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3am Interview





STRANGE CONNECTIONS - AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL MOORCOCK



"Anyone the current U.S. administration is unhappy with, usually because their own trade interests or domestic vote is threatened, they characterise as 'evil', wickedly planning to manufacture nuclear bombs or, if that is patently ludicrous, bio-weapons, aimed at attacking the US."

Richard Marshall interviews Michael Moorcock

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


3AM: You have always worked in journals as well as written novels. So what are the trends you identify as important in both journal fiction and novels?

MM: I began as a journalist and am at heart a journalist, I think. I still do journalism, mostly for weekly periodicals, but not as much as I did. One of the last pieces I did was a Spectator Diary telling people not to judge Americans stereotypically, and suggesting that Blair's neocolonialism was inspired by Warlord of the Airl! But I blotted my copybook there by speaking up for Andrea Dworkin, whom Conrad Black, the proprietor, is afraid of.

That said, I don't see any particular trends. I'm worried about New Labour's friends, about their intentions, their philistinism, about their willingness to tear down institutions without any plans for what to put in their place.

I'd hate to see the BBC further eroded. It remains one of the great debating mechanisms of a modern democracy, with few, if any, equals. Debate is very important. I think we should keep a watch on Blurry Blair or we might not be in a position to go on having one. As I say, I have no prescriptions for fiction. I think good fiction will develop in response to the times. I'm looking forward to reading more of it.

3AM: Some of the people I have interviewed recently have been pessimistic about the state of culture generally -- art in particular. Where do you stand on this?

MM: I've been on the merry-go-round too long to get overly pessimistic about the state of the arts. I don't like trends in politics, especially those which result in violence (whether BNP [British National Party] or NuLabor or anyone else). But politics have a habit of changing overnight, so I can't make any particular pronouncements about the future there, either. By and large I think there are some great new talents emerging all over the place. I've read some good new books by young writers, seen some good movies. It really doesn't look that bad to me. But it has always looked bad, if that's a consolation. There wasn't, in my view, much that was good in the 60s, as far as fiction was concerned, and most of what I considered worthwhile was being published in New Worlds!

I'm looking forward to Savoy's new book of essays by R.G.Meadley, the new Steve Aylett and I'm thoroughly enjoying the fiction being published at Revolution SF (check out the Adventures of the Red Poppy) or Fantastic Metropolis, The Edge and various other sites on the web. This suggests that the bookshops will soon be carrying the best of those writers. Interesting music also at the margins. But the margins have a habit of suddenly collapsing inwards and becoming the mainstream. The middlers will always have their own generic comforts. But as I said on a panel recently, paraphrasing Tom Paine, it's ridiculous that such a large constituency should be ruled by such a small one. The literary best-seller list is rarely the best place to look for innovation or inspiration or even for what the majority of people are reading.

3AM: The world is not a happy place. The US 'war on terrorism' and events in Israel seem profoundly worrying. You've expressed strong views.

MM: I believe you already heard my letter to Radio 4 in which I suggested that Sharon's example of the US in Afghanistan wasn't the best one and that the US Plains Wars, following the Civil War, were a better example, where the US made illegal incursions into Indian territory, constantly breaking treaties they'd made, then depicted as ruthless savages the Indians who were frequently driven to suicidal attacks against the settlers, thus justifying what amounted to genocide. I've also quoted in "Firing the Cathedral" (also read on Radio 4!) Cromwell's justification of the brutal massacres in Ireland 'spilling blood so that no more blood shall be spilled in future'. England was still paying the price of that logic, which also moved Cromwell's co-religionists into Irish territory as a matter of policy, the last I heard...

When Reagan began to use the language of the blood feud (Old Testament language if you prefer) in the 1980s, I predicted that this was setting the terms both domestically and abroad. Domestically the blood feud has become about the only law of the 'ghettoes', and abroad it is being followed through Clinton's bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant (also the 'subject' of a Jerry Cornelius story, Cheering for the Rockets, which is online at Fantastic Metropolis, The Edge and maybe Revolution SF). Blood-feuding is essentially what is going on between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Martyr schmartyr, security measures, scmecurity schmeasures. It's scarcely politics, but it is Old Testament law... Not sure why the Americans condemn shari'a law when they are pretty much practising it themselves. Bush's army of barmy bigots is the worst thing that's happened to the US in some years. Whatever else the British did in their handling of the IRA bombings, they didn't offer to bomb Catholic Belfast bomb for bomb. We have spent a thousand years developing a system of law which is supposed to cover most disputes between peoples and individuals. Unless we adhere to that law and improve upon it, we all fall back into a bloody abyss.

