Moorcock on H+ and Anarchism
June 23, 2009
BoingBoing and Tachyon Publications recently offered up the opportunity for people to ask questions that legendary sci-fi/fantasy author Michael Moorcock would answer. I was an avid reader of Moorcock’s books when I was a kid, and I took an even greater interest in him when I found out he was an anarchist. He wrote an interesting piece on radical politics and sci-fi called Starship Stormtroopers that I recommend to radical sci-fi types. Pebrhaps ironically, one of my favorite quotes also comes from Moorcock: “Heroes betray us. By having them, in real life, we betray ourselves.”
In any case, I pitched a question to Moorcock, and he answered it. I was a bit disappointed to see that he’s not into transhumanist sci-fi at all (hrm, maybe I need to revisit that quote of his again), but it’s good to see he’s still waving the black flag. Here’s my question (and one posed by another) and his responses:
Moorcock has been critical of authoritarian tendencies in science fiction in the past and I’m curious what he thinks about the state of modern sci-fi and if there are any authors he thinks excel or fail here. In particular I’m curious what his take is on the transhumanist genre of science fiction (Ken Macleod, Alistair Reynolds, Iain Banks, Richard Morgan, etc.) and their take on technology and politics. Also, does Moorcock still consider himself an anarchist and how does he view the prospects for a horizontal, non-hierarchical, egalitarian society actually emerging?
I’m not entirely sure about transhumanist fiction. It holds no attractions for me. Assuming I really know what it is. I’ve only really ever been interested in ‘humanist’ fiction. That is, fiction about people. As I’ve said, I don’t read sf for pleasure and very little of it for review, so I’m no expert. I think I’m probably sympathetic to the writers you mention, but personally believe political fiction should be set in at least some version of the here and now. When I want to tackle a political theme I’ll do either a Jerry Cornelius story or something like a Pyat story, making it clear to the reader what I’m doing. To abstract a theme — that is, to put it in the future — seems to move it away from relevance. Even Mieville’s Iron Council would have been more satisfying to me if he had set the story in, say, South America or Central Africa. This was always my argument about sf — that generally, by abstracting it, putting it in some ‘other place’, you lost some of the relevance. That said, I haven’t been vastly interested in technological advance since I was young. I have every sympathy with Banks, Mcleod et al, but to be honest I’ve been no more able to read more than a page of their stuff than I have Heinlein’s or Asimov’s. The moment a spaceship turns up, you’ve lost me. I tried to watch 2001 (the first time in the company of Arthur Clarke) three times and fell asleep all three times. I’ve said this many times, but the moment that big, long spaceship starts to move across the screen, I’m heading for Planet Zzzz. Can’t help it. Have nothing against people who enjoy it, but I really don’t. In fact, in some ways, I’m answering your questions under false pretences in that my preferred default reading for the past fifty years has been mostly fiction about the here and now. My favourite fantasy writers are Jonathan Carroll, Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford and China Mieville. I still love Disch, Ballard and Bayley! ‘Light’ reading includes, as said, Wodehouse, Allingham. My favourite relatively recent 20th century literary writers are Aldous Huxley (never read Brave New World, though), Elizabeth Bowen (though I haven’t read her horror fiction!) followed by Elizabeth Taylor, Angus Wilson, Albert Camus, Blaise Cendrars, Colette, Peake I also enjoy Wells, Bennett and Pett Ridge. Favourite contemporaries include Iain Sinclair, Walter Mosley (in all his variety), Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon, Thomas Pynchon. Favourite moderns include Ford Madox Ford, Conrad, Mann, Woolf, Proust. Favourite ‘classics’ include Scott, Dumas, Balzac, Dickens, In other words, there are very few fantastic writers there, although almost all had a fantastic turn of mind.
I’ve often wondered why I had such a facility for writing fantasy, but clearly I did! So I guess I’m saying I’m not the best person to ask about transhumanist science fiction! I answer the anarchist part of the question below.
I remember in the foreword to one of your novels you said you are an optimist. I was wondering, in view of your anarchist sentiments and the current insidious morphing of England (and elsewhere) into a police state, if you still feel optimism and if so, what do you think will improve?
I remain a great optimist, though I have few theories how we’re going to get out of our present predicaments. I remain a Kropotkinist anarchist, which many people will see as unrealistic, but, if I’m unrealistic, so be it. I see my anarchism as a moral position, in that it’s scarcely a realistic political one! But from that position I can very quickly determine what action to take.
I am of course concerned about the erosion of civil liberties in our democracies. There was a wonderful period in the 60s and 70s when many of the basic liberties we now take for granted were established in the UK and US. Since around 1980 a variety of politicians under a variety of political flags have been trying to take those liberties away from us. I’m not as worried about CCTV cameras as the symbol of that erosion since they seem to have been as useful in catching crooks and crooked cops as anything else, at least so far. I am more worried about any extension of police powers, erosion of civil liberties in general and rationales allowing ‘authorities’ further unchecked, unsupervised behaviour. It’s up to us to remain vigilant and aggressively vocal wherever we can be heard. I believe we also have to extend our civil liberties, building on the gains made in that 60s/70s decade. I think we can do it, and that we have to keep a clear eye on what’s happening. Moreover we have to extend other civil rights, including the right to improve healthcare, education and the legal system according to our needs. We can do this by increasing our power at a local level and extending it up to national level. We don’t serve such ambitions by being nostalgic about a past that never really was. Politicians have always been pretty corrupt and need a good press to keep an eye on them. It’s up to us to demand the highest standards from our press and to adapt to every change in the nature of that press so that we’re clear about what’s going on. We need sturdy laws and good law-makers to ensure that we’re as far ahead of the corrupt guys as possible. If we have to take to the streets, flood our politicians’ mailboxes, make it harder for them not to hear us than to hear us and so on, then we must be prepared to spend the time doing it. We can’t afford to be lazy and there’s no point in just sitting around talking and making ourselves feel virtuous. We must feel virtuous from the actions we take not the fingers we wag at others. My argument against ‘liberal’ sf has always been that it can easily be a substitute for real action. And by action I don’t mean sentimental exhortations to our politicians to be nicer, sweeter people. We need sturdy laws and real rights. We have to let the bastards know that not only are they not above the law but that the law demands MORE of them because they have been elected to maintain it, they need to be better than the average person, not worse.
I have to say that I completely disagree with his assertion that once you place a political issue within a future setting you remove it from relevance. To me science fiction has always been about examining modern issues, and taking advantage of those future settings to explore possibilities that the here-and-now modern simply doesn’t allow.
On a side note, sci-fi author and radical Ken Macleod also took note of the question and response.