By Michael Moorcock (Ace Books; 1969)
As dark a sci fi tale as any I’ve ever read, this novel’s horror credentials were solidified by its inclusion in Karl Edward Wagner’s “13 Best Science Fiction Horror Novels” listing in the much esteemed Fantasy Five Foot Bookshelf. Aside from that, THE BLACK CORRIDOR, one of several late 1960s publications by the prolific Michael Moorcock, is notable for the fact that it’s quite short. It’s been said that back in the sixties Moorcock could crank out a novel in a few days, and in this case I believe it (the novel was apparently written in collaboration with the author’s then wife Hilary Bailey, although she wasn’t credited on the Ace Books edition). Note the heavy padding that suffuses the text, which is stuffed with computer jargon (“CONDITION STEADY” and so forth) and nonsensical word associations attributed to that same computer (PLACE…SPACE…RACE…WASTE, etc) that go on for several pages. Yet the tale is potent enough in its hallucinatory bleakness to nearly overcome those annoyances.
The premise is one familiar from movies like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SILENT RUNNING: a lone man pilots a spaceship through deep space, having fled the Earth with his wife and several friends, all of whom currently exist in suspended animation. The reasons for the flight are laid out in flashbacks showing how an epidemic of racism and intolerance swept the planet, leading to the formation of fascistic bands of “Patriots” that only made things worse. This allows Moorcock a chance to air, as he often did in his early books, his anarchistic political views; as the protagonist Ryan writes in his journal, “There’s always some bloody messiah to answer their needs, someone whom they will follow blindly because they are too fearful to rely on their own good sense.” Of course, what Ryan fails to understand is that his flight from Earth is a product of the same sense of intolerance that caused all the problems.
At the heart of the book is Moorcock’s unnervingly convincing depiction of Ryan’s increasingly tenuous mental state aboard the spaceship. As the isolation comes to weigh upon Ryan he experiences elaborate hallucinations involving dancers in outer space and his own companions waking up and interacting with him, interactions that invariably turn ugly.
Ugly, to be sure, is a good word for this novel. There’s no humor to alleviate the darkness, and the trajectory is far from optimistic. Obviously this book is a far cry from the works of Robert Heinlein or Larry Niven, or even most of Moorcock’s own publications, which include the Jerry Cornelius cycle of comedic sci fi novels and the Elric fantasy series, neither of which will ever be mistaken for the bleak and bitter BLACK CORRIDOR.