(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…
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(Sue Greene’s cover for the 1973 edition)
(Mark Rubin and Irving Freeman’s cover for the 1973 edition)
(Stanislaw Fernandes’ cover for the 1977 edition)