What I love about about Michael Moorcock’s fiction is that it’s crammed full of ideas, most of which never get fleshed out in the work in which they’re introduced. He throws in things that should be absolutely zany, and he often does so seemingly at random, but he imbues them with complete gravitas. It’s the presentation of gonzo weirdness with a straight face and complete seriousness that makes his novels feel like surreal acid trips. I think the Elric of Melnibone stories are the best examples of this.
I just finished re-reading The Vanishing Tower, because my brain needed a break. I’ve spent the past few months reading books on ethics, sociology, the psychology of creativity, plus a of dry economics for school. Weird fantasy is sort of a mental palate cleanser. Then I start thinking about how I’m going to explain this book to my wife, when she inevitably sees me reading and asks “What’s that about?”.
Well, Elric is a sort of anti-Conan, in that unlike Conan he’s high-born, a sickly albino, and embraces sorcery. He’s got a soul-eating sword, which killed the love of his life. He destroyed his own kingdom, where he was emperor, because stopping a usurper to the throne was more important than preserving their civilization. In this book he meets other versions of himself from other times and other realities, although none of them look or act anything like him. Oh, and he meets alternate versions of his sidekick, too. There’s a city that exists in all realities, and his current arch-enemy is trying to sack it. The enemy has an army alien lizard men riding giant lizards, who possess a sorcery that’s alien to Elric’s world. To stop them, Elric and his alters have to find a tower that appears and disappears and use it to get to yet another reality to acquire sorcery that’s even more alien. There’s a giant talking mechanical bird that people can ride. The ultimate weapon turn out to be bronze banners that fire golden light.
Yeah. What makes it work is that behind all of the strange are genuine emotional motivations. The bad guy sorcerer is holding Elric’s current girlfriend hostage, but Elric is torn between saving her and helping his friends. The bad guy hates Elric because the bad guy’s current girlfriend is Elric’s ex-girlfriend, and she’s still in love with Elric even though Elric basically slept with her then never called her. She wants revenge on Elric, and if she can’t have him no one can. The bad guy knows he’s being used, but figures maybe if he does kill Elric his girlfriend might be able to love him for real.
It’s a soap opera, albeit one with an albino sorcerer with a vampiric sword and demon-summoning bad guys with self-esteem issues. They’re all like this, folks, all of Moorcock’s novels. He doesn’t write heroes, he writes characters with serious issues who wander around doing the right thing not necessarily because it’s right, but because their emotional state drives them to it. It’s a sort of human truth that you don’t normally see in fantasy heroes.
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