Since this column comes out on the same day as Marvel’s new Avengers movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, it seemed a good time to review the movie. And since Michael Moorcock was such a big figure in SF and fantasy in the ‘60s, why not review his new book at the same time? Some weeks I have to take a hit for you, dear readers, but today I’m pleased to tell you that I am quite satisfied to be able to review these two items; I think you’ll like them too when you get a chance to see or read them. Like many of you, I am a Marvel fan, though I don’t get a chance to read many new comics these days, and although the comic brought together some of Marvel’s best and most iconic superheroes (and heroines, though I feel the “superhero” moniker should do for both genders), I was never as big on the group comics—same goes, incidentally, for DC’s offerings (The Justice League); while a big Superman fan, the whole group thing wasn’t really my cup o’ tea. However, since the Avengers movies are helmed by Joss Whedon, who I’m also a fan of, I had to look.
But moving on to Michael Moorcock first, I have to confess that I was never a giant Moorcock fan; I had read (and who hadn’t, in the late ‘60s?) his most famous short story “Behold the Man,” which won the Nebula in 1967. For those of you born much later, it was about a time traveler who wanted to settle a matter of faith, and went back to the Middle East (Bethlehem, Jerusalem and so on) to find out whether Christ was an actual historical figure and if so, was he the Son of God? I won’t give the ending away here—you know how I feel about spoilers—but I will tell you that if you can track it down you’ll find it well worth your while.
He was also famous in those days for his editing of the British magazine (yes, he’s a Brit) New Worlds, and for fostering the so-called “New Wave” of science fiction as typified by such writers as J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and even Norman Spinrad. There was a lot of controversy at the time about New Wave fiction, which tried very hard to get away from the familiar tropes and methods of traditional SF (and fantasy) and combine them in a “literary” fashion or to find new, more literary—or just new—ways of writing SF. Even the term “science fiction” came into disfavour with New Wave (or “nouvelle vague” if you’re either French or pretentious—I’ve seen it both ways) writers and editors. (Amazing’s sister magazine, Fantastic, made a big splash in the ‘70s with David R. Bunch’s “Moderan” stories, and Harlan Ellison’s well-known anthology series, Dangerous Visions, published a number of New Wave-type stories.) Moorcock, who had grown up writing and editing SF/F adventure-type stories—he was a professional editor by age 17 or so—had also been raised on a more literary diet and felt constrained (or bored) by the tropes of SF/F
Another famous work, or series of works by Moorcock was the fantasy series about Elric of Melnibone and his enchanted sword, Stormbringer. This series was written to be a complete contrast with the “Sword and Sorcery” genre typefied by Robert E. Howard’s Conan, or John Jakes’s Brak the Barbarian. Since I was a Howard fan and reader, I wasn’t overly impressed, though thousands were. Michael Whelan (Figure 3) was the best-known illustrator of Elric paperbacks. Moorcock also made a big splash with his “Jerry Cornelius” series of SF stories; one of which (The Final Programme) was made into a movie which, alas, I’ve never seen, that I know of. Suffice it to say—you can read his Wikipedia article for more information—that Moorcock was a Big Name on both sides of the pond. So any Moorcock fans out there should be gladdened at the news that there’s a brand-new book—and series, judging by the title—out now. The book is called The Whispering Swarm (Figure 4), and it’s Book 1 of “The Sanctuary of the White Friars.” In his continuing drive to elevate—or at least to change—SF and fantasy from its old tropes, Moorcock has come up with what I think might be a genre first: the quasi-autobiographical fantasy novel. The writer and the protagonist of this book are both named Michael Moorcock, and they even look (according to the description herein) like the same person.
