Sunday, February 7, 2016

Jerry Cornelius Calling

I've been a Michael Moorcock fan since high school. Last year, I re-read the Hawkmoon cycle, as well as reading the Kane of Old Mars trilogy and the three books in the Eternal Champion series for the first time. I also started The Whispering Swarm, Moorcock's most recent autobiographical novel.

More on that in a minute.

Mind you, almost everything of Moorcock that I have read previously was part of the Eternal Champion continuity. I never read the Jerry Cornelius novels. Of course, I've had a copy of the fat orange paperback Jerry Cornelius omnibus for maybe 30 years, but I've never made any headway with it. With the first release in the Titan Books reprint of the Jerry Cornelius tetrology out this week, I decided to pick up a copy of The Final Programme and give it a go. I finished it three days after starting the book.

While the Eternal Champion novels have always been popular with fans, the Jerry Cornelius series has had a cult following of its own. While it is a bit challenging to describe Jerry Cornelius, rock and roll playboy assassin might work. The trappings of the 1960s, including drugs (particularly hallucinogens), rock and roll, and sexual experimentation, are all over this novel. Add science fiction staples from the pulps such as needle guns, the Hollow Earth, and fringe science. Then add Eastern mysticism.

Much of this might invite comparisons with Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Heinlein's work is far more coherent, but Moorcock puts a great deal more on the table in terms of engagement with real-world sexuality.

For example, there's a lot of homosexuality in the novel, but not a trace of homophobia. That's very unusual for 1960s SF. The scenes in The Final Programme in which Cornelius hangs out in a London gay bar/pinball hall are very evocative; these must have been based on places where Moorcock was hanging out with friends.

As far as internal coherence goes, the sentence structure here is crisp. We're reading fine, brief Moorcockian sentences. Frequently, the banter between the characters provoked surprised laughter. There were also two amusing forays into Rabelasian lists; one was a list of types of party-goers; the other subject was academic/scientific specialties beginning with the letter "A".

But the novel's structure and plot: not so coherent. Figuring out what is really happening as this novel progresses from "Phase" to "Phase" (as the multi-chapter sections are called) is a puzzler. Part of this may be what Moorcock revealed about himself in The Whispering Swarm: he has periodic visions and hallucinations. He was also part of the drugs and rock and roll scene in the 1960s, so it's perhaps not surprising that the novel is an odd plot.

That being said, it's not difficult to see the lipstick traces between this work and several others, including William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959), Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus Trilogy (1975+), and maybe also Grant Morrison's Invisibles (1994+).  The Jerry Cornelius character also inspired other peoples' creations such as Brian Talbot's Luther Arkwright (1978) and Grant Morrison's Gideon Stargrave (1978). The former was explicitly encouraged by Moorcock and even has its own RPG now; the latter led to accusations of plagarism.

One warning if you read the re-issue: John Clute delivers huge spoilers in his introductory essay. You might not want to read that until you finish the tetrology. It really kind of ruined the reading experience for me, and spoilers usually don't bother me.

I intend to soldier on through the rest of tetrology as Titan releases the rest of the reissues. In the meantime, it's time to start reading Titan's reissues of the Corum saga!


  1. When was a suit filed over Gideon Stargrave? I hadn't heard about that.

    1. Pretty sure Clute mentions this in the intro, but the Wikipedia entry is more nuanced:

    2. Yeah, the wiki doesn't suggest to me that he did. I also couldn't find it by googling.