My look at steampunk continues with a Raw Feed on one of the proto-steampunk texts: Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air.
A Nomad of the Time Streams was an omnibus in the 1990s from the White Wolf Moorcock reprint series.
I’ve read a lot of Moorcock, but there’s a lot I haven’t read because there’s a lot of Moorcock. I have in no way kept track of the variant editions of his work since Moorcock is a frequent reviser.
Incidentally, my older self finds Moorcock’s political musings even more incoherent and unconvincing than I did in 1999 though not without some value.
Raw Feed (1999): A Nomad of the Time Streams, Michael Moorcock, 1995.
“Introduction” — An interesting introduction in which Moorcock states the three Oswald Bastable novels in this book deal with themes of imperialism and ‘racialism” as well as being a homage to admired pre-WWI British writers: Amongst those writers, Moorcock includes William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. While Moorcock admires socialism but not their particular type, he regards “paternalism and centralism” the bane of socialism, and he thinks some on the left guilty of them. Moorcock has an unclear line about “ … their social solutions, however well-meant, however they hoped to achieve the millennium, to give self-respect to ‘minorities’ and the poor were always doomed while they kept to their prescriptions.” Is this Moorcock’s way of phrasing the criticisms of conservatives that leftists have a “murderous drive for utopia”? I suspect he’s just disagreeing with their policies for utopia. Moorcock, inexplicably, views paternalism and democracy as incompatible. (They seem quite compatible in modern America.) He decries “laissez-faire capitalism” as not being real equality under the law. Somehow, he thinks America (I’m assuming he intends this for an American and, possibly, British audience since this is an American edition, and he resides in America) does not guarantee equal voice, equal access (he may have a point here) and equal responsibility (seemingly, I believe, at odds with socialism). He then has another odd line about the “democratic infrastructure” being under attacked by various quarters in the guise of freedom by things like the telephone company, porn videos, and choice of washing powder. (These are his actual examples, and I don’t understand their significance except for the porn – he’s an admirer of Andrea Dworkin.)
The Warlord of the Air — I liked this adventure set in an alternate history where history seems to have taken an alternate path about the time of the Boer War which, here, only lasted about six months. Oswald Bastable, narrator and hero of the story (the framing conceit is that Moorcock’s grandfather, Michael Moorcock, meets Bastable in 1903 and writes the story down), Captain in the British army, is magically and mysteriously transported to an alternate timeline, circa 1973, during a show-the-flag expedition to the small Himalayan kingdom of Kumbalar. There in the ancient, mazelike palace, Bastable is transported to another universe where lack of two world wars has kept colonialism (practiced by the usual suspects of England, France, Italy, Russia, Germany, Japan, and a US that denies it has an empire, just a “Greater American Commonwealth”). It’s a world of wonderfully developed airships, clean cities, women’s’ suffrage, and, compared to his 1902, improved standard of living. Part of the attraction of alternate histories is the encounter with alternate historical personages. (And, with Moorcock, alternate versions of the personalities found in his Eternal Champion cycle. Here we meet the usually unpredictable scoundrel Captain Quelch as a nice airship captain that Bastable’s fond of. Von Bek shows up here as an anarchist.) Ronald Reagan (at least a “Reagan”, no first name given) gets Bastable kicked out of the Special Air Police. (I suspect, given that this novel seems to have been written in 1971, that this incident was a revision for this edition.) Bastable, disgraced, falls in with a band of anarchists that includes von Bek, Una Persson, and the Nemo-like Captain Korzeniowski. Bastable thinks the imperial world of this alternate 1973 is a utopia until these anarchists show him the repression of the colonized people, economic trade arrangements that exploit them, and the indoctrination of the natives which leads them to believe this all just, inevitable, and an improvement. Bastable meets an alternate historical personage, Vladmir Ilyitch Ulianov (Lenin in our timeline) who is an exile from a democratic Russia that never suffered a violent revolution. It is here the book starts becoming ambiguous in its politics. Ulianov comes across as a man hoping for a miserable proletariat so they will incite revolution. General OT Shaw, a Chinese warlord, is sort of a Vernian figure, think Robur, who has constructed sort of a high tech, anarchist utopia in China. Allegedly, the freedom he offers attracts many brilliant scientists from other countries to build advanced weapons including a nuke. Totalitarian countries, in our world, never seem to have trouble finding scientists for such projects. Bastable argues with Ulianov (and Shaw agrees with him) that the revolution is better motivated by hope rather than misery. He also argues that a quest for a perfect utopia can never be resolved permanently, that