Footprints In the Sands of Time

One of the interesting developments in rock music as the 1960s gave way into the 1970s was the diversification of styles. The loosely connected genres of folk rock and psychedelic rock had made a case for popular music in general and rock in particular to be a medium for genuine, grown-up artistic expression, rather than disposable entertainment for teens; but once you say “this doesn’t have to be like that“, you invite people to imagine all sorts of different ways it could be.

Folk rock and country rock singer-songwriters used the medium to examine tradition or social roots, critically or uncritically. Glam rock took the popular acclaim and youth appeal of earlier years, teased out the sexuality, and made it a bit more ambiguous. Blues rock gave way to hard rock if it still cared about being sexy, metal in slow and fast flavours if it went for other moods. Progressive rock groups explored just how far you could stretch the rock format, cramming in tools from classical or jazz as necessary to broaden the field available to them.

In a decades-early preview of the musical fragmentation we see today in this Bandcamp age where nobody has to listen to exactly what everyone else is listening to and it sometimes seems there’s more microgenres than musicians, the experimental wings of rock music ended up creative bands with astonishingly distinctive personalities. Oh, sure, you could sort them under one broad umbrella or another, and there were plenty of me-too groups out there inspired by others sounds, but within prog (for example) you’d never mistake Jethro Tull for Yes or King Crimson for Genesis.

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Doctor Who and the Distant Sports

The Doctor and Amy have received word that Freddie Force and his Antimatter Men are up to no good. In order to be in the right place at the right time, the Doctor decides to hook up with some old chums of his – the Terraphiles, a subculture of far-future history nerds who enjoy LARPing it up in as close a reconstruction of Earth as they can accomplish – though the only historical sources they have is an idiosyncratic collection of boys’ adventure fiction and sports stories from the 1920s. At Miggea, the Arrow of Law will be challenged for and won in a tournament, and the future of the cosmos relies on the Doctor and Amy ensuring the right parties win – and making sure that Captain Cornelius and the Pirates of the Second Ether weigh in on the right side.

This, then, is the premise of Michael Moorcock’s The Coming of the Terraphiles, his Doctor Who tie-in novel. The history of such novels is a long run; during the series’ original run, they tended to be brief novelisations of the televised serials, pitched at a reading level of around 9-12 in keeping with the series’ target audience. Rather than being directly published by the BBC, these were licenced products issued by Target Books. During the long hiatus after Sylvester McCoy’s tenure in the role came to an end, the book series found itself in the hands of Virgin Books after they bought out Target’s parent company; realising that in the absence of a TV show in current production the Who audience was aging, Virgin started putting out a series of books for older readers presenting entirely new stories – the New Adventures line continued the Seventh Doctor’s story and allowed the authors to bring some of the plot arcs seeded during the McCoy era to fruition, whilst the Missing Adventures line would tell brand-new stories of earlier Doctors.

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Elric: A Von Bek Fantasy

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.

With the extensive 1990s repackaging and revision of the Eternal Champion material wrapped up, and with the Second Ether series supposedly having provided a capstone to the saga, the early 2000s found Michael Moorcock in the happy position of apparently not having much in the way of unfinished business. The major exception was the long-awaited The Vengeance of Rome, the fourth Colonel Pyat novel – but due to both the extensive research demanded by the Pyat novels and the extreme care demanded by the subject matter meant that it couldn’t be rushed.

King of the City in 2000 got a reasonable critical response, but critical approval and commercial success are two different things: the market is perpetually hungry for more sword and sorcery fantasy from Moorcock, particularly from his signature series like Elric, Hawkmoon or Corum, and in the first half of the Noughties he provided. The trilogy produced then heavily features Elric – indeed, it’s been anthologised as Elric: The Moonbeam Roads – and to a large extent the seed of the trilogy was sown in the Elric novel The Fortress of the Pearl, but tonally it stands apart from the rest of the Elric material. Part of this is because to a large extent these books are also followups to the Von Bek novels, taking their timeline into the 20th Century, as well as crossing over with Moorcock’s Sexton Blake pastiches (in which it was hinted that Zenith the Albino, Blake’s regular adversary, was actually Elric somehow transferred to the modern day).

