I was about fifteen years old when I first read this trilogy, and don’t recall it being as funny as it is. In other of his more serious fantasies, Moorcock occasionally refers to our Earth of thousands of years past, whose history has been twisted and fantasised to an absurd degree. In ‘The Runestaff’ for instance, the ships of the Granbretanians are decorated with the figureheads of ‘terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan – Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl, Rhunga, who were said to have ruled the land before The Tragic Millennium.’
There is much of that here, in the second volume of Moorcock’s acclaimed ‘Dancers At The End of Time’ trilogy, such as when Jherek Carnelian discovers a group of children held in a time-loop by a robot nanny, stashed away to protect them from the Tyrant Director Pecking Pa.
It’s not just a device to add humour or show the End of Timers as a decadent civilisation with no conception of the reality of their past. It also makes the point that we believe only what we know from history books, and that the truth may be far removed from what we think may have happened.
The End of Timers would not spend much time worrying about such things. This is a world where emotion is a fashion; the civilisation of the ultimately decadent. Although this world lacks any concept of malice or guilt, it also lacks the concept of compassion.
Moorcock pre-empts any comparison between his far future denizens of Earth and the Eloi in HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ by introducing it himself. When Jherek finally manages to get back to Eighteen Ninety Six to search for his lost love, Mrs Amelia Underwood, he meets HG Wells himself who helps Jherek get to Bromley, home of the Underwoods.
Wells thinks Jherek is being merely flattering and amusing when he tells him he is from a far future Earth, while Jherek believes that Wells actually built a time machine.
At one point Jherek tells Wells that the time machine in which he first travelled to Eighteen Ninety Six broke, but was thought be from two thousand years before Wells’ time, so that it was probable that Wells has merely rediscovered Time Travel.
‘What a splendid notion, Mr Carnelian. It’s rare for me to meet someone with your particular quality of imagination. You should write the idea into a story for your Parisian readers. You’d be a rival to Monsieur Verne in no time!’
Jherek hadn’t quite followed him. ‘I can’t write,’ he said. ‘Or read.’
‘No true Eloi should be able to read or write.’ Mr Wells puffed on his pipe, peering out of the window. ‘
(Chapter Eleven – A Conversation on Time Machines and Other Topics)
It wasn’t really clear back in the Seventies how much of a divergence this was from Moorcock’s usual style. Certainly, he produced many experimental pieces before this, but most of his work was serious, if not dour, with only the occasional humourous moment or in-joke being manifest.
This is a joyful rollercoaster of a comedy of manners, filled with grotesques and caricatures, exquisitely assembled for the edification of all.
The first volume is ‘An Alien Heat‘
‘Volunteers for the tomorrow front
It looked like a perfectly innocent store front, a volunteer enrollment office for young idealists who wanted to help the desperate forces of a young democracy overseas win their civil war. The young girl who sat at the desk inside was attractive, sympathetic, and would see that you got your passage safely.
But it was all a trap. It was indeed a recruiting station, but the war for which it brainwashed its deluded cannon fodder was out of this world — remote in time, remote in space, and nobody would ever return alive. As for the girl — she was as much a slave of that monstrous future-world machine as if she were chained to the desk.
Except for one thing that even the inhuman super-science of EARTH’S LAST FORTRESS did not suspect — that Norma was the secret lever that could shatter their universe!’
Blurb from the 1960 D-431 Ace Doubles paperback edition
Norma Mathieson, a young woman planning to commit suicide by jumping into a river, is approached by a dark stranger and offered a job. She is to be a receptionist in a recruiting station where they are recruiting young men to fight for the ‘Calonian Cause’.
She is given a key to an apartment above the station and told that all she has to do is get the young men to fill out and sign a form, then send them through to a back room for a medical examination.
Norma soon realises that all is not what it seems as no one ever returns from beyond the door. The stranger who offered her the job, the mysterious Dr Lell, is recruiting men from all the ages of Earth and shipping them off to fight in a far future war.
Despite the fact that she has been mentally conditioned, Norma manages to write to an ex-lover, now a Professor, Jack Garson. Garson writes back to her, thinking her delusional, but then arrives in person and is pressganged by Dr Lell and sent off to join the frontline troops in the far future.
