Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Silver Warriors

by Michael Moorcock

Some houses hold secret chambers, accessible only via hidden corridors and locked doors. We assume such a place is fantastic simply on account of its concealment, but both the banal and the occult can be obscured from the public eye. Assume, for instance, that a hidden chamber contains a bookshelf whose duplicate rests in the building’s main concourse. Does concealment alter the functionality of an object? Does it affect its very nature? Shelves do not remain bare for long; we put books on them.

Science fiction has traditionally been seen as just such a secret chamber, entry to which requires an appropriately arcane code or key. But that was then… To a large extent, science fiction has broken out of the ghetto it languished in for the greater part of the previous century. Major studios bank on the spectacle of Sci-Fi blockbusters, while writers such as JG Ballard and William Gibson have migrated from the archipelago of genre fiction to the vast continent of mainstream, ‘literary’ fiction. But a broad acceptance of the genre is a different thing than fluency in its dialect. For instance, take “the Silver Warriors,” a 1973 novel by influential writer and editor of the seminal New Worlds literary journal, Michael Moorcock. Also published as “the Phoenix in Obsidian,” the book is very much a hidden chamber. The reader must descend multiple stairwells and through numerous ever-narrowing corridors in order to reach the peculiar space “the Silver Warriors” unashamedly occupies. This is a remarkably self-conscious pulp novel and therein lays its strengths. But what exactly is “the Silver Warriors” about?

The Mayflower edition, known as 'Phoenix in Obsidian.'

This is a fairly standard pulp adventure novel, albeit one with a fair share of bizarre, psychedelic touches. The book is immersed not only in broader pulp conventions, but also the baroque intricacies of Moorcock’s own personal mythologies. The brawny Frank Franzetta painted cover sums up the content of “the Silver Warriors” pretty well, despite obscuring the sophistication and self-awareness also at play. The image, as shown above, is of a muscled warrior brandishing a black sword as he rides an ice sleigh drawn by four polar bears. Most readers would either be turned off by such a pure pulp image, or succumb to the kitsch of it, and in the process underestimate the book.

Michael Moorcock is famous amongst most fantasy and science fiction readers today due to his creation of the morose anti-hero, Elric the Albino. Elric, with his soul-sapping black blade, Stormbringer, is a foundational figure in much of the so-called ‘dark fantasy’ that rose out of the early seventies. Moorcock’s ingenious move was to invert the cliché of the stoic, self-assured adventure hero. Elric was a brooding, Byronic figure, consumed by inner weakness and as plagued by what he’s done as what he has not done – not exactly the muscled man of action familiar to pulp readers. To this gloomy, melodramatic template Moorcock added timely psychedelic trappings – Elric in many ways resembled a spidery rock star such as Mick Jagger or David Bowie, and the albino swordsman also wrestled with a psych-devouring drug problem. This should be no surprise, as Moorcock also provided lyrics for and performed with the legendary space rock group Hawkwind.

Michael Moorcock & the Deep Fix, a rock group formed between Moorcock and tangential members of the Hawkwind family.

But Elric is only one emanation of the Eternal Champion, a faux-Joseph Campbell meta-myth conceit that Moorcock has used throughout his career to tie much of his voluminous adventure fiction together. This weaves most of his fiction into, if not quite a super-narrative, then very much a superstructure, onto which he grafts heroic sword-and-sorcery, proto-steampunk and psychedelic sex-spy capers. The Eternal Champion is an archetypal template Moorcock propels through a larger multiverse (a term which has since garnered considerable cache, but which Moorcock himself originated) in a war between oftentimes-unseen forces of Chaos and Order.

“The Silver Warriors,” despite it being said nowhere on the book jacket, is actually the second novel in the John Daker trilogy. While the adventures of Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon and other heroes exist very much as their own independent epics, gaining additional pathos and weight due to their connection to a larger mythos, the John Daker books reside at the nexus of Moorcock’s meta-narrative. This leaves the Daker books somewhat dependent upon the larger continuity and makes the novel difficult for those not already familiar with Moorcock’s cosmology; it also contributes to the unevenness of the book. While most of Moorcock’s epic cycles, in particular the heroic romance of Hawkmoon, only gradually integrate bridges to the larger Eternal Champion narrative into their stories, the John Daker books make blunt and frequent reference to key components of the cosmology – the Chalice, the Black Sword, Tanelorn, the Lords of Chaos and Order, the inter-dimensional Conjunctions, and even the dwarf Jermays the Crooked are all mentioned herein.

A reader would be forgiven for thinking that Moorcock is simply hitting the requisite marks in this particular novel. It certainly is a breezy book, with sharp, unadorned prose and an economic plot that does not so much climax as abruptly end. The prolific Moorcock was renowned in his pulp heyday for churning out an endless stream of novel after novel – he has mentioned in interviews that he often wrote a lean science fiction book over about three days. I have no doubt “the Silver Warriors” 220 pages were completed under such a deadline, and while this does leave the book in rough shape, it also lends it a spontaneity that appeals to me. Hawkwind, the rock band with which Moorcock collaborated, were notorious for their consumption of speed, and in similar, the Moorcock novels of the late-sixties and early-seventies read very much as amphetamine science fiction. These are books of a heady, contagious vitality, full of wild gore and mad ideas.

