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Sci-Fi saviour
A Yoshitaka Amano illustration from Moorcock’s work

This instalment of Only Connect is triggered by a rather breathless mail sent by a student who has just discovered Michael Moorcock. For those not in the know, MM is one of the grandmasters of fantasy and science fiction, who rescued the genres comatose from the permafrost of the Cold War and revived them with the heat and warmth of the Swinging Sixties. This he primarily did by editing a magazine called New Worlds, whose material signalled a radical new departure from the hardware-driven, technology-obsessed SF of the McCarthy era.

My student informs me that Moorcock’s Hawkmoon and Corum series are superior to any fantasy he has read, including Pratchett’s Discworld and Neil Gaiman. I do not agree with him, but I can understand his enthusiasm. When I was a student, I collected Moorcocks with an obsession that was maniacal. I still remember my first purchase-a much-thumbed copy of one of his Jerry Cornelius sequence bought from the Golpark pavement shops in 1991. Five years later, I had about 50 of his books, most of them second-hand paperbacks with lurid covers. They currently occupy a whole shelf in my loo.

For almost a decade, Moorcock provided me with endless hours of reading and rereading pleasure, much to the bemusement of my friends, who did not see any great merit in him. Much of his writing was pedestrian, and his sword-and-sorcery novels gave the impression of being hastily put together. There was however a good reason for this — in the early days of New Worlds editorship, Moorcock would often have to dash off a pot-boiler in the space a weekend in order to pay printers’ bills. (Yes, a weekend). Nevertheless, they were cracking good stories, with startling narrative sleights-of-hand and ingenious manipulations of the generic conventions. They are object lessons in how to put a story together.

In the middle of all this, I met the man himself at a book signing, and found him a pleasant and genial individual, no longer the wild iconoclast of the sixties but still energetic and a breaker of rules. Ironically, the launch was the day after the death of William Burroughs — author of such novels as Junkie and Naked Lunch — who had been such an important influence on the New Worlds group.

In Moorcock’s own work, Burroughs’s influence is most visible in the Jerry Cornelius tetralogy, a zany, postmodernist romp through all times and spaces-the mulitverse, in other words. For a first-timer though, the slash-and-burn narrative style of this series might prove too disorientating: probably a better starting point would be the Dancers at the End of Time trilogy.

Stop press: I have just found out that this column will be appearing on Moorcock’s birthday. Now there’s good old-fashioned narrative probability for you! Happy birthday, Mike.

The author teaches English at Jadavpur University

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