Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Readers of Boing Boing interview Michael Moorcock



In recognition of the newly released "Best of Michael Moorcock", we recently coordinated an interview between the celebrated author and the readers of www.boingboing.net.

We hope that you enjoy reading it! We'll select three lucky participants to win their own copies of the collection later this week.

Ever since the late 60's and early 70's there has been a strong connection between fantasy fiction and heavy metal music, and most fans of one are also into the other. Mr. Moorcock has always been involved with rock bands like Hawkwind and the Blue Oyster Cult, not to mention his own band The Deep Fix. I'd like to know from Mr. Moorcock what his views are on this curious relationship between fantasy fiction and heavy metal music.

In my experience, sf and rock have always gone together. Not just heavy metal. In the UK, at any rate, during the 60s and 70s when New Worlds was being published, the 'cultural mix' contained as many NW people as rock people. Admittedly this was in Ladbroke Grove/Portobello Road (pretty much the equivalent of Haight/Ashbury in San Francisco) where so much literary and musical experiment was going on. I have to say that more musicians were fans of sf writers than the sf writers of the day were rock fans. I remember when one very well known SF writer, a good friend of mine, asked me to introduce him to some rock people (to do music for some lyrics he'd written) he was uncomfortable when I took him round to see some equally well known rock musicians and let's say their 'lifestyle' didn't suit him. Generally, the musicians were a lot friendlier and easy going than the writers.

This was as true of US sf writers of the day as UK ones. Admittedly, I was in a fairly unique position, since I'd been a performer from an early age and for some reason also had a lot of readers amongst other performers, but I wasn't the only sf/fantasy writer musicians read. Not so many that I know of in what you might call the 'first wave' (Shadows,Beatles, Swinging Blue Jeans etc) but a lot in the next waves (Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Elton John, David Bowie, Cream, Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, Roxy Music etc. etc.). I was always surprised to meet well-known musicians who were as familiar with my stuff as I was with theirs. Not so much with US bands, I have to say, though I didn't know as many Americans, of course. I remember talking to Lou Reed, who was anxious to let me know he had an English degree! He didn't read sf as far as I know, but we had Burroughs in common). Ballard was another great favourite. And, of course, Tolkien and Peake. Why this eventually seemed to become mostly heavy metal bands (by the 80s, say) I'm not sure. Mod bands seemed to have as many sf fans amongst them in the early days, at least. I knew a lot of people on the Stiff label who were pretty keen readers of imaginative fiction. Deep Fix was by no means a metal band and Hawkwind was more prog-rock than anything. Even BOC was scarcely typical metal. It wasn't just sf -- Hesse, Burroughs, then magic realists -- and probably psychedelic drugs had something to do with it. The Damned were huge Harlan Ellison fans, but the one time I tried to introduce them, Harlan was very nervous and uncomfortable and took exception to one of them asking him when he was going to write a novel and left. Later he described us as battling our way out of a den of 'punks' (it was at Blitz, about the most middle class club for New Romantics I knew), so after that I gave up trying to bring rock people together with the people they admired. These days, as you suggest, most bands who like sf tend to be heavy metal, but, living in Austin, I meet a lot of individual musicians of all kinds who are keen sf readers. Demographics explains that, I'm sure. I suspect drugs have much to do with it with metal/sf mix. A liking for 'souped up' entertainment with a bit of extra punch? I'm not a great metal fan myself but of course I see a lot of my titles (and others) turning up on metal albums. The last band I was seriously talking about working with was New Order, quite a while ago, but I wouldn't call them metal. I worked on Calvert's albums and although he used sf influences and imagery he wasn't metal either. I'm not a great fantasy fan in the way the term's used, these days (Tolkien and LOTR derivatives). It perhaps had more to do with urban themes, for me at least, originally. I did that Sex Pistols 'newspaper' and got on as much with punk bands like The Adverts as I did with anyone. Long answer, I'm sorry to say. I'd say with me it was urban imagery but a lot of the metal bands seem somewhat retro/rural -- maybe metal is designed to carry across long distances. Visionary rock uses a lot of acid. I know a lot of metal guys were convinced that Ballard and I did tons of acid. Ballard did one tab in his whole life, admittedly supplied by me with due warnings. He ignored warnings, had a terrible trip and never touched the stuff again. I tell people that, when I wrote, my drugs of choice were strong coffee and sugar.

I really love the Moorcock multiverse. It took me a while to find out that Moorcock was a big influence of Moebius, Alan Moore, Hawkwind, Blue oyster cult and some of my other favorite authors, artists etc. I think Moorcocks parallel worlds and alternate realities were so believable that he influenced other writers and artists to bringing more dreamlike states of reality into the forefront of conscientiousness. True mind expanding and altering reading. My question is: What was your influence to create such a wide influential idea like the multiverse?

