Michael Moorcock: Legendary author of the Elric saga, Science Fiction Grand Master, platinum album–receiving rock star, and controversial editor of the new wave fiction movement’s New Worlds. In this definitive collection, discover the incomparable stories of one of our most important contemporary writers.
These exceptional stories range effortlessly from the genre tales that continue to define fantasy to the author’s critically acclaimed mainstream works. Classic offerings include the Nebula Award–winning novella “Behold the Man,” which introduces a time traveler and unlikely messiah that H.G. Wells never imagined; “The Visible Men,” a recent tale of the ambiguous and androgynous secret agent Jerry Cornelius; the trilogy “My Experiences in the Third World War,” where a Russian agent in an alternate Cambodia is powerless to prevent an inevitable march toward nuclear disaster; and “A Portrait in Ivory,” a Melibone story of troubled anti-hero Elric and his soul-stealing sword, Stormbringer. Newer work handpicked by an expert editing team includes one previously unpublished story and three uncollected stories.
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A Portrait in Ivory (2005)
We begin this collection with a tale of Elric of Melniboné. Proud prince of ruins. Kinslayer. Call him what you will. He remains, together with maybe Jerry Cornelius, Moorcock's most enduring, if not always most endearing, character.
Elric started life in response to a request from John Carnell, editor of Science Fantasy magazine, for a series akin to Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories. What Carnell received, while steeped in sword-and-sorcery images, was something quite different. The first tale to feature the albino emperor of Melniboné was "The Dreaming City" in 1961. In all, nine Elric stories appeared in the magazine between then and 1964. They formed the basis of two books, The Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer, although Moorcock has gone on to write many prequels and sequels to events therein.
"A Portrait in Ivory" was written in 2005, for an anthology of stories crafted around winning words from the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The editor asked contributors to choose a word; Moorcock picked "insouciant." This particular tale is set after the sacking of Imrryr, capital city of the Dragon Isle of Melniboné. It finds Elric — a shunned, outcast mercenary, wandering the Young Kingdoms over which his nation once ruled — in a contemplative, rather than a combative, mood. It was originally published in 2007, in Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories (Bantam), edited by John Klima.
A Portrait in Ivory
1 An Encounter with a Lady
Elric, who had slept well and revived himself with fresh-brewed herbs, was in improved humour as he mixed honey and water into his glass of green breakfast wine. Typically, his night had been filled with distressing dreams, but any observer would see only a tall, insouciant "silverskin" with high cheekbones, slightly sloping eyes and tapering ears, revealing nothing of his inner thoughts.
He had found a quiet hostelry away from the noisy centre of Séred-Öma, this city of tall palms. Here, merchants from all over the Young Kingdoms gathered to trade their goods in return for the region's most valuable produce. This was not the dates or livestock, on which Séred-Öma's original wealth had been founded, but the extraordinary creations of artists famed everywhere in the lands bordering the Sighing Desert. Their carvings, especially of animals and human portraits, were coveted by kings and princes. It was the reputation of these works of art which brought the crimson-eyed albino out of his way to see them for himself. Even in Melniboné, where barbarian art for the most part was regarded with distaste, the sculptors of Séred-Öma had been admired.
Though Elric had left the scabbarded runesword and black armour of his new calling in his chamber and wore the simple chequered clothing of a regional traveller, his fellow guests tended to keep a certain distance from him. Those who had heard little of Melniboné's fall had celebrated the Bright Empire's destruction with great glee until the implications of that sudden defeat were understood. Certainly, Melniboné no longer controlled the world's trade and could no longer demand ransom from the Young Kingdoms, but the world was these days in confusion as upstart nations vied to seize the power for themselves. And meanwhile, Melnibonéan mercenaries found employment in the armies of rival countries. Without being certain of his identity, they could tell at once that Elric was one of those misplaced unhuman warriors, infamous for their cold good manners and edgy pride.
