Talking To The Sci-Fi Lord: Regenerations & Ruminations With Michael Moorcock
, November 22nd, 2010 08:53
Ben Graham talks to Michael Moorcock about his new Dr Who tie-in The Coming Of The Terraphiles, Hawkwind, Ballard and Burroughs. Photo by Lucy Johnston
Michael Moorcock is probably the only writer to have entries in both the Oxford Companion to English Literature and Martin Strong's Great Psychedelic Discography. Born in 1939, he's written over 70 novels, as well as short stories, essays, comic strips and rock lyrics for the likes of Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult (he even appeared on the former's Warrior at the Edge of Time album and alongside the band onstage). As an author, Moorcock is probably best known for his science fiction and fantasy sequences of the 60s and 70s, including those featuring the character of Elric of Melnibone, the frail, guilt-ravaged albino aristocrat who was created as a deliberate antithesis of the heroic clichés of most sword and sorcery fiction. Behold The Man, about a time traveller who takes on the role of Christ, won Moorcock the 1967 Nebula Award, and from 1964 to 1971 he was editor of New Worlds, turning a fairly conventional SF anthology magazine into a vehicle for the more experimental and literary "New Wave" SF of JG Ballard, Brian Aldiss, M John Harrison and many others, and forging close links with the underground press and counterculture of the times. It was also in New Worlds that Moorcock created the postmodern musician/assassin and psychedelic Pierrot figure Jerry Cornelius. Morally, sexually and in every other way ambiguous, Cornelius was both character and method, a fragmented mirror of the disintegrating boundaries, transformative potential and casual horrors of the modern technological age.
Before New Worlds, Moorcock had already edited Tarzan Adventures (aged just 16), and the Sexton Blake Library; adhering to the work ethic of the pulp writers he admired, he was famously capable of writing 15,000 words a day and turning out a short novel in under a week. He created the concept of the Multiverse, now an established SF trope, a potentially infinite series of interlinked parallel universes, within which many of his heroes are different incarnations of the "Eternal Champion." Different versions of the same characters recur throughout both his fantasy work and the more realistic, literary fiction he began producing in the 1980s, such as 1988's masterful Mother London and the twentieth century-spanning Between The Wars / Colonel Pyat Quartet, which deals with the origins and aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust. Politically engaged and fantastically erudite (and self-taught), Moorcock defies categorisation, striding across boundaries of genre and generation; he's known almost everyone, and the writers he's befriended and associated with seem to span vast eras, from Mervyn Peake to JG Ballard, to Angela Carter and lately Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore (of whom Moorcock's American wife Linda does a brilliant and hilarious impersonation).
Moorcock's latest work is The Coming of the Terraphiles, an official Dr Who tie-in novel, launched with far more than the usual fanfare as the BBC loudly trumpeted how proud they were to have secured the services of the "veteran SF author," for this special project. Accordingly they've whisked Moorcock across from Paris (where he now resides for half the year- the other half he spends in Texas, where's he lived since the 90s) to the UK for a week of promotional duties. We meet in the faded grandeur of a private members' club in the heart of Imperial Establishment London, a stone's throw from the Ritz and Buck House, and an oddly appropriate setting for this self-proclaimed anarchist with a lifelong passion for history, myth and tradition. Walking with a cane due to long-term neuropathy and a recent operation, the 71-year-old author is every inch the true gentleman, a charming raconteur yet actually moved to tears when discussing the domestic violence centre in Texas that his wife Linda co-runs. As a result we chatted far beyond our allotted time, ranging over a wide range of fascinating topics, only a fraction of which, alas, can be fitted into The Quietus's slightly less than Tardis-like dimensions.
Mike, I'll start by asking you the question that I'm sure you've been asked a million times already this week: were you a fan of Dr Who already?
