The Astronauts at the End of Time

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Michael Moorcock doesn’t really go in for standalone novels. Really, why should he? Even when he began writing, the market loved series – that’ll be why the Michael Kane stories were published as a trilogy when they could quite happily have been put out as a single book – and it’s only gotten more keen on them as time goes by. Nowadays if Moorcock has cranked out some crap like The Revenge of the Rose – stuffed as it is with heavy-handed allegory and determined as it is to treat the reader like an idiot – all he needs to do is stick Elric in it and suddenly everyone loves it!

On top of that, from one point of view Moorcock has never written a standalone story in his life; if you buy his line about how all his material ties into the Eternal Champion stuff then it’s all one big series. I’ve deliberately not gone along with that, partially because I think if you need to read dozens of novels to understand Moorcock’s latest piece then something’s gone seriously wrong and partially because this review series would be really unwieldy if I had to stuff everything into the Erekosë article. And the fact is, Moorcock was churning books out for a while before he hit on the idea that all his material could be mashed into one big series.

In particular, in the early 1960s Moorcock wrote a brace of standalone science fiction novels which are quite good at charting his growth as a writier. Ranging from The Blood Red Game to The Rituals of Infinity, they start off as simple fix-up novels of shorter stories to fully conceived novels devised as coherent wholes, and take Moorcock’s apocalyptic preoccupations into a science fictional context. It’s clear that Moorcock also considers them worth looking at together; although The Blood Red Game was collected in White Wolf’s version of the Eternal Champion omnibus, the other three were collected in The Road Between the Worlds – also published by White Wolf – with some connecting text from the point of view of Renark, protagonist of The Blood Red Game. (For what it’s worth, the UK versions of the Eternal Champion omnibuses didn’t include any of these books due to rights issues.) The stories range from Moorcock’s first tinkering with the idea of a multiverse in a fictional context to tales in which the existence of a multiverse is an accepted fact of life in his fiction, so we’re going right back to the deepest roots of Moorcock’s fiction. But even though they’re important to the development of his writing, are they worth reading today?

The Blood Red Game (AKA The Sundered Worlds)

The Blood Red Game, as it is known in most editions, is based on two linked novellas – called, appropriately enough, The Sundered Worlds and The Blood Red Game – which had been published in Science Fiction Adventures in 1962 and 1963. Although I haven’t seen the originals to check, the novel reads as though Moorcock simply took the two novellas, slapped them back-to-back, and said “hey, here’s the finished novel” to his publishers – and since, at the time, Moorcock was writing for cheap and cheerful Compact Books, they happily did so without question. You can pretty much feel the bump as you transition from one novella to the next, to the point where it really makes more sense to review this one as two separate novellas than one whole novel.

The first part, originally published as The Sundered Worlds introduces us to Renark the Wanderer, a former troubleshooter on the run from his ex-employers in the galactic government. Renark is possessed of a powerful psychic ability which permits him to discern the relative positions of bodies in space at an interstellar scale – or, indeed, an intergalactic scale. Having been sent by the galactic police to investigate a crash-landed spacecraft from another galaxy, Renark has made a terrible discovery – the expansion of the universe has reversed, and before too long everything that exists will be destroyed in a Big Crunch.

Renark comes to the planet of Migaa to meet up with his allies – Paul Talfryn, a pragmatic engineer, and Asquiol, former prince of the planet Pompeii who was deposed by the Galactic Lords after giving safe harbour to Renark. Migaa is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, known mainly for being close to the area in space where at apparently random intervals the Shifter appears – the Shifter being an apparently-artificial planetary system from another universe that migrates between different planes of the multiverse. Most of the people who come to Migaa are adventurers, outcasts, and fugitives, hoping to have the good fortune to see the arrival of the Shifter and accompany it on its multiversal tour; Renark has the advantage that he can sense when the Shifter is going to show up. With Talfryn, Asquiol, and Asquiol’s date Willow in tow, Renark intends to mount an expedition of the worlds of the Shifter, hoping to find some way to save humanity from being destroyed along with its collapsing universe.

