Out of all speculative fiction authors, Michael Moorcock dominates my TBR list. Part of that is his prolific back catalogue, and part of it is the fact he has written so very much in so many genres. The Nomad of Time, which has recently been re-released in its three original books on Kindle, is a book I have been curious about ever since I started reading the Steampunk genre. The settings it describes, a sequence of alternate timestreams, contain many of the trappings of the genre: airships, empires, steam technology, and Victorian-Edwardian morality. Yet, perhaps because it preceded the genre per se, it has a rather atypical feel to it in comparison to many steampunk books.
The three books in the volume - The Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar - follow the adventures of Captain Oswald Bastable. The character is introduced through a curious literary device wherein Bastable recounts his memoirs to Moorcock’s grandfather (and in the last book, Moorcock himself). The majority of the book is thus Bastable’s narrative, describing his bizarre journey across three alternate realities.
On a military mission, Bastable enters the mysterious Temple of the Future Buddha in the Himalayas. During an assault on the Temple, Bastable is inexplicably transported to an alternate future wherein airships are the key mode of transport, and great empires live on. Initially awed by this future, Bastable begins to scratch beneath the surface of the ingrained prejudices and oppression of the ruling classes. He trains as an airshipman and serves as a member of the Air Police. A disaster aboard leads to his disenchantment and his association with a group of ‘rebels.’ Through these colourful terrorists his own Edwardian sensibilities are challenged, and he first encounters the mysterious Mrs Perrson, a character who appears in all three books (and other of Moorcock’s work, like The Dancers at the End of Time).
The second book, The Land Leviathan, draws Bastable back to the Edwardian era, but in a world ravaged by biological warfare. This post-apocalyptic setting still has empires of a form, and strange alternate technology - submarines, air boats and so forth. The key protagonist in this book is an African warlord who, via the displaced Gandhi, develops a key relationship with Bastable.
The final book, and the one I found the darkest, was the Steel Tsar. Bastable finds himself in an alternate World War Two, involved in the war between Japan and Russia. Via a Japanese prisoner of war camp, located on the island where the book first begins, Bastable becomes drawn into a Russian civil war, precipitated by Stalin.
There is no doubt the books are cleverly written. The use of real historical figures in the various worlds gives it a strange integrity (there is Lenin, Stalin, Joseph Conrad, Gandhi, Churchill, Makhno). The linkage of the nuclear weapons and the destruction of Hiroshima are a theme which unites the time streams, and which torments Bastable through the books. The evolution of Bastable’s political ideology, from his traditional narrow-minded Imperial sensibilities to being a proponent of Socialism, is the key journey of the trilogy. Moorcock paints the politics with broad strokes, tackling Imperialism, racism, communism, socialism, anarchism (I’m running out of ‘isms’ here!) and it feels rather heavy handed in places. And therein lay my main issue with the books. Despite the first person narrative, I struggled to warm to Bastable. He seems oddly dissociated from events at times, as if a passive observer carried along by the momentum of the histories he is involved in. His evolving morality didn’t quite convince me. The pace of the plot was well judged, maintaining interest and throwing suitable twists as we propelled towards catastrophes in each world. The depth of world-building was perhaps the only casualty of this, and personally I would have enjoyed more fleshing out (I suspect that is the history nerd within me).
In summary, it has a clever plot, Moorcock’s quirkiness, unsubtle politics and great airships. Definitely worth a read somewhere down your TBR list, especially if you enjoy alternate histories or are Steampunk curious.
Review by Ross Kitson
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