The planet Venice is a world of canals, from space resembling a papal orb. She is being plundered by Captain Cornelius, ‘the Dutchman’, space pirate, wearing a brazen Pierrot mask he is known as ‘Ironface’ to his multifarious crew of ‘flesh, metal and petal’, drawn from ‘a hundred worlds and a dozen space-time continua’. He is travelling through the universe in his solar powered ship, Paine, looking for an artefact that will ‘guarantee his life, his ship’s life, and the life of the universe’, ‘searching for the only being he acknowledges as his peer, who might join him or at least help him; who is known simply as ‘the Doctor’. In short order Moorcock mentions Tom Mix, General Frank/Freddie Force and his/their Antimatter Men, Peggy Steel – the Invisible Lady Steel, Quelchy (i.e. Captain Quelch, brother of Bunter’s Quelch), and Captain Abberley and the Bubbly Boys (the Chaos Engineers). On page 23 The Doctor says: ‘We’re living in a permanent melodrama. I’m the madman with a box, remember?’
There’s a lot in the first few pages, which might put casual readers off – lot of scene and character setting with little action, but it’s worth persevering.
The Doctor belongs to a fan organisation called The League of Terraphiles, started in 51007, devoted to their misapprehension of what Earth was like based on the few extant texts – Sexton Blake and the Terror of the Tongs, The British Boys’ Book of Our Empire, for example – and comparable to twentieth/twenty-first century sf fandom.
The Doctor has to win the Jewelled Arrow of Artemis (the Silver Shaft, Big Arrer, or sometimes known as the mythological Staff of Law owned by the Lord of the Bee Bee Sea of old Barsoom). So he is off to Miggea, at the centre of the Ghost Worlds, and in what the future conflates from the European fifteenth to twentieth centuries, as described by P G Wodehouse.
Mrs Banning-Cannon’s hoping to marry her daughter, Flapper, off to a Peer (although she’s not too sure what a Peer is), and Bingo, or Lord Robin of Sherwood, 507th Earl of Lockesley to give him his proper name, seems a likely candidate. It’s also important to remember that Mrs B-C is a millinerophiliac, and that her current stomach-turning confection resembles a predatory arachnid occupant of Perseus IX, and that Mr B-C is an arachnophobe.
The most obvious thing that shines through the whole book is how much Michael Moorcock enjoyed writing it. And it’s most definitely first and foremost a Michael Moorcock novel, not a Doctor Who novel that Moorcock happened to write; anyone who’s read his work will find the expected many familiar references, for example the Intergalactic Spaceship Guide is known as Colvin’s ABC. Something terrible is happening within the Schwarzschild radius, threatening the existence of everything; dark tides are eating the multiverse: the artefact known as the Cosmic Balance must be returned to the centre.
Minor on and off-stage characters abound, such as King Richard, the Virgin King, who’s fighting an unholy war involving balloons; Ms W.G. Grace, the bearded historian; Renark, Lord of the Rim; Inspector-Magistrate Sir Rupoldo de Crespigny of the Sussex and Surrey Bacon Street Regulators; the Daleks; famous inventor O’Bean the Younger; there’s a spaceship called Gargantua; Meng and Ecker products; a planet called Pangloss and another called Barsoom; and the games that are played at the final tournament are reminiscent of the games played at the Fool and Bladder in Rawlinson End.
The Doctor is characterised extremely well: how much of that is due to helpful editors at the BBC I don’t know, as Moorcock hadn’t seen any of the Matt Smith episodes when he wrote the text, but the Doctor is spot-on.
The Coming of the Terraphiles a good story, a ‘ripping yarn’, and one that really makes you want to know what happens next – and what the dénouement is. It’s also extremely amusing, for example the following exchange: ‘’Where did you get that hat?’ she asked. ‘Where did you get that tile?’ asked the Doctor. ‘Isn’t it a lovely one?’ Grimtok said … ‘It’s no longer in style,’ said Mrs Banning-Cannon firmly.’