Thursday, 5 July 2001

Michael Moorcock: The Opium General and Other Stories (1984)

Edition: Grafton, 1986 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 861

The immediately obvious strange fact about this collection is that three quarters of it is made up of a (short) novel length Jerry Cornelius story, and that The Alchemist's Question doesn't even provide the title. This comes from one of the other seven pieces, and is about a drug addict living in a dream world, and reads something like a bridge between the Jerry Cornelius stories and the novel Moorcock wrote a short while later celebrating the English capital, Mother London.

The other fiction consists of three below standard stories from the point of view of a Russian agent caught up in a future war; more interesting are the three political essays which round off the collection. The most substantial of these is a discussion of right wing politics in science fiction and fantasy, genres in which some of the most famous writers are in Moorcock's (anarchist, left wing) view extremists - Heinlein and Rand, for example, and, more unusually, Tolkien. I am not convinced that these writers are as pernicious as Moorcock makes out, partly because I don't think my politics have been changed by reading them, no matter how insidiously their views are promoted in their fiction.

One of the other essays is about censorship, and the kind of hypocrisy that destroys those who disagrees while pretending to tolerate disagreement (prosecutions of anarchist bookshops for obscenity), and that is part of the distaste Moorcock felt about Thatcher's Britain which is important in The Alchemist's Question, which is the last Jerry Cornelius story.

The story also draws upon the idea of the battle between Law and Chaos which is important in several of Moorcock's fantasy series, notably those involving Corum. Miss Brunner, who appears throughout the Cornelius chronicles, represents Law, rigidity and authoritarianism - to the extent that the desires to bring on a nuclear winter and make the world more uniform. She has become a figure not at all unlike an exaggeration of Margaret Thatcher. It looks as though the free spirited friends of Jerry Cornelius are about to be defeated, especially as Jerry himself is living in a semi-catatonic state. The ability to move between alternate universes is denied them, and they are trapped into trying a desperate alchemical ritual.

The story is much more pessimistic in tone than the earlier Jerry Cornelius novels; this has a great deal to do with the early eighties and how depressing Moorcock found Britain at that time. It is a savage attack on the pressure to conform, much stronger even then than fifteen years earlier when the quartet of novels was written. It ends up being less successful than its predecessors, mainly because Jerry, though always present, is rendered so ineffectual, so hopeless.

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