Interestingly, for a long time the second and third books in this trilogy didn’t get a UK release, with only Moorcock’s US publishers picking up the full series. That has recently changed, with each of the books being republished in the UK (though confusingly, they’ve come out under new titles). Have we been missing out, or were we spared the embarrassment? Let’s see…

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To Rescue Karadur

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.

Karadur-Shriltasi is a city at the centre of the Multiverse. (Well, one centre of the Multiverse, at any rate – a completely different one appears at the end of the Second Ether sequence.) In ages past, a destructive war amongst the residents resulted in a great separation; the upper city of Karadur has been ruled for generations by the Metal Clans, guardians of rationality, materialism, and order, whilst the forces of magic, superstition and intuition were banished to Shriltasi, an arboreal realm hidden below the sewers of Karadur.

One nagging thorn in the side of the Metal authorities is Max Silverskin, a master thief and the bastard son of a tryst between Augustus of Clan Silver (who along with Iron, Gold and Copper represent the major Clans) and Sophelia of the Silverheart family, minor nobility with a bad reputation for dabbling in forbidden magic. Unbeknownst to Max, during a mysterious rescue from the prison of Gragonatt he was given a witch-mark: the titular “silverheart”, a metal disc over his heart which is usually disguised with illusions. Through the mark, Max becomes able to access hitherto untapped magical powers as a result of a botched attempt to steal the Jewel of All Time, a magical gemstone which derives its power from the deadly ruby rays of the Red Moon. Falling in with Jenny and Jack Ash, leaders of the plant-like Ashen, and with unexpected help from Rose Iron – daughter of Lord Iron, leader of the Metal council – Max learns that he has just six days to reunite the lost icons of the Metal Clans and effect a reconciliation between Karadur and Shriltasi.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, for Jenny and Jack believe that not only will the Silverheart consume Max if he fails, but Karadur-Shriltasi – and the entire Multiverse – will be overcome by entropy. But Max and Rose will face many complications along the way, including a deadly cult of the long-lost foundryman’s goddess Sekmet and the relentless Captain Cornelius Coffin, a troubleshooter for the Metal who is determined to arrest Max and win Rose’s heart…

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The White Wolf’s Rehash

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.)

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Sanctuary of the Wild Telepaths

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’s fiction comes back time and time again to cities. Jerry Cornelius is specifically constructed as an urban character and the main Cornelius quartet concludes with (one version of) Jerry becoming the patron of the Platonic futurist ur-city. Each novel of the Pyat quartet is named after a city, and the series itself is punctuated by the different cities Pyat visits. And time and time again, Moorcock comes back to London, his home city.

The London Novel – a book to sum up all that is London and to justify its perception of itself as the centre of the universe – is a popular thing to attempt. Moorcock has often verged on doing it in his other series, and has made two serious stabs at it. Mother London, from 1988, earned enough literary cred to get on the Whitbread shortlist; King of the City didn’t. Good call by the Whitbread committee or bad call? Let’s find out…

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The History of the Von Beks

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.

At the start of the 1980s, Michael Moorcock’s fortunes were looking down. Massive disruptions to his home life coincided with the setback of Byzantium Endures, the first of the Colonel Pyat books, being rejected by his publishers, who informed him that they really weren’t interested in any mainstream novels from him and perhaps would he like to knock off some of that heroic fantasy he does that sells so magnificently well.

Moorcock shrugged and went back to the drawing board, with the result that despite being written after Byzantium Endures, The War Hound and the World’s Pain actually got published first. It’s the first of a series of novels Moorcock has written about the von Bek family, who he decided to make an utterly central family to the multiverse whose scions popped up absolutely everywhere and who counted several incarnations of the Eternal Champion amongst their ranks.

Thanks to the regular processes of revision he inflicts on his works – truly, Moorcock is the literary George Lucas – Moorcock has retroactively inserted the von Bek name into a range of earlier stories and novels as part of the process of making them the core family of his fiction – including turning the protagonists of The Blood-Red Game and The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius into von Beks. I find this both a self-vandalism of Moorcock’s legacy and an utterly pointless exercise, so for the purposes of this review I will not be tackling any of those. (I already covered The Blood-Red Game in any case in an overview of Moorcock’s early standalone novels; as for The Pleasure Garden, it’s a brief and not very interesting short story which includes an alternate universe version of Hitler for cheap shock value, so I wouldn’t say it’s especially essential.)