Rather than find themselves in a quarrel with him, the customers of the Rolling Pig kept their distance. The haughty albino too seemed indisposed to open a conversation. Instead, he sat at his corner table staring into his morning wine, brooding on what could not be forgotten. His history was written on handsome features which would have been youthful were it not for his thoughts. He reflected on an unsettled past and an uneasy future. Even had someone dared approach him, however sympathetically, to ask what concerned him, he would have answered lightly and coldly, for, save in his nightmares, he refused to confront most of those concerns. Thus, he did not look up when a woman, wearing the conical russet hat and dark veil of her caste, approached him through the crowd of busy dealers.
"Sir?" Her voice was a dying melody. "Master Melnibonéan, could you tolerate my presence at your table?" Falling rose petals, sweet and brittle from the sun.
"Lady," said Elric, in the courteous tone his people reserved for their own high-born kin, "I am at my breakfast. But I will gladly order more wine ..."
"Thank you, sir. I did not come here to share your hospitality. I came to ask a favour." Behind the veil her eyes were grey-green. Her skin had the golden bloom of the Na'äne, who had once ruled here and were said to be a race as ancient as Elric's own. "A favour you have every reason to refuse."
The albino was almost amused, perhaps because, as he looked into her eyes, he detected beauty behind the veil, an unexpected intelligence he had not encountered since he had left Imrryr's burning ruins behind him. How he had longed to hear the swift wit of his own people, the eloquent argument, thecareless insults. All that and more had been denied him for too long. To himself he had become sluggish, almost as dull as the conniving princelings and self-important merchants to whom he sold his sword. Now, there was something in the music of her speech, something in the lilt of irony colouring each phrase she uttered, that spoke to his own sleeping intellect. "You know me too well, lady. Clearly, my fate is in your hands, for you're able to anticipate my every attitude and response. I have good reason not to grant you a favour, yet you still come to ask one, so either you are prescient or I am already your servant."
"I would serve you, sir," she said gently. Her half-hidden lips curved in a narrow smile. She shrugged. "And, in so doing, serve myself."
"I thought my curiosity atrophied," he answered. "My imagination a petrified knot. Here you pick at threads to bring it back to life. This loosening is unlikely to be pleasant. Should I fear you?" He lifted a dented pewter cup to his lips and tasted the remains of his wine. "You are a witch, perhaps? Do you seek to revive the dead? I am not sure ..."
"I am not sure, either," she told him. "Will you trust me enough to come with me to my house?"
"I regret, madam, I am only lately bereaved —"
"I'm no sensation-seeker, sir, but an honest woman with an honest ambition. I do not tempt you with the pleasures of the flesh, but of the soul. Something which might engage you for a while, even ease your mind a little. I can more readily convince you of this if you come to my house. I live there alone, save for servants. You may bring your sword, if you wish. Indeed, if you have fellows, bring them also. Thus I offer you every advantage."
The albino rose slowly from his bench and placed the empty goblet carefully on the well-worn wood. His own smile reflected hers. He bowed. "Lead on, madam." And he followed her through a crowd which parted like corn before the reaper, leaving a momentary silence behind him.
2 The Material
She had brought him to the depth of the city's oldest quarter, where artists of every skill, she told him, were licensed to work unhindered by landlord or, save in the gravest cases, the law. This ancient sanctuary was created by time-honoured tradition and the granting of certain guarantees by the clerics whose great university had once been the centre of the settlement. These guarantees had been strengthened during the reign of the great King Alo'ofd, an accomplished player of the nine- stringed murmerlan, who loved all the arts and struggled with a desire to throw off the burdens of his office and become a musician. King Alo'ofd's decrees had been law for the past millennium and his successors had never dared challenge them.
"Thus, this quarter harbours not only artists of great talent," she told him, "but many who have only the minimum of talent. Enough to allow them to live according to our ancient freedoms. Sadly, sir, there is as much forgery practised here, of every kind, as there is originality."
