Michael Moorcock Moorcock, Michael (John) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael (John) Moorcock 1939–

(Also writes under pseudonyms of Bill Barclay, E. P. Bradbury, and James Colvin) British science fiction and fantasy writer.

As a writer and editor for New Worlds magazine, Moorcock played an important role in the development of the New Wave movement in science fiction and fantasy which began in England in the 1960s. This movement was formed in reaction to the "pulp" image of science fiction and fantasy writing and against the widely held belief that the genres had little, if any, literary value. Moorcock and other writers of the New Wave urged science fiction and fantasy authors to use a wider range of subject matter and styles in their work and to be more concerned with structure and technique. At the time of its inception, New Worlds magazine was the only outlet available to science fiction and fantasy writers who were experimenting with form and technique in the manner advocated by the New Wave leaders. Moorcock, a frequent contributor to the magazine, is renowned for his unorthodox variations on traditional science fiction and fantasy themes and techniques.

Moorcock is an extremely prolific author whose work is not easily classified into traditional science fiction and fantasy categories. Like other New Wave writers, he has a tendency to merge genres. His works blend science fiction, heroic fantasy, elements from the sword and sorcery tradition, and techniques commonly used in avant-garde literature. Perhaps the most popular of Moorcock's work is his series revolving around a character named Jerry Cornelius. Cornelius, like other Moorcock protagonists, travels not only through time and space, but also has multiple identities; he has the ability to change physical characteristics, personality traits, and gender. Through the creation of characters like Cornelius, Moorcock developed the idea of "multiverse," a metaphysical concept which posits that various levels of reality coexist within one universe. By proposing alternative forms of history and reality and by breaking traditional conventions of content and style, Moorcock has both pleased and baffled his critics. Some praise his work for its vivid, energetic, and highly imaginative landscapes and structural techniques; other critics find Moorcock's work unnecessarily obscure and lacking in substance.

(See also CLC, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14.)

Janice Elliott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Behold the Man] is wildly ambitious, irritating, uneven, and very promising for [Michael Moorcock's] future. As a temporarily exhausted science-fiction addict, I have been waiting for a long time for the form to grow up, to achieve the leap from entertainment to art. There have been signs lately that this might be happening and Mr Moorcock, in Behold the Man, comes tantalisingly close.

The theme is fascinating, a genuine attempt to marry the orthodox novel of psychological investigation with science fiction and historical speculation. Karl, your well-known hero with identity problems, travels in a time machine to ancient Palestine. He falls in with John the Baptist, seeks Christ and finds him as a hunchbacked congenital imbecile. This passage, and Karl's subsequent assumption of Christ's identity, passion and Crucifixion, could have been ridiculous, even offensive. It says much for Mr Moorcock that they are not.

Less successful is Karl's own psychological history shown in flashbacks which rudely interrupt the far more gripping narrative of his adventures in Palestine. Childhood experiences, seduction by a naughty vicar, a superficial equation of sex with religion and (naturally) a disastrous later love life, are undercooked Freudian ham. Behold the Man is an ambitious failure, patchy, skimped and exciting. There is a powerful imagination here and an original, disturbing point of view.

Janice Elliott, "Present & Past," in New Statesman (© 1969 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 77, No. 1986, April 4, 1969, p. 486.∗

Robert Nye

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Moorcock, at 30, begins to stand in relation to the world of science fiction much as Poe stood in relation to the Gothic novel. That is to say, he is an ingenious and energetic experimenter, restlessly original, brimming over with clever ideas, whose exploitation of a certain form is so thorough that one almost smells a whiff of parody at the root of it. Again like Poe, if Mr Moorcock set out half-inspired by a need to mock the conventions he was using he soon lost that cynicism. His albino prince, Elric, hero of the early short stories collected as The Stealer of Souls, is mastered by the sword Stormbringer in the novel of that name…. Elric's handling of Stormbringer has things in common with the author's handling of SF. The weapon comes alive in his grip. Mr Moorcock began with fancies and conceits, which increasingly assumed a weight or aspect of true myth. That aspect is nearly complete in [Behold the Man]….

[In this novel] Mr Moorcock has gone farther in point of imaginative outrage than ever before and farther—in my limited experience—than any previous writer in the genre. This is all to the good. What's the use of having men on the moon unless they're men who've read The Naked Lunch? Mr Moorcock's Karl Glogauer travels backwards in time in search of the truth about the Crucifixion. He finds more than he bargained for: a drooling idiot Jesus confined to a back room of the carpenter's shop, an animal Mary, Joseph on the make….