Although he’s ostensibly writing SF here, Moorcock clearly isn’t writing in the same vein as the hard and hard-ish SF authors like Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov who were dominating the scene at the time. (For one thing, the idea that only Renark knows that the universe is contracting is absurd – astronomers everywhere would know as soon as it began to happen when the red shift of most galaxies shifted to a blue shift.) Moorcock just isn’t interested in nuts-and-bolts science here; in fact, it’s hard to say what he is interested in, aside from pitching the idea of a multitude of different universes operating according to differing principles in a science fictional context. The publication of The Sundered Worlds in 1962 is commonly held to be the first time the term “multiverse” had been used to describe such an idea in such a context – it had been coined earlier in the context of extremely theoretical physics – and it seems that Moorcock here is so excited by the idea that he made the mistake of hoping that the story would hold together based on that.

The general structure of the story is of a travelogue as Renark and Asquiol visit first Migaa, and then various worlds in the Shifter system, encountering increasingly bizarre environments and suffering from wild, chaotic (possibly capital-C Chaotic) shifts in space and time as they go. The problem is that Moorcock tries to play with more locales than the page count available to him can really support. He has just enough space to establish each waypoint as an interesting location which I’d be quite interested to read a story set in, but he doesn’t really tell much of a story before it’s time for Renark and Asquiol to head off to their next destination. The plot develops mainly through intense spurts of exposition that are just brief enough to be confusing and just lengthly enough to be irritating. Moreover, Moorcock seems to realise early on that he’s taken on more characters than he’s really comfortable with dealing with; Talfryn and Willow voluntarily leave the story fairly early on, almost as though Moorcock just couldn’t think of anything for them to do, and Asquiol just kind of tags along in the background and doesn’t do very much that Renark couldn’t have done himself. Ultimately, The Sundered Worlds is just a vague and unpleasant muddle, resembling a sketch more than a finished story and lacking the focus or powerful characterisation of the contemporary Elric stories. I’d almost suggest that the novella was written a significant time before it actually found a publisher, especially since The Blood Red Game novella itself came out around six months later but is much better developed – though it still has its own problems.

At the end of The Sundered Worlds Asquiol and Renark meet the cosmic originators of all life, who have picked humanity to be their successors. I think this sequence was meant to be mystical and trippy, but it just comes across as a corny heap of proto-New Age preachiness – to the point where I started getting Radix flashbacks. Anyway, the originators agree to help our heroes save humanity on two conditions: Renark must sacrifice himself in the collapse of humanity’s home universe, so that his spirit can permeate the whole of mankind, whilst Asquiol must lead humanity in a great exodus to another universe. Converted into ascended overmen and made all bright and sparkly to indicate their superiority, the duo arrive back on Earth at the start of The Blood Red Game and are all “yo, we need to get out of here” and humanity as a whole is like “Sure, no problem”, with no dissent until everyone’s already packed onto ships and sailing the Second Ether for a new homeland. (The unanimous decision of the species to shoot off for a universe whose roof isn’t falling in is handwaved away as a sort of instinctive understanding on the part of everyone that the current universe is doom.)

With Asquiol safely installed as the sparkly Moses of the far future and Renark killed off, Moorcock is now down to one major character, which is good because at this stage of his career that was all he could really handle. He soon finds a way to bring in more protagonists again. When humanity arrives at its destination universe, it finds that it is occupied – and the current residents are violently opposed to sharing with a bunch of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers. (Yes, it’s the dreaded Daily Mail dimension.) After an initial all-out battle with the aliens, Asquiol manages to communicate with them and discovers that they are willing to propose a less costly method of resolving the dispute; humankind and the aliens will play the Blood Red Game, a psychic contest in which both sides attempt to confront the other with horrifying, grotesque mental imagery, the goal being to blast the psyches of the other side’s projectors before your own mind is torn apart by what they are projecting.

The conflict gradually goes against humanity, but is a slow process because both sides are hampered by not really understanding what the other side finds scary, so there’s more than enough time for Adam Roffrey, one of the last remaining individualists, to say “screw all this”, activate his personal ship’s multiversal travel drive, and head out on his own. Stumbling across the Shifter, he collects a bunch of discarded characters from The Sundered Worlds and gives them a lift back to the human fleet, and eventually one of the group turns out to hold the key to defeating the aliens and winning a new home for humanity. Who is it? It’s the really obvious one that the fleet ignore at first because they’re kind of sexist. You know, the only one you’d really expect to have any sort of special powers, having had some sort of odd experience on the planet where Asquiol and Renark got their special powers.

