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.
The three books of Michael Moorcock’s Second Ether trilogy rattled out in rapid succession, between 1994 and 1996. Even though two of the three books relied heavily on already-published material, the bulk of said material had emerged in 1991-1995. This means it was prepared whilst Moorcock was wrapping up the extensive process of compilation and revision that produced the (mildly differing) UK and US Eternal Champion omnibus editions of his earlier work.
It’s little surprise, then, that here he indulges a lot of the habits he indulged in whilst compiling the omnibuses. In the omnibuses Moorcock showed a distinct tendency to parachute in more overt references to the Multiverse in his earlier work, often in the form of renaming characters so their surnames would be some variant of “von Bek”; here, the von Beks take centre stage, as though this trilogy forms something of a sequel to the earlier von Bek novels. Moorcock tacking on new books onto an earlier series is often a bad sign – the post-Stormbringer additions to the Elric saga were pretty useless in my estimation, and my objections to much of the latter-day Jerry Cornelius stuff is a matter of record. It’s an even worse sign when he’s resurrecting a sub-par series where the originals were no great shakes; the second Courm trilogy, whilst I thought it was somewhat better than the original books, was still kind of limp and lightweight, and the second Hawkmoon trilogy was a crime against literature.
On the other hand, I always thought that the von Bek novels had a lot of unrealised potential, so perhaps this time around Moorcock will finally deliver the goods. With this in mind, I commenced reading the Second Ether series with an open mind, hoping that it would prove to be a cut above a lot of Moorcock’s more recent fantasy cash-ins.
(Spoiler: it’s shit.)
Blood: A Southern Fantasy
Blood offers two parallel narratives but focuses mostly on one. The primary story unfolds in an alternate Earth where the era of white dominance has come and gone and people of colour are now dominant in a society that is racist against whites. Moorcock doesn’t quite go the route of Save the Pearls – or even his own Land Leviathan – in the sense that he does not offer us a white viewpoint character; instead we are following the story of Jack Karaquazian and Sam Oakenhurst, members of this world’s aristocracy of high powered gamblers or “jugadors”.
In this world, the discovery of “colours” – patches of free background energy capable of powering electronic devices – led to an audacious experiment in drilling into a large colour patch just off the coast of Biloxi, Mississippi. The cataclysmic results of this experiment seem to have flooded the continental US – there’s references to characters sailing to Nebraska – and also revealed the colours’ true nature as energies seeping through from parallel universes. In particular, the Biloxi Fault – a massive tear in reality over the site of the drilling project – seems to be a gateway into the very heart of Chaos, which naturally has caused some local disruption – technological society has largely collapsed since now electronics only work in the vicinity of the Fault or other colour patches, resulting in small islands of high-tech culture in such zones, and the jugadors patch into the power of the Fault and colours to play grand games with the fate of dying worlds and universes.
Our protagonists each have lovers – Colinda Dovero in Jack’s case, the mysterious Rose (allegedly a refugee from a world of half-plant people) in Sam’s – who through their origins or over the course of the story are entangled in the Game of Time, the ultimate challenge for gamblers which is played in the Second Ether, a secondary level of reality which interconnects various planes (or “scales”) of the Multiverse and in which the playing pieces are archetypal figures that the gamblers inhabit and invest with volition. (Or at least that’s how it’s explained in this book.) Over the course of the novel, in parallel to Jack and Sam’s stories we are presented with Corsairs of the Second Ether, a brash pulp adventure story focusing on the crews of dimension-hopping starships which travel the various scales of the Multiverse having adventures, through which we learn of the eternal enmity of the Chaos Engineers on one side and the forces of the Singularity, servants of Old Reg (AKA the Grand Consumer, AKA the Original Insect) on the other. Presented as the work of one Warwick Colvin Jnr., it turns out to be a representative of a particular genre of stories by various authors all featuring the same cast of characters in Jack and Sam’s world (so it’s their modern answer to the commedia dell’arte) which is actually a representation of the higher metaphysical realities of the Game of Time, so when Jack and Sam ascend to play the Game and fulfil the Rose’s agenda of reshaping the very nature of reality to make it more humane it is presented through the lens of those archetypes.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first. The concept of worlds where white privilege is inverted is old enough that Strange Horizons went out of their way to discourage such submissions. partcually because such stories “usually end up reinforcing the real-world dominant paradigm” and partly because they were seeing a tedious number of very, very similar submissions along those lines. Moorcock isn’t quite following that playbook here, but he’s still playing with fire; the “world in which some common modern Western power structure is inverted” part is most definitely present, but the “meant to sympathize with the people who are oppressed in the world of the story” angle is deliberately avoided.
