Review: The steampunk rebels of The Warlord of the Air

Posted by CB Droege

Titan Books has reprinted the classic steampunk novel.

Steampunk is a sub-genre of alternate history, typically involving themes of imperialism, and set in a world in which the British Empire rules through control of the skies. The Warlord of the Air is the novel credited with establishing this sub-genre. It’s been nearly 3 decades since the last printing, so Titan Books is bringing it back for a new generation to enjoy.

Michael Moorcock’s 1971 fantasy masterpiece tells the story of Oswald Bastable as he is inexplicably transported from 1903 to the eccentric future world of 1974, where the globe has enjoyed decades of peace under the rule of several well-balanced colonial powers, and their fleets of slow but tremendous airships.

This version of the 70’s never has never seen either World War, and hasn’t invented a nuclear bomb. It’s a golden age on the surface, but there is a darkness below that veneer, and as Bastable moves from military airshipman to commercial pilot to renegade, he also explores the social and political over and under-worlds of this alternate Empire.

Amazingly, after 40 years, the themes and devices still resonate just as well with a modern reader. The cautionary tale about the giving up of humanity in the name of peace is just as applicable in today’s world as it was in the world into which the novel was first published. Also, since the story is told by a character in 1903, and intentionally uses the language and story-telling tropes of that era, it’s no more anachronistic now than it was in 1971.

Further, Bastable is a great everyman character. Utterly relatable, it’s easy to see oneself right where he is, in a world he fathoms little, making the same mistakes and social trips that any one of us would make were we to find ourselves there. We make the transition from  awed man-out-of-time to revolutionary right along with, and just as slowly as Bastable himself, as we are gradually horrified by the small injustices he discovers on his journey through that world.

The dystopia he visits though is not, like some alternate histories, based on some single simple changed event, which dominoed through the years. It is instead a world where the place is changed due to a complete difference in public opinion, where the injustice thrives because all of us let it thrive. It is much deeper, more significant, and sharp tonged that many of the army of books which came later, imitating the setting of Warlord, without seeing that the themes and divisive philosophies are just as important to the steampunk style as airships, goggles, and monorails.

Whether an old hand in the sub-genre, or new to the steam-punk world, every steamer needs to take a fresh look at this novel. The world of fantasy writing could do with a lot more stories as poignant and relatable as this one.

The Warlord of the Air is available now from Titan Books. The other two books of the Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy will be reprinted later this year.

Follow me on Twitter or Facebookfor a chance to win a copy of Warlord of the Air sometime in the next few days.