The plot is suitably vanVogtian and once again demonstrates the author’s slightly contradictory view of female psychology.
Norma is, after all, a weak and feeble woman who can not possibly stand up to the masculine dominance of Dr Lell, and yet she does.
Garson discovers that he needs to get a message to one of the Planetarians (who are battling The Glorious) to tell them that the time barrier which is being created to end the war has to be destroyed before it, in its turn, destroys the universe. Norma discovers that she is in mental rapport with Dr Lell’s giant (and sentient) machine and can manipulate its power to a certain extent.
Between them they can try and avert universal disaster.
Originally published in 1942 as ‘The Recruiting Station’ it is by no means one of van Vogt’s best works although it does have the usual oddly compelling narrative with fantastic twists and turns.
There are vast machines and their mobile appendages, the ‘tentacles’, and a far future Earth where vast armies are being slaughtered daily in a senseless war of ideologies. It’s interesting but perhaps fruitless to speculate what effect the progress of World War II was having on van Vogt when he originally wrote this in 1942. There is an interesting correlation between the young men going through a door for a medical examination but never returning, and the situation in Hitler’s concentration camps although this I suspect may be merely a chilling coincidence.
An interesting fix-up here which is loosely or partly based on Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’, and has been assembled from five stories (“A Son Is Born” (May 1946), “Child of the Gods” (Aug 1946), “Hand of the Gods” (Dec 1946), “Home of the Gods” (April 1947) and “The Barbarian” (Dec 1947)), all originally published in Astounding.
On a far future Earth a child, ‘Clane’ is born to Tania, the daughter of the Lord Leader of Earth. The child is malformed as a result of his mother’s exposure to radiation.
Normally children such as this would be out to death but Jonquin, one of the scientist priests who maintain the temples of the God Metals, convinces the family to allow the child to live in order that he can study the development of such an unfortunate.
van Vogt here postulates a far future Earth where the automated production of power from nuclear materials continues in temples of scientist priests, although no one appears to understand the principles behind the science and attributes the power to Gods who control the God Metals. Following a war with an alien race known as The Riss, humanity has fallen into a stagnated society of ignorance. Nuclear powered ships travel from world to world despite the fact that the secrets of their construction have also been lost. It’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow, it has to be said.
The Lord Leader discovers Clane to be highly intelligent despite his nervous tics when in unfamiliar company, and takes his advice on military strategy when the Earth forces are under siege when trying to conquer the human population of Mars. As pointed out, it loosely follows events in at least Graves’ account of the life of Claudius. The Lord Leader’s exiled stepson, Tewes, for instance, is clearly Tiberius and the Lord Leader, the Emperor Augustus.
Clane fits in to the usual van Vogt ‘logical hero’ template and becomes adept at anticipating and deflecting assassination attempts and, when he finally assumes the position of Lord Leader, defeating invading barbarian armies from Jupiter. In retrospect it might have been far more interesting if van Vogt had kept to the Claudius template. Claudius avoided death because the schemers and plotters around him found him a harmless and somewhat ludicrous figure, which was far from the case. van Vogt has Clane control his nervous reactions very early on, and his physical abnormalities are concealed under voluminous clothing, and so may as well not be there.
Rather like the conclusion to ‘The Weapon Makers’ van Vogt throws in some surreal non-sequitors at the finale. Clane has been captured by the Barbarian leader Czinczar who brings in a package containing a deformed possibly alien body packed in ice. Clane proves that he has complete control of a ball of light which hovers within the room by killing the guards who try to harm him and then the Barbarian surrenders his entire forces to Clane. Is this body an alien threat from outside the Solar System, or one of the Riss?
Hawkmoon, determined to return to Europe, sets off to cross the ocean, but is driven back by dragon-like sea monsters and is marooned on an island, which he soon discovers is Dnark, home of the Runestaff itself. There he meets Orland Fank, the Hebridean ‘brother’ of The Warrior in Jet and Gold and Jehamia Cohnahlias, the Spirit of The Runestaff.
Regular Moorcock readers will recognise this as yet another variation on the name which reappears throughout his work ascribed to aspects of the Eternal Champion, its most famous manifestation being Jerry Cornelius, Moorcock’s experimental literary antihero whose reality is as fluid as his sexuality and gender.
