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Fifty Percent Fiction
Michael Moorcock
interviewed by
Patrick Hudson
 
     
"SF and fantasy have become the largest-selling
single genre now - they have found a way of
removing the content and leaving the surface
more or less intact"

"The writer I most admired remains Mervyn Peake.
I was disappointed by Tolkien"
 
     
Michael Moorcock
Michael Moorcock is one of the masters of science fiction and fantasy, and perhaps the best fantasy writer alive today. Over a career spanning six decades from the 1950s to the 21st century, he has produced some of the most enduring fantasy novels of the post-war era.
   Moorcock began his career in the latter half of the 1950s as a journalist and writer, as well as singing in jazz and blues clubs around London. He had already been contributing short SF and fantasy stories to British SF magazines for several years when he was approached by John Carnell to write a series of sword 'n' sorcery tales for Science Fantasy magazine, creating one of his most enduring characters, Elric of Melniboné. From this came the concepts of the multiverse and the Eternal Champion, a multi-dimensional universe where different versions of the same hero struggle to maintain the balance between Law and Chaos.
   In 1964 he became editor of New Worlds magazine, and began to establish a new breed of authors who brought formal experimentation, radical politics and outr� subject matter to the genre. Moorcock caught a sea change in SF and was on the forefront of the New Wave, both as a writer and an editor. This period saw the creation of 'Jerry Cornelius' in a parody of his first Elric story, who quickly took on a life of his own, as a shared character used by New Worlds' authors and as the main character in a sequence of increasingly intense and contemplative novels, the fourth of which, The Condition of Muzak, won the Guardian Fiction prize in 1977. Moorcock also maintained his links with the music scene, and has had a long association with the cult band Hawkwind, appearing on a number of their albums from the early 1970s right up to 2000. More recently, Moorcock has concentrated on mainstream work, such as Mother London and his 'Colonel Pyat' sequence, with only occasional forays into fantasy and SF.
   With a new fantasy series featuring Elric hitting the shelves, led by The Dreamthief's Daughter, I caught up with Moorcock via email in January 2002.

Since finishing the main Elric cycle, you've returned to the character a number of times, including in your latest novel The Dreamthief's Daughter. What is it that keeps you, and your readers, coming back to Elric? What in particular inspired this latest outing?

I'm more or less writing my last epic fantasy sequence and so I wanted to give a bit more stuff about the multiverse, about Elric and how he came by his powers. Dreamthief is the first of three. I've just finished the second, The Skrayling Tree and the third, provisionally called The Swordsman Of Mirenburg, is in the works.

Your 'last' fantasy sequence - why is that? What do you think you might do next?

I feel overwhelmed by the genre. When I started, there was no genre - now there is nothing but. The effort not to repeat myself, or the work of others, is far too great for the effect. I think the final Elric will be the last possible development and it will be sensible, and probably honourable, to hang up my pointy fantasy hat. I have several other projects I'd like to work on after I complete the Pyat sequence. I am talking over the idea with Sebastian Peake of writing a book on his mother and father, Maeve and Mervyn, since they were very dear to me. I've avoided requests to write a biography of Mervyn, because of the research and so forth, but I'll happily write a sort of memoir. I shall still write Jerry Cornelius stories. I'm writing one now, Firing The Cathedral. As it is, I've drawn Elric pretty close to the 21st century now.

The Dreamthief's Daughter begins in Germany with the rise of the Nazis. Was the Second World War emblematic of the war of Law against Chaos that forms such a core of your fantasy work? Did your early childhood during the Blitz in London play a part in the apocalyptic imagery of your fantasy series?

To be honest the Blitz actually seemed more like a straight fight between good and evil! The Second World War was for me as much an affirmation of people's courage and natural nobility than it was about fighting Hitler. Growing up, I didn't really know much about Hitler, but I could observe how the people around me in London behaved. The imagery - the constantly altering landscape, which you tend to get when your neighbourhood is being blown to bits by rockets - certainly does inform my fantasy series, just as it informs my non-fantasy work. I've never been much interested in how the war was conducted and won. I am very interested in what led up to it - how it was allowed to happen. So that's what you're seeing in The Dreamthief's Daughter, for instance is an examination more of the logic that allowed Nazism, which translated idealistic romanticism into cynical realpolitik.

