“Read a Damn Book – 154: The Final Programme”
I’ve been sort of dreading this review, and the main reason for my apprehension is that I’m going to have to admit something that I rarely enjoy admitting: I don’t think I GET this book. It’s a novel, which is great, and it’s a science-fiction novel, which is also great. I love science fiction. Great times two, so far. And it’s a very WEIRD book---which should be fantastic. I LOVE weird books. I’m a fan of Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley, Jorge Borges, Italo Calvino, Stanislaw Lem, H.P. Lovecraft, Rod Serling, and Robert Anton Wilson... I’m certainly no stranger to the WEIRD STUFF. Heck, I’ve even reviewed the Principia Discordia, a “bible” for a religion that worships Eris, the goddess of Chaos. I feel very at home, when it comes to weird… But THIS book, by Michael Moorcock… I didn’t really get it… Come with me now, on a strange journey, to see why I THINK I didn’t love The Final Programme…
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual digital book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Michael Moorcock – The Final Programme (1968 / 2016)
First off, I want to mention that I’d heard of Michael Moorcock before reading this book---he’s a well respected British author who is often associated with the “New Wave” science fiction movement of the 1960s, primarily because he was the editor of New Worlds magazine, the semi-official HUB of ‘60’s British “New Wave” sci-fi, and he used his position to publish some interesting stuff by folks like J.G. Ballard (who became a pretty damn big deal, eventually, especially to future punk and new wave musicians! Check out the definitive look at post-punk and new wave music, Simon Reynold’s Rip It Up and Start Again, for more information on THAT tangent…) Moorcock is also incredibly well known for his high fantasy novels starring the character, Elric---but I don’t read much fantasy, and I’ve never read any of his Elric books.
So, why did I pick this up in the first place? Quick answer: I saw a humorous review of the film version of the book and thought it looked like it might be fun. One of my favorite YouToob reviewers is Brandon Tenold, who looks mainly at weird, cult films---and a few years back he did a review of this 1973 British psychedelic, sci-fi, spy film, based on The Final Programme, and he said the movie was pretty bad---but really weird. I laughed quite a lot at his review, and the movie seemed strange enough that I thought, “I should read the BOOK this movie is based on. I love strange stuff, so it should be right up my alley!” Then I forgot about it… BUT, a few months ago, I got a gift card from somebody for something, and I was looking around for some new digital books to buy (I read stuff on my Kindle at night, so I don’t have to turn a light on and wake my wife up when I have insomnia---which is pretty frequently… I get a LOT of reading done at night.) For whatever reason, maybe I’d rewatched Tenold’s review of the movie, I can’t remember for sure, I looked up Moorcock’s novel, and sure enough, there was a digital version available.
What I didn’t know is that the book is only part one of a FOUR PART series, and (after reading the introduction to this book---but before reading the novel itself) I discovered that the books in the series can be read in any order because the stories are only RELATED to each other, like alternate universe retellings of the same story or something. And I thought that might be pretty cool, like when Samuel Beckett (another wonderful purveyor of the WEIRD) told basically the same story TWICE in his books Molloy and Malone Dies. And so, excited because of Brandon Tenold’s humorous review of the movie version, and thanks to Moorcock’s reputation as an avant-garde writer, AND prompted by the possibility that I might be about to discover a science fiction version of Samuel Beckett…I READ The Final Programme… And I went, “Huh?”
There have been several books that I’ve read more than once before writing my reviews. In the case of a book like JMR Higgs’ KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, that second reading was a real delight---I’ve read THAT book four times now, and I’ve enjoyed reading it every time. Some books, however, like The Final Programme, I read more than once just so I could figure out what was going on. (Another example of this type of re-reading would be Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy---which, once I got a handle on what they were doing, I absolutely LOVED.) But having read Moorcock’s book twice, I’m still not sure, exactly, what I’m supposed to GET out of it… So let’s stop beating around the book and dive in.
The novel was published in 1968, right in midst of the Swinging London Psychedelic movement, and as such this book is FULL of sex and drugs and rock and roll---and I’m fine with all that. I don’t mind bad language, the violence was often senseless, which was great, the primary character was morally ambiguous, often leaning towards the downright evil, and I’m fine with that too… So far, we’re firing on all pistons. Aaaaand so, let’s meet the star of the show: Jerry Cornelius.
Jerry Cornelius is your typical pulp hero. He’s a physicist, rock-star, fashion-model, billionaire assassin, who had an incestuous love affair with his sister, and is ALSO a psychic vampire---LITERALLY. The narrator mentions this at the beginning of the book---Cornelius FEEDS on the people around him, and this even becomes a major plot-point later in the book. Jerry (you don’t mind if I call him, Jerry, I hope…) Jerry, early in the book, is contacted by a Miss Brunner and her gang of scientist / social engineers, to help them break into Jerry’s deceased father’s heavily guarded fortress and steal some scientific information (in microfilm form) that Miss Brunner hopes to use to complete some strange project that she’s working on. A project that, she says, will save the world. The problem is that Jerry’s father’s property has fallen into the hands of Jerry’s psychotic, drug-addicted brother, Frank, who is also keeping Jerry’s sister, Catherine (with whom Jerry had the affair), hostage. What Jerry very quickly deduces, however, is that Miss Brunner isn’t exactly human---but he agrees to help her and her cronies storm the castle, primarily (we assume) so that he can rescue his sister…
Honestly, there are some very entertaining moments in this book, and some seriously thrilling action sequences, which are comparable to some of the most exciting scenes in that one James Bond book that I read. The novel is also pretty funny in spots… There’s one scene in which Jerry throws a party to let off some steam, (and presumable to syphon off some psychic energy), and his raging party ends up lasting for SEVERAL MONTHS, with people dying and the caterers demanding more money because they are having trouble keeping up with the insatiable appetites of Jerry’s guests---that’s all great stuff!