The real MM was born in 1939 (December); the fictional one in 1940. There are other differences, but I’m not enough of a Moorcockian expert to tell—except where something is blatantly fantasy—where most of them lie, so I’ll just go ahead with the book’s MM. He grew up in London, part of it during the Blitz years—which is when the Nazis bombed the heck out of London, and many children were sent away to the countryside for safety’s sake—and became a professional editor at a very young age, working on the British Tarzan magazine. His amateur writing efforts before that had been supported by his mother—his father had left to fight during the war and had never returned from France—and he continued to write stories, which got published when he was much younger than most professional writers. He became friends—or had at least a nodding acquaintance—with now well-known writers like Barrington J. Bayley, Brian W. Aldiss, Mervyn Peak, Arthur C. Clarke and even J.R.R. Tolkien. He got married, had two children, and moved to Ladbroke Grove in London. He was a musician, learning banjo and guitar, and played in a couple of bands in the sixties.
At some point, he became aware that there was an ever-present sound, like a swarm of whispering voices, but too indistinct to make out words—in his head (a form of tinnitus, he was told by a doctor). He began calling the voices “The Swarm.” At another point, he found, near Fleet Street—which was, at that time, the centre of British journalism—a pair of gigantic gates that allowed access to a very strange part of London; a part which he came to call “Alsacia,” and which contained an old Abbey, containing a bunch of monks or friars and an inn called The Swan With Two Necks. Oddly enough, everyone in Alsacia seemed to dress, and talk and behave as if it were the seventeenth century. A bunch of actors in a B-movie, Moorcock thought, or the equivalent of what we would later call the SCA, or Society for Creative Anachronism. A weird bunch, at any rate. Another odd thing was that as soon as he came through Alsacia’s gates, The Swarm fell silent, and remained silent until he had once again passed through the gates back into “his” London. And he met a woman.
Now, mind you, Moorcock was married, and had two children. But since he was a child, he’d had a “dream girl” in the back of his head; and this woman, calling herself “Captain Moll Midnight,” with red hair and blue eyes—and with whom he was later to share several implausible adventures—seemed to be the epitome of his dream girl. Moorcock also meets actors calling themselves Dick Turpin, Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan (yes, those people) as well as other well-known names of the past. Slowly, but surely, Moorcock seems to be drawn into intrigues of the seventeenth century with people who are portraying not only real past personages, but fictional ones as well. The more he returns to Alsacia—telling his wife that he is going to a “writers’ retreat”—and stays with Moll Midnight, the more he can’t tell the difference between reality and fiction.
As well, he is drawn to the Abbey, where the White Friars dwell; he has deep conversations with the Abbot about various things including faith—he has long been an atheist but now is beginning to wonder if perhaps he is wrong; the Abbey is also the repository for some chalice that might be more than it seems; the Abbot keeps referring to some Treasure hidden in the Abbey, and Moorcock wonders if perhaps the cup is the Holy Grail. But complications ensue in Alsacia—they are all being bothered by Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads, and it seems that most of Alsacia’s residents are very much for King Charles I; some of them are actual Cavaliers, and a major confrontation is coming. Besides all that, sometimes Moorcock can’t even find Alsacia, and he begins to wonder if perhaps someone has slipped him some LSD (the ‘sixties being the prime time for it) and maybe Alsacia, Moll Midnight and all the rest are just “acid dreams.”
In this book, Michael Moorcock has managed to blur reality, biography (well, autobiography) and fantasy extremely well (gaining a convert, I might add, in me) and in a way I can’t remember reading before. One gains a sense that if the real Moorcock is much like the fictional one, he’s a bit of an egotist—with some good reason—and is, in many ways, larger than life. He eats, drinks and maintains two households—one possibly even fictional or a drugged dream—like a modern-day Falstaff. He manages to make England’s civil war—the period when Cromwell and his people overthrew Charles the First—come alive; he manages to even skewer Margaret Thatcher’s Britain in a few well-chosen words. Rather than being an urban fantasy in the sense that Charles de Lint, for example, writes, this is an urban time-travel fantasy in what I feel is a highly original vein. I recommend this book quite highly. It’s available from TOR books, through your favourite paper or ebook vendors.