The Blood Red Game has a slightly better-defined plot than The Sundered Worlds, but that just highlights how predictable its overall trajectory really is; the earlier novella’s plot is so vague it’s impossible to even guess what Moorcock is going to pull out next. It also lingers a little longer on the whole human fleet playing a psychological game against alien forces scenario, which helps because it allows that situation to actually be developed to a sufficient extent to be engaging. The risk of Asquiol’s guardianship of humanity backsliding into tyranny is contemplated, as is the place of the individual when the collective is threatened as a whole and all that stuff, but whilst it does raise a few interesting points it doesn’t manage to say much about them aside from raising the question in the first place. It’s clearly a more mature work than The Sundered Worlds, but it shares enough of its problems to be irritating.

Oh, and both of the novellas have a fine vein of early 1960s sexism running through them. Pretty much the Asquiol asks Willow to do once she comes onboard ship in The Sundered Worlds is to go to the kitchen and make him a sandwich. This is in response to her complaining that she doesn’t seem to have much to do aside from hang out in the galley making food, but if Moorcock wanted to establish Willow as the sort of strong-willed and independent woman he claims she is, having her acquiesce to such a patronising demand was exactly the wrong thing to do. Across both novellas, pretty much every female character of any significance (all two of them) ends up in love with Asquiol at one point, and their aims and goals in life are entirely determined by their relationships with men. When you add this to the heavy emphasis of cool ideas over interesting characters and engaging plot, The Blood Red Game starts looking less like a Michael Moorcock level and more like a low-tier example of the sort of SF whose dominance on the scene would be rocked by Moorcock and his contemporaries once they got the whole New Wave thing going.

Multiverse bollocks: In the revised version of the book which appears in White Wolf’s Eternal Champion omnibus (along with The Eternal Champion and Phoenix In Obsidian), Renark is renamed Renark von Bek in order to establish him as part of the extended von Bek dynasty. This is kind of pointless since he has almost no qualities in common with the protagonists of the major von Bek novels, such as The Warhound and the World’s Pain, and is blatantly an attempt to create a link for the sake of creating a link. Otherwise, there are very few allusions to other Eternal Champion stories this time around because, obviously, Moorcock had barely cooked up the Eternal Champion idea at this point, and certainly hadn’t deliberately set out to link all of his work to the concept. Like Stormbringer and The Eternal Champion, it’s more a source for references rather than something that regularly references other work. (Well, it’s arguably possible that the inhabitants of the universe that humanity migrates to are parallel versions of the Melnibonéans – they are also vaguely elfy pretty humanoids given over to entropy and Chaos – but that’d be a stretch.)

The Shores of Death (AKA The Twilight Man)

Serialised in New Worlds in 1964 before being revised for publication as a novel in 1966, The Shores of Death shows a marked growth in Moorcock’s style after The Blood Red Game. Part of this can simply be attributed to the passage of time, and part of it to the influence of other authors that Moorcock was collaborating with, editing, publishing, and befriending during this time period; in style and content, it’s very much a product of the early New Wave, to the point where you could see it being one of the works Philip K. Dick was poking fun at in his parodic story pitch The Story To End All Stories For Harlan Ellison’s Anthology “Dangerous Visions”. It isn’t quite that ridiculous, but it does have the same combination of sex, violence, gleeful disregard for the conventions of earlier SF stories, willingness to confront the social taboos of the time, and a plot tackling big ideas which are treated in a manner which is occasionally mildly frivolous but is unfailingly enthusiastic and energetic.

As explained in the prologue, The Shores of Death takes place in a far future where, following a devastating attack on Earth by interstellar raiders, the very rotation of the planet has been stopped, leaving a warm zone of eternal day, a cold zone of eternal night, and a thin band of twilight between them. The cultures of the daylight and twilight regions have diverged startlingly; the people from the twilight region have shut themselves away in their tower fortresses, whereas the residents of the daylight areas more or less managed to piece civilisation together, creating a laid-back and utopian society based on gravitational manipulation technology in which money and wage-slavery is a thing of the past and what government exists is devoted to providing public services without intruding on people’s liberty. (At the start of the book, the central council has even been dissolved for some time.) The human lifespan itself has been extended into the centuries, but recently a horrendous discovery has been made: due to residual radiation from the space bandit attack, the people of Earth have all become sterile, and unless some way is found to reverse this the species will go extinct within a generation. Our protagonist is Clovis Marca, the last human being born. Clovis comes from the twilight region and is the product of a disturbing union between his father and his sister… I mean his mother… I mean his sister… you know, it’s probably best not to analyse it too deeply. Either way, he’s sprung from a really messed-up background, but he’s done alright for himself: after emigrating to the daylight regions, he’s managed to become a productive and popular member of the community, and was for a time the head of the central council before it dissolved in the outbreak of apathy and nihilism that met the realisation that the human race was infertile.