"Yours is not the only such quarter." He spoke absently, his eyes inspecting the colourful paintings, sculptures and manuscripts displayed on every side. They were of varied quality, but only a few showed genuine inspiration and beauty. Yet the accomplishment was generally higher than Elric had usually observed in the Young Kingdoms. "Even in Melniboné we had these districts. Two of my cousins, for instance, were calligraphers. Another composed for the flute."
"I have heard of Melnibonéan arts," she said. "But we are too distant from your island home to have seen many examples. There are stories, of course." She smiled. "Some of them are decidedly sinister ..."
"Oh, they are doubtless true. We had no trouble if audiences, for instance, died for an artist's work. Many great composers would experiment, for instance, with the human voice." His eyes again clouded, remembering not a crime but his lost passion.
It seemed she misinterpreted him. "I feel for you, sir. I am not one of those who celebrated the fall of the Dreaming City."
"You could not know its influence, so far away," he murmured, picking up a remarkable little pot and studying its design. "But those who were our neighbours were glad to see us humiliated. I do not blame them. Our time was over." His expression was again one of cultivated insouciance. She turned her own gaze towards a house which leaned like an amiable drunkard on the buttressed walls of two neighbours, giving the impression that if it fell, then all would fall together. The house was of wood and sandy brick, of many floors, each at an angle to the rest, covered by a waved roof.
"This is the residence," she told him, "where my forefathers and myself have lived and worked. It is the House of the Th'ee and I am Rai-u Th'ee, last of my line. It is my ambition to leave a single great work of art behind, carved in a material which has been in our possession for centuries, yet until now always considered too valuable to use. It is a rare material, at least to us, and possessed of a number of qualities, some of which our ancestors only hinted at."
"My curiosity grows," said Elric, though now he found himself wishing that he had accepted her offer and brought his sword. "What is this material?" "It is a kind of ivory," she said, leading him into the ramshackle house which, for all its age and decrepitude, had clearly once been rich. Even the wall-hangings, now in rags, revealed traces of their former quality. There were paintings from floor to ceiling which, Elric knew, would have commanded magnificent prices at any market. The furniture was carved by genuine artists and showed the passing of a hundred fashions, from the plain, somewhat austere style of the city's secular period, to the ornate enrichments of her pagan age. Some were inset with jewels, as were the many mirrors, framed with exquisite and elaborate ornament. Elric was surprised, given what she had told him of the quarter, that the House of Th'ee had never been robbed.
Apparently reading his thoughts, she said: "This place has been afforded certain protections down the years." She led him into a tall studio, lit by a single, unpapered window through which a great deal of light entered, illuminating the scrolls and boxed books lining the walls. Crowded on tables and shelves stood sculptures in every conceivable material. They were in bone and granite and hardwood and limestone. They were in clay and bronze, in iron and sea-green basalt. Bright, glinting whites, deep, swirling blacks. Colours of every possible shade from darkest blue to the lightest pinks and yellows. There was gold, silver and delicate porphyry. There were heads and torsos and reclining figures, beasts of every kind, some believed extinct. There were representations of the Lords and Ladies of Chaos and of Law, every supernatural aristocrat who had ever ruled in heaven, hell or limbo. Elementals. Animal-bodied men, birds in flight, leaping deer, men and women at rest, historical subjects, group subjects and half-finished subjects which hinted at something still to be discovered in the stone. They were the work of genius, decided the albino, and his respect for this bold woman grew.
"Yes." Again she anticipated a question, speaking with firm pride. "They are all mine. I love to work. Many of these are taken from life ..."
He thought it impolitic to ask which.
"But you will note," she added, "that I have never had the pleasure of sculpting the head of a Melnibonéan. This could be my only opportunity."
"Ah," he began regretfully, but with great grace she silenced him, drawing him to a table on which sat a tall, shrouded object. She took away the cloth. "This is the material we have owned down the generations but for which we had never yet found an appropriate subject."
He recognised the material. He reached to run his hand over its warm smoothness. He had seen more than one of these in the old caves of the Phoorn, to whom his folk were related. He had seen them in living creatures who even now slept in Melniboné, wearied by their work of destruction, their old master made an exile, with no one to care for them save a few mad old men who knew how to do nothing else.
