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review 2015-10-16 19:06
An Alien Heat - Michael Moorcock

As a writer, it's hard for me to imagine how people can just keep writing the same thing, over and over--just providing slight variations on the same plot, characters, and setting, where the only thing that changes are the names. At that point, it's less a creative endeavor than the symptom of a neurosis: an obsessive need to recreate the same familiar pattern, over and over, in hopes that it will free you--and truthfully, I can think of few better ways to murder creativity than to write in this way.

Of course, we writers have certain interests and concerns that are going to crop up again and again, our favored themes, whether it's PKD's paranoid uncertainty of self or Le Guin's mutual cultural incomprehensibility, but as long as we keep finding different angles of approach, different ways to explore these themes, then we're not just treading water.

Of course, I know that many writers do it to get paid, and that in any field, after years of working your way up with fresh ideas and hard work, it can be tempting to sit on your laurels and stop really trying, just letting the paycheques come in--hell, plenty of folks end up at that point without ever having had a fresh idea in their lives. I mean, I've written ten thousand words in a day before, so if I wanted to pump out a generic fantasy novel every week, I'm certainly physically capable of doing so--it's the mental aspect that prevents me.

Not just the fact that I can't stand the idea of filling the world with more generic crap (which I can't), but the need to completely turn off my brain and not care at all about what I've made--and that's part of what makes Moorcock interesting, is that he is clearly capable of not being critical of himself. He has a reputation in the field of being able to turn out a short story faster than anyone else, and I have sometimes gotten the impression from various works of his that his pen was outstripping his thoughts--because he has produced works like Corum, which is more or less a rewrite of Elric with slightly duller characters and slightly weirder cosmology--but then he comes along and writes something like Gloriana, or An Alien Heat.

It's as if you took a writer as flat (though intriguingly madcap) as E.R. Burroughs and told me that he'd tried his hand at something in the style of Conrad and Ford's The Inheritors--it's such a complete change in voice and approach. Indeed, Moorcock's book has much in common with that tale of profound intelligences lost in the stream of time, the past and future colonizing and changing one another in unpredictable, unexpected ways.

As with Gloriana, Moorcock is working in a completely different voice here, a different tone and pacing. While in Corum, the romance may be central, it is perfunctory, accomplished in a moment, without bothering to delve introspectively to shore up its foundations--no real depth of feeling is ever produced. Yet here, the romance is the plot, is the conflict, drawn out over the length of the series, the back and forth of it, the inner turmoil of it all are more Darcy of Pemberly than Carter of Mars.

Instead of revolving around a series of cosmic villains, as in Elric, it is a story built upon the decisions and feelings of its characters, built from the inside out instead of imposing some artificial external conflict upon the characters to motivate them--and the former method is always going to seem more personal, more vital, and more perilous to the reader, even when the stakes of the conflict are much lower.

Indeed, in terms of sci fi tropes with farce, Moorcock seems to be laying out a prototype for one of my favorite series: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Indeed, in the third book, when Moorcock's characters are trapped in the beginning of Earth's history, the parallels are almost too remarkable to be coincidence.

However, Moorcock does not quite have the precision necessary for a well-turned farce, as Wodehouse so often demonstrated, where the timing and rhythm of the scenes must be constructed with great care in order for them to work like the well-oiled machines they are. As such, in his pointed satire Adams ends up perfecting the form that Moorcock laid out--as is so often the case with his grand and intriguing but somewhat rough ideas.

However, An Alien Heat does share some shortcomings with works like Corum--quite literally, in that the exceedingly strange and imaginative world that he sets up for us is populated with characters who are all too mundane. In a world that is not only post-scarcity, but in which people have an ability to reshape the world to their liking beyond the wildest dreams of virtual reality, it seems odd that the characters would stick so closely to modern conceptions of identity.

For example, if a person can change their gender at will, or negate it entirely, or invent a new one, you aren't going to see the same old gender roles continue on as if nothing has changed. In a world where physical identity and appearance are completely fluid, you would expect peoples views of themselves to be similarly mutable.

Likewise, in a world where people can create anything with a thought, things like gold and gems would no longer retain the status rarity affords them currently--indeed, Moorcock often touches upon the fact that really, the only thing that produces value in his world is novelty, and yet he does not always succeed in demonstrating this effectively in his actual descriptions.

There are certainly good touches--that once we have all we want, things like depression or moroseness become interesting as poses, as markers of difference for their own sake, even when they aren't necessary--precisely because they aren't--but he might have done much more.

Indeed, one can also see the effect the work has had on another great writer who took the ideas and ran with them: Moorcock's protege M. John Harrison, who in his Viriconium series does begin to explore what a world of such profound difference might look like, where things like reality and identity begin to lose their meaning, and cohesion in the face of an ever-shifting world in which very little can be taken for granted. Once again, in the third book, when Moorcock gives us his hallucinatory cities, intelligent entities dying and going mad out in the wilderness, where most folks are happy to leave them alone, though some are drawn in by curiosity, we see a blueprint for the world that Harrison will later present us.

