H.G. Wells was the first British writer to combine political commentary and the rudimentary elements of what would become science fiction to popular effect. The Time Machine is a novel that uses a futuristic scenario via time travel to indict British social and political policy of the era. The novel is also, interestingly, considered by some one of the first steampunk texts. While this may only be due to the century that has passed since Wells’ imaginative technology was ‘fresh’, it has had an influence on other books, nevertheless. Perhaps most notable is Michael Moorcock’s Nomad of the Time Stream, or Oswald Bastable trilogy. Likewise an indictment of British imperialism (and unquestioned authoritarianism in general), the three novels utilize anachronistic technology in a politically altered reality to positive effect. Moorcock’s writing and pacing crisp and smooth, fans of steampunk will almost certainly fall in love with the novels. The Warlord of the Air (1971) is the first in the series and the best place to start.
The Warlord of the Air is a frame story. The year 1903, when a worked out British businessman decides to take a holiday on a Far East island, he gets the rest he deserves. A strange stowaway appearing on one of the few boats which visit the remote island one day, he also gets an earful of story—the literally unbelievable story of Oswald Bastable. Formerly an officer in the Queen’s army, Bastable had been stationed in India. But when asked to parlay with a local chieftain deep in the mountains of Sikkim, the captain finds himself inexplicably seventy years in the future. The world different yet the same, Bastable must adapt to the strange new sights: dirigibles, monorails, and wireless technology buzzing around him. Becoming second mate on one of the huge flying zeppelins, he must also fight his way through dogma, perceived amnesia, and imperialism run rampant if he is to have a hope of getting back to 1903 alive.
The framed story’s structure is nearly identical to James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. The Warlord of the Air, however, examines the imperial aspect of utopia rather than the personal or spiritual. Bastable the lens through which the examination occurs, Moorcock’s contrast of the global political and social scene at the beginning of the 20th century and the 70s proves an effective juxtaposition. Technology and social ideals no longer what they were, a disparity between authoritarian and libertarian views appears. Thus, while it’s possible to understand the novel as a piece of anti-British imperialism (a la The Time Machine of The War of the Worlds), it’s also possible to interpret the piece as universally anti-imperialistic. Not only are Britain’s political methods criticized, but Russia, France, the USA, Japan, and several other countries’ as well.
Whether it intended to be nor not , The Warlord of the Air is an homage to Wells. Featuring a competent British gentleman as the main character, keying in on Britain’s political relationship to the world, and utilizing the same prose style, the piece is H.G. Wells published in the 70s. Brian Aldiss successfully doing the same with The Saliva Tree (though openly), Moorcock pulls of his tribute with equal aplomb—for those interested in such comparisons.
In the end, The Warlord of the Air is a short, effective read regarding the dangers inherent to the presentiments of the colonizer. Like Dicken’s The Christmas Carol, the novel is a cautionary, except in this case, only the ghost of Christmas future exists, and via the story Moorcock is able to channel some of what would become some of the most recognized elements of steampunk. The Warlord of the Air an enclosed story that does not require additional reading to know what happens next. The remaining novels in the Oswald Bastable sequence, The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar, nevertheless carry the premise along parallel and equally effective tangents, and come recommended, as well. (There is an omnibus available entitled The Nomad of the Time Streams, but may be difficult to get one’s hands on.)