Hawkmoon and D’Averc find they are not alone in Dnark, for the Dark Empire of Granbretan, now employing the new engines designed by Kalan of the Serpent Order, have reached Amarekh, and have sent the evil and corpulent Shenegar Trott to claim the Runestaff for King Huon.
Following a battle in the city of Glowing Shadows in which Hawkmoon invokes the Legion of the Dawn, Shenegar Trott and the Warrior in Jet and Gold are both slain, and Hawkmoon is urged to take the Runestaff back to Europe.
Meanwhile, there is dissidence within the halls of Granbretan, where Baron Meliadus is planning a coup and the death of the immortal King Huon. His plan is to marry Flana Mikosevaar, Huon’s only surviving relative and crown her Queen, giving him more or less absolute rule over the Earth.
The scenes within Granbretan itself are by far the most interesting and inventive, from King Huon’s chaotically coloured, windowless palace, where – in his immense throne room – he is guarded by a thousand mantis-masked warriors, to Lord Taragorm’s Palace of Time. There Lord Taragorm – in his helmet composed of a working clock – is surrounded by thousands of timepieces, and pursues his arcane experiments into the nature of Time itself.
His current invention is a clock whose striking will cause such vibrations throughout the dimensions that the crystal machine in Castle Brass will be destroyed, returning the rebels and their castle back to their original plane.
By the time this is achieved however, The Granbretanians are in the midst of civil war and while the ‘Beasts Begin to Squabble’ Count Brass and his meagre forces, with Hawkmoon and the Runestaff at the forefront, march on Granbretan itself.
There are ironic in-jokes hidden within the text, some of which I regret I cannot decipher. In Book Three, Chapter Five, ‘The Fleet at Deau-Vere’ for instance, Moorcock describes the ships of the Granbretanians.
‘There were panels in their sides, each carrying an intricate painting depicting some earlier sea victory for Granbretan. Gilded figureheads decorated the forward parts of the ships, representing the terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan – Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl, Rhunga, (John, George, Paul, Ringo) who were said to have ruled the land before The Tragic Millennium – Chirshil. the Howling God (Churchill); Bjrin Adass, the Singing God; (Brian Aldiss) Jeajee Blad, the Groaning God (JG Ballard) and Aral Vilsn, the Roaring God, (Harold Wilson) Father of Skvese and Blansacredid, the gods of Doom and Chaos.
As is to be expected, the Dark Empire is defeated and the balance is restored, but temporarily, as Moorcock is always at pains to point out, since the forces of Order and Chaos are always at work, and the Runestaff seeks only to maintain the balance and ensure that neither force has too great an influence.
Following on from ‘The Eyes of The Overworld’ we rejoin Cugel, who has been transported back across the world to Cutz by the Magician Iucounu and is attempting to find his way back.
Far more Swiftian and satirical than the previous novel this displays Vance’s preoccupation with the absurdities of social rules and customs, such as the island where the men are forced to cover their faces as well as their bodies, lest they arouse the passions of their rapacious womenfolk.
It’s basically a series of morality tales in which, Cugel either outwits, or is outwitted by, a series of tricksters and con-men. Tellingly, when Cugel ends up with ill-gotten gains he almost immediately loses them again.
Vance’s overall point seems to be that despite the civilisations which have risen and fallen between our time and this far future earth where the Sun is about to expire, human nature has not essentially changed. Greed, Pride, Stupidity, Intolerance and Malice are not in short supply.
Despite the rather formulaic construction of each section, which sees Cugel lying, cheating, scheming and plotting his way in and out of rather convoluted situations, it is still a marvellous book which holds a mirror to our own society and forces us to question our own cultural habits, which in some cases are every bit as absurd as Vance’s caricatures.
In the mid-70s Moorcock took a somewhat light-hearted generic and stylistic departure to the end of time. There a small population of immortal and decadent humans, along with assorted captured time travellers and aliens, exist in eternal hedonistic pleasure. Here, one’s every wish can be granted via the use of energy rings. Moorcock has not completely abandoned his multiverse and Eternal Champion however since the central figure is Jherek Carnelian, the last human to be actually ‘born’, and whose name is obviously redolent of those of other Moorcock heroes.
