The Coming of the Standalones

by Arthur B

One of Michael Moorcock's standalone SF novels from 1969 is not like the others.
After slogging through the Hawkmoon stories for my last review I took a bit of a break from Moorcock, and it seems that after finishing the first Hawkmoon sequence Moorcock fancied a breather too - in 1969 he had another burst of writing short, standalone novels rather than creating many new contributions to his various ongoing series. (Well, The Final Programme was published, but that had been written some years earlier and it took a while to find a publisher.) Moorcock's previous crop of SF standalones ended up showing him growing a lot as an author, so I had high hopes going in - certainly, the idea of a nice self-contained story as opposed to the messy epic which was The Chronicles of Castle Brass was looking pretty appealing. As it was, Moorcock delivered two great character studies and one appalling piece of SF colonialism.

The Ice Schooner

According to Moorcock, he decided to write The Ice Schooner after having a devil of a time convincing any publishers to touch The Final Programme - he was concerned that he was defaulting to experimental novels because he hadn't sufficiently honed his ability to write conventional material, and wanted to see if he could tell a fairly straightforward and serious SF story without resorting to New Wave weirdness. He needn't have worried - The Ice Schooner might be one of the best standalone novels he's written.

Taking Joseph Conrad's The Rescue as a framework and setting it in a global Ice Age, Moorcock tells the tale of one Konrad Arflane. Konrad is an accomplished skipper of the vessels that sail over the icy wastes of this future - think sailing ships with enormous skis attached - and like most residents of the city of Brershill believes absolutely in the traditions and superstitions of the age. To Konrad and those who take his view of things, the world and all that is within it belongs to the Ice Mother, whose will is it that all things shall cool and in time die. It's not wrong to try and stay alive as long as you personally can - the Ice Mother will take you sooner or later - provided that one lives an honourable life, according to the time-honoured rituals and customs. Fire is to be distrusted, and change doubly so; fools who witter on about how the weather is gradually getting warmer and how in some parts the ice is melting and this "ocean" thing is taking its place are insane and dangerous, for everyone knows that an object, once it has cooled, won't spontaneously become hot again. So long as you mind your own business and stick to tradition, you don't owe anyone anything; life is hard on the ice, after all, and since there's no intrinsic value in human life there's no point risking your own in order to help someone else.

This is what Konrad has believed for as long as he can remember - but at the start of the novel, he's in the throes of a personal crisis. Having lost his command but being unwilling to serve under another skipper, he's unsure whether he can really be bothered to keep living. To mull over the subject, he heads out into the icy wastes with eight days' worth of food - enough to let him come back if he decides he doesn't want to die, but also enough to get him good and far away from civilisation if he decides he wants to end it all. Out in on the tundra, he encounters Lord Rorsefne, the master of the city of Friesgalt, whose ship has been wrecked and who is at the point of death. Breaking the rule of a lifetime, Konrad intervenes to save Rorsefne and get him back to Friesgalt, where Rorsefne tells him an incredible secret - that his ship was wrecked returning from the incredible realm of New York, legendary home of the Ice Mother, and that he can give Konrad charts to show the way to New York and command of the Ice Spirit, the finest ice schooner in the land, if Konrad will in turn undertake a return voyage to confirm Rorsefne's discovery.

In principle, Konrad wouldn't touch that sort of mission with a bargepole. But despite himself, he finds himself becoming emotionally entangled with the Rorsefne clan's various members. Most particularly, he is finding himself falling in love with Ulrica Ulsenn, Rorsefne's daughter whose husband Janek Ulsenn stands to lead Friesgalt after Rorsefne's death. Matters come to a head when Rorsefne dies, and his will stipulates that for anyone to inherit what he has left to them Konrad must undertake the mission - and Ulrica and Rorsefne's radical nephew Manfred must accompany him. Konrad finds himself accepting, and having noticed the spark that has been kindled between Konrad and Ulrica in their brief acquaintance Janek invites himself along. Rounding out the central cast is the famed whaler Urquart, Rorsefne's bastard son and a fervent believer in the Ice Mother, who comes along not only to take part in the adventure but also to counter Manfred's impious ideas about change. Inevitably, the Ice Spirit becomes an emotional powderkeg, and the quarrels of the crew and passengers soon become as much of a danger to them as the harsh environment is.

