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Moorcock Reading Group: Book 1 - The Shores of Death

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  • Moorcock Reading Group: Book 1 - The Shores of Death

    Not sure how many people were persuaded to read 'The Shores of Death' last month by my suggestion of forming a 'Moorcock Reading Group'. Certainly I had the impression as I read the novel that I was kind of doing it as a lone exercise, not that it mattered much 'cos I still enjoyed it. I could probably have done with reading it through a second time because I've probably missed something or overlooked something or just not understood something in the course of my first reading.

    Anyway, at the risk of this being a very short thread (albeit a rather long post) here's my thoughts on the 1966 novel The Shores of Death by Michael Moorcock.

    Moorcock Reading Group - Book 1: The Shores of Death by demos99

    *Warning: Contains spoilers*

    In his 1898 tale The Man Who Could Work Miracles¹ H.G. Wells wrote about George McWhirter Fotheringay who, having suddenly developed miraculous powers, stops the world rotating on its axis by sheer will alone, and as a result everyone on the planet (except Fotheringay) is destroyed (because of the laws of inertia²). The 1936 film version³ expanded Wells' original narrative, adding an earlier section where Fotheringay wonders whether he should use his miraculous gift to engender an Utopia on Earth, a form of anarchic society where without poverty, disease or war, and without governments (with their own agendas) to tell people how to live, the inhabitants of Earth might lead happier and creative lives. Ultimately, Fotheringay rejects his 'gift' and restores time back to the moment just before he acquired his powers thus undoing the destruction he has wrought.

    In his novel The Shores of Death, Michael Moorcock invokes these same hypotheses by setting his narrative within a world where a kind of anarchic-democratic society has formed among the survivors of a cataclysm that caused the Earth to stop turning four centuries earlier. Dissatisfied with an earlier version of the story because the scientific rationales behind the crisis that threatens to destroy the Earth were too implausible, Moorcock is vague (perhaps rightly) about the precise manner in which birdlike mammalian space dwellers halt the Earth's rotation. The reader is asked to take at face value the suggestion that a planet where one side perpetually faces the sun would be inhabitable, although scientific theory does suggest that the planet's dark side would potentially act as a gigantic refrigerator cooling warm air emanating from the sunlit side and returning 'cool' air thus ensuring the Earth didn't overheat.

    Moorcock adds some elements of his own to the mix with the disappearance of Moon, which plays a significant role towards the end of the novel, and the idea that prolonged absence from Earth results in a 'space ache' which Earthmen find unbearable. This conceit may seem somewhat fanciful but it should be borne in mind that Mankind had yet to set foot on the Moon when the novel was originally written and arguably it may not have been fully know what the consequences of space travel might be. (In the original version the 'space ache' was necessary to prevent humanity simply packing up and leaving the doomed galaxy for pastures new, thus filleting the story of its narrative thrust.)

    Generally, as a rule SF stories can be pigeon-holed into a variety of archetypes ranging from: 'We Go to Them', 'They Come to Us', and 'We are Them' (best exemplified by the classic BBC TV Quatermass serials) to 'The End of Civilisation As We Know It'. The Shores of Death lies firmly in this latter category, although it also has elements of the 'What If..?' narrative. Following the rape of the planet by the mysterious space dwellers, the survivors of Earth have settled down into a technologically advanced and peaceful utopian existence. All seems well until the realisation that chronic exposure to 'omega radiation' has sterilised the human race. Suddenly mankind faces the stark truth that if further propagation of the species is impossible then humanity faces extinction. The inhabitants' reaction to this varies, but the most critical comes from the universally admired Clovis Marca, whose sudden resignation as supreme administrator of Earth has wide-ranging and unforeseen consequences.

    Marca's search for the elusive Orlando Sharvis forms the catalyst for Moorcock's narrative, since his motives for seeking Sharvis are not altruistic but decidedly selfish. Fear of his own mortality spurs Marca, like a latter-day Ponce de Leon, on a quest for salvation - not for the human race but simply for himself. Deep down, Marca - the product of an incestuous relationship in the Twilight region that divides the planet - doesn't really care about those for whom he is supposedly responsible. When urged to re-form the administration to restore normalcy, he deliberate puts off making a decision because he knows doing so means giving up his quest.

