1969’s Behold the Man is an expanded version of Michael Moorcock’s 1966 novella of the same title. In novella form1, this black humor time-travel tale won a Nebula. At novel length, it did not — but then most novels don’t.
Karl Glogauer’s time machine arrives in a desolate region. The machine is wrecked on arrival, but Karl survives. His intention had been to search for the historical Jesus. Although it is not immediately clear if he has reached the correct time and place, he will ultimately survive beyond his wildest dreams.
But first! Backstory!
Following a miserable childhood in post-War England, rich in bullying and the occasional molestation, Karl grew up with tremendous curiosity and a need for meaning; he’s also bedeviled by neuroticism, self-sabotage, and suicidal melancholia. Nothing he achieved satisfied him. His yearning for impossibilities doomed all of his relationships, led him across the globe, and ultimately to Sir James Headington.
The wealthy and brilliant Sir James had constructed a time machine. He needed a test subject. Karl is willing. He has torpedoed his most recent relationship and has little to keep him in the 20thcentury. The time machine might well allow him to uncover the historical reality behind the myth of Jesus. It’s go.
Pried from the wreckage by kindly Essenes, Karl manages to establish that he is in the Holy Land, and he has arrived just in time to look for Jesus, although only just — the year is, as far as he can tell, about 28 AD. It’s a promising start that he almost immediately encounters John the Baptist; that part of Jesus’ story checks out.
It takes Karl some time to recover from his injuries and somewhat more time before the Essenes trust him enough to let him wander off unsupervised. At this juncture Karl’s quest hits a major roadblock. There is at least one Jesus born to a Mary and a Joseph, but this Jesus is an idiot incapable of fulfilling a messianic role.
Providentially for Christians, there is an expert on site who can ensure that the story of a Jesus, if not necessarily the Jesus, plays out according to the script….
Having The Best of Michael Moorcock handy, I re-read both the novel and the novella version. Aside from making it possible to publish the tale as a stand-alone volume rather than as part of a collection or anthology, the expansion didn’t seem to improve the narrative.
ISFDB informs me that there is a sequel, 1972’s Breakfast in the Ruins. A non-prequel seems unlikely, given Karl’s fate. A quick glance at Breakfast in the Ruins’ Wikipedia entry reveals that it is not a prequel. It seems time travel in this series has some rather odd emergent properties of which Karl was unaware. Not surprising, as Karl was in no way a physicist, just a physicist’s expendable test subject.
I was not well-read in Moorcock as a teen. It’s not as if Moorcock didn’t have an impressive backlist by then, which I could have found at the UWaterloo Bookstore (whoever stocked it was clearly a fan). This biblical time-travel novel was among the few Moorcock books I read. It was also the last Moorcock book I read. I saw no reason to subject myself to more Moorcock.
Devout Christians might want a blasphemy warning on this book, but I really can’t imagine that there are many devout Christians reading, or who read, New Wave science fiction, especially New Wave fiction about their Messiah. That said, this isn’t just the theological equivalent of some teen’s fart joke; Moorcock took close interest in the period about which he was writing and carefully provided Karl with a plausible context for his adventures to play out as they did.
New Wave SF often focused on interiority. This book is a fine example of that tendency. Despite the brevity of the tale (160 pages in the Avon edition), the reader learns much about Karl and his thought processes. It’s a pity that to know Karl is to want to smack him up alongside his head. Which shows that the portrait Moorcock paints is certainly vivid.
Behold the Man is skillfully done. I hate it. Your criteria may differ from mine, however. The story did win a Nebula.
Behold the Man is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK) and here (Book Depository). Behold the Man is listed but unavailable for purchase at Chapters-Indigo, while I could not find it at all at Barnes & Noble.
Readers curious about the original novella can find it in The Best of Michael Moorcock, which is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: At 160 pages, I suspect even the expanded version would be counted as a novella if published today.