My original overview of Michael Moorcock’s
‘Dancers At The End Of Time’ stories
as it appeared in ‘Vector’ May 1978…
only slightly tweaked
If Moorcock’s fantasia can be interpreted in autobiographical terms then this mid-phase of his writing reflects a sense of wellbeing, a mellowing, and a maturity that nevertheless provides just as distinctive a set of motifs as the brittle frustrations and violence that surfaced through the dark malevolence of the Elric stories and the other early tales. And as if to counter the implied superficiality of the Aldiss observation he has one character quip that ‘it is sometimes the case that the greater the extravagant outer show the greater has been the plunge by the showman into the depths of his own private conscience; consequently the greater the effort to hide the fact’ (also from “Pale Roses”). In keeping with this credo ‘The Dancers At The End Of Time’ is a game of wit and occasional self-indulgence. And – unlike the Elric stories, deaths are exceptionally rare. Dafnish Armatuce and her son Snuffles die, but then, as he is merely her parasitic appendage, perhaps he doesn’t count. And two of the Lat brigand musicians are eaten by Eurypterid water scorpions, but as they’re not exactly human perhaps they don’t count either!
The universe is drawing to a close, ‘entropy in king, and the universe has begun collapsing upon itself,’ the race faces extinction, yet seldom is there any attempt to seriously portray a worlds-end society millions of years hence as Brian Aldiss does in ‘Hothouse’ (1962) or his short story “Old Hundredth” (‘New Worlds’ no.100, November 1960), or as Olaf Stapledon does in ‘Last And First Men’ (1930), or even as Jack Vance does in his picaresque mythologies from ‘The Dying Earth’ (1950 on). But that’s not Moorcock’s intention. Instead his decorously fantastic characters merely fritter away their immortalities and their limitless power in games and parties. They use power-rings that originally absorbed the energy of whole suns, and which is now stored in the ‘rotted’ sentient cities of antiquity – one of which, significantly, is called Tanelorn.
They use their power to create living dinosaurs made of edible jelly, to create entire continents complete with miniature wildlife, blazing cities made of water, or whole worlds within which they act out the entire military history of the Earth. They alter their bodies, alter their sex, become beasts, collect Space and Time Travellers in menageries, hold endless parties of polite sophisticated and bizarre excess. Perceptively, a writer in the ‘Glimpse’ fanzine points out that ‘this decadent life-style is the ultimate expression of the creed of aestheticism popular among the intellectuals of the late nineteenth-century – the idea that the only undeniable reality in human existence is the response of the brain to the impressions it receives from the senses.’
The cast of the ‘End Of Time’ proper is extravagant. There is the Duke Of Queens, named after the legendary area of New York. He lives in an inverted palace, and is led to believe that he has killed the masked and suicidal Lord Shark The Unknown in a duel (in “White Stars”). There is Mistress Christia The Everlasting Concubine who chooses ‘to reflect with consummate artistry the desires of her lovers of the day,’ even to the extent of becoming the guiltless child Catherine Gratitude from whom Werther de Goethe learns of guilt and sin (in “Pale Roses”). De Goethe himself is one of the few natural-born denizens of the End Of Time, and flaunts the Romantic sense of unfulfilment that his name implies, through a created environment of storms and bare rock. ‘The Last Romantic’ he is the ‘solitary seeker after truth in a world no longer differentiating between the degrees of reality.’ Life, he opines paradoxically, ‘has no meaning without misery’ – in an age when there is no misery.
Then there’s My Lady Charlotina Of Beneath Lake Billy The Kid, whose menagerie initially holds the doom-prophesying alien Yusharip. The alien was stolen and bartered for Mrs Amelia Underwood, and later travels the universe with Mrs Underwood’s original captor, the gloomy giant Lord Mongrove. For Mongrove the eventual death of the universe merely provides a vindication of his pessimistic life-philosophy. There’s also Argonheart Po, Bishop Castle, Gaf The Horse In Tears, Li Pao the ex-Chairman of the Twenty-Seventh-Century Chinese People’s Republic, Abu Thaleb The Commissar Of Bengal, Captain Oliphaunt, Korghon Of Soth, and O’Kala Incarnadine – who assumes the form of a bear, a gorilla, a goat, a sea-lion or a rhinoceros.
Then, of course, there is the unique temporal journeyings of Jherek Carnelian. This surreal odyssey begins in ‘An Alien Heat’, the novel which Moorcock himself chooses to recommend because ‘it has probably the broadest appeal and is the funniest and probably the most humane’ of all his work (in a ‘Club International’ interview). Carnelian is the natural-born son of ‘the most artificial of all creatures’ – The Iron Orchid (in “Pale Roses”), who often wears a profusity of breasts. Carnelian is also the latest incarnation in the name-alike ‘Champion Eternal’ karma, heir to Jehama Colyrahlias, Jerry Cornell, Jhary-a-Conel, Jermays The Crooked, (James Colvin?) and inevitably – from Moorcock’s ‘novels of inhumanity’ – Jerry Cornelius. Jherek, incidentally, gets a mention outside the ‘End Of Time’ stories, in ‘The Champion Of Garathorm’ (Dell, 1976).