The Ice Schooner stands out in Moorcock's back catalogue thanks to its protagonist. Konrad is not the dandified aesthete Moorcock's heroes so often are, and whilst he shares the tendency of Elric, Erekosë and others to fall into depression from time to time, his torment comes not from lacking that which he desires but attaining it. Driven by passions he is unaccustomed to feeling, Konrad creates a situation in which he can have Janek incarcerated without anyone objecting - granted, Janek regularly endangers the mission with stupid and misguided efforts at sabotage, but there's no changing the fact that Ulrica and Konrad shack up as soon as Janek is shut away. Despite the fact that Ulrica feels nothing for Janek and Konrad despises him, both of them are consumed with guilt over their infidelity, though Konrad struggles to puzzle out whether he feels guilty because he has wronged Janek personally or guilty because he has committed a sin in the eyes of the Ice Mother.

Another difference between Konrad and prior Moorcock protagonists is that Konrad is a cold-eyed and steely-hearted man of the ice, his belief system a bastardised form of the second law of thermodynamics which makes him believe that no change is possible. This clearly sets him apart not only from Moorcock protagonists who live a life of constant flux (like Jerry Cornelius and Jherek Carnelian), but even the likes of Elric and Corum who are cosmologically speaking relics of a bygone age but nonetheless end up accepting the necessity of change, though perhaps mourning the fact that they themselves won't be around to enjoy its benefits. Konrad, by contrast, never accepts it; after reaching New York and discovering both the truth behind the new Ice Age and the changes in the climate, he outright refuses the opportunity to be a harbinger of the new era. As well as setting up the novel's poignant conclusion, this shows a particularly nuanced stance on Moorcock's part - though very much in favour of radical politics shaking up ossified, traditionalist societies (which the Ice Mother society is a particularly extreme example of), here Moorcock concedes that many people will find it impossible to adapt to social and environmental change, and that isn't necessarily a personal failing on their part and they aren't undeserving of sympathy.

As well as featuring a cast of supporting characters just as vivid and memorable as Konrad itself, The Ice Schooner takes place in a fascinating setting. The image of sailing ships on skis chasing after whales that flop about on the ice using evolved pseudo-limbs to drag themselves around might not be especially realistic, but it's undeniably cool, and Moorcock does a great job of adapting the conventions of whaling stories to this utterly fantastic situation. (For what it's worth, the bizarre adaptations of the whales turn out to be a clue to their true nature, and their origins are explained once the party reaches New York). But in addition to being a great job at writing a straightforward and entertaining sailing story, The Ice Schooner is also one of Moorcock's best explorations of his regular themes of chaotic, radical changes to society and the environment challenging traditionalist laws and hidebound cultures. It doesn't deserve the comparative obscurity it languishes in.

Multiverse bollocks: Pretty minimal, to be honest. I suppose you can argue that Chaos bringing forth a new world order from the icy Arctic wastes is sort-of kind-of mirrored in The Final Programme, though that would be a stretch. Future Moorcock books would use the image of an ice-covered Earth as an example of what happens when Law gets things 100% its own way, which seems to fit in with The Ice Schooner's setup pitching the traditionalist faith of the Ice Mother against radicals embracing the coming thaw.

The Black Corridor

This one is sort of, but not quite, a collaboration with Hilary Bailey, who was Moorcock's wife at the time and a regular contributor to New Worlds in her own right. As Moorcock explains it, Bailey had been tinkering with a story about the collapse of society but wasn't feeling it and cast the scraps aside for him to tinker with; the novel is the result of Moorcock heavily rewriting the scraps in question and on top of that adding an entirely new space-based strand to the plot. Bailey decided to forego a co-author byline since (according to Moorcock) she didn't feel it was her story any more, but she does get an acknowledgment for her role in getting the ball rolling.