I honestly don't know. I could say it was just a yearning for continuity. I came up with the idea of Elric, the Eternal Champion, the Multiverse all about the same time when I was around 21. In the late 50s and early 60s we were confronting the idea of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics a lot. Now this was faintly depressing -- the heat death of the universe, the dissipation of everything and so on -- so we were casting around both intellectually, spiritually and emotionally for some sort of counterbalance, something a bit more 'positive'. The Big Bang Theory told us that the end of the universe was inevitable. In common with a few theoretical physicists we were hoping to find a contradiction to that inevitability. And so, as much in a quest for a spiritual answer as a scientific one, a few of us began to inch towards the notion of the Multiverse. I also came up with a rough and ready notion of Black Holes. As it happens, I was the first person, as far as I know, to start giving names and imagery to these ideas -- if you like, an optimistic model of the universe, allowing a sense of constant renewal. Put that together with a person representing humanity who is also constantly being renewed (if only to perish again) and you get a modern version of a regeneration myth! And that, I'm pretty sure, is why the idea caught on and became so popular. Also, on a cruder level, it allowed comic book writers to rationalise story threads which were getting increasingly over-complicated!

I'm curious about the roots of Moorcock's conception of the Multiverse, which plays such a big role in his work. The notion of a Multiverse has floated around for a long time in many contexts, and it's a difficult thing to deal with well in fiction, but he definitely does it well. There are scientific conceptions of a Multiverse that come out of theoretical physics (which I have no clue about), and there is a good amount of philosophical literature on it, sort of. The notion of 'possible worlds' has been around at least since Leibniz, and there has been a lot of development of that notion in analytic philosophy since the 60's. Leibniz influenced literature in the form of Candide, and a more recent example of philosophical views on this influencing literature is the obvious nods to David Lewis's On the Plurality of Worlds in Neal Stephenson's Anathem. Lewis is notorious for having believed that possible worlds exist, which is sort of a notion of a Multiverse. So what I'm curious about is whether Moorcock cares at all about what physicists or philosophers say about possible worlds or Multiverses, and whether that shapes his own conception of it. If not, is there something else in particular that has shaped it, or is it primarily just a great imagination?

Mandelbrot is the short answer. When I first started reading Mandelbrot it was as if someone had handed me a map of my own mind. Once I had Mandelbrot I could start formulating all sorts of ideas which had been only inchoate notions until then. For me, Mandelbrot opened all the closed intellectual doors and became the mantra for me that e=mc2 had become for an earlier generation. It moved everything forward. We didn't have to contradict Big Bang, but Big Bang didn't have to mean the dissolution of everything. I think all this stuff was in the intellectual/spiritual/scientific air. It's not unusual for creative people in various disciplines and arts to arrive at similar ideas around the same time. I just happened to be the writer who grabbed the idea out of the air at the same time others were doing it in math or, by golly, meteorology!

My question for Mr. Moorcock is a simple one (not really); "who is Elric?" Allow me to elaborate; who in his life inspired the ill-fated albino sorcerer-king? Is he a friend, a family member, or a reflection of himself at the time the stories were written? Furthermore, are the different faces of the Eternal Champion also totally different people, or are they just other facets of the same person who inspired Elric, seeing as all of those characters (Hawkmoon, Erekose, Corum, etc...) are all different facets of the same thing.

Elric c'est moi, is the short answer. I've written about this in the introductions to the new Del Rey editions of the Elric stories. Elric was the 'me' I was as a late teenager -- like many teenagers -- angsty, self-blaming, feeling I was doing harm to others around me and so on. Unlike many of my characters (Moonglum, E's sidekick, for instance) Elric wasn't based on a real person, apart from myself, but on a sort of melange of fictitious characters. Melmoth the Wanderer, Maturin's great Gothic character, is the most obvious. I read a lot of Romantic and Gothic literature in my teens, as well as various mythologies, and the notion of the doomed character, who must find another to carry his burden, appealed to me. Bunyan's Pilgrim’s Progress had a great influence on me as a lad, too! It was the first book I bought with my own money (though coming from what was essentially a secular home) and of course I was attracted to the pictures. The Doré illustrated Milton was another book I bought early. I suppose all those characters have to be aspects of myself, at different stages of my life, but weren't influenced by fiction the way parts of Elric were. His basic character and appearance were based on Zenith the Albino, a hero-villain who fought Sexton Blake, an English pulp detective whom I enjoyed (especially in his 1920s and 30s adventures) and who I came to, by strange chance, through my early enjoyment of P.G.Wodehouse! A Blake writer, Edwy Searles Brooks, tended to write in imitation of Wodehouse so when I ran out of Psmith and Jeeves I found something almost as good in Brooks (who, I discovered, was a near neighbour of mine as a boy). ERB and ESB could be called my twin literary midwives.

