Friday, 28 September 2012

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.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Romancing the Telescope with the Heroes of Science

The other day, Terry Gilliam posted a photo on facebook with the caption: 'This is Nicola Tesla, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known ... and you probably have never heard of him. Without him we wouldn't have AC electricity or the radio. I wouldn't be communicating with you know if it wasn't for him'. Actually, since the film of Christopher Priest's The Prestige, 'you' might very well have heard of Nikola Tesla. He has become a kind of science-hero who is seen to be a neglected genius: see this page from The Oatmeal, for instance. This BBC page even calls him 'the patron saint of geeks': some title, that. And Tesla even has a Wikipedia page that catalogues his appearance in popular culture, mainly in sf. (The title of this piece is lifted from OMD's 'Romance of the Telescope', which featured on their 1983 lp Dazzle Ships; a single the following year was called 'Tesla Girls'.)

The Oatmeal's line on Tesla is that he was done down by Thomas Edison, whose capacities for self-promotion  and the exploitation of the inventions of others are a matter of record. Edison becomes the villain in a zero-sum game narrative, where Tesla's true fame is eclipsed by the fraud Edison. The truth, of course, is more complex than that, but conflict between the two is central to Brian Wegener and Scott Clevinger's comic book Atomic Robo, where the central character, the eponymous atomic-powered Robo, was invented by Tesla, who himself is engaged in a clandestine battle with the malevolent Edison.

Robo, who develops across the comic books (which are narrated non-chronologically) from a gosh-wow college kid, hungry for adventure, in the 1920s, through fighting in Europe (against Nazi wunderwaffe) and the Pacific in WW2, to the head of the 'Tesladyne' corporation in the present day, a mixture of secret agent, superhero and science researcher. While I find Robo enormously entertaining, as he battles Lovecraftian monsters, giant AIs, and other stuff lifted from the history of sf, fantasy and the Weird, there's also a kind of didactic purpose to the series. A side-comic is called Real Science Adventures, and both that and the main series offer Robo as scientist-as-hero (in a half-joky way), although Robo is as often willing to solve things by outre physical violence (Thoom! Clang!) as by the application of reason and science. In a sense, Robo is in the tradition of both Indiana Jones and pulp-sf inventor-geniuses, engaged in the public and secret histories of the 20th century.

I was struck by the scientist as culture-hero while reading Michael Moorcock's 'Kane of Old Mars' trilogy, his mid- to late-1960s homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom narratives. Michael Kane, unlike the Civil War veteran John Carter, is a scientist, whose translation to Mars is the result of an accident during a physics experiment. While on Mars, caught up in the battles between Thark-like 'Argzoons' and the fading cities of the Martian plains. Like Carter, Kane fights, journeys across Mars, and wins the hand of a Martian princess. Kane, however, is much more concerned with logically puzzling through the difficulties he encounters, with inventing machines (such as airships), and ultimately, with the ethics of waging war.

Despite its bad reviews, reading Moorcock's Kane books made me want to see John Carter. The SFX  website, from which this image was taken, provided a good corrective to the received idea of the film as a $200million flop. I missed it at the cinema, but recently got the dvd to check the film out. And I was pleasantly surprised.

I cannot really see what the fuss was about. Yes, it has plot holes (what happens to the '9th Ray' technology McGuffin, for instance?); yes, the backstory about the loss of Carter's wife and children is a bit pat (and would have been much more telling if Carter had evinced qualms about the ethical rightness of the Confederate cause, which would have motivated his unwillingness to fight for the city of Helium more convincingly); the 'present day' 1880s New York sequences unfortunately reminded me of another adaptation, Simon Wells's 2002 The Time Machine, not a flattering comparison; and yes, some of the moments of levity fall a bit flat. But: I thought the film was paced quite nicely, was definitely spectacular with some excellent design (see the ships above), had some decent set-pieces, and in the figures of the malevolent  and eternal Therns, who feed on the destruction of planets and civilizations that they manipulate (with the suggestion that Earth is next) has a soft ethical message. Elements seemed familiar from the Star Wars prequel films (particularly the arena sequence from Attack of the Clones) indicate the indebtedness of Lucas's conception of desert worlds like Tatooine or Geonosis to Barsoom itself, and the indebtedness of the whole Star Wars universe to planetary romance, (light-)sabers and all.

The crucial thing about John Carter is displacement, literal and symbolic, which is why the film is called what it is, rather than 'John Carter of Mars'. We see this title at the very end of the film, but only when Carter has himself chosen to go back to Mars and effected his plan to circumvent the Therns and return to Dejah Thoris's side. (In John Carter, the princess is herself a science-hero, but her invention is sabotaged.) To become John Carter of Mars, he must commit himself, to a cause, to romantic love, to a community (the Tharks as well as Helium). If Carter is problematic as a white colonial male leader of an indigenous people (see Avatar), perhaps Andrew Stanton could have been more subtle in shading the ironies that abound, particularly considering American overseas involvement in desert countries in the last 10 years. I don't think the film is a simple apologia for US adventurism, but the science-hero or the hero of planetary romance (albeit one wounded by loss  in contemporary fashion) helps sweeten the heroic and masculinist narrative. All that said, I liked John Carter, though with Stanton's Pixar background, and the success of the painterly animation of Lucas's The Clone Wars series, I also thought that it could have been a very successful animated film.    

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


I've been struggling for a while to piece together quite how some of my interests in certain forms of science fiction and the fantastic in general can fit into an overall project (I realise I've been concerned with androids and transmissions for a while too, but these are kind of coalescing). In particular, the kind of stuff I've been interested in is: time, Wells's The Time Machine, Borges, Roussel, literary experiments, science, bicycles, clocks. I'm still trying to figure out what to do with this stuff, but a week or two ago I went with wife Deniz and daughter Isobel to the Ruthin Craft Centre where they had an exhibition of the jewellery and other works by Wendy Ramshaw. Ramshaw began in the 1960s by making Op-Art and paper jewellery, but has since developed into a wide range of materials and pieces, from 'ringsets' mounted on extraordinary steampunk-ish holders, to the large frames and gates such as the one shown above in the V&A in London. Her touring exhibition, Room of Dreams, was fabulous, and demonstrated not only the extraordinary range of influences on her work - from Russian Constructivism to Moholy-Nagy, from Pop to Op, from pulp sf to clockwork - but her interest in worlds of the fantastic, as the exhibition was organised around Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. (By coincidence, I was just finishing reading Wonderland to Isobel when we saw the exhibition.)  

I can thoroughly recommend anyone to go along to the three remaining stops on the exhibition's tour. The works are fascinating. Next to a maquette of the two frames shown above was a mobile whose title referred to the Time Machine; as Isobel crouched to look through the lens of  one of the frames, she said, 'it's the fourth dimension!' It's that kind of exhibition.