Friday, January 23, 2015

Interview with Michael Moorcock, Part Two

Click here to read Part One of The Norse Mythology Blog's Michael Moorcock interview.

KS – In the 1960s, fantasy and science fiction were embraced by the counterculture. You’ve pointed out the incongruity between the worldviews of young radicals who were reading and older conservatives who were writing. Since the 1970s, these genres have become increasingly commercial and increasingly commonplace. What’s changed – authors, audience, both or neither?

MM – A genre becomes successful with a large public by being predictable. The detective must always solve the mystery. The genre must become familiar to a lot of people to overcome their suspicion of the strange. Bestsellers generally are bland, just as literary prizes – awarded by committee – don't give prizes to unfamiliar kinds of writing.

While SF was generally marginalised by "educated people" (though read by many intellectuals), it remained edgy and critical – [Frederik] Pohl and [C.M.] Kornbluth, [Alfred] Bester, [Philip K.] Dick, etc. – and attempted to examine ideas.

To achieve success with a wide public, it needed to import many of the characteristics of existing popular genres (historical romance fiction aimed at women, for instance). By doing this, it ceased to be analytical and confrontational and became, instead, comforting – a sucked nipple.

Michael Moorcock

I think the audience for confrontational and analytical SF/fantasy exists, but it finds what it wants increasingly in the more complex fiction of Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood and others. They have done, in different ways, exactly what New Worlds was calling for in the '60s and taken the elements they needed from SF to write a kind of fiction perhaps more relevant to the present.

Someone like Martin Amis struggles, I think, with ways of confronting us and tends to reinvent or take from the likes of [J.G.] Ballard. His books aren't very complex or subtle, but they show a contemporary novelist trained in the form of realism – say, that his father wrote – trying to find a language and form more relevant to his own experience. [Salman] Rushdie, of course, is another. There are enough, these days, in many countries for them to begin to resemble a "school."

KS – Your essay “Starship Stormtroopers” (1978) mentions “the fascist elements inherent to the form” of sword-and-sorcery epics and contrasts the rugged individualism of science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein with your own identity as an anarchist. In your essay “Epic Pooh,” you write of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams:
While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don't think these books are "fascist," but they certainly don't exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don't ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what's best for us.
However, Frodo’s acceptance of the Ring and willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of his community seems to line up with your own portrayal of the anarchist in “Starship Stormtroopers”: “To be an anarchist, surely, is to reject authority but to accept self-discipline and community responsibility.”

In a 1943 letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien wrote:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who use the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!
Lest he be misunderstood, he clarifies his view of modern life:
There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism,’ may remain a habit! But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal.
This sounds a bit like something one of your characters would say! Thirty-seven years after the first appearance of your essays, how have your views on the political stance inherent in Tolkien’s fiction changed or evolved?

MM – If they said it, it wouldn't be with my approval. That kind of romantic nonsense is precisely why I disagree with Tolkien.

He says he'd rather have anarchy or dictatorship. Isn't that a sign of someone who hasn't found politics engaging and is rejecting the modern world?

He doesn't provide a reader with any understanding of his existence at all. Instead he rejects reality for fantasy. Not exactly a profound thinker, is he?

Moorcock (on right) with artist Rodney Matthews in 1978,
the year "Starship Stormtroopers" & "Epic Pooh" appeared

It's that yearning for simplification which attracts people to demagogues and continues to attract them to this day, with disastrous results for the majority of us. In a world where simplistic ideas are actually threatening our continuing existence as a life-form, I am not comforted by the notion that an act of self-sacrifice like Frodo's will do the trick and make the world safe again.

I think it's the simplification, rejection of the world's complexity, that discomforts me with Tolkien.

What's wrong with escapism? he asks.

Nothing, I say, except when it's a substitute for escaping. And we escape our dilemmas by actively confronting them and solving the problems which concern us as a species.

Tolkien, in the end, is all nostalgic, sentimental passivity. He encourages young people to ignore the problems of our times.