Michael Moorcock: Well, yeah, I was. I watched it since it started, and I didn't actually like the first Dr Who, William Hartnell, because he used to be in The Army Game where he was a barking sergeant major, and I couldn't help seeing him as this barking sergeant major, but in a different suit! I liked Patrick Troughton better, because he was sort of fey and he started to bring that oddness into the character. I didn't like Jon Pertwee, because he was again a bit too posh, and I really liked Tom Baker. I sort of knew him; I met him once or twice, usually in a pub, and usually drunk out of his skull on 50 valium and a pint of scotch, and ad-libbing like fuck. And it's wonderful to watch the shows and know that all the other actors are just completely at sea because he hasn't given them their cue line, he's just come up with actually a better line, usually. So that was my favourite, like many people I suppose, and I still like him as an actor. I've got this sort of secret ambition: I did a book called Mother London and there's a character in it called Josef Kiss, and he'd make an absolutely perfect Josef Kiss. So the only reason I'd want them to make a movie or a radio thing or anything is just so I can get Tom Baker in to play Josef Kiss.
The Doctor as a character has a lot in common with some of your characters: he's something of a dandy; he's something of an anarchist while also being a bit of an authority figure… you can stretch it to say he's an exile from a decadent empire…
MM: Yeah, well, also… I mean, it's purely coincidental, but both Jerry Cornelius and Dr Who can regenerate. In Cornelius' case of course he can change sex; he's more like Captain Jack than Dr Who in that sense.
I think it would be good to have a female Dr Who at some point.
MM: Yeah, I thought they might have one this time. I think Karen Gillan, who plays Amy Pond, would've made a good Dr Who, so it's a shame she didn't get the job. It could've been the other way around, you know.
I've not had a chance to read The Coming of the Terraphiles yet, but I know that in your previous books you've used time travel a lot, you've explored the nature of time and identity; have you used the book to explore those ideas further, or have you just had fun with it?
MM: A bit. And I've had fun with it. But in a way it enabled me to reclaim stuff that had filtered into Dr Who from stuff that I'd originally done. That happens when you're my age and working in popular fiction; it spreads through the genre. But some of the stuff, I felt that it was like a tool that I'd invented for a specific purpose, which gets into a genre and then gets, in my view, wasted. Like the whole multiverse thing. It's fine, but when it goes into DC comics and becomes an excuse to explain why Superman is in two places at the same time or whatever, that's when it gets a bit irritating. But I actually did the same thing with DC in that they asked me to do a bible, a sort of cosmology, so I basically did the same thing that I did with Dr Who: I thought okay, you pinched it from me, now I'll take it back, and make it coherent at least - or as far as I can do. It's not something that keeps me awake at night or anything, but it's just a good chance to deal with it.
But Dr Who is a comedy; it's predominantly comedy, but with a big idea, and that's what I like about Dr Who. When it's at its best it seems to have both those angles. So what I wanted to do is... I'm a great PG Wodehouse fan, I was reading PG Wodehouse since I was a kid, and I wanted to do a space opera in the manner of PG Wodehouse. So far, people who've read it seem to have found it funny, and that's all you ask for.
I know that in the book to some degree you have brought in elements of your own multiverse to cross over with it. Was the BBC fine with you doing that?
MM: Yeah, they didn't mind. I didn't have any real problems. The only real problem with Cardiff, as we call the BBC… I mean, it's sort of ‘Cardiff,' ‘Cardiff says,' you know, ‘Cardiff won't like that,' erm… I've forgotten what the only problem was. Oh, I know, one of the things was, I wanted Amy to have her own room in the Tardis, so I can describe her getting up in the morning and hearing something going on in the main Tardis bit, you know, and coming in to breakfast, or whatever it was. And they didn't like that, and I think it's because they've got story plans that might not fit. I wanted to have Captain Jack in, but they didn't want me to, again because they kind of save these characters up for a specific purpose. It's not really a strong idea they've got, but they know they might want to use it in a certain way. But that's what you get if you do a job for hire. The last job for hire I did was the Sex Pistols book, which was actually rather similar; or in my eyes it became rather similar in the end.
Was there a PG Wodehouse influence on that, too?
MM: A little bit; more of PG Wodehouse than Johnny Rotten!
