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British writer Michael Moorcock is a master of many genres. He’s written numerous volumes of classic fantasy as well as iconic modern sci-fi. He is also one of the few who was writing steampunk because it was “a thing.” The cover of his 1971 novel Warlord of the Air features that essential steampunk trope, the airship. Though the book looked intriguing when I encountered it years ago, I’d never actually read it until recently.
My favorite thing about Warlord is how it has the tone and feel of a real Victorian-era novel. It begins as these stories often do, with the narrator (allegedly Moorcock’s grandfather) encountering the unfortunate Oswald Bastable, who seems at first to be a drug-addled madman. After plying him with drink, the narrator convinces him to tell his story. Despite his fantastic tale, the man seems to be telling the truth. Bastable claims to have traveled forward in time to 1973 after being caught in an earthquake on a military expedition the Himalayas. Later he returns, just as accidentally, to the current year of 1901. He tells of the wonders of a modern era that has little in common with our world.
In this alternate timeline, the British Empire still dominates the globe. There has been peace for many decades. The Bolshevik and Nazi tyrannies never came to be. It’s an era of great steam-powered airships that traverse the world, where the airplane had not yet been invented. Realizing that telling the truth would only land him in an asylum. Bastable makes a new life for himself in the 1970’s, finding work on one of these great crafts.
The world of this alternate 1973 is clean, prosperous and peaceful. It appears to be a utopia, but Bastable soon finds that all is not what it seems. The colonies of Great Britain and the other European powers (plus the United States and Japan) have long suffered under their masters’ oppressive rule. Revolts are brewing, especially in that most backward and abused of nations, China. Due to a series of unexpected circumstances, Bastable joins the revolt led by the titular Warlord.
Like many steampunk novels, this book includes real-life figures as characters, who play different roles in this alternate timeline. All appear only briefly except for Ronald Reagan. In this world, Reagan is neither an actor nor a politician but the leader of a Boy Scout troop. He clashes with Bastable, causing the latter to lose his prestigious job on the world’s finest airliner. In this alternate timeline, Reagan is the worst kind of prude and bigot. At one point in the story, he objects to being seated at a table next to a group of East Indians and starts screaming the N-word. It’s a reminder that long before the hysteria over Donald Trump, many progressives like Moorcock viewed Reagan as equally odious. This view now seems ludicrous in the light of the man’s centrist and very establishmentarian administration. It also makes an audio-book edition unlikely, unless the politically-incorrect language is edited out.
Warlord of the Air was in danger of falling into obscurity when Titan Books, realizing it for the classic it was, re-published it in 2013. It’s the first in the “Nomad of the Time Streams” trilogy, featuring accidental time traveler Oswald Bastable. I really enjoyed its action, intrigue, and period feel and will certainly be reading the rest of the series. Unfortunately, I felt I had to reduce my rating due to the embarrassing scenes with Ronald Reagan. I gave it 4 out of 5 stars.