I was struck by the following passage in The Dreamthief's Daughter:
     "I'd enjoyed the tale as a boy, but it had become repetitive and self-referencing, like so much of that fantastic stuff, and I had grown bored with it."
   Were you thinking of any writer or work when you wrote these words? Does this describe your own attitude to writing fantasy now you have established yourself as a literary mainstream writer?

My problem has more to do with not making it boring and self-referencing, so I have a habit of beginning any book in any series as if the reader had never read another of mine. But I am discussing a problem. My main problem is that I have created or adapted tools for my own special formulae and methods - and by now every fantasy writer under 50 has, in one way or another, helped themselves to those tools. It leaves you in a rather peculiar position where not only are you in danger of repeating yourself - you're in danger of repeating all those others who have repeated you and others. When I began the multiverse, Law and Chaos and all that other stuff were my own inventions - I had dreamt them up because I didn't want to tell the same story with the same characters and so on that the others had told. Now they are part of the common currency. I could simply fall back on these familiar techniques and no doubt have more successful books, but I don't like to short change the reader.
   So I make the books harder for me to write. It becomes much harder work than when I used to write Hawkmoon books in three days! Maintaining the tensions of the earlier work is difficult, too - the early work was pure passion and rage - the later work has to reproduce a similar effect but through technique.


The Dreamthief's Daughter also features the return of another classic character, Oswald Bastable. The first Bastable novels anticipated the 'steampunk' genre (sub-genre? micro-genre?) by a good decade or so. Were you consciously trying to do something new with these novels? What new possibilities did you see in this milieu?

This reflects the problem I just mentioned. I came up with the idea for Warlord Of The Air specifically because I was quarrelling with [Joseph] Conrad, if you like. There's a piece about this by Brian Baker on the New Worlds site. He calls it 'intervening' and it's what I do a lot - go into the genre or kind of story and then start messing with its message. Unlike Kipling, for instance, I didn't believe you could have benign imperialism. It is a fantasy, usually maintained by injustice and cruelty. So I developed a method of writing a story which would at first seem to show a wonderful Pax Britannica - all the romance of giant airships, idealistic young servants of Empire and so on - and would then slowly show what it was really like. And, inevitably, Hiroshima still got bombed. As I wrote the Hawkmoon books deliberately against a mood of anti-German feeling in Britain at the time, so I wrote the Bastable books to reveal, if you like, the dirt under the carpet. So the form, the idea and the character were all specific and married to underpin the moral debate. This is what I understand science fiction to do best. It's what attracts me about science fiction. So I developed a technique, imagined a world where giant airships had maintained the peace, as it were, and off I went.
   Then someone comes along and thinks "Cool! Giant airships! Alternative world where everything runs on steam! Wow! I can do one of those." And your own book tends to get buried amongst such works to the point where (I heard) someone on a panel in Montreal last year suggested that they didn't like my work because it "had an agenda." And there was I thinking that's what it was all supposed to be about. Certainly Wells, Huxley, Wylie, Orwell, Pohl and Kornbluth had agendas.
   It probably suggests why SF and fantasy have become the largest-selling single genre now - they have found a way of removing the content and leaving the surface more or less intact. If I were 18 today I would not be thinking of writing in the SF or fantasy field as such. People think an idea is to do with how you mine minerals on alien planets or what would happen if people from the future tried to warn us about something. These are familiar riffs. It's more like sampling than original music. Sometimes that sampling can sound great. But it's still sampling.


You wrote fantasy from pretty much the start of your career. What was the initial attraction? Which writers formed the basis of your own approach to the genre?

