Behold the Man – Michael Moorcock: A Review

Date Finished: May 12th 2017

Michael Moorcock is a name I’ve heard bandied around for years, but for one reason or another I’ve never got round to reading him. Credited as one of the first New Wave Sci-Fi writers, Moorcock’s work has had a huge influence on more modern, nuanced science-fiction and fantasy, with a lean towards philosophical and literary influences rather than the hard-science sci-fi or pastoral England fantasy that dominated the earlier big writers in the two genres.

Behold the Man tells the tale of Karl Glogauer, a time-traveller who crash lands in Palestine, 29AD. He has come to find Jesus of Nazareth and soon succeeds, only to find that Jesus is a gibbering moron. With the weight of historical record firmly on his mind, someone must fill the role Jesus took, but who would be up to the job…?

“Trapped. Sinking. Can’t be myself. Made into what other people expect. Is that everyone’s fate? Were the great individualists the products of their friends who wanted a great individualist as a friend?”

Whilst Karl begins to get his bearings in biblical times, we flashback to various moments in his life to see what made the man. It’s a strange journey: consciously existential, bitterly ironic and often desperately sad. We sashay into and out of memories in a way reminiscent of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5. And the parallels with Vonnegut’s classic don’t end there: both novels were published in 1969, both deal with the post-war period, both feature time-travel (albeit in very different ways) and both have an undercurrent of trauma running through their narrative. So it goes.

That’s not to say Behold the Man is in any way inferior or derivative. The two stand very differently apart on their numerous merits, with Moorcock’s work delving concertedly into religiosity on many levels, and feeling a much more existential work than Vonnegut’s more nihilistic novel. It dares to delve into the darker aspects of the human psyche, and portrays a conflicted, damaged man desperately seeking a path, not realising he’s already on it.

A compelling melting pot of Jungian psychology, childhood trauma, narcissism and religious yearning, Behold the Man is only ostensibly sci-fi, focusing as it does more on a portrait of a single man, a man we all learnt about in school. The subsequent exploration of the neuroses that lead to martyrdom and the fetishisation of religion take the reader to some dark and challenging places. It’s testament to Moorcock’s imagination and literary leanings that a great work on the psychology and philosophy of religion is a sci-fi novel.


Related Reading

Cain – Jose Saramago

Slaughterhouse-5 – Kurt Vonnegut



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