Edition: Granada, 1981
Review number: 596
The first Michael Moorcock novel I ever read, An Alien Heat remains one of my favourites. On the surface, it is about the very far future, from the very last days of the universe (which is why it begins a trilogy called The Dancers at the End of Time). The people who live at the end of time are extremely powerful, controlling vast amounts of energy to make and remake matter at will. They spend their time in an endless round of sophisticated parties - so much so that sometimes parties are set up to fail deliberately, for the sake of variation - and pointless hobbies, such as creating hordes of living miniature soldiers to re-fight all the wars of history.
As a diversion, then, Jherek Carnelian (whose name is significantly a variant of Jerry Cornelius) decides to fall desperately in love. The chosen object of his affections is a time traveller, a young married woman mysteriously abducted from her house in Victorian Bromley. Having started this as a joke, Jherek finds himself falling in love in earnest, just when Amelia Underwood disappears, returned to her home by one of his friends as a prank. Playing the part of a distraught lover to perfection, he sets out to follow her.
The baroque world if the end of time is very vividly portrayed; by contrast, the nineteenth century seems rather less real. This is deliberate, because it is seen through Jherek's eyes, and he has very little understanding of what is going on around him. He has never come across money before, for example, and morality is to him just a game - in what is perhaps a slightly obvious attempt to shock, the novel opens with an incestuous sex scene with his mother.
The name of the central character of The Dancers at the End of Time trilogy makes it clear that there is a connection with the Jerry Cornelius chronicles. Characters with variants on this name crop up fairly frequently in Moorcock's work, and they are usually figures rather like a medieval jester. Their function is to comment on a world that they are separate from, to point out the absurdity of their surroundings.
The purpose of Jherek Carnelian is slightly more direct: it is to point out the absurdity of modern Western culture. There are many parallels between the end of time and consumer led capitalist society (and, in the sixties and seventies, many people feared the imminent end of the world in nuclear war). Moorcock clearly wants to mock our meaningless, pleasure obsessed lives, and does so reasonably subtly.
It is chiefly on its surface level as a brilliantly imagined tale of a decadent far future that An Alien Heat succeeds; the targets it aims at are rather too diffuse for it to be entirely convincing as a satire. It is as a writer of fantasy background that Moorcock is a master, and this novel shows off this talent at its peak form.