As I said earlier, the highly-anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron movie opened today. Although I’m more fond of individual comics than the group ones—for example, I’d rather read a Captain America than an Avengers comic—I really enjoyed the first movie, probably because of the writing/directing talent of Joss Whedon and the acting talents of several of the movie’s stars, notably Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man and Chris Evans as Captain America; in addition, none of the Avengers proper were bad actors—Scarlett Johansson added eye candy for one branch and Chris Hemsworth for the other branch; Mark Ruffalo was ten times more believable as The Hulk as Eric Bana had been, for example. And there were the Whedon touches—anyone remember “Puny god!” for example? Although the movie was very heavy on the SFX, at least they all seemed to serve the film rather than the other way around; I personally liked it well enough to acquire the 3D Blu-Ray of it.
Capsule review of Avengers: Age of Ultron: This movie was at least twice as heavy on the CGI as the last one. There was scarcely a shot without CGI… but somehow, even in the battle-heavy scenes (if you’ve seen the trailer you’ll have seen at least a couple of them) they weren’t overpowering, surprisingly enough. (We are now to the point where almost anything can be made real-looking with enough expensive CGI. My sixteen-year-old self, that thought Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion was going to be as real as SF movies ever got, is quietly boggling in the corner.) The acting is as good, in my opinion, although these movies really aren’t about the acting; but you tell me who could dislike Tony Stark’s egotistical mutterings, Captain America’s Boy-Scout attitude, the Black Widow’s cynicism or Thor’s sometimes understated “What the hell is this Midgard stuff all about anyway?” The writing is good, in a Joss Whedon sort of way—although constrained by the demands of the plot—and holds its own, but unfortunately for me, there is no “Puny god!” moment in this film, which I believe follows on the heels of this week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on TV.
Basically, Tony Stark, billionaire playboy and inventor, has taken it into his head that if he can create an “Ultron” robot, one that will “enclose the Earth in a suit of iron,” then there will be no need for the Avengers, and he can relax—they can all relax. And with Stark, the thought is father to the deed. The Avengers have taken over one of Hydra’s research facilities, and found Loki’s staff there; Tony has used his own A.I., Jarvis, to begin decrypting what appears to be some kind of powerful computer inside the blue light in the staff. He plans to use the new “neural network,” which is bigger and more powerful than Jarvis’s own, to create Ultron, which will aid him in bringing “Peace in our time” (echoing Neville Chamberlain’s futile attempt to end World War II before it begins). But although Tony is very smart, he’s also very impulsive and makes mistakes, and Ultron takes over—and destroys—Jarvis’s AI, misinterprets Tony’s peace plan entirely, and decides to “make the Avengers extinct,” as they are the main threat to peace. (Well, there’s more to it than that, but this will be pretty much a spoiler-free review.)
There are always frictions inside the Avengers team. In this movie, the issues are ones that threaten the team; that Thor, for example, thinks Iron Man should have asked someone before he hijacked Loki’s staff; Bruce Banner is becoming aware of the Black Widow’s personal interest in him—rather than in his big green alter ego; Hydra has added two opponents—Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch—who have a personal reason for wanting Tony Stark dead, and so on. In places, these frictions—both internal and external—threaten to tear the team apart, even as Ultron threatens to do the same. We also learn more about Hawkeye’s family life (yes, he has a family), and meet a few old friends along the way. Cameos include Don Cheadle (as War Machine), Anthony Mackie as The Falcon, Idris Elba as Heimdall, Stan Lee (of course), Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and a couple I can’t mention. But I have to give James Spader credit as the voice of Ultron… his cadence really reminded me at times of Heath Ledger’s Joker from the Batman movie. He gave Ultron a very human quality. (Oh, and by the way? That poster excerpt is misleading–Cap’s shield is made of Vibranium from Wakanda, and unbreakable. So there. Wakanda? Hmm. Do I sense a Black Panther coming to a future movie?)
Here’s the big question: did I like it? Yes, I did. I will see it again, though I might not put out the extra money for 3D. Did I like it as well as the first? To be brutally frank, I thought it wasn’t quite as good as the first, but still—it was better than a lot of movies, and I see a lot of movies. Recommended, but not quite as highly as the first one.
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