Book Review: The Black Corridor, Michael Moorcock and Hilary Bailey (1969)

(Detail from Bob Haberfield’s cover for the 1973 edition)

4.25/5 (Very Good)

In the Star Trek: Voyager episode “One” (1998), Seven of Nine, unaffected by a nebula’s subatomic radiation, must care for the crew while they’re placed in stasis. Alone on the ship, Seven experiences the prolonged effects of isolation including disturbing dreams and hallucinations. Ever since I saw “One” as a child, I’ve become fascinated with the strategies that humans might use in space to cope with isolation and the rituals they might enact to preserve sanity. Michael Moorcock and Hilary Bailey’s The Black Corridor (1969) (see note below), explores the effects of physical (a spaceship with a lone awake crewman hurtling across space) and societal ( a near-future world plunging into fascism) isolation.

Highly recommended for fans of New Wave SF for the crystalline rendering of the narrative, sustained and intense exploration of “inner space,” and its inventive typographical art.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

The plot of The Black Corridor is devilishly simple. Two parallel narratives—focused on Mr. Ryan a toy factory owner cum astronaut piloting a small group of family and friends towards Barnard’s Star—converge at a distant point in space. The first thread follow the reasons to flee earth as the UK descends into fascism. The second follows Mr. Ryan, the only awake member of Hope Dempsey’s crew, and his memories and rituals on board the spacecraft.

The World They Fled

The UK fragments (Welsh nationalists and individual cities descend into Civil War) as the neo-fascist leader of The Patriots, Colin Beesley, seizes power. He sows distrust among the British, compelling them to turn on each other: “There are aliens among us. We do not know where they come from” (73). He conflates the fear of the alien other, which might exist in the expanse of space, “with the men—and women […] who are different” within society (76). Tides of xenophobia had previously swept the country—all those of Caribbean descent were deported (59)—as new scapegoats are blamed for all society’s ills and manifest crises.

The successful toy businessman, Mr. Ryan, compelled by the authorities to fire his Welsh staff and manufacture weapons, grows more and more disenchanted with the world around him. His own brother, Henry, is drawn in by Beesley’s hateful rhetoric. Ensconced in their apartment as the world burns outside, a plan is hatched to “start a new society on cleaner, more decent, more rational lines” (49).

Onboard a Metal Capsule in the Vastness of Space

Mr. Ryan checks and rechecks the automated systems. He gazes at his family and friends in their hibernating fluids. He ruminates in his journal about his memories and longings. The computer tries to keep him focused and alert. Ryan’s report “I AM LONELY” begins a slow hallucinatory descent (25). “I MUST KEEP BETTER CONTROL OF THINGS” he writes in his journal (114). But the loneliness is oppressive.

Final Thoughts

A political warning runs throughout the novel—the disturbing tendency for humankind to look for “some bloody messiah to answer their needs” rather than a “good politician” who “sees the needs of people in practical and immediate terms and tries to do something about them” (51). Pragmatic politicians, according to Baily and Moorcock, are needed to reform an “extremely complicated world” rather than “visionaries [who are] fine for inspiring people” but are the “worst choice as leaders” (51). Beesley’s fascist rhetoric that fawns humanity’s hatred of the other are the symptoms of societal rot. In a world where the government subverts and questions every fact, pseudo-science–the Earth as a “hollowed-out ‘bubble’ (137)—and hatred of your fellow humans becomes increasingly common.

The landscape that Mr. Ryan and his family and friends reside in is a disturbing one. The external city, a virulent force of unease and oppression, looms inward—people keep their blinds closed, report their neighbors for noise, fear being seen and seeing others…. Creeping paranoia afflicts all—the women drug themselves the men give in to fear and turn in their co-workers. Isabel, one of Henry’s wives retreats into a paranoid malaise: “The whole group knew, from Isabel’s demeanor […] that Isabel was experiencing a phase where she supposed people were trying to poison her. She would eat and drink nothing she had not prepared herself. Most of them knew what it was like. They had gone through the same thing at one time or another” (35). The observation that this a regular experience horrifies.

I found Mr. Ryan’s struggles to conquer his loneliness on the Hope Dempsey particularly effective. It is within these sections that Moorcock dabbles with typographic art. It’s comprehensible. It’s a glimpse of fragmenting interior thoughts, a textual manifestation of inner space.

While the two narratives were written by different authors, they connect in a satisfying manner. It’s a cohesive and terrifying vision of future fascism. And the overwhelming desire to flee rather than fight the tides of evil that swirl around us…

~

Tangent: In 1972, the UK rock band Hawkwind recorded “Black Corridor,” which used the introductory “poem” from the novel. Give it a listen!