Furthermore, I won’t be covering this time around any books Moorcock wrote after The War Hound in which a von Bek plays a prominent role but isn’t the main protagonist, or where the books in question are not part of the core von Bek series but are more properly considered parts of other series. For instance, a von Bek appears prominently in The Dragon In the Sword, but John Daker/Erekosë is clearly the protagonist of that one, and likewise whilst the von Beks play an important role in the Second Aether trilogy those books aren’t part of the core von Bek series.

Moorcock originally intended to produce a trilogy of major works of heroic fantasy featuring von Beks as protagonists – The War Hound and the World’s Pain, The City In the Autumn Stars, and Manfred; or the Gentleman Houri. Only two of these manifested (both of which are reviewed here); Manfred was supposed to be a direct sequel to The City In the Autumn Stars, making use of material which was cut from it (apparently about half the novel was cut back, which is quite alarming considering how amazingly long and overblown it is… but I’ll get to that later), but the material is now apparently lost and Moorcock doesn’t seriously expect to get around to tracking it down or reconstructing it in his lifetime. However, in between the two novels which did emerge there slipped out a little side dish in the form of The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, a historical novel with no supernatural, fantastic or SF elements which happened to feature a von Bek protagonist and had plentiful connections to the other two books, and which is usually considered to be, if not part of the main von Bek series, at least an interesting appendix to it, so I’ll be reviewing that too.

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The King of the Frauds

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 had a fair amount of difficulty persuading his publishers to accept the Between the Wars series, a four-volume series of historical novels set in the inter-War years without supernatural, fantastic or science fiction elements. Begun after he completed the core Jerry Cornelius novels, the first book – Byzantium Endures – was actually finished in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1981 that Moorcock could convince anyone to publish it. (Indeed, the final two books haven’t been published in the US at all – PM Press are due to bring them out this year as part of a reprint of the whole series.) The difficulties he faced were twofold: firstly, the novels cannot even be mistaken for genre fiction, situating them entirely outside Moorcock’s stamping grounds up to this point; secondly, they constitute the paranoid, self-aggrandising biography of a proudly unrepentant fascist.

Specifically, the conceit of the series that it is a real man’s biography that Moorcock has reluctantly agreed to edit. Colonel Pyat, AKA Max Peters, AKA the Old Pole, AKA a confusing variety of other pseudonyms was, as far as Moorcock and most of his contemporaries were aware, a perennial feature of life in Notting Hill, the eccentric, outspoken but ultimately harmless owner of a second-hand clothing shop specialising in fancy uniforms – very popular in the Swinging Sixties thanks to the whole Sgt. Pepper deal. One of the oldest friends of Mrs Cornelius, a formidable local figure who had died recently and whose family had been the subject of a muck-raking series of books by Moorcock, Pyat appeared to be under the impression that Mrs Cornelius was a global celebrity; deciding that the world needed a memoir of his interactions with her, Pyat cajoled Moorcock into sitting with him and taping his reminiscences of her so that Moorcock could knock Pyat’s recollections together into a book.

As it happens, Pyat’s musings focused far more on his own life story than they ever did on Mrs Cornelius, but Moorcock found himself repelled by Pyat’s odious personality and opinions and was tempted to give up the project. All this changed after the Notting Hill Carnival in 1977, when a group of black youths entered Pyat’s shop seeking charity donations; this proved overstimulating for Pyat, who had a heart attack and died on the spot. Coming into possession of Pyat’s papers, Moorcock decided to press on and finish the job – a task he wouldn’t complete until 2006. The novel we get, then, consists of a mixture of material from the tapes and Pyat’s papers, lashed together into a sensible order by Moorcock and edited to improve their English and scale back (but not excise) the more incomprehensible sections. They reveal a life story which begins in Tsarist Kiev and takes us through a maelstron of war, revolution, child prostitution, pedophilia, rape, murder, drug addiction, pornography, slavery, racism, fascism, Nazism and persecution.

On top of all that, the series is a comedy.

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The Tudor Agent (or Some Quire In the Night)

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.

