On science and technology
Why are you attracted to the themes of science fiction and fantasy?
I began reading Edgar Rice Burroughs at an early age. Then I read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Allegorical fiction, with its romantic imagery, became increasingly attractive because it contains more than a simple narrative. In turn this led to my preferring moral fiction, which included the so-called ‘Great Tradition’ - writers like Eliot, Meredith, James, Mann and many others. So I only like fiction, by and large, which has a moral content. It has little to do with genre.
In your opinion which science fiction writers have been most prophetic when it comes to designing the future and in particular future technologies?
Writers in the Wells tradition. Most of the writers who have concentrated on technological change have been pretty wrong. The social SF writers like Dick, Pohl, Aldiss and others have generally been more accurate.
Have any of the technological changes / advances that have occurred over, say, the last 25 years really surprised you?
Can’t think of any. I came up with miniature computers around 1960, for instance, and in The Sundered Worlds a rough notion of black holes and how they work. I arrived at these via a romantic / metaphysical rather than a technological route. Most of my SF ideas come through those impulses, needing a good image carrying a number of potential narratives.
Do you have any of our own predictions regarding technology, especially IT?
No. Usually I make a ‘prediction’ when I’m looking for a good image.
What are your thoughts on artificial intelligence (AI)?
I’d love to live for another century and see developments in AI. I have quite a lot of optimism invested in it and was always sceptical of people who see ‘computers’ as somehow sinister (as in 2001: A Space Odyssey). I’ve always embraced the idea of human existence being improved through AI. Of course there are potential drawbacks, but my guess is we’ll keep those in check, by and large.
Do you think there will ever be ‘robots’ the like of which sci-fi authors have been predicting for many years and do you think humans will ever be able to get past the ‘uncanny valley’ and trust them enough to live with them?
Yes and Yes. We already do.
If you were to try and explain ‘Chaos Theory’ to the average man on the street (i.e. me), what would you say?
I’d point them to a useful SF story!
Do you think the concept of the ‘multiverse’ in physics is a valid one?
The Guardian newspaper recently stated that: ‘Michael Moorcock stands in relation to the world of science fiction much as Poe stood in relation to the gothic novel.’ How do you react to such a statement?
I don’t really know what they mean. Sounds flattering, though.
Why did you start writing and who were your role models?
Almost as soon as I could read, before I went to school. Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Bernard Shaw, P.G.Wodehouse were my first models.
What keeps you motivated to continue writing so prolifically?
I still have a lot of stories to tell.
Which of your many fictional characters do you feel most empathy with?
Mrs Cornelius. Mr Kiss.
You’ve won many awards over the course of your long career. Which of these accolades are you most proud of and why?
Probably the Guardian Fiction Prize.
What books do you yourself like to read, and if your house was burning which one would you want to rescue?
I read pretty widely, mostly 19/20 centuries and contemporary. I’d probably try to rescue M.Zenith because it’s so rare and not on kindle.
How did the Doctor Who novel you wrote, The Coming of the Terraphiles, come about?
They asked me if I’d like to write one. They didn’t want me writing a Dr Who they wanted a Dr Who written by me. I had pretty much carte blanche, but they said nothing about who the new Doctor and companion were. So I sort of made up my own version.
You’re well known for revisiting your own work and sometimes making significant changes to it. Might this not be seen by some as a case of ‘closing the barns doors after the horse has bolted’?
No. Many new readers don’t like earlier editions. Others like the changes. They rarely are major changes.
If you weren’t a writer what do you think you’d be?
Well, I’m already a musician (currently in the studio) so I suppose the answer’s actor.
Do you have any advice for would-be writers, particularly those wishing to write within the sphere of science fiction and fantasy?
Stop writing sf / fantasy and read everything else, preferably novels of character by major novelists.
On general themes
Your Nebula awards winning story, Behold the Man is all about time travel and it’s a theme that reoccurs in later stories too. Why the fascination with this theme and do you think that time travel could ever be possible?
It’s not about time travel. The movie version would have left the time machine out altogether. It’s about demagogues. I write moral fiction. Time travel allows you to make comparisons. For years, however, I haven’t bothered much with rationales for comparing one period with another.
In the same story one of the characters says: ‘Science is basically opposed to religion’. Do you agree with this sentiment or do you think the two seemingly opposing points of view have any common ground?
I’m primarily interested in metaphysics where the two meet.
On the Eclipse website ‘Sweet Despise’ summarises your books as being about the themes of decadence & decay, martyrdom, parallel worlds, pseudo-historical and touching divinity. What are your thoughts on this broad judgement of your work?
If that’s what someone thinks then it’s true. It’s how they read my books. I don’t have an agenda or notion of what people should look for in my books, but I’m very pleased they find such qualities. They are discussions first with myself and then with the reader.
In your book The Warhound and the World’s Pain you posited ‘…the end of the age of the miraculous and the beginning of a new age of man, an age of investigation and analysis.’ And at the end of the book, Lucifer suggests that: ‘…it will be the future generations who will find the cure for the world’s pain’. Do you think mankind is capable of ever finding the answer to that particular conundrum?