My question for Mr. Michael Moorcock is from where in the human psyche is the source of our fascination with swords?

In one Latin word? Phallus. Again in those Del Rey editions you'll find early essays of mine appearing in the same magazine as the Elric stories in which I discuss 'aspects of fantasy' in Freudian and Jungian terms. I felt early on that our obsession with swords was 'Freudian' and I explain what I mean in those articles. I also discovered that books with 'Sword' in the title sended to sell a lot better than books without. A book that sold marginally better was my The Brothel in Rosenstrasse. I wondered how much better it would sell as The Sword of the Brothel... Jung and Freud had a lot to do with the imagery I chose, not in any cynical way but because they were very useful narrative devices. I was obsessed in my early career with finding ways of getting a story over as fast and in as compact a way as possible. You'll find a lot of that in New Worlds (Ballard's 'condensed novels' for instance and the Cornelius stories -- we were trying to pack a story with as much content as we could -- more story for your dollar, if you like.

My question would be what inspired Michael's love of Victoriania? That is an era he revisits often (Von Bek, etc) and seems to have a strong affinity for. What about that time period draws him back to it again and again?

I became interested in the roots of the modern age (and the age of modernism!) and decided to confine my writing to a period of 100 years -- pretty much from the time of the Paris Commune onwards. It seemed to me that this was the period we could reasonably call the modern age. I also decided to face the fact of my own mortality and consciously to make sure I didn't become self-parodying as I had seen many authors become once past the age of 30. So I wrote Breakfast in the Ruins (a conscious reference to Dejeuner sur l'Herbe) and in a short preface said that I had died of lung cancer in Birmingham, age 30. This was to remind me of my mortality and my other reasons for writing the book. It was not a science fiction book. In 1970, I was 30, I was not reviewed in the UK as an sf writer (both Behold the Man and The Final Programme were reviewed as 'straight' novels -- it was the publication in hardback of fantasy novels which began to put me in a genre slot). The book caused a bit of confusion, with the music press in particular starting the rumour that I was dead and Hawkwind fans being very surprised to see me alive and well at gigs! Anyway, that book went from 1870 to 1970 and for years that was the period I 'explored'. It was the period when the language and logic of modern politics, including racism, began to be heard. Since then I went back to the early years of Protestantism in The Warhound and the World's Pain, the beginnings of the Age of Reason in The City in the Autumn Stars and so on. But mostly I've been interested in the flourishing of modern ideas from the late Victorian period onwards, especially left-wing ideas. I'll talk about that more in response to the Warlord of the Air question.

How do you feel that the central premise for Elric - inherent weakness driving addiction to performance enhancing drugs/dependence on the black sword - is so true-to-life with today's notable athletes (Bonds, Hernandez, etc...). Did you see this as a fundamental construct of the human condition?

There is, of course, a correlation between the black sword and a dependency on drugs. And Elric has a typical love-hate relationship between himself and his sword (drug) of choice. But there's a difference between dependency and enhancement and I don't think the latter is what he's striving for.

How did Michael feel about the heavy borrowing from the Elric saga to create the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons world?

Ambiguously? When I told the original guys they could use Elric it was in the spirit of the 60s/70s when it seemed to many of us that we were sharing in a common culture and the products of that culture. Of course, I hadn't anticipated that some people would start turning all this stuff into commercial businesses and so it was a bit of a surprise when D&D and Chaosium, for instance, started fighting over who 'owned' the rights to the Elric 'cosmology'. Then, as time went on, I was even more surprised to see it all developing into pretty soulless marketing methods where companies like Warcraft and others began to rip off me and Tolkien in particular. Call me naive, but I was used to a more ethical age, if you like, where people tended to ask other people what they thought about 'borrowing' their ideas. I suppose I should have trademarked and copyrighted all this stuff sooner, but I'm still unhappy about that sort of thing, which goes against all my ethical notions. I tend to be a bit contemptuous of people incapable of coming up with their own ideas. The irony is, of course, is that my ideas have got into the general cultural bloodstream and I suppose I should be flattered by that. I'm not the first person, of course, to see that happen. Kipling, Conan Doyle or H. G. Wells must have felt a lot more stunned than I was to see the world of the early 20th century packed with jungle boys, consulting detectives and time/space machines. The only problem I have, I suppose, is when I'm either accused of imitating someone who is hardly aware that their idea came from or when some obvious copy of my stuff makes a fortune. I also get irritated by publishers like Orion who manipulate my books to keep them out of print (in order to keep from paying royalties on a cross-accounted contract) and promote books which are pretty obviously influenced by mine. That simply seems unjust.

