Reading Moorcock


Oct 10, 2018
I'm working on a comprehensive bibliography (fellow bibliographers will enjoy the hubris), ahead of which I'm reading or re-reading everything I can track down, in order, starting from the beginning. I can't link you to the in-progress bibliography because I have too few posts, but I thought it might be amusing (to myself, at least) to comment on things as I read them. I've been at it for a while: I'm almost at the end of 1970 and the current item is Moorcocks' Letter in the November 1970 number of Analog.


Not a frequent letter writer (at least not to the science fiction magazines, the exception being his occasional and often amusingly ill-tempered column in Speculation), this one was ostensibly a response to P. Schulyer Miller's review of The Final Programme. Moorcock protests (on behalf of fellow Cornelius authors Aldiss, Sallis, Jones, Spinrad, Jakubowski, Harrison and Jones, but not, interestingly, his own) that hallucinogenic drugs were not the inspirations for the literary experiments (misreading, perhaps, Miller's question about the nature of reality). But really the letter seems to be something of a joke, at the expense of the correspondence one imagines had been coming in to the New Worlds mailbag for several wearying years, beginning as it does "Analog remains for me the most idiosyncratic, potty and incomprehensible of all the sf magazines and I continue to admire it in my puzzled way even if I can't understand the stories". Campbell didn't get the joke.

Next, Sea Wolves in the collection Science Against Man.
Anthony Cheetham didn't really know what to make of 'Sea Wolves', which he published in his anthology Science Against Man in December 1970. "How do you write an introduction to the scarcely sane adventures of Michael Moorcock's quirky "modern myth figure" Jerry Cornelius?" he asked, before ducking the question.


In Cheetham's defence, the many of the Cornelius shorts do inhabit that same territory as Ballard's condensed novels and some of the other New Worlds writers' quests is search of new forms for their subject matter. Moorcock rebuffed the charge that many of the New Worlds writers were more concerned with form than substance, but it's undoubtedly the case that the relationship between the two was not at all conventional (that was, of course, part of the point).

The original Cornelius shorts were absolutely contemporary, dealing as they did with the obsessions and fads of the late '60s and early '70s, so it's surprising how relevant they are to concerns that remain with us (or have returned to concern us again) in the 21st century. Overpopulation, the relationship of technology to humanity, increasing political idiocy and short-termism... none of these have gone away.

'Sea Wolves' is pretty much encapsulated in its 22nd chapter (the 18-page story has 24 chapters, another way in which the series feels startlingly at home in our day of decreasing attention spans and 'phone screen-sized bits of product), which ends :"At last the computer had superceded the automobile as the focus for mankind's hopes and fears. It was the death of ancient freedoms."

And of course it's also the story with the Dubrovnik corpse-boats. One of Moorcock's most unfortunately prescient tales, as it turns out.
A Cure for Cancer is Moorcock's first real claim to be considered a serious contemporary novelist with something to say that was worth saying. Which sounds absolutely dreadful, and a lot of A Cure for Cancer is dreadful, in the literal sense, but it's also sharply observed, absurd, disturbing and in places very very funny.


Among the obsessive attention to the details of Jerry's ever-changing wardrobe and the frequent beyond-casual sexual encounters, the American forces occupying north-west Europe reduce London to a napalmed wasteland while Jerry manoeuvres or is out-manoeuvred by a protean cast of enemies and allies, ostensibly warring over a certain device and its role in the fate of a collection of Jerry's patients, the unclearly-defined 'transmogs'. While the Organization and its Opposition do battle over the ship-load of unfortunates Jerry has other concerns entirely: the fate of his dead sister Catherine, for whom he is (quite literally) ready to bring about the end of the world.

A Cure for Cancer is a commentary on its times, and the absurdities of Swinging London, US foreign policy in the Far East, Israeli expansionism in the Near East, rampant individualism, consumerism and technological advance provide it with a frighteningly realistic backdrop (and a frighteningly contemporary backdrop, 50 years after it was written). It's a pity that so much of whatever energy Moorcock had left for his own writing in this period was diverted into churning out the Epic Fantasy series' for which he is probably best known (and which he needed to keep on writing in order to keep on paying for New Worlds to exist, which almost makes the sacrifice worth it), because he was capable of far better work. The Jerry Cornelius books are the first substantial evidence of it.
Pride Of Empire's publication might predate the book form of A Cure for Cancer by a few weeks: number one of Michael Butterworth's magazine Corridor, in which it appeared, is dated January-February 1971.
Corridor 1 rp.jpg

Pride of Empire reappeared later in the year as 'Chronology' in The Nature of the Catastrophe and then again several years later as the first appendix to The Condition of Muzak. It's a kind of pedigree for the character of Jerry Cornelius, purporting to be excerpts from primary records of his fleeting appearances throughout the twentieth century. The piece reads like the sources without the gobbets, and more than anything has the feel of the seeds of the Between the Wars books.
The Best SF Stories from New Worlds series was fairly self-explanatory and - apart from a rather perfunctory eighth installment a few years later, with no editorial matter at all - this was the last of them.