    When push comes to shove Marca thinks only of himself, with one singular exception. One of the ironies of the novel is that by the end, having been made immortal, Marca has lost his humanity but perhaps a greater irony is that Clovis Marca never really had much humanity in the first place, and so he ends up a truer reflection of himself than when we first meet him. There's a final irony however when Marca requests immortality his lover, Fastina Cahmin, for the immortality that Orlando Sharvis gives her is not for herself but for the species; ultimately Humanity is saved despite Clovis Marca rather than because of will him, for although he will father the new human race he will never be a part of it.

    But Moorcock isn't only interested in telling the Faustian pact that Marca makes with Sharvis; we are also presented with the story of how an anarchic-democratic society can spawn and be overwhelmed by a dictatorship fiercely opposed to its core values. Playing the part of the villain is Andros Almer, Marca's rival for Fastina's affections. Fear causes Marca to seek his personal salvation, and fear causes Almer to seek to impose his own will on the situation, brutally eliminating those who hold differing views to his own. Almer sees himself as a pragmatist, taking advantage of changing circumstances, following the rules of repression and aggravation even though he knows it will result in mutual destruction, for in Almer's eyes being active is better than doing nothing, an offence of which he accuses Marca. Yet he is dismissive of the ventures of Brand Calax's rocket expedition to Titan and Narvo Velusi's giant transmitter, endlessly broadcasting "We are here", going so far as to sabotage both projects in order to bolster his own position.

    There's something genuinely disturbing about how easily and willingly humanity succumbs to Almer's rule, accepting and embracing his mantra that 'desperate times call for desperate measures'. Here, some forty years after it was first published, the events of The Shores of Death still resonate strongly in today's post-9/11 world as our political masters tell us they must curtail our civil liberties in order to keep us safe from those who wish us harm, (seemingly) oblivious to the fact that by changing society they are undermining the same values they seek to protect. Similarly, Almer offers security from 'undesirable' elements of the population, specifically the Brotherhood of Guilt, yet can do nothing to halt the cataclysm that will destroy those he claims to protect.

    Skirting the edges of Moorcock's narrative we find the mysterious Mr. Take, himself the product of Orlando Sharvis' terrible experiments, who seeks to dissuade Clovis Marca from his obsessive quest (unsuccessfully as it turns out - even though he resorts to murder at one point). Whereas Marca has an idealistic and selfish reason for finding Sharvis, Take has a distorted but humanitarian reason for stopping him. The two are literally mirror-images of the other: Marca mortal, emotional, resolute yet selfish; Take immortal, unfeeling, despondent yet humane. Take knows from his own bitter experience that what Marca requests from Sharvis will not bring him the happiness he thinks it will, and that same bitterness also means that he can only see Orlando Sharvis as evil, even though Sharvis himself rejects such terms.

    Whereas Ezek Take hovers on the perimeter of Moorcock's novel - appearing here then disappearing only to reappear elsewhere later - the elusive renegade scientist Orlando Sharvis is firmly embedded in its heart. Although Sharvis is initially presented as a kind of Josef Mengele-esque character who experimented on himself and on others often from simply and abstract curiosity when we actually meet him he comes across as disturbingly avuncular. 'Disturbing' because his whole demeanour throws the reader completely off-balance. At no time in Sharvis' presence is Clovis Marca ever in danger - indeed Sharvis resurrects Marca so he can continue his quest - yet from all that has gone before the reader cannot help but fear that something terrible is going to happen. Perhaps in a way it does, but Sharvis' entire philosophy is to let people be themselves, not to dictate to or coerce them as Almer does, nor to offer himself as some sort of benign ruler as Marca was before his resignation, but to simply allow them to fulfil themselves.