He has not been idle though; at the start of the novel Clovis returns from an expedition in which he attempted to find the enigmatic Orlando Sharvis, a master scientist with a chequered past. After committing grotesque war crimes as part of the war between megacorporations that brought the pre-gravitic civilisation to a close, Sharvis had mounted an audacious experiment – a plan to create a human colony on Titan. For Sharvis, however, “human” was a relative term; hints of people warped into grotesque parodies of human beings for the sake of making them capable of existing in non-terrestrial environments swirled around the Titan project, and the colonisation effort itself failed to overcome the terrible “space ache”, the agonising physical and psychological pain that results from being away from Earth for more than a few months. (This might be a tip of the hat to the Pain of Space from Cordwainer Smith’s Scanners Live In Vain, which also features human beings extensively surgically altered to make them capable of handling interstellar travel.) Clovis’s search has failed to find a trace of Sharvis, or his experimental subjects – though he has managed to pick up a stalker in the form of the mysterious Mr. Take.

On returning to civilisation, Clovis discovers a society given over almost entirely to partying and pleasure-seeking in the face of the impending end. But the cracks are beginning to show; a cult has arisen in the form of the mysterious Brotherhood of Guilt affect a sort of androgynous monasticism and seek to purge the Earth of all signs of mankind’s technologies. And in response to this provocation, a band of vigilantes has formed around Clovis’s former colleague, Andros Almer, who soon forges the group into his own organisation of fascistic heavies in a scheme to resurrect the old spectre of intrusive, all-powerful, totalitarian government. Clovis is faced with the dilemma of having to try and counter the disruptive influence both the Brotherhood and the vigilantes are having on his society on the one hand, and continuing his search for Sharvis and a cure for mankind on the other. And on top of that, there’s his own, more selfish desire: it is said that Orlando Sharvis can also make people immortal. If Clovis intends to go under the knife anyway to get his testicles fixed, why not go a little further…?

The scenario of The Shores of Death once again returns to the question of humanity’s survival, but unlike The Blood Red Game it manages to achieve a complexity and a level of characterisation capable of supporting those big ideas. Clovis and the other people he encounters might be broadly drawn New Wave cartoons, but at least they are recognisable cartoons whose attitudes are easy to differentiate, and the novel does a better job than The Blood Red Game of recognising the fact that facing extinction, not everyone is going to pitch in behind the protagonist and actively help out. There’s still some sexism – Clovis’s love interest Fastina (the last woman born on Earth) exists more or less only to be his love interest and has no other purpose in the story, and there’s one bit where the narration notes that one of Clovis’s female former colleagues on the council has put on weight because she’s “let herself go” since learning about the impending extinction – but otherwise after The Blood Red Game Moorcock has improved on every front.

Part of this must be because he’s building on a more solid foundation than “Hey, multiverses! Cool!” Specifically, his avowed aim with the book is to explore the corrosive effect of fear on both individuals and societies; this is most successfully realised in the catastrophic conflict between Almer’s vigilantes and the Brotherhood of Guilt, which is one of Moorcock’s more successful allegories for the rise of Nazism. It’s also an interesting counterpoint to the utopian tendencies of earlier SF; the society of the daylight regions resembles in many ways the sort of technologically advanced libertarian society that several earlier writers had dreamed about, and the rapidity with which it crumples in the face of the Brotherhood and the vigilante’s violence is terrifying. This also plays into Moorcock’s big theme of the constant struggle to both improve society and to retain those improvements that have been won; no matter how far we get, it’s all too easy for people acting in bad faith to drag things back down again. It’s the classic argument as to why an anarcho-pacifist society could not be stable in the long term; if it were genuinely pacifistic and didn’t have any governmental organisation entrusted with the use of force against threats to the body politic, it would be utterly vulnerable to the first person who’s willing to get some thugs together and crack skulls in order to get ahead.

