Tuesday, 16 February 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Rituals of Infinity (1966)

Edition: Arrow, 1979
Review number: 210

This novel is one of Moorcock's earliest, and shows him as a writer with talent but yet to reach his mature, distinctive style. He still wears his influences on his sleeve, so to speak. In some ways, to see the influences combine is one of the most interesting aspects of this novel, which in most other ways is no more than competent science fiction.

Any one of a large number of science fiction writers could have woven the plot. A small group of scientists have discovered that the earth is really one of a couple of dozen parallel worlds, mostly frozen at a particular stage of technological and social development. They then find out that there are small groups of terrorists setting out to destroy these worlds (which they label D-squads, D for destruction), murdering millions of people with advanced technology which destabilises reality until an unstoppable chain reaction takes over and pulls it apart totally. Doctor Faustaff, son of the man who discovered the alternates, leads the scientists in a campaign to prevent this and to discover the origins of the D-squads.

In doing so, they become aware of the existence of beings bringing new alternates into existence, and Faustaff ends up on one which has not yet been "activated"; the human beings who live there have to perform certain archetypal acts (such as enacting a ritual of human sacrifice) for this to happen. (This sort of idea is extremely typical of the sixties, when this story was written.)

Doctor Faustaff is a superhero in the mould of the characters in pulp space opera written by authors like E.E. "Doc" Smith; his abilities are too wide-ranging and far-reaching to be realistic, and this is another indication of Moorcock's immaturity when this novel was written.

The main influence on the novel, though, is J.G. Ballard (to whom it is dedicated). This is apparent in the dreamlike and abstract nature of the various alternate worlds, many of them damaged through the attempts of the D-squads to destroy them. They are left as surreal worlds of ice or crystal, without the changes being noticed by the inhabitants. (The descriptions of these worlds are among the best features of the novel.) The satirical intention which can often be attributed to Ballard's science fiction is not really present in The Rituals of Infinity; Moorcock's work usually has little to say about anything outside itself. The same imitation of the atmosphere without the intention can be seen in the hints of Kurt Vonnegut and Stanislaus Lem in the novel.

These obvious influences were gradually integrated into Moorcock's own style, and in his later books they are not so obviously there. This process, in fact, only seems to take another three or four years; the first of Moorcock's Runestaff novels is already quite definitely in his mature style.

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