Michael Moorcock revolutionised science fiction with symbolism, sex and psychoactive drugs. Now, at 75, he has invented another genre.
Photo: French Cockpit
You can’t go home again. The last time Michael Moorcock visited Notting Hill – once the countercultural cradle of his dimension-spanning science fantasies and home to the author, his young family and one of his best-loved creations, the polymorphous secret agent and flâneur Jerry Cornelius – he “pitched an absolute fit”, according to his Texan wife, Linda. The old, febrile Notting Hill of squats and squalor had long given way to iceberg houses, billionaires’ basements and the well-tended tedium of extreme wealth. The last straw came when Moorcock witnessed a woman getting out of her four-by-four wearing jodhpurs. “He was raving about this,” Linda recalls with amusement.
“The place made me feel ill,” Moorcock admits wearily. The writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, a friend of his, had brought Moorcock back in order to film reminiscences of his old stomping ground. “But it had become unbelievably horrible on every level,” he says. “I mean, Notting Hill had been a place of horror and violence in the 1960s and 1970s. My mother daren’t visit us. Next door was always knife fights and the police. But it was cheap and that’s what you need as a writer with a young family. Now look at it. It’s people in jodhpurs.”
This is an apocalypse that even Moorcock never expected. A money bomb went off and took away all the ordinary people.
The Moorcocks now divide their time between Paris and Austin, Texas. We meet in their apartment in the multicultural warren of the tenth arrondissement, a cosy, first-floor place with shelves crammed with Moorcock ephemera: the pulp paperbacks that first lured him into writing fiction, a promo photo from the 1973 adaptation of his novel The Final Programme – the only Moorcock book committed to film so far – and a tiny model of a vintage London tram. Before travelling to Paris, I’d asked if there was anything that Moorcock misses from home that I could smuggle in for him. It transpires that the French capital is well stocked with tea bags and Branston pickle. You have not lived until you have presented one of your literary heroes with the contraband he truly desires: four luxury pork pies.
Now 75 years old and with at least as many books under his belt (they have been amended, anthologised and generally re-rubbed so often that they are uncountable), Moorcock is possibly fantasy’s most influential author, an equal and opposite force to J R R Tolkien, whose work Moorcock disdains as twee and conservative. A working-class Londoner, Moorcock rose through the lurid pulp fiction industry of the 1950s – he became the editor of Tarzan Adventures at the age of 17 – to champion a vastly different form of science fiction in the mid-1960s when he edited the magazine New Worlds.
The work he published by J G Ballard, Brian Aldiss, William Burroughs and others replaced science fiction’s hackneyed zap guns and space battles with the experimental techniques of literary fiction and the psychonautical values of the counterculture. “The science-fiction people thought we were trying to destroy science fiction,” he recalls. In reality, they were making it fit for purpose in a future that would be determined not by space travel but by mass communication, advertising, political demagoguery and modified consciousness.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Moorcock also cranked out reader-friendly paperbacks at a pace possible only for one schooled in the pulps. His sword-and-sorcery tales of the enfeebled albino emperor Elric of Melniboné, who is addicted to the energies provided by his sentient, soul-eating, black sword, Stormbringer, reached far beyond the conventional fantasy market. The books were steeped in the transgressive: shifting sexualities, incest, amorality and affectlessness. Beneath it all were repeating motifs: the multiverse of alternate realities and its “Eternal Champion” (personified by Elric, Cornelius, Corum, Colonel Pyat, Oswald Bastable and countless others) who fights, often unwittingly, to restore a balance of “Law” and “Chaos”. This combination of the literary and the accessible made Moorcock a rarity – an architect of fantasy who declines to write comfortable genre crowd-pleasers and an author of literary fiction who insists on writing rattling good yarns.
Both strains have come together again this month with the publication of what is billed as Moorcock’s first major work of straight fiction in a decade, although it’s something more complicated. Beginning in postwar London, The Whispering Swarm depicts a hidden region of the old City called Alsacia, which seems to exist at all times at once and acts as a sanctuary for a mixture of real historical figures, characters from literature and inscrutable mystics. The name of the (possibly) fictional young writer who discovers Alsacia and is caught between its fabulous world and the reality of his disintegrating marriage is “Michael Moorcock”. With its Narnia-style magic door, Tardis-like dimensions and addictive pull, Alsacia is a metaphor for the comforts and dangers of fantasy and of reading and writing. Autobiographical fiction has a rich tradition; now Moorcock has invented the autobiographical fantasy.