*Publication/authorship note: Both Moorcock and his then-wife Hilary Bailey contributed to the novel. According to Moorcock, “All the scenes in the ship are mine. Many of the scenes back on Earth are Hilary’s. That’s why it was never presented as a regular collaboration. She didn’t want it done that way. So I worked in acknowledgements in the dedication.” I have gone ahead and reproduced how isfdb.org lists the novel.

The US editions managed to correctly reproduce the typographical art but cut paragraphs from the introductory passage The UK editions mangled the typographical poems but reproduced all the introductory material. I’ve included side-by-side images of the introductory material for clarity (Top, US 1st edition; Bottom, UK 1980 edition).

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(Diane and Leo Dillon’s cover for the 1969 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1969 edition)

(Bob Haberfield’s cover for the 1973 edition)

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

25 thoughts on “Book Review: The Black Corridor, Michael Moorcock and Hilary Bailey (1969)”

  1. Wow! The cover of the 1973 edition is perfect for this story as described.

    I’ll procure one as soon as I can. Thanks for this!

    1. This is the best Michael Moorcock novel I’ve read. It’s concise in its social commentary. The Earth scenes written by Bailey are brilliantly unsettling. I have one small complaint — but I didn’t elaborate in the review as I want people to read the novel. It’s an exemplary product of the New Wave movement.

    1. Yeah, UK fragmenting and turning towards fascism hit home a bit…. As an American, I obviously thought of Trump when it came to Moorcock and Bailey’s comments on leaders and “the other is out to destroy America” rhetoric that crops up regularly.

  2. In these times of lockdown and quarantine, I found more time to think and remember what I read when I was somewhat younger more than 50 years ago. And two books I did remember and eventually dug up from my libary where A scent of New-Mown Hay by John Blackburn and the classic novel by Mary Wollstonecraft The Last Man. Two great appropriate reads in these times.

  3. Another excellent critique. I was never really fan of MMs “new wave” stuff – I suppose it was just a bit too “off the wall” and I couldn’t get my head around it – mind you I think one of the first books of MM I read was “The Cure for Cancer” (not an auspicious start). Much preferred his Burroughs pastiches/homages and the Corum series (though that was part of his grand “Eternal Champion” universe). The paranoia of isolation is particularly televant now under the current circumstances and “you don’t need to fight them merely convince the torch people the pitchfork people want to take their torches away” and as for the “neo-fascist leader” (presumably memories of Oswald Mosely or modern day Nigel Farage) – one wonders if we are headed that way. Happy to have aided you in a small way in regards to the typographical art differences.

    1. Have you read this one though?

      This isn’t off the wall. It’s straightforward — and in a way, that is why it’s so appealing. It uses some of the “language of the New Wave” (i.e. typographical art, inner space) but within a distinct narrative (this isn’t a Jerry Cornelius experiment in chaotic narrative and visual excess). I found it be an effective distillation of New Wave ideas.

      I keep away from anything Eternal Champion and Burroughs. As you know!

      1. You are most welcome. I think the arty-farty typographical art text put me off it – almost as if it were a “gimmick” I know you don’t care for his Burroughs/Eternal Champion stuff. All I can say is we like different stuff and that’s not a bad thing either.

  4. I read The Black Corridor almost twenty years ago and only remembered the experimental aspects of the novel, but your analysis of the dystopian elements in it made me interested in rereading it.
    I’ve read several novels by Moorcock and my favourite is Behold the Man, which is more straightforward in formal terms than The Black Corridor,

    1. Thanks for visiting!

      I found The Black Corridor an effective combination of both the dystopic narrative with its disturbing details plus the inventive typographical passages (which only appear as Ryan struggles alone on the vessel). As they are not scattered throughout, they provided a window into Ryan’s mind. But yeah, I understand completely how the experimentation might be what you remember!

      I have yet to read the novelized version of Moorcock’s original novella. I have reviewed the original novella and am curious about how he pads it out for the novel. But yes, it’s 100% on my radar.

      https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2017/06/11/book-review-worlds-best-science-fiction-1967-variant-title-worlds-best-science-fiction-third-series-ed-donald-a-wollheim-and-terry-carr-1967/

  5. I’ll have to check this one out. Any time I’ve read a book, short story, or watched a film about people being along, particularly in a science fiction setting, I’ve been riveted. One of the reasons I know that I find myself repeatedly watching all or parts of the films The Martian and Oblivion is that they stir my imagination of what it might be like to be alone, or nearly alone, in the universe, on a planet, in space.

