Chris Roberson is the author of numerous novels, short stories, and several comic series (he’s currently finishing off the Grounded arc for DC’s Superman, and has a new series featuring Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone kicking off in May). Along with his business partner and spouse Allison Baker, he is the publisher of MonkeyBrain Books, an independent publishing house specializing in genre fiction and nonfiction genre studies, and he is the editor of anthology Adventure Vol. 1. He has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award four times—once each for writing and editing, and twice for publishing—twice a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and twice won the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History. Chris and Allison live in Austin, Texas with their daughter Georgia.
The Best of Michael Moorcock
Edited by John Davey with Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
reviewed by Chris Roberson
Before turning to the subject of Tachyon Publication’s short story collection, The Best of Michael Moorcock, it might be useful first to offer some personal context for my reactions. I first became an avid reader of the works of Moorcock after a chance encounter with Count Brass in my high school library. I continued to seek out and devour his novels and stories throughout college and my adult life, to the extent that there are more titles with his name on the spine in my personal library than any other. But as prolific and prodigious a talent as Moorcock is, even after years of reading I felt like there was too much I still hadn’t read. A few years years ago, when my daughter started preschool and I had some time to myself for the first time in years, I devoted myself to reading nothing but the stories and novels of Michael Moorcock, in an attempt to redress this lack. And in the span of a few months, before other responsibilities got in the way, I had read 36 novels and dozens of short-stories, most of which I hadn’t read before. And with Moorcock’s permission and approval, I’m getting the chance to write a new story featuring many of his characters, a comic book miniseries for BOOM! Studios entitled Elric: The Balance Lost.
All of which merely serves to illustrate the simple fact that, while hardly an authority on things Moorcock, I do consider myself fairly well-read in the field. And yet, when I read Tachyon’s The Best of Michael Moorcock, I found that I had read only a little more than half of the contents. Some of the others I’d seen listed in bibliographies and tables-of-contents, but at least one or two of them I’d never even heard of before.
The collection in question is edited by John Davey and Ann & Jeff VanderMeer. And if anyone living is an authority on all things Moorcock, it is Mr. Davey. Long one of the principals behind the Moorcock fan organization “Nomads of the Time Streams,” Davey has compiled and revised several editions of the bibliographical Michael Moorcock: A Reader’s Guide. As for the VanderMeers, among their many other accomplishments they are experienced and acknowledged editors and anthologists who know a thing or two about putting together a good book.
But how does one attempt to encapsulate a career like Moorcock’s, who began writing professionally in his teens and continues to produce compelling work at a steady clip as he rapidly approaches the dawning of his eighth decade of life? How to assemble even a sampling of the output of a writer who has not only toiled in the genre fields of fantasy, science fiction, mystery, historical, and “literary,” but has blazed new trails and broken new ground all his own? How would one even begin to select the “best” stories from such a career?
The solution hit upon by Davey and the VanderMeers uses a nicely intuitive logic, slicing through that Gordian knot in one clean stroke. As Davey explains in his Introduction, the editors opted to go with “…an almost random selection, trying merely to give, across the book as a whole, a reasonable mix of the old and the new, the long and the short, the fantastical and the comparatively down-to-earth.”
There’s something poetic to the thought that a collection celebrating the work of a writer who has so often written about Chaos should itself be the result of a random, almost chaotic selection process.
Of course, I don’t believe for a moment that the selection of the contents was entirely random. The editors have taken too much care to represent as many of the aspects of Moorcock’s multifaceted career as possible for the choices to have been merely accidental. The oldest of the stories presented here date back to the 1960s, while the most recent is only a couple of years old. Represented here are a works that fall squarely under the “fantasy” category, a few that are clearly “science fiction,” and several that occupy a somewhat hazier conceptual space—they either include elements of fantasy but feel like mimetic realism, or present the real world as it is but feel like they are depictions of fantastic landscapes. It is one of Moorcock’s greatest strengths that he can make you believe in the reality of the unreal, or appreciate anew the fantastic possibilities of the mundane.
Two standouts for me, personally, were stories I’d not previously encountered before—“Doves in the Circle,” which first appeared in The Time Out Book of New York Short Stories in 1997, and “The Cairene Purse,” which appeared in David Garnett’s Zenith 2 in 1990. The former is a story set in a hidden corner of a (seemingly) mundane New York, in which a pair of characters reveal secrets they’ve long kept hidden. The latter concerns an officer of the UN who searches a near-future Egypt for his lost sister, and encounters along the way tales of black magic, mystic cults, and flying saucers. One of the things that struck me about both stories was the way in which Moorcock leads the reader to absolutely believe in the reality of his setting, through an accretion of details and referents, revealing always tiny glimpses that taken together form a larger and richer tapestry in the reader’s imagination. But in both cases he is describing places that don’t actually exist, at least not in the form he’s presenting. If there ever was a Houston Circle in New York, as far as I know it isn’t there now; and while I have no doubt that present-day Aswan resembles that of “The Cairene Purse” in many respects, Moorcock has evolved the landscape and setting through a couple of decades of imagined future history, but without resorting to considerably research I couldn’t begin to tell you where the reality leaves off and the imagination begins.
Though much of the experience of reading the approximately 150,000 words of The Best of Michael Moorcock (that’s the length the VanderMeers estimate in their afterword, at least) consisted for me of revisiting old favorites, and of playing the game of wondering what stories I might have left out of the collection and included in their place, these stories I’d never encountered before gave me a new appreciation for Moorcock’s skills in world-building and scene-setting. And considering the high esteem in which I already held his work, that’s saying something.
For those readers unfamiliar with Michael Moorcock’s work, this collection from Tachyon can serve as an excellent introduction. But I would recommend it to those familiar with his work, too, both casual readers who might have sampled a book or two before, and devotees like me who have read dozens upon dozens. Readers who think they know what Moorcock is capable of producing might find themselves surprised to discover he has aspects and facets they hadn’t previously suspected.