    In terms of Moorcock's own cosmology, if Clovis Marca is the incarnation of the champion Eternal and Almer his nemesis (think Gaynor, Yyrkoon, Meliadus, et al) then Orlando Sharvis is the embodiment of the Cosmic Balance representing neither Good or Evil, just plain, undiscriminating Neutrality:
    "Are you so neutral?" Marca said. "Are you not simply a complicated mixture of good and evil?"
    Sharvis laughed. "You describe me as if I were an ordinary man. I assure you, I am completely neutral."
    "You have forced this girl to live with a man who cannot respond to her, cannot love her except in a strange way - a way he cannot demonstrate."
    "I have forced her to do no such thing. She is free to do as she wishes. She will bear you children, that is her immortality. You will live on. Her life will be short enough."
    The climax of the novel comes when Almer asks Sharvis if he can turn the world, thinking that if the Earth's rotation is restored the achievement will enable him to cement his power base. Sharvis does indeed turn the world, but only 180°, in the process depositing Almer's empire in the dark side of the Earth:
    "The darkness is safe. They can huddle in it until death comes. Isn't that what they want? Haven't I given everyone what they really wish?"
    Marca looked at him unemotionally. "Certainly the darkness mirrors the darkness in their minds," he said. "But do they deserve it?"
    "Who is to say?" shrugged Sharvis.
    The original serialised version of The Shores of Death left a number of readers wondering where the 'last part' was - and Moorcock admits that the ending hadn't made the point clear it was supposed to make - and that one of his motivations in re-writing it was to "[make] quite sure, I hope, that my theme [was] coherent this time". This reader is inclined to think that the new ending is still quite subtle and flat even. Perhaps this is intentional. The new revised ending is neither upbeat nor downbeat, it just is - a state that elegantly matters Clovis Marca's own persona at the conclusion of the story:
    Mechanically, he reached up with one of his numb hands and touched her arm and continued to stare out at the sun and thought about Orlando Sharvis, wondering whether the scientist had acted from good intentions or evil, or neither; wondering about himself and what he was; wondering why his wife cried so silently; wondering vaguely why he could not and never would cry with her. He wanted nothing, regretted nothing; feared nothing.
    Moorcock says in his Introduction (and in the epigram that prefaces the novel) that the book is about fear and its results. He claims not to be moralising, but admits to an "active interest in idealistic politics" and as such it is hard not to read The Shores of Death in the present moment and not come away with some form of underlying message that fear is as likely to be served up to us by those whom we seek to govern us as we are to engender it ourselves. It is how we deal with fear, whether we allow it to consume us, or whether we can sublimate it, which determines the sort of people we are and the sort of society we wish to live in.

    ---------------------------------
    ¹ You can read Wells' story at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wells/hg/w45mw

    ² See http://www.phy6.org/stargaze/StarFAQ10.htm#q165

    ³ See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029201/

    Cheers,
    David

    PS. I changed the title of the scheme from 'Moorcock Reading Circle' to Group because you can't really have a circle of one.
    Last edited by David Mosley; 09-25-2008, 01:47 AM. Reason: Removed 'garbage' characters due to reformatting for forums
    _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
    _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
    _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
    _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

  • #2
    Always interesting to read your thoughts on Mike's books demos. Now I feel really guilty for welshing on reading The Shores Of Death myself :oops: It is difficult for people online to try and co-ordinate reading activities though.

    I'll be looking at reading The Wrecks Of Time/Rituals Of Infinity or the Michael Kane books shortly if you're interested. But I'm a little unsure which version of Wrecks to read - the magazine serial, first Ace edition or the retitled version :?
    'You know, I can't keep up with you. If I hadn't met you in person, I quite honestly would NOT believe you really existed. I just COULDN'T. You do so MUCH... if half of what goes into your zines is to be believed, you've read more at the age of 17 than I have at the age of 32 - LOTS more'

    Archie Mercer to Mike (Burroughsania letters page, 1957)

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    • #3
      As I've said, 'The Shore of Death' is one of my favourite Moorcock novels and I really need to read it again, soon.

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by Aral Vilsn
        Always interesting to read your thoughts on Mike's books demos. Now I feel really guilty for welshing on reading The Shores Of Death myself :oops: It is difficult for people online to try and co-ordinate reading activities though.
        Don't worry about it Aral. Everyone has 'real' lives they have to live away from the Internet and as you say co-ordinating activities online isn't always easy.