Some will protest that his writing is still not up to his theme, and that the book to this extent is sensational, a parcel of blasphemies and conjuring tricks lacking a final seriousness of style to string it together. In my opinion it would be fairer to say that here is an author of rare talent who has stumbled rather too early on an idea so dangerous and brilliant that scarcely any living writer could do justice to it.

Robert Nye, "Naked Lunchers on the Moon," in The Guardian Weekly (copyright © 1969 by Guardian Publications Ltd.), Vol. 100, No. 15, April 10, 1969, p. 15.∗

Maurice Capitanchik

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Behold the Man], which sets out to show that Christ could have been almost anyone who came from the future, might have made a remarkable novel, but this one, predictable in its progression and uncongenial in technique, flags badly. The mixture of psychology and religion, and the tone, are slightly reminiscent of early Colin Wilson, but the book's greatest flaw is the portrayal of the 'actual' Christ, which is tasteless and insensitive almost beyond belief. Mr Moorcock is a talented man, but his ability to write with pseudo-seriousness about serious things belongs to the genre of science fiction proper rather than to a Faustian spiritual search.

Maurice Capitanchik, "Over-Exposed," in The Spectator (© 1969 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 222, No. 7346, April 11. 1969, p. 476.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An Alien Heat is set] in the twilight of human history (many thousand centuries hence), where a refined and decadent society, equally reminiscent of Wilde's aesthetes ("The party was absolutely perfect. Not a thing went right.") and the colourful, androgynous Eloi of Wells's The Time Machine, passes its days in extravagant and inconsequential amusements.

The world we know has long since passed into remote history, but is not entirely forgotten. Jherek Carnelian, a sort of Algy Moncrieff of the period, takes a special interest in nineteenth-century England, from which (as indeed from all other known epochs) time travellers occasionally arrive—to be locked up, as often as not, in someone's private menagerie of anachronistic grotesques….

It's a clever and entertaining fable, memorable and provocative in its surface texture, and not without its serious side. The ironic, Swiftian vision of the contemporary world, albeit distorted by Victorian caricature, is handled with admirable lightness of touch, though it's the casual details of Jherek's fin du globe society which give the book its distinctive flavour. An enjoyable piece of work by a writer of unusual inventiveness.

"Fin de Everything," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3686, October 27, 1972, p. 1273.

Alan Burns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The War Lord of the Air is one of Michael Moorcock's best. His ingenious and original notion of an alternative history enables him to reconstruct the twentieth century rather than just go SFing off into the blue…. There's a great Boy's Own adventure on the North-West frontier to counterpoint and contrast with the good old space/time continuum. But again the packaging is overdone. There are three layers to unwrap before we get to the hard stuff in the Himalayas. Within the fiction titled The War Lord of the Air is another fiction narrated in an Editor's Note which describes the discovery of a manuscript said to have been written by Moorcock's grandfather. Grandpa's manuscript introduces another book-within-a-book, a story told by Bastable, a washed-up Englishman living on an island in the Indian Ocean…. And so to the triple coda….

Moorcock also overdoes his attempts to rationalise the time-shift fantasy. Bastable constantly doubts his own sanity; he ascribes his fantasies to the effects of opïum; he asks himself if he's dreaming. I prefer my fantasy neat, without elaborate frameworks or naturalistic justifications. But there is no doubting Moorcock's skill….

Alan Burns, in a review of "The War Lord of the Air" (© copyright Alan Burns 1974; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 19, No. 8, May, 1974, p. 87.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Land Leviathan] is a fantasy about how, in an alternative twentieth century, Black Power finally ends up ruling the world. Stated thus the story would sound to have, if not high seriousness, then at least a compelling tendency towards significance. Its effect is very different, however, being at the same time vivid and wayward. This arbitrariness is the fault of Michael Moorcock's chosen mode of narration: as the sequel to The War Lord of the Air the book is presented as the personal diary of one Captain Oswald Bastable, a soldierly adventurer of the late nineteenth century in the tradition of those English travellers whose lack of imagination was to be transmuted into fearlessness or eccentricity by a later age. Mr Moorcock does this well: he has managed a stylish pastiche of those first-person accounts of adventure on the fringes of the Raj. But the style has its own fatal consequences in that the narrator—half naive, half secure in his Britishness—seems to wander through the story while things happen around him in a haphazard and patternless way. He makes sense of nothing, and can but turn it all into a rip-roaring yarn.