In fact, white characters are relegated firmly to the supporting cast and are othered like crazy. Mostly they offer local colour or are meek servants; the fact that a character has some white ancestry exotifies them, and white characters who are not passive stand out and are worthy of comment. One such character, Captain Rudy von Bek, is a multiplanar traveller who is used to worlds where white privilege is the norm, and Karaquazian is disturbed by Rudy’s complete failure to observe the local paradigm, whilst another character, the villainous Paul Minct, might be white or might simply be a severe burns victim. (His introduction, in particular, is positively Howardian in the revulsion it expresses.)
I wouldn’t say that the book has a clean bill of health on the racefail score, though. Although to my mind it’s clearly trying something a bit more interesting than a lazy Save the Pearls sort of exercise, there’s still two aspects which when taken together trouble me. Firstly, Blood still depicts a world where racism exerted against whites by black characters is broadly equivalent to the racism exerted by white people against black people in our world. Secondly, Moorcock doesn’t want to go so far as to radically rebalance the extent to which European history and culture shaped America, so the history here implies that European dominance as experienced in our world did happen and then faded away.
When you take those two factors together, this gives rise to the unfortunate implication that people of colour today will inevitably (or at least probably) end up suppressing white people if white privilege were laid to rest, which is exactly the issue with the more common racism-reversal stories – and it’s an idea which makes progress in any particular fight against systemic prejudice difficult, because privileged people are already really fucking bad at telling the difference between privilege being removed and oppression being imposed. (A good example was brought up in the Playpen a while back by Shimmin – a study showed that many teachers who thought they were giving equal time to boys and girls were actually favouring boys, and when structural measures were put in to guarantee equal time they felt that they were spending more time than usual on the girls.) I get that Moorcock does not intend this implication – he’s all about challenging the status quo and the novel in particular is an exhortation to imagine and enact a better world – but at the same time he is an author who tries to be aware of and manage the implications of his work (see the revisions to Gloriana, for instance), and here he fails.
In addition, the setting feels like an attempt to have it both ways. Perhaps inspired by his relocation to Texas, Moorcock pitches Blood as “a Southern Fantasy” and he clearly wants to draw on the unique atmosphere of casino boats and Southern belles and gentleman gunfighters and all that old-time Southern atmosphere, but equally setting the story in the historical South (or a fantastic equivalent thereof) with white protagonists lording it over blacks would make it distasteful to read and, I suspect, distasteful for Moorcock to write (especially alongside the Pyat books, where he was already having to write from the point of view of an extreme fascist). At the same time, failing to depict the racism of that society whilst simultaneously drawing on it would feel too much like whitewashing. The solution here leaves me with genuine reservations, though I can see some value in white readers partaking of stories in which they are othered – an awful lot of white readers have never had the experience of reading a story where people who look like them are treated at best like background extras and at worst like pariahs.
Ultimately, I think I have to weasel out of it here and say that it is down to individual readers to judge whether or not they find the race angle here problematic. Luckily, I’m not in the awkward position of wanting to say “Well, I kind of recommend this book but your mileage may vary on the race angle” – actually, I don’t recommend Blood at all. Even if I were 100% comfortable with its handling of race, I’d still find it a disappointing exercise in vapid philosophy.
