What: The Cornelius Chronicles by Michael Moorcock, a tetralogy starring British spy (amongst other things) Jerry Cornelius. Published in the US as The Cornelius Quartet.
Why: The adventures of Jerry Cornelius have been influential on a generation of sci-fi writers and graphic novelists; in particular, Shelfbound favorite Grant Morrison, who relied heavily on the character and his mythos for King Mob”s origin in The Invisibles.
(Check out Part One here.)
“He shouted in Jenny’s ear, “You can’t tell the men from the women, can you?”
“She seemed to hear and shouted something back, which he missed the first time. She shouted it again. “Not these days, no!””
This Week: The Final Programme, “Phase 2,” “Phase 3,” and “Phase 4” (Chapters 6-18 and “Terminal Data”)
First Impressions: Are pretty much all I have at this point. This is due to burning through the rest of the first Cornelius book and having more questions … or perhaps, questions of intent. On a quick flip-through, Phases 2 and 3 are about the same length as Phase 1 and present fairly discrete “adventures,” each building off the last. Phase 4, the last part of the book, feels like an addendum in its brevity–even with the epilogue “Terminal Data” attached, it’s about a fifth of the length of the other parts. But it contains, as we’ll see, the crux of the argument. What that argument is is still a bit unsatisfactory. (As this Project contains, of necessity, SPOILERS, you get a warning here if you want to read the book blind some day. So. WARNING. There ya go.)
Text: It turns out that “The Final Programme” is this weird alchemy of hippie “love-in” and fascist mechanization of society, which in a way seems like the two great sci-fi societies–utopian and dystopian–combined into a Chinese finger trap. But before I address it, I should talk a bit about Phases 2 and 3. Each of these parts begins with a long section of “down time,” Phase 2 with Jerry and various companions out in the streets and bars trying to get away from their own lives, Phase 3 with Jerry throwing a massive, months-long party at his house. These chapters aren’t just space fillers, dealing as they do with Cornelius in the real world and how immensely part of it he is while simultaneously disconnected: “He never felt really comfortable unless he had at least fifteen miles of built-up area on all sides ….” And make no mistake, it is the real world of the 1960s, with the Beatles, the Kennedys, Jung, and all sorts of other pop and psychological references popping up. That sci-fi trappings are placed over this world without any kind of explanation makes the boundary between fiction and reality pretty nebulous, as Cornelius himself states: “Jerry no longer had any idea whether the world he inhabited was “real” or “false”; he had long since given up worrying about it.”
But eventually, Cornelius must rejoin the adventure, and that involves a secret cave base in Sweden built by Nazis during World War II, a final nail gun battle with his brother Frank, and a supposedly important document that contains 203 pages of the word “ha.” Cornelius leaves the plot behind again for a while, but is inevitably drawn back into Miss Brunner’s web, his will slowly dissolving under her project and control. Soon he kills for her, and attempting to avoid whatever may be coming, flees for the final time, assuming a false name and marrying a woman named Maj-Britt (this happens over the course of about 3 pages, by the way) until he and his wife, along with the professor he was talking with in the Prologue, are manipulated back into the project for the final time.
And what is that project? Let’s let Miss Brunner explain it to you:
“”We have been working, ladies and gentlemen, to produce an all-purpose human being! A human being equipped with total knowledge, hermaphrodite in every respect–self-fertilizing and thus self-regenerating–and thus immortal, re-creating itself over and over again, retaining its knowledge and adding to it. In short, ladies and gentlemen, we are creating a being that our ancestors would have called a god!””
This “secret of “Crying Game”” moment was brought to you by the 60s. But seriously, it’s an intriguing premise that doesn’t shy away from the negative side of its achievement. When Jerry Cornelius and Miss Brunner (do we ever learn her first name?) are placed in the “large oval metal chamber,” have sex, and become one being named Cornelius Brunner, the moment could quickly spin out into speculative hogwash … which Moorcock swiftly undercuts by having Cornelius Brunner’s first words be “Hi, fans!”
And then the really unsettling thing happens. Borne up on the shoulders of the scientists who created him/her, C.B. marches across Europe and erases the individuality of everyone, leaving cities decimated in its wake:
“The thousands became millions as the new messiah was borne across the continent, whole cities abandoned and the land crushed in its wake. … The millions did not march along–they danced along. Their voice was one melodious song. … All the great cities of Italy. All the great cities of Spain and Portugal.
“And then, with a slight note of boredom in its voice, Cornelius Brunner gave the last order:
“”To the sea!”
“Within six hours, only one head remained above water. Naturally, it was the head of Cornelius Brunner, swimming strongly back towards the beach.
The book ends with C.B. contemplating what area of the world it’ll move to next, and sending a stray missed individual galloping happily into the sea. What the heck are we supposed to make of this ending? Due to Cornelius’ vampiric nature (he is said to live off the energy of others) and Miss Brunner’s habit of somehow consuming her companions, their hermaphroditic union may incorporate every individual they swallow up and sacrifice to the tide. But as an “all-purpose being,” Cornelius Brunner already has all the information and personality he/she needs, so may just feel that the rest of humanity is unnecessary and induce mass suicide. C.B.’s flippant tone at the end is both joyous and creepy, and I’m left wondering which judgment Moorcock expects us to render–is this evolution or devolution? (Of course, there’s the obvious answer that he doesn’t expect either judgment and is just posing the question to us.)
Regardless, all that culture, all those ideas, all those silly and fantastic characters that once populated the world of The Final Programme are already gone or endangered, and in their place stands something more like a god. It is the end of times, as the Prologue suggested. Or as Miss Brunner would have it:
“”This was a gift-wrapped, throwaway age, Mr. Cornelius. Now the gift-wrapping is off, it’s being thrown away.””
Questions: There are lots of little questions, and things of note I’ve not even touched upon here. (Like the implications of the great line “”The secret was saved by overinterpretation.”” Don’t I know it.) But I guess the big question now is, seeing as this is the first of four Jerry Cornelius books, where the hell do we go from here? Join me next week to find out!