From "The Swords of Heaven, the Flowers of Hell," an original John Daker graphic novel on which Michael Moorcock collaborated with the great Howard Chaykin.

Moorcock assembles a heady collision of a variety of half-baked pulp and science fiction tropes, and trots them out with verve and wit. The novel opens as Erekose, the identity John Daker assumed after being torn from his native plane and placed in a foreign dimension, reposes in peace with his wife Ermizhad. Ermizhad is a princess of the Eldren, an ancient, elven species whom human sorcery initially drew Erekose to this plane by human sorcery in order to kill. But disgusted by the bigotry and cruelty of his human brothers, Erekose turned his blade upon his own species and led the Eldren in genocide against humanity. But even after his race is annihilated, Erekose is unable to find peace. He is ripped from the time streams following a bout of disturbing visions and is sent to a barren, dying earth where he is known as Urlik Skarsol of the Southern Ice. It is at this point in the novel that the scene occurs from which the cover image was drawn. And while he is referred to as Urlik from here on out, he retains his memories as Erekose, and to lesser extent as the unremarkable John Daker, and never gives up hope of reuniting with his bride.

Urlik spends a good portion of the novel sulking over his predicament, whether it is on the barren ice itself or within the decadent mountain chambers of Rowernarc. In this dying future, the spreading ice floes have driven the remnants of the human race underground to Rowernarc, where they await their extinction. Unaware of his purpose upon this plane, Urlik questions Rowernarc’s rulers, the ascetic Lord Temporal, Shanosfear, and the gluttonous Lord Spiritual, Bishop Belphig regarding any imminent dangers. Shanosfear pleads ambivalence to secular affairs, while the worldly decadence of Belphig hides more devious subterfuge. Eventually, Urlik comes to the conclusion that he must assist Sir Bladrak and the sea-pirates of the volcanic Scarlet Fjord in their campaign against the tall, silent Silver Warriors of the book’s title.

Though the book is somewhat slight, Moorcock manages to pack in some excellent moments. The feverish decadence of the citizens of Rowernarc is well executed; as Moorcock expertly manages to hint at the grotesquery they wallow in, futilely attempting to abate their boredom. Elsewhere, a naval battle against a mutant sea sow is one of the book’s highlights. And though this novel remains a minor one for its author, a disposable adventure such as “the Silver Warriors” isn’t necessarily a failure. In fact, the very disposable nature of the book is one of its more beguiling features. Moorcock is an accumulative writer – one only gets a decent grasp of his scope after having digested a good number of his novels and short stories. His books often function not as autonomous entities, but as permutations of a larger whole.

The late-sixties/early-seventies novels of Moorcock, such as “the Silver Warriors,” must also be seen within their cultural context. The adventures of Urlik Skarsol and the other itinerant incarnations of the Eternal Champion share much with the comics Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and a few others were creating over at the cramped New York City ‘bullpens’ of Marvel Comics. Like those sixties-era Marvel Comics, Moorcock’s pulp novels melded adolescent angst onto psychotropic fantasy and far-fetched adventure, investigated the anxiety and confusion of the pubescent, teenage male. Yet whereas Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s ‘Fantastic Four’ and ‘Spider-man’ retained their stodginess despite a remarkable vitality, Moorcock’s sword and sorcery epics had considerably more teeth. The Eternal Champion, manifest as Urlik Skarsol or otherwise, is the image of the frustrated male - confused of his body’s transformations as he wields his insatiable blade, a sword which has a life of its own and seems to leap out of its sheath at its own fruition.

Michael Moorcock

The early work of Michael Moorcock in these foundational Eternal Champion novels may not be as ostentatiously progressive as the work of his peers in New Worlds magazine such as Ballard, Thomas Disch, Norman Spinard and Brian Aldiss. Still, one must take a step back and view these novels within the pulp tradition. It is then that one gets a better grasp of just how potentially radical these at times crude paperbacks actually were. Or more appropriately, one must place books such as “the Silver Warriors” in the tradition of weird fiction as covered elsewhere on this site and seen elsewhere in the work of Lord Dunsany, E.E. Eddison and William Hope Hodgeson. The novel’s dying earth premise and the human sanctuary of Rowernarc remind one of Hodgeson’s “the Night Lands,” and much of Moorcock’s heroic romance can be traced back to Eddison and others such as Mervyn Peake. But whereas a writer such as Eddison proposed a regressive, conservative romance of a fabled past, Moorcock’s agenda was considerably more progressive – an aleatory, ambiguous fantasy world serving as a canvas for internal turmoil and philosophical investigation. Moorcock would later develop into a writer of deeper sophistication and stylistic prowess, but these ramshackle and rough early novels stand on their own as perversely weird adolescent transformation fables – peculiar and infuriating in their half-baked, pharmaceutical splendor.

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