The protagonist of The Black Corridor is Mr Ryan, whose first name we never learn. Formerly the head of a reasonably successful toy company, Ryan has found himself (through circumstances illuminated only at the end of the story) taking charge of an interstellar expedition, in which he and his extended family and friends will colonise the distant planet of Munich 15040. Travelling at close to light speed, with every other passenger on the ship suspended in their hibernation pods, and with no communications reaching the ship from Earth, Ryan exists in complete isolation, ritualistically going through the daily drills to check on the functioning of the mostly-automated ship, logging his formal reports with the ship's computer, writing his musings in his personal log and studying agriculture in preparation for the hardy pioneer life he and the others will lead when they land.

In this state of total isolation, it's no surprise that Ryan gets a bit introspective. He has a lot to reflect on; he and his twelve fellow passengers are on this journey out of necessity, not choice. Back home, society has been fragmenting with alarming speed, nations dissolving into bickering microstates, outlandish political creeds and new Messiahs springing up all over, and increasingly destructive violence spiralling slowly towards all-out war. The situation exacerbates, and is in turn exacerbated by, the mental strain on the population, and people are becoming more withdrawn, xenophobic, and paranoid, to the point where the simple practice of eating as a group has become taboo. The spacecraft was Ryan and his little group of self-proclaimed rationalists' last chance to get out.

But even Ryan and his compatriots bear the psychological scars of society's terminal decline. Years alone in space with nothing but a computer to talk to hasn't done Ryan himself any good. As well as musing over the circumstances which led to the exodus from Earth, Ryan becomes subject to increasingly pervasive and disturbing dreams and hallucinations; plagued by guilt about the ruthless steps he had to take to get to this point, Ryan also has the maddening feeling that he's forgotten something important. It becomes apparent very early on in the novel that Ryan has done something vile that he's not telling us or admitting to himself, and overall the novel is structured around two narratives unfolding in parallel - one strand being Ryan's reminiscences about the collapse of social order on Earth which reaches a climax as he and his followers take control of the ship, and the other which chronicles Ryan's psychological crisis as his psyche battles to confront him with the awful truth. (Well, it's either his psyche or accusatory space ghosts - Ryan has a drug which blocks hallucinations that the computer orders him to take, but it's ambiguous as to whether he managed to take it or not before the final phantasmagoric showdown.)

As far as the Earthly half of the plot goes - the part which Hilary Bailey wrote the first draft of - it's a deftly observed depiction of the long series of compromises that transform Ryan from a mild-mannered toy factory owner into the monster he eventually becomes. Ryan and allies kid themselves into thinking that they are rational, apolitical actors who can hold themselves apart from the turmoil England is descending into, but they go from nervously watching lynch mobs burning foreigners in the street to attending neo-fascist rallies - ostensibly for research, but the ideas they come away with prove infectious - to finally resorting to hijacking and murder for the sake of saving their own skins. On a personal level, Ryan starts out as a sympathetic enough character but engages in increasingly extreme betrayals of others in order to save his own skin. I was particularly impressed by the segment early on in which Ryan decides to put together a list of all of his employees who are excessively foreign, purely on the off-chance that the political situation makes it expedient to shitcan them; the way he excuses this by promising to himself he'll give them generous severance packages is equal parts ridiculous and horribly believable.

When it comes to the hallucinatory hijinks in space, Moorcock indulges his whimsy by occasionally throwing in bits of "typographic artwork", as seen here, which represent a lot of effort for not an awful lot of payback and which are, unfortunately, garbled in many editions. These aside, however, Ryan's nightmares and delusions are crammed with some of the creepiest imagery Moorcock has conjured up, and the device of having text written IN ALL CAPS, REMINISCENT OF RYAN'S INTERACTIONS WITH THE COMPUTER interjecting in them is a very effective device - if it's meant to represent ideas from Ryan's subconscious intruding unbidden on his thoughts to present inconvenient facts and questions he doesn't want to think about, it does so very well.

