Thursday, December 18, 2014

Happy Birthday, Michael Moorcock

Today is literary legend Michael Moorcock's 75th birthday. Mike is a towering influence on my life. It's been my privilege to edit him three times - once at short story length, once at novella, and once at novel. We've hung out a time or two, and I've even swung his famous black sword Stormbringer, chopping at imaginary demons while he stood watching me in a parking lot of a Mexican restaurant in Bastrop, Texas. I've penned at least three appreciates of Mike over the years. This one, written a few years ago for Heliotrope Magazine, says it best. I'm posting it below, and wishing the man a very happy day.


Michael Moorcock is threaded throughout the entire fabric of my childhood universe. I remember bookstores devoting entire shelves to the various novels of his multiverse, works I devoured as fast as I could get my hands on them. It was a natural leap from the Barsoom and Africa of Edgar Rice Burroughs to the darker, stranger worlds of Elric of Melniboné and Prince Corum Jhaelen Irsei. It was a jump into a never-ending abyss I took eagerly, knowing that the fall would stretch my mind in ways more profound than the Warlord of Mars or the Lord of the Jungle ever could. His reconstruction of the classic fantasy battle of Good vs. Evil into Law vs. Chaos had profound effects on my pre-teenage mind, fundamentally altering how I would forever view everything from politics to religion, let alone adventure. Even as a child, I could see how far reaching his influence ran – spilling out of the pages of swords and sorcery novels into other forms in a manner we would now refer to as “multi-media.” For what is Gary Gygax’s Alignment Chart if not the plotting of Good/Evil, Law/Chaos on an XY axis? And yes, I still have that edition of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes. And while I hadn’t heard much Hawkwind or the Deep Fix back then, I certainly knew Blue Öyster Cult. Moorcock was everywhere, a multiverse in his own right.

Sticking only to the subgenre he helped establish, that of swords & sorcery, Moorcock is a towering influence. By taking a teen-angst take on Conan the Barbarian, Moorcock created the quintessential +fantasy anti-hero, a non-human albino misfit, heir to the throne of a decadent and cruel society, who can only survive by stealing the life-force of others. After committing genocide against his own kind and massacring his demonic gods, Moorcock’s unlikely hero goes on to accidentally slay every friend and lover he ever has, his black sword Stormbringer hacking out a path straight to the pinnacle of fantasy-adventure stardom. In this regard alone, Moorcock’s influence on fantasy, on rock and roll, on video and roleplaying gaming was nothing short of profound. On gaming? Yes, because in promoting the smaller-stakes, more personal and grittier world of swords & sorcery, Moorcock was profoundly influential on Dungeons & Dragons, and through it, on first the RPG realm and then the entire world of third person computer and console gaming that grew out of it.

And for many a writer, this would be more than enough – more than they could honestly ever hope for indeed– but Moorcock isn’t just any writer. Because there is an entirely different side to the man. In 1988, his masterful Mother London was short-listed for the UK’s most prestigious literary award, the Whitbread Prize, alongside of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Bruce Chatwyn’s Utz. This is the Moorcock of Behold the Man, that brilliantly controversial take on messiah complexes, religious obsession, and the crucifixion. This is the Guardian Fiction Prize-winning Moorcock of The Condition of Muzak, The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, Gloriana, Byzantium Endures, The Laughter of Carthage, King of the City. This is the Moorcock that The Washington Post called “one of the most serious literary lights of our time.” And again, this on its own is certainly more success than most will ever see in their career.

But it was only as an adult, looking back at the history of our field, and reading Colin Greenland’s The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British ‘New Wave’ in Science Fiction (Routledge & Keegan, 1983) and Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle ( Savoy Books, 1992) that I came to understand in full the equally – if not more – profound effect that Moorcock-the-editor had, who, in his capacity as head of New Worlds magazine ( 1964-1973), was the chief architect of what was perhaps speculative fiction’s most important –some would say only true – literary movement. Moorcock pioneered the New Wave revolution that sought to blend the best of mainstream literary and science fiction technique in an atmosphere that encouraged a generation of writers to embrace the enthusiastic air of experimentation so prevalent in the 60s. Along with Brian Aldiss, J G Ballard, Harlan Ellison and others, he shepherded the movement that many see as ushering speculative fiction out of its adolescence into its adulthood. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my earliest introduction to science fiction’s prestigious classics of short fiction – works like Samuel Delaney’s “Aye, and Gomorrah” and Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog” – those canonical masterpieces that are why I work in this genre today – wouldn’t have existed at all if not for Moorcock the editor’s influence. For someone who himself wrote so little actual science fiction, he has had a colossal effect on it. And that too, should be enough for any one lifetime….

Except that we must talk about his very real and pertinent contribution to theoretical physics. The term “multiverse” was created by pioneering American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910), who also gave us the term “stream of consciousness,” though he intended it to describe different psychological states, with no application to the workings of the physical world. It was Michael Moorcock who, independently of James, conceived the term to describe a universe of near-infinite parallel worlds for a story called “The Sundered Worlds” (published in Science Fiction Adventures, December 1962). Moorcock’s use became the prevailing definition of the term, and has entered the popular consciousness to such a degree that it is now on the lip of every quantum physicist. In fact, this notion that our universe may be only one of a transfinite number of such realities, each only a few quantum decisions distance from its neighbor, is rapidly gaining credence as the most likely explanation for the peculiarities of quantum mechanics. As mind-boggling a concept as the multiverse is, Occam’s razor increasingly comes down in its favor. And we have Moorcock to thank for describing it first.

And perhaps, that, finally, is enough for one lifetime. Except that the man is far from done. It’s been my privilege to have worked with Michael several times now, most recently as editor of his collection, The Metatemporal Detective (Pyr, 2007), which maps his multiverse onto the world of Victorian consulting detectives, taking Elric of Melniboné back to his roots and inspirations, combining him with Sexton Blake adversary Monsieur Zenith the Albino. It’s one of my very favorite projects, something I am so proud to have worked on, but hardly the end of his output. With a biography of Mervyn Peake in the works, and a new Jerry Cornelius novel, as well as more Elric stories appearing, Michael Moorcock’s multiverse just grows and grows and grows. And with new editions of the Elric novels coming out, all lavishly illustrated, the bookseller’s shelves are starting to look again like I remember them. Like they always should in any corner of the multiverse worth living in.

“Heroes betray us,” Michael Moorcock writes in his wisdom. “By having them, in real life, we betray ourselves.” Powerful words, and I can only hope their author will forgive me then, if I use them as a springboard to say that he is mine, an author whose pen can only illuminate, never betray. Mike, you’re a towering figure in 20th and 21st century literature, my vote for the single most influential person in speculative fiction, a lynchpin that if removed in some horrendous time-travelling mishap would bring the whole edifice crashing down. It’s been my privilege to have been your editor a time or two, and to call you friend, but first and foremost, you’ll always be my hero.

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