I do think that this book ends a chapter too late--that the conclusion Moorcock gives us originally produces an intriguing tale along the lines of Kafka, almost an inversion of Bierce's classic Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. As it is, Moorcock gives us a denouement which is altogether too tidy and easy, wrapping everything up and explaining it away, which I think would have made a much better opening to the next book.

Then again, perhaps his mainstream sci fi publishers were not ready for that sort of book--just as they weren't ready for Harrison, and put a Burroughs cover on his Kafka story. In any case, while the next book in the series is a bit of a lull, giving us much of the same, over again, the third book does much more with the setting and characters--even if the conclusion is a bit tacked-on.

Overall, the vision Moorcock gives us here is a testament to his creativity--he does not stick to just one story, or just one kind of world, even when his worlds are all interconnected, he still manages to give each one its own tone and voice, and second only to his masterwork, Gloriana, the End of Time series is one of his most intriguing.

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review 2015-09-24 13:55
The Swords Trilogy - Michael Moorcock

Moorcock has a reputation among fantasy editors for the speed with which he can turn out a story--call him and tell him you have a slot in an upcoming anthology that need filling, and he'll send you something the next day. It reminds me of an old truism in writing: if you never seem to be able to finish anything, then you're too critical of yourself, but if you are finishing things constantly, then you probably aren't critical enough.

That isn't to suggest that Moorcock has a swell head--from everything I've heard, he's a pleasant, self-effacing fellow--but that perhaps sometimes, his pen ends up working faster than his brain. I'd heard that the ideas he begins to touch upon in early works like Elric don't start coming into their own until later pieces, like Corum or Von Bek--which was why I was surprised that a number of elements in Corum felt less sophisticated than their treatment in Elric.

Unlike Elric, Corum doesn’t maintain his internal conflict throughout. Though he comes from an artistic, intellectual, peaceful background originally, this doesn’t really color his later actions or thoughts. Once the ‘badass warrior switch’ is flipped, that seems to be it, and he’s onto his new life. Certainly, there is a sense that he wants this to be over with, so he can return to a state of peace, but one would expect that his former life would change the way he approaches being a sword-weilding demon fighter, but it simply doesn’t seem to.

Doubtless, there was plenty of reason for the character to change--his whole life, everything he knew was ripped away from him--but I still would have liked to see that transformation play out, to see the contradiction between how his expectations and assumptions just don’t match the world around him, and the life he is forced into living. The whole story of his race is that they are ancient, wise, but naive and out of touch, and it would have worked better to see more of that in Corum, instead of the ‘take it as it comes’ style of the average sword and sorcery hero.

Likewise, the romance, while a central part of the story, is dealt with in a rather perfunctory fashion. We don't really see how the characters fell in love, or why this particular relationship formed, and so it ends up feeling less personal and more like a plot point--especially when compared to something like Dancers at the End of Time--but then, that was an occasion where Moorcock really took the time to get into the characters heads, to let the romance develop over the course of several books, and to explore the conflicting feelings at its heart.

Of course, it's not quite a fair comparison to make, since in that series, the romance really is the central plot, while here, as important as it might be to Corum's character, it's still secondary to the massive multi-dimensional conflict that takes center stage. It's unfortunate, because by focusing on that, he really could have separated Corum from Elric, who hardly has much time for sentiment.

The introduction of the dimension-hopping heroes' companion in book two didn't work especially well, either--like in Leiber's Swords of Lankhmar , the series suddenly takes an odd left turn, introducing this silly dimensional traveller who suddenly starts explaining the makeup of the universe and other such dull exposition.

We were reading a story about a man embroiled in a great conflict, but also a personal one--trying to avenge the death of his family, the only life he’d ever known, who has since become bitter and broken through struggle, but who has also found love, and keeps fighting for the sake of that love. To have this secondary character burst in with a completely different voice and tone, insisting that Corum is just one of many distracts from his story, cheapens his struggle, and makes the whole thing feel oddly goofy, especially compared to the opening book.

From there on, especially as we go into the third book and near the climax proper, the story becomes more piecemeal, where each scene begins to feel more like a self-enclosed event. It’s very much the cliche pulp approach, where this happens, then this happens, and we’re technically moving forward toward the final conflict, but the individual episodes aren’t placed in a meaningful order. It brings to mind the old writing adage that every scene should be followed by a ‘but’ or ‘therefore’ which connects it directly to the next scene. It’s not enough that they’re simply given to us in a certain order, they must be reliant on each other, there must be a sense of build, of inevitability, of meaningful connection from moment to moment.

The writing likewise vacillates in quality, from the flat exposition of the prologue to the quite visceral and imaginative scenes in the palace of the horrid chaos god Arioch at the end of book one--which indeed, are much more effective than the climaxes of the next two books, making them feel rather underwhelming in comparison.

But for all that, I can see why people find Corum to be an expansion on Elric, because there is one very real way that Moorcock is pushing the envelope here: the shifting dimensions, the alternate realities and identities, and layers of contradictory worlds are a great way to push the boundaries of what fantasy is, and how it operates--and yet, I'm reluctant to give Moorcock his due here as the self-defined 'bad writer with big ideas', because these aren't quite ideas.