The other plotline, centred around Orlando Sharvis, is a lot stranger. The figure of Sharvis, clearly inspired both by the likes of Josef Mengele and the various Nazi scientists drafted into the US space programme, occupies a position a lot like that if Quin in Jeff VanderMeer’s Veniss Underground: a mysterious individual who’s the biotechnological equivalent of a wizard living in his secret place of power, offering Faustian bargains to those who make contact with him. But whereas Quin uses this to cement his power over Veniss in the VanderMeer novel, Sharvis has no discernable agenda; he does very nice things for people, and he does very terrible things to them, and he seems to do them for no reason beyond the fact that his own experiments on himself have put him into a position where he can no longer regard human beings as anything other than toys for him to play with. The whole Sharvis plot is best regarded as a cautionary tale against appealing to any perceived higher power to help you out of a fix, whether that higher power is a god, genie, or scientist; the point is that when you put your problem in someone else’s hands, you can’t credibly turn around and say you don’t like the solution when you already abdicated responsibility for it.

Either way, the fact that I was able to read that much into the novel at all shows how much richer and more interesting it is than The Blood Red Game. Whilst that novel was in no way close to the Moorcock’s usual standards of the mid-1960s, The Shores of Death is a credible – if not completely essential – novel which is recognisably a product of its time, but at the very least is an interesting and worthwhile product of its time that deserves further consideration. It also, in its depiction of a society whose participants can all enjoy the benefits of wonderful, nigh-magical technology and which occupies itself with partying and whimsy in the face of the end of the world, prefigures Moorcock’s own The Dancers At the End of Time series, which would take those elements, turn them up to eleven, and throw in time travel to create the strangest comedy of manners in SF, so fans of that might want to check this one out just to see the seeds it grew from.

Multiverse bollocks: Pretty much none except in later revisions, in which Clovis Marca’s name is revised to “Clovis Becker” for the sake of creating a von Bek reference where none is needed or wanted. That said, if you squint just right the slow slide of the sunlight civilisation into chaos at the hands of demagogues and irrational cults could be construed as a stagnant Law-dominated society being ripped to shreds by Chaos, but the government is depicted as being entirely too libertarian to really feel Lawfully aligned. And it’s not impossible that Clovis’ incestuous origins is meant to remind us of the incestuous relationships in Elric’s family.

The Winds of Limbo (AKA The Fireclown)

Notable amongst Moorcock’s early novels for not being serialised in New Worlds or elsewhere before being published, The Winds of Limbo came out in 1965, a year in which Moorcock’s output became more diverse than ever. At the more traditional end of his writing, Moorcock cosplayed as Ed Bradbury to produce the Michael Kane novels; at the more experimental end he wrote The Final Programme, the first of the Jerry Cornelius novels, which proved to be sufficiently weird that it would take Moorcock three or four years to convince anyone to publish the thing. Between those two extremes sits The Winds of Limbo, a fascinating attempt to fuse a fairly standard SF narrative with a Victorian-style political novel. (The particular model chosen by Moorcock was Coningsby, written by Benjamin Disraeli a couple of decades before he became Prime Minister.) There is nothing steampunk about the aesthetic here, mind – it’s still got the bright, garish colours of mid-1960s New Wave SF. But in designing the social structure of the setting Moorcock fuses futuristic speculation with old-fashioned conventions to produce something which ends up feeling weirdly modern yet timeless.

The story unfolds mainly in the sprawling City of Switzerland, capital of the Solar Federation – two-thirds of the former nation now being covered by a gigantic, multi-level city not unreminiscent of Warhammer 40,000‘s hive-cities. (The extent to which Moorcock steals from Games Workshop across his entire career is incredible.) In the mostly-abandoned lower levels, a mysterious figure has arisen – the enigmatic Fireclown, a giant of a man with a Count Fosco-like physique who delivers wild rants beneath the glow of an artificial sun. The Fireclown’s raving about getting back to nature and turning away from the clutter of the everyday world appeals to something in many of the citizens of this future, particularly given the general feeling of stagnation that has set in after too many terms in power for the conservative Solar Referendum Party.