But what makes this novel a real success is its conclusion, in which Moorcock hits on a neat device to tie the ends of the two plot threads together. As it transpires, Ryan's illusions conspire to create a situation highly analogous to the one he faced at the point where the Earth narrative finally breaks off, allowing the reader to infer just what happened after takeoff and forcing Ryan to face the consequences of what he's done. Of course, being a smug and privileged sort convinced that he's the good guy in all this, Ryan's confrontation with his past settles nothing; worse still, it prompts him to retreat deeper into delusion as opposed to breaking him out of it. Declaring himself perfectly justified in the awful things he has done, Ryan returns to the state he was in at the start of the novel, bodding about in space tending to the ship and not admitting what has happened to the expedition.

If I had to liken The Black Corridor to any of Moorcock's other stories, I'd probably pick out the Karl Glogauer tales since both Behold the Man and Breakfast In the Ruins are, like Corridor, science fiction character studies at heart. Whereas Behold the Man depicts the disintegration of wild-eyed idealism, both Breakfast In the Ruins and The Black Corridor show how through a series of compromises the central character compromises their conception of themselves. However, where Breakfast In the Ruins depicts an idealist selling out and becoming a pragmatist, The Black Corridor shows how someone who considers themselves a rational, apolitical centrist sort can end up becoming a horrifying extremist.

This being the case, it's kind of a shame that The Black Corridor has rather fallen by the wayside in many assessments of Moorcock's work, since I think it's actually an important and powerful exposition of his ideas as well as an entertaining story. It also works well as a parody of that subgenre of political SF stories - such as Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold or Rand's Anthem - which depict square-jawed, right-thinking, and mostly-to-entirely white people breaking away from all those dang liberals and brown people who are causing a breakdown of society and setting up their own community where people treat each other right. Moorcock's take on the concept is rather more astute; in his view, it's the very privileged classes who fret about changes to the social order who are responsible for much of the chaos that ensues when the social order changes, as their violent attempts to retain their privilege cause them to cause damage to the wider community and to each other.

Multiverse bollocks: As previously mentioned, freezing in general, and cryogenic freezing in particular, often shows up in Moorcock's fiction as a sign of runaway Law, and Ryan's obsession with order and fleeing the Chaos-filled on Earth does suggest that he might be a particularly dysfunctionally Law-aligned incarnation of the Eternal Champion; supreme dictator of a small tin can with a conscious population consisting of himself, Ryan imposes a tiny speck in the vast infinity of space where things are done his way.

In addition, there's interesting interplays between this, the Nick Allard/Jerry Cornell books, and the Jerry Cornelius series. Ryan and his people get in touch with the Russian scientists constructing the spaceship thanks to a middleman named Allard, and glancing references to Satanic mayhem in the Fens might be a sly reference to the action of the Allard/Cornell novel Printer's Devil (or The Russian Intelligence in its Jerry Cornell version). Likewise, the recurring query as to the "nature of the catastrophe" would escape from these pages and become a recurring theme in various Cornelius short stories, the leader of the Enoch Powell-derived Patriot faction in Parliament here is one Colin Beesley (who might be Jerry's old nemesis Bishop Beesley), and on a wider scale, the runaway balkanisation of the world into tiny warring microstates is played out again and again in the Cornelius novels from The Final Programme onwards. It's amusing to imagine that the apocalypse Ryan and crew are escaping back on Earth is yet another one of Jerry's hilarious get-Armageddon-quick schemes, only since Ryan's response to change is to turtle up rather than to find out what's really going on we never get to see the denouement.

The Distant Suns

This collaboration between Moorcock and Jim Cawthorn might be one of the most uncharacteristic novels Moorcock ever wrote. As Moorcock explains it, he was prompted to write the story by the London editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, who wanted to run an SF serial in the pages of said newspaper for two reasons: firstly, as a means of assessing how much of a market for SF there was in India, and secondly as a way to encourage his readers to embrace a high-tech future for the Indian economy and to counter the idea that science and tradition were inherently incompatible. Moorcock agreed to this plan and started writing the serial, but fell ill partway through so Cawthorn, who was already doing the illustrations, had to step in to write the conclusion based on Moorcock's outline.

