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The Final Programme
by Michael Moorcock

Essay by Ted Gioia
Michael Moorcock hasn't made it easy for us to get a grip on
his work. As an editor, he had a dramatic impact on the New
Wave sci-fi movement of the 1960s, but here most of his
involvement took place behind the scenes—and in ways that
tended to hide his influence behind that of the writers he
championed. Of course, this merely reminds us of age-old
question of history: Who has more influence, the king or the
king-maker? Certainly in the realm of
experimental genre fiction, Moorcock
was clearly the power behind the thrones
of the 1960 reigning monarchs.

His output as an author is no easier to
pigeonhole. Moorcock's stories came
out hidden behind at least nine pseudonyms,
and even if you figure out which works are
his, you aren't sure whether these were
quick written-for-hire commercial ventures,
pastiches imitating other authors’ genre
fiction styles, or carefully considered
artistic statements. Moorcock once boasted
that he could churn out 15,000 words a day,
and complete a saleable manuscript in
three days—hardly a claim on which to
establish a literary reputation, or help later
generations evaluate an oeuvre.

Even a single work by Moorcock can go off
in so many different directions, that the reader may struggle
to identify a connecting thread unifying the various incidents
and characters. Moorcock’s
The Final Programme, the first
of his well-known Jerry Cornelius novels, is a case in point.  
After reading the opening pages, you will be convinced that
Moorcock is parodying the James Bond franchise. Midway
through the same book, you will think that Moorcock is working
within the conventions of dystopian political fiction, sharing
his vision of the collapse of Western Europe. In its final pages,
he immerses himself completely in fantasy and sci-fi concepts,
sometimes blurring the boundaries between the two. And when
you reach the end of the book, you won’t be sure whether
the Cornelius who exits the last scene is the same person
who appeared at the beginning. Frankly, I don’t think
Moorcock knows either.

See related essay
When Science Fiction Grew Up

Certainly Cornelius wasn't permitted to disappear completely.
Moorcock would, after all, hatch future books and stories
about this malleable protagonist. But those tend to be even
less straightforward than
The Final Programme. As if this
isn't confusing enough, Moorcock often wrote about other
characters with similar names. Jehamia Cohnahlias appears
The Secret of the Runestaff (1969). Jeremiah ‘Jerry’
Cornell shows up in
The Chinese Agent (1970). And a host
of other characters with the initials JC frequent other
Moorcock works. Perhaps you should think of them as the
intersection of the "hero with a thousand faces" popularized
by one JC, and the robed redeemer with his devout dozen,
that most famous of JCs.  By the way, you also get a dose
of John Cleese and Jackie Chan in these juicy characters.
So take your pick.

Jerry Cornelius, for all his chameleon-like qualities, captured
the essential peculiarities of the new British hero of that
period. Moorcock brilliantly grasped the nihilistic qualities
of James Bond and his many imitators. Recall that, except
for a brief moment at the beginning of each Bond film, during
which the secret agent demonstrates a brief and lukewarm
allegiance to Queen and country, this hero was a lone wolf,
a flippant and seductive rule-breaker, answerable only to
his own instincts and drives. One of the first things you learn
about Bond is that he is "licensed to kill"—in other words, he
is above all law, a kind of Nietzschean Übermensch with
cool weapons, hot car and hotter lovers. Cornelius is much
the same, but without the gratuitous 'Queen and country' part.
At several points in
The Final Programme, he is warned that
his actions compromise the future of Britain, if not Western
society as a whole. Cornelius’s reaction is to look out for
number one, even if that means securing access his own
oil well and refinery to keep him "energy independent" during
the coming collapse. He is the ultimate survivalist.

But Ian Fleming would never have approved of the absurdist
and infantile elements Moorcock inserts into his Jerry
Cornelius narratives. The super-duper secret weapons and
gadgets are ridiculous in conception and frequently fail during
use. Why does Cornelius rely on a mini-crossbow or a dart gun
that can't shoot straight? It is all too typical of Moorcock's
modus operandi that (1) Cornelius murders the great love of
his life with his stupid dart gun; (2) the dead lover was his
own sister; and (3) this mishap took place while Cornelius
was trying to murder his own brother. Yes, readers learn
very soon that Jerry Cornelius sees himself as above even
those few moral laws that James Bond obeys.

Every story of this sort requires a super-villain, and in
Final Programme
that arch evildoer is Miss Brunner. She
has something nasty in mind, involving a kind of computer-
enabled demonic possession flavored with a sado-masochistic
twist. But it is indicative of the ambiguous moral valence of
this work that we are never sure whether Brunner is
Cornelius's adversary or collaborator. He isn’t sure himself.
Frankly, I don’t think Moorcock knows either.

I have a high tolerance for books that force me to abandon
control over the reading experience. I am willing to go to
unexpected places, and some of my favorite novels have
shown little mercy, sending me on journeys I never anticipated
when I checked into my cabin on page one.  But I want
some assurance that author has a destination, or at least
a reliable sense of direction. Moorcock struggles to live
up to this minimal requirement. He not only writes without a
map, but he even throws away the bloody compass.

He could have written this book for thrills, and actually delivers
on that promise for a few pages.  But not for long. He could
have turned
The Final Programme into a funny, satirical novel,
and for brief spells Moorcock achieves just that. But not for
long. Given his obvious creativity and boundless imagination,
Moorcock could have pointed this premise into any number
of directions, and let it rip. Instead he advances in too many
directions at once—and that means he doesn't advance at all.
Like Mr. Cornelius's fancy gadgets and weapons, things just
don’t work, even if they look flashy and cool along the way.   

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 18, 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

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

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

Links to related sites
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Great Books Guide
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Ted Gioia on Twitter


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