With Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Deadpool dominating the culture in 2016, it is hard to imagine a time when only nerds took science fiction and fantasy (sf/f) seriously. In the 1950s, sf/f novels were dismissed as pulp fiction and sf/f films were low-budget affairs with silly special effects. But over the past half-century, sf/f became respectable, even cool, thanks in no small part to Michael Moorcock.
At the age of 24, Moorcock assumed the editorship of the influential British sf/f magazine New Worlds and pioneered the New Wave, which represented a turn away from hard sci-fi in favor of more literary and experimental works. In the 1960s, Moorcock was most famous for his stories about Elric of Melniboné, the albino anti-hero who wielded the vampiric sword Stormbringer. Moorcock struck a much darker tone in his Elric tales than had been common in the Conan-dominated world of sword-and-sorcery, and presented much more moral complexity than was present in the J.R.R. Tolkien novels that then defined epic fantasy (and to a lesser extent still do).
Moorcock built upon his Elric stories in a rather surprising way with The Final Programme, which kicks off The Cornelius Quartet (originally published 1968-1977). The book was written in 1965, but didn’t see publication—in a censored version—until 1968. This censorship is not surprising as the novel begins with gay sex, ends with a divine hermaphrodite and fills in the middle with lots of drugs, murder and mayhem. A revised, uncensored edition appeared in 1979, and it is this edition, reprinted in February by Titan Books, that is being reviewed here.
The novel marks the debut of Jerry Cornelius, who, like Elric, is an aspect of the Eternal Champion. Set in the near future, “a world ruled by the gun, the guitar, the and the needle, sexier than sex,” The Final Programme retells, in a way, the saga of Elric. Instead of a sword-wielding sorcerer, however, the protagonist here is, as the novel’s jacket proclaims, “a scientist, a rock star, and an assassin . . . the hippest adventurer of them all.” Hedonistic, stylish and sexually ambiguous, Cornelius exemplifies Swinging London.
On the surface, the novel is the story of Cornelius’ efforts to thwart his brother’s scheme for world domination, and his complicated alliance with Miss Bruner to that end. But taken on its own, the novel is almost incoherent. It makes much more sense as a sequel of sorts to the Elric saga and as part of Moorcock’s larger Multiverse. To really understand what’s going on in The Final Programme, one should at a minimum first read the earliest (and most amateurish) Elric stories collected in The Stealer of Souls (1963).
This presents a challenge for the critic. My ability to recommend The Final Programme to you is dependent on your familiarity with Moorcock’s work. If you already know Elric or Duke Dorian Hawkmoon, you’ll enjoy analyzing Jerry Cornelius as another aspect of the Eternal Champion. But if this is your first visit to the Multiverse, stop off in Melniboné first.