Review of The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

Fiction Reviews

The Whispering Swarm

(2014/5) Michael Moorcock, Gollancz, £25, hrdbk, 480pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21332-6


The Whispering Swarm is Michael Moorcock's first major novel for a decade. It came out in N. America last year (2014) and is now (2015) out in the British Isles courtesy of Gollancz. (As we shall see in due course this timing has its ironies.) It is also the first of a trilogy.

Michael Moorcock's new story concerns a young writer by the name of Michael Moorcock who in the 1960s is beginning to make his mark in London. The time was prescient in that this was when London's SF scene was just getting going with monthly meeting that soon moved to the Globe (and which ultimately would lead to the first Thursday meetings of today's London SF Circle). Struggling to earn a crust, Michael Moorcock held down a number of jobs in addition to penning his own tales. For a while he worked on Tarzan stories but eventually ended up working for Ted Carnell's New Worlds magazine of which, in due course, he became its editor.

London was beginning to emerge from the austerity years following World War II. It was the time of the swinging 1960s and Moorcock was at the heart of it all. With him in the SF scene there were other speculative fiction writers beginning to make their mark or a little further along their career, including: Brian Aldiss, John Brunner, Harry Harrison, and not least Moorcock's great friend Barrington J. Bayley, and overseas with Norman Spinrad and Judith Merril. But Moorcock's writer's mind was not just enjoying the moment, it was also exploring fantastical realms that were to provide fertile grounds for crafting stories. Even so, he did have friends among more, then, traditional SF writers such as Ken Bulmer and Ted Tubb.

This swarm of fantasy worlds constantly beckoned, whispering to him. Was Moorcock going mad? Then one day, Moorcock happened across a Carmelite Monk who led him through some street doors into an alley and his order's retreat. There, there was also a pub 'The Swan With Two Necks'. The thing was, it all seemed dated. And then came the realisation that he was in a zone that had transported him back to the time of the English Civil War with Roundheads and Cavaliers.

This was an old, or a parallel London, a London that quietly intersected with the modern city to which only a few could go, and this was the first of what would be a number of visits to this alternate world; visits that would see him not just fight the Roundheads, he would battle alongside the Three Musketeers and even become a highwayman. Adventures abounded and there was even risk and peril, but the thing was that whenever he was in this alternate world the irritating sound of the whispering swarm abated.

The Whispering Swarm is part quasi-autobiographical and part fantasy. Younger readers, those today in their 30s or 40s, might be forgiven for not having heard of Michael Moorcock especially if they are more firmly rooted into SF: Michael is now 75 and much of his career is way behind him. However those into fantasy may very well have come across the author who is famous for adventurer, dandy, hedonist and genius, Jerry Cornelius as well as the albino fantasy warrior Elric, among a number of others that have made their mark in the genre's annals. Also, die-hard SF fans heavily into music will know of him through his involvement with the band Hawkwind.  So when, after a decade, Moorcock gives us a substantive work we should take note and, particularly in this case, we would gain much from this offering.

Of note to Moorcock aficionados is that the The Whispering Swarm utilises the trope of 'the multiverse'; one that the author has employed a number of times throughout his career.

For aficionados of SF in its written form there is some history of Britain's SF author community of the 1960s albeit through Moorcock's purely personal prism. Here in particular we get his take on the then embryonic New Wave movement of which he was a leading light. (At which point be thankful that I am adhering to this being a novel review and so will not launch into an exposition on the New Wave in the context of the genre's evolution, but you do need to know that at the time this movement did cause some discussion, sometimes a little heated, within the SF community on both sides of the Atlantic. Here they may perhaps be some parallels with the current feeding frenzy between the Sad Puppies and some of the strident dimensions of – what might be incorrectly termed – the Hugo 'establishment'?)

Having said that genre buffs may be a tad saddened by Moorcock's admission than SF is not his first love. Here one theme that emerges is that he seems to relish being an outsider and – if not a lone blazer of a new trial – one of just a handful blazing a new trail. At one point he confesses that there was a time when he seemed as if he could live his life in London in a bubble half a mile wide with everything he wanted to do and to meet already inside it.

What is interesting, and I'd have liked a little more, was to learn of the pressures put on New Worlds. These, incredibly to a modern mind, came from censorship and the police even raided New Worlds' distributors in Manchester.

Interesting as these insights are – and I did find them interesting – it does need to be said that though what we get is a first hand witness account, it is only a single account and a personalised one; and here – especially with regards the purported author's own family and extra-martial dalliances – Sigmund Freud might well have had a field day. Consequently, if you wish to explore this period of SF history seriously then you are advised to read around the topic. Nonetheless, I did get the impression that Moorcock himself was trying to be as unbiased as possible as, on a number (note the plural) of occasions, he briefly mentions his own personality traits that prevent him from getting on with as wide a range of people than perhaps he himself (or even us?) may wish. Do recognise that, and don't mistake it for false-modesty self-deprecation. But then would you have it any other way? The value of this work is that it is very much a personal perspective from someone at the heart of British 1960s SF writing. But there were some things with which I was just a little uncomfortable, including the brief treatment of John Brunner who – though having his own personality 'quirks' as does Moorcock as he self-confesses – did himself make a significant genre contribution in the 1960s and '70s.

Then we have the vignette adventures in the parallel London(s). If you are into what they call these days urban fantasy and the so-called New Weird and/or enjoy writers like China Miéville, or the graphic novels of Alan Moore, then you will certainly get much pleasure from ripping yarns. (They had there moments though personally I'm a little more of a New Hard SF sort of person. But let's ignore my myopic tastes.)

Finally, there is something either very clever, or a pretty damned peculiar, coincidence right at the heart of this novel. Now, remember at the beginning I said that this first came out last year (2014) in N. America. This means that the book was written likely either in 2013, or at the latest early 2014. Did Moorcock know what was going to happen in 2015 with the relocation of a number of British publishing houses and their SF/F imprints within the Hachette group? In The Whispering Swarm it is the Carmelite monks who control the gateway to the alternate realms in the heart of London, between Temple and Blackfriars just north of the Victoria Embankment. Meanwhile SF/F/H imprints control the gateways for readers to enter fantastical realms. That there has just been a re-location, bringing together a number (including this novel's British publisher Gollancz) of imprints under one roof in the heart of London, between Temple and Blackfriars just along the Victoria Embankment in a building called, of all things, 'Carmelite House' seems an instance of fact imitating fiction! Now, I have been told that this is just a remarkable coincidence. If so it is truly remarkable, almost enough for this scientist to begin to give credence to Carl Jung's psycho-twaddle of synchronicity. If not, it is an exquisitely delightful merger of fiction with reality. This, of course, strives to be the heart of this novel. (I wonder if Michael will include the Gollancz/Orion/Hachette Carmelite connection in later volumes of his fictional autobiography?)

Now, I am not sure whether this Carmelite Hachette 'connection' is remarkable accidental coincidence or brilliant design (although I have been informed which by two separate, second-hand parties). Instead I am happy for both these notions to remain in states of Schrodinger supposition. What can be said is that The Whispering Swarm gives a lot, and I can still hear it calling…

Jonathan Cowie

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