An Appreciation of Moorcock's The Nomad of Time
STEPHEN BAXTER ON MICHAEL MOORCOCK
In his introduction to Gollancz’s Michael Moorcock Collection, John Clute credits Moorcock with, among many other things, ‘the invention’ (more or less) of steampunk’. I’d say Clute got that about right.
And once, this godfather of steampunk was generous enough to blurb my own proto-steampunk novel, Anti-Ice (1993): ‘At last! A scientific romance to rival Verne!’ I was hugely thrilled to get such an endorsement from a writer like Moorcock, and I got to tell him so when I first met him at around that time. And, as with Clute, while Moorcock was very kind with his praise, I’d say he got it about right about the nature of my book.
I had indeed been thinking of Verne and turn-of-the-century scientific romances at the time - but I hadn’t been thinking steampunk. The term ‘steampunk’ was famously coined by KW Jeter in a letter to Locus Magazine in April 1987. I don’t believe I was aware of the term, or anything resembling a nascent steampunk movement, before Anti-Ice was published in 1993, and certainly not when I had begun work on the project back in 1988 or ’89. What I was trying to do was to write an alternate history tinged with a bit of super-science; in the book, the imperial British in 1870 get hold of ‘anti-ice’, a source of high energy, and intervene in the Franco-Prussian war with their ‘aerial phaetons’ and ‘land liners’. For my research I went to the history books and to Verne, and my influences were what I would have called the ‘recursive sf’ of the previous few decades, a reworking of the tropes of older sf in new contexts.
Retrospectively, steampunk can be seen as a confluence of many influences, including that recursive sf, and among those works that stand out in my own memory were Harry Harrison’s exuberant A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (1972), Priest’s re-examination of Wells in The Space Machine (1976), the rediscovery of Dickensian London and the Babbage engines by Gibson and Sterling in The Difference Engine (1990) – even the gaudy Victoriana of ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’ in Doctor Who (1977).
And perhaps most memorable for me among these precursor works were Moorcock’s Nomad books, which I devoured as they emerged, from The Warlord of the Air (1971), published when I was just 13 or 14, through to Moorcock’s last visit to that particular play pen in The Steel Tsar, ten years later. Looking back, I think I was drawn in by the gaudy excitement of these quasi-Wellsian fantasy adventures – it’s striking that our hero’s first self-introduction is as ‘Oswald Bastable – Airshipman’ (Warlord, Chapter One) (is this the first use of an airship in proto-steampunk?) – but from the beginning there was a certain ambiguous depth about the books.
Nomad drew heavily on the literary materials and thinking of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. In his own introduction to the Collection, Moorcock says, ‘I looked to [George] Meredith, popular Edwardian realists like [William] Pett Ridge and [Israel] Zangwill and the writers of the fin de siècle for methods and inspiration. An almost obsessive interest in the Fabians, several of whom believed in the possibility of benign imperialism, ultimately led to my Bastable books which examined our enduring British notion that an empire could essentially be a force for good.’
Who were these writers? Meredith (1828-1909) was an ambitious and influential novelist in his day. William Pett Ridge (1859-1930) was best known for post-Dickensian humorous portraits of lower-class life. Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) was from a family of Jewish refugees from Tsarist Russia, and is probably best remembered for a play called ‘The Melting Pot’ (1909) about immigration to America. Meanwhile of the fin de siècle writers who influenced Moorcock, the most obvious would seem to be Wells – who of course was heavily involved with the Fabians - and Conrad. The character of Bastable himself recalls the (real-life) career of George Griffith, who in addition to a career writing fantastic fiction was a colonial adventurer and dilettante, at one point holding the record for circumnavigating the Earth (a sub-Verne 64 days).
And in the Nomad books, just as in The War of the Worlds Wells had used the materials of contemporary invasion-of-England thrillers to alarm complacent late-Victorian British, Moorcock used the format of the adventure story to examine themes of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and totalitarianism, in a variety of competing realities.
Warlord of the Air (1971), even though it reads exactly like a turn-of-the-century boys’-own adventure yarn, pretty much subverts the notion that the British Empire had ever been a ‘force for good’. In 1902 Oswald Bastable, Captain in the British Army, on a mission to ‘the Temple of the Future Buddha’, a citadel of mysticism on the Indian frontier, is hurled through time to the year 1973 – but this is not our 1973. In this world the great nineteenth-century empires survived, British, French, Russian, Japanese, even American, without a serious war since the Boer War of 1910. Moorcock shows a future projected in a more or less straight line from assumptions that might have been made in 1902, with cruising airships and shining monorails – perhaps the first coherent vision of what has since become the standard steampunk landscape - and Britain is fat and wealthy, still living off the fruits of the Empire. Bastable even identifies the jonbar hinge, which resonates with this year’s centenary discussions on the impact of the First World War: ‘A war in Europe should have happened a long time ago. A war between the Great Powers would have destroyed their grip in their subject peoples’ (Book III Chapter 6). It is a future which a young man of Bastable’s generation might well have dreamed would come about - but even in Britain itself Bastable encounters limits to freedom, such as a compromised suffrage for women, and obnoxious racism.
The rest of the world meanwhile is stirring under the imperial yoke. Soon Bastable finds himself a captive of rebels, including an elderly Lenin, a few of the regular shifting cast of Moorcock’s multiverse, and a Chinese leader – the ‘warlord of the air’ – who, in the heart of a subjugated nation, has created a visionary community full of refugee scientists. Bastable finds his understanding changing as he is shown the reality of empire for those who live under its heel. This begins with a gentle lecture about the relative cost of a pair of shoes for natives and rulers in the British Raj: ‘men [like you] hold two-thirds of the world in slavery’ (Book III Chapter 1). This was powerful stuff to read even in 1971 when, I would say, our retrospective view of the achievements of the Empire was more complacent than it is today. There is a climactic war in which the scientifically advanced rebels hurl weapons more typical of our timeline – heavier-than-air aircraft and fission bombs – against the massed fleets of the imperial airships, and Bastable is hurled back to his own age.