The protagonists have adopted baroque titles such The Iron Orchid (Jherek’s mother), My Lady Charlotina of Below the Lake and The Duke of Queens.
Very much like the postmodernists of the Sixties the inhabitants of this far future constantly modified Earth feed on the past, or a garbled version of it, in order to sate their insatiable need for spectacle.
The Duke of Queens decides to host a Disaster party, in a cluster of old Earth cities, built from water, which are paradoxically burning.
Here he introduces a new arrival, Yusharisp, a spherical alien who is travelling the galaxy to warn all intelligent life that the Universe is coming to an end.
At the same party a time traveller appears, Mrs Amelia Underwood, a housewife from 1896 Bromley.
Jherek – one of whose fascinations is the vague historical period from which Mrs Underwood hails – is enchanted by her and decides that he is to be ‘in love’, an ancient thing, no longer properly practised. Mrs Underwood, however, has been claimed by My Lady Charlotina who wants her as part of her collection of Time Travellers.
Having concocted a cunning plan and rescued her, Jherek is thoroughly confused by concepts of virtue and morality since his culture is one of complete hedonism and amorality, but one in which, paradoxically, malice, jealousy and violence do not exist apart from in some kind of ‘art installation’ sense.
My Lady Charlotina, for instance, decides to take revenge on Jherek not out of anger caused by his abduction of her ‘possession’ but as an artistic statement, as she believed that the initial abduction itself was itself an artistic statement.
When My Lady Charlotina eventually takes her revenge, she sends Mrs Underwood back to her own time at the very moment at which she was about to declare her love for Jherek. My Lady Charlotina expected Jherek to be delighted by her trick, and was confused by his subsequent reaction.
Jherek determines to bring her back and, setting off in an ancient time machine, becomes embroiled in a jewellery theft and a murder and is sentenced to death.
At various times the novel contrasts the seeming ‘amorality’ of The End of Time with the social values of the 19th Century. In one of Jherek and Amelia’s first conversations, for instance, Jherek tells of how he made love to his mother and later to his friend, Lord Jagged of Canaria (who later is revealed as Jherek’s father) which sends Amelia into a brief paroxysm of shock and outrage. Jherek’s brief sojourn into Amelia’s time finds him only partly comprehending the world of poverty, violence and social injustice into which he has fallen.
In the Gollancz edition (which may or may not have been revised) Moorcock provides a preface which lists his literary influences for the series, although I have always seen comparisons with Jack Vance, particularly in terms of wit, the dialogue and the names of the characters.
It’s a brief but packed humourous adventure which is the first volume in his acclaimed ‘Dancers at The End of Time’ trilogy. See ‘The Hollow Lands‘ and ‘The End of All Songs’
‘BRAINS WITHOUT SOUL
Giant blonde creatures, they were as curvaceous as the bodies of their dwarf men were shrivelled.
Captain Christian was the only human who’d ever laid eyes on them. And now he wished he hadn’t. They were beauty without heart. Cruel, cold.
And he was their prisoner.’
Blurb from the 1969 Macfadden paperback edition
When the police do not believe the irascible Doctor Fox’s contention that there is a connection between a travelling circus and the decapitation of several leading scientists, he asks his friend, Captain Christian, to help him investigate.
Christian discovers that ‘The Brains’, a trio of dwarfs with enormous craniums, are working at the travelling fair and is subsequently framed for murder.
It’s an odd little novel, slightly American in style, but very British in content.
In some ways the plot can be compared to that of the Time Machine. ‘The Brains’, it transpires, have travelled from the future of Earth, long after the time when Humanity seeded interstellar colonies. The Earth humans did not divide and evolve along lines of class structure, as Wells’ humans did, but of gender, Men grew more intelligent than women while women lost their intellect and grew merely huge, blonde and beautiful. While an unlikely premise, it shows at least an awareness of sexual inequality at the time.
One woman of the future, Alma, displays intelligence and is hunted like an animal by the male Brains and the giant females. Luckily, the rest of humanity has evolved to a state of sexual equality and have confined the Brains and their females to Earth. The Brains’ aim is to change history so that mankind did not reach the stars, leaving their own race to conquer the galaxy.