It is no secret that there will be a Presidential election soon; the man most likely to be the Solref candidate is Simon Powys, patriarch of a powerful political dynasty that has supplied at least one President in each generation since the foundation of the unitary government of humanity. His main rival is likely to be Helen Curtis, his niece and leader of the reformist Radical Liberal Movement. Helen has seen the Fireclown’s sermons and believes that the popular response to him reflects a deep-seated desire for change on the part of the public, so she’s steering the RLM to support the Fireclown. Simon, conversely, considers the man a menace, a rabble-rouser and a serious threat to the stability and universal peace that mankind has enjoyed for decades. Caught between the two is Simon’s grandson, Alan. With his father unknown and his mother dying shortly after he was born, Alan’s upbringing was mainly in Simon’s hands; that said, he and Helen had previously been lovers. For his part, Alan thinks that everyone’s making too much fuss about the Fireclown… but when a cache of atomic weapons is discovered on the levels used by the Fireclown and his followers, it seems that nobody can afford to ignore what the great Sun jester is up to. As public opinion violently shifts this way and that – at first furiously decrying government attempts to seal up the lower levels in order to contain the Fireclown’s influence, then demanding tough action against the Fireclown and his followers when the nuclear weapons are discovered, Alan and Helen resolve to track down the Fireclown and discover the truth about his origins – and his audacious future plans.

The novel is mainly a lament for the political fickleness of the general public in its depiction on the way political leaders’ poll ratings tend to wax and wane based on transient short-term events before people actually fully understand what those events mean, the way people are so keen to just throw their weight behind a party based on the leaders’ personality without thinking through their own political stances, and how crowds latch onto figures like the Fireclown – whose speeches do not mean what his listeners think they mean, but in which the listeners only hear their own prejudices reflecting back at them.

But what I found more interesting was in its futuristic-regressive society. Like I said, the aesthetic isn’t nostalgic or Victorian-influenced, but the society depicted definitely is. Granted, in some respects society has moved on from the 1960s – marijuana is legal whilst tobacco is banned for health reasons, war is a thing of the past and atomic weapons are officially banned, a global welfare state does its utmost to make sure everyone has food and shelter, and women can run for President of Everything without anyone questioning their candidacy on the basis of them being women, and the world is more cosmopolitan than it was, the City of Switzerland being quite multicultural. (Moorcock even makes a point of making sure there are plenty of non-European characters, and mentions that Zimbabweans are well-represented in the civil service because Zimbabwe is one of the most prominent African nations – this is even more radical than it sounds when you remember that, when the book was written, Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia and still ruled by a white minority government.)

But none of these advances, which could be ripped direct from the countercultural wishlist as it stood at the time, have actually changed the way people think. Nor have they lessened the power of nepotism or the lure of corruption. Major figures in the government are revealed to be corrupt as the story unfolds, and across the novel the existence both of a political elite and class and are alluded to – many of the major political figures are related to each other, and the heads of theoretically opposing political parties actually collude with each other under certain circumstances. There are also suggestions of greater racial divides than are openly admitted; there are less non-European names within the legislature than in the civil service, and those African civil servants don’t seem to rise to the very top of their departments (at least is specifically described as a Negro in the narration). Furthermore, like I mentioned earlier the general public are simultaneously vulnerable to being whipped up into a frenzy by demagogues on the one hand, and more than willing to impose their own ideas about what said demogogues are actually saying on the other. The political advances are meaningless because political engagement has not usefully increased: although people obviously take an interest in who their leaders are, they haven’t thought through their own feelings to a sufficient extent to really assess the different platforms, so their loyalties are vulnerable to being switched up at a moment’s notice when the next scandal comes along.

Another part where the Victorian flavour comes through is in Alan and Helen’s relationship, of course; marriage between cousins was no big deal for the Victorians, and it seems to be no big deal in this future either. What’s more, Moorcock stage-manages the first time we see Helen and Alan together to emphasise the retrogressive aspects of his setting; it takes place at Alan’s home where he has a staff of servants waiting for him, her presence in the living room is announced to Alan by one of his manservants, and in general the encounter is structured much like any encounter between host and visitor in any mid-19th Century novel. Moorcock’s portrayal of Helen is, in fact, pretty good. Whereas women in most of his books from around this time tended to exist mainly to be love interests for his heroes – see the examples in this article, see Elric’s various crushes – Helen’s personal political ambitions are shown to be her primary concern from the start, and her attachment to Alan is never permitted to override them. Their reconciliation seems based not on Helen realising that Alan is what she really needs to be happy, but Alan realising that he has to let her follow her own dreams if their relationship is going to work at all. And in her determination to keep her presidential campaign going even in the face of utter PR disasters, she’s the first female character Moorcock has written who is both presented as being a strong woman and actually comes across as a strong woman.