I know that in the book the Terraphiles are aliens who have this obsession with old Earth traditions and customs…
MM: That's right, yes. And they've got it wrong, because the only things they've got are old boys' magazines from the 1920s, and they've reconstructed Earth history entirely from Boy's Friend Library for 1920, and Sexton Blake, and so on. And again, in a way that's one of my enthusiasms, I'm absolutely interested in all that stuff. It's a view of Earth that you might get if you read a 1920s boy's magazine.
Would you describe yourself as a nostalgic person?
MM: No. I'm actually very anti-nostalgia, but I am interested in the past. One of the things with New Worlds that we did was to try to get away from the strong nostalgic elements in science fiction and fantasy, particularly in fantasy these days, which I really don't like. So no, I don't think I'm nostalgic at all. But I find that you can get a very good idea of the way people are thinking by reading popular fiction of the day. Because if you read that, it's unfiltered, and if there's a common strand of racism, say, running through it, you've got a fair idea of what the average person was thinking at the time. You could just as easily read the Daily Mail if you were researching our society. So that's why I'm interested, and that's why I use it. I've certainly got no interest in going back to somewhere like that.
I'm nostalgic for 1967, because that was when I was young and having a wickedly good time, but that's about it. I knew that the 60s weren't going to last, and so I decided that this is a golden age, and that it's probably got about another 10 years, and I'm going to get everything I can out of it! And I had a great time. When people say, this didn't happen or that didn't happen, well, you weren't there mate, you know! So yeah, that's the only nostalgia I have, and even that, you know… I was also doing bad things as well, just bad things that everybody does, as it were. Like cheating on my wife, and stuff like that. Which I'm not very good at, actually. I'm just not good at it. I had a go, but I found I didn't really like it very much.
You mentioned earlier your work-for-hire novelisation of The Great Rock n' Roll Swindle [which virtually ignored the film and instead made the Pistols and Mclaren bit players in a Jerry Cornelius fable on the machinations of the music biz]. How did that come about? What were your feelings on punk?
MM: I knew quite a few of the punk rockers. Hawkwind were the only bunch of old hippies the punks had any time for, partly because they refused to go on Top of the Pops and so forth. Lemmy was also okay with the punks. So I already knew a few before Virgin asked me to write The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. Actually a friend of mine, Maxim Jakubowski, was the editor of Virgin books and I only lived minutes away from the office. I wrote a chapter a day and they sent someone round to collect it every evening.
Can I ask you a bit about Hawkwind? How did you first get to know them?
MM: Well, they came round to see me. Or at least a couple of them did, Bob Calvert and Nik Turner. Bob wasn't in the band at that time, but Nik Turner obviously was. And they just came round to ask me to do some lyrics. The thing was, everyone was in Ladbroke Grove or Notting Hill at that time; there were bands everywhere, and you felt that there was something wrong with you if you didn't play some sort of fretted instrument! Almost everybody did, and I'd been in bands before that; right from the 50s; I'd been in a skiffle group, and I made that transition to blues, R&B, the way a lot of people did. And then I'd kind of given it up because I found it was more comfortable to sit there working in a chair than sitting in the back of an old van, and then being screwed when you got to a gig, the usual sort of crap. So I just stopped doing it. I've said this a lot of times but I think it's actually worth saying: a lot of us did this, we went for rock & roll and science fiction because they weren't respectable, and there was no criticism at all. There were no magazines that dealt with it; there was no body of criticism. There was nothing. Melody Maker, if you were lucky, you got a cartoon of Elvis Presley in the back, and they didn't think it was going to last.
It was a jazz paper, back then.
MM: Exactly. But it was something that you could make of it what you wanted. So you went into the studio - when you went into the studio - not really knowing what you were going to do. And sometimes it was better than you thought it was going to be. Sometimes it was bloody awful. But again, it was just that sense of having something that was your own. I think that gaming [role-playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons and Runequest, which frequently drew on Moorcock's work] became that for another generation, and there's other stuff that goes on. I think if you're 18, you're always going to be looking for something where there isn't your dad telling you, you know, how it should be or how it used to be. You'd rather somebody said "what the hell are you doing, wasting your time?" Now it's a respectable career. "Dad, I want to be a rock & roll musician!" "Okay, we'll send you to rock & roll school!" And it's just not, you know, who wants to do that?
