Saturday, 4 October 2014

Michael Moorcock - The Shores Of Death (1966)

"There comes a point in a situation like this where you become so far removed from actuality that your own system of lies defeats you. It has happened often enough in the past. Your lie becomes your reality - but it is only yours. You begin to operate according to a set of self-formulated laws that conflict with the actual laws of existence."


'The Shores Of Death' is Michael Moorcock's post-apocalypse novel. Whilst Moorcock has always had a penchant for destroying the world in creative ways, and the situation here is as imaginative as one would expect, the real focus here is on how people react to the end of the world and the knowledge of the impending extinction of the human race. It's a novel about fear, and how both individuals and societies react to it. In the introduction, Moorcock compares the structure of the novel to that of J. G. Ballard's 'The Drowned World' and Brian Aldiss' 'Greybeard', in that the book first explores the effect of the disaster on society before focusing in on its effect on one individual. As in those books, the SF-nal set up of the apocalypse provides a stark setting that reflects the psychology of the characters. But whereas Ballard explores the atavistic primal unconscious buried beneath the veneer of civilisation, Moorcock concerns himself with how even a utopian society can slide into extremism when faced by fear, and how when confronted with our own mortality even intelligent and well-adjusted individuals can wind up making terrible, selfish decisions.
   In 'The Shores Of Death', aliens stopped the rotation of the earth, using a form of radiation that eventually makes people infertile. Life is only possible on the hemisphere facing the sun, or in the band of twilight between that hemisphere and the freezing cold dark of the hemisphere stuck facing night. Clovis Marca escaped from the twilight region where he was born to become a popular government official in the utopian society on the light side of the Earth. Following the discovery that the entire human race has become infertile, people must face the fact that they will be the last generation of humans ever to live before the race becomes extinct. As fear spreads, the formerly utopian society degenerates into paranoia, violence and extremism. Meanwhile Clovis becomes unhealthily obsessed with tracking down Orlando Sharvis, a brilliant scientist charged with crimes of horrific human experiments, who nonetheless could be the only person capable of saving the human race from extinction.
   Moorcock's portrayal of a decadent society on the verge of collapse is compelling and disturbing. The continuous thread throughout all of Moorcock's work is the balance between Chaos and Order, and how both are necessary for change, which itself is necessary for a healthy society. Like the planet frozen on its axis, the society in 'The Shores Of Death' has stagnated, and its utopian nature is the flipside to a darker side. The news of humanity's imminent extinction shows up how fragile this well-ordered society is, how quickly it descends into destructive decadence. People move from one party to another, trying to hide how frightened they are behind the mask of hedonism. Moorcock perfectly captures the undercurrent of nervous tension, people desperate to convince themselves that they're having a good time so that they won't have to dwell on their own mortality. This volatile atmosphere leads to the formation of a fanatical cult, the Brotherhood of Guilt, who are convinced that humanity's fate is a divine punishment, and a group of masked, uniformed vigilantes, lead by Clovis' old colleague and friend Andros Almer, who decide to take stopping the cult into their own hands. As the government collapses due to apathy, the power of Almer's vigilantes grows, and Almer uses more and more extreme methods to garner and maintain control, until he winds up the dictator of a fascistic society ruled by fear.
   Now, none of this is particularly subtle, but that's actually kind of the point. The people in the book are just as capable of seeing the historical parallels as the reader, and know exactly where this is going as well, yet they are unable to stop it. The point is that people should know better when extremism comes knocking at our door, but it thrives on fear, which all too often strips away our ability to act rationally. At the end of the day there usually isn't anything particularly subtle about a despot's rise to power, and that's what makes 'The Shores Of Death' so unsettling. There's a fantastic scene in which Clovis confronts Andros Almer and pleads with him to see reason, but it turns out that Almer knows damn well the consequences of what he is doing, and is consciously playing the villain. Faced with the same fear that everyone else is facing, Almer is stepping into the role of dictator not so much to gain control of the situation as that it provides him with a set script and rules to work to. Even if the role is villainous, it's still a clearly defined role, which he finds preferable to facing his own mortality, something for which there is no script. Moorcock gets a lot of mileage out of showing how Almer is ultimately swallowed up by the one dimensional pantomime villain role that 'dictator' is.
   Clovis deals with his fear in a different way that is no healthier. He withdraws from his social responsibilities and becomes obsessed with tracking down Orlando Sharvis, despite frequently being warned off him by the mysterious Mr. Take. Sharvis represents science completely uncoupled from its ethical responsibilities. A post-human who has modified himself to be a giant with a snake-like head, Sharvis takes no actions for himself but will happily grant any request asked of him, for a horrific price. In order to reach his secret base on the inside of the moon, which is now submerged in the ocean on the dark side of the Earth, Clovis first has to make his way through a village inhabited by those who have made a bargain with Sharvis, a horrifying vision of hell filled with people suffering the ironic consequences of their poorly phrased wishes. The nightmarish fates of these people and Mr. Take's own explicit warnings are not enough to dissuade Clovis from making a Faustian pact with Sharvis. Again, it's not difficult to see exactly where this is going, and the power Moorcock generates from this is that the reader can clearly see the intelligent and streetwise Clovis driven into this terrible bargain because of his own fear, when he could have lived the rest of his life happily with the woman who loves him. Fear of our own mortality frequently results in us not living our lives to the full. And so Clovis is granted immortality, and the ability to reproduce with his girlfriend, ensuring that both himself and humanity will continue, but at the expense of ever being able to feel anything again.

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