I liked Tolkien when I met him. A nice old buffer very good at controlling his own environment. He wrote a nice little childrens' book, a nursery tale in nursery speech. Even I feel sorry for him, however, when I see the nonsense [Peter] Jackson has made of that nice little nursery tale.

Looks like the only evolution I appear to have made is in describing why I so hate hobbits when put in the hands of adults.

KS – You also write in “Starship Stormtroopers” that, back in 1967,
Judith Merril, a founder member of The Science Fiction Writers of America, an ex-Trotskyist turned libertarian, proposed that this organisation would buy advertising space in the [science fiction] magazines condemning the war in Vietnam. I was around when this was proposed.
Today, genre writers seem more focused on monetizing their creativity than on working for social change. They spend their days online, courting readers to write positive Amazon reviews, asking bloggers for features in hope of boosting their eBook sales. Everyone has to make a living, but this focus on self-marketing seems to have pushed aside any political involvement in the public sphere. Why do you think fantasy and science fiction writers no longer publicly engage in social action the way they did in the 1960s?

MM – People who want bland escapism aren't interested in politics.

As with popular music, very little popular fiction can concern itself with confrontation today. Confrontational chanting in the shape of gangsta rap is about all we have, and that's marginalized – perhaps because it speaks for the marginalised and disenfranchised.

New Worlds, May-June 1964: the first issue
with Michael Moorcock at the editor's desk

No parent would encourage their offspring to join a rock band or write SF in 1960. By 2015, however, that which is successful with a large public can be identified and the rest put aside.

When I went into a studio or began a book, I generally had no idea what it would come out like, or if there was even a public for it. That gives music and writing a certain tension it lacks if you have identified all the "successful" elements in a piece and can reproduce them.

The public loves repetition. If it didn't, it wouldn't like music. Repetition is a sign it's safe to go down to the waterhole every day.

KS – You’ve described H.P. Lovecraft as “a promoter of anti-rationalist ideas about racial ‘instinct’ which have much in common with Mein Kampf,” and you’ve put the original Star Wars film in the same bag. I’d throw Tolkien in there for good measure, given his Lovecraftian fear of the democratic mob, of immigrants, of foreigners – and his endless emphasis on the importance of bloodlines.

In 2012, Weird Tales Magazine caused a brouhaha when they announced plans to publish an excerpt from Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden, a bizarrely racist science fiction novel in which a minority of beautiful white people (“Pearls”) is oppressed by a majority of beastlike black people (“Coals”). Why do the genres of fantasy and science fiction continue to attract writers who revel in a view of society more rooted in 1930s Germany than in either the ancient world or the future one?

MM – Simplification.

KS – Your Breakfast in the Ruins: A Novel of Inhumanity (1972) contains “The Downline to Kiev: 1920: Shuffling Along,” a chapter describing anarchist Nestor Makhno casually murdering a terrified train station guard. Makhno appears in several of your books, even though his appearance in Breakfast in the Ruins was retconned to make him part of the von Bek family in later editions. What do you find appealing in the historical Makhno?

MM – His courage. His belief in education. His deep-rooted egalitarianism, which gave him the courage to confront, for instance, Grigorief for his pogromism and to shoot him in front of his massed men!

He became a sad figure in Paris, where Trotskyist enemies continued to blacken his name.

Nestor Makhno in Romania (1921)

KS – Do you still feel that anarchism offers workable solutions to social problems in the 21st century?

MM – More than ever, now we have the means!

KS – Over the years, you’ve self-identified as an anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, existentialist, feminist, Kropotkinist, libertarian, optimist, populist democrat and pragmatist. What's the guiding philosophy that encompasses all these approaches?

MM – Kropotkinist anarchism, Dworkinist feminism.

KS – In your introduction to The Opium General and Other Stories (1984), you write that feminism is “a political standpoint which married easily with my anarchism.” While discussing writing female characters such as Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius, you write that
most of these women revolutionaries [Ulrike Meinhof, Patti Hearst, etc.] were using predominantly male dialectic and methods to express their anger and therefore had little to offer in the way of example of genuine feminist strategy. They adopted not only the tactics but also the antiquated rhetoric of a highly-romanticized, overwhelmingly masculine, violent, immorally simple-minded political attitude.
Feminists have long problematized the trope of the Strong Male Character who uses violent means to achieve his personal goals. A younger generation of feminists is now examining the more recent trope of the Strong Female Character who shows her strength by using violent means to help the male character achieve his personal goals.

