Skip to content
Siren's Call: A talk with Michael Moorcock
Where do you begin with Michael Moorcock? His career and background range as far and wide as his characters do across the multiverse. Novelist, short story writer, editor (of New Worlds and other publications), journalist, musician -- and, in the case of this column, a very gracious interviewee. His detailed answers below, like those found on his website, Moorcock's Miscellany, seem designed to help enthusiasts and scholars alike to a better understanding of his multiverse.
Moorcock's works -- which include the Elric and Jerry Cornelius series, "London Bone," "Behold the Man" and much more (the SF Site has a good overview) -- are celebrated by the fine San Francisco-based, indie publisher Tachyon in the new anthology "The Best of Michael Moorcock" (Tachyon: 404 pp., $14.95 paper) edited by John Davey with Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.
With so much of Hollywood devoted to fantasy and science fiction today, there did seem, after all, to be one place to begin -- with Elric's future on the big screen.
Q: On your blog, you talk about an Elric movie. What is the status of this movie?
A: Universal has an option on it. We were moving ahead rapidly with Chris and Paul, the Weitz brothers, and Universal until they had a couple of big failures at the box office, on which they'd spent too much money -- both fantasy movies. This gave them pause. Did those fail because they were about antiheroes (they weren't really)? Wasn't Elric an antihero ? While they were paused, Chris and Paul had to keep working, so that's what happened. We expect, if all is well, to start work in earnest next year, though Chris and Paul will probably only be producing. We have a script, and I think this might be a better psychic time, if not an economic one, to be doing the movie.
A "better psychic time" -- that seems to be the case for Solomon Kane, a fantastic Howard character. He finally has a movie coming, directed by Michael J. Bassett (just interviewed at Comic Con). When I heard about that, I thought, "It's about time." Why do you feel "it's about time" for Elric?
We're winning wars and wondering why it doesn't feel like victory. Losing certainty in our assumed national virtues. Staring at Chaos and hoping we can find a way to support Law. Pulling hope out of despair. We're in a reflective mood and questioning our values now, I think. Kane was, if you like, Howard's most reflective character. Elric began to question his forefathers, knowing they put him on a road that was no longer right for the nation. Kane is about changing values and the end of empire. Elric never is quite certain what he's done or why. I think we're probably wondering about such things a bit at the moment, too.
Are you surprised that it has taken a long time for Hollywood to come around and realize Elric's saga is perfect for the big screen?
No. I had many offers from the mid-'70s on but turned them all down. I didn't want Elric to be a movie until the effects became secondary to the story. "Lord of the Rings" effects showed this was possible at last. If something goes wrong with the Weitz project, I'll wait until others I trust come along. There have never been many. I don't want Elric to appear on the screen unless he's in the hands of smart people.
In the new anthology, a brief introduction to a short story about Elric says that he was created as a response to Howard's Conan. Is that how one of your most famous characters came about?
Not exactly. When asked to write the original stories -- which I accepted as a working commission like any other job in those days -- I decided to try to do something a bit different, especially from the Conan stories, which were the benchmark in those days. There was very little "fantasy" -- Tolkien was still regarded as a bit marginal, like Morrison or E.R. Eddison, and I didn't want to write like him, either. There's a touch of Peake there, but I was a great admirer of a 1930s pulp character called Zenith the Albino, and I was working on a study of the 19th century Gothic novel, publishing bits of it in Science Fantasy, which the editor consciously modeled on Weird Tales and consciously tried to make as literary as possible. (I was the rough end, paid two guineas a word while Ballard and Aldiss were long-established enough to get two pounds, ten shillings!)
I pinched many of the aspects of Zenith and married them to characteristics found in such classics as Charles Maturin's "Melmoth the Wanderer" and so on. Americans like Poul Anderson were my main contemporary influence. The character was infused, of course, with my own teenage angst (I was 19 when he came into existence and 21 when he first appeared in print) and my own attitudes and complexes, so he quickly turned into the character who became so popular and influential. A version of myself. I wanted him to be popular, of course, so didn't forget the bits about Freud and Jung in that study (part of which saw print as the study "Wizardry and Wild Romance").
