Brackett, wife to SF writer Emond Hamilton, wrote mainly screenplays in the later part of her career. During the 1940’s she made a name for herself writing lush and gaudy adventure stories set mostly on the planet Mars, like those earlier populised by Edgar Rice Burroughs – but much more decadent. These exotic romances, representing the wilder, more extravagant side of the SF imagination, are curiously nostalgic in tone, as though regretting their own implausibility in light of modern astronomical knowledge. Even so, they are magnificent escapist fantasies spiced with a hint of sad cynicism.

The Sword of Rhiannon was originally published as Sea Kings of Mars in 1949 in Thrilling Wonder Stories; Ace Books published the novel in paperback under its new author-approved title in 1953.

The action takes place on Mars – a dusky, dying world of canals and crumbling cities. Matthew Carse, is the Brackett hero. He is a powerful, imposing figure whose physical prowess is matched with a shady morality. Once an archaeologist, he is now a thief and a looter acquainted with the back-alleys of the city of Jekkara.

Engaged in looting an ancient Martian tomb, Carse is shoved by his accomplice into a ‘Great bubble of darkness. A big, brooding sphere of quivering blackness, through which shot little coruscating particles of brilliance like falling stars seen from another world.’

Long story short, Carse is transported way back in time via this bubble. He exits the tomb into a rich world of oceans and magnificent cities: a world of only rudimentary science, a world of sword-fighting sea-warriors whose galleys and kingdoms had clashed on long-lost oceans.’

Unfortunately, Carse did not go back in time alone. He has an unseen companion who is as tentative as a half-felt thought, but, oh, so very dangerous…

Michael Moorcock in his essay, Queen of the Martian Mysteries: an appreciation of Leigh Brackett, had this to say about the author:

‘Brackett has less in common with Mervyn Peake than she has with Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler and other superior writers of popular fiction. Yet common to all these writers is the sense of yearning loss, as of innocence, a nobler, irredeemable past and an uncertain future. Her heroes are often deeply aware of some moral transgression which everyone forgives them for except themselves. At the time these stories were written we had seen our sense of our history, of our progress towards real civilisation, blasted to bits before our eyes. By the time these stories were appearing in the pulps, Germany’s Nazi armies seemed unchallenged in their conquest of Europe. All those idealistic aspirations for world peace and the rule of civil law had collapsed before the cheap rhetoric of a bad journalist like Mussolini or a mediocre painter of postcards like Hitler.’

Barrington J Bayley begun publishing science-fiction stories as early as 1954, and had met Michael Moorcock in 1957. The two collaborated prolifically on stories and other work in that decade; and Bayley became a central contributor to Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine in the 1960s; his stories seemed simultaneously estranged and metropolitan, appearing instinctively to confirm that journal’s aggressive disregard of the local or the provincial.

Bayley never became as well-known outside Britain as New Worlds writers like Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, or Thomas M. Disch; but he shared their intense early devotion to certain literary models, from William Burroughs to Borges and Albert Jarry and later French Surrealists. Bayley never abandoned this heritage; by the early 21st century he had published nearly 100 tales whose deadpan playfulness with the most abstruse of scientific speculations, and whose surreal adventurousness about time and place, made him seem almost more European than English.

At the same time, Bayley was beginning to write the exorbitant but chilly space operas for Ace Books that made him, for a while, a recognisable and respected figure in the American scene, where any science-fiction writer – certainly one like Bayley, who was ambitious to support a family through his work – needed to flourish. Early novels like Star Virus (1970) or Empire of Two Worlds (1972) were popular with American readers, especially those who found intoxicating the sometimes ungovernable flourishing of his speculative constructs and the gorgeous intricacies of his storylines.

But it was a risky course to take. Later novels – like Collision with Chronos (1973) or The Fall of Chronopolis (1974), both of which played far more deliriously with the Time theories of J.W. Dunne (who contended that past, present and future exist simultaneously) than J.B. Priestley ever imagined possible – combine intellectual joy with a redoubtable grimness about the ability of his human protagonists fully to benefit from the worlds of his imagination.