Although the novel has a bumpy ending – the final confrontation with the Fireclown is a bit abrupt, though as far as broadsides against anti-intellectualism go it’s pretty fun – I think it’s possibly the best of Moorcock’s early SF efforts.

Multiverse bollocks: This time there seems to be an explicit attempt to portray the political wrangling as a contest between Law and Chaos, with the Solrefs as led by Simon Powys on the side of Law and Helen’s Radical Liberals as being the acceptable face of Chaos – the Fireclown, of course, representing a vastly unhealthier expression of Chaos in his rejection of rationality, even though he arguably has had far more exposure to metaphysical Chaos than Helen has. In one of her speeches Helen specifically advocates allowing society to advance and develop in a plethora of different directions, rather than marching in a single straight line, which is precisely the basis Moorcock provides in the Elric stories (such as While the Gods Laugh) for the symbol of Law being a straight arrow and the symbol of Chaos being eight arrows radiating from a central point. Oh yes, and Alan and Helen’s status as kissing cousins brings to mind the relationship between Elric and Cymoril. Lastly, in the revised version in the Roads Between the Worlds omnibus, Alan and Simon Powys become – you guessed it – Alain and Simon von Bek.

The Rituals of Infinity (AKA The Wrecks of Time)

Serialised in New Worlds from 1965 to 1966, The Rituals of Infinity stars Professor Faustaff, one of Moorcock’s most uncharacteristic protagonists. Like his Shakespearean almost-namesake, Faustaff is tall, fat, fond of food and even fonder of women. But these appetites are a manifestation of his overwhelming love of life and everything that life has to offer. This love extends to valuing the lives of all people – even the inhabitants of parallel universes.

Faustaff is the head of a secret organisation, founded by his deceased father. The elder Faustaff’s researches as part of a secret Israeli research project into technologies to neutralise atomic weapons led to the unexpected discovery of a series of other Earths existing in nearby planes of the Multiverse. When they were discovered, there were around twenty-four other Earths, each more or less identical to our own – with the curious exception that each Earth had stagnated technologically and socially at progressively earlier stages of their history. Then came the Demolition Squads – mysterious teams of technologically capable planetary assassins, who would unleash so-called Unstable Matter Situations on the alternate Earths, eventually reducing them into the raw stuff of Chaos – killing billions in the process. In those cases where the D-Squads are stopped, the worlds in question are often profoundly, utterly altered in unpredictable, alien sways.

Faustaff’s father dedicated the rest of life to the fight against the D-Squads, eventually dying in the breakup of Earth-16. Faustaff has inherited the cross-dimensional organisation his father started, and continues to work to try and protect the remaining fifteen worlds as best as he can. His work is complicated by the activity of salvagers – cross-universe looters utilising technology scarfed from Faustaff’s people and the D-Squads. The two most powerful salvager gangs are led by Gordon Ogg, who models himself after 19th Century colonial British explorers, and Cardinal Orelli, a disgraced clergyman – both of whom formerly worked for Faustaff. In addition to the salvagers, at the start of the novel – whilst he’s rushing to help counter a major D-Squad attack – Faustaff becomes aware of two mysterious individuals, Maggie White and Steifflomeis, who might just be connected to the D-Squads. With the mysterious “principals” behind the D-Squad stepping up their efforts, Faustaff is pushed to the limits to try and save Earth and its twins.

As fun as it is to see Moorcock try to tackle a main character who’s got a full-blown support organisation behind him, I think he doesn’t quite manage to integrate that into the action; he’s regularly cooking up excuses to have Faustaff either entirely isolated or stuck with only a small number of allies for the sake of forcing Faustaff to do actiony protagonisty stuff. What makes Faustaff more interesting as a protagonist is the fact that his adventures hinge on philosophy more than fighting – whilst Faustaff occasionally gets into a scuffle to defend himself or others, he’s not keen on killing as a solution to his problems and is sickened by the idea of hurting others, even if it’s to prevent them from injuring innocents. There are a number of crucial points in the novel where Faustaff resolves crises through talking – either by logically convincing people to support his position, or by bolstering their morale through his jovial personality. At one crucial point he disrupts the myth-making rituals in the inception of a new world simply by laughing at how ridiculous it is, and – in true Planescape: Torment fashion – the ultimate crisis is resolved simply by Faustaff picking the right dialogue options.