All this happened at around the time Moorcock was working on The Black Corridor, and he did in fact consider adapting it for the serial before deciding against this and writing an original story instead. The novel does, however, strongly lean on a number of themes from The Black Corridor, and even prominently includes a snippet of text from it (which Moorcock also lent to Hawkwind to recite on stage a few years later, making it possibly the most heavily recycled piece of prose in his canon). In particular, both stories concern a near future in which the political situation on Earth is becoming increasingly extreme and the violent self-destruction of society seems sure to follow, and both has a major plot point a revolutionary interstellar spacecraft on a search for a colony planet.

Specifically, the ship is the Hope of Man, launched from India, whose crew consists of intrepid astronaut Jerry Cornelius, his scientist wife Catherine, and the cynical Frank Marek. Despite hailing from London and sharing their names with the central siblings of the Jerry Cornelius stories, these three have nothing in common with their namesakes; Jerry is a square-jawed space adventurer instead of a swinging psychedelic terrorist, there's no creepy incest vibe, and on the whole the three adopt the absolutely conventional stock genre roles of rugged hero, damsel in distress and madman.

Anyway, the ship is able to go faster than light thanks to its revolutionary Warp drive, but during their voyages through the Warp the travellers are vulnerable to bizarre hallucinations - by the time they reach their destination of Alpha Centauri, Frank has gone hopelessly insane. Jerry and Catherine have to contend both with Frank's out of control death wish and the suspicions of a local population of humans, who occupy a crumbling, ancient city on a moon which seems to offer the chance of a new home for humanity; the major challenge is getting home to announce the existence of this colony world to the teeming masses of Earth, so they can get busy emigrating to space instead of ripping each other apart.

The Distant Suns is, to put it mildly, really not very representative of Moorcock's usual work. For starters, it's written in a simplistic style reminiscent more of a dry 1950s SF author writing for young boys as opposed to the more sophisticated tone Moorcock usually adopts - the man himself says that it's meant to be a sort of homage to the postwar British SF he and Cawthorn had read as kids. Chapters are extremely short, the language used is fairly simple, recaps are frequent and cliche abounds. More or less all of this was probably down to the format Moorcock was faced with; tasked with writing for a mainstream audience which hadn't necessarily had much experience with SF before, Moorcock presumably decided not to get too experimental, and the fact that the story was serialised in a newspaper meant that the installments both had to be brief enough to fit a tight word budget and contain enough of a recap that people could follow the story if they happened to miss an episode.

However, even if you set aside the constraints of the format, there's something just very slightly off about the novel. It's not a matter of Cawthorn taking over halfway through - I honestly can't tell where the switchover takes place - so much as the story being written for a propagandistic purpose, a purpose Moorcock applies himself to in a rather patronising manner. Moorcock has a nasty tendency towards the didactic - it's one of the things that go me so annoyed during my reviews of The Revenge of the Rose or The Quest for Tanelorn - and it's in full flow here, to the point where we're subjected to exchanges like this bit of narration talking about the reasons why the Hope of Man's mission is so important:
It was a desperate remedy. It was a remedy that should not have been necessary. If more people had listened to the voices of the prophets and visionaries in the 20th century, then the situation might have been avoided. If people had learned to trust the new scientific instruments and methods that had been invented and discovered in the 20th Century, if the politicians had been convinced that their use was of absolute importance, if the people had overcome their superstitions concerning scientific farming methods, birth-control, computers, mechanised factories, if the educationists had concentrated on familiarising people with the ideas of science, then perhaps the stability of the world would not now be threatened, and The Hope of Man would be about to embark on a simple exploration voyage, not on a critical journey to find a last-minute solution to the mess in which the world now found itself.
Gosh, I wonder what he's trying to say there?

The fact that the story was essentially written to lecture people is irksome enough. The fact that it was written by an English person to lecture Indians makes it rather problematic, especially when it comes to the way Moorcock goes about it. Of course, right at the start there's the question of why the Illustrated Weekly elected to test the waters for SF in India by asking Moorcock to write a story as opposed to soliciting stories from local talent, but since they're an English-language paper maybe they thought hiring a writer of English-language SF who was already well-known internationally might get the series some attention, I'm not really placed to question the decision on their part.