Carnelian is an eternal naïve existing in a state beyond knowledge of death or fear, beyond good or evil. A perverse amoral Eloi, essentially benevolent and well-meaning in a universe where such concepts have become all-pervading. In Aldiss’ phrase he not only assumes, but embodies ‘dandified airs’. He observes all with the same bemused amused ambivalence. Faced with the end of time he asks ‘why would you wish to save the universe?’ with a genuine degree of perplexity at the absurdity of the suggestion. He meets, liberates, and attempts to woo Mrs Amelia Underwood, an involuntary time-traveller from 1896 who he merely concedes to be ‘the most beautiful human being, apart from himself.’ Although the chaste romance begins as an affectation, it becomes an obsession, and when she’s snatched back to the time of her origin he makes the first of two forays into the past in attempts to recover her. Carnelian acquires a convenient Time Machine from Brannart Morphail, a club-footed hunchback scientist. Morphail belongs to My Lady Charlotina’s menagerie, is an expert in Time Machines and has ‘always affected a somewhat proprietorial attitude towards Time.’
A large portion of the humour is based around similar misinterpretations of the past by the people of the future. Billy The Kid was thought to have been a ‘legendary American explorer, astronaut and bon-vivant, who had been crucified around the year 2000 because it was discovered that he possessed the hindquarters of a goat.’ Carnelian has ‘a toy fish-tank, capable of firing real fish.’ The people of the End Of Time throw a Ball – within a ball that was ‘inclined to roll a bit’. Moorcock also makes numerous satiric references to the movie industry. There’s a legend that ‘Casablanca Bogart wielded his magic spade, Sam, in his epic fight with that ferocious bird the malted falcon.’ There is ‘Mutinous Caine… cast out of Hollywood for the killing of his sister, the Blue Angel.’ Whereas Pecking Pa VIII – last ruler of the age of Tyrant Producers was the coordinator of whole civilisations-as-movies. Producer of epochs known as ‘The Four Loves Of Captain Marvel’, ‘Young Adolf Hitler’ and ‘a remake about the birth of Christ’ in which ‘Pecking Pa played Herod himself.’ Yet, considering the immensity of elapsed time, and of human history that has supposedly passed, the End Of Time seems to have a remarkable predilection for the couple of centuries around our own!
But then the fin de siècle late 1800s has long been another of Moorcock’s ‘assumed airs’, from the affectionately recounted anarchist passages in ‘Breakfast In The Ruins’ to the elaborate Jules Verne pastiche of ‘Warlord Of The Air’ (Ace Books, 1971) – the hero of which, Captain Oswald Bastable, also appears in the Devonian, to flirt with Mrs Underwood. In Oswald’s other starring-role novel, ‘The Land Leviathan’ (Doubleday, 1974), Moorcock nods in HG Wells’ direction, and on his second time-trip – in ‘The Hollow Lands’, Carnelian meets and discusses time machines with that same Mr Wells. He finds the writer to be ‘a narrow-faced, slight man with a scrubby moustache and startlingly bright pale blue eyes.’ During a train journey Wells tells Carnelian ‘people often ask me where I get my incredible ideas. They think I’m deliberately sensational. They don’t seem to realise that the ideas seem very ordinary to me.’ Gauche and innocently eager to please, the time-travelling Jherek replies ‘oh, they seem exceptionally ordinary to me.’ During the conversation it’s hauntingly possible to recall the jerky film footage of the real Wells, and rehear the writer’s distinctively high-pitched voice uttering the sentences.
In ‘The End Of All Songs’ it appears that time is cyclic – but it is also spiral. In fact any theory about its nature ‘seems to apply in societies which accept the theory.’ They seek refuge in the Lost Cities from which their power-rings derive energy, only to discover that the apocalypse has begun, the sun has died, and doom is impending. Throughout the stories there’s talk about megaflow and the Chronon Theory which harks back to Moorcock’s ‘Pepin Hunchback’ stories (collected into ‘The Time Dweller’ anthology), and which plugs the entire phantasmagoria into the Multiverse superstructure. A Multiverse which – unlike Time, is conceded to be finite, through concepts such as The Conjunction Of A Million Spheres. Moorcock writes that ‘there is a particular theory which suggests that with every one discovery we make about Time, we create two new mysteries. Time can never be codified, as Space can be, because our very thoughts, our information about it, our actions based on that information all contribute to extend the boundaries, to produce new anomalies, new aspects of Time’s nature.’ The multiverse mythologies overlap. Characters in “Pale Roses” speak of Eric Of Marylebone (Elric Of Melniboné), they use the ornithopter – a device used by the Dark Empire of the Hawkmoon stories, and as ‘The End Of All Songs’ (1976) opens on an increasingly thronged Lower Devonian beach, time travellers Una Persson and Miss Brunner appear, or are alluded to.
