Saturday, May 10, 2014

Review of The Land Leviathan by Michael Moorcock

The most challenging and ambitious of the Oswald Bastable books, 1974’s The Land Leviathan tackles a daring combination of ideals: race and authoritarianism.  Pulling off an iconoclastic juxtaposition that will set the reader thinking, the Bastable series continues in fine fashion. 

The Land Leviathan is a frame story like The Warlord of the Air, but a frame story within a frame story.  Matters begin with the grandson of the "fictional" Michael Moorcock (Moorcock being the confidante who Bastable told his story to in The Warlord of the Air) discovering a safe tucked away in the family attic in 1973.  Unable to pry the sturdy metal box open, he ventures to the locksmith who is able to trip the lid.  Inside he discovers the lost narrative of Bastable’s adventures after he left Rowe Island.  This narrative however, is preceded by his grandfather’s introductory notes.  Having gone on an excursion to see the Valley of the Morning with his own eyes, Moorcock Senior had his own adventures coming to possess the remnants of Bastable’s story.  The narrative coming into his hands in the most dangerous of circumstances, Bastable’s second adventure starts with a return to Teku Benga to see if the place is real or just a dream.  Soon enough world politics, time, and race take center stage in his life, whether he wants them or not.

A Nomad of the Time Streams is the title of the omnibus edition of the three Oswald Bastable novels.  Accordingly, each of the three books features the hero, if he can be called as such (‘observer’ perhaps a better descriptor), being bounced around to alternate histories and futures.  All commenting in some way upon social and political ideas, The Land Leviathan rolls with the imperialist theme of The Warlord of the Air and slowly mixes in relevant commentary on race via a post-apocalyptic scenario involving chemical weapons and Africa. 

The time period traveled to in the novel an alternate 1903, the world has been irrevocably changed by the inventions of O’Bean, an Irish immigrant living in Chile.  Technology that betters ours in numerous ways available, the world scene is drastically different than what we know from history.  Power is provided along different lines and wars are fought with different devices, meaning social, as well as world political structures, take on an entirely different appearance.  The reader can discover the details for themselves, but what can be said, however, is that racism and Moorcock’s revisioning of its history have a mentally stimulating effect.  More thought provoking than the simple tale of revenge Tarantino spins in Django, the reader will be left pondering the state the story comes to after the last page has been turned. 

If there is a difference between The Land Leviathan and The Warlord of the Air, it would be in the ambitiousness of the plotting.  Likewise possessing steampunk-ish elements, an altered history, and Bastable as the focal point, Moorcock nevertheless puts the hero through more rigorous plot moves.  Some of the developments in the latter half of the story, in fact, require a larger suspension of disbelief than did the semi-organic unfurling of The Warlord of the Air.  The third and concluding Bastable novel, The Steel Tsar as tight as The Warlord of the Air, it’s easy to wonder if Moorcock was challenged how to present his ideals in narrative terms. 

In the end, The Land Leviathan is more steampunk commentary on the social and political state of world politics, this time in an alternate history setting.  Racial autonomy and authoritarianism the motifs that emerge to take over the narrative as the story progresses, Moorcock continues to utilize crisp prose and quick pacing in telling the temporally twisted tales of Oswald Bastable, nomad of the time streams, and his interaction with imperial zeal.  Like The Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan is a closed story that gives no hints as to the next volume, in this case the third and final 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 better when read in publishing order.  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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