A recurring theme of science-fiction/fantasy author Michael Moorcock’s work is the idea of “the Multiverse,” a series of alternate universes that occasionally come into contact with one another. In the Moorcock Multiverse, the albino sorcerer Elric of Melnibone and the hermaphroditic secret agent Jerry Cornelius of the Cornelius Chronicles—as well as legendary figures like Ulysses and Roland—are simply different aspects of one “Eternal Champion.” In The Whispering Swarm, Moorcock may have cast himself as the Eternal Champion, although his exact aims are hardly clear in this frustrating novel.
As the leader of Britain’s sci-fi “New Wave” in the 1960s, Moorcock has long produced and supported genre-defying works that resist simple interpretation. Here he blends memoir with fantasy, although neither approach is particularly effective. In fairness, The Whispering Swarm is billed as the first in The Sanctuary of the White Friars trilogy, so a lot that confounds here could become clearer later. But at 480 pages, The Whispering Swarm feels bloated already while still failing to answer some pivotal questions.
The main character of the novel is Moorcock himself. (To distinguish this fictional protagonist from the work’s author, I’ll refer to the character as “Michael”). The opening chapters hew pretty closely to what is publicly known about Moorcock, describing his childhood in the London of the Blitz and the amazing precociousness that lead him to the editorship of Tarzan Adventures magazine at the age of 16.
The story takes a turn toward the fantastic, however, when Michael stumbles upon Alsacia, or the Sanctuary, a strange village out of time existing in modern London. Here he encounters historical and fictional characters from different times and places. In the novel’s climax, Michael joins Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1844), as well as real-life “gentleman robber” Claude Duval (1643-70) and Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682) in a bid to free King Charles I (1600-49) from execution in the English Civil War (1642-51).
Like many stories where a protagonist from the real world winds up in a mysterious fantasyland, the plot is driven far more by the seemingly arbitrary developments in Alsacia than in Michael’s desires or decisions. Much like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), The Whispering Swarm sees its hero bounced from one adventure to another without really understanding what is going on. This makes it hard to care whether Michael actually succeeds in these adventures because he himself lacks much investment in the outcome.
The memoir portion of the book is even weaker. We get some glimpses into literary life in post-War London, but mostly just names of writers and long-defunct publications. Michael tells us that he writes quickly, particularly when doing “hackwork” like the Elric stories, but very little about how or even why he writes. Very few of the “real” characters (some of whom are likely fictional) are presented with much depth. In fact, I had a hard time telling Michael’s friends apart.
The one major departure from reality is Michael’s wife Helena. In the real world, Moorcock married Hilary Bailey in 1962 and fathered three children before their divorce in 1978. In The Whispering Swarm, Michael’s marriage to Helena is threatened by the affair he has in Alsacia with Moll Midnight, a dashing outlaw who never seems to age. One way to read this particular element is that Moll and Alsacia represent Moorcock’s obsession with the alternate realities of sci-fi and fantasy, and that it was this obsession that caused his first marriage to fail. Or perhaps these fantastic elements represent the hedonism of the “Swinging Sixties.”
Moll is the most perplexing character in the book. She seems to be a completely different person at different stages of the narrative. When Michael first meets her, she is older than him, a swashbuckling (and anachronistic) train-robber. Later, she is younger than him and completely lacking in the self-assuredness that first attracted Michael. Indeed, either she is delusional or Michael is an unreliable narrator; the question remains unanswered by the end of the novel.
As events spiral out of control, Michael repeatedly claims to be motivated solely by love for his daughters (who have different names than Moorcock’s real children). But this is telling, rather than showing. We never get the chance to know the girls, so it is impossible to understand how their relationship really drives the story.
Michael Moorcock has been pushing the boundaries of literature for half a century, and for that he deserves all of the success he has earned. But he occasionally pushes too far. Such is the case with The Whispering Swarm, which pursues experimental genre-blending at the expense of sound storytelling.