It is all a harmless fable, and, discounting mild irony, quite lacking in import. Captain Bastable's vacillations about whether to side with the Whites or the Blacks are typical of his class and type, evincing nothing but uneasy humanitarianism. This is no mode for viewing anything, much less world cataclysm; and because Bastable takes no properly reasoned stand and because his narrative is the book, The Land Leviathan is nothing more than the romance its subtitle modestly claims it to be.

"An Alternative Now," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3769, May 31, 1974, p. 577.

Ron Kirk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Is [Michael Moorcock's The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius] the overdue last instalment of the Cornelius saga (The Final Programme, A Cure for Cancer, The English Assassin)?… Can Lives and Times be a transmogrification of what admirers and cultists have been awaiting under the provisional title of "The Condition of Muzak"? Probably not; names are one of the few near-constant things as our hero changes sexuality, sex, colour and condition at the drop of an acid, fleeing down the labyrinthine ways of uncountable alternate presents or near futures. Michael Moorcock gives no clue, but I think this must be seen as a spin-off, like the Jherek Carnelian of The Alien Heat….

What is Jerry Cornelius? A hero for our time, a man without qualities or with all of them—which amounts to the same thing…. His loyalties are partly given to the shadowy Time Centre, an organization dedicated to knitting up the ravelled web of time, ironing out bulges in the seamless garmet. His missions take him to scores of possible twentieth centuries, unruly and catastrophic, but none more so, I am sure, than Mr Moorcock's view of Original Reality…. His objectives are obliquely described, often to the point of impenetrability; his techniques range from necromancy to murder….

Some commentators have seen Cornelius as an ugly portent of the nihilistic world he inhabits…. This is a little like denouncing a policeman for an unwholesome interest in crime—which is not to deny that Mr Moorcock, like some coppers, may like his work too much. But the ironic distancing is mostly convincing: "Irony is no substitute for imagination", remarks Cornelius, smugly, knowing that his creator has, if anything, a surplus of both.

Below the irony and the ambiguities are some surprisingly old-fashioned decent liberal certainties: much the same could be said of James Bond and Cornelius's resemblance to a hyperkinetic Bond is more than parodic. He's a sentimentalist, more freely moved to tears than any character in literature since Lord Lundy. Under the pansexual permissiveness he's a fighter for order.

Ron Kirk, "Love and Entropy," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3869, May 7, 1976, p. 561.

Nick Totton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Adventures of Una Persson …] is all resonance: like the whole 'Jerry Cornelius' sequence of novels and stories, it is an attempt at portraiture of the twentieth century in its essence. An ambitious project: and all Mr Moorcock's previous attempts have been dreadfully flawed. But in the light of this novel they can be seen as necessary preliminaries: here, he at last succeeds—not, of course, in totalising the twentieth century; but in showing us a great deal that we already know in our bones, but have perhaps not yet articulated, about where and when 'here and now' is.

Mr Moorcock's great gift is for synthesis. He has a strong sense of the cultural moment, the coherence and intelligibility of fashion, music, literature, politics, and every other human activity. Often his representations of such synchronicities have been forced, over-experimental. The effort has been too visible for harmony; and harmony is essential. In The Adventures of Una Persson … there is a new relaxation to Mr Moorcock's writing: he can afford the time to take care over its fine texture, and the time to feel for his characters, and to give them feelings.

There is a lot of time to play with, in fact. Mr Moorcock's highly effective way of looking at here and now is to look everywhere else. His characters are time travellers, who can move not only forward and back (though temporal inertia keeps them pretty much to this century) but also sideways, into alternative histories. One might describe the whole thing as a dramatic extension of mood décor. Instead of just altering the thematic era of one's decorating to suit a mood, one can actually travel there, and stay until one's mood shifts. Like most people with such exaggerated resources, Una and Catherine are looking for something worth doing. They try activist manipulation of history and hedonist retirement by turns; trapped always in the ambiguity of (partial) omniscience without omnipotence. Understanding a problem does not always imply solving it; and it is increasingly clear that the twentieth century is one big problem. Mr Moorcock knows no more than the next person about solutions; but his new book is, finally, that elegant, informative and enjoyable statement of the problem which he has for so long failed to achieve. (p. 22)

Nick Totton, "Polarities," in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 237, No. 7743, November 20, 1976, p. 22.∗

Nick Totton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'This was a gift-wrapped, throwaway age, Mr Cornelius. Now the gift-wrapping is off, it's being thrown away.' And through the debris stalks Jerry Cornelius: assassin, bon vivant, universal idiot genius, specialist in the resurrection gimmick, protagonist of many novels and stories by several hands and central character of the tetralogy now completed by The Condition of Muzak. His secret, though, is that he has no character at all in the normal sense of the word. He is a nomad of the territories of personality; even his skin colour and gender are as labile as his accomplishments ('Jerry could rarely speak German'). He is a set of co-ordinates: a peg on which to hang the costume of one's choice. A...

