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4.0 out of 5 stars The Genesis of Steampunk, 29 July 2013
This review is from: The Warlord of the Air: A Scientific Romance (Nomad of the Time Streams Novels) (Paperback)
The Warlord of the Air is both the ur-text of the contemporary steampunk movement and a rollicking pastiche of that late Victorian and Edwardian science fiction for which Moorcock deserves so much thanks and credit for preserving and presenting to the contemporary reader.

The story recounts the adventures of one Captain Oswald Bastable, an Edwardian soldier whose extraordinary diary has come into Moorcock's possession. Bastable, a particularly stiff-upper-lipped incarnation of the Eternal Champion, finds himself transported in time to the airship utopia of 1973, where the sun still hasn't set on the world-wide British Empire. After training, he takes a position as a crewman on a commercial airship-liner, and travels the world marvelling at the technological prowess, peace, order and social progress of the future. However, not everyone is happy. Bastable first encounters the fugitive revolutionists Count Guevara and Miss Perrson, then the aerial pirate OT Shaw, and comes to realise that the world he so admires is built on a substrate of brutality and exploitation.

It's an excellent read, presented as what Moorcock himself might call Moral Fiction, so it's important to note that it is also a fundamentally dishonest work

Is the thing he calls the British Empire anything like its historic model? No, not at all, but Moorcock wants the reader to conflate his fictional British Empire with the real thing, so that the equally fictional atrocities he describes can be laid at its feet. Of course, the British Empire of the 19th century did commit atrocities (or, rather, imperial functionaries committed atrocities for which imperial institutions bore ultimate responsibility), often causing (as in the case of Amritsar and the Boer internment camps) outrage in the UK - but the most brutal empires by far were the Russian (after 1917) and the Chinese (after 1949), whose colossal crimes were committed in the name of the `democratic' revolution Moorcock here affects to promote. Can he seriously be contending that the real twentieth century is preferable to his imagined imperialism?

Other misrepresentations abound - some inadvertently funny (economics was not Moorcock's strong suit!), others grotesque and, frankly, contemptible. I particularly liked the sly reference to the Jonestown Massacre (Warlord of the Air was published in 1973), and found the characterisation of the blood-stained monster Lenin as wise and avuncular especially shameful.

It's perfectly clear that the author's sympathies are with the anarchists, but why? They are elitist, morally autistic, snobs. Guevara's comment as the airship approaches Hiroshima, for example, could have come straight from the mouth of the racist Howell with equal validity, being simply an expression of his self-congratulatory sense of moral superiority - his `anointment' as Thomas Sowell would say. I don't doubt Moorcock knew lots of the type: the dandified, effete and useless revolutionists of schoolboy romantic imagination. But if Guevara and Perrson are childish, the revolutionaries of the air are infantile: they are children playing at dressing up, with colourful bandits in attendance. It's Peter Pan or Swallows and Amazons, with sober and obedient Fabian grown-ups to provide these clever children-terrorists with their clean, progressive barracks-world and all the lethal toys they need to kill in the name of 'progress'. Libertarian it is not.

So what was Moorcock actually advocating here? Something very close to ethnic nationalism, it seems to me. Further, one of his anarchists regrets that there has been no war between the great powers, in terms that seem to want to justify the hemoclysm of the real 20th century, a disgraceful position given that even in 1973 Moorcock must have been well-aware that decades of torture and bloodletting had done nothing to deliver his utopia. I wonder how this book would have read if it had been written after the Killings Fields, not before.

In the end, there is much of the sixth-form debating club about all the prissy outrage; much of the preening Third-Worldism that was so de-rigeur for Bandung-generation university students. So much so that I found it added to the period charm of the story in a strange way - if one takes the period to be the early 70s. Did Moorcock really believe what he's saying? Alas, I sense he did, and the reader must take him at face value, but the pastiche is so clever one has to wonder.
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