Author: Michael Moorcock ~ Pages: 672pp ~ Publisher: Gollancz ~ Year: 1981
The Low-Down: A magical, whimsical and beautifully written trilogy of eccentric science fiction from one of fantasy literature’s biggest names, this is also a time-travel romance that’s witty, well-crafted and ultimately moving.
What’s it About?: Far in the future, near the end of the universe, the remains of humanity lives an immortal, decadent and morality-free existance where anything is possible. But when Jherek Carnelian falls for accidental Victorian time-traveller Mrs Amelia Underwood, the resulting love affair takes them all across time, and into many kinds of bizarre dangers…
The Book: Warm, witty and hopelessly romantic, The Dancers at the End of Time is the omnibus edition of a trilogy of novels (An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs) written in the mid 1970s by massively prolific fantasy author and genre titan Michael Moorcock – and it stands on the border between his more traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy (the Elric, Hawkmoon and Corum novels), and his more challenging and literate work (The Cornelius and Pyat novels, as well as works like Mother London). Moorcock is one of those authors who can be intimidating simply due to how much he’s produced, but The Dancers of the End of Time is a very accessible starting point, especially since despite being a mixture of science fiction, romance and comedy, it’s mainly influenced by early twentieth century literature, especially the works of Oscar Wilde.
What Moorcock has produced here is a beautifully charming and ceaselessly imaginative romantic comedy, and the level of invention in the trilogy is amazing, conjuring up a colourful and surreal world at the End of Time and packing it with a lively selection of memorable and distinctive characters. It’s also thematically daring right from the start – this is a book where, thanks to the decadent ‘anything goes’ nature of the End of Time, the main character has sex with his own mother within the first three pages of the book, and while Moorcock has tremendous fun colliding his playful, morality-free world with the staunch and moralistic Victorian outlook, it isn’t just culture-clash comedy for its own sake. Instead, the love affair that blossoms between Jherek Carnelian and Mrs Amelia Underwood really does examine the nature of morality, and the craft and skill with which Moorcock explores this central idea is truly exceptional.
Mixing comedy with social satire and genuine romance, it’s a unique read that manages to be engaging throughout all three of its volumes, and it’s almost impossible not to be swept along by the trials and tribulations of the central relationship. It’s true that the longer and more melancholic concluding volume The End of All Songs doesn’t quite have the level of frothy comedy that Moorcock pulls off in An Alien Heat and The Hollow Lands, but it does tackle some daring science fictional territory, while still keeping the focus firmly on the characters, and the evolving relationship between the two protagonists. Back in the early twentieth century, books like The Time Machine would be described as ‘Scientific Romances’, and that’s exactly what The Dancers at the End of Time is – a magical and moving Scientific Romance that’s an incredibly distinctive work of literature, and the kind of off-beat yet moving saga that’s very easy to get lost in.
The Verdict: A tale of love, heartbreak and morality that stretches across the entire history of the universe, The Dancers at the End of Time is a quirky and utterly English tale of romance and entropy that simply demands to be read.