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The Dancers at the End of Time
1. An Alien Heat
2. The Hollow Lands
3. The End of All Songs

by Michael Moorcock

A book review by Steven Wu
August 06, 2003

Rating: 9 (of 10)

Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time trilogy opens with the protagonist, Jherek Carnelian, engaged in a leisurely lunch with his mother, Iron Orchid. They snack on delicacies, engage in effusively baroque banter, lounge. And in the end, their hunger satisfied, they have sex.

It's an introduction undoubtedly meant to catch the reader's attention, a warning sign that Carnelian's world is very different from our own. Carnelian, along with his mother and a small cast of other delightfully named characters, live at the End of Time, where entropy is king and the universe has begun collapsing upon itself--but the people at the End of Time couldn't care less. Their ancient ancestors set up enormous, mysterious engines on Earth several million years ago, and now, with just a twist of the power rings adorning their fingers, Carnelian and his band of cohorts can do whatever they want, from combusting a sun from scratch to creating the lunch that led to lust in the book's first chapter. Immortality is a natural consequence of this near-omnipotence, as is a complete absence of morality. The highest aspiration at the End of Time is to be known as entertaining, the lowest insult is to be known as a bore.

Hence, the introduction's incestuous lovemaking, followed quickly by a casual homosexual caper and the revelation of the End of Timers' menageries, which are collections of space aliens and, more importantly, time travelers imprisoned by the End of Timers as quaint curios. It seems that the End of Time is a popular if undesired ending point for time travelers: due to something called the Morphail Effect, time travel is possible into the future, but any attempt to travel back into the past, while it may be temporarily successful, swiftly leads to the traveler being sent back to some random point in the far future. At a lavish party thrown by one of the End of Timers, Carnelian is delighted to discover that yet another time traveler has snapped into existence: the indignantly bewildered Mrs. Amelia Underwood, a 19th-century English gentlewoman who is the very model of a strong-willed but straight-laced Victorian lady. Carnelian, casting about for new entertainment, decides to do something that his somewhat scatterbrained research into the 19th century has revealed was a popular pastime: he will fall madly, passionately in love with Mrs. Underwood.

The Dancers at the End of Time is a bizarre mix of genres, yet it ends up being a surprisingly powerful and subtle piece of work. The first volume, An Alien Heat, begins badly enough: while the initial concept of omnipotent humans at the End of Time is interesting, Moorcock overdoes the descriptions of their amoral caperings to the point that their most extravagant and outrageous entertainments seem tedious. With the arrival of Mrs. Underwood, however, the plot picks up, and the trilogy veers toward straight science fiction, with strong hints of H.G. Wells (who, in fact, appears in the story) and Wells's own brand of technologically ignorant but exuberant scientific romance. There are broad streaks of almost slapstick humor throughout the narrative, including a troupe of temporally displaced and strongly accented British police officers and a group of randy genocidal aliens who find elbows and knees intensely erotic. And there is also a silly overarching plot, about some plan to survive the End of Time, that probably makes a lot more sense to readers more familiar with Moorcock's multiverse.

Above all, however, the trilogy is about Jherek Carnelian and Mrs. Amelia Underwood, polar opposites thrown together by the vagaries of time and the whim of the author. He begins by pursuing her as a means of entertainment; she begins by denouncing him as a degenerate. Very soon, however, it becomes clear to Mrs. Underwood that Carnelian is anything but evil. He is, in fact, an innocent, no more aware of sin than of virtue. And he, for his part, becomes aware that Mrs. Underwood is a far more complex creature than his usual friends, a woman of great strength and passion who has bound herself tightly into a certain role. For Carnelian, the trilogy becomes a bizarre coming-of-age tale as a centuries-old god finally grows up. For Mrs. Underwood, the trilogy becomes an awakening as she reconciles her rigid Christian upbringing with her initial distrust and growing affection for the persistent and earnest Mr. Carnelian. And as the two change each other, and the world around them, the story develops into an unusual and yet surprisingly effective romance, full of heartbreak and turmoil but also a few (too few) moments of genuinely affecting contentment.

Moorcock contributes greatly to the feel of the novel, as its plot careens from age to age, with a baroque and slightly ornate writing style that mirrors the extravagant decadence of the End of Time. On occasion his influence on the story becomes heavy-handed: certain events occur that defy narrative plausibility, and Carnelian's feckless bumblings in the 19th century become an old joke far too soon. Overall, though, Moorcock delights with his steady narrative voice and seemingly effortless inventiveness; his descriptions of the Earth's future history in particular anticipate the arrival of later, similarly macabre authors such as Iain M. Banks.

In the end, though, it is the relationship between Carnelian and Mrs. Underwood that holds this trilogy together and transforms an otherwise slapdash and loosely jointed tale into a coherent narrative. True, The Dancers at the End of Time is about the End of Time; but it's also about how little the end matters if you have somebody standing by your side who will never let you go.

Copyright © 2003 Steven Wu

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