Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Book Review: 'The Warlord of the Air' by Michael Moorcock

4/5 Stars

…He sighed. “But you know, I think I’m not meant to be here.”
“Oh, nonsense.”

“No, it’s true. This is 1903 – or a 1903 – but it - it isn’t my 1903.”

Thus says Oswald Bastable, Nomad of the Time Streams, in Michael Morcock’s 1971 novel ‘The Warlord of the Air’.

Oswald Bastable is a Captain in the British Army in northern India in 1902. He and his troops are sent to the state of Kumbalari, in a remote part of the Himalayas, to confront a local bandit named Sharan Kang. When a parlay with Kang goes badly, Bastable finds himself lost within an ancient temple, named Teku Benga, filled with mysterious passageways that may lead to other dimensions and other eras. An earthquake releases a strange vapor, which in turn puts Bastable into a deep sleep. When he awakes, it is to find himself alone in the ruins of Teku Benga, his clothes crumbled into dust, and the area devoid of signs of life.

Bastable hears a strange sound approaching his location and is astonished to see a massive airship, bearing the livery of the ‘Royal Indian Air Service’ and the Union Jack. His frantic cries to the airship are answered, and Bastable ascends into the gondola to find a group of puzzled British officers. It turns out the year is 1973, and no one has been seen among the ruins of Teku Benga for nearly 70 years. Bastable realizes that somehow, the vapor that he encountered in the ruins of the temple has kept him in suspended animation for decades, and he is still a young man in a future he would otherwise never have lived to see.

Upon his return to civilization, Bastable is awed by the sight of modern cities, monorails, electric lights, and steam-powered motor cars. The entire world seems safe and prosperous under a benevolent Rule Britannia. Bastable soon obtains a job working aboard one of the large airships plying the skies and comes to relish a life spent traveling from one exotic locale to another in Her Majesty’s service. But then fate intervenes, and Bastable learns that the world’s social and political order is not what it appears, and desperate characters are conspiring to bring about revolutionary change. Will Bastable stand with the anarchists, or against them ?

‘Warlord’ was a seminal novel in terms of promoting and mingling steampunk and alternate world adventures into one book. In its depiction of a parallel world ruled by an ever-enduring British Empire it echoed the theme of Ronald Clark’s earlier proto-steampunk novel ‘Queen Victoria’s Bomb’ (1967), but Moorcock was much better at assembling a fast-paced adventure tale. ‘Warlord’ is instrumental in paving the way for the new genre of alt-future Rule Britannia media, particularly in comics and graphic novels, from Brian Talbot’s ‘Heart of Empire’ series , to the ‘Scarlet Traces’ books by Ian Edginton, and more recently, Alan Moore’s ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ series.

‘Warlord’ is very much a product of the late 60s – early 70s, in that it presents a Rule Britannia in a less than salutary light. Moorcock has always been an ardent proponent of Marxism – it is ever the fashion among European and American intellectuals – and the infatuation with third-world liberation that was rampant among the cognoscenti in that era quite naturally made its way into the underpinnings of ‘Warlord’. 

However, Moorcock avoids turning the book into a polemic, instead weaving the Liberation Struggle into the narrative along with sly jokes on the alternate 1973 in which Bastable finds himself: there is a young lieutenant in the Air Service named Michael Jagger; an elderly, cranky Russian expatriate, named Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin), rues his missed chance at leading a revolution earlier in the century; a decadent aristocrat named Count (Ernesto ‘Che’) Guevara wanders the globe as a dilettante revolutionary. 

The second and third books in the Nomad of Time trilogy, ‘The Land Leviathan’ and ‘The Steel Tsar’, continue Bastable’s adventures. They are all entertaining reads. 

The DAW books edition (No. 291) of ‘Warlord of the Air’ appeared in May 1978 and features a cover illustration of the airship ‘Pericles’ by Gino D’Achille. 

I’ve posted another cover illustration, this one by Patrick Woodruffe, depicting Oswald Bastable emerging from the ruins of Teku Benga to espy the Pericles motoring by.

1 comment:

Pataki Balázs said...

Thanks for this post and image. I saw this as a kid at least 30 years ago and have been looking for it ever since. Now that I learned it's a cover illustration I ordered Moorcock's book as well. Thanks again. Cheers!