And I don't think it's done the music any good, either.
MM: No, I don't think it has. But there it is; you just get that. And the 60s was a particular time; I think the 60s were really about '63 to about ‘75; I mean what people call the 60s. I see it as finally ending with Stiff's last tour. That was for me the kind of end of it all, the last record company that had come up from nothing, that was really going after new talent, that was really wide open to pretty much anything, a very broad spectrum of popular music. And classical music, if anybody had gone to see it. I know [Stiff label boss] Jake Riviera, if somebody had said to Jake, come on Jake, let's get Birtwhistle, he'd probably have said yeah, alright, great, lets try it. And that was in a sense what the so-called sixties were all about. But it also happened because there were huge amounts of money, and we were the richest kids that had ever been, and have ever been. That went as well. I think the tricks that Margaret Thatcher played on us all put the money into the hands of the powerful people who were interested in money. But for a short while the money was in the hands of people who were actually interested in doing something with the money.
It relies on people having the money and having that kind of vision.
MM: Yeah. And really I'm the same; I just see no point in having money. I mean, I've been very lucky, so I'm not exactly poor; well, I have been, but that's because every 10 years I get ruined. I get ruined periodically but I've got used to it now, I just stick with it until I'm not ruined anymore, and then do it again.
I think one thing that successive governments and institutions have instilled in people is a fear of poverty and a fear of losing money.
MM: Yes, exactly. It's put us back… I mean, the Victorian values that Margaret Thatcher talked about, as far as I was concerned those were the Victorian values; people who were terrified of getting ill, terrified of losing their jobs, and really, it's appalling.
In 1975 you released your own album, The New World's Fair, under the name of Michael Moorcock and the Deep Fix. How did that come about?
MM: I went to lunch with the A&M guy at UA, to discuss a single I had in mind. He asked me "when are you going to do an album for us?" and offered me a three record contract. As simple as that. After doing the first album I became a bit disenchanted with the business and never bothered to do the other albums since they are far more time-consuming than doing books. I'd always told myself that writing was my main job and if music interfered with that I'd give the writing priority. I am, however, currently making a record album in Paris with my old friend Martin Stone (ex-Action, Mighty Baby and Chilly Willie), Live from the Terminal Café.
If I was doing it now I'd use a good producer. I think the mixing is a bit rough and on one track a guitar is flat - something I kept mentioning at the time but nobody would listen until it came out and it was too late! A decent producer would have spotted all that. I loved working with Eno on Calvert's Lucky Leif album.
Back to writing, what were the literary influences when you were growing up?
MM: PG Wodehouse. Richmal Crompton, who wrote the William books. Most of it was comedy. And I also read Edgar Rice Burroughs; that was the adventure stuff I liked best. And then I discovered pulp fiction in old junk bookshops, so I started buying the American pulp magazines, and I really liked a lot of those. I never liked the posher stuff; I didn't like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, all the things that were all striving for a better literary tone and all that, I didn't like it a bit. I liked the good old-fashioned space opera stuff, but preferably centred around one character. So I liked… I don't know if you know Leigh Brackett? She wrote the majority of [1946 movie] The Big Sleep, as it appeared, and she just had a wonderful romantic sweep to her science fiction, which is really science fantasy, I mean there wasn't much science in it. Most of the stuff I liked was set on a Mars that was very evocative, ancient Mars with ancient cultures, and her character is a guy called Eric John Stark, and he'd been raised on Mercury where it's very hard to live, which made him incredibly tough, you know.
It's basically westerns, and most of the writers who wrote that stuff actually came from near-deserts; California mostly, New Mexico and so forth. And it's interesting, when you look at Burroughs, who lived in California- who moved to California, admittedly, but he'd been brought up in Arizona- Brackett, Bradbury, all the writers who really kind of invented Mars, they were essentially writing about California. Not the cities; the cities were Hammett and Chandler, which again is stuff I like very much. I think some of the best American style came out of the pulps, Hammett and Chandler being one side and Brackett and Bradbury the other; all style.