The Dancers at the End of Time trilogy is my favourite of your books and I've always regarded it as somewhat cinematic in both the narrative arc and its 'visuals.' Now that CGI could realistically render the fabulous environments that Jherek and his 'friends' created from their imaginations, how keen would you be for a film version (preferably a movie trilogy, like the books?) And if you would be willing to approve it, how come no Hollywood 'suit' has ever asked you?

Every so often someone makes a proposal, but generally I'm not that happy with their suggestion. I've always been a bit chary of Hollywood and am inclined not to respond to suggestions from them. I find it slightly exhausting. I think I talk a bit about all this in Letters from Hollywood, my book of travel/memoir which came out of a series of letters written to Ballard when he was prose editor of AMBIT (it's OP but cheap and easy to get via ABE -- beautiful full colour illustrations throughout, which is why it never went into paperback!) and I was working on a movie in LA. Apart from the Weitz brothers I've never met anyone I actually wanted to work on a movie with since Sandy Leiberson, who I think has retired from producing). I always thought, though, that they'd make a great BBC radio series.

You've spent a lot of time revising your earlier works. Do you feel that was necessary? Will there be a time when you say, "I can do no more. I must move on."?

Pretty much now. There might be a little bit of tweaking in future, but nothing special. In fact I've done the reverse with the current Del Rey Elric books where I've republished them in their original order. At least where fantasy books are concerned. But I suspect if I ever had the time I'd do some revision on the Pyat books and maybe a little on Mother London.

Which artist has best depicted your idea of Elric? I'm partial to Micheal Whelan.

I love Whelan's stuff but his Elric's just a little too muscular (rather than wirey) for me and Jim Cawthorn, my first illustrator and close personal friend, remains my favourite. We're running a tribute to Jim in the final volume of the Del Rey editions (Vol 6, next February) which will contain a large portfolio of his work, mostly unpublished, from his earliest sketches onward. His Stormbringer comic is a bit patchy but is great at its best. Jim wanted to re-do it but never produced a satisfactory improvement, sadly. He died last November. A serious loss to me. I always say that however the reader or illustrator sees Elric, that's the 'right' Elric. I have a special fondness for Robert Gould, Walter Simonson (who did the Making of a Sorcerer DC graphic novel) and John Picacio (who has done 2 vols of the new illustrated series) but I like Craig Russell's early graphic novel version and all the illustrators who have done the latest edition.

Elric is commonly interpreted to have involved an inversion of the Conan trope. What other fantasy tropes have you inverted, or toyed with in your writing outside of the Elric books

Well I wanted to write a character as little like any previous heroic fantasy hero as possible. I'm well known for being no great fan of Tolkien's heroes and the nearest to mine I think are Fritz Leiber's. Otherwise I don't riff of genre much -- mostly because there scarcely WAS a genre when I started! I don't read any heroic fantasy except what's occasionally sent to me for a blurb or review and I have to admit there's very little I like. Leigh Brackett was an influence on me and I still tend to like her moody heroes, but they're closer to Conan than not. I can't think of anyone to be honest. I just don't read much genre fiction, whether it's fantasy, mystery or, say, western. I prefer fiction BEFORE it turns into genre. Genre depends on working out of a kind of group -- um -- gene pool and I tend to write fiction which suits my own purposes. I hope I don't sound snotty when I say this, but generally once a form turns into genre I lose interest. At least until it becomes satirical. So I like Owen Wister and (just) Clarence E. Mulford and then it has to be something like Blazing Saddles or Cat Ballou. I like Wilkie Collins and Doyle and then a mystery has to have a social aspect before I'm interested -- Hammett, Allingham, Mosley. Although when sick I WILL fall back on Sexton Blake (esp. Skene, author of Zenith or Teed, who is rich with glamorous adventuresses...) Similarly, I'll read Wells or Verne, but not any contemporary sf, generally speaking. Once I've learned how a genre has come into being, I just can't seem to take that much of an interest, though keeping considerable respect for the best writers. By now I have my own rather considerable tool kit and use that for pretty much any idea which I happen to have.

What writers give you hope for the future of science-fiction and or fantasy at this time? What books are out of print that you consider to be indispensable reading and should be tracked down?