    And its not that I hate people or wish to be left alone. I think it is because I have a fertile inner conversational life and when I do get a chance to be alone I thoroughly enjoy it. I always wonder just how much of that I could take.

    1. In this case, the main character has a New Wave rendered psychiatric breakdown.

      A few reviews I read of Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra (2019) complained that it used space, like so many other SF films, as a metaphor for isolation and a cause of bleak reminisce–as if it were a bad thing. I mean, if you were trapped for months and months inside a small capsule in the deep dark endless reaches of space, that’s the first metaphor that would come to mind!

  6. J. B. wrote: “How’s the Blackburn?”

    Huh. It was on my dad’s bookshelves in the original Penguin paperback edition in London in the 1960s, next to the Penguin version of Ballard’s THE DROWNED WORLD and the Amis-Conquest SPECTRUM anthologies and so on, and I read it then. Or at least I remembered the basic set-up enough to have thought of it over the decades and to have idly wondered, “Did someone really write something like thatBack then and did I really read it?”

    And yes, having checked other people’s accounts of the book on the internet, someone really did write something like that. You probably should read it.

    I can’t speak to its literary quality through the eyes of an adult. As a boy, I just read it and didn’t have anything to compare it to, and just thought, “Okay. That’s kind of weird and horrible.”

    These days we’d probably make a deal of it being a cross-genre mash-up. It starts with a protagonist, Colonel somebody or other who’s high-up in British intelligence in Whitehall, getting ominous reports about a Russian bioweapons program based on Nazi science that’s gone ominously wrong somewhere in the U.S.S.R.. So spi-fi — which was its own genre in the 1960s (e.g. the Emma Peel-era AVENGERS) — that then steers straight into full-blown horror. Folks who are horror enthusiasts speak well of Blackburn’s other books, too

    It’s not THE DEATH OF GRASS, or a staid Brit cozy catastrophe, in other words, It’s far more outre — the Pennington cover is arguably just an illustration.

  7. I read this as a teenager. I had the Haberfield cover so must have got it second hand. I remember being impressed by it, but it wasn’t a favourite. I was probably the wrong age though.

    My favourite Moorcock’s were his Dancers at the End of Time novels and his Warlord of the Air novels. I enjoyed Elric et al, but never quite loved them. Behold the Man, which I think you’ve reviewed, I remember being very impressed by.

    This does sound depressingly relevant again. Perhaps it often is. There’s a Gateway classics version on Kindle that I’ll pick up and I’ll take another look at it.

    1. Hello Max, I was impressed with this one. Both the space sequences and the earthbound scenes. I was a bit mystified by how the family acquired the spaceship… but…. minor plot points aside, this is highly recommended.

      I reviewed the first in the Dancers at the End of Time sequence: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2016/12/27/book-review-an-alien-heat-michael-moorcock-1972/

      And, the first in the Warlord of the Air sequence: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2010/06/01/book-review-the-warlord-of-the-air-michael-moorcock-1971/

      Tepid on one, disliked the other.

      I enjoyed the “Behold the Man” novella (haven’t read the later novelization). Before I read The Black Corridor, it was my favorite Moorcock. https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2017/06/11/book-review-worlds-best-science-fiction-1967-variant-title-worlds-best-science-fiction-third-series-ed-donald-a-wollheim-and-terry-carr-1967/

        1. I get the sense that this one might go over the head of the vast majority of teenagers, especially those who didn’t live in a world where there were legitimate fears of the rise of a new breed of fascists and other authoritarian right-wing governments..

  8. I read the Dancers trilogy in quick succession, which may have improved it rather than one stand alone novel. That said, I also read it as a teenager and that too may have been a factor. I loved the sheer otherness of it – at that time I hadn’t read much else like that.

    Warlord I liked just as an adventure novel, but I agree that it’s not top tier Moorcock (though nor is it down with some of his more churned-out later Elric novels).

    1. I imagine that they had an important time and place in your development as a reader and thinker. I’m often of the mind that letting important works to you remain important by not rereading is an important course of action. I’m rarely in the mood to second guess what a more youthful me liked and didn’t like.

      1. That makes sense. Things can also be relevant at different ages. My view now is better informed than then, but that doesn’t mean there might not have been an emotional connection then that doesn’t happen now simply as I’m at a different place in my life.

        1. Exactly! Yeah, certain novels and stories are meaningful in that moment.

          Brian Jacques’ Redwall books are the ones that immediately come to mind with me. I hated reading before I read Redwall. And then I read it all night… and transformed into a reader… and the next 11 or so at least 8 times each. The only time I’ll reread them is if I introduce them to my kids — if I have kids.

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