imperfection will always exist in the world, that justice can be achieved by small individual acts as well large abstractions. Given the remarks in the introduction to this omnibus, Bastable seems to speak for Moorcock. I get the impression that we are to find fault with Ulianov (and, perhaps, Shaw) but neither one really argues with Bastable and they don’t seem guilty of these crimes. Not guilty, at least, until the end when Shaw sends Bastable on a mission to nuke Hirsohima via airship, a job which horrifies Bastable (and is clearly to horrify us). The efforts of Shaw and the anarchists lead to, eventually, war between the Great Powers – or so one British character, part of an international expedition to crush Shaw, tells Bastable (then allied with Shaw). Bastable replies that war should have come a long time ago between the powers, that only its absence kept their empires intact. This adds some poignancy to the note at novel’s end that presenter Michael Moorcock died in World War One.
The Land Leviathan — This novel, like The Warlord of the Air, is a good combination of adventure novel and political commentary. The novel, in its technology (though the novel is unconvincing in that it’s doubtful this world’s technology would create the weapons – particularly the Land Leviathan which reminded me of some of Hitler’s impractical superweapons both deployed and undeployed – depicted or tactically use them as shown), reminded me of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar series with its digging machines and H. G. Wells’ “The Land Ironclads” with its huge tanks. There is something charming in a world which has taken Victorian technology to such limits. Politically, the novel is clearly about racism. Bastable finds himself in an alternate 1904 world being torn apart and thrust back into barbarism by war. In this world, a brilliant Chilean invented all sorts of technology (wireless transmission of electricity, improved steam engines that don’t use water, burrowing machines, tank, etc) which lead to a rich and prosperous world. However, Moorcock makes a valid point here forgotten by leftists and pacifists who think strife and warfare come from material want. The generation that initially experiences the introduction of these technologies is grateful for the wealth they produce and is willing to live in the status quo (including being imperial subjects). But their children are not satisfied with mere wealth, and a wave of nationalism and independence movements result. Colonial empires fall and the world goes to a brutal war which Bastable enters, encountering a doomed batch of British soldiers in Afghanistan. (Literarily, the novel opens with Michael Moorcock (narrator of the frame of the earlier The Warlord of the Air) going to search for Democratic Dawn City (Shaw’s utopia in the earlier novel) and Bastable. He finds Una Persson who mysteriously disappears. Bastable wonders through a blasted world – rescuing Una Persson, meeting Captain Korzeniowski (in this novel, a Polish sub commander gone pirate). Bastable and the later (after a respite for Bastable in relatively undamaged Scotland) go to the sane country of Bantustan. There things are prosperous, racial harmony is the norm, and foreign policy covertly pacifist (President Gandhi only maintains a military as a bluff). But the central theme of this novel is an examination of racism in the character of Cicero Hood aka the Black Attila, a well-educated American black who has taken advantage of the global chaos to found a racist empire in Africa, then Europe, and, finally, a vengeful return to America. This is an accomplished with the aid of his friend (and, possibly, lover – this is never explained fully) Una Persson. The Black Attila coerces Bastable into joining him (Hood admires Bastable and respects him, though he is white, for rescuing Persson in England) to observe the invasion of America. Bastable finds out that some of Hood’s atrocities have been exaggerated (by Hood himself to cow whites into surrender), that Hood admires Bantustan but believes it is a unique setup due to the uniqueness of Gandhi, that Hood believes his brutal empire must conquer whites to not only redress past grievances but give blacks self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment. Bastable admits whites have mistreated blacks for centuries (including the brutal Americans – Joe Kennedy leads the resistance in Washington, DC), but he is uneasy at Hood’s glee at destroying his boyhood haunts, his refusal to accept what he scornfully calls western notions of equality and mercy to enemies who, in a reversed situation, would not reciprocate. In his Black Ashanti Empire, whites will be tolerated but must earn their rights, children will suffer for their parents’ sins. Bastable is troubled by Hood’s regime though he admits, like William the Conqueror, Hood brings a brutal, fair-mindedness and justice and order. It’s in this novel Bastable begins to suspect Fate has chosen him to witness the battle between Chaos and Order (though, unlike many Eternal Champions, he seems more an observer than a participant in these wars. Una Persson refers to him, when speaking to Moorcock, as a “nomad of the timestreams”. For his part, Bastable begins to suspect that Persson deliberately and knowingly travels between timestreams and that he is not just meeting echoes of her.