Application’s the problem.
When does fantasy become science fiction and science fiction become fantasy?
It’s always been my intention to blur those lines. Both, at their best, are romantic parables. Image is important, as in most kinds of fiction, in my view. Each image can carry several narratives. Thus condensed novels in the New Worlds sense.
New Worlds magazine was at the forefront of the ‘new wave’ science fiction movement, which was controversial at the time. Can you explain how you yourself view ‘new wave’ science fiction and why was it so significant at the time?
Never a name we gave ourselves. I’m against all categories and have spent my life trying to destroy the idea of them. That was one aim of what some called n-w.
Packing maximum narratives, carrying maximum moral purpose with maximum audience value – i.e. taking the best in science fiction and marrying it with the modernist moral traditions. It sounds audacious or even daft, maybe, but we believed in aiming high, no matter what we did.
Many of your books focus on a kind of ‘meta-hero’ figure trying to atone for past sins and seeking an inner Zen-like peace. Can you explain this quasi-obsession of yours?
A simplified view of myself; I suffer from survival guilt. I’m sane enough to have developed states of mind which examine and confront rather than, as with many writers, continue to use my own fiction solely as escapism.
Can you tell us how your musical career came about and what it was like to work with the likes of Hawkwind, Blue Oyster Cult, The Greenhorns and The Deep Fix?
In common with a lot of South Londoners, in particular, I developed a strong enthusiasm for blues, especially Chicago blues and R&B. I started playing in my first skiffle group, The Greenhorns, in 1955. That modified to individual blues, playing in places like the ‘Gyre and Gimble’, ‘Skiffle Cellar’, ‘Sam Widge’s’ and so on. I continued to play in scratch bands until 1965, when I did a spoof album, Suddenly it’s the Bellyflops, with Lang Jones, Charles Platt and others. I rehearsed with one or two bands, but didn’t go into a studio or on the road until Hawkwind invited me to contribute lyrics and perform them. By then Bob Calvert was fronting them, but was periodically interned in mental hospitals. He became anxious I was taking his job away. So I promised him he could take over as soon as he was ready.
The Deep Fix was a band I’d first conceived in 1965, named after a story published in 1964, but I didn’t get a group together until around 1973. We were contracted to Liberty (United Artists) on the strength of a one single (Dodgem Dude / Starcruiser) demo. I was unhappy with the first album, New Worlds Fair, and had simplified it a bit for various reasons. I was also unhappy with Liberty’s A&R and in the end we never made the other two albums.
Most musical projects since then have been tied to books or ideas in books, including The Entropy Tango and Gloriana, both of which eschewed bass and drums and baffled available engineers so we gave up. I rather wish I could have persuaded Eno to help produce, after he produced a Calvert album Lucky Leif and the Longships, which I played on and did background vocals. Great working with him. I prefer working on group musical projects. I like the discipline of working on songs with others and rehearsing a band.
Hawkwind are going to be touring the Warrior on the Edge of Time album (1975), which you were involved with, later this year. Are you surprised about this and will you be attending any of the gigs?
You not only sing but also can play both guitar and mandolin. Which do you prefer to do and why?
These days neuropathy makes playing impossible. I’m currently composing on harmonica and to tell you the truth I think they’re the best stuff I’ve done. We’ve three good takes in the can and another three to go when I return to Paris.
Personal and political
In the past you claimed that your political position was that of being an anarchist. Does this still hold true or has your stance softened / moderated over the years?
No. Kropkonkinist anarchism is a very good political / moral position, a firm base from which to take moral decisions.
You appear to live in three different places, namely London, Texas and Spain. Which do you consider to be your home?
I live mostly in Paris and Texas. Both have their particular virtues.
You were once quoted as saying ‘Time is the enemy of identity’. What did you mean by that?
Maybe that our allotted amount of time didn’t allow one to discover and develop the best of one’s own identity?
Do you still believe (as you did in 1976) that ‘…eventually we shall find a way to be ourselves while serving the needs of our society’?
Yes. But it’s a great challenge.
Having come under censorial attack from the authorities during your stewardship of New Worlds magazine back in the sixties and early seventies, what is your opinion of censorship now and is there ever any justification for it beyond the obvious legal issues?
I don’t believe in censorship, but I am for regulating certain material in terms of who can view it and how it should be labelled. I believe that pornography can lead to violence to women and believe it should be labelled, like cigarettes and alcohol.
Bearing in mind your past activism on behalf of women, why do you think that women are still struggling to overcome the so-called ‘glass-ceiling’ in business, and why do you think the female gender is unrepresented when it comes to careers in the technology arena?
Reactionary politics now dominate the world; reactionary meaning that certain forces react negatively to progress. We are currently enduring an appalling wash of nostalgia and reactionary politics across the globe. I think women, however, are catching up in many areas, including ‘unwatched’ areas, especially in the traditional nerd skills.
You’ve claimed in the past to be an optimist. Are you optimistic for the future of the human race?
Not as much as I was. Could be down to old age...
When the cosmic dust finally settles how would you like to be remembered?
As a serious story teller, a decent musician and a reasonable human being.