Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, Michael Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable has become detached from the usual human experience of time. When we meet him at the beginning of The Warlord of the Air, it’s 1903 and he is a confused, opium-addicted transient who falls in with Michael Moorcock—who we are given to understand is the like-named grandfather of the author, and who has recorded Bastable’s story for posterity.
Opium, as it happens, is the least of Bastable’s worries.
As he recounts to the Moorcock of 1903, Oswald Bastable’s unwilling adventures begin when, as a Kipling- or Haggard-esque British army officer, he rides into Kathmandu at the head of a squadron of Punjabi Lancers and Ghurka infantry, there to negotiate or fight with Sharan Kang, the Priest-King of the Himalayan kingdom of Kulumbari. There, an earthquake buries him beneath the Temple of the Future Buddha, and when he wakes, it’s 1973.
But not our world’s 1973: in this world, the British Empire never fell and holds sway over the world in conjunction with the American, Russian, and Japanese imperal powers. Bastable gets his feet under him and becomes an airship pilot, but misadventure continues to befall him, and before long he falls in with a group of political rebels who at first repulse the upstanding Bastable: the airship captain Korzeniowski, the notorious revolutionary Rudolfo Guevara, and the beautiful and mysterious Una Persson.
They are all in turn captured and turned to the cause of the Chinese general O. T. Shaw (or Shuo Ho Ti, as he’s also known), who intends to wage war on the imperial powers and gain freedom for the oppressed people of this world. And despite his reluctance, Bastable is converted to Shaw’s cause when the brutality of the colonizers is revealed to him. But they don’t call Shaw “the Warlord of the Air” for nothing, and his plans eventually lead to a fateful flight over the city of Hiroshima.
The Warlord of the Air is perhaps a slighter book than some of the works for which Michael Moorcock is better known—the Elric saga, the Jerry Cornelius quartet, Mother London, and the Pyat books, to name a few. The novel wears its politics on its sleeve and is clearly a product of the Vietnam era and the political left of the 1960s. Still, like much of Moorcock’s work, it’s highly influential and significant. With dirigible airships and a neo-Victorian/Edwardian setting, it’s a revered part of the steampunk canon. And it’s worth considering in relation to dystopian literature, with recurrent, explicit references to utopias, and the ways such ideals have been and can be subverted.
When Bastable wakes in 1973, he’s overwhelmed: by the magnificent airship that rescues him; by the sparkling clean Calcutta where he’s nursed back to health; even by the calf-length skirts of the hospital nurses.
I was, I admit, beginning to count myself the luckiest man in the history of the world. I had been taken from the grip of a deadly earthquake in 1902 and placed in the lap of luxury in 1973 — a world which appeared to have solved most of its problems. Was not that the best kind — the most unbelievable kind — of good fortune?
Of course, all is not as it seems. Bastable is initially chagrined to learn about “increasing incidence of lawlnessness created by the Nihilists, Anarchists or Socialists who, the paper informed me, were bent only upon destruction for its own sake.” Bastable, a good soldier of the Empire all the way, has no trouble swallowing the party line on this.
However, Bastable is neither stupid nor unthinking; he cannot, for example, ignore the ugly ignorance and racism he encounters in an American passenger on an airship where Bastable is serving as a Special Air Policeman. Though he initially resists the overtures of Korzeniowski and Guevara, who try to instruct him in the unfair ways in which the British have treated the people of India, eventually he grows to sympathise with them. And finally, Shaw hammers the nail in the coffin of Bastable’s starry-eyed optimism with proof of the brutality with which the world’s imperial powers treat their colonies.
The camera moved in closer and I saw that there were many bullet wounds in the bodies.
“They marched on Dehli without passes to enter the city limits,” said Shaw. “They refused to half when ordered to do so. They were all shot down.”
“But it could not have been an official decision,” I said. “An officer panicked. It sometimes happens.”
“Were the Russians, the Japanese, the Americans [that you saw earlier] panicking?”
“This is how your kind of power is used when others threaten it,” said Shaw. I looked at his eyes. There were tears in them.
I knew something of what he was feeling. There were tears in my eyes, too.
Bastable’s shining new world is, like many dystopias, built on blood, violence, and repression of the Other. The evils of imperialism are, perhaps, an easy target in this age, but in showing them through the eyes of a patriotic citizen of the British Empire still heavily invested in the political attitudes of 1902, Moorcock gives us a fresher perspective.
As coin-reverse of the imperialist dystopia , O.T. Shaw and his own visions of utopia are perhaps more interesting, although they come relatively late in the novel. In Shaw, the Oxford-educated son of an English father and a Chinese mother, there are echoes of contemporary American- and European-educated political radicals who have turned against the West; indeed, the Britain and American of this alternate 1973 would probably call him a terrorist if that word were common in the that world’s vernacular (“revolutionist” seems to be more popular).
In China, Shaw builds his own utopia, the City of the Dawn: a socialist, multicultural city of “schools, communal restaurants, workshops, laboratories, theatres, studios, all full of happy, relaxed people of a hundred different nationalities, races and creeds.” He believes in hope, “what might be possible, what they can look forward to” as a motivator for his followers, in marked contrast to a certain elderly Vladimir Ilyitch Ulianov, who insists that the revolution will only occur when the people’s conditions become unbearable.
Shaw’s optimism and tolerance are appealing, particularly to Bastable, who in short order is Shaw’s staunch ally, disgusted with the sneering racial hatred of his former British fellows and willing to pilot an airship on what he shruggingly admits to himself is a suicide mission to deliver Shaw’s mysterious Project NFB weapon to its destination in the Hiroshima shipyards. Nonetheless, even Bastable is uneasy.
Now his ambitions extended to taking back the whole of China:
“And soon the great grey factories of Shanghai will be ours. The laboratories and schools and museums of Peking will be ours. The trading and manufacturing centres of Canton will be ours. The rich rice fields—all will be ours!” His eyes gleamed. “China will be united. The foreigners will be driven out and all will be equal. We shall set an example to the world.”
“If you are successful,” I said quietly, “let the world also see that you are human. People are impressed by kindness as well as by factories and military strength.”
Shaw gave me a peculiar stare.
And in the end, it’s clear to the reader well before it is to poor Bastable what Project NFB is—a nuclear bomb.
I remember his face full of joy as the blinding white light flooded up behind him, framing the four of them in black silhouette. There was a strange noise, like a single, loud heartbeat. There was darkness and I knew I was blind. I burned with unbearable heat. I remember wondering at the intensity of the explosion. If must have destroyed the whole city, perhaps the island. The enormity of what had happened dawned on me.
“Oh my God,” I remember thinking, “I wish the damned airship had never been invented.”
Utopia is a complicated thing. That the pursuit of ideals, however noble, never comes without a cost is a central theme of The Warlord of the Air; and Bastable, with his open-minded but not uncritical eye provides an excellent perspective on the competing ideologies that populate the alternate 1973 of this book.
Though he exits this novel a shambles of a man, Oswald Bastable will (with the help of Una Persson, my favorite Moorcock chrononaut) go on in The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar to confront racism and militarism and other horrors of the twentieth century in alternate worlds across the Multiverse. Despite observing wryly to Guevara that “I think I’ve had my fill of Utopias,” it’s Bastable’s fate to experience yet more. To borrow a quote from Moorcock’s short story “The Murderer’s Song” this nomad of the Time Streams will continue, “searching for one world where tolerance and intelligence were paramount and where they existed by design rather than accident.”
It is, perhaps, an impossible quest, but no less worthy for all that.