The Steel Tsar — This novel is interesting for not only being a thematic wrapup of the Bastable trilogy, but also for how it varies literarily from the others and develops Moorcock’s multiverse. The Steel Tsar of the title is an alternate version of Stalin, here a messianic leader of a Cossack independence revolutionary movement against Kerensky’s socialist Russian state. The political thought Moorcock attacks here, as implied in the omnibus introduction, is centralism and, more broadly, messianic political movements. (Shaw orders Hiroshima’s destruction in The Warlord of the Air. And Bastable is uncomfortable with the Black Attila of The Land Leviathan.) The novel opens with a delightful framing device of Michael Moorcock, the author and not (as in the first two novels) his grandfather. He meets, in 1979, Una Persson who hands him another Bastable memoir, this plagued by the amnesia common to most travelers across timestreams. Moorcock admits that his references to Bastable in The Dancers at the End of Time are “highly speculative”. Persson, it turns out, is a member of the League of Temporal Adventurers who travel throughout time and universes. Bastable has been recruited by her. Persson wittily remarks that she counts on Moorcock’s “strange imagination” to obscure her and Bastable’s stories enough not to upset the timeflow. In this novel, Bastable is inexplicably carried to an alternate universe of 1941 where world war has broken out. Bastable is peculiarly passive through a lot of this book, spending a lot of time as a virtual or real prisoner of various groups. (It is a world where the turning point seems to have been a American Civil War in which England helped the Confederacy, thereby creating two nations – both of which, eventually, provide equality to blacks. England develops a larger Empire that includes holdings in Central and South America. France never recovered from the Franco-Prussian war. Germany absorbed most of their empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is decaying. The Ottoman Empire is stronger than our world. Russian and Japan have Empires.) Most of the multiverse characters are here from the other two novels: Begg, a Captain Korzeniowski, and Una Persson. Bastable waxes philosophic here, and the novel deals with some of our moral responsibility to each other, ourselves, and history. “Human idealism … human impatience … human despair” produce our wars – including aspirations to utopia. Moorcock wisely notes that the same personal characteristics can lead to good or ill depending on the context. Stalin here is as brutal as in our world, a man who uses social aspirations as a lever to personal power. (It is unexplained exactly why Bastable’s nuking of Hiroshima has upset the multiverse.) Persson notes that our delusions, ideas, assumptions, and acts make us all parties in great evils. But we also have the responsibility to act for justice. We are also all victims to allowing leaders to take our moral responsibility which we must never delegate. “Security”, notes Persson, is never permanent and always hard-won. (I liked the novel’s end where many of the characters, including the Steel Tsar, seemed to be aware their character was acting in similar dramas in many universes.) That justice, claims Persson, is rooted in an egalitarianism of equal power. Only democracy stands between us and chaos. I didn’t find all the metaphysics of the multiverse clear, nor Moorcock’s political thoughts explicit enough, but, like his Blood trilogy, I liked the ride.