You've always obviously had a great respect for the rules of the form, and for people who are able to respect the rules of the genre and just do the work. Certainly in your early books, you were earning a living as a writer, and there was no room for self-indulgence, but there seems to be a balance between trying to write a good genre piece and working in a certain number of radical or original ideas…
MM: Yeah. I think you can indulge yourself so long as you give the reader what they're hoping to get. Up to a point: I mean the Cornelius stories don't do that, they were far more intellectual, literary…
They were a lot more experimental.
MM: Yes. But generally, yes, if it says generic fantasy on the cover, I think that's what you should expect inside, otherwise I'm taking your money on false pretences. But I used to have this problem with publishers, in my opinion, putting the wrong cover on a book, and therefore misleading the reader; the reader gets something they don't like, and it's a complete waste of time, I felt. I don't like Cornelius being put out as science fiction because I don't think of it as being science fiction. It isn't: it has as much influence from Ronald Firbank as it has from Dashiell Hammett or anybody like that.
But at the same time as I was producing genre fiction, I also wanted to bring literary fiction and popular fiction back together, rather than having them distinguished. And it's taken about forty years but it seems to be working; there's a lot more of that going on now. And writers like Michael Chabon, to whom the book is dedicated - and he's a friend of mine too - are genuinely bringing that together. He's got far more science fiction and pulp stuff in his library than I've got in mine, and he really likes it. He's never denied that something like The Yiddish Policeman's Union was science fiction, whereas Margaret Atwood would say it's not science fiction, but Michael says yeah, it is. Jimmy Ballard was the same; if it was science fiction he called it science fiction, he didn't pretend it was anything else. And that's what I like too; I like people who are kind of aware of what they're doing. Not to knock Margaret Atwood, but I think people like her, PD James, Cormac McCarthy, people who've written one or two books and then denied that they're science fiction… it's not their fault, it's partly that they've reinvented tropes that are very familiar to the genre, and were invented in order to do certain things. And they think they've invented them themselves, which is fair enough. But to ignore the genre, and just seize it…
It can seem a bit snobbish, like, don't lump me in with those guys.
MM: Yes. Well, I don't think it's entirely snobbish. I know that's what it seems like, and it could be just snobbery, but I'm inclined to think that it's just a misunderstanding; that they don't really understand that there are other writers who've done this before. And it's happened to me too. In [1971 novel] The Warlord of the Air, for instance, I invented this specific form to do a specific job. And then 10 years later, 20 years later, I'm suddenly dragged into the steampunk movement, as a steampunk writer, which I wasn't. And again, it's disappointing to me, because very little steampunk that I've read actually does what I was trying to do with Warlord of the Air, which was, I was basically looking at, if you like, a Fabian view of Colonialism. It was an idea of Benign Colonialism, which I didn't believe in. And I was trying to explore that.
Yeah. Whereas a lot of the steampunk doesn't have that intellectual content, it just uses the period imagery.
MM: Yes, that's right, and they think, "oh great, big airships! Wow!" You're a bit suspicious of people who like too many big airships. You think, maybe you should be writing porn, you know!
In 1964 you took over the editorship of New Worlds magazine. I know that you were trying to reach out to a broad-based audience who weren't just hardcore SF fans, but at the same time you were publishing very radical, very ground-breaking material. Was it hard to maintain that balance? Was there ever a case where you wouldn't publish something because it was too out there, or was it just a case of, if it's good, we'll publish it and trust our readership will understand it?