I have suggested to people who ask me what they should read that while Chomsky and John Pilger are pretty good, for instance, they would do as well to watch some of the popular movies of the late 60s and 70s -- Lawrence of Arabia and Little Big Man would both offer a few clues as to how the present situation has developed. The much-maligned Heaven's Gate is another good one. Maybe Apocalypse Now. The Arthur Penn movie (Little Big Man) is still probably the best depiction of Plains Indians I've seen and far superior to the romantic and sentimental Dances With Wolves, which was typically unpolitical and not much better than the pseudo-political (but actually self-serving) Attenborough movies like Gandhi or Cry Freedom.

In the Little Big Man novel, humour was used to give a far sharper edge to the pain. The otiose liberalisms of the 80s and 90s echoed the crap we heard from Reagan and Thatcher, but offered themselves as opposition. That's what we still get on US media. Re. Little Big Man again: though there has been breast-beating almost since the genocide in the West began, Americans know in their psyches that such policies 'work'. Their historical experience is that you can get away with invasion and genocide. In this they share something with previous imperial powers. They are extending this lesson into the Middle East and are now using the same propaganda from their Dept. of Dirty Tricks against Cuba, in order to muddy the waters for Jimmy Carter during his visit there. Anyone the current administration is unhappy with, usually because their own trade interests or domestic vote is threatened, they characterise as 'evil', wickedly planning to manufacture nuclear bombs or, if that is patently ludicrous, bio-weapons, aimed at attacking the US. The only biological attack on the US so far has come from domestic sources, some even believe the CIA or FBI. The only suicide attack has come from Saudi Arabians. I have more confidence in the average voter's common sense than the US media or their awful politicians, but I very much hope these people will be locked up before they do any further harm, either in the Americas or abroad. The recent 'nod' to the Venezuelan military showed that they are still up to their old tricks. It's amazing that more people haven't attacked them. Not, I hasten to say, that attacks are a good idea, either on or from the US or anywhere else. It's always civilians who get the worst of it.

3AM: You must feel ambivalent about your relationship with the USA in the light of all this? Ballard suggests that it is the future. Now we're living it, is America finished?

MM: I think America must learn to respect and comply with international law if she is ever to be judged a civilised nation. The future might well be a headlong tumble into some version of the Middle Ages or worse. In which case America, as she currently presents herself, is likely to lead that fall. She has no moral authority, nothing, as Rhett Butler said of the South, but arrogance and slaves. This is not to characterise most Americans, but I think it's time that ordinary Americans started finding the balls to make their views felt and their common sense turned into civil action. America could well be turning into a huge banana republic. If that happens, the people will have to take responsibility.

At present the people are so badly served by their media that I can't claim they have the government they deserve. The country is too big to be run from the centre. I am becoming increasingly attached to the notion of a union of sovereign states who, as European Union states do, pay the central government only the minimum required to run things which are best run under a central system. This is regarded as a right wing view by 'liberals' -- i.e. the confident over-privileged, mainly white people living in the North East of the country -- but it is an old American issue which needs to be re-examined now that we have the model of the EU. America has always been an oddly old-fashioned country and I have tended to disagree with Ballard (who was here once for I think a day in the 1950s) that this is 'the future'. It doesn't even lead in style, these days, or noir movies...

But I like living amongst Americans. Yesterday, I went to a barbecue in a neighborhood fairly festooned with flags and 'United We Stand' stickers -- mostly firemen, cops, paramedics -- and found the company tolerant, curious and concerned -- but not belligerently aggressive, as the bellowing Bushites make the country appear. Also there were people with young families who were from 'mixed' family backgrounds and who were intermarrying in the second or third generation. So the old racial (class) barriers are falling and these will be the educated, political savvy Americans of the future, none of whom have swallowed Bush's bullshit, even if they do have flag decals in their cars and flags flying outside their houses. This is the only way they can show internal unity, not belligerence to other countries. There are plenty of Moslems living around here now. The only attack (by a drunken boy with an inexpertly made petrol bomb) on 12th September was on the Nation of Islam building. Nation of Islam is, of course, an American institution, inspired by the apartheid racist Louis Farakhan. Some Sikhs, sadly, have abandoned their turbans and long hair, for fear of attack, since there was an attack on a Sikh in Dallas, as there was in Birmingham, UK. Generally, however, Americans have responded with sorrow and thoughtfulness to the events of September 11. I'm not sure they would support any sort of pseudo-holy war in the interest of American oil companies.

