Fin-de-siecle dandyism meets seventies psychedelia.
Michael Moorcock’s Dancers At the End of Time trilogy is one of the most wonderful series of books ever written. It begins with An Alien Heat (1972) and is followed by The Hollow Lands (1975) and The End of All Songs (1976). Collected together as The Dancers At the End of Time, each individual novel is a perfect study of storytelling and characterisation – not to mention an incredible feat of imagination.
An Alien Heat is a precursor to steampunk or quite possibly the first post-modern ‘gaslight romance’ novel. Moorcock considers this series to be “a particular favourite of mine” and they cleverly balance comic and decadent elements whilst also being tragic and romantic.
An Alien Heat was originally published in 1972, but is still eminently readable today. Any book that has a mother and son picnicking on oysters and making love in the first few pages deserves your attention. Jherek Carnelian is Moorcock’s most bizarre incarnation of the Eternal Champion and he is surrounded by the most colourful cast of characters that ever stepped from a harlequinade. They are immortal and hedonistic individuals: Mistress Christia, the Everlasting Concubine; Lord Jagged of Canaria; the melancholic Werther de Goethe and the unlikely sounding Gaf the Horse in Tears.
Jherek lives at the end of time. The world is old and dying and humanity have powers to create anything from thin air and to resurrect the dead. All the characters consider themselves artists, borrowing ideas from the past to create vulgar pastiches of objects from our own world to great comic effect. As the society is anarchistic and amoral, there are no laws, no crimes, no illnesses or pain, which also means there is no sense of suffering and no real love or emotion. The people at the end of time are bored, having to distract themselves with pointless games, parties and meaningless sensuality.
When Amelia Underwood arrives from the nineteenth century, Jherek’s life changes as he decides to fall in love with her. Thus begins his education into such unknown concepts as ‘virtue’ and ‘self-denial’ and much of the book follows the conflict between an aesthete and an ascetic. His view of love is impractical and romantic, whilst she is married to an unsympathetic husband, yet remains faithful because of her dedication to the institute of marriage. In Moorcockian terms this embodies the conflict between the extremes of chaos and order.
The scenes in nineteenth century London are wonderfully atmospheric as Jherek meets the Dickensian character Snoozer Vine in “The Devil’s Arsehole”. It is when he is away from his homeworld that he truly learns the meaning of jealousy, pain and love as he encounters death and he also discovers that his friend, the enigmatic Lord Jagged, is more than he claims to be.
It is a beautiful, captivating work of art. You’ll be glad there are two more novels plus extra novellas and stories set in the same milieu. If The Dancers At the End of Time books don’t make you laugh, cry and feel like you’ve fallen in love all over again, then you’re probably clinically, or at least spiritually, dead.
You can read more about The Dancers At the End of Time in my book The Law of Chaos out later this year from Headpress.