Blood is a fix-up novel of previously published short stories with a concluding story tacked on at the end. Both the original tales of Karaquazian and Oakenhurst and the Corsairs of the Second Ether extracts were originally created for the 1990s revival of New Worlds magazine, and when it comes to weaving the two mini-series together and providing a satisfying conclusion for both Moorcock lets his enthusiasm for his invented metaphysics override the imperative to write a story which is both emotionally satisfying and feels like a natural culmination of what has gone before. The climactic section goes full-on surreal, which is tonally appropriate for the Corsairs stuff (which in its own pulpy fashion represents Moorcock going full on weird for weird’s sake to a tedious extent) but is jarring compared to the material from the world of the Biloxi Fault, which whilst strange at least makes some degree of internal sense.
Since the Biloxi stories make up the majority of the text by an overwhelmingly large margin, and since Corsairs is incredibly confusing, very dense, deliberately badly written, and (in short) eminently skippable, almost all readers will be more invested in Jack and Sam’s narratives than in the Corsairs’ adventures by the time they get to the close of the novel, and I suspect many will find the way the Corsairs stylistically take over the narrative to be extremely frustrating. Moorcock has said that with Blood he wanted to revisit some of the themes of The Blood-Red Game, specifically the idea that the Multiverse is a realm where those who thrive tend to be gamblers and other sorts with an eye for the main chance, and he succeeds in the sense that both books have two protagonists, two narratives uncomfortably joined at the hip, and dribbly, incoherent endings.
The big problem with Blood is that it’s one of those books where Moorcock has convinced himself that his latest ideas about the metaphysical underpinnings of the Multiverse are interesting enough to carry the story in their own right. Even at the best of times this would be true only of a subsection of the fantasy audience – the same subsection that prize Brandon Sanderson’s books based on their magic systems – and that isn’t the level of critical and cultural analysis and awareness Moorcock usually tries to awaken in his readership.
On top of that, the metaphysical underpinnings of the Multiverse exposed this time just aren’t very interesting. We learn little of what the Second Ether is like except that it exists and battles take place there. Once again, striving for Balance proves to be the key. This time around the Rose speaks overtly about there being functional and dysfunctional versions of Law and Chaos and gives specific names to the dysfunctional versions (Singularity and Entropy), so I guess this is Moorcock’s formal surrender to the Dungeons & Dragons two-axis alignment system (since it is overwhelmingly tempting to call the functional alignments the Rose is fighting for “Good” and the dysfunctional ones “Evil”). Perhaps a little bit of thematic interest can be derived if you interpret the war to redefine the myths of the Second Ether that appear as popular fiction in Karaquazian and Oakenhurst’s world as a call to arms to reclaim the imaginative space for progressive fought rather than yielding it to reactionaries, but this is hardly new on Moorcock’s part.
The best parts of the novel – the intriguing blend of almost-cyberpunk themes and technology clustered around the colours and 19th Century technology away from them – are, as usual, the result of Moorcock both stretching his imaginative wings and working on developing a specific world rather than mucking about with the vague broad brushstrokes of the Multiverse. As it stands, though, Blood offers too little novelty at the price of too much blather, plus racial politics which could be an interesting experiment or could just be kind of lazy and offensive.
Multiverse bollocks: The Rose, of course, is a perennial feature of Moorcock works from around this time. One of the Second Ether entities is terribly worried about its “fishlings”, and in the Elric novel The Revenge of the Rose the Rose fights to save Three Sisters who, it is strongly hinted, are members of Corum’s race (or one closely connected to them at any rate) who it is implied have an aquatic nature. Variations on the von Bek name – von Beck itself, van Beek, Begg, Beck, and so on – litter the novel, as do nods to various incarnations of Mirenburg (of The Brothel In Rosenstrasse and The City In the Autumn Stars). Renark of The Blood-Red Game is specifically cited as a legendary figure amongst the players of the Game of Time. It is hinted that Paul Minct is yet another incarnation of Prince Gaynor, villain of the Corum series and The Revenge of the Rose. At one point a book by a 19th Century version of Jerry Cornelius shows up. The genre of Second Ether stories in Jack and Sam’s world, which sees multiple authors taking on the same characters, of course is reminiscent of the way Moorcock encouraged other authors to play around with the Jerry Cornelius cast.
