Michael Moorcock hasn't made it easy for us to get a grip on his work. As an editor, he had a dramatic impact on the New Wave sci-fi movement of the 1960s, but here most of his involvement took place behind the scenes—and in ways that tended to hide his influence behind that of the writers he championed. Of course, this merely reminds us of age-old question of history: Who has more influence, the king or the king-maker? Certainly in the realm of experimental genre fiction, Moorcock was clearly the power behind the thrones of the 1960 reigning monarchs.
His output as an author is no easier to pigeonhole. Moorcock's stories came out hidden behind at least nine pseudonyms, and even if you figure out which works are his, you aren't sure whether these were quick written-for-hire commercial ventures, pastiches imitating other authors’ genre fiction styles, or carefully considered artistic statements. Moorcock once boasted that he could churn out 15,000 words a day, and complete a saleable manuscript in three days—hardly a claim on which to establish a literary reputation, or help later generations evaluate an oeuvre.
Even a single work by Moorcock can go off in so many different directions, that the reader may struggle to identify a connecting thread unifying the various incidents and characters. Moorcock’s The Final Programme, the first of his well-known Jerry Cornelius novels, is a case in point. After reading the opening pages, you will be convinced that Moorcock is parodying the James Bond franchise. Midway through the same book, you will think that Moorcock is working within the conventions of dystopian political fiction, sharing his vision of the collapse of Western Europe. In its final pages, he immerses himself completely in fantasy and sci-fi concepts, sometimes blurring the boundaries between the two. And when you reach the end of the book, you won’t be sure whether the Cornelius who exits the last scene is the same person who appeared at the beginning. Frankly, I don’t think Moorcock knows either.
Certainly Cornelius wasn't permitted to disappear completely. Moorcock would, after all, hatch future books and stories about this malleable protagonist. But those tend to be even less straightforward than The Final Programme. As if this isn't confusing enough, Moorcock often wrote about other characters with similar names. Jehamia Cohnahlias appears in The Secret of the Runestaff (1969). Jeremiah ‘Jerry’ Cornell shows up in The Chinese Agent (1970). And a host of other characters with the initials JC frequent other Moorcock works. Perhaps you should think of them as the intersection of the "hero with a thousand faces" popularized by one JC, and the robed redeemer with his devout dozen, that most famous of JCs. By the way, you also get a dose of John Cleese and Jackie Chan in these juicy characters. So take your pick.
Jerry Cornelius, for all his chameleon-like qualities, captured the essential peculiarities of the new British hero of that period. Moorcock brilliantly grasped the nihilistic qualities of James Bond and his many imitators. Recall that, except for a brief moment at the beginning of each Bond film, during which the secret agent demonstrates a brief and lukewarm allegiance to Queen and country, this hero was a lone wolf, a flippant and seductive rule-breaker, answerable only to his own instincts and drives. One of the first things you learn about Bond is that he is "licensed to kill"—in other words, he is above all law, a kind of Nietzschean Übermensch with cool weapons, hot car and hotter lovers. Cornelius is much the same, but without the gratuitous 'Queen and country' part. At several points in The Final Programme, he is warned that his actions compromise the future of Britain, if not Western society as a whole. Cornelius’s reaction is to look out for number one, even if that means securing access his own oil well and refinery to keep him "energy independent" during the coming collapse. He is the ultimate survivalist.
But Ian Fleming would never have approved of the absurdist and infantile elements Moorcock inserts into his Jerry Cornelius narratives. The super-duper secret weapons and gadgets are ridiculous in conception and frequently fail during use. Why does Cornelius rely on a mini-crossbow or a dart gun that can't shoot straight? It is all too typical of Moorcock's modus operandi that (1) Cornelius murders the great love of his life with his stupid dart gun; (2) the dead lover was his own sister; and (3) this mishap took place while Cornelius was trying to murder his own brother. Yes, readers learn very soon that Jerry Cornelius sees himself as above even those few moral laws that James Bond obeys.
Every story of this sort requires a super-villain, and in The Final Programme that arch evildoer is Miss Brunner. She has something nasty in mind, involving a kind of computer- enabled demonic possession flavored with a sado-masochistic twist. But it is indicative of the ambiguous moral valence of this work that we are never sure whether Brunner is Cornelius's adversary or collaborator. He isn’t sure himself. Frankly, I don’t think Moorcock knows either.
I have a high tolerance for books that force me to abandon control over the reading experience. I am willing to go to unexpected places, and some of my favorite novels have shown little mercy, sending me on journeys I never anticipated when I checked into my cabin on page one. But I want some assurance that author has a destination, or at least a reliable sense of direction. Moorcock struggles to live up to this minimal requirement. He not only writes without a map, but he even throws away the bloody compass.
He could have written this book for thrills, and actually delivers on that promise for a few pages. But not for long. He could have turned The Final Programme into a funny, satirical novel, and for brief spells Moorcock achieves just that. But not for long. Given his obvious creativity and boundless imagination, Moorcock could have pointed this premise into any number of directions, and let it rip. Instead he advances in too many directions at once—and that means he doesn't advance at all. Like Mr. Cornelius's fancy gadgets and weapons, things just don’t work, even if they look flashy and cool along the way.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.