The Whispering Swarm

Michael Moorcock
The Whispering Swarm Cover

The Whispering Swarm


Michael Moorcock's The Whispering Swarm is certainly a strange book and not what I expected at all. My first venture into this renowned author's work notwithstanding, even I could tell this was quite a departure from his older work, involving no small amount of literary experimentation - and not least because of the novel's semi-autobiographical nature in which Moorcock chronicles the shift of his craft from sci-fi fantasy pulp fiction towards a "new wave" and more modernist tradition.

The first book of a new trilogy, Moorcock's latest novel presents to readers a semi-factual, semi-fictitious version of the author's younger self growing up in post-World War II London. We follow Michael Moorcock as he navigates the world of science fiction and fantasy publishing, starting out as editor of his Tarzan Adventuresfanzine at the age of 17 and eventually moving on to bigger and more prominent roles in the industry - including his controversial position as the editor of British science fiction magazine New Worldsduring the 60s and 70s.

While the character talks about much of his writing, the narrative is also laced with a heavy dose of fantastical elements. Between sections detailing Michael's personal and professional life, the book slips in and out of reality to feature an alternate world called Alsacia, a hidden sanctuary and home to both historical and legendary figures like Prince Rupert of the Rhine or Dumas' musketeers. It's a place where death does not exist and time flows differently, where heroes from different centuries can share a pint and rub elbows down at the tavern and no one will bat an eye. The first time young Michael accidentally stumbles into Alsacia, he meets the beautiful Mol Midnight, literally the girl of his dreams who later on becomes his muse for a number books and stories. And so begins his long relationship with this mystical place and the denizens within. Thus Michael finds himself torn between two worlds, the real London where his career and family reside, and Alsacia where he can indulge in wild romances and adventures. Before long, he can hardly ignore the whispers of what he calls the Swarm, always calling him, tempting him back into the sanctuary where he can find solace from the pressures of the world.

As someone previously unfamiliar with Moorcock's work, I found myself intrigued by the premise of the book. Unfortunately, I was also frequently frustrated with the seemingly disorganized and irregular pacing of what at times barely passes for a plot. As previously mentioned, a huge chunk of the novel is written in a semi-autobiographical style, where readers are swept along on lengthy descriptions of young Michael's professional and social life, which include his experimentations with sex, drugs and music. I wasn't so fond of the explanatory narrative and found myself less interested in the nitty-gritty details of his editing and writing, but when it came to the character's internal insights into the evolution of his style, I was perhaps more enthusiastic.

As a character, Michael's motivations were hard to grasp. He's an unsettled and indecisive narrator, not to mention frequently unreliable which made it more difficult to find him sympathetic. He would alternate between being selfless and self-pitying, especially where the needs of his young family are concerned. The times he steps through the veil into Alsacia are the highlights, however. Regrettably I found these to be too few and far between especially in the first half, or else I might have had an easier time getting into the book; instead, I had to push myself through most of the beginning.

On the other hand, I didn't expect to enjoy the blurring of reality and fantasy as much as I did; there was always that uncertainty lingering in the background, mixing in that element of the unknown which made the situation more compelling as Michael became more entrenched in the business of Alsacia. This novel is definitely the first of its kind that I have read, and even knowing that most of Michael's personal details had to be completely fabricated, the questions it made me ask were the sort that were entirely different and unique.

I have a feeling this is a very special trilogy in the making, but the ultimate payoff may require too much investment for some readers, including myself. Michael's exploits with the various adventurers from Alsacia were exciting towards the end, but I wish more of the book had been dedicated to that aspect of the story. There are some great ideas in here, if somewhat radical and on the experimental side, but my experience was mainly dampened by the slow pacing of the plot as well as a lack of direction for most of it. An interesting novel overall, and in the end I'm not sorry I read it. The style is not exactly to my tastes, but it's broadened my horizons.