Michael Moorcock, creator of such iconic characters as Jherek Carnelian, Jerry Cornelius, Elric of Melnibone, Graf Ulrich von Bek, Oswald Bastable, and many others, has been freaking us out for over forty years. The godfather of New Wave sci-fi, Moorcock was writing steampunk thirty years before Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine, and anticipated posthuman themes a full generation before the World Transhumanist Association formed. He’s still at it, and with new collections and editions out this year (The Best of Michael Moorcock out May from Tachyon; new editions of the Elric novels out through this Fall from Del Rey; The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes anthology from Night Shade) and new Elric and “Second Ether” novels in the planning stage, his fans are set to be happily freaked out for the foreseeable future.
They are immortal, pretty much omnipotent — and not unhappy. I wanted to write a story in which such people were actually pretty cheerful.
Mr. Moorcock chatted with us about science fiction, transhumanity, and related matters.
h+: Transhumanism, first blush, seems sometimes swaggering and adolescent. But after spending time with it and its players I see deeper roots, and I can’t help but be reminded of Jherek Carnelian. Do you think it’s appropriate to call him a “proto-posthuman” type of character?
MICHAEL MOORCOCK: Strictly, Jherek is the only non-posthuman in the sequence. He’s the only child in the world born of man and woman. All the others are posthuman! I take your point. The characters in Dancers at the End of Time are, in fact, the ultimate in transhumanism — they are immortal, pretty much omnipotent — and not unhappy. All such stories before were essentially dystopian, saying “you can be immortal, without pain or hunger — but such conditions make you ultimately miserable.” I wanted to write a story in which such people were actually pretty cheerful. That does include Jherek, of course. Even the miserable characters are only pretending to suffer.
h+: You’ve said you don’t read much sci-fi or fantasy. Usually “willful ignorance” is a negative — but it seems to have done you a lot of good.
MM: By the time I came to publish it in adult magazines, I’d pretty much stopped reading it. Thereafter, almost all that I read was as editor of New Worlds or as a reviewer. I was interested in using SF methods to write about the present. When people ask me what they should read in order to write fantasy or SF, I always answer “stop reading it — read anything else..” That way you learn more and bring more to the fiction you’re writing.
h+: We’ve got robot dogs on the hunt for the military, the Chinese in orbit, and location-aware touch-screen gizmos in my cousin’s pockets. Have we finally arrived in the future? How can we tell whether we’re lost or not?
MM: I think we’re always in the past. If ever I’m unhappy, I always remind myself that in worse circumstances I’d give my eye teeth to be sitting at home with nothing to do, with my wife and my cats for company. In late issues of New Worlds, we claimed that the future was abolished. We’re living in a present imagined by Phil Dick and the Galaxy writers.
h+: Your work has, at times, been explicitly “transhumanist” in its concerns far before transhumanists knew what they were. I’m thinking of Jerry Cornelius now, and his gender-bending, border-blurring antics with identity and technology. Is transhumanism obviated even before it gets a good start?
MM: I don’t believe we ever get rid of Law and Chaos. I think of Jerry as living in a world where the conscious becomes subconscious and vice versa. It’s the villains who believe humanity is improvable through retraining, biological engineering and so on. I see the world as having been brought to most of its worst crises through notions of improvability. My Pyat novels are precisely about that. I used my friend Arthur Clarke’s notions, with which I profoundly disagreed, as a springboard for my Pyat quartet in which I showed how ideas of human perfectibility led to Communism and Nazism and other authoritarian creeds. I’ve nothing against curing disease, extending human life and, with a bit of luck, improving some human institutions, but I doubt if that will lead to universal happiness or even the end to most miseries. New miseries always come up. I really do believe in the notions I use in the idea of the Cosmic Balance — in some sort of equilibrium.
h+: You began sharing the multiverse with other writers sometime in the 1960s (predating “Jenny Everywhere” and the concept of open-source characters over 30 years ago, I think). What effect has it had on your own imagination to let Michael Kane of Old Mars run around in Alan Moore’s head?
MM: Well, not a lot. After all, like Alan I came out of commercial popular fiction where characters are already in common ownership. My disappointment with it is that most people have failed to understand that he’s a technique, designed to deal coolly with “hot” contemporary material. That doesn’t stop me letting those who ask to use Jerry to use him. But really only M. John Harrison “got” what I was trying to do.