In these books, and in later virtuoso tales like The Garments of Caean (1976) or The Pillars of Eternity (1982), there is much travel, time paradoxes galore, and storylines whose complications resist synopsis.

But his American career did not flourish; it is almost certain he had begun to travel too far for readers looking for adventures, however spiced with thought, conducted by kinetic heroes with whom they might identify.

The closest to such a figure was in fact not human at all. In The Soul of the Robot (1974) and The Rod of Light (1985) – two tales featuring the Candide-like adventures and disasters of a robot named Jasperodus – Bayley created a touching creature more human than any human he had been able to write about, a monster-like-us afflicted with torments of consciousness, ethical dilemmas and catastrophes of obsolescence. Bayley’s satires on the human condition may not have the hilarity of the robot stories of John T. Sladek,  a colleague from the New Worlds days; but they focus, if possible, even more unrelentingly on the human condition.

John Clute
Barrington J. Bayley: Science-fiction writer who treated the human condition as a puzzle that must be solved
The Independent 27th October 2008

The serious writer

March 29, 2018

a city of the future - London

There has always been a difference between the SF author and the author who writes science fiction; the difference, say, between an Isaac Asimov and a George Orwell. These days the difference is becoming increasingly marked. The majority of SF published last year was category fiction, like the western and the detective story, with well-defined conventions within which writers rang changes on familiar themes (space exploration, robots, totalitarian megalopolises) with various degrees of skill. In the past year or so, however, there has been an increase in another kind of SF, written by people whose early reputations were made in the SF magazines but whose work has long since ceased to abide by the category conventions, and which many deny is “proper” SF at all.

When these writers still produce SF it is because they’re moved by the same spirit which produced Wells’ “Time Machine,” Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Orwell’s “1984;” they happen to find certain SF elements useful for expressing their particular moral concerns. These writers include Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Langdon Jones and Americans like Thomas Disch and Harvey Jacobs. Of late, and with similar moral intention, Jack Trevor Story has started to write SF, as have writers like Paul Ableman and Doris Lessing. The difference is between a writer who uses an SF idea and one who writes SF because he can’t easily do anything else. The only pity is that sometimes the better writers are given the least attention. The serious writer who has left the SF category behind him is often more talented and sophisticated.

I hope that next year we shall see closer attention given, say, to Thomas Disch’s “334,” about ordinary New Yorkers managing to live ordinary lives in a world which would seem hellish to us but which they accept (as people do) as perfectly normal. J. G. Ballard’s new novel, provisionally called “Crash,” will have a present day setting and will continue to define its moral themes in terms of man’s relationship to his technological myths (and to his automobiles in particular).

Some of the new SF novels might contain no SF. I speak from experience. It was only after I had finished my last SF novel that I realised I had included less than 400 words of what might reasonably be called science fiction. It wasn’t intentional: it happens naturally during the process of selecting what you need for your theme and discarding what is useless. A good writer, after all, should create his own conventions. Whatever the best SF is these days, it certainly isn’t SF any more.

Michael Moorcock
What does the future hold for Science Fiction
The Guardian 16th September 1971

drunk out of his skull

March 17, 2018

Dr Who

Well, yeah, I was (a fan of Dr Who). I watched it since it started, and I didn’t actually like the first Dr Who, William Hartnell, because he used to be in The Army Game where he was a barking sergeant major, and I couldn’t help seeing him as this barking sergeant major, but in a different suit! I liked Patrick Troughton better, because he was sort of fey and he started to bring that oddness into the character. I didn’t like Jon Pertwee, because he was again a bit too posh, and I really liked Tom Baker. I sort of knew him; I met him once or twice, usually in a pub, and usually drunk out of his skull on 50 valium and a pint of scotch, and ad-libbing like fuck. And it’s wonderful to watch the shows and know that all the other actors are just completely at sea because he hasn’t given them their cue line, he’s just come up with actually a better line, usually. So that was my favourite, like many people I suppose, and I still like him as an actor. I’ve got this sort of secret ambition: I did a book called Mother London and there’s a character in it called Josef Kiss, and he’d make an absolutely perfect Josef Kiss. So the only reason I’d want them to make a movie or a radio thing or anything is just so I can get Tom Baker in to play Josef Kiss.

