Book Review: An Alien Heat, Michael Moorcock (1972)

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(Bob Haberfield’s cover for the 1974 edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

Decay and the end of the world. There are so many ways to write about decadence and decay. M. John Harrison spins haunting tales of crumbling bodies paralleling crumbling landscapes—The Pastel City (1971) and The Committed Men (1971). Mark S. Geston in Lords of the Starship (1967) postulates some retreat into the “medieval” where the masses can be harnessed and manipulated. Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat (1972)—the first in The Dancers at the End of Time sequence—unfolds with comedy and wit in a far future where an “inherited millennia of scientific and technological knowledge” allows the remaining inhabitants to “play immense imaginative games, to relax and create beautiful monstrosities” (11).

As with Harlan Ellison’s short story “Kiss of Fire” (1973), Moorcock revels in ostentatious decadence as the world nears its end. As the inhabitants themselves find joy in “paradox, aesthetics and baroque wit” and consumed by a philosophy of “sensuality” (11), Moorcock too dabbles and plays and jests. Landscape transformation and all forms of mater creation are made possible at the touch of a ring that taps into never-ending power: “once whole star systems had been converted to store the energy banks of Earth, during the manic Engineering Millennium” (46). The Duke of Queens holds a party on the theme of disaster amidst panoramas of the burning cities of the “Great Fire of Africa” (23). Lady Charlotina collects human specimens in her subaqueous lair Below-the-Lake, “made up of mile upon mile of high, muggy caverns linked by tunnels and smaller caves, into which one might put whole cities and towns” (69). And The Iron Orchid, Jherek’s mother, makes her blood black and sleeps in a brooding black tomb with the Duke of Queens, Werther de Goethe.

Once the orgiastic morass of extravagance parades by in all forms and colors, the soul of the novel blossoms forth in almost romance novel shades. The playboy Jherek Carnelian—previously content to engage in incestuous trysts with his mother and attend parties in his flying locomotive—falls for Mrs Amelia Underwood, snatched from her home in nineteenth-century England for unknown reasons and brought to this shocking future. Jherek with the aid of his Lord Jagged must steal an alien, who brought news of the world’s impending doom, from Lady Charlotina’s territory Below-the-Lake. Then he must exchange the alien for Underwood, imprisoned in the morose home of Mongrove, who spends his days in disease viewing chambers and eating delicacies—“watery vegetables” and “withered salads” with “lumpy dressings”—from the “time of the Kalean Plague Century” (53). With Mrs Underwood finally squirreled away in Jherek’s eclectic abode—a vague nineteenth-century ahistorical imitation—he desires to consummate his lust immediately. To his utter confusion Mrs. Underwood has other intentions.

To Moorcock’s credit, Jherek’s oft-hilarious attempts to woo Mrs Underwood generate fragments of genuine feeling. Li Pao, a time travelers to this future unable to return to his own day, narrows in on the absence of meaningful connection and purpose: “Love involves dedication, self-denial, nobility of temperament. All of them qualities which you people no longer possess. Is this another of your frightful travesties? Why are you depressed like that? What ghosts you are. What pathetic fantasies you pursue. You play mindless games, without purpose or meaning, while the universe dies around you” (64-65). Jherek’s pursuit of the married Mrs Underwood—after he discovers that marriage means something other than simply making love (88) and the seriousness of her religious upbringing—uncovers in himself deeper than artifice and whimsy. Despite her initial revulsion, Underwood sees Jherek as more a “misguided nabob than a consciously evil Caeser” (94) and they grow to enjoy each other’s company. Jherk soons realizes that the ease of her capture from Mongrove might be an elaborate trick.

Moorcock’s romantic New Wave comedy does move beyond a flat demonstration of extravagant prose and scenario. An Alien Heat is a quiet reaffirmation of the dangers of excessive indulgence that damages meaningful relationships. In this far future where the narrative shells of past glories and defeats are played out as mindless games, Jherek and Underwood spin their own story replete with at least fragments of purpose and meaning. Funny, there will be giggles, and altogether too slight…

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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(Sue Greene’s cover for the 1973 edition)

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(Mark Rubin and Irving Freeman’s cover for the 1973 edition)

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(Stanislaw Fernandes’ cover for the 1977 edition)

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40 thoughts on “Book Review: An Alien Heat, Michael Moorcock (1972)”

    1. Thanks for your kind words. Unfortunately, wasn’t a fan of this novel — I admire him as an editor! (and I know, I must read The Black Corridor, etc before pontificate about his value!).

  1. I haven’t read it for for very many years,so it’s difficult for me to now revalue.I’m sure I was very impressed with it at the time,but your mildly scathing review makes it sound like a whimsical chorus,not a strong symphony,and I think your findings are accurate.Of course,some of the best SF authors will treat the harshest themes with coldly comic humour that doesn’t hurt or detract from the seriousness of what they’re writing about.Nobody ever minded a purely hilarious homily,but “An Alien Heat” however,as you really point out,is perhaps too flimsy a concoction.

