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Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

Behold the Man
by Michael Moorcock

Essay by Ted Gioia
I should probably start out with a spoiler alert.  Something along the

On the other hand, is it really a spoiler if the author telegraphs
the surprise ending within the first few pages of the book? You
can’t really call me a spoiler if the merchandise is already spoiled.  

That’s the awkward situation Michael Moorcock
creates with
Behold the Man, one of his best
known works and a defining text in the New
Wave sci-fi movement of the 1960s. But is
anyone really surprised by the surprise ending
here? I don’t think so. Not since Samuel Morse
invented Morse Code has anyone done a better
job of telegraphing a message.  

Here it is: a man travels back in time to meet
Jesus Christ. He joins up with John the Baptist
who celebrates his arrival. ("I had heard of you.
Are you outlawed by Herod?") Members of a
gentle religious community flock around our
visitor from the future, excited by this mysterious
man who has appeared in their midst. Let's
even call them apostles…..

Okay you see what’s coming don’t you?  Well,
if you haven’t figured this plot out by page ten,
you need a new pair of reading glasses. And a
remedial class on holy scripture.

But give Moorcock credit for chutzpah. Not only does he turn
his protagonist Karl Glogauer into Jesus Christ, but he draws on his
own personal history in crafting Glogauer. If I apply the transitive
property of equality, which I still vaguely recall from ninth grade,
to these elements, I end up with Moorcock = Messiah.  

Behold the Man is hardly the only Moorcock book to set up
this comparison. Our author has shown a devotion to characters
with the initials JC, from Jehamia Cohnahlias to Jeremiah Cornell
—most notably his most famous hero
Jerry Cornelius, sort of
Nietzschean James Bond-type, apparently licensed both to kill
and to embody nihilism in all its manifestations. All these Christ-
like characters in Moorcock's oeuvre seem variations on a theme:
on a personal level, they represent an alter ego for the author;
on a philosophical level they set up an alternative messiah for the
Beyond and Good and Evil cohort. Honestly, I think the name
Moorcock on its own would embody this worldview to perfection,
but if it floats our author’s boat to add a few pages from the J.C.
narrative to his fantasies, that’s certainly his prerogative.

Moorcock enlivens his story by telling it in a discursive,
fragmented manner. He mixes in choice quotes from secular
gurus—Jung, Wordsworth, Blake—alongside extracts from the
New Testament. Moorcock knows most of the tricks of the New
Wave sci-fi trade, indeed to some extent he presided over the
creation of the playbook, and applies almost all of them during
the course of this short novel.

But this tale is also more plot-driven than many of the New Wave
classics. This ain't just theology, but a time travel story. Few sci-fi
concepts have been so frequently used (and abused). And
Moorcock latches on to one of the most problematic elements
of the meme, namely the possibility that traveling back in time
changes the course of time.  Or as the screenwriters of
to the Future
so aptly put it:

Doc: "The encounter could create a time paradox. The results
of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the
very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire
universe!...Granted, that's the worst-case scenario. The
destruction however might be limited merely to our own galaxy."

Marty: "Well that's a relief!"

Yes, the historical Jesus does make a cameo appearance when
Glogauer travels to Nazareth and tracks down the carpenter

"I wish to meet one of your sons. Have you one called Jesus? Can
you tell me where he is?"

"That good-for-nothing. What has he done now?"

He meets the young man. "The figure was misshapen. It had a
pronounced hunched back and a cast in its left eye. The face
was vacant and foolish. There was a little spittle on it lips." What
an ingenious idea, that the ethos of Jesus is embodied in the lowly
and outcast! Well, not really. Dostoevsky anticipated this concept
exactly a century before Moorcock, in his book
The Idiot. But you
can't really give Dostoevsky credit, because this whole them has
been embedded in Christian thinking for two thousand years.
The difference in
Behold the Man is that Moorcock feels that he
has delivered something transgressive and 'out there'—when actually,
to a degree that he himself seems to miss, he is aligning himself
with traditional Christology.

But this ‘historical Jesus’ is quickly shuffled off-stage. Glogauer is
the lucky man who gets to travel to Jerusalem on a donkey, as his
followers throw down palm branches in his path. If I had been in
this situation, I would have steered clear of that fellow named
Judas Iscariot. But if hindsight were foresight, we’d be better
off by a damned sight.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book,
a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: September 19, 2014
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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Great Books Guide
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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
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The Millions
Big Dumb Object
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More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
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