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April Books 32) The Cornelius Quartet

32) The Cornelius Quartet: The Final Programme , A Cure for Cancer, The English Assassin, The Condition of Muzak, by Michael Moorcock

Another classic of speculative fiction, which I have now read: the complex tales of Jerry Cornelius, his family, his allies and his enemies. It's difficult to call it a novel, or a collection of novels; the first book perhaps comes closest to having a conventional plot, but the second and third books in particular are rather free of the contraints of linearity. You have to really let the word pictures wash over you without expecting the narrative to behave as we are used to plots behaving. There's a consistent sort of post-Empire awareness behind the scenes, which sometimes bubbles to the top: in one passage in the fourth book, various English groups are presented as if native tribes in some far-off colony. Often such experiments seem just boring and self-indulgent, but this kept my interest.

Given the references to popular culture throughout the series of books, it's not surprising to find Doctor Who making an appearance. What is a bit surprising is the company the Doctor is keeping; he appears as one of a long list of characters in a masque, "all the old familiar characters of the mummer's play, of mime and pantomime, of folklore and traditional tale", a long list which starts with Widow Twankey, Polchinelle, Abanazar, The Demon King, and Mother Goose, and continues to include (in the crucial four lines) "The May Queen, Humpty Dumpty, Old King Cole, Sawney Bean, Springheeled Jack, Charlie Peace, Queen Elizabeth, Mr Pickwick, Charley's Aunt, Jack Sheppard, Romeo and Juliet, Doctor Who, Oberon, The Grand Cham, a Dalek, Old Moore, Falstaff, Little Red Riding Hood, Beowulf..."

It is interesting that the only twentieth-century characters in the whole list, covering more than half a page of text (assuming, as seems reasonable, that Queen Elizabeth is not the present one), are Doctor Who and the Dalek. (I had to look up a number of the others. Sawney Bean, Charlie Peace and Jack Sheppard were all notorious criminals of past centuries. The Grand Cham is the title of a book published in 1922, but he was a folkloric figure for centuries before that, and I find a poem called "The Grand Cham and the Honey-Bee" in Bentley's Miscellany for 1837.) He pops up again a few pages later, when Mr Smiles, who has come dressed as the Green Knight, is explaining his choice of costume:
'I'd considered coming as Frankenstein.' Mr Smiles brightened behind his black beard which he had, unsuccessfully, also tried to dye green, 'but I gathered it wasn't suitable. Too modern or something. Or too general? And yet Doctor Who is here. Is everyone supposed to be part of British folklore tonight? Frankenstein, I should have thought...'
Frankenstein may have been a novel in English by a British writer, but I'd have thought most people whould disagree with Mr Smiles about the story's place as a specifically British tale - the story is after all set mainly in Germany and Switzerland, though with odd bits around our archipelago. Doctor Who is certainly more British. (Mr Smiles is talking to another character dressed as Polchinelle, who reflects that although the character may originally have been Italian, he has been adopted by British culture as Punch.)

The book was published in 1977, so the Doctor can be understood as any of the first four Doctors (perhaps indeed all four; perhaps most likely Tom Baker's particularly pantomimic persona). Moorcock presents Doctor Who (and the Dalek) in a completely different context from his frequent pop-culture references to Hawkwind, the Beatles, Pink Floyd etc; as an element of British historical lore, partly quaint and partly sinister. I don't know of any other such references to Doctor Who in classic sf; but I will be looking out for them.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 26th, 2008 12:28 pm (UTC)
Since I've been in LJ, I've found the perfect analogy for the experience of reading the less linear bits of the Cornelius stories for explanation to people in fandom: it's like reading a load of different fanfic stories for a canon you don't know about.
Apr. 26th, 2008 02:00 pm (UTC)
Superb analogy - all these seemingly really important characters turn up and you've no bloody idea who they are, and then someone starts riffing on the themes of the characters and putting them into settings you don't understand... or characters are facets/foreshadowings/reimaginings of other ones elsewhere in canon...

Actually, picking up any strand of Moorcock's multiverse is like that!
Apr. 26th, 2008 01:59 pm (UTC)
I got the impression from somewhere (probably an interview somewhere about how rotten Moorcock thought the film of The Final Programme was) that Moorcock really didn't like DW - which is a pity because the Doctor's become almost the 'all purpose human being' that Jerry Cornelius became to the New Worlds group of writers...
Apr. 26th, 2008 11:42 pm (UTC)
For some reason I did do some head scratching around the idea of Cornelius as the answer to Pertwee era Doctor Who (or vice versa) (and I forget what the question was...)

New Worlds 10 (1976) contains a story in which an old time traveller arrives on an alien planet dominated by robots. I believe there was also a granddaughter. (My copy has this story ripped out by my brother who owned it prior to me; I appear to have lost my unvandalised copy). I wonder who Anna Ostrowska is/was?
Apr. 22nd, 2009 07:15 pm (UTC)
Anna Ostrowska
I have looked in vain for any other reference to Anna. The story seemed to have been written by someone about 8 years old, so maybe someone's kid/grandkid?
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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