MM: I tended to try to run really good conventional fiction alongside what I hoped was really good experimental fiction. The nature of experimental fiction is that not all of it works; it's an experiment. There's people now, who didn't like it when it was around, who say, "ha ha, see, you know, you never see this person or that person now, or that didn't work." You know, of course it's true, it didn't all work, or it certainly didn't generate anybody else coming along to see if they could use the same stuff. But basically it started off with me, Ballard, Barry Bailey, and we thought that there were loads of people out there who were really just itching to write the stuff the way we wanted it to be. And so when I took over New Worlds, there I was, you know, let it come, let's have it. And of course it didn't bloody come, in the stuff anybody sent us, in about the first year or two. And so I was having to use editorials and things to stimulate and encourage people to write.
We tried also from the beginning to try to get more women into it, but it wasn't at that time a genre - apart from the few and unlikely examples like Leigh Brackett and CL Moore - that attracted many women to writing it. There was Carol Emshwiller, who was very good, but again, not really… she was always surprised at appearing in New Worlds and she couldn't quite work out why she was there, but she was there because I thought she was a very good experimental writer. Pam Zoline wrote ‘The Heat Death of the Universe', which I think is one of the best stories we ran, ever. And we gradually started to get both American and English writers; we were about 50-50 by that time. I was also interested in finding international writers, but again, they weren't easily found in those days. The internet is a great help in that. There are writers out there now that if I'd known, at the time… But you know, we did our best, and I think in the main we put out some interesting stuff that's lasted. I think Ballard's stories in The Atrocity Exhibition, my Cornelius stories, some of Barry Bayley's stories… We were the three that kind of started it. We used to meet and talk about it. And it took a year or two before things started to work. And until that I was trying pretty much conventional stories, but with editorials about William Burroughs.
Was Burroughs a big influence on what you were doing?
MM: He wasn't an influence so much as an inspiration. The fact that this was what he was doing made us think that things can be done. But apart from Mike Butterworth, who was very strongly influenced by Burroughs, and still is, there weren't many writers who borrowed from Burroughs, if you like. But Burroughs was very keen; he was borrowing from us as much as we were inspired by him.
I remember the actual short story, ‘The Deep Fix', where you had a very thinly disguised William Burroughs as the main character, although it's almost more of a Weird Tales magazine type scenario, I always think, a kind of Clark Ashton Smith story but with Burroughsian imagery. But I always wondered, did he read that, and if so did he ever respond?
MM: I don't know. He never mentioned it. I knew him, and I can't remember him mentioning that. He probably wouldn't have liked it very much. Also that appeared in the Carnell New Worlds [John Carnell, editor of New Worlds from 1946 until Moorcock took over], and so that wasn't getting to him, whereas I was actually sending him the issues that we were doing. So he probably would never have seen it, and probably wouldn't have liked it that much, because it's probably a bit too… that story was deliberately written as a sort of bridge story, and I did that in my editorial hat, to try to write stories that were somewhat more conventional than, say, Burroughs, but draw readers into maybe a broader taste...
It's maintaining that balance again, between the genre rules and more radical ideas you can put in there.
MM: Yes. And Carnell ran it because Ballard told him to, and Carnell ran [Ballard story] ‘The Terminal Beach' because Barry and I told him to! Carnell was, "I don't really understand this stuff", but he was a very good editor and basically broad-minded, and had a sense of, a certain vision, so you could see… what we said we were writing was the ordinary fiction that people might be reading in a hundred years time. It was a slightly crude way of putting it, but that was part of the idea, that we were writing things that perhaps would be better understood by future generations.
Once you were running New Worlds, were you getting a good response from your readership?
MM: Initially I had a bad response, but I'd had that happen twice already. When I did Tarzan Adventures I re-jigged it, had a lot more text fiction in it and got rid of the comic strips, and there was a bit of complaint from regular readers about that. But what I discovered was that if you change something, you get a huge response initially, and it's sort of risky, because you've got a circulation to consider, and people see what you're doing as all of a piece, they can't understand it, it's all gobbledegook, or whatever it is they're complaining about. And then gradually they start to distinguish between different writers, and they start to have favourites. And then you've won, really, because they're reading it, it's become familiar to them and they go through it. I think you get that with music as well; there are all sorts of arts where that happens, and it's just familiarity. You just have to keep at it, and hope you can keep going until people get used to it.