It makes perfect sense that, in "Behold the Man," there are only two people who could ever say that they belong to "the world to come and the world that is" and be completely truthful: a Messiah or a time-traveler. What was the origin of that story?
Sitting at my kitchen table around Easter time, discussing demagogues and how the public focuses on them, turns them into instruments of the common will. I came up with a number of examples, including Hitler. I come from an almost wholly secular background and have no quarrel with religion. I was very surprised that I got really good reviews from the Christian and Jewish press as well as the heavy U.K. weeklies and absolutely terrifying letters from American readers, mostly fundamentalists, who threatened to kill me. I grew up in a world which saw religion as having died out mostly in the 19th century, so I was very surprised when I first came to the U.S.! I have to live part of the year in Europe or I think I'd go crazy.
You've said that Jerry Cornelius (who makes a very brief appearance in the new anthology) is "as much a technique as a character" -- what does that mean? Do you regard him less as a fully dimensional character than as a cipher?
He is someone learning to exist, through all kinds of strategies, in our contemporary world. I wanted a character who was a bit like Elric (me) but dealing with modern mythology of various kinds. That's why the first few chapters of "The Final Programme" echo the first Elric story, "The Dreaming City." I had come to think that "fantasy" of the kind I was writing was able to deal with big philosophical issues but not the specifics of modern life. I wanted a character who was able to exist in a lot of different contexts in contemporary cities, especially London. I wanted to put London in her modern mythological context, which I then extended elsewhere -- rural America, Vietnam and so on. The first story which tried this was "The Deep Fix," which was about as close to Burroughs as I've ever written and which was intended as a kind of bridge for a reader between the fantasy they were reading in the magazine and what I was enjoying in the Olympia Press Burroughs books.
Cornelius, however, was the first work in which I felt I'd found my real literary voice. He is a character. I think of him as a fully rounded character playing an infinite number of roles. But he is also a device, a technique -- a way of examining the world.
"The Birds of the Moon" appears for the first time in print in this anthology -- what is this story about and what happened to it, why didn't it see the light of print sooner?
It appeared as a booklet, privately published by John Davey, soon after it didn't appear in the New Statesman. I was asked to write it by the NS (U.K. equivalent to the Nation) as part of an issue they planned to sell at Glastonbury. I wrote regularly for the NS during that period. Then there was an editorial shift, and I gather a bunch of neo-Marxists took over who thought the Glastonbury issue was frivolous. So they dumped that issue (or most of it), and that was the end of that.
The epitaph to "Crossing into Cambodia" says the story is an hommage to Isaac Babel, and it quickly becomes apparent why when you read passages like:
"The Cossacks were not happy with this sort of warfare and as soon as there was a lull we had mounted up, packed the gear in the carts, and with sabres drawn were howling into the Khmer Stalinists . . . "
This sounds like Babel's Red Army has been moved from 1920s Poland to contemporary Vietnam. Is Babel someone you admire? What other writers do you consider influential?
Babel is a great short story writer. It's his economy I admire. Other writers who have influenced me include a bunch of U.S. and U.K. pulp writers and children's writers like E. Nesbit and Richmal Crompton. P.G. Wodehouse was a huge influence on me when I was younger, as were Edgar Rice Burroughs and George Bernard Shaw. Dickens. Stevenson. Camus, Sartre, Cendrars. George Meredith. Balzac. Aldous Huxley. Mervyn Peake. Elizabeth Bowen. Angus Wilson. Elizabeth Taylor. The list, of course, is endless. I read almost no f or sf, these days, except that which people ask me to read. I've never, for instance, read Bowen's ghost stories or Huxley's "Brave New World."
OK, with that answer to the previous question in mind, what is the greatest book that you have NEVER read -- why?
"The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann. It bores me. I've read pretty much every other book by Mann, including nonfiction, but I just can't get in to "The Magic Mountain."
Editor's note: At this point in the interview, we're probably at the equivalent of the red or white tee markers in golf -- a slightly shorter distance that some players play from. If you're interested solely in specific works, you could certainly stop here. At this point Moorcock moves more into a discussion of concepts and techniques. But then you'd miss out on what he has to say about his friend J.G. Ballard, on Faulkner, Tolkien, the multiverse . . . oh, just keep reading.
