Michael Moorcock is a name with which to conjure in certain circles. Prolific, inventive, and unpredictable, he is known as both a science fiction and fantasy author, and a literary author. Now in his mid-70s, he continues to intrigue audiences with his original and interesting take on these genres.
I’m not all that well acquainted with Moorcock’s work, having only read a few of his novels to date. However, the trilogy which together make up The Nomad of Time is just my cup of tea. A cross, to my mind, between the outlook of H.G. Wells and the derring-do of Edgar Rice Burroughs (although with less swordplay), Moorcock’s short novels follow the career (if that’s the right word) of one Oswald Bastable, a Captain in the Royal Lancers originally stationed in India in the year 1902, who is accidentally set adrift in time.
The first novel of the trilogy, The Warlord of the Air (1971), opens on the narrator, who is Moorcock’s own (fictional?) grandfather, retiring to the Indian Ocean locale of Rowe Island for health reasons in 1903. There, he meets a man who identifies himself as Captain Oswald Bastable, formerly an English officer in northeast India. Sent in the Kumbalari province with his men, Bastable’s mission to suppress a rebellious figure, Sharan Kang, who has been harassing British interests in that part of India. When they enter the Temple of the Future Buddha in Kang’s stronghold of Teku Benga, Bastable becomes separated from his men in an ambush, lost in the temple complex. When he recovers his senses and escapes the ruins, he finds no sign of the village, his enemy, nor his men, and the way back is completely cut off. Seemingly without hope of rescue, Bastable is astonished, then, when the thing that comes to his aid is a massive airship, floating above his head! To his still greater shock, Bastable learns that the date is no longer 1902, but now 1973. The world of the future, such as it is, looks very different not only to Bastable, however, it looks different to the reader as well.
If you remember 1973 (and in fairness, I can’t really say that I can, as I’m not quite old enough), you may recall that airships — that is, what we might call dirigibles or zeppelins — were rather thin on the ground (or in the sky, point taken). They might hover occasionally above sporting events, but lighter-than-air travel had long been seen as a novelty in our world. Bastable, however, finds himself in a world in which airship navies ply the skies, in which the London to which he returns has defeated poverty and hunger, and even a man of his skills must retrain for a new career. Bastable elects to serve as an officer on an airship, completes the training, and joins the crew of the Loch Etive, an airborne passenger vessel.
But of course, disaster strikes, and Bastable finds his fortunes upset by an upstart American tourist. Cast out of his chosen career, where will he land next? At this point in the book, the reader has yet to even meet the “Warlord of the Air,” so it’s a safe bet that there is more on the horizon. Just how far Bastable will have to go, however, and how his interactions with the mysterious Miss Una Persson will alter his life, the reader will certainly not guess.
Captain Bastable returns, this time via a manuscript discovered by Moorcock’s grandson (and therefore Moorcock himself? Just go with it). It takes up the story of Moorcock’s grandfather, who in the early 20th century sets out in hopes of finding Bastable by travelling to China to reach the Valley of the Morning (site of Democratic Dawn City, stronghold of the Warlord of the previous book). After a series of misadventures, Moorcock is met by Una Persson in The Land Leviathan (1974). Left mysteriously behind in the city by the strange lady, Moorcock comes upon a manuscript written by Bastable, and settles in to read.
Bastable’s manuscript recounts (as read by Moorcock grand-père) the story in which he has attempted to return to Teku Benga, in the hopes of finding a way back to his own world. Instead, he travels through the temple passages and finds a different world still, but one once more at war. Following the seemingly utopian technological developments of Manuel O’Bean, a Chilean child prodigy who developed a bewildering array of new machines and weapons, which at first brought peace and prosperity to the world. However, by the time of Bastable’s arrival, this version of the war has devasted Europe in the year 1904 with biological and chemical weapons, leaving countless millions dead and diseased, and the few survivors organised into pathetic little fiefdoms. These live in fear of an invasion by the “Black Attila,” a man named Cicero Hood who, having grown up the son of a slave in America, harbours his own unique brand of racism. This he practises by conquering the wounded capitals of Europe, reputedly without mercy, all the while setting his sights on the biggest prize, the United States of America. To do this, he has assembled an invasion fleet and constructed a massive secret weapon, the Land Leviathan of the title. In his employ? Once again, none other than the enigmatic Una Persson. But what is her mission, and why does she keep appearing?
