Saturday, May 10, 2014

Review of The Steel Tsar by Michael Moorcock

Given the manner in which The Warlord of the Air was an alternate future (from the perspective of 1903) and The Land Leviathan an alternate history (from the perspective of 1973), it remains for The Steel Tsar to be the final statement regarding time (and politics) in Michael Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable universe—or multiverse as it were.  Published nearly ten years after The Warlord of the Air (1971) and seven years after The Land Leviathan (1974), it’s obvious Moorcock took his time coming up with a third and final scenario that would match the integrity of the first two books.  Simultaneously explaining the underlying dynamics of the threads in time Bastable traverses, as well as confirming the series’ realist agenda, The Steel Tsar lands smack in the middle of the previous two books timewise, telling another tale of thirst for power in an altered version of 1941 that gets as close to our reality as Moorcock has yet to tread in the series.

The first two novels frame stories, it would be remiss were The Steel Tsar not to be.  And Moorcock does not disappoint.  The novel opens in 1979 with Michael Moorcock III, the grandson of Michael Moorcock from The Warlord of the Air, receiving a visit from Una Persson, the beautiful woman attached to various revolutionaries from the first two novels.  She hand delivers to Moorcock a third and final narrative direct from the pen of Bastable, stating that Moorcock will probably never see him again.  Bastable’s account opening on a small boat adrift at sea, he stays alive when the island he thought was a mirage proves real.  Bumping up against a pier in the Philippines, he discovers it is the year 1941, and the Japanese, breaking with their treaty with Britain, have just bombed Singapore.

The Steel Tsar confirms the perspective of all three Oswald Bastable books: what happens when the authoritarian shoe is on the other foot?  Like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Keith Roberts' Pavane, the novel imagines a new world order, one different than that which we take for granted, just not as significantly.  Focusing on Southeast Asia, Japan, and, interestingly, Russia and the Ukraine, the geopolitical lines exist as they have for some time, but allegiances are twisted from what history tells us.  But everything ultimately comes down to precisely who the Steel Tsar is, what his intentions are, and how his personage is developed in terms of the world order presented.  Dipping close to our history, the political commentary finds its relevancy.

If it is of any significance, Moorcock retains the novel structure of the first three books in The Steel Tsar.  Along with the framing device, Bastable’s portion of the novel finds him mysteriously arriving at a strange place and time, and after locating himself, becoming embroiled in the mightiest political struggles of the day, leading to a conclusion with an agenda.  The airships of The Warlord of the Air returning for a second pass, Bastable’s adventures arriving at said politically loaded conclusion in The Steel Tsar are no less exciting.

In the end, The Steel Tsar is a perfectly consistent conclusion to the Oswald Bastable books.  The last book in the series, Moorcock reveals not only the secrets behind Una Persson and Bastable’s time travel capabilities, but also is more overt in the novel’s political commentary—just in case readers of the first two novels missed the point.  An alternate history of an alternate history, readers who enjoyed The Warlord of the Air and The Land Leviathan will find nothing to complain about in The Steel Tsar.

As a side note: while it is not necessary to read the three Oswald Bastable books in order, there are certainly benefits to doing so.  Simply put, the over-arching theme and frame story gel when read in publishing order.  So, if intrigued, start with The Warlord of the Air as a test to the series suitability to your interests.  If you like it, then by all means continue with The Land Leviathan, then The Steel Tsar as they are consistent follow ups. 

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