Review: The Black Corridor

by Tom Ingram

Michael Moorcock is an author who thinks a lot about fascism. He famously wrote an essay censuring The Lord of the Rings for its politics, and has been critical of the often baffling ideologies espoused by his contemporaries. Yet his portrayal of it in 1969’s The Black Corridor is remarkably unsophisticated and suggests that, politically speaking, he might be full of shit.

The book depicts a future where rioting mobs in Britain have turned on “the aliens”, vaguely defined as “the men—and women…who are different.” There are of course no real aliens at all, and the whole thing is a transparent ploy to demonize anyone who disagrees with or expresses the slightest reservations about the ideas of the “Patriots”. This explodes into worldwide ultra-nationalism, which causes closed borders, fragmented nations, and international and eventually civil wars.

Amid all this, Ryan, the owner of a toy factory, sees himself as one of the few sane people left in the world. He considers himself a pragmatist, and does a number of morally questionable and downright despicable things for the sake of political expediency. He fires his top manager, who he suspects to be a Welshman, to avoid the wrath of the Patriots. He eventually begins manufacturing ammunition and radio equipment instead of toys to help the war effort. Toward the end, he collects his clique of relatives and close friends, holes up in his apartment, and makes plans to escape to another world on a rocket that had been prepared for launch in the days when such international cooperation was still possible, and had since been forgotten.

En route to their new home, Ryan’s friends and relatives are kept in stasis while he stays awake and maintains the ship during its five-year journey. After three years with only a computer for companionship, the loneliness starts to get to him in the form of hallucinations and flashbacks. Or, at least, that is apparently the case.

This is a very short novel, a mere 125 pages in my edition. It appears quite bare at first, but it actually contains a wealth of ideas and possibilities that will not surface on a first reading. I have not yet read it twice, but there are connections to be made that will be more apparent the second time through. There is a strange disconnect between the scenes on the ship and the scenes on Earth in flashbacks, and this can be chalked up to three factors:

  1. The Earth scenes were actually written by Hilary Bailey (Moorcock’s wife at the time) for a different purpose, and rewritten by Moorcock for inclusion in the novel.
  2. Moorcock deliberately takes a different tone with the ship scenes to emphasize Ryan’s growing disconnect from reality and perhaps suggest that the whole journey was a delusion.
  3. The Earth scenario is too absurd to take seriously, but the ship scenes don’t require us to think too much about it.

It’s not clear how important each of these factors is, but I’m inclined to put most of the weight on #3. The political thought at work in Moorcock’s future Earth is just dire. It paints a grotesque portrait of fascism as an ideology so transparently silly that only a depraved and insane populace could possibly take it seriously. While Moorcock would pretend to be a sophisticated thinker on the subject, at bottom he shares the common mistake of imagining fascism as some pathology peculiar to Germans in the 1930s.

Earth in The Black Corridor is merely a what-if scenario: what if, gasp, Britain also became infected with this esoterically Teutonic disease? From there the blanks are filled in: cue the “eloquent” speaker, the easily led mobs, the fuzzily defined enemy. There is no explanation to be found in the book as to why an intelligent person should want to join up with, or even acquiesce to, such an obvious rogues gallery.

Their leader does not appear to be a man who makes tough but necessary decisions, he looks like a spittle-flinging nutjob. The enemy is not some easily recognized outgroup already beset by a pre-existing historical animosity, but a vague ad hoc collection of “people who disagree with us.” Half of it reads like a fill-in-the-blanks dystopia, where Moorcock couldn’t be bothered to do the worldbuilding, and the other half is the view of someone who has seen the scary videos of Nazi rallies but never read the accounts of people who lived under the Third Reich.

In any case, the rest of the novel is much better. I particularly liked Ryan’s dreams of computer printouts. Moorcock takes the kind of half-coherent free-association that occurs when you’re on the verge of sleep and uses it to transform innocent-sounding sentences into something ominous. His frank narration, dull during the Earth segments, brings a new terror to the hallucinations. And whatever the problems with the Earth sections, the character of Ryan reveals the seedy underside of paternalism.

The suggestion from Wikipedia that perhaps there never was a spaceship at all, and the whole thing was the paranoid delusion of Ryan and his circle ties the novel in nicely with Moorcock’s criticism of classic SFF hero fiction. Ryan constructs a messianic fantasy to escape from the fascist outside world, but, as Moorcock points out, messiahs are not far from fuhrers and this fantasy quickly becomes a microcosm of the outside world with the pragmatic Ryan at the helm. I’m now not sure how comfortable I am with Moorcock in particular making this observation, but it should be made.

In any case, The Black Corridor requires only a small investment and is smarter than the average SFF novel. It’s not well-written, and parts of it are laughable, but it has a surprising amount of depth to it and it’s a good place to start for anyone interested in serious science fiction.

If you read this book, it is important to get the right edition. According to Wikipedia, the 1969 Mayflower edition (the one I read, pictured above) has all the text right (aside from the frequent typos) but botches the ASCII art. I can attest to this—I didn’t even realize the strangely positioned text was meant to be ASCII art until the end. Only two instances have survived in my edition and without any other version to refer to, I can’t say how many there are meant to be.

The first edition, Ace 1969, gets the art right (and has the best cover) but botches the text. The best version is in the Tales of the Eternal Champion omnibus. All this is complicated by the fact that, for whatever reason, Moorcock’s work is mostly out of print, so you have to go with whatever you can find used.