The Whispering Swarm – Michael Moorcock

The Whispering Swarm


An unusual mix of straight autobiography and fantastic alternate universe/time travel in a secret section of London known as Alsacia.


When I was young, I found a biography of Johnny Cash on my father’s

shelves. He warned me not to read it, but I did anyway, to find that while Cash was a great singer, he was also pretty much an ass. This book provides the

same experience with Moorcock – except that I’ve never thought Moorcock

was a great writer. Apparently some do. I’ve read quite a lot of

‘literary’/non-SFF fiction, but until encountering this book, I’d never

encountered any by Moorcock. If it reads like this, it’s no wonder.

I don’t know much about Michael Moorcock personally. I read several Elric books and wasn’t too impressed. I tried one or two Eternal Champion books, but had trouble telling them apart. And the first book of his I read, a collaboration with (and mainly by) Michael Butterworth called The Time of the Hawklords, was terrible. Still, Moorcock is a respected name in fantasy. Plus, I recently read a short story of his that showed surprising elements of humor from the man who created the dour Elric. So, when The Whispering Swarm came available for review, I thought I’d give Moorcock another try.

The book was billed as both fantastical and autobiographical. What I found was initially weak on fantasy, and heavy on autobiography. Unfortunately, what I learned from the autobiography is that Moorcock is self-centered, self-important, and self-aggrandizing. Self-centered, to be fair, is part and parcel of autobiography. The others are a matter of choice.

The first few chapters were interesting. Moorcock’s description of London after the war is fascinating. Snippets of fantasy were early but few and seemed mostly an afterthought. Unhappily, the narrative soon becomes less of an introduction to post-war London, and more of a stream of consciousness recitation of famous acquaintances. Name a fantasy writer alive at that time, and Moorcock knew them – White, Lewis, Peake, you name it. Generally speaking, he drops the name and moves on. While he claims Peake as his mentor, he says little about the relationship. He spends far more time on the minutiae of interaction with other friends – just as famous, he claims, but they’re often not names I’ve heard of. At first encounter that’s promising – a man more focused on real relationships than on celebrity. But he seem to think they’re celebrities, and these friends only enter the narrative for short periods. For example, Moorcock spends page after excruciating page detailing a single holiday dinner, largely focused around the personal quarrel of three friends introduced a few pages earlier, and who leave the scene almost entirely thereafter. It’s deadly dull – the worst kind of reminiscence by a host whose party you’re already looking to leave. To make it worse, Moorcock uses the occasion to take cheap shots at relatives he dislikes, all in the name of objective appraisal.

His in-laws may be coarse and bigoted, but Moorcock himself is a paragon, if we’re to take his word for it. Every few pages, he invents a new sub-genre, or leads a literary revolution, all while cranking out what he considers literary garbage (such as the Elric series) for the money. He singlehandedly feeds the family, runs a magazine, writes novels left and right, all while taking care of the kids so that his wife can have time to herself – apparently to mope. For a man who says he doesn’t do passive-aggressive, Moorcock provides an excellent imitation. But it’s alright, because he was a great father who took his toddlers to hang out backstage while he played his rock gigs. And he’s loyal by nature – except for constantly cheating on people.

Moorcock does offer some self-criticism, but it’s largely drowned out by his highly defensive tone, self-justifications, and score-settling. He himself admits to wondering why he was so popular as an individual – as he tells us he was. Presumably it had something to do with his incredible lovemaking skills – certainly lovemaking is virtually the only thing he has in common with his wife. That and (he tells us) her love for the power he offered – because “most women [are] turned on by power”. This and a host of other attitudes might be overlooked in the younger Moorcock, living through the turbulent 60s and 70s. But they’re equally prevalent in his current musings, and less forgivable. Some of it is gratuitously offensive, and presumably intended to shock.

For a while, I thought that Alsacia was simply a metaphor for an affair, or a drug habit. But it’s both too complex and too obvious for that. Perhaps if I knew more about Moorcock’s true history, I’d spot the truth. Reading this has given me no interest in finding out.

I confess – I didn’t read the whole book. By page 16, I was already wondering where the autobiography was going, but I read thoroughly up to page 300. At that point, the pain was too much, but I wanted to ‘finish’, so I skimmed each of the remaining 200 pages, dipping in deeper for a few pages at a time. While this last portion is heavy on the fantastic element, it is no more enticing than the earlier sections.

Moorcock claims he put together his trash books in three days each, and his good ones in double that time. Reading this book backs up the claim. Frankly, it reads as if he wrote a meandering autobiography, couldn’t find a publisher, and resurrected it by throwing in a few shreds of fantasy. Tor has been publishing great stuff recently, but I have to assume they were starstruck when they let this past their doors.

I can’t think of anyone to recommend this to. If you like Moorcock, you won’t after reading this. If you like fantasy, you won’t find much here. If you like literary fiction, you can call this an attempt, but it’s not a success. In short, then, my advice is: don’t read this book.

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