Last week I stayed up late almost every night devouring The Dancers at the End of Time trilogy by Michael Moorcock. The three books are An Alien Heat (1971), The Hollow Lands (1974), and The End of All Songs (1976).
Cover by Mark Rubin and Irving Freeman. This is the edition that I read, I picked them all up in the clearance section of Half-Price Books.
The setting is Earth at the end of time, and humanity has achieved immortality, seemingly inexhaustible energy sources, and highly advanced technology that you can use to create anything imaginable by manipulating power rings. But because the human race has been around for millions and millions of years, concepts that are so integral to our lives like work, religion, philosophy, art, and morality have lost all meaning. So instead of using their nearly unlimited power to create great monuments or explore the galaxy, our descendants throw elaborate parties where they try to one-up each other and have casual sex regardless of gender or familial relation.
Cover by Sue Greene. Also from my personal library. Moorcock books always have great covers.
It’s never made clear exactly how humanity came to this point of ultimate decadence but it reminds me of the Stanislaw Lem short story “Altruizine,” collected in his fantastic book The Cyberiad. In this story, the constructor Klaupacius travels to a planet with a civilization that has attained the Highest Possible Level of Development (H.P.L.D.). Instead of doing advanced scientific or altruistic works, the inhabitants of this planet (which is shaped like a cube) loaf about in hyper-intelligent sand and only pick their noses or scratch their butts. Eventually, after some coercion, an inhabitant of this planet explains that the H.P.L.D.’s tried astro-engineering but gave up after deciding that there was really no reason to remake nature – “Would the universe be a better place if stars were triangular, or comets went around on wheels?”. The H.P.L.D.’s then tried to make all sentient beings in the universe happy but discovered that it was impossible to do so. Therefore, they’ve given meddling up and just lay around observing and pleasuring themselves.
Cover artist unknown. I saved the best for last. From Michael Moorcock’s personal site.
So, probably with a similar outlook, the inhabitants of the Earth at the end of time only party, trying out different styles, ideas, and experiences out of an unquenchable desire for novelty. Of course, if Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time was only this elaborate setting, the trilogy would quickly become boring. The conflict comes from time travelers that end up stranded in this idyll and find it disgusting debauchery but are unable to escape because of the nature of time travel in this cosmos. The protagonist, Jherek Carnelian, the last man born from a womb (rather than created as a fully-formed adult), and thus a darling of this future society, decides that his latest affectation is going to be falling in love with one of the time travelers, a woman named Mrs. Underwood from a 19th century suburb of London. The interplay and misunderstandings between Jherek and Mrs. Underwood form the comic core of these novels. Every interaction between a delight to read. And the plot is fast-paced. Moorcock throws up marvel after marvel, twist after twist. I highly recommend this trilogy. I get the sense that it ties in loosely with Moorcock’s multiverse. The protagonist’s name, Jherek Carnelian, echoes that of one of the Eternal Champions, Jerry Cornelius, a hip spy and provocateur. I’ve only read Elric so I’m not familiar enough to catch any other references but I plan on reading more Moorcock soon, including a short story collection in this same setting.