What gets to me is the way India is almost completely sidelined in the actual novel. Sure, the Hope of Man launches from India and Jerry's commanding officer at the UN is Field Marshal Hira, who is Indian, but as soon as the ship actually launches Hira and the launch site are almost completely irrelevant except for a few mentions in the latter half of the novel which shed light on how the situation on Earth is deteriorating. All of the protagonists of the novel come from London, because Moorcock decided he'd rather confuse the Jerry Cornelius bibliography even more than usual than write a story with a non-European protagonist, so the moral of the story seems to be "study science and engineering, Indian people, so white Englishmen can save the world for you once again".

This moral is in fact rubbed in by the discovery of the human civilisation at Alpha Centauri, who it emerges might have been descended from ancient astronauts from Asia in forgotten ages of history recorded in - and here's the particularly Von Daniken moment - old Hindu scriptures. But it goes further than that: the descendants of these astronauts live in a corrupt and decadent society which has stagnated thanks to their utter dependence on the AI that orders their lives for them, and will in short turn be reinvigorated by the coming of colonists from Earth... so we have our space Indians who live a backward, primitive existence and who need scientifically advanced travellers to come sort out their society for them, and the moral of this subplot seems to be "study science and engineering, Indian people, because if you stick to traditional knowledge your society will stagnate and we'll have to recolonise you to sort things out".

In the introduction to my edition Moorcock all but says "This story is actually shit, please don't judge the rest of my fiction based on it." I'm inclined to agree, not least because it's a depressing example of a writer who in principle was rather down on the British Empire's colonial adventures telling a story which reaffirms most of the paternalistic Rudyard Kipling excuses for colonising India in no uncertain terms, relegates Indian people to the supporting cast, and appropriates Indian religion to use as a minor background detail. Apparently, midway through the story's run there was a change of editorship at the Illustrated Weekly and the new powers that be at the paper were rather down on the story, and didn't commission a sequel. I can't think why that would be.

Multiverse bollocks: Aside from a few Black Corridor parallels and the borrowing of names from the Cornelius stories, not that much to report here.

The Picky Buyer's Guide

The Ice Schooner and The Black Corridor are both excellent, not least because they're decent examples of Moorcock writing protagonists he doesn't have much sympathy with and managing to make them believable and almost sympathetic characters whilst not excusing their less laudable qualities. Have a care if you're trying to acquire The Black Corridor because some editions botch the typographic art, and a few even omit important parts of the text altogether.

The Distant Suns, on the other hand, is best forgotten about. More or less the only aspect of what it tries to do which works is the homage to postwar SF adventure stories for young boys; it succeeds as a pastiche because it is precisely as shit as the source material.

Buyer's guide now looks like this:

     The Stealer of Souls [1]
     Stormbringer (post-1977 edition) [1]
     The Eternal Champion (the novel, not the omnibus)
Clovis Marca:
     The Shores of Death (AKA The Twilight Man) [2]
Michael Kane:
     City of the Beast (AKA Warriors of Mars) [3]
     Lord of the Spiders (AKA Blades of Mars) [3]
     Masters of the Pit (AKA Barbarians of Mars) [3]
Alan Powys:
     The Winds of Limbo (AKA The Fireclown) [2]
Jerry Cornelius:
     The Final Programme [4]
     A Cure For Cancer [4]
     The English Assassin [4]
     The Condition of Muzak [4]
     Gold Diggers of 1977 (AKA The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle)
Professor Faustaff:
     The Rituals of Infinity (AKA The Wrecks of Time) [2]
Karl Glogauer:
     Behold the Man
     Breakfast In the Ruins
Konrad Arflane:
     The Ice Schooner
     The Black Corridor

[1] Collected in Elric or the Del Rey edition of Elric: the Stealer of Souls.

[2] Collected in The Roads Between the Worlds.

[3] Collected in Warrior of Mars or Kane of Old Mars.

[4] Collected in The Cornelius Quartet or The Cornelius Chronicles (2-volume UK edition, or 1st volume of the US version).

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
at 05:05 on 2019-02-22
No comments on this article. Why don't you post one?
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in December 2011