May contain spoilers.
Blood: A Southern Fantasy was published in 1994, incorporating stories that had been written over the previous four years. The book is set in a strange alternative United States, one in which the racial roles between black and white people are reversed, and where a strange new power source, “colour” has been discovered in isolated and mysterious pools. As the story develops, it becomes clear that drawing power from colour is creating an ever-greater rift in reality – and in particular a giant rip in space-time known as the Biloxi Fault. In effect, using colour as power is gradually destabilising this world. The setting is hypnotically engaging, not least of which because little is spelled out explicitly – it is left to the reader to use their imagination to complete their image of the familiar yet alien world.
Within this setting, we are introduced to a cast of exotic characters – Jack Karaquazian and Sam Oakenhurst are jugadors: riverboat gamblers who play “the game”, a mysterious gambling contest in which players wager psychic stakes and compete within virtual universes. Their stories develop around their respective romantic entanglements with Colinda Dovero and “the Rose”, a mysterious half-human, half-plant adventurer first introduced in the 1991 Elric novel The Revenge of the Rose. Rose has the capacity to move between worlds – to enter the mysterious “Second Ether”... In following her, the gamblers discover that the world they live within is more like the malleable universes of the jugador’s game than they could ever imagine.
Several of the interludes within Blood are written in the over-the-top style of the old pulp space operas (of which the Flash Gordon black-and-white serial reels are perhaps the most famous form). In these tales of the “Corsairs of the Second Ether” absurdly named characters such as Captain Buggerly Otherly and Professor Pop are up against impossible odds in a chaotic tempest between realities. In his early career, Mike worked on many pulp publications, and wrote a great number of comic strips for Fleetway around 1960. The “Second Ether” stories within Blood feel like a tribute to this classic form (although his wife, Linda, has described these sections as “unreadable”, only able to enjoy them when read aloud by Mike during book readings). The allusion is made tangible: Oakenhurst follows the Second Ether tales in his world, yet later discovers that the fantastical stories have a reality all of their own. This emphasises a point made earlier – that Moorcock’s Multiverse is a literary superset, every story is a world, every world a story.
The Second Ether trilogy, which begins with Blood and continues with Fabulous Harbours and The War Among the Angels, is a remarkable reworking of the earlier Eternal Champion mythology. All the elements are here, but transposed into new forms. The Multiverse is now seen as the worlds within the fractal “Second Ether”, and is expressed in more modern terminology, while the warring forces of Law and Chaos are represented by the draconian Singularity and the free-thinking Chaos Engineers. One aspect is tangibly different in the new set up – there is no longer a clear sense of there being a single Eternal Champion. If Jack Karaquazian is seen as the Champion, then Oakenhurst can be seen as the Companion, but one can equally see the Rose as the Champion, and Oakenhurst as Consort. The old forms have become fluid, and there are now many people who can influence events (a theme that was originally explored in the stories that branched out from the Cornelius novels).
These heroic figures are referred to as “mukhamir” – the players in the Game of Time. They travel between different worlds on the moonbeam paths (a reworking of the older symbol of the Seas of Fate, perhaps) trying to work influence on human history and potential. Later stories in the Second Ether trilogy tell the tales of the various mukhamir, developing the themes even further; the entire earlier Eternal Champion mythos is contained within this new mythology, yet it is also taken in new directions. These stories are more complex than a typical fantasy novel and while a few readers have found Blood to be confusing and disjointed, the trilogy is sheer joy for the avid Moorcock reader.
The themes introduced in this trilogy are further expanded in later work, in particular the Vertigo comic series Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse (published between 1997 and 1998, and cover depicted above), which complements the Second Ether trilogy perfectly, but is difficult (perhaps impossible) to appreciate without a strong grounding in Moorcock’s earlier writings.
The newer themes also make their way into the recently completed Dreamquest trilogy (The Dreamthief’s Daughter, The Skrayling Tree, The White Wolf’s Son) – an enthralling expansion of the Elric mythos developed from a plot device within Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse in which Elric undergoes a thousand year vision quest which places him within European history. I have yet to read the last of these novels – knowing it is the last of the Elric stories leaves me reluctant to rush in too precipitously, but having enjoyed the earlier two novels tremendously, my craving for resolution is hard to keep in check.
