Michael Moorcock’s Modem Times 2.0 is a good introduction to the literary legend

Modem Times 2.0

By Joe Gross
The Statesman
April 3, 2011

It’s fitting that Michael Moorcock’s house seems to exist in four dimensions and is weirdly tough to get to.

First, GoogleMaps completely blows the directions to Bastrop, failing to mention an overpass.

Then, the entrance to Moorcock’s house bears a perpendicular relationship to the street address, the result of an L-shaped lot that dates to when the legendary English writer bought the house in 1994 with his American wife, Linda Steele.

Partially because it’s confusing and partially because I’m an idiot, I practically circle the place before I find the door. The cat does not look too impressed.

It’s fitting because Moorcock, 71, is one of the preeminent fantasists of his age, having given the world everything from the iconic anti-hero Elric to the immortal/immoral anarcho-terrorist Jerry Cornelius, to the wretched and completely unreliable Col. Pyat.

As the editor of the English literary magazine New Worlds, Moorcock midwifed science fiction’s transition between the Golden Age and the new wave, making a home for such avant-garde writers as J.G. Ballard, Thomas Disch and Norman Spinrad.

It’s impossible to imagine generations of writers without Moorcock, from Alan Moore to Neil Gaiman to China Mieville. (Heck, it’s impossible to imagine something like Dungeons and Dragons without Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books.)

He made records with Hawkwind and won acclaim for such mainstream novels as Mother London, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. A 2010 anthology of his nonfiction, Into the Media Web, spans fifty years, 300,000 words and 720 pages, and weighs 4.5 pounds.

Look on his works, ye mighty, and, well, at least be a bit intimidated at his productivity and his imagination. It really is something else.

But if you have no idea who the man is, his most recent book is not a bad introduction.

Modem Times 2.0 is an entry in PM Press’ “Outspoken Authors” series and comprises an appropriately baffling and non-linear Jerry Cornelius short story (slightly revised from a story published in 2008); the essay “My Londons,” a clear-eyed reflection on Moorcock’s life in that most iconic of cities; and an interview with Moorcock conducted by series editor Terry Bisson. (You might know Bisson from his excellent alternate-history novel Fire on the Mountain; if you don’t, you should.) PM Press also is slated to reissue Moorcock’s Pyat Quartet starting in March 2012.

Cornelius isn’t Moorcock’s most famous character, but perhaps he is the most flexible, which is saying something for a writer famous for leaving himself an awful lot of room for multiple meanings (or no meaning at all).

The blurring of high and low art, and a mix of science fiction, fantasy and avant-garde literature, has been a through-line in Moorcock’s singular career.

“The Cornelius stuff wasn’t published as sci-fi in England,” Moorcock says. “One of the frustrating things about America for me is the tendency to isolate anything that has any pretensions to address a grown-up audience and start slotting it into a special category, like calling an English TV version of ‘I, Claudius,’ ‘Masterpiece Theatre.’ There’s a division between, let’s call them, intellectuals and the public in this country that is so much greater than it is in Europe. It’s much harder to find an ordinary, common cultural level.”

Is Cornelius a hipper-than-thou secret agent, indulging in every vice? Is he an adolescent fantasy? All of this and more. Cornelius is where Moorcock’s head goes when events warrant.

“If things in the world get too painful, I start to automatically default into Jerry Cornelius,” Moorcock says. “For example, I’m writing a Cornelius story right now that has to do with the various uprisings in the Middle East, but it’s not set there, which is pretty typical for that character. I try to find angles of attack that aren’t the normal angles. He’s less a character than a literary device.”

Well, that’s certainly true. The Cornelius books are less sci-fi than experimental fiction—more in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon or William S. Burroughs than, say, Isaac Asimov. Often made up of seemingly disconnected paragraphs, they work as much by juxtaposition as anything else.

“I don’t like to deal with the event head-on,” Moorcock says. “If you don’t, it perhaps broadens the subject. Sometimes it doesn’t work—this is an on-going experiment—but when it works, a Cornelius story should be able to give a few different angles on world events.”

Right now, Moorcock is enmeshed in The Whispering Swarm, the first book in the planned “Sanctuary of the White Friar” trilogy.

“I’m not sure if I really should be working on trilogies at my age,” Moorcock laughs, “but this one is essentially an autobiographical novel with a very heavy fantasy element.”

Whispering Swarm
is about London, but a London with a key difference. “There was a part of London called Alsatia that was a sanctuary for those who had broken the law,” Moorcock says. Located between the River Thames and Fleet Street, and including the Whitefriars monastery, Alsatia held the sanctuary privilege (and a certain measure of lawlessness) for centuries before being dissolved by Parliament in 1697.

It’s an extremely attractive idea, and Moorcock imagines it has continued to the present. But he adds that the book is autobiography, mostly. “I’m trying to look at the ways I used escapism at crucial moments in my life, my two previous marriages, for example,” he said. “Whether I used escape routes and how I used them.”

There isn’t a publication date yet — “It isn’t scheduled because I’m only a third of the way through the bastard” — but may he live to finish it and a dozen more, on this Earth and others.

Back to Michael Moorcock’s Author Page