Michael Moorcock
Interview with Ben Graham for The Quietus 22nd November 2010

Acolyte of Embers by CobaltPlasma

First of all, it’s vital to have everything prepared. Whilst you will be actually writing the thing in three days, you’ll need a day or two of set-up first. If it’s not all set up, you’ll fail.

Model the basic plot on the Maltese Falcon (or the Holy Grail — the Quest theme, basically). In the Falcon, a lot of people are after the same thing, the Black Bird. In the Mort D’Arthur, again a lot of people are after the same thing, the Holy Grail. It’s the same formula for westerns, too. Everyone’s after the same thing. The gold of El Dorado. Whatever.

The formula depends on the sense of a human being up against superhuman force — politics, Big Business, supernatural evil, &c. The hero is fallible, and doesn’t want to be mixed up with the forces. He’s always about to walk out when something grabs him and involves him on a personal level.

You’ll need to make lists of things you’ll use.

Prepare an event for every four pages.

Do a list of coherent images. So you think, right, Stormbringer: swords, shields, horns, and so on.

Prepare a complete structure. Not a plot, exactly, but a structure where the demands were clear. Know what narrative problems you have to solve at every point. Write solutions at white heat, through inspiration: really, it can just be looking around the room, looking at ordinary objects, and turning them into what you need. A mirror can become a mirror that absorbs the souls of the damned.

Prepare a list of images that are purely fantastic, deliberate paradoxes say, that fit within the sort of thing you’re writing. The City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you’ve got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other.

The imagery comes before the action, because the action’s actually unimportant. An object to be obtained — limited time to obtain it. It’s easily developed, once you work the structure out.

Time is the important element in any action adventure story. In fact, you get the action and adventure out of the element of time. It’s a classic formula: “We’ve only got six days to save the world!” Immediately you’ve set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four and finally, in the classic formula anyway, there’s only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?

The whole reason you plan everything beforehand is so that when you hit a snag, a desperate moment, you’ve actually got something there on your desk that tells you what to do.

Once you’ve started, you keep it rolling. You can’t afford to have anything stop it. Unplug the phone and the internet, lock everyone out of the house.

You start off with a mystery. Every time you reveal a bit of it, you have to do something else to increase it. A good detective story will have the same thing. “My God, so that’s why Lady Carruthers’s butler Jenkins was peering at the keyhole that evening. But where was Mrs. Jenkins?”

In your lists, in the imagery and so on, there will be mysteries that you haven’t explained to yourself. The point is, you put in the mystery, it doesn’t matter what it is. It may not be the great truth that you’re going to reveal at the end of the book. You just think, I’ll put this in here because I might need it later. You can’t put in loads of boring exposition about something you have no idea of yourself.

Divide your total 60,000 words into four sections, 15,000 words apiece. Divide each into six chapters. You can scale this up or down as you like, of course, but you’ll need more days — and stamina — for longer books, and keep chapters at 2.5k max. In section one the hero will say, “There’s no way I can save the world in six days unless I start by…” Getting the first object of power, or reaching the mystic place, or finding the right sidekick, or whatever. That gives you an immediate goal, and an immediate time element, as well as an overriding time demand. With each section divided into six chapters, each chapter must then contain something which will move the action forward and contribute to that immediate goal.

Very often a chapter is something like: attack of the bandits —defeat of the bandits. Nothing particularly complex, but it’s another way you can achieve recognition: by making the structure of a chapter a miniature of the overall structure of the book, so everything feels coherent. The more you’re dealing with incoherence, with chaos — ie with speed — the more you need to underpin everything with simple logic and basic forms that will keep everything tight. Otherwise the thing just starts to spread out into muddle and abstraction.

