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INTERVIEW: Michael Moorcock (THE WHISPERING SWARM) Talks London, Austin and The Sanctuary of the White Friars

Michael MoorcockTo fantasy readers, Michael Moorcock needs no introduction. A roll call of his characters and worlds can be recited by most fantasy readers: Elric, Cornelius, Corum, Hawkmoon, von Bek, the Multiverse. He has been awarded lifetime achievement awards in fantasy (2000 World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement), horror (2004 Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement) and science fiction (2008 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award). His most recent work is The Whispering Swarm, the first novel in a trilogy that is part autobiography, part fantasy and all Moorcock.

Mr. Moorcock was gracious enough to not only to reply to these interview questions from various locations around the world (Houston, Austin, Paris, others), but to also give me his opinion on living in Austin.


London and Texas

Michael Moorcock: Sorry if this reply is tardy. Been in Houston and couldn’t get my mail. I’m looking forward to your questions.

Larry Ketchersid: I live outside of Houston, and if you were here for a signing event…I’m going to blame my chaotic calendar for not knowing about it and missing it. I’m personally very curious: why the Austin area? My last company had an office in London, and I enjoyed my time there quite a bit. You obviously have a love affair with the city, one can tell from the descriptions in this book and in Mother London. It is a damn pricey place, and a bit Orwellian. I also ask because, after two decades here, my wife has her heart set on Austin now.


MM: I have to say in support of your wife’s preference that Austin smells a lot better than Houston. And Bookpeople is a great independent store who do great functions. They have a customer base large enough to support them.

We had family in Houston and Miss. I didn’t want to live in a place favoured by Brits. I wanted to find out why American politics was so baffling to Europeans and Texas seemed the best place to do it.  We chose Austin because it had a lot of bookstores.

LK: And have you figured out American politics?

MM: I think so. They’re a bit like Islam in that they’re having trouble adjusting to modern times.

About The Whispering Swarm

LK: THE WHISPERING SWARM feels like an origins book, with its semi-autobiograpical information. It feels like a story that has been in gestation mode for a while. What was the inspiration for this book and this series? Was it a memory triggered or something completely unrelated?

MM: In some ways this is a continuation of my earlier books which came out in the nineties beginning with Blood and ending with War Amongst The Angels. Those were sparked when I overheard a bunch of kids in Houston’s Six Flags talking together and I wanted somehow to use that music to tell a story I had conceived in Louisiana a little earlier. The larger picture described the cosmology I’ve been thinking about since the sixties. By the late nineties I’d used string theory, Chaos math and so on to produce a much more sophisticated version of my original 1962 multiverse idea.  Traveling around Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas I thought about this a lot. Blood is set in a parallel universe where the South is a very different place and at the same time very similar. I moved The Terminal Cafe from Meridian, Mississippi to Biloxi and made it a place where gamblers meet to play the mysterious Game of Time in the shadow of a vast wall of energy  I combined absurdism with SF and a  certain amount of real and false autobiography to tell the story of four lovers across many dimensions. The Chronicles of the Fleet Street Friars drops the absurdism in favour of realism. I wanted to combine elements of autobiography, fantasy and history. The second volume The Woods of Arcady moves to Africa for much of its geography and Prester John for a development of its themes. The final volume brings us back to London. All examine the uses to which we put fantasy and how I have used it in my own life.

LK: At the end of your last answer, you mention at the end “All examine the uses to which we put fantasy and how I have used it in my own life.” In the summary I wrote at SFSignal when reviewing your book, I half-jokingly tagged it as your confession that THE WHISPERING SWARM is 100% auto-biographical, that you actually experienced the multiverse. And by your answer, I’m guessing that’s in a way true. The character, which is you, is “using fantasy as an escape, like some people use drugs or drink” as I’ve heard you say in an interview. Was writing your early fantasies, and the immersion in those worlds, a release for you during the stressful times of your younger years?

MM: I suspect so.  Although I remember a very happy childhood, much of that happiness came from my ability to read and create from an early age (well before I went to school). My mother was a fantast, in that she made up a lot of her experience pretty much without realizing it.  No doubt I got it from her.  I’m examining the uses to which I (and we) create fantasy.  My imagination was my greatest asset and greatest weakness at the same time.

LK:  On extending your version of the multiverse theory: in reading your earlier works, I get the impression that the multiverse is there as a fun construct, a way to extend stories to multiple characters. But it does grow more serious through your later books. Does this book/series build on that model?

bloodredgameMM: Not really.  I had the idea, of course, very early on and could always ‘see’ the multiverse (as described in The Blood Red Game). After reading Mandelbrot it was, as I said at the time, being given a map of my own mind.  I think you see it as growing because the whole thing felt much more coherent once I had Mandelbrot!