All that is fun, and the plot is good too; however, perhaps partially because of the influence from contemporary spy fiction (which might have been creeping in Moorcock was writing the Jerry Cornelius and Nick Allard stories at around this time), there’s the occasional dollop of Moorcock-brand sexism to deal with. Nancy, Faustaff’s love interest, contributes extremely little beyond keeping his flat on Earth-3 tidy and providing him with sandwiches. More worryingly is the way Faustaff first realises that there is something odd about Maggie White. Whilst it’s fair enough for him to be perturbed by the fact that he isn’t attracted to her, despite her being his type – that’s a reasonable enough way to suggest that there’s an almost-subconscious uncanny valley deal going on – Faustaff is also put out by the fact that she isn’t attracted to him. As far as ways to detect replicants go, this is miserably bad; what, has Faustaff never met a lesbian in all the dimensions he’s travelled through? Has he never met a woman who does like men but doesn’t find him to be their type? Is asexuality really that weird? I suppose it is positive for Moorcock to depict a gentleman with a Fosco-like figure enjoying James Bond levels of sexual magnetism, but saying that any well-adjusted woman who isn’t some sort of sexless automaton ought to be attracted to a particularly character is just plain lame.

In the balance, though, The Rituals of Infinity ends up ahead simply because the rest of Faustaff’s personality is so interesting you can’t help but root for him. Despite a somewhat hurried ending, the novel is still worthy of the wild mid-60s creative burst it emerged from. (My enjoyment of it may have been helped in the way that in its laconic acceptance of utter strangeness, quite reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s work from the period, and nobody likes a little Dick more than me.)

Multiverse bollocks: The purple-blue gas that planets dissolve into when the D-Squads successfully destroy on is highly reminiscent of the stuff of pure Chaos as referenced in Stormbringer – and the theme of the world being cyclically destroyed and rebuilt by higher powers whose interference is of dubious effectiveness is in general reminiscent of the end of Stormbringer. The “principals” behind the D-Squads may well be a science-fictional take on the Gods of Law and Chaos, especially considering their insistence on underwriting the psyche of mankind in each successively created world with a thick foundation of myth, ritual and superstition, all of which Faustaff rejects – and that rejection is also a reiteration of Moorcock’s regular “we should grow beyond superstition” theme.

In addition to that, in the revised version in The Roads Between the Worlds, Gordon Ogg is renamed Gordon Begg for the sake of yet another von Bek reference, whilst Steifflomeis is renamed Klosterheim – Klosterheim being an associate of Prince Gaynor the Damned who’s been used in various Moorcock series.

The Picky Buyer’s Guide

The Blood Red Game, as the origin of Moorcock’s multiverse concept, is a book which you’ll probably want to read if you’re a major Moorcock fan and want to see where the idea came from, or a scholar doing a paper on the development of the theme over the course of his career. In other words, it’s only something to read to tick off a box on a checklist rather than being worth reading in its own right, and on that basis I can’t really recommend it.

Conversely, The Shores of Death, The Winds of Limbo and The Rituals of Infinity all emerge from his first major creative peak, and are all really good stories in their own right. Moorcock’s preoccupation with apocalyptic themes and clashes of philosophies may permeate his work, but when he’s at his absolute best they never get old, and he’s at his best here.

Here’s the ongoing recommendation-pile; once again, I’ve arranged it roughly in order of protagonist debut:

The Stealer of Souls [1]
Stormbringer (post-1977 edition) [1]
The Eternal Champion (the novel, not the omnibus)
Clovis Marca:
The Shores of Death (AKA The Twilight Man) [2]
Michael Kane:
City of the Beast (AKA Warriors of Mars) [3]
Lord of the Spiders (AKA Blades of Mars) [3]
Masters of the Pit (AKA Barbarians of Mars) [3]
Alan Powys:
The Winds of Limbo (AKA The Fireclown) [2]
Professor Faustaff:
The Rituals of Infinity (AKA The Wrecks of Time) [2]

[1] Collected in Elric or the Del Rey edition of Elric: the Stealer of Souls.

[2] Collected in The Roads Between the Worlds.

[3] Collected in Warrior of Mars or Kane of Old Mars.

3 thoughts on “The Astronauts at the End of Time

  1. Pingback: The Hipster On the Seas of Fate – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: The Coming of the Standalones – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  3. Pingback: The History of the Von Beks – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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