China Mieville really interests me. I've reviewed as it happens most of his books. I like M. John Harrison, too. Brian Aldiss continues to astonish me. Well into his 80s and coming up with new, angry ideas! Alan Moore is wonderful (if he counts). Michael Chabon (both his imaginative and realistic fiction). I think everyone interested in the roots of sf/fantasy should probably read Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay or The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson (both published in handsome editions by Savoy Books, UK and close to being O/P). Also Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan trilogy and his Mr Pye. Rex Warner's visionary fiction especially The Aerodrome. Sherriff's The Hopkins Manuscript... I'm sure there ARE a few more which won't come to mind just now.

What are your dreams like?

Dull. At least when I'm working. I'll dream I'm in the supermarket and can't find the cereal I want or that I'm waiting for a bus and it's been 20 minutes since mine came along. When I'm not working I'll generally have anxiety or 'betrayal' dreams, also of a very prosaic nature.

I've been a huge fan since I was a kid. One of my personal Moorcockian favorites is Warlord of the Air and the sequels. It always seemed to me to be a pre-cursor to the current "steampunk" movement. I'm curious as to what you would have to say regarding this series and the concept of 'steampunk' in general.

I wrote those books for very specific reasons. The first, for instance, wanted to take the kind of idea a Fabian might write around 1910 and then 'intervene' in it -- i.e. take the imperial ideas of Wells, Conrad and others who were of a liberal disposition but still believed in 'Empire' and show what those ideas were built on (other peoples' blood, sweat and tears'). That's what I'm getting at when I say 'pre-genre'. Such interventions have, if you like, a political or at least intellectual intention. I wanted to show that E. Nesbit (Fabian, friend of Wells, writer of the books which influenced C.S.Lewis's Narnia books, creator of Oswald Bastable) was, however much I loved her work, sentimentalising the idea of the British Empire and the notion of lesser breeds without the law. Each of those books dealt with sentimental aspects of empire, race and revolution. I also wanted to show how bad things still might have been if, for instance, WW2 hadn't happened. I was horrified to see those few books turn into a sub-genre all their own. It's as if you design tools intended to fix or at least examine a specific neurological condition, then someone comes along and starts to use them to try to fix, I don't know, a blocked toilet. As if someone has said 'Wow! Cool! Airships in the 1970s. Why don't we have them fighting dragons ?' Something completely banal. And then you see the stores flooded with this trivial junk! You can't help feeling miserable, especially when your own books aren't in print and the junk (or anyway the escapist fluff) is making a fortune. I tell myself this is unrealistic but sometimes it's a bit hard to take, even though I'd be ashamed, or deeply bored by the notion, of having written the escapist book. That said, there has been some excellent 'steampunk' fiction written (The Difference Engine amongst them) and I have to say I have a soft spot for the best of it. But, as I said in a recent review, the existence of an airship on the cover of a book tends to advertise 'steampunk' instantly and I tend to steer clear. Someone saw a real airship on my realist novel Jerusalem Commands and reviewed it as steampunk -- when I'd written the book to examine the Nazi Holocaust in realistic terms. There ARE good original writers working well in that subgenre but it seems to me only Alan Moore has developed it in any substantial way because Alan always makes more of an idea when he gets hold of it or creates it.

Three questions immediately come to mind: Is it by accident or design that your characters and situations of the Eternal Champion tales echo the Commedia dell'arte? Why "J.C."? To include Jesus Christ as an manifestation of the Eternal Champion? Is Behold the Man then part of the cycle? What about Breakfast in the Ruins? What do you think of Jonathan Littell's homage to Jerry Cornelius in Bad Voltage?

The Commedia dell'arte has been one of my chief influences, especially in relation to the Cornelius books. I have a large collection of commedia material as well as French and English versions. I have some of those old commedia plot books which can be very stimulating when mulling over structure of a story. I talk more about this in Death is No Obstacle, the book I did with Colin Greenland about structuring methods! Behold the Man isn't part of the EC cycle and neither is Breakfast in the Ruins. I think it somehow takes away from both to shoehorn them in to the series, which is why they're not included in the omnibus EC sets done in the mid-90s. I have no problem with anyone using Cornelius in their own work but I have to say only M. John Harrison ever really 'got' the character (see The New Nature of the Catastrophe, Orion, UK, which WAS in the UK EC series).

Do you feel that there are any contemporary characters in the world of 'fantastic fiction' at the moment that have the same relevance, and resonance, that the Jerry Cornelius character had in the late sixties/early seventies. If there isn't an archetypal character that fits the role should someone create one, or is that role redundant nowadays? Finally, deep felt thanks to you for a lifetime of thought-provoking, entertaining fiction.