Fabulous Harbours is, like Blood, a compilation of short stories, only this time the short stories don’t have a common plotline linking them together. Instead, there’s a fairly weak framing device involving members of the extended Begg/Beck/von Bek family (along with Jack Karaquazian and others) hanging out in the Begg family apartments in London’s Sporting Club Square and telling each other these stories, which range from the mostly realistic to the entirely fantastic.
The common thread running through all of them is the inclusion of a range of guest stars from the extended von Bek family, which feels incredibly pointless; it requires no great art to apply a surname to a character and this feels like a cheap and lazy way to imply a broader mythology linking the stories. Then again, Moorcock is all about the cheap lazy crossover stuff here, stuffing each story to the gills with Multiverse references that serve little purpose except to remind the reader of what an awful lot of stuff he has written.
For instance, there’s a new Elric story in here – The Black Blade’s Summoning – but fans of the series will find it to be utterly inessential, not least because much of it involves Elric being upstaged by the Multiversal adventurer Renark von Bek (presumably the Renark of The Blood-Red Game, having been given a new von Bek surname in the latter-day revision of the novel) and having waffly metaphysical conversations with him. Likewise, the collection contains two of Moorcock’s Sexton Begg stories – The Affair of the Seven Virgins and Crimson Eyes – pastiches of the Sexton Blake stories in which Blake/Begg’s foe, the enigmatic albino Monsieur Zenith, turns out to really be Ulrich von Bek; furthermore, this Ulrich does not much resemble the Ulrich von Bek who participates in The Dragon In the Sword, or for that matter the one who played the central role in The War Hound and the World’s Pain (despite it strongly being hinted that it is in fact he), but is essentially a clone of Elric, right down to Crimson Eyes revolving around Ulrich-as-Elric swanning around London killing Tories with Stormbringer. These pastiches fall to pieces when it becomes apparent that they serve little purpose beyond noting that Elric (and/or Ulrich) has been reborn in the modern age and asking us to consider this interesting, which I can’t quite bring myself to do.
A lot of the stories, in fact, rely on tepid reheating of stale Moorcock themes. Lunching With the Antichrist describes a narrator’s interactions with the Clapham Antichrist, an ex-vicar who if anything is the Christliest man in London, and the punchline of the story seems to be “the Clapham Antichrist was an enlightened anarchist motivated by visions of the Rose and the Multiverse”, cementing the Rose’s place as a woman to be put on a pedestal and inspire men as a patron spirit of metaphysical anarchy, a role Una Persson had filled in Moorcock’s 1970s and 1980s output to similarly dreary effect.
In some respects, the inclusion of some stories seems to be on a ridiculously tenuous basis. The sole story here penned before the 1990s – The Girl Who Killed Sylvia Blade – is a textbook example of Moorcock sabotaging his own back catalogue by changing characters’ names to fit the von Bek pattern, utterly changing the story’s implications in the process. In this case it’s no great loss – nobody is going to mourn this clichéd detective story in which our hero X saves a damsel in distress from a S&M club with Nazi themes – but it’s still a profoundly irritating habit of Moorcock’s when applied to classic fantasy works of his, let alone when used to give an unwanted resurrection to utter crap he churned out for a sleazy softcore porn magazine he edited back in the mid-1960s.
