The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock
“… There was Blackfriars Bridge and the rich waters of the river, marbled by rainbow oil, poisonous and invigorating, buzzing like speed. What immune systems that environment gave us! It was an energy shield out of a science fiction story. The city lived through all attacks and so did we. Our bit of it – almost the eye of the storm – was scarcely touched. I grew up knowing I would survive. We all knew it.”
Michael Moorcock is one of Those Names in the SFF field. Larger than life, striding across the 1960s in his velvets, lace and plumed hats with his rock-and-roll band, his British accent, his Eternal Champion and a plethora of sex partners, he and his colleagues created “the New Wave” movement. In The Whispering Swarm, Moorcock revisits those years and his earlier life, growing up in London during and after World War II. At the same time, he tries to deliver an epic fantasy in a secret part of London that inhabits another reality.
The Whispering Swarm follows the early life of a young man named Michael Moorcock as he conquers London in the Swingin’ Sixties and visits a section of the city called Alsacia, maintained by the White Friars. In this place, also called Sanctuary, Michael meets various fictional characters: the musketeers from Dumas’s books, Dick Durbin, Bill Cody, various highwaymen, cavaliers, and dastardly Roundheads. In an attempt at clarity, I will refer to the fictional character in Moorcock’s autobiographical novel as “Michael,” and the author of the novel as “Moorcock.”
Moorcock fictionalizes some things, but not much. Some names are changed to protect family members, but basically most of Michael’s journeys in the mundane world are from Moorcock’s life. This makes them potentially interesting. Moorcock was an artistic leader, a mover and shaker, at a time when social mores and attitudes in Britain and the US were changing dramatically. For men of Moorcock’s age and race, the 1960s were Disneyland without adult supervision. Unfortunately, the tone of the “mundane” adventures is dry, wordy, and often confusing. The book is written in first person. The Michael character expresses contradictory statements, often in the same paragraph. At first I thought this was intentional, Moorcock showing us a seriously self-deluded character. By the end of the book, I wasn’t so sure.
The sections in Alsacia start off traditionally. A friendly monk from the Order of White Friars leads Michael to a set of large, iron-bound gates. Michael, alone of his friends, can enter. He comes and goes at will, spending time drinking with his fictional heroes and making love to Molly, his Alsatian “dream girl.” Various centuries are represented in Alsacia. The monks are intellectually sophisticated, dropping hints about M-theory and “branes” that 1960s Michael doesn’t understand.
Unfortunately, not much happens in Alsacia for a very long time. Prince Rupert of the Rhine proposes a quest in seventeenth century London and Michael becomes part of it. This quest lacks tension and ends in an anti-climax. There is a note of desperation in the final forty pages of the book, as Moorcock tries to create suspense around Michael’s run down the “ice road” of the frozen Thames, pursued by the Parliamentarian Roundheads.
The “mundane” parts of the book are repetitive and strangely euphemistic in spots, at least when Michael is discussing himself and his relationships. This part of the book is too distracting, as Moorcock employs an apologetic-rationalizing style and shies away from emotional issues, just as Michael seeks refuge from the struggles in his marriage by running back to Alsacia.
Probably the best metaphor in the book, truly, is the conflict between the Puritan-led Parliamentarians and the privilege-based royalist Cavaliers. Michael, philosophically, is a Parliamentarian, but the Cavaliers, with their long flowing hair, plumed hats, storytelling and love of drinking appeal to him temperamentally, and he throws in his lot with them. This is the best depiction of Michael’s, and maybe Moorcock’s, internal struggle. Unfortunately, although Michael soliloquizes about this, it does not really play into the seventeenth-century part of the book.
Without the fantastical element, the book could have been an interesting novel of the 1960s zeitgeist, but as it is written both stories disappointed me.
The Whispering Swarm is “Book One of THE SANCTUARY OF THE WHITE FRIARS,” a planned trilogy. I invested many hours in this book. It didn’t entertain and it didn’t enlighten. There are some pretty things, like a talking raven and a “cosmolabe,” but they aren’t enough. I won’t read the sequels. I can’t recommend buying The Whispering Swarm, but I have to say, it’s worth checking out from the library or downloading if it’s inexpensive just for the first 57 pages, which are, basically, a glorious love-letter to post-Blitz London. Some of Moorcock’s prose is incandescent.
Boring, dry, wordy, and confusing – pretty much how I felt about this. It had potential, and I thought it might be going somewhere interesting a few times, but ultimately it was just too self-indulgent.
Bob, that was certainly a HUGE part of the problem.
I was afraid that would be the case. My experiance with Moorcock, is that he has really awesome ideas but his actual writing of the story is boring.