    It only means anything as a part of the whole novel trilogy.Sown together,”An Alien Heat” has more meaning.It becomes plainer and more ascerbic as it progresses to the other volumes.David Pringle chose “The Dancers at the End of Time” for his “Science Fiction:the 100 Best Novels”.He obviously thought it was a masterpiece.He’s probably right.

    1. If you ever read it again, let me know what you think. You are right in indicating what makes the novel readable — the “comic humor” mixed with the serious themes. Although, I did not find it that “cold” — rather warm and happy and ribald.

      I care little for lists compiled by others — as you know.

      1. Yes I will,when or if ever I do.No,it wasn’t cold,but that was the difference between it and more satirical works I alluded to,and I thought you meant something the same in regard to the themes of decadence and decay.

        Lists can be fun and spark discussions,but they can also be patronising.It’s difficult to really pick out so definite a total as a hundred science fiction novels.As David Pringle admitted,some if not several novels will have to left out.

        “The Dancers at the End of Time” trilogy,was very derivative and eclectic,but was also flawed I think.

  2. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Moorcock’s novels and An Alien Heat (along with the other two in the trilogy) is one of my favorites, so I guess our tastes don’t overlap!

    Have you read Lem’s Cyberiad? One of the short stories in there is another good riff on the theme of decadent high tech civilizations.

    1. Yes, I adore Lem and the Cyberiad, and most of his other fiction (particular favorites include His Masters Voice, Eden, The Futurological Congress, etc) and book reviews of non-existent books (A Perfect Vacuum) and collections of introductions.

      Lem is a far more original thinking than Moorcock (at least the works of his I’ve read so far).

      I should point out that I thought the book was “vaguely good” but in no way hated it.

    1. How? Why not? I do it with all my reviews!

      3 = average. slightly above 3 = vaguely good, because, 3.5 = good… 3 = profound ambivalence, I didn’t enjoy it or hate it. And, here I respect what Moorcock was trying to do although I think it was ultimately a failure, so “vaguely good” it is!

  3. I’ve just reread this and found it an entertaining comic novel, perhaps a social comedy in parts. If there is anything serious about the novel I’d suggest it probably lies in that latter area, where Moorcock holds up a mirror to modern society, such as his description of the chaplain visiting Jherek in prison:

    “Every few days a man in a black suit with a white collar at his throat, carrying a black book, would visit Jherek’s white-tiled cell and talk to Jherek about a friend of his who died and another friend of his who was invisible. Jherek found that listening to the man, whose name was Reverend Lowndes, had a pleasant soporific effect and he would smile and nod and agree whenever it seemed tactful to agree or shake his head whenever it seemed that Reverend Lowndes wanted him to disagree. This caused Reverend Lowndes to express great pleasure and smile a great deal and talk in his rather high pitched and monotonous voice even more about his dead friend and the invisible friend who, it emerged, was the dead friend’s father.”

    Or when he first arrives home with Underwood:

    “He contemplated his situation. He did find Mrs. Underwood most attractive. She had a beautiful skin. Her face was lovely. And she seemed quite intelligent, which was pleasant. If she fell in love with him tomorrow (which was pretty inevitable, really) there were all sorts of games they could play — separations, suicides, melancholy walks, bitter-sweet partings and so on. It really depended on her and how her imagination worked with his.”

    Apart from this kind of thing there were a couple of other nice touches I liked, such as Carnelian being called Carnell by Vine, in memory of the recently deceased editor Ted Carnell, or Jherek’s use of the time machine from ‘Behold the Man,’ etc.

    I’m looking forward to the next one and then the novellas in the New Worlds anthologies #7-10, ‘Pale Roses’ and ‘White Stars’ and a couple of others (this is where I came across the series originally). I remember these first two as being even better than the novels.

    PS I’d be interested to hear what Richard thinks the novels are derivative of, as I can’t think of anything else like them that I’ve read. If there is anything similar I’d pick them up.

    1. Thanks for the comment Paul.

      There are a lot of fun moments — I think my favorite was the explanation for Billy the Kid Lake. I doubt I will read the sequels although I am interested (still) in reading more of Moorcock’s work.

      I must confess I did not understand Richard’s use of “derivative” either. I don’t think it’s a copy of something, or really that related to other SF of the day in more than vague ways.

      1. It’s okay.The term derivitive does sound vague I suppose,but I didn’t mean it as damaging to Moorcock.What I’d meant to imply was,that “An Alien Heat” was influenced by a number of lterary sources outside the written genre,as noted elsewhere.He grew-up reading widely outside of what was considered pulp science fiction,of which he was dismissive.The science fiction he had read earlier,included the likes of H.G. Wells,which you’ll know influenced this novel.They were all carefully blended to create a potent if not entirely successful novel series.