People have tended to find themselves attracted to the very qualities I’m mocking in, for instance, the last pages of The Condition of Muzak, where Jerry is discovered to be a posturing wanker! Plainly, more people like a posturing wanker……
h+: So, you rock. Alan Moore’s done The Highbury Working and other musical events. Do you two ever talk about doing any performance collaborations?
MM: We’re doing an event at The British Library at the end of June, with Iain Sinclair. We were only talking about it a week or two ago — The Three Psychogeographers, complete with music, discussion, performance. Even discussed where we’d begin our tour. The chances are we’d never be together long enough to rehearse, at least not for now. But it remains an idea we’ve considered, having appeared together pretty successfully in the past.
h+: I’m interested in the connection between post-human concerns and comics. You put the Eternal Champion into the comics medium for a while, didn’t you?
MM: I did one original EC graphic novel in the late ’70s with Chaykin. I enjoyed it a lot. But until I did Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse with Walter Simonson and Mark Reeve in the ’90s I hadn’t really done that much original stuff with graphics — “The Adventures of Jerry Cornelius” in International Times, The Making of a Sorcerer a couple of years ago with Walter again. I guess the Chaos Engineers, who occupy the Second Ether in Blood, War Amongst the Angels and the MM’s Multiverse are posthuman. Certainly… they’ve gone a bit past any familiar human condition.
h+: Do you have any regular practice or habits in the realm of the occult ritual, plant use, or mind-altering technologies? Any worth recommending to our readers?
MM: I don’t have any regular practices or habits and, even if I had, I’d have to take the Fifth, I fear…. I signed a vast document when applying for my visa that I had never even been so much as near a vital herb. They used to make you sign your name in blood that you had never worn a pair of red socks or bought a copy of the Daily Herald, now you have to swear a similar oath regarding drugs. Of course, I could say I had eaten a plate of Blavatsky’s baby shoes and nobody would raise an eyebrow, but… I did once say that drugs should be banned for use by anyone under forty. I went to a Steiner school for a while from the age of seven but got expelled (the first ever child to be expelled, apparently) mostly for running away, which is a bit like the old I quit/you’re fired remark, but didn’t pick up much in the way of anthroposophy, except a bit of cosmology I used in my early Elric stories. And a taste for algebra (which they teach from age 7). I’ve never recommended drugs but have occasionally suggested someone examine Kropotkin’s ideas about mutuality. People used to be convinced I’d written my fantasy novels on acid, but I had to disappoint them. Strong sweet coffee and adrenaline was the secret and that probably gave me the neuropathy I enjoy today. So I wouldn’t recommend that, either. Sorry to be so boring.
h+: I just read “Epic Pooh.” After thinking about transhumanism in light of your concerns about fantasy fiction in that essay, I’m beginning to wonder if the stories (both fiction and non) about the coming singularity aren’t in some way a kind of “merry old Future” tale. Does transhumanism deserve criticism for making us feel good about trying to bring comfort to the future without calling into question our methods for getting there?
MM: I’ve argued since around 1960 that most science fiction is fundamentally nostalgic in nature, producing a simpler world that makes us feel good. I’m not sure transhumanism is intrinsically nostalgic at all. It tends to complicate the issue.
h+: But at least one of the transhuman narratives is neatly ahistorical (time ends or is drastically mutated by the Singularity). How much of it is appealing to salvation and religion rather than science?
MM: I think both religion and science meet the needs of their time. I believe my own notion of the multiverse, which was formulated around the same time that it was first being conceived by one or two theoretical physicists, was a response to the “inevitability” of the heat death of the universe. Creationism is really proof of the triumph of Darwinism and all its implications — cooked up to “explain” Darwinism to fundamentalists. Essentially it’s Darwin for people who prefer to believe in the supernatural. Personally I believe the language of science offers a more coherent way of interpreting the world. But frequently, they even come to sound alike; a point I started making in The Final Programme.
Note: Michael Moorcock’s immune system has gone weird on him in the last few years. Something about living in Texas doesn’t agree with his T-cells. He’s having a particularly tough time of it these weeks in May and June, so send a well wish his way if you can spare a moment.