|'End Of All Songs' from 'Vortex'|
There’s one final cross-over that demands mention, Lord Jagged Of Canaria, the ‘fantastico in yellow’, the unique and ubiquitous manipulator of fates. Jagged is the only one of the Time’s-End denizens to appreciate the dilemma facing Dafnish Armatuce, and the only one to elicit her approval. Jagged hangs forever around the outer edges of Carnelian’s travels in time, gradually assuming an insidious presence until it finally becomes clear that he is not one of the natives of the End Of Time at all, but is from the twenty-first century, nearer the era of Mrs Underwood. He is also, in the face of general apathy, intent upon averting the inevitable death of the species, and of time itself. To further this dénouement he not only fathered Carnelian in the first place, but kidnaps his bride and – incognito, becomes Judge Jagger who sentences Carnelian to death in ‘An Alien Heat’, as well as the reporter Jackson who assists Carnelian’s escape in ‘The Hollow Lands’. He could also be behind the well-mannered junior army officer Michael Jagger of ‘Warlord Of The Air’. Lord Jagged’s ultimate fate and subsequent travels in time are not fully explored. But then, as Mrs Amelia Underwood explains to My Lady Charlotina towards the end of the trilogy ‘the tale is not yet finished, I regret. Many clues remain to be unravelled – threads are still to be woven together – there is no clearly seen pattern upon the fabric – and perhaps there never will be.’ As this contention suggests, even though she ultimately rejects the meaningless façade of the End Of Time for the harsher reality of dynasty-founding in the Devonian, Mrs Underwood adjusts better to the rigours and contradictions of time travel that does Jherek Carnelian.
There are no neat conclusions to ‘The Dancers At The End Of Time’ mythology. But then, as Moorcock’s multiverse unfolds not in separate self-contained batches, but in interrelated sequences without apparent end, perhaps none were to be expected. But the mythos is a significant new phase in Moorcock’s development, and is technically his best, even behind the gaudy cavalcade of deliberately assumed inconsequence. Dazzlingly inventive and an endless delight. At one point, for example, as if addressing Moorcock directly, Carnelian suggests that ‘I was born so that you might be supplied with raw materials with which to exercise your own considerable literary gifts.’ Yet behind the playful self-indulgence the aesthetic credibility rating is definitely in the ascendant.
But Moorcock’s own prose is seldom without its vivid poetic imagery. Evocatively he writes ‘she told him the story of Sir Parsifal as the gold, ebony and ruby locomotive puffed across the sky, trailing glorious clouds of blue and silver smoke behind it.’ Neither is the writing lacking in perceptive humour. Trapped by a policeman of ‘massive bovine dignity’ Carnelian fires a deceptor-gun, filling the room with naked female warriors of the late Cannibal Empire period, painted green and blue, decorated with small skulls and finger-bones, carrying clubs and spears. ‘I knew you was ruddy anarchists’ pronounces the policeman triumphantly.
In the late 1970s Michael Moorcock became one of the few writers who stood beyond genre, by evolving into a genre himself. People read Michael Moorcock who would claim neither to read Science Fiction or Fantasy. But these addictively readable stories deserve a wider-than-just-cult appreciation.
