Moorcock's Mars


In the 1960s and 1970s, alongside the experimental, non-linear Jerry Cornelius texts, Michael Moorcock also wrote heroic fantasy in the popular Elric books, as well as a sequence of novels that re-wrote or pastiched classic British fiction, including the Nomads of the Time Streams trilogy (1971-80) that re-worked Wellsian scientific romance, and the Dancers At The End Of Time sequence (1974-6) that took fin-de-si├Ęcle literature as a starting point.  The first of these sequences, published between 1965-7, pastiched the planetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve been reading these for another project and enjoyed them, despite my lack of appetite for fantasy.

Both the Nomads trilogy and the ERB pastiches have frame-narratives. In The first of the ‘Kane of Old Mars’ books, City of the Beast, the frame-narrator stumbles upon Kane at a cafe on the French Riviera. After introducing himself, the narrator listens to Kane’s adventures, whereupon he disappears from the novel until the end, when he is revealed to be ‘EPB’: Edgar Price Burroughs? In the Nomads trilogy it is ‘Michael Moorcock’ himself who narrates the frame. This multiplicity of first-person narrators is a classic estrangement device. Where once such a frame might have been used as an authentication device, a testament to the veracity of the tale through external witness/ documentation, here it works the other way (as it always does, even if the effect is suppressed): the doubling of the narration makes the textuality and artifice of what we are about to read more visible, not less. Considering Moorcock uses pastiche to explore generic tendencies and encoded ideologies from within, this self-consciousness is no surprise.

Where Burroughs’s Barsoom novels, beginning with A Princess of Mars (1917), narrated the adventures of John Carter, a confederate soldier somehow transported to a Mars populated by four-armed Tharks and warring human cities, Moorcock’s re-writing had a scientist as the protagonist.  Michael Kane, a physicist, is inadvertently beamed to ancient Mars when a matter-transmitter experiment goes wrong.  Kane, like Carter, forges a place for himself there through the strength of his sword arm and, like Carter, wins the friendship of a non-human Martian (Argzoon/ Thark) and the love of a Martian princess.

Kane brings his scientific attitude and world-view to Mars, in a revision of the Barsoom script.  He attempts to use the abandoned technology of a departed elder-species, and devises and a ship to travel in the thin Martian atmosphere.  By the third novel in the series, Masters Of The Pit (1967), however, in typical fashion Moorcock begins to temper the heroics with ethical doubts and difficulties.  Kane and his companions stumble upon a totalitarian city that suppresses all individuality and humanity in the name of machinic regularity and cold logic. A character who inadvertently creates these conditions spells out the central binary for the novel:

You have either the Beast or the Machine. [...] Here the Machine in Man has been encouraged and, if you like, it is the stupidity of the Beast which has encouraged it – for the Beast cannot predict and Man can. The Beast in Man leads him to create Machines for his well-being, and the Machine adds first to his comfort and then to his knowledge. In a healthy land this would all work together in the long run. (17)

Kane himself says ‘that seems like an oversimplification’, and Kane himself has to find another way. When the machine-like horde march upon Kane’s adopted Martian city, he encourages the people to flee rather than fight, renouncing violence as a means by which to resolve conflict. This anti-heroic strategy is of a piece with the generic revisions Moorcock offers elsewhere, re-writing genre from within. The Kane trilogy develops from offering fairly ‘simple’ pleasures of heroic adventure in the first novel to something more problematic by the third, disrupting the pleasures of masculine heroism. (In the Nomads trilogy, the third book  - The Steel Tsar – was a self-confessed failure, and it is one of the books that Moorcock has subsequently returned to and re-written. Another is the Elizabethan fantasia, Gloriana, or, the Unfulfill’d Queen.)

Moorcock is, then, a serial re-writer of his own fictions as well as those of others.  Elements of the first Cornelius story (‘Preliminary Data’, 1965, which became part of the Cornelius novel, The Final Programme) recapitulate scenes from the first Elric story, ‘The Dreaming City’, published in 1961, particularly the protagonist’s attempt to rescue his loved one from a tower inadvertently causing her death. In City Of The Beast (1965), Moorcock returns to the scenario.  Kane rescues the princess Shizala from a tower where she is menaced by the treacherous would-be consort, Telem Fas Ogdai, but here, in more heroic vein, this does not result in Shizala’s death.  All three scenes are patterned upon Orpheus’s failed attempt to rescue Eurydice, but it is only in Moorcock’s Martian trilogy that Orpheus’s tragedy is undone in the rewriting. Kane of Old Mars is Moorcock in lighter vein, but by the end of the trilogy, darkness and doubt intrude.

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