Bastable, however, having escaped the ruins of southern England, eventually arrives in Bantustan, a country which has survived intact (in the geographical location occupied by South Africa in our world) and fully manifests what could have been the rich, peaceful world of O’Bean’s technological advances. Led by an alternate universe version of Gandhi, Bantustan is protected by its powerful aerial navy, which Bastable joins. But the peace is short-lived, when both the Ashanti Alliance and the Australo-Japanese Federation plan to move on and invade the United States. Bastable and Una Persson are taken as members of the expedition, and encounter still more alternate versions of historical figures in New York City, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that any proper name that you encounter in The Nomad of Time is worth looking up if you don’t recognise it (or even if you do), just to see if Moorcock is once again tweaking history.
The final book of the trilogy, 1980’s The Steel Tsar, provides still further adventures in yet another alternate reality. This one features a return of several characters and locales, including Rowe Island, although once again they are distorted “through a mirror, darkly.” As with the first two books, Moorcock spends roughly the first half of the book setting the scene, rebuilding the world that he has just torn down from the previous one, and again playing with historical figures by rewriting the stories of their lives. This final book is set (as you might have guessed) against the backdrop of an alternate-universe Russian Empire, during a war with the Japanese, and opens with a savage assault on Singapore, triggered, as it happens by a terrible experiment gone wrong. The consequences of this single act underlie the entire book, and will have drastic consequences for all involved.
Although these are cracking adventure stories, there is a lot more going on that the attentive reader can enjoy. The character of Oswald Bastable appears to be derived from (and may actually be meant to be the same character as) one first appearing in an 1899 juvenile novel by English author E. Nesbit, entitled The Story of the Treasure Seekers, and subsequent works. Many of the characters beyond Bastable and Una Persson appear in various forms in more than one book, and many well-known historical figures also appear more than once. All of the books are laced with the sort of social and political comment that one might expect from Moorcock’s own background in anarchic political thought. There are also some distinctly ugly passages, particularly the racist themes and overtones of The Land Leviathan, but these are told in such a way as to disparage racist thought, to show it up for the cowardly xenophobia that it is. This gives the books more than a hint of contemporary resonance.
I was interested to come across the usage of the term “multiverse” several times in The Nomad of Time, enough so that I looked for references to the term, to see where it was first used. Although it predates Moorcock in a cosmological context by several decades, his usage of it suggests that he was familiar enough with the concept put forward in the 1950s by Edwin Schödinger (who is credited with its first usage in a cosmological sense) to include it in his stories. It is an important notion to The Nomad of Time, as Bastable crosses from one reality to another, experiencing at first hand several different alternate histories as described above. On reflection, though, the idea of parallel universes was not new even in 1971, when Moorcock wrote The Warlord of the Air; Star Trek had suggested a similar idea in 1967 in the episode “Mirror, Mirror,” for a start. Further, books of alternate history like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (to name only two) explore similar alternative realities, but like Star Trek, never more than in a single parallel, comparative version. But the multiverse conception married to some of the earliest steampunk imagery that I can think of is a breathtaking combination, and doubtless has left its mark on many works that followed (Philip Reeve’s “traction cities” from the Hungry Cities books spring to mind, as a marvelous development of Moorcock’s original notion, even including airships).
And, as it happens, the Bastable trilogy are connected by several threads to other works of Moorcock’s, including the Jerry Cornelius books (The English Assassin is mentioned specifically in an author’s note) and the Dancers at the End of Time trilogy. In all, Moorcock’s thoughtful, careful, but wild and adventurous storytelling make for a hugely enjoyable book, and will drive readers who enjoy this proto-steampunk world in the direction of his other novels. If I have a complaint, it is that the stories appear to have been written to a specific length, and therefore the ending appear slightly abrupt and truncated, not quite reaching their full maturity. But with such a rich tapestry, there is a considerable story to absorb and enjoy. Four and a half stars.
Reviewed 25 June 2016.