If Warlord foreshadows one mode of modern steampunk, a different present built on a steam-tinged alternate history, The Land Leviathan (1974) operates in another mode, describing a past age transformed by precocious technologies. In the nineteenth century an Irish engineer called Manuel O’Bean delivered marvellous engines – including the standard-issue airships and monorails - which, spreading worldwide, had led to rapidly rising living standards. But this development in turn sparked political unrest and ultimately revolutions, and by 1910 the Great Powers have been devastated by a kind of early Great War fought with Bean’s engines. While Bastable, projected haplessly into this latest reality, drifts to a pacifist South Africa under a President Gandhi, a ‘Black Attila’ raises a mighty force to devastate what’s left of America. The ‘Land Leviathan’ itself is a kind of monstrous tank, a ‘ziggurat of steel’ (Book 2 chapter 2) which ultimately squats in the ruins of the Capitol building in Washington DC, presented here as a monument to a hypocritical and false democracy - a striking image in a series full of striking images. If Warlord was a revisiting of colonialism, Leviathan is about slavery: the Black Attila represents the revenge of the African races on the United States.
But if the eponymous machine of this book recalls Wells and his ‘land ironclads’, an increasingly disoriented and wretched Bastable expresses very Conrad-like comments. From his starting point as a likeable if unimaginative soldier of the Empire, he has begun to feel that he has ‘been selected by Providence . . . to witness the end of the world over and over again and doomed, too, to search for a world where Man had learned to control the impulses which led to such suicidal conflicts, perhaps never to find it’ (Book 2 Chapter 1). These words of Bastable’s are in fact very reminiscent of arguments Conrad made to HG Wells the utopian dreamer: that man is not perfectible, that war is an inevitable outcome of innate human folly (see for instance ‘Autocracy and War’ in Notes on Life and Letters, 1921).
Moorcock’s final visit to this corner of his multiverse was The Steel Tsar (1981). This time Bastable finds himself in a different Second World War; there was an early, and successful, Russian Revolution in 1905, which delivered a ‘humanist socialism’ (Book 2 Chapter 2). History has been subtly divergent elsewhere; the Ottoman empire is flourishing, and the British Empire is somewhat larger, the British having come to an accord with the victorious Confederates after the American Civil War (Book 2 Chapter 1). As a result, once again there was no First World War, once again the European empires survived – but by 1941 war flares, with a devastating destruction of Singapore, caught in a conflict between the Japanese and the Russians. And meanwhile revolution stirs within the heart of an increasingly prosperous Russian empire, led by the eponymous ‘Steel Tsar’, who appears to be an avatar of Stalin. This is probably the darkest of the three books, especially for Bastable personally, as he becomes a victim of war rather than a participant; he is shipwrecked, he is trapped with relics of a receding tide of empire, he is a prisoner of the Japanese and later of the Russians. It is a pleasing closure for the reader that after all his travails Bastable finally joins Una Persson in her ‘Guild of Temporal Adventurers’, and finds a sort of redemption in keeping the multiverse in a ‘ramshackle sort of harmony’ (End Note).
In my own work I took a lot of inspiration from the Nomad books. Anti-Ice is another attempt at an examination of the problems of imperial power. Moorcock playfully inserted his own ancestors, and indeed himself, as characters in his fictions – in Steel Tsar Moorcock is visited by Una Persson - and so my The Time Ships (1995), a steampunkish sequel to Wells’ The Time Machine, uses a modern-day frame to tell its story.
In recent years – perhaps since around 2007, the twentieth anniversary of Jeter’s coining the label, and about which time the first steampunk conventions began to appear – steampunk has acquired an extraordinary identity, momentum and style of its own, as well as its own clichés. Airships abound, along with clockwork automata and goggles-wearing heroes in the dangerous streets of a quasi-Dickensian London. On the bookshelves there are the core-genre works by the likes of Philip Reeve, Cherie Priest, Stephen Hunt and Gail Carriger, but the imagery and sensibility leak into more peripheral works such as Pullman’s Golden Compass series and even the dark urban fantasies of the likes of China Mieville. It’s still around in Doctor Who, such as in ‘Deep Breath’, the opener of series 8 (2014) set in Victorian London (2014) and featuring the Half-Face Man, a long lived cyborg with an apparently clockwork brain, complete with pilot light. Steampunk even leaks into the Discworld, which struck me when I began attending conventions with Terry Pratchett in the course of our work on the Long Earth series (2012 onwards); Discworld fans love dressing up, and are these days very steampunk. Works like Going Postal (2004), with the very Sterling-Gibson ‘clacks’ communication devices, are set in an Ankh-Morpork that now has many echoes of steampunk London.
It’s been fascinating to live through the birth of a new subgenre – even if it has acquired such a precise definition now that I’m not sure if my own Anti-Ice still qualifies.
So if Moorcock invented steampunk ‘more or less’ in the pages of the Nomad books, it was a side-effect of his true project, which was to use the materials of turn-of-the-twentieth-century fiction to do what Wells in War of the Worlds and Conrad in Heart of Darkness had attempted: to turn the machinery of empire and colonialism on its perpetrators, and so to explore the dark undercurrents of the human heart. As for me, I will always cherish my teenage-years readings of the adventures of Oswald Bastable, a figure as complex and ambiguous as any in Moorcock’s wide oeuvre – a proto-steampunk hero whose adventures thrilled me, and made me think, even as they influenced generations of writers to come.