Let’s see, what else? The Jerry Cornelius story here, The Enigma Windows, is alright but not good enough to transcend the dross that surrounds it. (I feel for poor Jerry when he bemoans the fact that he and Frank seem to be going through the motions yet again – it’s a sad thing to be written by an author whose work has become this formulaic.) No Ordinary Christian is an Ulrich-as-Elric story set in North Africa in which Ulrich the action seems to parallel some of the events of The Fortress of the Pearl, whilst Poppy Begg has an Anubis experience not unlike Colonel Pyat’s in Jerusalem Commands; the story, as a whole, finds Moorcock exercising his Orientalism overtly without the filter of Pyat’s unreliable perceptions to open up less distasteful readings. Oh, and if for some unaccountable reason you liked Blood there’s a lukewarm story set in the same world in the form of The Retirement of Jack Karaquazian and another irritating heap of Corsairs of the Second Ether-style dribble in Some Fragments Found In the Effects of Mr Sam Oakenhurst.
I was slightly interested to note that these stories seem to have emerged during the planning process for King of the City, which wouldn’t come out for a few years after Fabulous Harbours; in particular, stories set in the 1980s or 1990s tend to namedrop Barbican Begg as a business mogul who came to a bad end, and a few stories allude to events of King of the City even more directly. On the whole, though. Harbours is likely to mean just about nothing to folk who aren’t steeped in Moorcock’s works already, and of those who are only those who like lazy Multiverse name-dropping for the sake of it are likely to enjoy this. Self-indulgent, well past its prime and troubling to behold, the von Bek family circlejerk can count me out.
Multiverse bollocks: Starts at page 1 and keeps going for the entire book.
The War Amongst the Angels
The matter of the Rose, having percolated throughout Moorcock’s fiction for quite some time, comes to a head in this one. Partially narrated by the Rose, partially narrated by Jack Karaquazian (now much more comfortable with his new multiversal perspective), and partly narrated by a third person impersonal narrator, The War Amongst the Angels begins with an account of the Rose’s early life as the scion of an eccentric and aristocratic branch of the Moorcock family and the beginnings of her explorations of the multiverse, ends with yet another apocalyptic confrontation between Law and Chaos (mediated by the Cosmic Balance) to determine the ultimate fate of the multiverse, and between that beginning and that ending you have an awful lot of waffle.
Token efforts are made to develop an interesting setting for the book. There’s some interesting stuff where the Rose is interacting with Dick Turpin (who is also a multiversal adventurer) and bringing him and his exploits into an alternate 20th Century, where Turpin and other highway men are popular heroes cocking a snook at privatised electric tramway operators. (The mid-1990s were a time when railway privatisation was a hot topic in British politics, which might have inspired this.) But Moorcock doesn’t sustain this over the course of the novel and soon this aspect rather disappears in favour of various flavours of pastiche (including Westerns inspired by Moorcock’s relocation to Texas and more Pirates of the Second Ether-styled rubbish), long metaphysical tangents, and incoherent rambling.
In some respects, reading the earlier volumes in the Second Ether series helps out, because recurring concepts like the Corsairs, the Original Insect, the Singularity, and the Second Ether itself make a return, as well as a host of relevant characters. (In particular, Zenith the Albino/Ulrich von Bek plays a major role in the final confrontation.) On the other hand, they don’t help that much. It’s evident that in certain important respects Moorcock changed his mind about crucial features of the Second Ether mythos in the course of writing this book. For example, in the previous two books it seems fairly clear to me that the First Ether consists of most conventional universes within the multiverse – the Biloxi world is spoken of as being in the First Ether in Blood, as is the world Sporting Club Square resides in in Fabulous Harbours, and the Second Ether is something more transcendent, a realm of archetypes whose toils are reflected within the First Ether. Here, we’re told something entirely different: that the First Ether is the Law-infested headquarters of the Singularity, an isolated black iron prison separate from the multiverse itself, and the Second Ether is everywhere else. Likewise, suddenly it turns out that Old Reg, leader of the Singularity, is Lucifer himself as he appeared in the War Hound and the World’s Pain series, so the last confrontation ends up being a showdown between him and Ulrich von Bek which upstages most of the other characters here.