So you don’t have any encounter without at least information coming out of it. In the simplest form, Elric has a fight and kills somebody, but as they die they tell him who kidnapped his wife. Again, it’s a question of economy. Everything has to have a narrative function.

You must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first part. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first part, developed in the second and third, and resolved in the last part.

There’s always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn’t allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero’s morbid speeches, and so on. The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can’t have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, ‘What? Dragons? Demons? You’ve got to be joking!’ The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don’t want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you’ve got to have somebody around who’ll act as a sort of chorus.

When in doubt, descend into a minor character. So when you reach an impasse, and you can’t move the action any further with your major character, switch to a minor character ‘s viewpoint, which will allow you to keep the narrative moving, and give you time to brew something.

Michael Moorcock
Six Days to Save the World
Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle

At the same time. In Science Fantasy magazine, I wrote the first version of The Eternal Champion, based on my reading of Victorian gothics mostly, in which a character is doomed never to die, always to take part in some kind of trial, to fight for one side or another in order to attain balance.

And in the Elric stories, for the same magazine, I was developing the notion of the Cosmic Balance, which ideally was always equally balanced between Law and Chaos. Chaos for me could be pretty terrible, with everything in a state of constant change, unstable, while Law represented stability and consistent justice. However, I had soon begun to understand that the world requires equal doses of Law and Chaos to survive. No life without death, no law without chaos. The constant internal debate of the artist.

I think Milton was a big influence there. I had a wonderful Doré Milton, which, with Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” had a huge influence on me as a kid, mainly because of the imagery and because I came to assume that every narrative should carry at least two stories! Anyway, I also found that the multiverse and the eternal champion offered me ways of viewing the same event from different perspectives, allowing me to put the same characters in different contexts.

Michael Moorcock
Siren’s call: a talk with Michael Moorcock
LA Times 9th August 2009

I gobble it all up

October 28, 2017

I love the theatre. I like modern dance, very good movies and ambitious international contemporary music. I like poetry, prose, painting and the decorative arts. I like the lot, the very best that London’s got, the whole bloody casserole. I gobble it all up and bang on my bowl for more. Let timid greenbelters creep in at weekends and sink themselves in the West End’s familiar deodorised shit if they want to. That’s not my city. That’s a tourist set. It’s what I live off. What all of us show-people live off. It’s the old, familiar circus. The big rotate.

Michael Moorcock
London Bone

1. My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

2. Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

3. Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.

4. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction.

5. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.

6. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.

7. For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.

8. If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.

9. Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).

10. Ignore all proffered rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.

Michael Moorcock
Golden Rules for Writers
The Guardian, 22nd February 2010

as if evil crept in

October 20, 2017

When he was dead I raised myself to my feet and I looked about me. Everything was still. A loneliness had come upon my soul.

There was darkness everywhere now but in the forest. And even here there were wisps of grey, as if evil crept in.

I lifted my head to the sky and I shook my fist. “Oh, I reject you. I reject your Heaven and I reject your Hell. Do as you wish with me, but know that your desires are petty and your ambitions have no meaning!”

I addressed no one. I addressed the universe. I addressed a void.

Michael Moorcock
The War Hound and the World’s Pain

ecstatic

Nothing is known for certain, Isarda. All knowledge is illusion – purpose is a meaningless word, a mere sound, a reassuring fragment of melody in a cacophony of clashing chords. All is flux – matter is like these jewels.

She throws a handful of gleaming gems upon the golden surface; they scatter. When the last jewel has ceased to move, she looks up at him.

Sometimes they fall into a rough pattern, usually they do not. So as this moment, a pattern has been formed – you and I stand here speaking. But at any moment that which constitutes our beings may be scattered again.

Michael Moorcock
Phoenix in obsidian