I had a facility for writing it from an early age. My first magazine (inspired by Crompton's Just William) was called Outlaw's Own and came out when I was 10. It had an SF story in it. I started as a journalist and wrote fiction pretty much as I wrote articles - to order. So by the time I was 17 I'd written in most genres.
   When I was 19, and had really lost interest in fantasy and SF, [John] Carnell commissioned the Elric stories for Science Fantasy. So I wrote them. And people liked them. So I wrote some more... and here I am.
   The writer I most admired remains Mervyn Peake. I was disappointed by Tolkien. T.H. White's series had also been very enjoyable and equally tragic. White had given me some very good advice on how to write, as had Peake. White was very kind and, looking back, tolerant with me. For me, when The Lord Of The Rings came out, it lacked that realism with which Peake and White seemed to underpin their own work. Tolkien talked a lot about evil and innocence but didn't really confront any of the issues, didn't really look at the underbelly of his beautiful beast. That kind of work makes me impatient. Also it supported a Tory orthodoxy, which made me very chary indeed. I suppose in that sense I'm instinctively more an SF than a fantasy writer.


Do you think that SF is an inherently more radical genre than fantasy?

If SF began with Wells and Verne, then the answer is probably yes. It's no great surprise to me that the Italian fascists are extolling the virtues of The Lord Of The Rings, but science fiction can also appear to be radical while pushing the most conservative or orthodox ideas. Robert Heinlein is a good example of that. He was pretty much at odds with Kornbluth, say, whose Marching Morons might relate to the cannon fodder of two world wars and how it refuses to see what and whom it is suffering for.
   Fantasy is largely dreamy escapism or rather reactionary, with its emphasis on heroes and kings and princesses and elves and so forth. There is some which is by no means that - Fritz Leiber is a good example, I think, and John Brunner also wrote some excellent fantasy. Mary Gentle, Storm Constantine also prove me a liar. But in general I think that's how it is. China Mieville, also of the left, writes excellent fantasy, and I've always managed to make my fantasy work, I think, as some sort of criticism or analysis of modern society, but science fiction takes a particular dilemma or subject in its teeth and goes all the way with it - the narrative interest in fact is in the examination.
   Few fantasies, as we know them today, set out to confront orthodoxy or present new ideas. Gene Wolfe comes to mind as an exception, of course. We certainly write both because we are in some way dissatisfied with life as it is. The fantasy offers a greater escape perhaps, whereas the good social science fiction novel offers more potential solutions.


What do you think of fantasy fiction now? Which writers do you particularly admire?

I never really saw it as a genre, more like a state of mind! People like Eddison and Dunsany and Tolkien were all quirky individuals in their own way, almost anoraks in some obsessions, not writing 'fantasy' as a genre, but putting down their own inventions. Certainly not doing it for the money! However, there are still individual writers I admire who probably can't write any other way and are kind of stuck with sharing rack space with the hobbitoids, even though they are pretty much the opposite of the Middle Earth clones. I'm thinking of writers like Ballard, of course, and M. John Harrison. China Mieville, Jeff VanderMeer, David Britton and others are doing very good work. Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood is one of my long-standing favourites. I'm interested in Rhys Hughes, Tim Etchells, Zoran Zivkovitch, Jonathan Carroll and a few others. I particularly enjoy Steve Aylett's work, which reminds me rather of Boris Vian, the French 'surrealist' novelist. A writer has to have a lot of originality and good language to make me read a fantasy. As it became a genre - and of course I helped in the process - I lost interest.

With the release of the film The Lord Of The Rings, I feel obliged to ask your opinion of Tolkien? What was your reaction to The Lord Of The Rings when it first appeared?

I'm afraid boredom is the first word that comes to mind. I'd saved up for the thing as it appeared, paying in so much a week to a bookseller, because these were very expensive books in those days (one and a half guineas each). I hoped the radio series would make it more accessible to me, but I thought that was daft, too, and the versifying pretty low level for an Oxford professor. I'm not sure I've ever finished it. I know I started skipping early, looking for the little Gollum character, who was the only character in it I could identify with. I rather liked him. But the rest, I didn't give a damn what happened to them.
   The film was really boring. You start noticing that they have the technology to make a howitzer big enough to send the Ring into the Sun if they want to; why does that Elricky-looking character have a quiver of arrows that never empties; how did they get down from the top of a mountain snow drift to a river warm enough to support a giant squid? I had the same problems with Excalibur - seeing the whole film crew in Merlin's mirror helmet, for instance. I suspect that if the film were more engrossing, I would not notice these things. I usually don't. But if that's the level of world-building we're talking about, well it's as much of a rational cobble up as Conan's, only done with more attention to anorak details like 'Elvish' (which I thought at first was 'Elvis' in the movie - "this is written in Elvis' hand"). I am not sure why that book should have the charm it has, but clearly it has it. I can't see it.