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Bob Shaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Condition of Muzak—like The Final Programme, A Cure For Cancer, The English Assassin and some related works—continues Moorcock's harlequinade theme and brings it to a climax, though climax may be too simplistic a term in the Cornelius context of a universe in which time and location are wild variables, where endings are hardly ever final, and where the characters have a Tom-and-Jerry-like capacity for resurrecting themselves from personal calamity.

In The Condition of Muzak the Cornelius family—plus the enigmatic figures of Una Persson, Bishop Beesley, Miss Brunner and the others who make up their circle of friends/enemies—are shown again performing all the gyrations...

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Peter Ackroyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Moorcock specialises in fantasies, but his aren't of the jubilant human variety which the Christmas fairy loves. His universe is one which possesses neither meaning nor logic, and human beings can play only a minimal role in it. The Knight of the Swords is a science fiction of the past—'science' in the sense that Man and all his works are not at its centre. It's really a novel about changing perceptions, about evanescent technologies and star-crazed soft-ware that escape the usual boring traps of 'the individual' and 'society'. Prince Corum—not a human being but some creature of a greater destiny—goes on a quest to destroy the thing he most fears. And in the process the book adopts the sacramental...

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Alastair Fowler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gloriana, or the Unfulfill'd Queen] represents something of a new departure for Michael Moorcock. Those who admire his ingenuity and creativity but deplore the lax forms in which he has often indulged them will at the outset be favourably disposed towards a Moorcock work that claims to "have some relation to The Faerie Queene". It seems to offer a change from those interminable gothic or barbarian intrigue fantasies; taking a new start, perhaps, from Sprague de Camp's and Fletcher Pratt's Spenserian fantasy The Mathematics of Magic. Besides it promises a definite mise-en-scène, instead of the vacuous elasticities where Moorcock's stories have usually been sketched.


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Paul Ableman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The trouble with a first-person narrator is that once he is set in motion ('I am a child of my century and as old as the century') he chugs on under his own steam and both author and reader are stuck with his manufactured personality, however bumpy the ride it produces. Since [Byzantium Endures] only takes the narrator up to the age of 20 and we are promised further instalments [to] bring the story up to date, it is prudent to ask how roadworthy Colonel Pyat really is. Michael Moorcock has, in fact, lumbered himself with a pretty ungainly and rickety hero, both from the point of view of character construction and the more delicate one of literary convention.

Pyat is supposed to be an engineer...

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Penelope Lively

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Moorcock, author of over fifty books, is known mainly for his science fiction works. Byzantium Endures is an historical novel: long, complex, richly peopled, as confusing, turbulent and intense as the events it describes—the factional fighting in the Ukraine in 1917–18. Moorcock purports to be presenting the recollections of one Colonel Pyat, an émigré washed up in the Portobello Road area in the Sixties and Seventies…. (pp. 85-6)

Pyat is an unlovable character, to put it kindly: a zenophobic anti-Semite with Pan-Slavic ideals, bombastic, insensitive, opinionated, a braggart….

And while he brags and proclaims, his brash and opportunistic personality shines...

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Gregory Sandow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No writer who lists 12 of his books and then accounts for the rest with a weary "etc. etc." can be all bad. In fact, Michael Moorcock has written far more than a dozen good books, ranging from entertaining to profound; in his native Britain, he's taken quite seriously. It's wonderful to see Moorcock grow from a genre writer into, simply, a writer, which he officially does with [Byzantium Endures[, the first of his books that's not science fiction or fantasy.

Here Moorcock has the audacious idea of telling—in this and further projected volumes—the story of the 20th century as it appears to one of its victims. The victim in question is Colonel Pyat, a charming, confused, and unscrupulous...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Best known in the US as a science fiction and fantasy writer, Michael Moorcock proves in Byzantium Endures both his versatility as a fiction writer and the mastery of his craft. He achieves a fine and penetrating irony in the creation of his narrator, an anti-Semitic Jewish-Cossack Russian expatriot picaro…. More than just a readable historical novel—although it is that too—Byzantium Endures is a portrait of war from its chaotic and senseless underside and a humane, if often comic, anatomy of what it takes to survive in wartime as well as of the costs of such survival.

A review of "Byzantium Endures: A Novel," in Choice (copyright © 1982 by American...

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