Prolific author Michael Moorcock passed through Manchester late last year on a book signing tour. I caught up with him and asked him some questions about his books, fiction and the connection between stories and ethics.
Chris Bateman: In Death is No Obstacle, you said to Colin Greenland: “I believe morality and structure are very closely linked. The moral of a story is implicit in the structure. The choices the characters make that move the plot along are the choices of the moral fable, for good or bad.” Do you believe this is true of all storytelling?
Mike Moorcock: I can’t say I believe it’s true of all story telling. It’s true of a lot of generic fiction, though. I think there is a case for finding an ethical element in the structure of all stories.
Chris: You suggested in the same book that adopting masks is a natural next step for a writer, saying “After you’ve been a mythologizer, you become a mummer. You start to come up with simple stock characters of your own, your own portrayals of vice and virtue, and you use them in much the same way.” Is this another way morality connects with storytelling – the characters themselves embody virtues and vices?
Mike: You can add this element to a story if you’re trying to tell as many stories as possible in a narrative. My object is to do that – carry as many ‘readings’ or stories on a single narrative. You inherit every kind of narrative so far created and, depending on your level of ambition, you can try to include as many as your structure will bear. Jerry Cornelius is a real character with real motives and an inner life but he also knows he’s a character in fiction and I also make him a member of a Commedia troupe, so he represents certain qualities – with a nod to Moliere or Jonson – and also becomes something else in his ability to choose roles for himself.
Chris: So how do the characters connect with questions of morality? Simply via the decisions characters make?
Mike: Knowing decisions in the case of Cornelius characters. Other characters in other stories can be, like Pyat, entirely unknowing and that lack of knowingness is itself a quality of the character.
Chris: On the subject of mythologizing, I want to ask you about megatexts, the term Charles Segal coined to describe the Greek myth cycles taken collectively. ‘Megatext’ is now used to refer to any coherent fictional world in genre fiction – like your own Multiverse, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld or for that matter, the setting for Doctor Who. In your own books, you seem to view all fiction (and indeed, all of history) as a kind of megatext. Do you see all the assumed boundaries between fictional worlds as essentially optional for writers? (Even your literary fiction crosses into your fantasy fiction via minor references).
Mike: I wanted to get myself to a point where I could tell stories which were both literary and drew on genre. No point in discarding a potential method. I think I achieved that in some Cornelius stories (which of course are amplified by Pyat sequence just as that sequence is amplified by the Cornelius stories among others).
Chris: Can you name any writers who set precedence for this attitude prior to yourself?
Mike: I would say P.G.Wodehouse has created a kind of megatext, just as Charles Hamilton did with his various sequences, but that’s probably the least complicated use of ‘megatext’. I realised early on that I could create further stories simply by using the same characters in a new story – sometimes a radically different kind of story – bring light on ideas from as many sources as possible. I used to think in terms of diamonds and refracted/reflected light. Mother London’s form is in my mind that of a 3-dimensional diamond.
Chris: The sort of interrelations in a megatext seem difficult to plan in advance.
Mike: Ideally each text should be able to stand alone yet gain depth and complexity in the light of the other books. I understand how Balzac came to produce the Comedie Humaine – it happened naturally as he realise he could bring the same characters into different stories. Zola was a little more knowing but I suspect the original earlier stories were spontaneous. Powell in Music of Time was far more conscious from the beginning, I think. And rather less effective or interesting because he lacked the width, if you like, of a writer like Balzac.
Chris: You mentioned in Death is No Obstacle that there is no science fiction structure – do you still believe this?
Mike: I suppose there are formulae for different sorts of SF story but they’re all melodramas. They generally begin with a mystery and end with a solution – and perhaps another mystery. As far as I can see, at least, from the ones I’ve read.
Chris: I wanted to ask about your opinions and attitudes toward philosophy in general. In Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, the “cavalry” arrive in the form of a Lancaster bomber full of existentialist and non-foundationalist philosophers. You have Speed Camus, Sparks Wittgenstein, Wrong Way Heidegger and Absolutely Absolutely Kierkegaard (as well as transfinite mathematician Georg Cantor bringing up the rear). Are these the philosophers that you have connected with in particular? Or is the crew of the ‘Faith, Hope and Anxiety’ just there for a wry joke?
Mike: A joke echoing their jokes perhaps? The original comic has many references to existentialism in titles which were frequently missing from the collected version. The comic also amplifies, clarifies stuff in Blood and The War Amongst the Angels. It also shares a notion of the multiverse as ‘scales’ partly based on Mandelbrot’s theories.
Chris: Talking of Blood: A Southern Fantasy, The Second Ether setting which first appears in this book seems to represent a return to your roots in pulp storytelling. In Multiverse, the ultimate enemy in the First Ether is the Grand Consumer, the Original Insect, a mythic projection of global consumerism presented as pulp sci-fi. Do you see this as more than a political allegory, perhaps also as moral allegory? Indeed, do you believe politics and morality can be separated?
Mike: I don’t think they can easily be separated. Certainly we see the actions of politicians in a moral light. I think there’s a near-metaphysical model I have in mind, too. Law and Chaos represent temperaments, ways of looking at the world, systems of behaviour and so on. In Blood and the others I’m looking at the conflict between these systems. That’s why I was so anxious to show that they were not simply different terms for Good and Evil. You can achieve Law through evil means or Chaos through the best of motives. My ideal state is where they are in balance.
Moorcock’s latest book is Modem Times 2.0, a new Jerry Cornelius story, published by PM Press, ISBN 978-1604863086.