Is there any chance of seeing an Elric film in the near future?

Well, I get several offers a year. So far nobody has been able to guarantee me enough quality control, so I'll wait until they get cheaper to make and I don't have to worry about spending someone else's �20 million or whatever. Otherwise I've never needed the money enough to let Elric become just another bad fantasy movie. Nowadays, too, there are lots of Tolkien clones for filmmakers to buy and you know how they prefer to do exactly what they did before - The Lord Of The Rings and Star Wars have very similar plots and cop-outs, giving them common denominators, which I might prefer not to work with.

There was a line of comics that adapted the Elric stories - and a few others - during the late 1980s. Did you feel that they caught the mood of your work?

The early ones certainly did. Pacific Comics and then the first few years of First Comics were great with Craig Russell, Mike Mignola and several other outstanding graphic artists doing the stories. As the series ran on (they did Corum and Hawkmoon as well) they began to lose their better artists and instead of replacing them with artists of the same quality, began to get rather poorer artists. As a result the comics - all of First in the end - collapsed. Great shame. The Roy Thomas adaptations of the books were very faithful and it's to them I go when I want to refresh my mind on a point!

Did you think that comics were a better medium for your work than film?

I don't think one medium is better than another. It depends how it is used. I would love to see a full-scale Elric film, concentrating on the characters in a way that hasn't been done before, using the symbolism knowingly and coaxing the most out of it for atmosphere and set design. It could be great movie classic, and it might have little to do, except for barest outlines of plot, with the book. I don't believe, in other words, that the books can't be filmed. I believe a great Elric movie could be made which took elements from all the books and turned them into one. I see no point in planning, as people do these days, for a sequel. I would want to put it all in one story.

I was interested to see that there are role-playing games based on your work, specifically Elric and Corum. Do you play any part in the compilation of these games? Have you ever given them a try?

No, I haven't played them. Unfortunately they're tied to a bad contract and, while I have no quarrel with the creators, I have considerable difficulty with the producer of the game and have given up trying to deal with him. I think it's fair to say the games aren't in any way authorised by me, neither are the scenarios.

I'm quite interested in your life and times in bohemian London. What was your first introduction to the music scene in London? You worked as a blues singer before getting involved in publishing, what sort of things were you doing?

Alexis Korner, Cyril Davis, Skiffle Cellar, Topic Records - and the sudden invasion of old black geniuses into London. Not to mention white guys following the Guthrie tradition. I sang songs like Kevin Barry and Easter Uprising in Irish pubs in the 1950s, all part of the bitter romance of oppression with which, for some reason, we identified. Senator McCarthy sent a lot of Americans abroad. People disgusted with their government's descent into fascism (always a possibility, sadly, in this highly authoritarian republic) went to London and Paris. I met them. I learned Guthrie's licks from Jack Elliott and I corresponded with Guthrie (sick and under house arrest) and Pete Seeger. So I knew there was an alternative and better America from an early age!
   I filled in on washboard with The Vipers (who became The Shadows) and was one of the people (including Charlie Watts) who shouted to Tom Hicks to go up the Two I's and get discovered one evening in the Gyre and Gimble - and Tom took his white Gresch (or it might have been a Hofner) up to the I's and became Tommy Steele. So I suppose I've been around pretty much since the beginning of British rock 'n' roll. I was so jaded by the early 1960s that I refused to cross the street to see a new band my friend Bill Harry was insisting we go and hear. Which is how I never heard the Beatles in the Cavern.
   The first band I was in was called the Greenhorns - mostly skiffle, but doing more Guthrie and Leadbelly - then I did a lot of lone gigs, doing blues, then I toured around Europe, picking up what work I could. I lost all my early stories in Hamburg but never worked at the Star Club! Into the 1970s we all knew one another, really.


Do you still play? I know you performed via satellite with Hawkwind last year, any other gigs in the pipeline?

