The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock
In 1971, Michael Moorcock published a trilogy called Nomad of the Timestreams. Titan Books is reissuing this series. The first book, The Warlord of the Air, introduces us to Oswald Bastable, a captain of the 53rd Lancers in 1902, who, through a bizarre occurrence is hurled into 1973 — a 1973 that is very little like the one our history books, or Wikipedia, tell us about.
Moorcock is an excellent writer, and in The Warlord of the Air he set out to create a late Victorian/Edwardian pastiche. At this, he succeeded brilliantly. Except for the politics and the use of actual historical figures, The Warlord of the Air reads as if it flowed from the pen of H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle or Rudyard Kipling.
Moorcock follows the period’s conventions by giving his story a frame — actually, a double frame, as 1971’s Michael Moorcock tells us about the discovery of a manuscript written by his grandfather, also Michael Moorcock. Grandfather Michael’s story starts in 1903, on Rowe Island, where he is taking a rest cure. Moorcock meets and befriends a strange English madman, Oswald Bastable, who has disembarked from a tramp steamer. Bastable says straight out that he is an opium-eater, using the drug to dull the confusion of his life. He proceeds to tell Moorcock his story.
Bastable was sent to the country of Kumbalari, a Himalayan kingdom hostile to the British Empire. The country’s enigmatic leader invited Bastable and a small party to the capital, Teku Benga, allegedly to talk about a peace treaty. As he describes the city to Moorcock, it is clear he was not impressed.
The whole city glittered in the cold light and it did, indeed, seem older than any architecture I had even seen or read about. Yet for all its richness and its age, Taku Benga struck me as a rather seedy sort of place, as if it had seen better days. Perhaps the Kumbalaris had not built it. Perhaps the race which had built it had mysteriously disappeared, as had happened elsewhere, and the Kumbalaris had merely occupied it.
There is no peace treaty. The invitation is a trick. Bastable and his team try to escape through a strange, dark labyrinth. He is soon separated from his mates, and passes out. When he awakens, the city around him is in ruins, destroyed by an earthquake — one that clearly happened decades ago. Bastable is rescued by a British airship, and discovers that he is in 1973.
When he returns to London, Bastable finds an economic and technological paradise. Goods are high-quality and inexpensive; there are no slums and no poverty; everyone can afford a house on the wages from a thirty-two-hour work week. The countryside is fresh and unspoiled. The only flaw in this utopia is the occasional bomb attack by anarchists. Bastable can’t understand why anyone would protest such a perfect world.
He soon stops trying to convince people that he is from 1902, and just says that he has amnesia. He gets a job with the Special Air Police, an assignment that keeps him aboard the airships he has grown to love. This assignment holds the seeds of both his disgrace and his awakening.
Moorcock creates a plausible alternate world and shows it to us through the eyes of someone very much the product of the British Empire. After Bastable is forced to resign from the Special Air Police, he takes a job with the captain of a tramp steamer airship. To his horror, he learns that Captain Korzenioski is transporting two people accused of anarchy and acts of terrorism. Bastable plans to take control of the airship and turn the crew and passengers in, but before he can, the ship is hijacked by the Eurasian pirate O.T. Shaw, known as the Warlord of the Air.
Shaw shows Bastable the truth of this future world: the utopia of Britain and the other imperial nations — Russia, Japan and the USA — is paid for with the blood and oppression of their colonies. Bastable’s sense of duty and loyalty war with his belief in justice. A battle for Dawn City in the Valley of the Morning, as Shaw struggles to hold off the airship navy of the combined super-powers, tips the scales for Bastable. He throws in with Shaw, just in time to pilot an airship that will deploy Shaw’s uber-secret weapon and turn the tide of the battle.
This futuristic adventure, called by some the beginning of steampunk, is pure fantasy. Moorcock isn’t interested in explaining the technology that so dazzles Bastable, and in fact, most of it — plastic, telephones, televisions, and “computers” — is pure 1970s-tech. Moorcock is more interested in economics and geopolitics here, particularly the impact of colonialism.
Various historical characters make appearances in the book. My favorite is the aging Lenin, who lives in Dawn City. Ronald Reagan, or “Rough-rider Ronnie,” makes an appearance as a bigoted, blowhard scoutmaster. The Reagan character fell short for me, although, honestly, I would have snickered gleefully at this caricature in 1971. In the book, Reagan’s cowardice severely injures the ship’s captain, and that is plausibly set up, but Moorcock is inconsistent with Bastable’s response to the man’s bigotry. Earlier in the story, Reagan pitches a fit because he and his scout troop are seated at a table next to a group of Indian civil servants. Reagan uses the N-word to describe these colonials, who are obviously more cultured and better educated than he is. Bastable’s disgust at hearing the word would be more plausible if he himself had not used it earlier in the book to describe a minstrel show.
Despite this stumble, Moorcock creates a brisk adventure in a well-imagined fantastical world. I remember the 1970s and the sense of disillusionment many young people felt when we discovered that our country was just like every other country, and did not live up to the ideals we had learned in school. Moorcock accurately captures that confusion, pain and enlightenment in this book. This is a message book, but except for Ronald Reagan, the message does not overwhelm the adventure.
Bastable’s journeys are only beginning, and the end of this book is a delicate cliffhanger. I will be looking for the second book, Land Leviathan, which was released this week.
Nomad of the Time Streams — (1971-1981) Publisher: It is 1973, and the stately airships of the Great Powers hold benign sway over a peaceful world. The balance of power is maintained by the British Empire — a most equitable and just Empire, ruled by the beloved King Edward VIII. A new world order, with peace and prosperity for all under the law. Yet, moved by the politics of envy and perverse utopianism, not all of the Empire’s citizens support the marvelous equilibrium. Flung from the North East Frontier of 1902 into this world of the future, Captain Oswald Bastable is forced to question his most cherished ideals, discovering to his horror that he has become a nomad of the time streams, eternally doomed to travel the wayward currents of a chaotic multiverse. The first in the Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy, The Warlord of the Air sees Bastable fall in with the anarchists of this imperial society and set in train a course of events more devastating than he could ever have imagined.
Yep, which is why I'm willing to give a sequel a shot
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