Thursday, 1 January 2004

Michael Moorcock: The Winds of Limbo (1965)

Edition: Mayflower, 1965 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1207

Early Moorcock is usually interesting, but less individual and more straightforward than his later writing. The Winds of Limbo is no exception. It is set in a huge underground city of the future, underneath what is now Switzerland (possibly not somewhere ideally suited to such a construction), a background which is reminiscent of Isaac Asimov's Trantor if on a smaller scale. The city is capital of the solar system, a class-ridden rigid state, clearly meant to be a satire on early sixties Britain. The sudden appearance of a charismatic anarchist demagogue, the Fireclown, shakes the status quo until those in power decide that they should go to any lengths to stop him gaining more influence.

The plot seems as though it will be typical of left wing anti-establishment science fiction, with an idealistic young couple on hand to expose the government's machinations, allowing the Fireclown to sweep to power and turn out not to be as dangerous as everybody expected. However, the last bit does not happen; the Fireclown is far too nihilistic to be interested in taking over the state. He doesn't just criticise the bureaucratic rigidity of the world and its class system; he opposes the very idea of human society and even the existence of intelligence itself. This makes the heart of The Winds of Limbo interestingly different, and foreshadows some of Moorcock's later ideas about conflict between Law and Chaos, but it does mean that the ending of the novel fizzles out in an anti-climactic and unresolved manner which may be more likely but is less satisfying to read.

Like, say, The Rituals of Infinity, The Winds of Limbo shows signs of inexperience; Moorcock was at this time clearly someone who had lots of ideas he wanted to get down quickly. The background is sketchy, lacking detail - the lower classes, for example, are a stereotypical mass of easily lead uneducated labourers, which means that the reader is left feeling that they are being told that there is class conflict without really feeling that it affects anyone. Even though one of the main characters is not from the top bracket, being considered inferior to the woman he loves, he is still distinctly privileged. He is the grandson of a senior politician but of illegitimate birth because his grandfather refused to let his mother marry out of her class. This makes him an outsider of the whole class system, and this position could have been exploited more cleverly to tell us about this future society and its tensions.

The shallowness of the background - a problem Moorcock quickly learned how to overcome - also lies at the core of other problems that The Winds of Limbo has. It weakens the satire; although class is obviously the target, it remains unclear exactly what Moorcock wants to say about it (other than that it is a bad thing). By 1965, far more penetrating and effective satire had made its impact. The Fireclown's nihilism was either not really the answer Moorcock saw to society's problems, or it was one he lacked the conviction to ram home (it may also of course have been his publisher who required the novel be toned down). The novel reads like the vague ideas of a left wing middle class intellectual, not something inspired by real knowledge of the life of the labouring classes.

The Winds of Limbo is an interesting and frustrating novel; so much more could have been made of the ideas it contains.

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