I was on Hawkwind's Yule Ritual, 2000 album with a couple of numbers. Yes I do still play. As does Jim Sallis, another editor of New Worlds, among other things. An indie label recently approached us about doing a seven-inch, each of us doing about 15 minutes a side. So that should be appearing eventually. I still toy with the idea of the Gloriana musical - Glory! - which I was too lazy to take further, though some of the songs are, I think, the best I've ever sung - certainly the most complicated. There are demos for the project but we lost heart. The BBC and Cameron Mackintosh expressed mild interest, but too mild to fire us up, really. Studio work can be a boring business and you don't want to do more than is absolutely necessary. We'd do rough demos and leave it at that. If no one was much interested, we'd just drop it. Both Pete Pavli (formerly of High Tide, Third Ear Band, Deep Fix) and I were always too interested about too many other things. Pete has a Bachelors in Music for cello, but once he got it, he became interested in something else. Book-binding for a while. He has done some superb bindings. He now sells economics books, because he's also an expert in economics books.
   This sort of thing is characteristic of a lot of the people I knew in the 1960s and 1970s who really weren't that ambitious, as far as making careers went, and never compromised. Some people, it just never really occurs to compromise and when people suggest you modify something you're baffled - but that's what we do and how we do it, that's what our audiences like. Huge waste of time having that kind of conversation over and over again. People keen to do it as a career work on their voices and their stagecraft - they all do - but if you're doing it mostly because you enjoy it, your mind wanders off to enjoy something else, as it were. I play acoustic mostly, and have a five-string banjo I enjoy picking on the back porch.


Do you think there was a connection between the social revolution of the 1960s and science fiction and fantasy? Your fiction reflects knowledge of the drugs and party scene at the time - how involved did you get in all that?

Party scene? Sounds strange to me. Didn't do much of that. There were some clubs, but they were mainly full of record business wankers, so I left those for the uni-dropouts like Rosie Boycott who seemed more interested in meeting the stars than working for the revolution.
   People of my generation were attracted to SF and rock 'n' roll because they had no standing with any kind of authority - they were well in the margins and so well out of sight. Which meant you could make them your own. Drugs, I suppose, were also a natural part of that from the 1950s onwards. They were simply part of the culture I grew up in. Drugs didn't just suddenly appear in 1965, as it sometimes seems from histories of the times... Ask Charlie Parker.
   What happened to rock 'n' roll in Britain also happened to SF. We turned it into something that suited our own voices and concerns. Popular arts had never seemed so good.


Music and SF seem to have changed in similar ways. Do we just look back at the 1960s and 1970s with rose-tinted spectacles, or were those really more exciting times?

We had no borders. We didn't know how far we could go with something until it snapped. We were willing to try new ideas and there was money around to back them. This was before the big companies started applying the lowest common denominator technique to everything, when they didn't know what sold, so they'd back a lot of different kinds of bands. These bands came up on a flood of rage, too - young men who were not being taken on their own terms, at the simplest level, but there was politics and stuff in there, too. Whatever band nowadays admires The Who, they can never capture what The Who had - and that's anger. Anger (frustration, disappointment) also drove the kind of SF that Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Pohl and Kornbluth wrote - anger at social injustice.
   In the case of the blues this was exemplified in black musicians, in the case of folk music it was originally inspired by Fenian songs and the like and later what came to be called 'protest'. A few years ago a nice young man came up to me at a funeral. He said he enjoyed my books and it seemed to him the 1960s had been really glamorous. "But my dad says they weren't really like that, they were just the same as any other time."
   "That means your dad wasn't there," I said.
   Certainly the commuting classes continued to tut-tut at us longhairs as we struggled to get our double basses and tea-chest basses on to the trains in order to get to a gig (no other way), but from the late 1950s on, after National Service was abolished, we all suddenly had a future - and we were determined to make it wonderful. In some ways that optimism was taken over by the peace and love hippies and sentimentalised. Originally there was politics and realistic organisation going on. I was never very happy about our idealism being taken over by the flower children. They made hippies less frightening to the general public and that didn't help our cause either! Imagine Stokely Carmichael with a daffodil coming out of the barrel of his Smith and Wesson .45 Manstopper. (Of course Congress has recently given itself authority to kill any black protestor as a 'terrorist', so that problem's neatly solved).
   But that might be another failed revolution all of its own come to think of it. Realistically, as you can see from the Cornelius stories, which were much more criticism and commentary on their times than they were celebration, I knew there wasn't enough hard political infrastructure to make the sentiment come true. I said while it was happening that I knew it was a Golden Age. I sensed it couldn't last. I was determined to get the very best out of it and I did. I haven't a moment's regret, except where I might have done harm to others. I wasn't married to the hippie movement. The movement coincided with my attitudes. I had them before the fashion changed and I had them afterwards.