A major villain within the later mythology is the Grand Consumer, also known as the Original Insect, or (somewhat whimsically) Old Reg. The Grand Consumer is a grotesque metaphor for the greed in our Western societies, for the cold instrumental reasoning behind ruthless capitalism and “the ultimate triumph of appetite over reason”. It appears in Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse as an immense cyclopean beetle feeding upon the possibilities and raw stuff of the multiverse, wonderfully pencilled by Walter Simonson, and occurs as a metaphorical allusion within the literary novel, King of the City, a bitter, elegiac rant against the corruption of the news media and of urban society by the dominant commercial forces. (The novel compliments the metropolitan mythology of Mother London, but arguably reflects a greater degree of despair in the face of the forces now seemingly in power). In fighting against the Grand Consumer, the mukhamir of the Game of Time seek to create possibilities beyond mere vacuous consumption, to overthrow the “Prozac democracy” and restore some dignity to human society. It is Moorcock’s enraged idealism fighting a literary battle against the seemingly inescapable domination of avarice over human potential.
To a certain extent, the Moorcock novels can be divided into three eras – the Eternal Champion mythos of the 1960s and 1970s, the post-Cornelius middle era of the 1980s in which literary fiction begins to emerge alongside the fantasy novels (and the quality of the writing and the nature of the themes becomes more mature), and the Game of Time mythos which begins in the early 1990s. The writing remains inventive and (in the words of The Guardian) “restlessly original, brimming over with clever ideas” throughout, but the quality of both the prose and the narrative construction have advanced remarkably throughout this unique career.
It is a sad fact of the book market that literary novels (with a few exceptions) don’t sell as well as genre fiction, and it is perhaps for this reason that Moorcock has continued to write the two forms in parallel – fantasy for money, presumably, and literary for acclaim and creative outlet. It is possible, when looking at the publication dates, to see the stories evolving in parallel. The Steel Tsar, a fantasy about an alternative Russian revolution, was written alongside Byzantium Endures, a literary novel about the historic Russian revolution from the memoirs of Colonel Pyatt – a bombastic and relentlessly unreliable narrator whose tall tales are both hilarious and disturbing.
The Between the Wars quartet of literary novels that begins with Byzantium Endures has taken Moorcock two decades to complete, and dozens of fantasy novels have been written throughout its development, benefiting from both the research and the thematic developments. Some of his most engaging adventure stories have been written in the fourteen years it has taken to tackle the final part of the quartet, The Vengeance of Rome, which deals with the horrors of World War II and Auschwitz from Pyatt’s uniquely deluded perspective. It was a difficult book for Mike to write, but the achievement has been appreciated by the literary world. The Guardian referred to it as an “historical picaresque on the grand scale”, while another reviewer calls it “a final, breath-stopping moment of deeply ironic self-delusion at the end of a grandiose, beautifully modulated quartet.”
Michael Moorcock has been crafting his creative narratives for half a century, from inventive adventure stories through to ambitious literary sequences, his award-winning career would be the envy of any writer. Even this is not the complete measure of his achievements, since Mike has also been a successful blues guitarist, and has written songs for (and performed with) bands such as Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult. Although he has never achieved more than a modest degree of commercial success, there is a sense in which his work is stronger for having always been tied to the counterculture, kicking back against the dominant forces of our age while avoiding the easy trap of falling to the other extreme (as the radical Marxist does, for instance), and instead walking the fine line between reactionary politics and idealism.
Underneath the many faces of Moorcock’s novels lies a robust existentialism, an ethical humanism worthy of any of the great twentieth century moral philosophers, and a metaphysical perspective which crafts and endlessly reinvents a mythology for our times. He has not been a writer for the masses, perhaps, but for those of us who connect with the densely layered themes and associations of his work, who enjoy a fantasy novel that will make you ponder your own ethics while evoking wondrous and fantastical vistas, or a literary novel that draws against a deeply compassionate view of the undercurrent of humanity, Michael Moorcock represents one of the exceptional creative talents of our time.
The opening image is the cover from the graphic novel edition of Michael Moorcock's Multiverse, by the artist Walter Simonson. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
A new serial begins in June.