Friday, 30 December 2011

‘The Time Dweller’ – Michael Moorcock (Mayflower)

So here we are, the last review of 2011. Before we get into the book itself, this review is actually the one hundred and seventy fourth posted this year. That’s not bad going for me (I don’t think I’ll ever manage over five hundred in a year though!), especially with all the other demands on my time. I guess it just goes to show that there’s no such thing as not having time to read, at least not as far as I’m concerned :o)

And... back to the book at hand. While the subject matter is very different, it’s clear to see that Michael Moorcock was the Brandon Sanderson of the sixties and seventies (maybe even the eighties as well). Here is a man who just couldn’t help but write and some of his best known ‘sword and sorcery’ tales were actually written in a matter of days. I wish I could do that... It’s been an unofficial mission of mine to work my way through Moorcock’s back catalogue, over the last couple of years, and I’ve had a great time doing so. The stories may vary in quality but the imagination behind it all is nothing short of staggering and that’s why I’ll be continuing to read his works; despite ‘The Time Dweller’ not quite working out for me as a collection of short stories.

I’ve been reading a lot of short story collections just recently; I think there’s something about this time of year that makes me want to read in bite sized chunks rather than get stuck into something thick and meaty. I saw a copy of ‘The Time Dweller’, in my favourite second hand bookshop, and knew it would make for ideal reading over the Christmas/New Year period. Well that’s what I thought at the time...

I never expect short story collections (anthologies, whatever you want to call them) to be consistent, in quality, the whole way through. The law of averages seems to suggest otherwise and there’s also what I’m bringing to the book as a reader. That’s a lot for any book to work against so I never really get my hopes up. Sometimes this means I’m pleasantly surprised by a collection (one of which will be on my ‘favourite reads of 2011’ list tomorrow) and sometimes it works out even less well than I expect.

With certain stories in ‘The Time Dweller’ the problem for me was that whatever Moorcock was trying to say was drowned out in a mass of admittedly beautiful but overall stifling imagery. Don’t get me wrong, I love Moorcock’s use of imagery and settings but I love it far more when there’s a story happening against it all. I’m sure that there was something going on in these stories but I couldn’t see it (a re-read would probably take care of this but, in the meantime, I’ve got to go on first impressions). Take ‘The Golden Barge’ for instance, what was all that about? I liked the exploration of Jephraim Tallow’s character but why was he chasing the Golden Barge? And considering this pursuit was made out to be such a big deal, why did he stop for a break? There’s something to be said for stories that have you asking questions (and you end up re-reading them) but there is also such a thing as being too obscure and alienating the reader entirely...

It was the same kind of thing with ‘Wolf’ and ‘The Ruins’, both very atmospheric and beautiful looking reads but also reads where I struggled to find any point to the story. The saving grace here was that it felt like the answers were on the tip of my tongue and another read would make things a lot clearer; still an infuriating read in the meantime though. With ‘Wolf’ in particular, I found that the character was so interesting that I wanted to know a lot more than I was given.

That’s not to say that the entire book was like this though. While the stories I’ve mentioned didn’t work for me, others very much did and this kept the book ticking over nicely on the whole.

The thing I’ve found with Michael Moorcock’s short stories is that they keep popping up in different collections, often when you least expect them. I was reading ‘The Deep Fix’ and ‘The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius’ and thinking that they felt familiar. It turned out that was because I’d already mentioned them in a couple of other collections... I won’t go into them in detail here but you can read what I wrote Here and Here if you like.

‘The Time Dweller’ and ‘Escape from Evening’ (the latter following on from the former) make for a very strong opening to the collection with a beautifully drawn backdrop, of a very old if not dying Earth, throwing up interesting problems for the leading characters to face and overcome. The whole ‘nature of time’ thing generally goes right over my head but this time round Moorcock not only really nails it, in terms of clarity, but also gives us a different perspective to ponder by attacking the subject matter with two short stories.

‘The Mountain’ rounds off the collection in a good way with a compelling tale of obsession in the face of ultimate futility. My favourite tale though was ‘Consuming Passion’; the madness of the lead character makes this story a ‘must read’ but it’s the last few lines (and a possible connection with Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, I’m not sure...) that make it all the more intriguing.

‘The Time Dweller’ ended up being a collection where the negatives ended up dragging the rest of the book down a little more than I’d normally be comfortable with. There are some gems here though, you just need to dig a little.

Seven and a Half out of Ten

(Cover Art courtesy of 'The Image Hive')

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