What he's doing here is playing with form and structure, with the symbols that authors use to explore their ideas--but he's not creating themes and concepts beneath these symbols to hold them up and give them meaning. Magic is a symbol, and there are many different ways magic can be presented, and many ideas we can explore through our magic. However, far too many authors are content to simply produce complex magic systems without ever bothering to connect them to meaningful themes and ideas.

As other authors have proven in later books, like Viriconium and Bas-Lag--or even games like Planescape-Moorcock's symbolic innovation provides an exceedingly rich field of play for any writer to explore and represent a plurality of ideas--but unfortunately, Moorcock himself does not do much with them here.

Likewise, his focus on law vs. chaos instead of good vs. evil presents a number of interesting opportunities, from entropy and the Social Contract to the nature of the creative spirit, itself--but again, he's not pushing these representations very far.

It's the same problem he has in Dancers at the End of Time: he's given us a very strange and complex world, but the characters and themes in the book just aren't strange enough to match it. The structure Moorcock presents, wherein different individuals from various times and dimensions might come together, and that some of those individuals are really the same person, expressed in a different age--that’s quite interesting, but it’s also disappointing that he doesn’t do more with it. What does it mean for one person to meet a different version of himself? How does that feel, how does it affect him, moving forward? It should certainly offer some profound insights, or at least force us to confront some common preconceptions.

Likewise, it’s a great opportunity to explore the nature of storytelling, itself--the fact that we authors do keep writing about these similar kinds of figures, who really do feel like ‘versions’ of the same hero, or love interest, or villain--one begins to imagine the way that Gaiman would approach it. Once again, it’s something that Harrison spends a great deal of time exploring in Viriconium, where the same plot and characters are destined to recur, over and over again, but with such different pacing, voice, and tone that it becomes clear that these standard forms and types are really not the heart of the story--that indeed, they become almost superfluous.

After all, think of all the various stories in any medium, books, movies, comics, that play out pretty much exactly the same, whether they take on the form of the monomyth or the murder mystery or any other, with the same standard character types (hero, sidekick, wise man, love interest, villain, henchmen)--and then realize that this has nothing to do with the quality of the work. It’s all the other stuff that makes it good, that makes it feel original--or fails to.

The fact that, to combine their powers together, the characters are compelled to link arms and form a sort of cosmic kickline certainly does not help to make the experience feel as profound and strange as meeting an amoral albino version of yourself ought to--and really, what else is a good fantasy book but an opportunity to meet a version of yourself you'd never previously imagined could exist?

In the end, Moorcock gives us a blueprint for what the curious future of fantasy might look light, but sadly, it's largely inspirational because it invites other writers to fill in the holes he's left in his story, to take that huge, complex symbolic structure and really make it do some of the heavy lifting--and happily, they best fantasists of the modern era have done precisely that--but it's still a bit disappointing that Moorcock himself didn't sit down and take the time to give us his version of it.


My List of Suggested Readings in Fantasy

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review 2015-08-29 09:24
A Quick Review of Count Brass
Hawkmoon: Count Brass - Michael Moorcock

I enjoyed the writing but I suspect three stories are a little dated now - but I see why I enjoyed them when I was just getting into sff!

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review 2014-12-03 00:00
Von Bek (The Tale of the Eternal Champion)
Von Bek (The Tale of the Eternal Champion) - Michael Moorcock The five stars is for the first book, The War Hound and the World's Pain. I was less impressed with The City in the Autumn Stars for some reason; but I'd still give it a solid four.

I'll actually review this sometime soon.
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review 2014-01-14 06:25
Check Your Runesword at the Door, Please
Elric: The Stealer of Souls (Eternal Champion, #11) - Michael Moorcock

The first thing you need to do when writing a Michael Moorcock sword and sorcery novella is divide your 60,000 words into four sections, 15,000 words apiece. Then divide each section into six chapters. Allow a major event to happen, something astonishing, every four pages. How about a plot? How about we have only six days to save the Multiverse? Now draw a map of your world so you know where you are at any given time. Now begin...

Sounds easy, right? Well, maybe for Moorcock. Seriously the major weakness with some of Moorcock is seeing through the planogram writing style. It still doesn't mean it isn't fun but Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, Von Bek taken in too large doses will kill the intended effect. This is the good and the bad about these White Wolf/Borealis collections of Moorcock's Eternal Champion works: too much of a good thing makes one's stomach ache but we all want the whole story. 

The best bit in here is The Revenge of the Rose. The other two long pieces, The Sleeping Sorceress and Stormbringer, are not nearly as good or memorable. The former is too much of the "make it up as you go" style and the latter, while nicely tying up the entire Elric saga, drags on a little too long (but has a nice denouement). The short pieces in the middle gain from the tighter plotting inherent in a short story versus a novella.

This is volume 11 in the US Eternal Champion series. I think Elric: Song of the Black Sword (volume 5) was a little stronger than this one but between the two you pretty much get all of Moorcock's Elric, at least as it stood at the end of the century.

Bizarre creepy cover and interior art that seems to have little to do with Elric but looks cool nonetheless.

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