        The core theme of “The Dancers at the End of Time”,is entropy,to which everything ultimately succumbs,and it’s damaging effects,even if done in a very frivolous manner.

      2. Ah, that’s not really how “derivative” is used — it’s a negative term indicating some direct element of copying or riffing off of others.

        Definition: “(typically of an artist or work of art) imitative of the work of another person, and usually disapproved of for that reason.”

      3. Moorcock was directly influenced by these sources,but can’t say he copied them to the point that they appeared to be exact imitations,so you’d be right then.The influence of Well’s “The Time Machine” is too obvious,but it isn’t so similar that it looks like a reproduction.He writes in a very literary style and prose,that is obviously cultivated outside of old pulp science fiction.

  4. Joachim, I read this 43 years ago this month and at that time was slashing through everything Moorcock wrote and couldn’t wait to buy more of his books. I started rereading it earlier this month and gave up after slogging through less than twenty pages, thinking, how could I have enjoyed this dreck? The incestuous beginning put me off like the human/insect sex of Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. Perhaps I’ll give a try again someday? I just bought some Charles Eric Maine, Edmund Cooper and Colin Kapp from the 50’s and 60’s that I find much more enjoyable so that’s where I’m poking my nose into this last night of 2016.

    1. None of the content of the book put me off. It fit into Moorcock’s post-scarcity world where everything was normalized and people were numb to the meaning behind relationships. If it’s part of the world and has import and purpose than I’m fine with it…. non-genre literature is way more disturbing.

      I have to admit, Charles Eric Maine, Edmund Cooper, and Colin Kapp aren’t really my type of SF. I’ve read a Kapp short story and a Cooper novel and probably won’t return to them soon — although I have more Cooper novels in various places.

  5. Happy reading for 2017! I just recently read Cooper’s Seed of Light, Deadly Image and All Fool’s Day and liked the latter the best, with what I call the Alice Cooper cover (Chris Foss for the Coronet edition). Maine is usually pretty brutal, as in the recent Survival Margin. Others in the genre have been Sam Merwin’s The House of Many Worlds and The White Widows (not recommended); Swierczynyski’s Expiration Date; Cline’s Ready Player One (too many nerdy details); and Spinrad’s Greenhouse Summer. Kapp’s Transfinite Man doesn’t measure up to The Wizard of Anhiritte I found in the online IF magazines.

      1. I agree with your summary 100%. The first part almost made me put it down, but somehow I got to the middle and finished it, finally. I’m not likely to read it again and I’m guessing you’d probably feel the same way after a few pages. I much prefer Aldiss’ Starship, though I had the feeling it could’ve been better with a few minor tweaks here and there.

      2. I don’t think they’re comparable. One’s a 50s generation ship novel which the editor rewrote the ending (blargh) and one’s Aldiss writing at the beginning of the New Wave with a certain maturity his earlier work lacked… Non-stop still manages to present an interesting scenario, riveting adventure, and some real speculation about how we experience time. Both are worthwhile.

      3. I can quite see what you mean.”Greybeard” emerged as say,from the expanding New Wave period,but some of his stuff during this time is dismal,such as “Crytozoic”.

  6. I have rather fond memories of this, having read it as a teenager and having at the time read nothing else quite like it. If I revisit it I suspect I’ll revisit it as the trilogy. My suspicion is that the sum is greater than the parts, particularly since this part on its own seems goodish but certainly not greatish.

      1. I’ve read it twice,but think I’d have been better off if I could have read the original piece.I no longer own a copy.It’s less “infamous” now.At novel length,it’s a bit prolix,as you’d expect from Farmer,and as a result,much of it is perhaps not suprisingly,so shocking.

      2. Again, I gauge “shocking and surprising” more on the historical context, less on what it might be now, else I’d be disappointed with a lot of what I read which I know is still good. But yes, I need to find a copy.

      3. Yes,I was thinking very much the same.I’ve only read the novel,so can’t be sure which is the better one,but feel sceptical of it because of it’s rambling quality.

    1. Yes of course,it was an important seminal work at the time,but the novel was published ten years after it’s magazine publication.Still,if you want to read the novel first,it’s up to you of course.I quite enjoyed it the first time,but was far less impressed on a second reading,for the reasons I outlined above.

      1. Whatever I find copies of first! But yeah, the years between the short story publication and novel form certainly saw a shift in what could be in SF and what was “pushing boundaries” at the time as well.

      2. Yes well,it inspired a lot of authors to push the boundaries of science fiction,so the’d obviously be and was vast changes by the time the novel was published.

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