christians to act according to their principles and sacrifice their own material ambitions to the common good, to take a risk on God being right, as he put it. (p. 49)

Such acts lead Begg into conflict with the church authorities, and he is soon defrocked. This personal conflict intermingles with events of the period, provoking a faint nostalgia for the hope of Communism before details of Stalin's regime were well known in Britain. The next key event in Edwin Begg's public life is involvement with BBC Radio and TV after the second world war, when he "continued to broadcast the reassuring ironies which lightened our 1950s darkness and helped create the golden years of the 1960s and '70s. He did not believe his dream to be illusory" (p. 51). Ah, but the idea of British nostalgia, not just for the 1960s but for the 1970s, before "the feeding frenzy of the 1980s" (p. 68), makes this story, curiously, a period piece for the early 1990s. Today, at the end of Gordon Brown's government, we can almost look back on the Major era with the same feeling of gentle amusement at a period of innocent bungling and petty sleaze.

Perhaps this story encourages such a view, as it wraps up all its political history in a memorial wryness. The narrator has a deep affection for Edwin Begg, whom she has only known in his old age, and the story reflects the pleasure for both the older and younger companions in sharing a life lived long ago. It also has room for her small regrets at letting life get in the way of their friendship. Her narration, interspersed with reported conversation, also allows a certain distance from the final retelling Begg makes of his own life. He re-interprets the history our narrator has already given us in the mystic light of a vision, a woman who "appeared to have emerged from the earth or from the tree . . . there was something plantlike about the set of her limbs, the subtle colours of her flesh, as if a rose had become human and yet remained thoroughly a rose" (p. 62). Our narrator can barely stand this "bizarre blend of popular prophecy and alchemical mumbo-jumbo which even a New Age traveller would take with a pinch of E" (p. 76), a viewpoint which allows the reader to decide, alone, whether Edwin Begg is describing events he saw, or merely events as he saw them.

The experienced reader of genre will be tempted to believe Begg rather more than the primary narrator—and the experience is similar in "The Cairene Purse" (1990). Again, the narrator is a practical individual. Paul Pappenheim's work for the United Nations takes him to Egypt, where he is attending a conference on the Aswan dam. These official duties take up little of the plot, though, as his interest in being in the country is primarily a search for his sister, who has disappeared off the record after strange events at an archaeological site in the desert. This story is, without doubt, near future science fiction. Egypt is under embargon by the west and in the grip of climactic change. Flights are severely restricted and the unreliability of electricity has brought a new popularity for ancient, hand-wound record players and the 78s made for them. The Nile has been poisoned by the Aswan dam, the etiolation of the annual flooding cycle destroying the river's ability to flush and revivify the nation. Pappenheim, a minor official, has little hope that his visit will have any impact ("my meetings were predictably amiable and inconsequential" [p. 357]); he is here, more, to say farewell to a dying country and to his own memories of better times there. The story is enveloped by an air of lassitude and orientalism. Pappenheim plays the role of a colonial master, slipping easily between English, French, Arabic and is effortlessly condescending to the former Director General of the United Nations, to café proprietors, Arab patriarchs and juvenile hippies. He considers himself part of the Anaemic Generation "of a secular disposition [which] saw only damaging, enslaving darkness in any religion . . . out of step with the progress of history as it was presently presented" (pp. 337-8) and views the Sufi religious, hippy mystics and spell-sellers in the souk with equal horror. When he finally catches up with his sister, her tales of alien spaceships are of a piece with this bewildering, unreal place.

I moved away from her. "I don't believe in spaceships."

"You don't believe in much, do you?" Her tone was unusually cool.

I regretted offending her, yet I could not help but respond. "The nuts and bolts of keeping this ramshackle planet running somehow." (p. 377)

His only thought is to rescue her, to get her back to the West and to a decent psychiatrist.

Read soon after with "Lunching with the Antichrist," Bea's aliens seem much like those of Edwin Begg. This tends to strengthen the genre view and change the balance of the stories. And yet, the combination of narration and reported narration, the scepticism of the primary narrator, ensure the stories are not completely closed down to alternate interpretation. They linger in the mind.

Almost all the stories in this collection linger—and I have barely mentioned half of them here. The book took me substantially longer to read than I expected, as each piece needed time to be savoured and digested. Moorcock's writing is richer in the later stories, often layered with nostalgia for events of his own lifetime—and beyond, the hopes and dreams of other generations never fully realised. The earlier stories, by contrast, are so much of their period that they directly invoke nostalgia in the reader. Above all, this is an accessible collection, an opportunity to experience the power of Michael Moorcock's prose without needing a training course in the Eternal Champion first. Be warned, however, that you'll be ready to dive deep into the Moorcock Multiverse afterwards, in search of another hit.

Duncan Lawie grew up in Australia and lives on the Kent coast. His work also appears in The Zone.

Duncan Lawie has been reviewing SF for half as long as he has been reading it, although there was a quiet period during two years as an Arthur C. Clarke Award judge. His reviews also appear in the British Science Fiction Association's Vector magazine.
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29 May 2023

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