When you started out as a writer, what were you interested in?
Two things attracted me as a kid, mainly because they were in the margins, were despised by "Authority" and which, as a teenager, you could make your own. One was sf/fantasy and the other was rock 'n' roll. It was pretty common for English kids of my age to have an enthusiasm for both, and you saw this reflected a few years later in the songs of various performers in the U.K.
Was your interest in sf immediate?
It took me a while to get into sf, and I never did like most of it.
I enjoyed fantasy or sword and planet fiction; T.H. White (with whom I corresponded) and Peake (whom I came to know well) were my favorites. Then I liked a few Americans like Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, James Branch Cabell and Poul Anderson. So I was often at odds with the sf fanzine community whose enthusiasms were the likes of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke. I knew nothing about sf fandom when I did my first fanzines, the first of which was called Book Collectors News and had little to do with sf/fantasy, and the second of which was Burroughsania, about ERB. Through these fanzines I came in contact with the sf fan world and made some friends there. I enjoyed a few conventions, too. I still enjoy the friends I made and stay in touch through a fanzine for old guys like us . . .
Did you like the sf communities because they were smaller and more intimate?
I came to feel that the small world of fandom was a bit like any small world of collectors or enthusiasts, whether it was the local cycling club or film group or whatever and eventually I didn't feel that comfortable in it. When people talked about "our field," I always got the image of being a sheep in a herd of sheep.
Maybe because I became a journalist early, as well as a musician , and mingled in a wide variety of worlds, I felt a little constricted by that "field." I only liked a few sf novels, most of them romantic, few set in space. But I did think there was a huge potential for sf as a way to invigorate general fiction. Ballard and I in particular saw sf conventions merging with the conventions of modernism to produce a fiction addressing the experience of the 20th century.
Did you see anyone as bringing those two conventions together?
Our hero was William Burroughs, who seemed to be doing what we suggested. When I took over New Worlds, I commissioned Ballard to write an editorial on Burroughs. It was called "A New Literature for the Space Age". We argued that the postwar world needed a new way of handling fiction. We predicted that such a fiction as we envisaged would become the defining fiction of our time. So it was no great surprise to us to see it gradually grow in popularity and, where literary fiction was concerned, slowly adopt conventions of the kind we'd been talking about. We were closer to absurdism in some ways in that we did not believe in rationalizing our fiction too much.
That was what set us at odds so much with the regular sf fans. So we had the experience of being marginalized within a marginalized world, but since we didn't feel that much involved in that world, it didn't matter a lot. Ballard, Aldiss, myself and later the Americans associated with New Worlds (like Disch and Sladek) were as frequently reviewed in the general fiction pages of the broadsheets as we were in the science fiction 'round up' section where 10 books were reviewed in about six inches of space.
That seems very lucky.
We were lucky in that the intellectuals of our day also saw the potential of sf. We were very quickly turning up on arts programs on radio and TV, being interviewed by the heavy Sundays and so on. We saw what we did as taking over from what had been, whereas the U.S. new wave and a certain number of people in the U.K. were trying to make sf come up to the "standards" of the literary mainstream. We wanted to replace the mainstream!
Replace it? With what?
A merging of the myth-making impulse with modernism, if you like. I found the success of Asimov and space fiction in general as nostalgic and retrospective, as most successful entertainment always is. It was the zeitgeist all right, given a huge boost by "2001," but we were a different part of it. To me Tolkien's success, his setting the pattern and tone of a genre perhaps even more nostalgic and nonconfrontational than most genre fiction, didn't help either.
You mention Tolkien, and the early 2000s were dominated by the enormous success of Peter Jackson's films. I know you're not a fan of Tolkien, but hasn't he -- and Jackson's versions of his stories -- been very good for the fantasy market reaching a wider audience?
To be honest, all I've seen is one dull movie after another. I slept through much of the Tolkien stuff (as I did through "2001," for that matter) and haven't seen many of the others. I liked "Blade Runner," "Dark City" and a couple other sf movies. I liked "The Golden Compass" more than many did (Pullman's one of the few fantasy writers I've read); also Neil Gaiman's movie "Stardust." I really enjoy Chinese fantasy movies like "Hero" too. But fantasy, as I said, needs to contain certain elements to be commercial and most of those elements don't interest me. I enjoy romantic comedies -- what people call chick movies -- cartoons, all kinds of movies, but I rarely go to the theater to see them. I've seen very few of the well-known series, either on the big screen or at home. I saw the last "Star Trek" movie as a Russian pirate version at a friend's house. I thought it was pretty good. But I wouldn't go out of my way to see it. How many really good fantasy movies have you seen in the last couple of years?
