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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Warlord of the Air

Michael Moorcock

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To purchase The Warlord of the Air

Title: The Warlord of the Air
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Novel
Written: 1971
Length: 186 pages
Availability: in A Nomad of the Time Streams - US
in A Nomad of the Time Streams - UK
in A Nomad of the Time Streams - Canada
Le Seigneur des airs - France
in Zeitnomaden - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good fun, just with too much action for such a small novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Warlord of the Air begins at a leisurely pace, a narrator describing the events of spring 1903, when he travelled to "that remote and beautiful fragment of land in the middle of the Indian Ocean which I shall call Rowe Island." The narrator is Michael Moorcock -- albeit not the author himself, but his grandfather, these pages passed off (and on) as a typewritten manuscript the contemporary Moorcock came across decades after his forefather's death.
       It's a nice place to start the book, both exotic and terribly remote -- so far away from civilization that news of events only reaches the place often months after it has happened. The narrator just wants to get away from it all, but he doesn't recognise all the implications when he notes:

This sparsity of up-to-date news is, of course, a very good thing for a man recovering from exhaustion. (...) You are forced to relax. After all, there is nothing you can do to alter the course of what has become history.
       On Rowe Island he meets a stowaway who is kicked off his boat when it docks here; Moorcock takes an interest in the man and offers some assistance. The man seems likely an opium eater, but there's something about him that makes his "disconnected ramblings (...) oddly convincing". And what ramblings they are !
       The man is Oswald Bastable, and he has a most unusual claim: he maintains that he has come from the year 1973. Moorcock then allows Bastable to tell his own tale, of how he retruned from the future. His story begins not in the future but rather the recent past. Bastable is (or was) a man of this world (more or less), serving in the British army in the Himalayas in 1902 when his adventures began.
       Here, again, the modern Moorcock allows the story to unfold nicely and slowly, all exotic and remote background. In this case, the site is Teku Benga, an almost unreachable mountain-island city.
       Bastable's story to that point is of the traditional adventurous sort, but culminates in an earth-shattering climax which knocks him out. Waking again he finds himself still in Teku Benga -- but all alone in an utterly desolate Teku Benga. Rescue comes from an unlikely -- indeed, to him, unbelievable source: a huge airship flying by overhead.
       Bastable discovers himself to be in the year 1973. Not the 1973 familiar to readers, but an alternate 1973 in which history has unfolded slightly differently. The British are still a great colonial power, the world is at fairly contented peace ("Seventy years of glorious peace, all in all. Damned dull", as one character complains), there have been technological innovations -- including huge airships (of the zeppelin variety) but not airplanes.
       Bastable can't really explain how he got here, and finds the easiest course is to feign amnesia in order to learn what the world is now like and slowly fit in. Eventually he's ready to get a job and be part of society, and, quite taken by the flying machines, he becomes an airship security officer.
       All seems well, but can't remain so. The world isn't as idyllic as he first supposed. An encounter with "an offensive little Californian 'scout-leader' called Reagan" demonstrates that -- and leads to Bastable finding himself in the middle of an armed conflict.
       It seems the colonial subjects aren't all quite as happy (or well-off) as the great European (and other) powers' domestic success might suggest. Bastable finds himself in the middle of a great uprising (along with Count Rudolph von Dutschke, and a very old Vladimir Ilyitch Ulianov). The end of the age of imper4ialism is -- possibly -- nigh. Bastable, who gets embroiled in all of this as a fervent patriot and believer in the English way of doing things is swayed by the arguments and evidence he sees and throws his lot in with the revolutionary challengers.
       It all comes down, it seems, to one big battle in China, the revolutionaries only hope the deployment of their secret weapon -- Project NFB -- over (where else ?) Hiroshima. There is a final blast: whatever else it does (we never know, though we can guess it was a success) it sends Bastable back in time again, to (or near) the past he had first escaped from.
       Finished with his story Bastable then disappears, and Moorcock tries to get the manuscript published, wondering how much of it might be true .....

       Much of The Warlord of the Air is very good. When not too rushed Moorcock writes very well, and some of the scenes are very nicely done, especially those exotic locales. The novel's great weaknesses include the ridiculous time-jumping bits: he can't explain them so he merely has a catastrophic explosion or earthquake happen nearby which renders Bastable unconscious and then has him wake up in another reality.
       This is also a very ambitious novel, and to do the material justice Moorcock really would have had to spin it out at greater length. He jumps too quickly into the adventures, and then from one to the next, while his real talents are in the small scenes and the detail. Still, it's a fun and entertaining ride.
       The Warlord of the Air is also a social and political novel. Again: too much here is simplified, but it's still a decent job. Fun, too, is to see from now three decades on how Moorcock tackled it back then. The ennobled Red Rudi Dutschke is an interesting choice for moral authority, an ancient Lenin (who never came to power) an under-utilized revolutionary godfather. Scout-leader Reagan is too much a caricature, but it's fascinating to see how even then, long before his presidency, he was such an easy and obvious target.
       An enjoyable and ambitious if somewhat simplistic read.

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Michael Moorcock: Other books by Michael Moorcock under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Michael Moorcock, born in 1939, is a prolific British author.

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