Later, you wrote the novelisation of the Sex Pistols movie The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. How did a boring old hippy get to write a novel for the seminal punk band? Did you meet that other MM, Malcolm McLaren? What connection did you see between the story of the Sex Pistols and the Cornelius clan?

I didn't like Malcolm McLaren and so didn't talk to him much. You'll note that my version of the movie is very similar to the later version made by the Pistols themselves, when they took back the material. Malcolm was never central, as he had tried to make himself seem. He got the Pistols publicity, but they had a talent, an attitude which none of his other bands ever possessed. Mostly firmly based on the talent of Glen M. I like Glen Matlock a lot and think he got a bad deal from John Lydon. Lydon's autobiography was largely self-promoting cobblers.
   But don't forget we were the only old hippies the punks liked. We moved naturally into the punk world and I had as many friends and acquaintances doing 'punk' as had done 'hippy'. The Stiff intersection will give you a clue as to where we were. With songs like Sonic Attack and Needle Gun we weren't exactly your average Peace and Love band, and also, believe it or not, we had a kind of rough and ready integrity that the punks responded to. We wouldn't mime our stuff on TV. So there was no problem about me writing the book.
   Later, I did a TV programme on what they were calling a punk revival and interviewed Siouxsie Sioux. The TV people said they'd asked me to do the programme because I was the only interviewer Siouxsie would talk to. I found her very easy to interview though I forgot I was miked up when I said to her that as far as I could see this lot of TV people were like the usual wankers. Their attitude towards me became a little more distant after that. Siouxsie and I had a mutual friend in Lemmy, for instance. I took the job on because I'd always seen Irene Handel as Mrs Cornelius! That's how it fitted. Imagine my surprise when I saw some of the same material being served up by Grant Morrison as his very own. Tut tut.


Do you think you'll ever write a straight autobiography? I bet you've got some stories to tell.

Probably not - I did an interview for a book in which I gave my account of certain events involving a very old friend. His memory of the events was different. Almost lost the friendship. So I'd rather keep my friends and let the bits of autobiography pop up here and there, as they occur. I don't really care if my version is the 'true' one or not. It means in some ways that you have no say in the public story about you and your friends and so on, but none of that much matters in the end. By now I am at least 50 percent fiction in terms of public perception of my life. Anything I say about it becomes almost a contradiction!

That sounds like a great exit line to me. Thanks very much for your time, Michael.
Books by Michael Moorcock (selected titles):
An Alien Heat (1972), Behold The Man (1968), Blood (1995), Breakfast In The Ruins (1972), The Bull And The Spear (1973), Byzantium Endures (1981), The Condition Of Muzak (1977), Count Brass (1973), The Chronicles Of Corum (1986), The Cornelius Chronicles (1986), A Cure For Cancer (1971), The Dancers At The End of Time (1996), The Dreamthief's Daughter (2001), Dying For Tomorrow (1978), Earl Aubec (1999), Elric Of Melniboné (1972), The Entropy Tango (1981), The Eternal Champion (1970), The Final Programme (1968), Gloriana (1978), The History Of The Runestaff (1979), Kane Of Mars (1998), King Of The City (2000), The Lives And Times Of Jerry Cornelius (1976), London Bone (2001), Lunching With The Antichrist (1995), My Experiences In The Third World War (1979), Mother London (1988), The Nomad Of Time (1982), The Rituals Of Infinity (1986), Sailing To Utopia (1997), The Shores Of Death (1993), Silverheart (with Storm Constantine, 2000), Sojan (1977), Stormbringer (1965), The Sundered Worlds (1970), Tales From The Texas Woods (1997), The Time Dweller (1969), The War Hound And The World's Pain (1981), The Warlord Of The Air (1971), Warriors Of Mars (1965), The Wrecks of Time (1967)
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