        For myself, I'm glad to have finally got round to reading both versions of TSoD, although I only actually got the NW editions in the past month or so. It's been interesting to see how the book changed in the re-write, even if some of those changes haven't made it to the back cover blurb, which for the Mayflower novel still says it takes place in 'the far-flung corners of the galaxy' or something - even though the novel is entirely Earth-based.

        Before reading it, I'd always assumed it was some sort of 'space opera' type book, which perhaps the original NW version was, but the re-written version is quite different. I much prefer the novel version, btw. Sharvis' fulfilment of Almer's wish is a great twist because you think the story's about to end one way and then it suddenly ends another. Sharvis, I think, works very much as a 'monkey's paw' kind of deal - I suppose Mike would say 'Faustian' - in that he gives you what you ask for, but not necessarily what you want (or vice versa. Like Clovis Marca at the end, I find I'm undecided whether Sharvis is a 'good' or 'evil' character, or whether he is truly Neutral (which i think is likely). I think many people would agree with Take and say his actions are 'evil', but I don't think you can ascribe 'evil' intent to what he does, which therefore clouds the issue somewhat.

        It seems to me that this is where Mike was trying to go with his 'theory' of 'Law' and 'Chaos', as terms which transcend the mere concepts of good and evil, in the Elric novellas. When I first read the Grafton Elric novels as a teenager I think I assumed that Arioch and his fellow Lords of Chaos *were* Evil and the Lords of Law were 'Good', but now that I've re-read them I can see that that's not what Mike was trying to say. I think To rescue Tanelorn... is where this really comes to the fore with Rackhir's journey through the five gateways, particularly the realm of Law, where we really see the barreness that Law (in one of its guises at least) leads to.

        Of course, we should remember (I think) that at this stage of his career, Mike wasn't necessarily thinking in terms of his Eternal Champion mythos (although maybe he was). The review by Guy Haley of The History of the Runestaff volume that I uploaded to the Image Gallery last week mentions that the concept of the EC doesn't really find its fulfilment until the Hawkmoon books were written. Of course, Mike's novella, The Eternal Champion did appear in 'Science Fantasy' prior to both TSoD and Hawkmoon, so the intent may have been there all along, but I'm inclined to think that by 1964-5 most of what Mike was writing were simply viewed as 'stand alone' stories with no - or very little - interconnectedness.

        This is really the main reason why I personally want to read all of Mike's output since 1961 in order to see how his concept of the Multiverse evolves. The downside of this is that I probably won't get around to reading The War Amongst the Angels or The White Wolf's Son until 2020. :D

        Originally posted by Aral Vilsn
        I'll be looking at reading The Wrecks Of Time/Rituals Of Infinity or the Michael Kane books shortly if you're interested. But I'm a little unsure which version of Wrecks to read - the magazine serial, first Ace edition or the retitled version :?
        I've just ordered the Ace version of Wrecks (the 2-in-1 edition with something else on the flip side) from eBay, but it may take me a while to receive it. I've got the Arrow edition of Rituals already so that's a possibility. On the other hand, I've never read the Michael Kane books although I've had them for 10+ years in the early NEL editions, so I'd be quite keen to read those as well.

        For preference I'd rather read the earlier work(s) first, but if that's the serialized version of Wrecks then I guess that won't be possible for me (yet).
        _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
        _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
        _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
        _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by Aral Vilsn
          I'll be looking at reading The Wrecks Of Time/Rituals Of Infinity or the Michael Kane books shortly if you're interested. But I'm a little unsure which version of Wrecks to read - the magazine serial, first Ace edition or the retitled version :?
          Aral, I've got my copy of the Ace 2-in-1 version of Wrecks as well as the Arrow 'Rituals' version. Which would you like to read this month? Or would you prefer to do the Kane novels instead?

          LMK cos I'm easy either way (as it were). :)
          _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
          _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
          _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
          _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

          Comment

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