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. Continue reading →