Mainstream fantasy and science fiction seem particularly prone to using this blunderbuss approach to strength of character. Is it possible for male authors to write powerful women who don’t simply replicate the violent approach of male protagonists?

MM – Yes. But it requires a slight change, I think, in the social climate.

Sarah Douglas as Catherine Cornelius in 1973 film
loosely based on Moorcock's The Final Programme

KS – Your "Starship Stormtroopers" essay repeatedly mentions your support for libertarianism. It also critiques the idea of “rugged individualism,” which you argue
goes hand in hand with a strong faith in paternalism – albeit a tolerant and somewhat distant paternalism – and many otherwise sharp-witted libertarians seem to see nothing in the morality of a John Wayne Western to conflict with their views.
Cliven Bundy, Ron Paul and other figures embraced by contemporary libertarians seem closer to the forces you critique in the essay than to the position you yourself held at the time. What do you think of what 21st-century American libertarianism has become?

MM – Ignorant self-indulgence.

KS – After being associated for so long in life and literature with London’s Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, you moved to Bastrop, Texas in the early 1990s. What do you make of recent developments in Texas politics, such as the recurring calls for secession from the United States and Governor Rick Perry’s actions to restrict access to abortion?

MM – Fear. Uncertainty about the future. Will Chinese Moslems destroy our certainties about our own superiority? And so on.

Michael Moorcock in earlier days

KS – Have you involved yourself in local and national politics in recent years?

MM – Not much. [My wife] Linda did a lot, however, in getting accomodation built for battered women and so on, locally. I have supported various local causes, but although I pay taxes, I have no representation.

I do feel a little disenfranchised, but it's mostly my own fault.

KS – In the time that you’ve lived here, how do you think the roles of the educational system and the news media in shaping American understanding of world events has changed?

MM – Simplification.

KS – Under both Republican and Democratic regimes, Americans have had an increasingly longer list of liberties and privacies taken away. There has been no large-scale social unrest regarding these issues. Do you see a change in the willingness of young people to go along with governmental overreach?

MM – Yes. During Vietnam, they didn't want to die in a pointless war. Nobody was very frightened of the possibility of Vietcong in Virginia.

This time, the powers that be did a better job. First they had evidence of threat to the US. After that, the rest was easy.

KS – You’ve repeatedly said that Melniboné is a representation of Imperial Britian in decline. Last year, the UK Independence Party made history by emerging victorious over both Labour and Conservatives. What does their win say about English political psychology now versus when Elric first appeared in 1961?

MM – People are uncertain. We all know how demagogues get elected during troubled times. I suspect the powers that be have lost control of the devil they created when they encouraged us all to be afraid.

The English, like many nations in flux, have lost confidence in their own virtue. This means that a simplified dynamic doesn't work any more.

However, I remember the fascist-in-chief, Oswald Mosley, still able to get a small crowd to a speech in 1957. Such figures exploit the public mood, if it's fearful, but rarely stay in power long. They do well in what the public think of as unimportant elections (local government, Europe), but generally the public go back to the more familiar and established parties.

I don't see very much change, though. They wave the Cross of St. George instead of the Union flag but they are the same people [Benjamin] Disraeli called "Little Englanders."

The country is better for its multiculturalism and for the way, in general, people have absorbed so many different cultures and ideas. Melniboné would have benefitted from an Open Door policy.

KS – How does the American political climate today compare to the British political climate when you were editing New Worlds in the 1960s?

MM – I think of Britain as a fast-acting model of the US. It has a similar government and economy as well as a shared philosophy in many instances.

As in the 1960s, Britain seems a more tolerant and humane version of the US, but I wonder now if it's useful to compare them.

To be concluded in Part Three.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another great interview, wide ranging and no-one's pulling any punches

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