Again, I think Alan Moore comes closest to creating such characters.

Perhaps the kaleidoscopic plots of the Jerry Cornelius novels are not as popular as the Multiverse and Elric sagas, but I would like to ask Michael if there is some autobiographical spark, in particular, that invoked the novel The Final Programme? And a follow-up question, is there an interesting anecdote about mind altering drugs and the Cornelius tales, as they were appearing in New Worlds. PS: Whatever happened with Charles Platt and the apartment that caught on fire?

Yes, in short. There's quite a bit of 'me' in Jerry, Elric and Joseph Kiss. I don't think I have much to say about mind-altering drugs re. Jerry, I'm afraid to say. As I said elsewhere, strong, sweet coffee is what I wrote on, I'm very puritanical when it comes to working and believe recreational drugs should be just that! After I'd split up with my second wife I lived for a very few days at Charles's flat. Woke up one morning thinking it was unusually dark, went back to sleep. Woke up again and began to think it shouldn't be that dark at 8.30 am. Got up and saw flames roaring in the kitchen. Got as much stuff as I could out of that room (Linda's still convinced I left her good boots and coat while saving my shirts...) then closed the door and phoned the fire dept before I opened the outer door and let a rush of air in. Opened the outer door and called up to neighbour warning them, then the firemen arrived. Although the main room was saved from fire, the copies of New Worlds Charles was storing got severely fire-damaged. The irony was that Charles had taken the copies out of our basement in Ladbroke Grove to make sure they were safe. Apparently, according to the firemen, a jerry-rigged bit of wiring, designed by a previous occupant to bypass the meter, had fused, but it seems more likely that an electric fire Charles had asked me to keep on to ensure that the flat didn't get too damp had fallen forward somehow and gone face down onto a carpet, starting the blaze. I was broke at the time and raised all I could to have the flat cleaned and repainted but the New Worlds and Charles's books were pretty much ruined. For a while, Charles blamed me for the mini-holocaust, but I think he realised later that it had been an accident. I was just glad that Linda, who has asthma, was away at the time, but I have to admit the incident seemed the last straw at the time. A shame, too, because those back numbers could probably have bought that flat by now.

This question comes from changes I've seen over the decades in the types of stories that get published and marketed. Mind you, I have no real evidence - my take on the subject is all subjective. But, it seems to me that while the audience for fantasy is continually expanding, the audience for science fiction is dwindling. The average age of SF readers is increasing, and it seems that young people are no longer getting interested in that genre the way they were in the 60s and 70s. The "science" in SF stories is getting softer, and the number of SF titles being published is decreasing, while there is an upsurge in the number of titles for works that either are outright fantasy or which blur the distinction between the genres. I'd like to ask Mr. Moorcock two questions: What does he think about the potential future for science fiction, or the lack of it? And, does he think that fantasy will be the dominant meme among "alternative fiction" writers in the future?

I thought 'hard' sf was doing better, these days, but I haven't seen any figures. Iain Banks & Co seem to be in the best-seller lists regularly. Of course, I remember the days when there were only a few sf titles in the shops and NO fantasy as such. That said 'fantasy' has become a very big umbrella -- including historical fantasy, romantic fantasy, teen fantasy and so on. Sf has come to include a pretty wide category, too -- steampunk, cyberpunk, alternate history etc. It pretty clearly includes a large chunk of all the fiction published, these days.

When I took over New Worlds our express intention was to have certain sf conventions reinvigorate literary fiction. We argued that such fiction would thus become increasingly relevant to our time. And it seems to me that this has happened. Many, many 'literary' writers now publish work which includes sf tropes, including DeLillo, Roth, Chabon and more. So maybe you should be looking for the best sf in the 'general fiction' shelves. Meanwhile, all those previously mentioned vampire romances and historical fantasies have taken over from ordinary romances and historical fiction so it seems there are more of them. Fantasy has, if you like, been injected into all those other genres to try to pump up their somewhat tired tropes. That's at any rate how I'd explain things if you're right about sales. It could be, though, that 'hard science' is just as popular as it was, but that there never was a huge amount of it depending on real scientific ideas.

Maybe 'hard' sf -- that is speculation about scientific ideas and scientific advance -- will only appeal to those who have studied or are studying science. And maybe 'fantasy' will become the most popular form of escapist fiction in years to come. Realistic fiction will, in other words, no longer be anything but confrontational (as opposed to escapist) and fantastic fiction will no longer be anything but escapist, whatever form it takes.