As you’ve probably gathered by this point if you’ve been following my Michael Moorcock articles, the guy doesn’t really go for standalone novels. By at least some interpretations of the whole Eternal Champion dealio, of course, you could argue that he has never written a standalone; if, like me, you tend to prefer to split up Moorcock’s work by protagonist (if only for sanity’s sake) then the number of standalones he’s written is dwarfed by his longer series, and few of his standalones have achieved much recognition at all.

The major exception is Gloriana, or the Unfulfill’d Queen, which was honoured with the World Fantasy Award when it first came out, got a spot in the Fantasy Masterworks series some decades later (which is the version I have), and is generally quite a celebrated entry in his bibliography. Part of this is because it’s something of a departure from his usual SF and fantasy works, being in tone much closer to his Serious Business writing and in premise offering not a transgressive trippy New Wave of SF romp or a sword and sorcery adventure in the vein of Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, Michael Kane and so on, but instead presents a politically-driven story set in the court of an alternate Queen Elizabeth in an alternate Elizabethan era. Part of this is because of its sexual content, which culminates in a particularly nasty sequence at the end and goes down some pretty dire tangents over the course of the novel besides.

So, trigger warning: discussion of rape and the sexual abuse of children is going to occur in this review. It also comes up in the book and is sufficiently central to the plot that it’s not really skippable.

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The Soirées of Infinity

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.

Far stranger than any of his sword and sorcery work, but more structured – thanks to the stylistic influences it takes from Victorian literature – than the equally strange but extremely experimental Jerry Cornelius or Karl Glogauer stories, Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time stories are some of his more widely-celebrated ones. The tales unfold at the titular End of Time, the ultimate in Dying Earth-inspired settings. Earth, despite all odds (or perhaps with the aid of far future technology) has survived an impossibly long time, and is witnessing (but not paying attention to) the heat death of the universe. Earth is sparsely populated by a very limited number of extremely powerful individuals – all of whom know and are social peers with each other – and a few anachronistic time travellers and space travellers who are comfortably accommodated in these godlike entities’ menageries.

It’s not even entirely clear that the Dancers are human – in one story a Dancer speculates that they might be replicants, in the rather pointless Elric at the End of Time Moorcock asks LOL WHAT IF THEY ARE THE CHAOS GODS – and given their expansive ability to transform themselves according to the arbitrary parameters of their own choosing it’s not especially relevant. What is important is style and social approval, for which they vie furiously. The upcoming end of the universe is something they are vaguely aware of, but not really motivated to pay attention to, for what’s death but just one more experience to sample when it comes?

The main Dancers trilogy is the story of how one of the Dancers came to care about things like life and death and morality and the modes of behaviour proper to societies which don’t consist of a bunch of gods on first-name terms with each other. It’s also the story about how Mrs Amelia Underwood, a middle-class lady displaced from Victorian England, finds a compromise between loosening the social bonds which had restricted her whilst still retaining her sense of her own identity and those aspects of her society and culture she actually wants to hold onto.

In the process of writing the trilogy, Moorcock also wrote some short stories (one of which he expanded into a novel), which I’m also reviewing here. Some years after completing the series, Moorcock returned to it to write Elric at the End of Time, a short story which was originally developed to be published alongside artwork by Rodney Matthews (a surefire way to generate stacks of cash for both parties) but which was also published in the Elsewhere SF anthology and shoved in a collection of Elric odds and sods whilst the art book was delayed. I’m not reviewing that because I don’t own it and it really adds nothing to either the Elric series or the End of Time series and it’s kind of dumb. (Summary: Elric goes to the End of Time. He is scared. He meets one of the End of Timers and recognises him as Lord Arioch. The one who might actually be Arioch sends him home. The end. It’s ludicrous because the character concerned behaves nothing like Arioch.)

Because I like the main trilogy so much, I’m almost tempted to keep my review to that and to also not review the apocryphal shorts that were released during its run. Unfortunately, I kind of have to, because they’re terrible and I wouldn’t want anyone rushing off to read them because I hadn’t warned them about it. But let’s not trouble ourselves with such things right now: there’s the good part of the series to deal with first.

Continue reading “The Soirées of Infinity”