Moorcock: Mastery and Mad Dance by Hal Duncan


This is a confession as much as a tribute. I am a dufus.

I came to Michael Moorcock late, an SF reader who’d taken an initially straightforward route in through the Golden Age SF of the Big Three — Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. I acquired a taste for the more twisted in the form of Philip K Dick, expanded the range of my reading by borrowing every Nebula anthology in the local library and taking a completist attitude to the “Classic SF” line put out by Gollancz in the 80s — discovering Vonnegut, Sturgeon, Silverberg, Delany, Pohl & Kornbluth, Sladek, Ellison and more. Before I’d really got to grips with the notion of the New Wave, I heard about this British SF magazine called Interzone and started buying that, reading these weird-ass stories that sometimes sort of didn’t make a whole lot of sense as far as I was concerned, callow youth that I was. I mean, they had the weirdness of Lindsay Anderson’s If… rather than George Lucas’s Star Wars. They were SF, but they were SF in a really fucked-up way. I didn’t realise that what I was reading was the legacy of the New Wave.

Then along came cyberpunk and, caught up in the excitement over this wild new movement, I somehow managed to find myself focusing on this bleeding edge technonoir SF of mirrorshades and monofilament garottes. There was just so much cool new shit to read in that explosion there wasn’t time to get to grips with what had gone before. Occasionally I’d fill in some of the gaps in my awareness with an Aldiss here or a Ballard there, but somehow, inexplicably, even as I came to realise just how much of an impact the magazine New Worlds had on the field, just how sympathetic I was to this New Wave fiction it carried, with this chap called Michael Moorcock as its helmsman… somehow, I managed not to get around to his SF. I make no excuses for this. As I say, I am a dufus.

OK, one excuse, paltry and insufficient: I was heading for university now, an English Lit. student, so there was all this other weird shit to read — Jorge Luis Borges and James Joyce, Angela Carter and Harold Pinter. There was magical realism and there was this stuff they were calling “slipstream”, whatever the fuck that meant, this fiction that combined the mimesis of the domestic with the semiosis of the fantastic, this fiction that blended the two in a whole new way, where the sublime might erupt into the mundane but where the mundane might equally, at any moment, erupt into the sublime. I didn’t know what “slipstream” meant. I didn’t know that it meant “New Wave that wasn’t born in the right time and place”.

One thing I did know was that I wasn’t a fan of Fantasy. I’d struggled through The Lord of the Rings even as it bored the shit out of me, from the Middle-England middle-class Nostalgia-land of the Shire (burn, motherfucker, burn! Run, hobbit, run!) to the five million pages at the end of Frodo and forelock-tugging Samwise Gamgee, class traitor, climbing up a fucking mountain (Oh, Master Frodo, let me carry you, let me hug you, let me lick your boot, Master Frodo). I gave up on The Silmarillion on its first page, had a go at Terry Brooks’s The Stuff of Shannamarama and thought the better of it. Fantasy was not for me, I decided. I didn’t know that everything I hated about Fantasy was everything Moorcock had been or would be writing about in his Wizardry and Wild Romance, a wickedly ascerbic Scouring of the Shite. When a few other members of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle that I was now a part of talked about this Elric character… well… I had my doubts.

I told you I’m a dufus.

Then one day, one member of the GSFWC, Gary Gibson, foisted the Cornelius Quartet on me, insisted that I read it, that really I couldn’t not read it. I was, of course, blown away. This fucked-up narrative of Jerry Cornelius and the supporting cast, the mad dance of them around each other in a frenzy of forms, a literary Harlequinade. This fusion cuisine of fiction, folding in SF and 60s superspy movies, apocalyptic and kaleidoscopic… and all of it resolving in the final book of the quartet, into this mundane narrative of a spotty adolescent in a flat in London, dreaming of being a rock star, every heroic wank-fantasy of macho pulp utterly subverted into the worldscape of the dismal miserabilist British soap opera Eastenders. It was beautiful.

In the next few years I may have gone a little crazy, discovering the three-book volumes of the whole Eternal Champion series, discovering Oswald Bastable and Elric and Corum and Hawkmoor and von Bek and Count Brass and the Dancers at the End of Time. There may have been points where, coming to it late and without any great love for sword-play and sorcerous marvels, I didn’t quite have the thrill I know I would have had on immersing myself in this multiversal hero’s exploits at a younger age, but at other points… Who can not love the end of the Corum books, where the two gods save the day by dispatching the Lords of Chaos, only to then wipe out the Lords of Order too, just for the sake of balance? Who can not love the vicious parody of Reagan as a scout leader in the first Bastable book? Who can not love the radical political stance articulated in the anarchistic anti-heroics of Elric, the direct answer to all the Will-to-Power rhetoric of the genre? And, hell, as if that isn’t enough, the man wrote Mother London, a book which does for his native city what Joyce’s Ulysses did for his (and I’m not sure if I can think of higher praise than that.)

All those things I didn’t realise over the years, the profound impact Moorcock had on the genre, I see now in the profound impact he had on me even before I’d fucking read him. And since I’ve read him? I make no bones about his deep influence on my own work. The multiversal backdrop of Vellum and Ink is a conscious re-articulation of Moorcock’s, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The Jack Flash of Vellum and Ink is a splinter of his Eternal Champion — a little Oswald Bastable and a whole fuckload of Jerry Cornelius, Commedia dell’Arte references and all. The first appearances of that Jack Flash character, in fact, were in a series of stories titled “The Final Analysis”, “The Angel Assassin”, and “A Cure for Karma”; nuff said. If I came to Moorcock late he’s nevertheless been one of the most formative influences in my writing.

So I’m well chuffed to see him receiving the well-deserved accolade of Grand Master. The title couldn’t be more fitting for a writer of such mastery, and I’m happy, so happy, to have had the chance to fling myself into the mad dance of his fiction. I only wish I hadn’t been so much of a dufus for so many years, dragging my feet as I stumbled around the edges of his wild and whirling waltz.

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