The US is altogether too big and complex and varied for anyone to sum the country up. I think we should be discussing the 'Matter of America' more seriously, as we did around and after Vietnam, but I suspect that is already beginning to happen. We could see the results in all kinds of things -- especially the popular arts. Check out the DC 9-11 book which features mine and Walter Simonson's Blitz Kid. There are some very sentimental pieces in there and a few slightly shallow ones, but there is only one silly and aggressive piece and that's by Stan Lee, creator of Sergeant Fury's Howling Commandos and various other simplistic pieces of nonsense. All in all the responses have been tributes to the pulse of liberal humanism which still pumps the American heart.

3AM: Do you feel your work so far has achieved what you set out to achieve?

MM: I think the kind of life I've lived, where on occasions pretty large sums have come and gone rapidly but I've travelled a lot and fallen in with interesting people a lot, meant that I've probably wasted a bit too much time doing fantasy books which didn't interest me as much as Pyat and so on. But there's nothing wrong with a bit of discomfort, of having to try to do something well that you might not initially have much enthusiasm for. Apart from one Elric (Fortress of the Pearl) I've tried to expand what the generic fantasy novel can do and am still trying, using methods not always associated with generic fiction and also doing what a recent critic called 'intervention', in which you take the messages of the medium and mess with them. He says I was doing that in Warlord of the Air -- taking the imperial presumptions of Conrad and his contemporaries and showing that they were based on at least partially false assumptions. It's what science fiction is supposed to do and doesn't do enough.

So in the later Elric books I'm intervening in a genre I partially invented and am trying to offset what I see as the crappy aspects of the form -- faith in larger than life heroes for a start. But you still have to make it a good story. And it makes the hobbitophiles vaguely uncomfortable, often without knowing why. M. John Harrison has done the same. Ironically, books like Mother London seem to be selling better than the Elric books, so I might soon have to support my fantasy habit by writing literary books...

I wish I'd been able to complete the Pyat sequence sooner, but I'm not sure I would have been ready for it. I've been living with those Nazis now for quite a while and the longer you live with them the better you know and understand them (banal bastards, most of them). I rely on first-hand memoirs and have managed to find a few more in the last couple of years. I should have that finished, at least in draft, by the end of this year and the crucial parts are done. Now all I have to do is get him in and out of the camp, through Spain and back to Britain. My regrets are more to do with how I've handled bits of my life rather than my writing career. I've enjoyed writing rock and roll songs and doing comics. I like to try everything. Such a huge volume of work tends to mean people don't take you that seriously and if I have a regret it's that Hawkmoon might have stopped some people reading Mother London or King of the City, but ultimately your audience will find you, I suspect, once they can see the wood for the trees.

No book has ever fully satisfied me. Even Mother London, which is probably my favourite, could have had a slightly better considered or accessible opening. A reader has to take a lot on trust. I don't demand that -- though I do think readers should just lie back and enjoy the ride, if they can. That's particularly true of the Cornelius books. I'd rewrite Final Programme if I had the chance, but it's too late now, really.

3AM: And the future?

MM: Well I have an Elric trilogy to complete (one more to go) and the Pyat book to finish. I have the long Jerry Cornelius story, Firing the Cathedral, which has to do with recent politics in the Middle East and the US. I want to write, with the Peake children, a personal memoir about Mervyn and Maeve. I have a comic novel in mind set in London. A story called London Flesh I'm still germinating. Everything else is a bit vague and probably won't go very far.

3AM: And the rest of us? Where do we need to be going?