THE ‘DANCERS AT THE
END OF TIME’ CYCLE
(1) ‘AN ALIEN HEAT’ 1972, MacGibbon And Kee Ltd, Mayflower paperback (60p). ISBN 0-583-12106-3. 158pp
(2) ‘THE HOLLOW LANDS’ 1975, Hart Davis MacGibbon (£2.75), Mayflower paperback (60p). ISBN 0-246-10876. 180pp
(3) ‘LEGENDS FROM THE END OF TIME’ 1976, Harper And Row/ WH Allen (£3.50) A collection made up of ‘Pale Roses’, ‘White Stars’ and ‘Ancient Shadows’. 182pp
(4) ‘THE END OF ALL SONGS’ 1976, Mayflower (96p). ISBN 0-583-121055. 307pp. Serialised in ‘Vortex: The Science Fiction Fantasy’ magazine nos.1, 2 and 3 through 1977
(5) ‘PALE ROSES’ from ‘New Worlds no.7’ (1974, Sphere Books) illustrated by Jim Cawthorn, also in ‘Best Science Fiction Of The Year’ edited by Terry Carr (USA, Ballantine, 1975). Mistress Christia assumes the guise of Catherine in order to reconcile with Werther de Goethe after destroying his rainbow, and ‘In Which Werther Finds Redemption Of Sorts’
(6) ‘WHITE STARS’ from ‘New Worlds no.8’ (1975, Sphere Books) illustrated by Mal Dean. ‘A Stroll Across The Dark Continent’, and a duel between Lord Shark The Unknown and the Duke Of Queens over the destruction of a lichen experiment
(8) ‘CONSTANT FIRE’ from ‘New Worlds Quarterly no.10’ (1976, Corgi Books) illustrated by Jim Cawthorn. ‘In Which Miss Ming Experiences A Familiar Discomfort’ and ‘In Which Mr Emmanuel Bloom Returns To Claim His Kingdom’ – ‘In The Museum And The Menagerie Of Forgotten Faiths’
(9) ‘ELRIC AT THE END OF TIME’ from ‘Elsewhere’ edited by Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold (1981, Ace Books), collected into ‘The Mammoth Book Of Extreme Fantasy’ edited by Mike Ashley (Robinson, 2008) Mrs Una Persson departs the local 1936 Time Centre to investigate a disturbance in the temporal megaflow. While Elric is caught up ‘by his own monstrous magickings’ during a battle with Grrodd Ybene Eenr who employs ancient spells left by wizard Cran Liret – ‘The Thief Of Spells’ on Sorcerers Isle. Cast into inter-dimensional void he’s drawn by Stormbringer to the ‘End of Time’, where De Goethe and Duke Of Queens fabricate fabulous adventures of rescue and conquest for Elric, with Bird-Monsters and Pierrots (confused with Parrots). ‘Dastardly poltroons’ roars the Duke. Bringing the two realms into juxtaposition shows Elric’s doom-laden moods to be as much an assumed guise as the denizens of the End Of Time. ‘There were similarities between Jherek and Elric which she (Una) could only sense at present.’ Finally Lord Jagged – it is assumed to be Jagged, assumes the form of Lord Arioch, the Lord Of Hell, to guide Elric back home.‘You’re exaggerating’ says Una. ‘Why not? Everyone else is’ says Jagged
(11) ‘SUMPTUOUS DRESS: A QUESTION OF SIZE AT THE END OF TIME’ from ‘Postscripts no.15’ (Summer 2008) edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers (PS Publishing)
(12) ‘THE MURDERER’S SONG’ included in Michael Moorcock short-story collection ‘Jerry Cornelius: His Lives And His Times’ (Gollancz, 2014, ISBN 978-1473200722), also featured in ‘The New Nature Of The Catastrophe’ edited by Langdon Jones and Michael Moorcock (Millennium, 1993)
‘THE SHAPE OF FURTHER THINGS’ by Brian Aldiss (1970, Faber And Faber, Corgi) ISBN 9780571247240
‘WAITING FOR THE END OF TIME’ first published as ‘The Last Vigil’ in ‘Vision Of Tomorrow’ no.11, August 1970, then featured in ‘Moorcock’s Book Of Martyrs’ by Michael Moorcock (Orbit/ Quartet, 1976 ISBN 0-7043-1265-4)
‘MICHAEL MOORCOCK INTERVIEWED’ an interview with Michael Moorcock in ‘Club International Vol.4 no.3’ (March 1975)
‘DEAD SINGERS’ featured in ‘The Lives And Times Of Jerry Cornelius’ by Michael Moorcock (Quartet)
‘THE TIME DWELLER’ by Michael Moorcock (Hart-Davis, 1969, US Berkley Medallion, 1971) and anthology made up of ‘The Time Dweller’ aka ‘Scar-Faced Brooder 1’ (‘New Worlds’ no.139, February 1964), ‘Escape From Evening’ aka ‘Scar-Faced Brooder 2’ (‘New Worlds’ no.148, March 1965), ‘The Deep Fix’ (‘Science Fantasy’ no.64, April 1964, as by James Colvin), ‘The Mountain’ (‘New Worlds’ no.147, February 1965, as by James Colvin), ‘The Pleasure Garden Of Felipe Sagittarius’ (‘New Worlds’ no.154, September 1965, as by James Colvin with James Cawthorn inner art), ‘Wolf’ (from ‘The Deep Fix’ as by James Colvin, Compact Books 1966), ‘The Golden Barge’ (‘New Worlds’ no.155, October 1965 as by William Barclay), ‘The Ruins’ (‘New Worlds’ no.161, April 1966, as by James Colvin with Harry Douthwaite inner art), ‘Consuming Passion’ (also in ‘New Worlds’ no.161, April 1966). 176pp
‘REBEL AT THE END OF TIME’ (PS Publishing, 2011), a spin-off prequel to ‘An Alien Heat’ written by Steve Aylett
Other Michael Moorcock features on
‘Eight Miles Higher’...
This feature first published in:
‘VECTOR no.88’ (UK – May 1978)