Still, don't you envy the advantages of a sci-fi/fantasy writer starting out today -- more outlets in movies, TV, comics for their work?
No. I've often said that if I was a kid these days I wouldn't even think of writing sf/fantasy. I'm not sure I'd want to be a working musician, either. Going back to rock 'n' roll -- when you went into a studio in the late '50s, say, you never knew what you were going to emerge with. You had an hour or two in which to produce a single, and that was that. Equally, with the sf and fantasy of those days, you sat down without that much of an idea of what would come out at the other end, and there were magazines which would almost certainly buy it. But I was a working journalist and short story writer (with one finished novel at 18 which I didn't bother to send out) and would have published anyway. It just wouldn't have been sf. Some form of experiment, though, I'm sure.
The bookstore around the corner from my parents' house was the place where I discovered your work (in a magazine called Epic); the store also carried a lot of 1950s-era pulp science fiction, and it seemed like schlocky stuff to me at the time: I remember one book cover showing a giant, blocky robot carrying a beautiful woman in its arms.
I liked the schlock -- or at least the kind they published in Planet Stories and the really garish pulps. I liked the energy which came off the schlock (if you like) and hated magazines like the Magazine of F&SF, which aimed to make sf respectable. Those moves toward respectability felt a bit like the local burglars trying pass as the vicar and his curate. Our identification, if you like, was with the bad guys who were turning out the good music and identifying the nature of the revolution, who were regarded as vulgar by the generality.
Anthologies can have mixed results. For some writers, they're excellent introductions and have been known to save a few writers. There's the classic example of Cowley's edition of "The Portable Faulkner." Cowley wanted to show how all of F's work was related, interconnected, and I think the same thing is true with "The Best of Michael Moorcock." Each selection seems to belong somehow to the same work. When you started out, did you already envision each of your stories and novels as fitting into a multiverse, or did that concept of an overarching framework come about gradually?
I soon learned I was no good at space fiction, but, before I did, I wrote a two-parter for Science Fiction Adventures in which I came up with rough ideas about black holes (very crudely predicted) and a particular kind of alternate world structure, which I called "the multiverse." At the time, I didn't know William James had coined the term to suggest the many personalities which exist in one individual. It wasn't in general circulation. What WAS in general circulation was the Big Bang Theory and the understanding that the second law of thermodynamics -- entropy -- was showing us where the future lay, in the ultimate end of everything. For a while this was a delightful idea, given I was also flirting with the French existentialists, but I didn't really like the idea of everything dissipating like that.
So the multiverse was your reaction to that?
I came up with the multiverse in direct opposition to the idea of the heat death of the universe. I suspect this was an idea that was in the air, for I learned years later, that a few physicists were also playing with such ideas. They turned the idea into math. I gave it images.
When did the concept of the Eternal Champion develop?
At the same time. In Science Fantasy magazine, I wrote the first version of The Eternal Champion, based on my reading of Victorian gothics mostly, in which a character is doomed never to die, always to take part in some kind of trial, to fight for one side or another in order to attain balance.
And in the Elric stories, for the same magazine, I was developing the notion of the Cosmic Balance, which ideally was always equally balanced between Law and Chaos. Chaos for me could be pretty terrible, with everything in a state of constant change, unstable, while Law represented stability and consistent justice. However, I had soon begun to understand that the world requires equal doses of Law and Chaos to survive. No life without death, no law without chaos. The constant internal debate of the artist.
I think Milton was a big influence there. I had a wonderful Doré Milton, which, with Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," had a huge influence on me as a kid, mainly because of the imagery and because I came to assume that every narrative should carry at least two stories! Anyway, I also found that the multiverse and the eternal champion offered me ways of viewing the same event from different perspectives, allowing me to put the same characters in different contexts.