Fortunately, Captain Christian is there to save the day, having been kidnapped, taken to the future and battled the Brains and some giant mutated insects before making contact with the enlightened humans who help him to rid his own time of the Brain menace.
He returns to find that Doctor Fox has married Jo the dwarf woman from the circus (as perhaps some weird symbolic reverse metaphor of future developments on Earth).
Moorcock returns to form after the rather flat ‘Mad God’s Amulet’.
The inhabitants of Castle Brass, voluntary exiles in a parallel Earth, become anxious when the Granbretanian playwright Elvereza Tozer (whose works include the classic ‘Adulf and Shirshill’) suddenly appears in their dimension. It transpires that he can travel through the dimensions with the aid of a crystal ring made by Mygan of Llandar. Hawkmoon and D’Averc must therefore travel back to their own world to find Mygan before Meliadus discovers the secret of Mygan’s rings.
To discover the Granbretanians’ plans, the pair disguise themselves as ambassadors from Asiacommunista, and hide in full view at the centre of Granbretanian life, Londra.
They are unmasked by the resourceful Flana Mikosevaar, who falls in love with D’Averc and helps them escape to find Mygan in the land of Yel.
Rescuing Mygan in the nick of time they use his rings to transport themselves to a land where a dying – yet technologically advanced – people live in underground communities, and are being slowly hunted to extinction by a genetically engineered species who feed on their life-force.
The Warrior in Jet and Gold once more appears and tells them to seek Narleen and the Sword of The Dawn. Narleen, is of course, the future New Orleans and the adventurers later discover themselves to be in Amarekh.
They escape once more only to be captured by the sinister pirate-king, Valjon who is using the mysterious sword to maintain his power over the area.
When Hawkmoon’s new ally, Phal Bewchard, is kidnapped by Valjon to be used as a sacrifice to his ancestor-god, Hawkmoon is forced once more by fate or circumstance to raid the pirate citadel, save his friend and seize the Sword of the Dawn, which can summon legions of dead warriors to fight at his side.
The book ends when The Warrior in Jet and Gold insists that Hawkmoon take the sword to Dnark where it is needed, but Hawkmoon is already plotting to defy the Warrior and set sail for Europe.
Gene Wolfe’s baroque masterpiece continues with Severian still on his rambling journey across a far future Earth. Although this was recently republished under the Gollancz Fantasy masterworks imprint it does have to be noted that this is not Fantasy. It slips all too easily into the Science Fantasy label. The hero appears to inhabit a pseudo medieval world in some dark ages of the future and carries a sword called Terminus Est. At heart however it is solid Science Fiction. It’s disguised up to its plumed and gilded hilt but the clues are hidden among the rich descriptive passages.
Additionally, there are elements of Christian theology creeping into the narrative. At the start of the novel Severian encounters some old faces from his past. He is captured by Vodalus the rebel whose life Severian once saved. Vodalus persuades Severian to engage in a ritual (much like communion) whereby they consume the flesh of Tecla (imbued with an alien chemical ) which allows Severian to access some of her memories.
Agia, the twin of the man Severian executed in ‘The Torturer’s Apprentice’ after they tried to steal his sword, sends Severian a letter, purportedly from someone else, arranging to meet Severian in a place where he was likely to meet his death. Severian had previously been given an artefact, the basis of an old religion, called ‘The Claw of The Conciliator’ and the powers of the claw allowed him to escape. However, he also discovered the Claw can heal and later uses it to revive a friend slain in combat (resurrection).
Again at the conclusion Severian meets (and loses) some old friends as he heads toward the city of Thrax.
The narrative is peppered with arcane words which are not made up but are words from the English language either only rarely in current use or not at all, and which may be employed within the text in a context unrelated to their original definition. This helps to place the action within a certain baroque and decadent framework.
I confess I do not feel qualified to provide a review that does justice to this series, since I feel, firstly, that one needs to reread it several times to pick up on the hidden items and clues that Wolfe has slipped into the text.
However, just as a first reading, it is a marvellous experience, full of colour and adventure, peopled with a galimaufray of characters and narrated by Severian himself, who is surely one of the most complex characters to have emerged from Twentieth Century fiction.