In one uncharacteristic episode of work-for-hire, Moorcock was briefly employed by the Liberal Party, writing its pamphlets. An air of serene lassitude surrounded the guardians of the centre ground in the 1960s. “All we did was get hold of the Tory and Labour pamphlets and pinch the bits we liked,” says Moorcock. “The leader, Jo Grimond, was very nice but incredibly thick, an amiable, pottering old Liberal. The impression that the party didn’t actually want power was quite good for them.”
Moorcock did not last long there. “It definitely made me not want to get into politics. Instead, I became interested in anarchism, which is more of a moral rather than an active platform. I’m not a Bukharinist. I’m a Kropotkinist.”
Since his teens, Moorcock had mixed with London’s science-fiction community around the Globe pub on Hatton Garden, not far from the fictional Alsacia. “It was the only place in London where you could meet people who didn’t think you were raving barmy. Everyone assumed that science-fiction fans literally believed in flying saucers in those days.” Enthusiasts and young writers such as Moorcock found easy access to established figures, including Arthur C Clarke, Kingsley Amis, C S Lewis and John Wyndham. “Lots of these writers were quite posh,” he remembers. “They all wore sports jackets with leather elbows and were interested in jazz . . .”
Although these old-school writers were friendly and supportive, a schism emerged after Moorcock became the editor of the anthology magazine New Worlds in 1964. In his desire to bring literary techniques into the science-fiction world, Moorcock jettisoned the populist, explanatory, anal-retentive hard science element – what we now might call “fan service” – in favour of impressionistic, avant-garde stories in which little was explained in conventional terms and psychological resonance was all.
“You wanted to get rid of all that boring exposition and get to the imagery, which for us was what science fiction was really about,” Moorcock explains. “Who really cares about spaceships and how rockets work? I don’t actually care about space at all. You had to plough through all this shit that people like Arthur [C Clarke] insisted on expositing to get to maybe five good images. We were all interested in painting and especially symbolism. We wanted to give the public substantial work that operated on multiple levels, with several narratives that they could tease out.”
This caused a “certain kerfuffle” among fans of the genre, who would berate Moorcock and Ballard at conventions for ruining “real” science fiction. “There are still people out there who will say, ‘Ha, ha, your New Worlds (below left) new wave never made it.’ But our intention all along was to infuse the mainstream with all that was best in science fiction and that did connect with a lot of people.” From Martin Amis to Will Self and Michael Chabon, from comics by writers such as Grant Morrison and Alan Moore (“It’s disgusting how alike we are”) to the sci-fi bent in popular fiction (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger), New Worlds and the new wave continue to resonate.
When I suggest that it was the machine fetishists, the Arthur C Clarke faction, who got it right about our technologically determined present day, Moorcock disagrees.
“No, no, no,” he says. “We live in a Philip K Dick world now. The technology-led, military-led big names like Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur got it dead wrong. They were all strong on the military as subject matter, on space wars, rational futures – essentially, fascist futures – and none of these things really matters today. It’s Dick and people like Frederik Pohl and Alfred Bester who were incredibly successful in predicting the future, because they were interested in social change, ecology, advertising. Look at Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google . . . These are Philip K Dick phenomena.”
As the 1960s wore on and the concerns of science fiction and the counterculture merged, Moorcock moved in both worlds. Into the 1970s and beyond, he collaborated with the psychedelic rock bands Hawkwind and Blue Öyster Cult. (He still plays guitar and keyboard with his own occasional band, the Deep Fix.) “I was attracted to both rock’n’roll and science fiction because you didn’t know what was going to come out at the end,” he says. “Nobody was looking over your shoulder and telling you what to do, because nobody knew what to do.”