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.
We were somewhere around Melniboné on the edge of the Young Kingdoms when the drugs began to take hold…
As much as the Michael Kane stories pay tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs, the fact is that Michael Moorcock and the literary circle around New Worlds during his editorship were much more interested in producing fiction worthy of William S. Burroughs instead. Moorcock’s first attempt (at least, in the context of a novel) to abandon traditional SF-fantasy genre conventions in order to embrace a more avant-garde, counter-cultural approach to the genre was The Final Programme, which introduced the world to Jerry Cornelius: amoral dandy, mad scientist, rock star, hipster, music snob, and agent of entropy. When extracts from the novel were published in New Worlds as Moorcock strived to find someone willing to publish the complete novel, various other writers in the New Worlds stable were inspired to riff on the premises outlined in the extracts, leading to an ongoing literary game in which writers would appropriate Cornelius with Moorcock’s blessing whilst Moorcock worked on producing the core narratives of the mythos.
The Cornelius Quartet, the set of four novels beginning with The Final Programme and building on its premises in an increasingly experimental and avant-garde direction has few precedents, though Moorcock’s pal J.G. Ballard was working up the material which would become The Atrocity Exhibition at around the same time. Perhaps the only previous work in the genre that took an even vaguely similar approach was William Burroughs’ own Nova Trilogy (The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express), a saga of alien invasion and scientifically induced apocalypse featuring time-travelling agents using Scientology techniques to eliminate Aztec word viruses from the human subconscious.
As always in Moorcock’s fiction, Law and Chaos is the name of the game here, although Moorcock tends to use euphemisms for those terms rather than referring to them openly. “Entropy” is used in place of “Chaos” much of the time, whilst those who know their thermodynamics will realise that the occasional references to Jerry gaining or losing or maintaining heat will refer to an entropic sort of energy (as opposed to “work”), and the way these references are used make it fairly clear that Jerry is an entity of Chaos who is sustained by entropy. Law, meanwhile, hides behind various masks – culture, civilisation, empire, religion – which Jerry delights in kicking to bits.
In the ancillary novels and novellas collected in A Cornelius Calendar and the various short stories written by Moorcock and his pals some more explanations are offered – it is often stated explicitly that Jerry and pals can travel in time and between planes of the Multiverse, heavily implied that Jerry can travel in time and manipulate causality by accumulating energy through violent action, and there are regular references to Jerry and the others being connected in some way to the Time Centres maintained by the Guild of Temporal Adventurers, who play a rather more prominent role in the Oswald Bastable stories and the Dancers At the End of Time trilogy. (An even more detailed and nailed-down theory of time and multiversal travel is outlined at the start of The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius In the Twentieth Century.) However, in the Cornelius Quartet itself such explanations are either avoided entirely or kept significantly more obscure, Moorcock’s stated aim being to create novels you can just dip into and paddle about in without stressing out too much about trying to put them into a linear order or making sense of every little incident. In other words, they’re designed to encourage you to take Jerry’s relaxed view of causality; those beholden to fannish instincts, intent on working out the “canon” of everything they encounter and reluctant to let an ambiguity just stay ambiguous, are going to be pretty lost here.
All of the Jerry Cornelius stories are self-consciously designed to be products of their time; whilst the novels of the Quartet and, to a lesser extent, the stories in A Cornelius Calendar are mostly responses to the general spirit of the age, the shorter stories written by Moorcock are often his taken on particular topics – though the shorts written by other hands are as diverse as the writers who’ve produced them. Beyond that, various writers (many of them in fact working in comics rather than prose) have used Jerry as the blueprint for their own, similar characters, with varying responses from Moorcock – the great man has embraced Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright, but he’s excommunicated Grant Morrison’s use of a Jerry-like figure as King Mob’s 60s alter-ego in The Invisibles. The borrowing of Cornelius shows few signs of slowing down, with Alan Moore giving the Cornelius siblings a cameo in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier and having Jerry play a rather more significant role in the upcoming 1969 episode of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century. The obvious question, of course, is if the original material is any good, or whether it’s a theme that’s been played better by other creators than by its originator. There’s only one way to find out. Wish me luck.
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