While it may be a matter of timing, all week as I re-read Titan Books’ reissue of Michael Moorcock’s 1968 s-f novel The Final Programme, I kept visualizing David Bowie as the book’s lead, Jerry Cornelius. Heartily amoral, sexually ambiguous, roaming the streets of a late sixties London where all is on the verge of collapse, Moorcock’s anti-hero could have posed for the cover of The Man Who Sold the World, especially in the book’s final chapter. Whether the writer himself would appreciate my mental connection is uncertain – his musical collaborations tended toward Hawkwind or Blue Oyster Cult – but to fans of Bowie, the influence of Moorcock’s full “Cornelius Quartet” is crystal clear.
Set in “196-,” the book centers on Cornelius, who we first meet in Cambodia discussing the nature of the multiverse with a Brahman physicist named Hira. From this “Preliminary Data,” Moorcock takes his character to London, where he and a group of unsavory types brought together by the vampirish Miss Brunner plan an assault on a chateau once owned by Cornelius’ late father. Said chateau is now being held by his druggee brother Frank, who in turn is keeping Jerry’s sister/lover Catharine a drugged-out captive.
The Bondian assault on the chateau ends disastrously, a storytelling echo of a similar attempt from an earlier sword-and-sorcery series by Moorcock featuring his best-known character, Elric of Melnibone. An albino wizard with a sword that devours its victims’ souls, Elric was one of science-fantasy’s great anti-heroes, and his parallels to Cornelius in this volume make thematic sense. Both Cornelius and his collaborator/adversary Miss Brunner feed off the souls of their fellow Europeans. Midway into the book, our hero holds a swinging party just to re-energize himself, while Miss Brunner literally devours and absorbs her lovers.
Following the assault on the Le Corbusier chateau, Moorcock takes our multi-faceted protagonist (scientist, assassin and, rock guitarist as well) on two more missions designed to facilitate the Final Programme, which will incorporate the sum total of human knowledge into one comprehensive integral equation while simultaneously transforming both J.C. (note the ironic initials) and Miss B. into a single anti-messianic figure. The book ends on an Apocalyptic note, but since Jerry and the rest of the cast return in three more novels, we know this situation isn’t permanent.
Or maybe it is.
Written quickly by Moorcock with Burroughs-ian fervor, The Final Programme works both as a cornerstone exemplar of new wave science-fiction and an evocation of sixties era “hope I die before I get old” hedonism. His description of the London club scene through the eyes of his jaded protagonist is sharp and satiric. And because our hero turns out to be a traveler through multiple iterations of our world, the book’s setting doesn’t read as dated.
Sardonic, violent and poppishly sparkly, The Final Programme holds up as one of this great s-f writer’s most entertaining reads. While later entries in the quartet (A Cure for Cancer, The English Assassin and The Condition of Muzak) grow considerably darker – with Jerry less in charge of the action and even more Fortune’s Fool – Programme manages to effortlessly balance pleasure and despair in a decaying Western world that seems even more familiar today than it did in the 1960’s.
Ziggy Stardust would’ve definitely recognized the landscape.
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