I've spent some time researching and watching films that could be described as being steampunk before there was such a genre and I've been honoured to be able to present a couple of panels on the subject at conventions. Why, given that steampunk began as a literary genre, I haven't done something similar thus far with books beyond the foundational works of Verne, Wells and Doyle, I have no idea, but clearly it's about time I did.
Michael Moorcock was a well-established figure in the genres of science fiction and fantasy by 1971, not only as the author of a whole swathe of well-received works that include the 'Elric of Melnibone’ series and the controversial Nebula-winning novella, 'Behold the Man,' but also as a controversial editor, having helmed 'New Worlds,' the groundbreaking British magazine for almost seven years from 1964, pioneering what became known as the new wave of literary science fiction.
When he wrote 'The Warlord of the Air,' it was surely just another way to play with his multiverse theories, taking a symbol of the status quo in 1902, a British Army captain called Oswald Bastable, tasked with making peace with or crushing any revolutionary ideas of Sharan Kang, a tribal leader in the age-old state of Kumbalari in northeastern India, and hurling him into an alternate 1973; where he struggles with the progress that the human race has made and we discover how things might have unfolded differently had certain key events never taken place.
However, he also phrased it as a Victorian scientific romance, exploring not only the science fiction and adventure angles that came along with that genre but also a philosophical one, taking the prominent issues of the day, such as colonialism, racism and revolutionary political theories, then extrapolating them into utopian or dystopian futures. This, of course, combines many of the reasons as to why it's such an influence on what would, a decade and a half later, begin to be called steampunk.
One reason is because it's written in a very Victorian style inside a classic pair of framing devices. The first is a brief note from Moorcock, explaining that, after the death of his grandmother, he's given some papers belonging to her husband, the grandfather that he never met, even though he shares his Christian name. By far the most interesting is the narrative which we're about to read, because he deemed it worthy of reaching a wider audience and so submitted it for publication.
The second constitutes the first chapter, in which the elder Michael Moorcock meets a strange opium addict in a remote place and chooses to chronicle the fantastic story which he tells. The location is Rowe Island, a remote rock in the Indian Ocean to which he has deliberately secluded himself to recover from nervous exhaustion. The man, of course, is Oswald Bastable and his yarn constitutes the rest of the book until a brief note from the younger Moorcock at the very end.
Another reason is that there's much play on technology, given that the very name of steampunk came from idle speculation on the part of K W Jeter as to how the founding triumvirate of himself, Tim Powers and James P Blaylock should describe the Victorian novels that they had been writing. The name of the cyberpunk genre, in vogue at the time, reflected technology, so Jeter simply extrapolated steam as the logical equivalent for their 19th century shenanigans.
In 'The Warlord of the Air,' the land vehicles of Moorcock's alternate 1973 are steam-powered, as the internal combustion engine is deemed inferior for efficiency reasons. Bastable, however, spends much more of his time on airships, a perennial steampunk favourite, from the Pericles, a ship of the Royal Indian Air Service which rescues him from the inaccessible rubble of Teku Benga, through the Loch Etive, the immense cruise-liner of the air on which he finds employment, to the Rover, a smaller vessel which brings him into revolutionary company. Airships are the most reliable and comfortable vessels in this future for global transport, only dominated by heavier than air machines during the finalé.
Finally, there's a good deal of mashing together of fictional and real characters. Oswald Bastable himself was borrowed from 'The Story of the Treasure Seekers,' an 1899 children's book by Edith Nesbit, and other characters were created by Moorcock specifically for this novel. Yet, there's also a fascinating variety of cultural icons placed into alternate roles, often under their real names rather than those by which we know them best, from a brief appearance by Lt Michael Jagger, the young army officer who accompanies Bastable back to Blighty, through Joseph Korzeniowski, the Polish-born captain of the Rover who is living in exile in Britain, to Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, an aging revolutionary living out his uneventful years in the Warlord's Dawn City in China. That's Mick Jagger, Joseph Conrad and Lenin to those who don't recognise the names.
The edition I read, a 1975 paperback from Quartet Books, has a few other such characters under names that were either altered for that edition, or more likely, were changed later for future ones, as is Moorcock's habit. Major Howell of the Royal Indian Air Police, the amateur archaeologist who rescues Bastable from Teku Benga and, later in the book, exposes the racism inherent in the Empire, is really Enoch Powell, the British politician famous for the 'rivers of blood' speech he gave about race in 1968. The similarly racist and often apoplectic Captain Egan of the Rough Riders organisation, the American version of the Boy Scouts, who causes so much chaos on board the Loch Etive, is actually Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, a decade before becoming the US president.
Each of these component parts of what would become crucial to steampunk literature is covered so capably that this could be seen as something of a template for what was to follow from authors such as Blaylock, Powers and Jeter. However, it wasn't the first such experiment. Keith Laumer wrote 'Worlds of the Imperium' in 1962 and Ronald W. Clark's 'Queen Victoria's Bomb' followed in 1967. Harry Harrison would soon join the trend in 1973 with 'A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!' Jeter was the first of the naming triumvirate with a qualifying novel, 'Morlock Night' in 1979, which he also called 'gonzo-historical.'
I haven't read those books by Laumer or Clark, but I'm highly intrigued as to what tone they take. Moorcock, who describes himself as an anarchist, does a great job here both pastiching the style and substance of Victorian writers and criticising their tendency to be near-sighted socially even when creating their utopias or dystopias. While Wells often referenced class, most obviously in 'The Time Machine,' Moorcock looks to the millions living under colonial rule and highlights them as exploited resources, who will eventually rise up.
The basic argument of this book is that the two world wars we know so well prompted the collapse of the colonial powers and hastened the end of their empires by battering their economies and devastated their manpower. Without them, he posits that the empires of Britain, France, Russia, America and Japan would collectively run the world in a sort of balance. Progress would be made and Bastable initially regards the 1973 British Empire as a magnificent beast in which society had progressed beyond the dreams of his 1902 mind. Only when it's demonstrated to him by revolutionary souls what lies beneath that glorious surface does he realise that it's not quite the utopia he believed.
'The Warlord of the Air' isn't a long novel, as Moorcock's novels rarely were at the time, and I devoured it in a couple of days. He returned relatively quickly to Oswald Bastable for a sequel called 'The Land Leviathan' in 1974 and, a little later, for a third volume entitled 'The Steel Tsar' in 1981. I'm keen on seeing what angles these add to the mix, as it seems like they consolidate but expand on what this book achieves. Watch this space. ~~ Hal C F Astell