"Yes," she whispered, "it is what you know it is. It cost my forefathers a great fortune for, as you can imagine, your folk were not readily forthcoming with such things. It was smuggled from Melniboné and traded through many nations before it reached us, some two-and-a-half centuries ago."
Elric found himself almost singing to the thing as he caressed it. He felt a mixture of nostalgia and deep sadness.
"It is dragon ivory, of course." Her hand joined his on the hard, brilliant surface of the great curved tusk. Few Phoorn had owned such fangs. Only the greatest of the patriarchs, legendary creatures of astonishing ferocity and wisdom, who had come from their old world to this, following their kin, the humanlike folk of Melniboné. The Phoorn, too, had not been native to this world, but had fled another. They, too, had always been alien and cruel, impossibly beautiful, impossibly strange. Elric felt kinship even now for this piece of bone. It was perhaps all that remained of the first generation to settle on this plane.
"It is a holy thing." His voice was growing cold again. Inexplicable pain forced him to withdraw from her. "It is my own kin. Blood for blood, the Phoorn and the folk of Melniboné are one. It was our power. It was our strength. It was our continuity. This is ancestral bone. Stolen bone. It would be sacrilege ..."
"No, Prince Elric, in my hands it would be a unification. A resolution. A completion. You know why I have brought you here."
"Yes." His hand fell to his side. He swayed, as if faint. He felt a need for the herbs he carried with him. "But it is still sacrilege ..."
"Not if I am the one to give it life." Her veil was drawn back now and he saw how impossibly young she was, what beauty she had: a beauty mirrored in all the things she had carved and moulded. Her desire was, he was sure, an honest one. Two very different emotions warred within him. Part of him felt she was right, that she could unite the two kinsfolk in a single image and bring honour to all his ancestors, a kind of resolution to their mutual history. Part of him feared what she might create. In honouring his past, would she be destroying the future? Then some fundamental part of him made him gather himself up and turn to her. She gasped at what she saw burning in those terrible, ruby eyes.
"Yes," she said. "A new life honouring the old. Will you sit for me?" She too was caught up in his mood, for she too was endangering everything she valued, possibly her own soul, to make what might be her very last great work. "Will you allow me to create your memorial? Will you help me redeem that destruction whose burden is so heavy upon you? A symbol for everything that was Melniboné?"
He let go of his caution but felt no responsive glee. The fire dulled in his eyes. His mask returned. "I will need you to help me brew certain herbs, madam. They will sustain me while I sit for you."
Her step was light as she led him into a room where she had lit a stove and on which water already boiled, but his own face still resembled the stone of her carvings. His gaze was turned inward, his eyes alternately flared and faded like a dying candle. His chest moved with deep, almost dying breaths as he gave himself up to her art.
3 The Sitting
How many hours did he sit, still and silent in the chair? At one time she remarked on the fact that he scarcely moved. He said that he had developed the habit over several hundred years and, when she voiced surprise, permitted himself a smile. "You have not heard of Melniboné's dream couches? They are doubtless destroyed with the rest. It is how we learn so much when young. The couches let us dream for a year, even centuries, while the time passing for those awake was but minutes. I appear to you as a relatively young man, lady. But actually I have lived for centuries. It took me that time to pursue my dream-quests, which in turn taught me my craft and prepared me for ..." And then he stopped speaking, his pale lids falling over his troubled, unlikely eyes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Best of Michael Moorcock"
Copyright © 2009 Michael Moorcock.
Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction by John Davey,
A Portrait in Ivory,
The Visible Men,
A Dead Singer,
Lunching with the Antichrist,
The Opium General,
Behold the Man,
A Winter Admiral,
My Experiences in the Third World War,
Going to Canada,
Crossing into Cambodia,
Doves in the Circle,
The Deep Fix,
The Birds of the Moon,
The Cairene Purse,
A Slow Saturday Night at the Surrealist Sporting Club,
Afterword by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer,