My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The name Michael Moorcock has been on my list of authors to read for so long that I can’t remember why or when he ended up there. I also can’t quite figure out why he’s so well-known or what kind of writer he is, exactly, and reading several entries on him in various fantasy and science fictions encyclopedias hasn’t helped much. Suffice to say he’s British, he was influential in the New Wave, and his writings are extensive and pretty hard to pigeon-hole.
I grabbed The Black Corridor from the science fiction section of my local library, the last of my Christmas break reading that included Benford, Swanwick, and Reynolds. I can’t remember if there were other Moorcock books there and I grabbed this one because it was short and because the cover was obviously by the same artist who did the cover of my edition of Lafferty’s Nine Hundred Grandmothers or because it was the only one they had. Either way, the description intrigued me.
This was an easy read, but it felt dated. The story is about a single human aboard the first colonizing craft traveling to an Earth-like planet around a (relatively) nearby star. Part of it is a psychological exploration of the emptiness of space, of the long, lonely passage (the corridor of the title) to the first habitable worlds. The environment of the ship is sterile, empty technology, a backdrop upon which the single inhabitant is struggling against loneliness and a self-conscious slide into madness. His only defense is a retreat into routine and rationalism.
Yet this isolated existence, we learn through a long series of flashbacks, is only the culmination of a larger slide into madness. The single ship’s inhabitant is actually the only waking member of a crew (the rest are in hibernation) composed of his family and small group of friends who fled a disintegrating Earth. The end-of-times scenario outlined here is a fractious, nationalistic British apocalypse descending into chaos like in Children of Men. In the midst of this, the main character—who built his fortune as a toy manufacturer—sees himself as an isolated island of rationality against this moral and social decay. Together with his companions, they see stealing the only UN ship capable of interplanetary flight and setting off from Earth in the face of and in spite of a nationalistic, atomic holocaust their effort to save not only themselves but the best of humanity.
Two main trends take place over the course of the novel. The first is the narrator’s constant battle against paranoia and loneliness and his gradual descent into possible insanity. Has he woken the other crew members up? Is he having hallucinations because of his sensory isolation or because of the emotionally-stabilizing drugs he feels forced to take? The second is the gradual revelations of what he had to do to secure the crew’s escape from Earth, what he felt justified to do to get them off the planet. There are interesting developments throughout in what is largely a psychological thriller, but some of the most intriguing take place in the final few pages of the book, when we’re forced to ask the question of why he’s the only one awake on the ship in the first place.
In all, there are lots of subtle and troubling themes touched on here but not explored. Parts of the novel make it seem as though we’re dealing with themes of overpopulation or ecological disaster, but these are never front and center. Technology is not a major motivation here, just a sterile backdrop against which the events play out. Mainly The Black Corridor offers a surprisingly troubling treatment of the inevitably isolating results of a self-justifying rationalism.