Now, of course, these contradictions may be deliberate; amongst all the interminable metaphysical waffling is some discussion about linearity and its limitations and dangers, which I suppose can be seen as upbraiding people who ask for consistency between (or, indeed, within) the books of the Second Ether series, except it also feels like an excuse for presenting an incoherent mess. Worse still, it’s stale: all this linearity talk was previously aired (more interestingly and with better results) in the Jerry Cornelius series, particularly in The Condition of Muzak, and whilst that novel did demonstrate the potentiality of non-linear storytelling in a genuinely compelling way, The War Amongst the Angels only pays lip service to it – there’s a clearly linearly rising tension throughout the book as omens and harbingers of the Conjunction of the Million Spheres (yet again!) manifest across the Multiverse and it all builds up to a big final battle, so actually War Amongst the Angels is linear as fuck.
About that Conjunction; it was a major feature of both The City In the Autumn Stars and The Quest For Tanelorn, so you’d be right in expecting this to be yet another Moorcock Multiverse-shaking super-apocalypse – to go along with the ones in those books, as well as The Dragon In the Sword, The Alchemist’s Question, and so on and so on way back to Stormbringer. And it’s Stormbringer which is particularly leaned on, as Moorcock always does when he writes these things – once again we have huge spectral visions of the Cosmic Balance appearing in the sky above the battlefield, once again we have an albino Eternal Champion (Ulrich/Zenith) taking the stage, once again we have a Stormbringer analogue (or maybe just Stormbringer itself) flying through the air at Ulrich/Elric, once again we have a certain iconic line of dialogue from the end of Stormbringer recited by a creature of evil. Still, the ending here is vastly happier for Ulrich/Elric and his friends than the devastating wreckage at the end of Stormbringer, which makes the whole proceedings feel tame and watered-down; as a result, despite the more Multiversal stage, the stakes actually feel much lower than they are in Stormbringer, which was really only about the fate of the world of the Young Kingdoms.
It doesn’t help that we don’t really care about the characters. As I mentioned, both the Rose and Karaquazian narrate sections of the novel, but their voices are completely indistinguishable to the point where I kept ending up having to revise my visualisation of a scene because I thought someone else had been narrating it. Again, perhaps they’re both meant to be different incarnations of the Eternal Champion, but even so this isn’t really an excuse not to bother with characterisation when said incarnations have been diverse as Oswald Bastable, Jerry Cornelius, Elric and Colonel Pyat. (Then again, this was penned whilst Moorcock was still on the long slog through the Pyat novels, so perhaps he was sick of investing narrators with a distinctive personality.) The sheer dearth of characterisation in favour of metaphysical twaddle and stale psychedelic imagery means that by the time I got to the final battle I just couldn’t give two shits about what happened next.
In short, The War Amongst the Angels makes shallow, token attempts to play the sort of games Moorcock’s experimental nonlinear fiction plays, but this is a superficial disguise over a fairly standard Moorcockian apocalypse narrative – a disguise which allows him to draw a bunch of characters to the climactic battle without ever actually establishing characters, pasts or personalities for them. In other words, it’s the sort of book only an uncritical Moorcock fan could love.
Multiverse bollocks: Aside from the morass mentioned above, this is another one which is stuffed with tips of the hat to other Moorcock works. The Rose is momentarily married to R von Bek and alludes to the events of The Brothel In Rosenstrasse: happening after their split. When she’s a highwaywoman, she takes the pseudonym of Captain Hawkmoon. Place names reference Swift Thorn (her sword in Revenge of the Rose), Corum and Tanelorn. Once again there are allusions to Barbican Begg’s plutocratic exploits, foreshadowing King of the City. This is just scratching the surface, mind. There’s a lot of this junk obscuring the distinct lack of substance here.
The Picky Buyer’s Guide
Remains as it was as of the end of the previous article, with a vengeance. Some of Moorcock’s books are deeply considered and composed affairs; others are sloppy, slapdash hackjobs cranked out as simplistic exercises in raking in some quick cash. As with War Amongst the Angels, so too with the rest of the series: here, Moorcock is pretending to go highbrow when in fact he’s just milking a slightly more sophisticated set of fans. The only possible response is to shun this tripe.