Friday, 13 August 2010

‘The Black Corridor’ – Michael Moorcock


Every now and then, I find it makes for a nice change to read something a little shorter than some of the books I’ve got on the go. Some people might say that I read nothing but short books and I can’t argue with that at the moment (it’s all I have time for)! It still makes for a nice change though to read something that’s bite sized rather than something more substantial. Sometimes you find yourself being mislead though and you end up reading something that you thought would be a quick and snappy read but ends up being far more. This was what happened with Michael Moorcock’s ‘The Black Corridor’ (first published in 1969), a story making up a mere one hundred and fifty two pages of the ‘Sailing to Utopia’ collection. I thought that I was getting a quick read to tide me over until the weekend; what I actually got was something that I find myself still chewing over as I’m writing this...

The Earth is doomed as humanity, driven to excessive paranoia, seeks to tear itself apart in ever growing bouts of violence. Only a few people can see how it will all end and they realise that their only way of escape is to head for the stars and seek to begin a new life there. Ryan is the man in charge of the ship while the others go into suspended animation; he will keep the ship on course for a voyage that will take years. However, can one man maintain his grip on sanity when he is the only living being for many millions of miles? If this wasn’t bad enough, can Ryan shake off a lifetime of inbred paranoia from his time on Earth? What will the combination of the two result in...?

‘The Black Corridor’ is one of those books where (even a day or so after finishing it) I find myself thinking, ‘did it really just end like that?’ Moorcock effortlessly spins a tale that has you thinking everything is headed in a certain direction until right at the very end when you realise you were reading something else entirely, something that makes perfect sense when you go back and look at it again. Or does it? I’m pretty sure that I ‘got’ the ending but it’s vague enough to leave things hanging in that delicious way that keeps you chewing at it for a long time afterwards.

Earth is overcrowded and in the process of turning on itself (the ‘how’ isn’t really explored but I’d say that’s not really the point of this tale), any chance of escape has to be taken but is going from one extreme to another the answer? Moorcock explores this question right from the start by placing the ensuing drama in the context of the void it takes place in. The end result puts Ryan’s tale firmly in its proper place, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, but it also serves to intensify everything about what’s happening to Ryan. After all, if there is nothing else going on for billions of miles then something happening almost becomes riveting by default! ‘The Black Corridor’ doesn’t just rely on this approach to succeed though, developments and revelations in Ryan’s character add fresh impetus to the questions that the plot throws at him. There was more than enough here to keep me reading and I’m glad that I did.



‘The Black Corridor’ doesn’t just describe the interstellar journey that Ryan commands (although it’s a haunting reminder of the emptiness of space); it also describes the journey into Ryan’s psyche that enforced isolation results in him taking. There is a constant reminder of the void that exists just on the other side of the porthole and this builds up into a crushing weight on Ryan’s shoulders. It’s that other corridor which Ryan must travel that is the more interesting to follow though. As Ryan spends more time on his own, reflections on his past slowly begin to cast him in a new light and I enjoyed the measured way that Moorcock slowly draws these out to give us a picture of Ryan that is far more detailed. I also liked the way that this approach raised questions over how much sympathy the reader should be feeling for Ryan. When you realise just what he has done Ryan comes across as quite a monstrous personality but do desperate times mean desperate measures should be taken? ‘The Black Corridor’ left me trying to work out what kind of a man Ryan really was and how much of what happened was really down to him; any book that gets me engaged that much is a good one as far as I’m concerned.

The only, slight, flies in the ointment (as far as this went) were the sporadic dream sequences and the moments where the conversations with the ship’s computer take a surreal turn. While I can see the point of these passages (and appreciated what they did), their vagueness jarred with the rest of the story which was a lot more tightly written. It all comes together nicely at the end but working my way through those passages was more of a chore than a pleasure at times.

This is only a small niggle though. ‘The Black Corridor’ is a gripping tale of paranoia and obsession that left me with no choice but to keep reading. You can pick up a used copy for a penny on Amazon and I’d recommend it if you’re thinking of giving it a go.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

4 comments:

Sarah said...

Sometimes it is really nice to change gears, so to speak. I've never read any of Moorcock's stuff but a lot of people have recommended him and your review peaks my interest...

Great review, thanks for opening my eyes to the joys of shorter books. :)

Graeme Flory said...

There is a lot of good short fiction out there, I'm really glad that I picked this one up :o)

Moorcock has written a lot of good stuff (as well as some... not so), I might just write a post about where people might like to start...

lee-tyke said...

ah! Moorcock the perfect antidote to the Goodkind hangover.
You can find a reccommended reading order to Moorcocks books on his official website where you can also ask the man himself questions. I found it very useful as I began ploughing through his back catalogue

Prof. Faustaff said...

If you check the Dedication for The Black Corridor - at least in the original paperback editions, not sure about the omnibus - you'll note it reads: "For Hilary – who did more than help". This is an oblique acknowledgement that Moorcock's then wife, Hilary Bailey, is actually the co-author of this fine novel.

Apparently, and according to Moorcock, she was responsible for the chapters set on Earth while he wrote the (more experimental) chapters that take place on the spaceship. Quite why Ms. Bailey's contribution have never been properly acknowledged with a joint credit I can't say. It may however explain why the novel might seem a little 'dis-jointed', because there's actually two authors!