Moorcock has been critical of authoritarian tendencies in science fiction in the past and I'm curious what he thinks about the state of modern sci-fi and if there are any authors he thinks excel or fail here. In particular I'm curious what his take is on the transhumanist genre of science fiction (Ken Macleod, Alistair Reynolds, Iain Banks, Richard Morgan, etc.) and their take on technology and politics. Also, does Moorcock still consider himself an anarchist and how does he view the prospects for a horizontal, non-hierarchical, egalitarian society actually emerging?

I'm not entirely sure about transhumanist fiction. It holds no attractions for me. Assuming I really know what it is. I've only really ever been interested in 'humanist' fiction. That is, fiction about people. As I've said, I don't read sf for pleasure and very little of it for review, so I'm no expert. I think I'm probably sympathetic to the writers you mention, but personally believe political fiction should be set in at least some version of the here and now. When I want to tackle a political theme I'll do either a Jerry Cornelius story or something like a Pyat story, making it clear to the reader what I'm doing. To abstract a theme -- that is, to put it in the future -- seems to move it away from relevance. Even Mieville's Iron Council would have been more satisfying to me if he had set the story in, say, South America or Central Africa. This was always my argument about sf -- that generally, by abstracting it, putting it in some 'other place', you lost some of the relevance. That said, I haven't been vastly interested in technological advance since I was young. I have every sympathy with Banks, Mcleod et al, but to be honest I've been no more able to read more than a page of their stuff than I have Heinlein's or Asimov's. The moment a spaceship turns up, you've lost me. I tried to watch 2001 (the first time in the company of Arthur Clarke) three times and fell asleep all three times. I've said this many times, but the moment that big, long spaceship starts to move across the screen, I'm heading for Planet Zzzz. Can't help it. Have nothing against people who enjoy it, but I really don't. In fact, in some ways, I'm answering your questions under false pretences in that my preferred default reading for the past fifty years has been mostly fiction about the here and now. My favourite fantasy writers are Jonathan Carroll, Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford and China Mieville. I still love Disch, Ballard and Bayley! 'Light' reading includes, as said, Wodehouse, Allingham. My favourite relatively recent 20th century literary writers are Aldous Huxley (never read Brave New World, though), Elizabeth Bowen (though I haven't read her horror fiction!) followed by Elizabeth Taylor, Angus Wilson, Albert Camus, Blaise Cendrars, Colette, Peake I also enjoy Wells, Bennett and Pett Ridge. Favourite contemporaries include Iain Sinclair, Walter Mosley (in all his variety), Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon, Thomas Pynchon. Favourite moderns include Ford Madox Ford, Conrad, Mann, Woolf, Proust. Favourite 'classics' include Scott, Dumas, Balzac, Dickens, In other words, there are very few fantastic writers there, although almost all had a fantastic turn of mind.

I've often wondered why I had such a facility for writing fantasy, but clearly I did! So I guess I'm saying I'm not the best person to ask about transhumanist science fiction! I answer the anarchist part of the question below.

I remember in the foreword to one of your novels you said you are an optimist. I was wondering, in view of your anarchist sentiments and the current insidious morphing of England (and elsewhere) into a police state, if you still feel optimism and if so, what do you think will improve?

I remain a great optimist, though I have few theories how we're going to get out of our present predicaments. I remain a Kropotkinist anarchist, which many people will see as unrealistic, but, if I'm unrealistic, so be it. I see my anarchism as a moral position, in that it's scarcely a realistic political one! But from that position I can very quickly determine what action to take. I am of course concerned about the erosion of civil liberties in our democracies. There was a wonderful period in the 60s and 70s when many of the basic liberties we now take for granted were established in the UK and US. Since around 1980 a variety of politicians under a variety of political flags have been trying to take those liberties away from us. I'm not as worried about CCTV cameras as the symbol of that erosion since they seem to have been as useful in catching crooks and crooked cops as anything else, at least so far. I am more worried about any extension of police powers, erosion of civil liberties in general and rationales allowing 'authorities' further unchecked, unsupervised behaviour. It's up to us to remain vigilant and aggressively vocal wherever we can be heard. I believe we also have to extend our civil liberties, building on the gains made in that 60s/70s decade. I think we can do it, and that we have to keep a clear eye on what's happening. Moreover we have to extend other civil rights, including the right to improve healthcare, education and the legal system according to our needs. We can do this by increasing our power at a local level and extending it up to national level. We don't serve such ambitions by being nostalgic about a past that never really was. Politicians have always been pretty corrupt and need a good press to keep an eye on them. It's up to us to demand the highest standards from our press and to adapt to every change in the nature of that press so that we're clear about what's going on. We need sturdy laws and good law-makers to ensure that we're as far ahead of the corrupt guys as possible. If we have to take to the streets, flood our politicians' mailboxes, make it harder for them not to hear us than to hear us and so on, then we must be prepared to spend the time doing it. We can't afford to be lazy and there's no point in just sitting around talking and making ourselves feel virtuous. We must feel virtuous from the actions we take not the fingers we wag at others. My argument against 'liberal' sf has always been that it can easily be a substitute for real action. And by action I don't mean sentimental exhortations to our politicians to be nicer, sweeter people. We need sturdy laws and real rights. We have to let the bastards know that not only are they not above the law but that the law demands MORE of them because they have been elected to maintain it, they need to be better than the average person, not worse.

Jerry Cornelius and the rest of his milieu (his mother, Frank and Catherine, Una Persson, Bishop Beesley, Miss Brunner, and all the others) all seem to be 20th century archetypes of one kind or another, and I think their relevance hasn't dimmed as time has marched on (as Firing the Cathedral demonstrates). I'd like to hear a bit more about how the Cornelius characters function as mirrors of the times, both in the 1960s and 1970s when they were born, and now.

Well, Modem Times has come out since Firing the Cathedral, in which I try to address changing times since I first started doing the Cornelius stories. As some readers have suggested, the method (and Cornelius is as much a method as a character) seems to be just as relevant to current problems as when Jerry first made his appearance in 1965. I think we need to add an extra character or two, to symbolise this particular period of history, and I'm at present trying to find a good 'useless liberal' character. It's possible that I can turn Frank into this. I've been going back to base as much as possible in recent months to see how I can do this. My anger has to be cut by plenty of humour or it just becomes a rant. I need to be able to keep balance and focus and find the right locations which best symbolise what I want to say. It gets somewhat harder all the time. I think I also need an American character to add to the troupe, since I'm seeing so much these days from an American perspective. They function as mirrors to the times by at once, of course, reflecting what's going on and offering a commentary. The reason for using newspaper reports and other quotes is not because I approve of those quotes but because they replace exposition and show the 'subject' speaking for itself. Readers aren't asked to agree or disagree with the quotes. The quotes demonstrate what I'm trying to get at. By setting a story about, say, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russia (from The Tank Trapeze, 1968) against a cricket match in Mandalay, I can make comparisons between various forms of imperialism and authoritarianism while also achieving a particular kind of distance. I used the now dead Robert Maxwell, himself a Jewish Czech, in that story, too, as an aggressor. Over the years the stories have become more complex and increasingly subtle, since I've set myself harder tasks, higher standards, which also means I have to do a lot more thinking over of the ideas, frequently rejecting stories before I complete them. Its more a hall of mirrors, I suppose, than simply a glass held up to the world, but since I'm using absurdism only as one element of the mix and can't indulge myself by being simply that -- I take the themes very seriously, of course -- I have to be able to provide the reader with a map and a compass, without being obvious about it. I do this, often, by describing relationships and referring to internal, often autobiographical traumas (as, say, in The Delhi Division). Takes a long time to turn one of the buggers out, I have to say.

8 Comments:

OpenID tomaq said...

This is absolutely fascinating. Thanks to everybody who took part (he said, being the biggest Clarke/"2001" fan in human history. : )

6/18/2009 10:23 AM  
Anonymous angrydroid said...

Thanks for the answers, Mr. Moorcock!

6/18/2009 10:53 AM  
Blogger Ragnorakk said...

Thanks for the interview, the considered responses. Byzantium Endures is one the best books I've ever read.

6/18/2009 7:23 PM  
Blogger Jerry Cornelius\ said...

If you'd like to talk with Moorcock more, you can pose questions to him at his Q&A http://www.multiverse.org

6/18/2009 9:36 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

The intelligences in the Dancers at the End of Time are nothing but transhuman!

6/19/2009 4:57 PM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

A great interview with that rarity, an intelligent person.

Mother London was a great novel.

6/20/2009 11:00 AM  
Blogger TheGolden said...

Mike, I got the impression from Moorcock's answers that he doesn't keep up on current sci-fi and consequently doesn't knowingly share your definition of transhuman. He seems to define it by the relationship of the word "trans" to his own "humanist" perspective. As the dictionary definition of "trans" is beyond, above or changed he rejects that label, viewing his writing as just "humanist". Its a matter of semantics and ignorance of contemporary sci-fi. Don't freak out about it.

6/23/2009 1:49 PM  
Blogger Dave Hardy said...

Moorcock is one of the more astute commentators on genre fiction, the more so for the brevity and focused nature of his observations. His comments on genre and airship tropes ring so true to me.

BTW, Barrington Bayley rocks!

6/25/2009 8:35 PM  

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