Michael Moorcock,
The Lives & Times of Jerry Cornelius:
Stories of the Comic Apocalypse

(HarperCollins, 1987;
Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003)

Michael Moorcock is a prolific and versatile writer. I thoroughly enjoyed the oddly gentle and humorous novels in his series The Dancers at the End of Time. Set in a period when science has advanced to the appearance of magic, the books speculate on what would be valued in lives without physical limitations.

The Jerry Cornelius novels are obscurely related (don't ask), but very different. Cornelius is a time traveler, physicist, assassin and rock star who hops around our world, as well as alternate worlds, to observe and sometimes participate in recent history's most bizarre and violent events. He's usually out to further Chaos in times of oppressive Order, but don't count on a petty consistency.

Cornelius has been on the go since the Vietnam War and remains true to the bell-bottomed trousers, protests, sexual freedom and drug use of that era. Yes, he did suffer a setback when he was killed in the Far East by Captain Maxwell, but he seems to be reviving nicely thanks to terrorism and the Bush and Blair governments.

If you've read the Jerry Cornelius novels and like them, you'll be happy with these stories. If you're new to the character and must know more in spite of my soon-to-be cantankerous comments (he is after all an important figure in the history of fantasy and science fiction) do start with the first novel in the series, The Final Programme. The stories just won't make much sense if you haven't read at least one of the novels, and The Final Programme is the most coherent.

The series benefits from Moorcock's clever black humor and command of language, and many will like the ultra-liberal worldview. But many won't. One of the quotes used by the author in the new collection is a Moslem proverb, "Keep from me, God, all forms of certainty." Yet Moorcock, so adept at recognizing the irony in the beliefs of others, doesn't do as well when it comes to his own. There is considerable certainty in his opinions on economics, globalization, politics, religion and the motives of various world leaders. His certainty is clear in the sometimes smug, self-righteous tone of the stories, but made even clearer in introductory comments that tell us he makes no apologies for despising Reagan's trickle-down economic policy. In the last story he quotes Noam Chomsky, a vocal and influential activist since the Vietnam War. I had been wondering why he hadn't been quoted earlier since so many of Moorcock's views seem directly related to Chomsky's. In my only slightly oversimplified summary, these stories say, metaphorically: violence is evil; big business is bad; the United States is naive and brutish; globalization is ruining undeveloped countries and workers in general; and the Apocalypse is near thanks to greedy, selfish national leaders who receive all the support they need from equally greedy, selfish religious leaders and semi-insane military commanders.

In the spirit of Wall Street's new disclosure rules, I have to acknowledge I am one of those who don't entirely agree with either Moorcock or Chomsky, nor was I ever a hippie, and maybe that's a large part of why I don't really care for the long-running Jerry Cornelius saga. Not that it is without redeeming value. Moorcock is an important and innovative author and dissent should be heard in the face of often equally one-sided establishment views. The thing is, even aside from the political agenda, I don't care for Jerry or these stories. The collection gets an A for style and the author's talent for exotic description; an F for characters, including Cornelius, who are stick figures, intentionally more symbolic than human; and an F for plots that are incoherent collages of random time chunks and events. Readers who are new to the series will be totally lost as Cornelius flits from one scene to another, often encountering recurring characters. I won't even try to suggest what the wild surfaces of these satires are about other than to mention they do include cannibalism, incest, infanticide and a few other cides besides.

There are better treatments of the themes found in the Cornelius series. Try Kurt Vonnegut for a different understanding of the world's absurdities and atrocities. Philip K. Dick can't be beaten for dream-like or drug-induced descriptions of a hostile, impermanent universe. And for harder to dismiss disagreements with U.S. policy, go directly to Chomsky's tirades, including his recent frustrating but provocative short book on 9/11.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 15 November 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.