So my problem with this book isn’t with the humor, or the action, or with the drugs and violence and sex, or even with the twisted morality of the entire book… The problem that I have with the book is this weird MALAISE that saturates the whole thing. This sense that, regardless of what’s happening in the plot, NOTHING SEEMS TO MATTER… It was all of little to no consequence, to the reader, perhaps, but for Jerry Cornelius, for certain. It’s all nothing… A complete emotional wash…
During the attempt to save his sister from his drug addled brother, Frank, Jerry ends up KILLING Catherine when one of his “needle gun” shots misses his brother and goes through his sister’s heart, instead. (She’s lying in a bed, while Frank is trying to run away, so how Jerry’s shot “missed” by so much, we can only speculate.) But, even though we’ve been led to believe that Jerry loves his sister, he doesn’t really seem to care that much that he’s just killed her. People die at his party, and he’s just upset that they’re ruining the atmosphere. He has a brief affair with a scientist, Dr. Hira, early in the book, but seems uninterested in him when they meet later in the novel. He has a bandmate that he performs with in a bar early in the book, and he later kills that same bandmate, but doesn’t seem too broken up over it. Jerry just seems…BORED…no matter how weird the story gets, no matter how horrible what he is doing becomes---Jerry is just there… The only thing that seems to affect him, like honestly BOTHER him, is when he is isolated for several months working on “The Final Progamme” with Miss Brunner in a cave. He becomes so despondent that Miss Brunner eventually sends him away, telling him to go interact with some people for a while---because, as a psychic vampire, Jerry needs to feed---and after hitchhiking a ride with a couple of college students, and having seduced them both, he basically leaves them bone dry of psychic energy by the side of the road and steals their car! After doing this, Jerry starts to feel much better---and heads off looking for his next sexual adventure in his stolen ride…
All of that said, it’s the ENDING of the book where things really fall apart for me---and I’m not going to say what happens because somebody MIGHT still want to read this depraved, drug-soaked, psychedelic, goofy, amoral, sci-fi, spy-thriller, sex comedy, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for them, but let me say this: I didn’t GET IT. I read the damn book TWICE, and I still don’t get it. Now, there are THREE MORE BOOKS in the series, and if I were to read those, then MAYBE the ending to this book would make more sense---The Illuminatus! Trilogy is like that; reading the first two books I was mostly just confused, (DEEPLY entertained, but confused), but the third book in the series tied things up REALLY well, so that all of the books work together to tell a COMPLETE story. I'm glad I didn't give up, but it was easy to keep reading because the books were so fun, even if they didn't seem to make sense. However, I didn’t actually enjoy The Final Programme enough to want to read three more books just to (hopefully) get some resolution… (Does that make me lazy?)
So that’s The Final Programme, a weird book by a well-respected author written right in the middle of the psychedelic awakening in Britain. It has some good action sequences, some funny scenes, and lots of odd and interesting concepts to chew on (like one scene where Jerry is attacked by “The Crowd,” which seems to be an amalgam creature made up of a great many normal folks who have somehow become psychically glommed together into a single, evil, hive mind that is housed in all those people's separate bodies… It’s odd, but a genuinely creepy encounter.) The dialog, which is full of witty banter, often comes across as rather clunky to me---sometimes hard to follow, as I frequently had trouble understanding how the characters' emotions suddenly changed from ironic playfulness and snark to genuine anger. The TONE was either inconsistent or I just had trouble following it. But my main gripes are with Jerry Cornelius’s apathy and with the conclusion to the novel, which we, as readers, have been pushed towards since Jerry was first recruited by Miss Brunner’s group at the beginning of the book. "The Final Programme!" All that build up…
And thus, if you want to read something weird, and you have a soft spot for morally ambiguous characters, I seriously recommend that you read… Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which is freaking hilarious and bizarre and trippy. And then, if you want to read something else, I guess you could try The Final Programme and see if you like it any better than I did. (Or just go watch Brandon Tenold’s review of the film version…although the ending of the film that he mentions in the review is NOT the same as the ending in the book.) Maybe, if you get to the end of the novel and it makes complete sense TO YOU, you can give me a comment and let me know what I missed… I mean, I understand the PLOT. I can picture in my head what is happening---I just don’t know WHY Moorcock imagined THAT ending to the story was going to be emotionally or intellectually satisfying… What am I supposed to have LEARNED or FELT when the story was over???
Anyway, that’s enough complaining from me… I’m gonna go enjoy one of the simple pleasures of life---and play some Asteroids…
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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