“I felt it would upset people I cared about if I wrote a conventional autobiography,” he explains, “and I was interested in writing about fantasy – how I used it for the avoidance of action and moral commitment and how other people used it.” He opted for a form that was “as realistic as I could make it”, but the process was painful. A book that should have taken a year to write took five. “Writing it made me very depressed,” Moorcock admits. “I became confused and actually broke down emotionally. I’d had to face actions I hadn’t really looked at. Alsacia represents escape from reality because that’s what I had done in real life.”
In The Whispering Swarm, Alsacia’s siren call is partly to blame for the failure of Moorcock’s first marriage to “Helena Denham”. His real-life estrangement from Hilary Bailey – a fellow author, who went on to write the Jane Eyre sequel Mrs Rochester, among other successful books – had less supernatural causes. Unreconstructed and living the high life of the rising writer, Moorcock simply took his wife (with whom he had three children) for granted as a domestic helpmeet.
“Back then, I was unaware of gender politics,” he confesses. “We simply didn’t have the vocabulary to deal with those inequalities. When I think about it now, I was able to live and write because of someone who later turned out to be a prolific writer, who wrote a couple of bestsellers. But she didn’t write anything apart from the odd short story until after I left. You have to address that and you think, ‘Christ, I was a bastard.’”
The Whispering Swarm’s most compelling aspect is the infectious excitement of the young Moorcock’s first days in publishing, with old Fleet Street only just past its zenith and the world at your feet as long as you were young and smart and could stand the noxious smell of the Cow Gum used to paste up pages. A proud hack who went on to write a guide on how to come up with a novel in three days, Moorcock elbowed his way into the pulps and never looked back.
“I still think of myself as a journalist,” he says. “It’s the reason I can do what I do.” J G Ballard once told Moorcock that he resembled a young Defoe, “which was incredibly flattering. Jimmy said I’d take on any job and make it mine. I thought, ‘Yes!’ You might as well imitate the guy who started it all.”
Inner visions: psychedelic book covers for Moorcock’s novels
In one uncharacteristic episode of work-for-hire, Moorcock was briefly employed by the Liberal Party, writing its pamphlets. An air of serene lassitude surrounded the guardians of the centre ground in the 1960s. “All we did was get hold of the Tory and Labour pamphlets and pinch the bits we liked,” says Moorcock. “The leader, Jo Grimond, was very nice but incredibly thick, an amiable, pottering old Liberal. The impression that the party didn’t actually want power was quite good for them.”
Moorcock did not last long there. “It definitely made me not want to get into politics. Instead, I became interested in anarchism, which is more of a moral rather than an active platform. I’m not a Bukharinist. I’m a Kropotkinist.”
Since his teens, Moorcock had mixed with London’s science-fiction community around the Globe pub on Hatton Garden, not far from the fictional Alsacia. “It was the only place in London where you could meet people who didn’t think you were raving barmy. Everyone assumed that science-fiction fans literally believed in flying saucers in those days.” Enthusiasts and young writers such as Moorcock found easy access to established figures, including Arthur C Clarke, Kingsley Amis, C S Lewis and John Wyndham. “Lots of these writers were quite posh,” he remembers. “They all wore sports jackets with leather elbows and were interested in jazz . . .”
Although these old-school writers were friendly and supportive, a schism emerged after Moorcock became the editor of the anthology magazine New Worlds in 1964. In his desire to bring literary techniques into the science-fiction world, Moorcock jettisoned the populist, explanatory, anal-retentive hard science element – what we now might call “fan service” – in favour of impressionistic, avant-garde stories in which little was explained in conventional terms and psychological resonance was all.
“You wanted to get rid of all that boring exposition and get to the imagery, which for us was what science fiction was really about,” Moorcock explains. “Who really cares about spaceships and how rockets work? I don’t actually care about space at all. You had to plough through all this shit that people like Arthur [C Clarke] insisted on expositing to get to maybe five good images. We were all interested in painting and especially symbolism. We wanted to give the public substantial work that operated on multiple levels, with several narratives that they could tease out.”
This caused a “certain kerfuffle” among fans of the genre, who would berate Moorcock and Ballard at conventions for ruining “real” science fiction. “There are still people out there who will say, ‘Ha, ha, your New Worlds (below left) new wave never made it.’ But our intention all along was to infuse the mainstream with all that was best in science fiction and that did connect with a lot of people.” From Martin Amis to Will Self and Michael Chabon, from comics by writers such as Grant Morrison and Alan Moore (“It’s disgusting how alike we are”) to the sci-fi bent in popular fiction (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger), New Worlds and the new wave continue to resonate.
When I suggest that it was the machine fetishists, the Arthur C Clarke faction, who got it right about our technologically determined present day, Moorcock disagrees.
“No, no, no,” he says. “We live in a Philip K Dick world now. The technology-led, military-led big names like Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur got it dead wrong. They were all strong on the military as subject matter, on space wars, rational futures – essentially, fascist futures – and none of these things really matters today. It’s Dick and people like Frederik Pohl and Alfred Bester who were incredibly successful in predicting the future, because they were interested in social change, ecology, advertising. Look at Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google . . . These are Philip K Dick phenomena.”
As the 1960s wore on and the concerns of science fiction and the counterculture merged, Moorcock moved in both worlds. Into the 1970s and beyond, he collaborated with the psychedelic rock bands Hawkwind and Blue Öyster Cult. (He still plays guitar and keyboard with his own occasional band, the Deep Fix.) “I was attracted to both rock’n’roll and science fiction because you didn’t know what was going to come out at the end,” he says. “Nobody was looking over your shoulder and telling you what to do, because nobody knew what to do.”
His often highly sexualised fiction would become hot property among impressionable minds starved of erotic stimulation in the arid 1970s. “I’d get angry letters from school principals saying I was disguising my filth as science fiction for youngsters,” Moorcock recalls proudly. The melancholy, horribly charismatic witch emperor Elric became a cult figure among heavy metal fans, occultists and sundry deniers of tedious reality. Though the Elric stories always delivered in terms of drama and horror, Moorcock built them on solid psychological foundations.
“I was very much into Freud and Jung when I was writing those books,” he says. “The whole point of Elric’s soul-eating sword, Stormbringer, was addiction: to sex, to violence, to big, black, phallic swords, to drugs, to escape. That’s why it went down so well in the rock’n’roll world.”
So, it is an irony that Moorcock remains largely unfilmed – or unfilmable – while the writer most responsible for turning fantasy into global entertainment, if posthumously, is his old antithesis J R R Tolkien. Moorcock liked Tolkien in person; he visited the old professor in Oxford and found him polite and personable. But it’s not hard to see Tolkien as a complacent, hierarchical force of Law in opposition to Moorcock’s free-ranging, morally complex Chaos. In 1978, Moorcock made the conflict explicit in a jeremiad against the old inkling entitled “Epic Pooh” (as in Winnie-the-Pooh), which accused Tolkien of propagating a sentimental Luddism while blithely promoting war.
“I think he’s a crypto-fascist,” says Moorcock, laughing. “In Tolkien, everyone’s in their place and happy to be there. We go there and back, to where we started. There’s no escape, nothing will ever change and nobody will ever break out of this well-ordered world.” How does he feel about the triumph of Tolkienism and, subsequently, the political sword-and-sorcery epic Game of Thrones, in making fantasy arguably bigger than it has ever been?
“To me, it’s simple,” he says. “Fantasy became as bland as everything else in entertainment. To be a bestseller, you’ve got to rub the corners off. The more you can predict the emotional arc of a book, the more successful it will become.
“I do understand that Game of Thrones is different. It has its political dimensions; I’m very fond of the dwarf and I’m very pleased that George [R R Martin], who’s a good friend, has had such a huge success. But ultimately it’s a soap opera. In order to have success on that scale, you have to obey certain rules. I’ve had conversations with fantasy writers who are ambitious for bestseller status and I’ve had to ask them, ‘Yes, but do you want to have to write those sorts of books in order to get there?’”
As a child, Michael Moorcock used to see ghosts. They would float in through the window into the family parlour. Among them was Jesus, an unexpected guest, considering that although Moorcock is half Jewish there had never been any significant religious element in his upbringing.
“I never saw this stuff as real,” he says. “I somehow knew that it was all coming out of my head. And they never frightened me. I got used to them. Years later, in the 1960s, when everyone was freaking out on drugs and deciding that they’d seen God, it didn’t seem that unusual to me.” He still experiences these visions from time to time. Linda says he’ll point to a magnificent display of shining samurai armour in a shop window, when all she sees are mops and buckets.
This is the magical everyday perspective that informs The Whispering Swarm – the transcendent experience in the ordinary street. And it is harder to sustain as the world becomes more glumly materialist.
“I write about London because it provides the maximum number of narratives,” Moorcock says, “but the cult of individualism that goes with consumer capitalism is simplifying and destroying all the narratives that I grew up with: the myths of our survival through the Blitz, of our ability to resist aggression, of our ability to create a new world. All that is threatened now, or has already been destroyed.” The little islands of solitude and zones of peace are being forced to pay their way, he tells me, and there’s no room in Notting Hill for a Jerry Cornelius – or a Michael Moorcock.
“So I’m staying in France,” says our greatest living fantasist, “praying it won’t get more like Britain.”
“The Whispering Swarm” is out, newly published by Gollancz (£25/£16.99)