I was lucky enough to have the chance to review the classic steampunk novel, The Warlord of Air, the first in the Nomad of Air series and originally published in 1971 . A short but rich account of the adventures of Captain Oswald Bastable, a British soldier in the colonies of India in the early 20th century that finds himself flung into the future of 1970’s where steampunk airships rule the skies above a world of a seemingly peaceful beauty.
We first meet Bastable through the character of the author’s fictitious grandfather in 1903 (a fun choice that serves to quickly emerse you into the fantastical universe), after his time traveling adventure, and he’s clearly worse for the wear. Strung out on opium and a stowaway on a merchant ship, Bastable earns the sympathy and intrigue of Morcock Sr. who agrees to transcribe the time-traveler’s tale in exchange for some vittles and a good hot shower (seems fair).
A great deal of praise is due to Morcock’s skill in allowing the reader to view this steampunk work through Bastable’s eyes. He is the perfect turn of the century up-right British captain yet not once is an “old chap” or dry narration out of place or forced. Instead of a future randomly sprinkled with airships we get a Edwardian atmosphere with steam you can almost taste. In fact, the future in which Bastable wakes is not entirely different from the one he left. Many of the political atmospheres from the empire building past remain relevant with some 1970’s updates as well as an appearance by Mick Jagger (that’s right). The future utopia in which Bastable establishes himself, while clean and beautiful, unravels before him as the undercurrent of peace is powered by the exploitation of the colonial territories just as it was in his own timeline. The staunt patriot and army man finds himself at a crossroad between joining a terrorist group bent on the liberation of oppressed colonies and his own loyalties to the tradition and past that had been his whole world.
A steampunk novel of the future with historical themes of the past could have easily been an awkward mess, but Morcock writes with a tight hold on his characters and universe to create a novel with a pleasing fantasy element and political subtly. I will say, however, that a great deal of the book is devoted to airships. Man, they are everywhere, even above every chapter header. The first half of Bastable’s tale is devoted to descriptions of the sky behemoths and a clearly loving portrayal of the feats of engineering that would have needed to go in to inventing these fantastic machines. However, I believe that the book would have been better suited in devoting more page-space to beefing up political elements of the universe, most of which is only allotted subtle whisperings until the last fifty pages or so of the novel. None of the descriptions were entirely dull, but anything less than a hardcore steampunk fan may find it to be a bit of a snooze fest. I found myself frustrated in having to look through the window into what seemed like a fascinating world with a view obstructed by thousands of fucking airships.
Still, if you like turn of the century steampunk, this novel earns the designation of a classic. I’ll definitely give the text two volumes in the trilogy a shot once they get the reprint treatment later this year. Warlord of Air is out now.