With your multiverse, you one-upped Faulkner's creation of Yoknapatawpha.
Later, I realized a few writers, including Zola and Faulkner, had linked all their stuff together, in their case mostly through family connections on one plane, as it were. I've never been a huge Zola fan, but I came to love Faulkner, believing him to be the best of his contemporaries. Anyway, the short answer is that I came to it gradually but also pretty quickly, partly, of course, because of the amount of stuff I was turning out so rapidly at that time.
We said goodbye to J.G. Ballard this year. What did he teach you about the craft of writing?
He was one of my closest friends, but I think it fair to say he taught me next to nothing about the craft of writing! I didn't read anything of his until long after I'd started selling to the same magazines. I introduced him to Burroughs, who gave us both hope, stimulated us without influencing us much. He tended to lift whatever wasn't nailed down in the way of story ideas and so on, which he always cheerfully admitted, saying it was better when he wrote it, anyway. Which was true.
Sometimes you hear writers say how their style was stimulated by a friendship with another writer.
When we met, we were already established. I honestly can't think how he might have influenced me. I had a habit of resisting him because he was always suggesting to people what they should write and usually because he'd got an idea in his head which had nothing to do with you. I was his editor, of course, through the NW phase and might have picked something up, but he was very idiosyncratic. He wasn't much good at dialogue, so he would do long stretches of it as reported speech. There's one bit I remember which paraphrases a speech of Ahab's in that way. I always felt he was a writer who learned to make great virtues of small vices. It was a painter's talent, in many ways. I'm a huge fan of his work, an admirer of his intensity, his consistency of vision, but we were hugely different personalities and writers.
How do you define those differences?
He was much slower than I was and couldn't afford to try out all the things I tried out. His range was narrower, his plots were his weakest quality, but he developed a special vocabulary and technique, which made him the great writer he was. I felt that he came to repeat himself after "Empire of the Sun" and even move toward more conventional rationalized sf methods after the '80s, becoming to a degree self-parodying. For me the high point of his work was "The Atrocity Exhibition." (Perhaps together with the three books which followed it.) Maybe I learned something from that.
The use of icons (people, places, brands) as exposition or story, where you invoke a name or event, say, with its own associations of narrative, was something we were both interested in, but I think he found a method sooner than I did.
You mentioned Ballard being a slower writer. Can I just ask about the legendary writing of a book in three days -- how does someone pull that off?
I was a working journalist, used to meeting daily -- or even shorter -- deadlines. You get paid better than for books for every 1,000 words you write as a journalist, but generally those words become the copyright of whoever you're working for, whereas you get paid less per word as a novel advance. And you never get royalties. To make those early fantasy books viable, while supporting a family and a magazine fighting censorship, you had to write them in a very short time. Three days was the economical period. I was also editing a magazine and writing other stuff.
Has your music influenced this ability to write quickly? When a guitarist jams, he improvises and, if there's a bum note, he just keeps going.
That's certainly how I used to write -- exactly as I jammed -- maybe turning a bum note into a new note -- running with it. Again, I felt if you got the overall structure right, you had a lot of room in which to experiment. And of course, you're always working within a structure when jamming -- assuming everyone's in the same universe.
I'm guessing that this is not an approach to writing that you practice today.
Well, I'm still inclined to want to get the structure right and then see what I can produce. Most of my work, fantasy or otherwise, is character driven, so you have to let your characters have as much leeway as possible, to see what they will do.
Do you look at things written long ago, in the 1960s, like "A Dead Singer" and "The Deep Fix" -- included in this anthology -- and feel like a different person wrote them? That's sometimes what you hear from writers: that their connection to a story changes over time. Do you feel you've evolved into someone else as a writer?
I don't think I have, and my few surviving old friends continue to say I haven't changed. My obsessions are still essentially the same. I think I might have improved technically a bit, and I don't have that sinking feeling every time I look at a new book or story when it's published
Years from now, what work of yours would you hope people will still be reading?
"The Pyat Quartet"
The Cornelius books and stories
"Blood" and "The War Amongst the Angels"
But I'll be grateful, on behalf of my kids, if anything's read years from now.
Thank you for your time.
Nick Owchar is deputy books editor for The Times. The Siren's Call appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.