MM: Where we need to be going? Not a phrase that comes easily to my lips. We need to be going where individual genius decides to take us. Experience is always preferable (be it Elizabeth Bowen's or William Burroughs's) to abstraction, I think. It takes a lot of forms -- Ballard's prison camp experience has flowered in a dozen forms and my experience of the Blitz and post-war London has probably done the same. Sinclair's trudging of the margins translates into visionary connections. Only connect? E.M.Forster also wrote The Machine Stops didn't he (or was that Russell? I always forget) [it is indeed Forster -- ed.]. When the machine stops, you really do feel all you want to do is connect. But that's just those of us attached to computers, I suppose. Sorry...

Making connections most people don't make. That's probably the secret of producing interesting new art, new stories. That's what we read the stimulating writers for, why the good classics remain revelatory and forever informative. Always something new you hadn't noticed before. The regurgitators are probably useful, in that they familiarise the novel, as it were, to the middle-brow audience. This gradually brings the originals to their attention, usually after they are dead. There's no point in looking for Sunday Times approval or using it, or academic approval, as a yardstick. If you do something a bit fresh, make those fresh connections, you are more or less guaranteeing yourself a cheap flat on the margins of the city or a cardboard box in the middle.

Dave Britton just told me that there was a big article on Douglas Adams in the Telegraph today saying that he had 'introduced humour into science fiction'. Bugger me, if I didn't think F. Anstey had done that (if not Swift) in the 1880s. Certainly a few of his contemporaries had. And even in pulp sf the likes of L. Sprague de Camp and Lester del Rey had been writing extremely funny stuff in Astounding. The Hek Belov stories in New Worlds used to have me in fits in the late fifties. And I thought I'd done one or two fairly funny books, such as the Dancers at the End of Time and, indeed, the Cornelius books, some while before Adams's Doctor Who scripts (perhaps made funnier by Tom Baker's ad libs) preceded his Hitchhiker on the radio. I remember listening to those and thinking -- they're all right, but they're a compendium of everything that's been done in comic sf for the last forty years. So there you go. Adams was the First Funny SF Man. It's a mantra that I started hearing a few years ago and no doubt has something to do with the fact that Adams (whom I knew slightly and who read my stuff) was a mate of Richard Curtis and the rest of that crew which have brought British comedy back to an acceptable blandness. Best not to produce prescriptions, I think, if possible. Descriptions are all right. Preferably if you're describing something at first hand...




Born in London in 1939, Michael Moorcock has had an important influence in fantasy and science fiction since the '60's. He started out at the age of fifteen as editor of the Tarzan Adventures magazine, eventually being thrown off the magazine for trying to publish too much prose (it was supposed to be a comic strip magazine). After this he began selling stories to the Science Fiction and Fantasy magazines of the time, coming up with the Eternal Champion; a figure which has appeared throughout most of his fiction.

When Moorcock was offered editorship of New Worlds, he was already a successful writer with the Elric character, his most famous creation, under his belt. He took New Worlds, a traditional SF magazine filled with space ships and sword fights, and turned it into a vehicle for the '60's alternative culture as well as paving the way for modern contemporary fiction. Publishing authors such as JG Ballard and Brian Aldiss who went on to further mainstream success.

During the New Worlds period he created one of his most interesting and enigmatic characters, Jerry Cornelius. He became a modern myth figure, mirroring the culture that produced him, a messiah for the technological age. The New Worlds authors at the time, including Aldiss, M. John Harrison, Norman Spinrad & others, wrote a series of stories based on this character which were released in the anthology The Nature of the Catastrophe. Moorcock then used characters from these stories when he went on to create the other Jerry Cornelius novels, taking the character to even greater heights, along with the great supporting cast.

This led to a period during the 1980's where Moorcock concentrated on more literary works and less on the more fantastic novels. That is not to say that he ignored fantasy altogether, with brilliant works such as The War Hound and the World's Pain. He wrote The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, a novel of erotomania, and then plunged into the Between the Wars sequence of novels, a series set in the earlier parts of this century looking at the events that led to the Holocaust, following the adventures of an unreliable and untrustworthy Russian emigrate who stumbles from situation to situation in an increasingly disturbing world.

Recently whilst creating the final volume of the Between the Wars sequence, Moorcock returned to writing more fantastic works, including two new Elric volumes and the brilliant Second Ether trilogy, which combines both a fantastic literary vision and a firm grasp of Chaos Theory. Go to Fantastic Metropolis.





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