Falling at the point where New Worlds was effectively ceasing to exist as a magazine and about to re-emerge as a quarterly paperback anthology (it never was quarterly, nothing with New Worlds ever quite going to plan), this seventh number is a particularly strong one, including Delany's Nebula Award-winning 'Time Considered as a Helix....', Mike Harrison's Jerry Cornelius short 'The Ash Circus' (one of the best of the early Cornelius shorts), and Moorcock's own Cornelius story 'The Tank Trapeze' (the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia one). Stories from Ballard and Bayley and others, and - at long last - Charles Platt's 'Lone Zone' which should have featured in the series long before, but was probably kept back until now because the novel it became a part of (The City Dwellers) was about to be published.
I am really enjoying this thread. Please keep it up.
Is Sea Wolves in Any of the Moorcock anthologies? Thinking possibly The Lives and Times of JC. I am a long way from my Moorcock collection at the moment.
Thank you! I’m in the middle of Knight of the Swords at the moment, but my available reading time has been way down lately.

Sea Wolves was collected in both The Nature of the Catastrophe and The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius (and their more recent counterparts).

I am really enjoying this thread. Please keep it up.
Is Sea Wolves in Any of the Moorcock anthologies? Thinking possibly The Lives and Times of JC. I am a long way from my Moorcock collection at the moment.
I'll be frank: I don't really get on with the core Eternal Champion novels. With the possible exception of the original early '60s sequences of Elric stories (which at least have some verve, whatever their faults), I find the Hawkmoon and Eternal Champion sequences to be pretty thin stuff. Unfortunately, the same is true of The Knight of the Swords.

This one won the British Fantasy Award for best novel in 1972, but all these years later it's hard to see why. It's an ordinary enough quest story, and although there are some neat images (Arioch is nicely portrayed towards the end) the whole suffers from the haste with which is was written (Moorcock has acknowledged many times the speed at which he produced many of these epic fantasy pot-boilers in the late '60s and early '70s, and boy, does it show). In an interview somewhere Charles Platt recalls Moorcock churning the books out, consumed with self-loathing, and in his column in Speculation in September 1970 Moorcock admitted to hating most of his own books: "I have only ever read one of my sword and sorcery novels through and was horrified at its badness".

The self-flagellation was perhaps a little overdone. The Knight of the Swords isn't terrible. It's main sin is perhaps being a little boring. The action never really seems to have any substance to it, and it's interesting that the most compelling scenes aren't the episodes of adventure but rather the quiet interludes (the first episode at Moidel's Castle is by far the best part of the book) where people actually spend some time with each other.

Even by this point in the Tale of the Eternal Champion it was all getting to be rather familiar. No matter what peril our hero finds himself facing, any tension that has been built up for the reader is soon dissipated by the intervention of yet another god from yet another machine (or one of his body parts, at least). I suppose that Moorcock worked out the whole farrago as a way of being able to turn out books quickly, without having to give too much attention to world (or, in his case, cosmos) building, but I can't help but feel that the obsessional linking of everything detracted from the better stuff. On which note, it's worth remembering that Corum Jhaelen Irsei is an anagram.

As I've said before, the saving grace of these books (as far as I'm concerned, at least) is that they paid for New Worlds and Moorcock's other less commercially rewarding work: if you like, his equivalents of 'Dinah-Moe Humm' and 'Naval Aviation in Art'.
Books (in Locus no. 85) isn't really much of anything beyond a notice of the contents of the forthcoming New Worlds Quarterly, of Moorcock's own new-published or soon-to-be-published books, and of various other titles of interest.
Moorcock thought very highly of 'Voortrekker', first published in three parts in Frendz in June 1971, writing in the same column in Speculation in September 1970 where he professed his distaste for his own sword and sorcery books "How, I sometimes wonder, can a writer who can turn out so much crap sometimes turn out a story as good as 'Voortrekker'...."

He was right, of course. If the Jerry Cornelius shorts (the 'apocryphal' stories) are to your tastes at all, then you are - like their author - likely to think very highly of them, and Voortrekker is among the best. It's a masterpiece of precision, perhaps almost over-distilled, with all of the superfluous matter cut away leaving only a series of images - stroboscopic, if you want - of the 1920s unravelling into the 1950s unwinding into the 1970s. Imperialism, colonisation, race relations - everything is there again, in south-east Asia, in southern Africa, in Central America. In the introduction to The Opium General Moorcock states that very little of his writing has been overtly political, and while Jerry is very much an observer of the events that unfold around him (because of him?) it's never apparent that Moorcock felt anything approaching the same detachment.

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