“On the other side of the Black or Second Aether is what is sometimes termed the Third Aether. We call our the First or White Aether purely in order to make some rough plan of the heavens. There are seven other known planes or branes, depending upon your choice of model. Our orrery shows a simplified model of Heaven and Earth, which, of course, seems far more complex than the one you know from your lessons. In Prince Rupert’s model the Black Aether is represented. It begins to explain certain mysteries. As I said, we call ours the White Aether, but there are thought to be five other colours. Some report a blue aether and others a yellow. If we reach seven with anomalies still recurring, we shall assume further branes.” (pg 72)

LK: Early in THE WHISPERING SWARM, the Abbot takes young you/Michael to see his mini version of the ‘Cosmolabe’…and as he is putting you under its spell, he is chanting, not only about concepts that make up space, time and the multiverse, but also about the tarot and numerology. How do these concepts fit with the multiverse? Did you get an early education on these topics as a youngster by your mother as you reference in the book?

MM: I was taught Tarot reading as a teen.  I gave it up in my early twenties after I’d made two horribly accurate predictions and freaked myself and the person I was reading for out.  I gave up reading after that.  I’d never meant it as anything but a party trick.  I actually WAS ‘raised by gypsies’ in that settled gypsies looked after me when my mother worked.  The 2nd novel (probably) will contain a wholly different ‘my early life’, much closer to the truth of my actual background and will probably talk about some of this. The gypsies taught me a few bits of Romany, how to ride their ponies, and so on.  They fit with the multiverse only because they appear to me to describe it better than other terms.

“I saw the Queen of Pentacles dancing with the high priestess and the emperor dancing around the sun. I saw the King, Queen and Knight of Swords for a circle. And in the middle of all was the fool. The fool, poor Pierrot, who had let his Columbine dance off with her Harlequin.” (pg. 76)

LK: I have a particular interest in the Cosmolabe (or Cosmolabes). Is it more than a model?

“Out there in those spaces between the worlds, those shadowed spaces, is another kind of matter which some call “cosmic storm clouds” and others name Antimatter or Dark Matter, which is the opposite of our own and different in every respect, the Ultimate Anti-Cosmos lurking within their environment just as ours lurks within theirs. Travelling in apparently opposite directions. In Balance, these two forces also echo a human ideal, a happy mean, constant life, but in Opposition they come to Non-Existence. Non-Existence is not exactly a loss of consciousness. Consciousness without effect is the soul’s worst hell. To watch and do nothing. Nothing at all. For all eternity.” (pg 248)

motherlondonMM: The Cosmolabe is an attempt to produce a crude map of the multiverse and thus negotiate a way through. They hope to discover a series of roads which will allow non-adepts to cross between the planes etc.   I suspect this is a false hope, given the complex ‘magic’ involved. The Cosmolabe is a map of my mind.

LK: You/Michael (the character) are not so much a non-adept as one attuned to the Cosmolabe but not yet adept. The Cosmolabe seems to act as a teacher/enabler, drawing people like the Michael character just over the edge enough to enable them, making it truly a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. Is this one of the central conflicts of the series, the destiny of the Cosmolabe?

MM: No. It’s probably only a model.

The Rest of the Series

“He spoke of…serving beyond the Mountains of the Moon in the army of Prester John, the great Christian emperor. Doing battle against the ten great pagan kings of the Congo. (pg. 228)

LK: Prester John? The imaginary king of the 1200s lost amongst the muslims, mongols and orient? Or the King in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn? 🙂 (just finishing an in-depth re-read of that series so I have it on the brain!)

MM: Prester John features largely in book two, The Woods of Arcady (cf Yeats).  I’m not familiar with most generic fantasy (I read less and less contemporary fiction of any kind) so I haven’t read Tad’s series, good as it sounds.  The only person I know made use of it in fiction was Buchan and someone who wrote a play on radio I heard as a kid.

More Prester John after I visit Paris with wife and kids and am trapped in Les Hivers, a similar place to Alsacia.  I use the harlequinade a fair bit, for instance in Cornelius.

LK: Any information you can pass on about the third book in the trilogy?

MM: Sorry. While the third should balance Vol.1 I have only basic structure.  The next is only briefly in France before it goes to Africa.

LK: The Michael in the book encounters many other people from history and from fiction. Will we see characters from other parts of the Moorcock multiverse inhabiting The Sanctuary of the White Friars series? Can I request a Corum or Cornelius sighting?

MM: No.

LK: Please?

MM: Unlikely to see more of my fictional characters turning up. Characters are narrative in such contexts and I don’t really need those narratives here.

LK: In a recent interview, you cited this series as “…the last time when I try something new.” As readers, we certainly hope not.

MM: Who knows? I’m writing more autobiographical stuff off and on but I’m 75 and need a holiday. Currently working up some more WW3 stories for France.

LK: Mr. Moorcock, thank you very much for your time.

MM: Cheers, Larry.

About Larry Ketchersid (54 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.
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