This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Michael Moorcock’s fiction is mildly obsessed with 20th Century history, and in particular the build-up to and impact of the world wars. (Growing up in London during the Blitz will do that to a young mind.) In fact, I’d say that within the wider scope of the Eternal Champion series you can pick out a smaller sub-series about various figures who are doomed to be the spirits of their particular segment of the 20th Century. Jerry Cornelius is explicitly described as being just such a spirit of the post-World War II age; you could make an argument that in the Between the Wars series Colonel Pyat takes on this role for the period… uh… between the wars.
And back at the very start of the 20th Century you have Oswald Bastable, who like John Daker in The Eternal Champion finds himself unstuck in time and meandering between various alternate timelines, in all of which some version of the world wars is either about to happen, happening, or just happened. Often cited as being a prototype for steampunk (despite the fact that The Dancers At the End of Time goes for a neo-Victorian aesthetic much more aggressively), the stories featuring Bastable essentially consist of Moorcock indulging in deconstruction via pastiche, spoofing out of date genres of adventure fiction in order to highlight how awful they are.
Sounds good in theory, but is it any better than Moorcock’s sword and sorcery epics, which were getting increasingly lacklustre at this point in time? Can Moorcock handle the matters of colonialism and racism and socialism he sets out to play with without turning Bastable into a mere mouthpiece for his opinions? Let’s see.
The Warlord of the Air
To set up the action, Moorcock provides us with a framing story within a framing story. In the outermost layer of the onion, we have the comparatively simple tale of how Michael Moorcock inherits from his grandmother a number of his grandfather’s papers – said grandfather also being called Michael Moorcock. Within the papers is a curious manuscript, which Moorcock edits and publishes as The Warlord of the Air.
In the next layer down, we have the elder Moorcock’s manuscript, which details how whilst convalescing in the quiet and rather boring Indian Ocean colony of Rowe Island in 1904 he encountered a mysterious traveller – a bedraggled British opium addict who was clearly in some distress. This individual turned out to be Oswald Bastable, who has succumbed to drug addiction and general despair as a result of returning from his travels through time to an early 20th Century which, on close inspection, has very subtle differences from the one he originated in – revealing that, as is often the case in Moorcock’s time travel stories, travelling in time is essentially the same thing as travelling between planes, and simply jumping back in time after you’ve already been displaced is highly unlikely to take you back to your starting point.
The third and final layer, which takes up the majority of the book, is Grandpa Moorcock’s transcription of Bastable’s story, as dictated by Bastable himself. Our time traveller’s story begins with him leading some stalwart Indian army troops (complete with posse of “Ghoorkas”, as he calls them) on a sabre-rattling expedition to put the fear of God (or more precisely the fear of Britain) into Sharan Kang, ruler of the isolated nation of Kumbalari which is nestled somewhere between India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. Kang has apparently been making trouble, sending his forces to violently dispose of a British frontier station which Kang claims to have been set up on Kumbalari territory. When Bastable arrives, Kang is defiant but seems willing discuss a treaty to avoid further hostilities, and invides Bastable to Kumbalari’s capital of Tenku Benga for talks. Warned by his officers that the people of Kumbalari are treacherous fiends, Bastable and his companions are understandably on edge during their reception, and when Bastable decides that Kang has drugged his food he pulls out a gun and starts firing. Fleeing the scene, Bastable finds himself in the winding tunnels beneath Kang’s palace in the Temple of the Future Buddha – and as chance would have it, a massive earthquake hits at this point.
When Bastable wakes up, he finds he has survived the destruction of the city – but he has also been catapaulted forward to the fantastical future year of 1973. But its not the Seventies we remember – in this future, World War I never happened, and the colonial era dragged on and on, with the world more or less neatly carved up between the US, Japan, and the old European powers. Bastable quickly realises that to insist on the point about jumping forward a few decades in time would amount to begging to be shut away for good, so he feigns amnesia and sets about carving out a niche for himsef in this world. Bastable manages to get himself trained as an airship officer (of course there are zeppelins everywhere, it’s an alternate history novel), but a nasty altercation with a passenger leads to him being expelled from the Special Air Police.
That’s when he ends up taking a position with Captain Josef Korzeniowski on the ramshackle old airship The Rover – and to his horror finds that the Captain has been providing transport to a cabal of dangerous anarchists, including the infamous Portuguese demagogue Count Guevara and the mysterious Una Persson. Bastable’s plans to inform the authorities are dashed when the Rover is intercepted by even more extreme radicals – goons led by General O.T. Shaw, AKA Shuo Ho Ti, a Chinese warlord who intends to use his command of high technology to take on the imperial powers. Bastable steels himself for the fight of his life against this sinister supervillain in order to defend the utopia of the future… Except, as it transpires, the villain isn’t such a villain and the utopia isn’t that utopian.
The key to a full appreciation of The Warlord of the Air – and the reason it went completely over my head when I first read it years and years ago – is that you need to go in with a healthy distrust of Bastable. The man is in no way a reliable narrator, and much of his unreliability stems from the fact that he’s a very traditional British army officer of the Imperial vintage. To be fair to Moorcock, you get hints early on that this might be the case if you keep your eyes open; for instance, when Bastable and his aides are having dinner with Kang and Bastable flips out and pulls a gun on Kang, we never actually get any definitive proof that Bastable and his men were poisoned; Kang says that they’re probably just feeling a bit tired and overwhelmed after eating a lot of rich food after spending weeks on end eating trail rations, and nothing in the text undermines that beyond Bastable’s own jumping to conclusions.
This is the sort of thing which I completely missed the first time I read the book; I hadn’t read so many novels with unreliable narrators at the time, so having been weaned on the sort of SF novel where if the protagonist thing someone’s a bad’un it generally turn out that they are a bad’un I took Bastable’s narration at face value. Similarly, though I did at least understand that the novel is a spoof of how old-timey adventure fiction often reinforced noxious colonialist values, at the same time I didn’t quite realise that it more subtly shows how more recent (at the time of writing) adventure fiction hadn’t actually changed its attitudes that much. Shuo Ho Ti, for instance, has a personal history extremely similar to that of Ian Fleming’s Dr. No – being the son of a German missionary and a Chinese woman who was brought up by a powerful and violent figure after the death of his parents – and even if I didn’t pick up on that, the fact that he has a hidden citadel from which he launches super-high-tech warfare against the great powers of the time should really have started my gears turning.
But even if you miss Moorcock’s points about how the heroes of Edwardian adventure fiction tend to be violent sociopaths and how James Bond essentially advances the same paternalistic and interventionist values by other means, and even if you don’t realise that Captain Korzeniowski is an alternate universe version of Joseph Conrad, it’s quite hard to miss the main argument of the novel: the idea that if World War I hadn’t happened, the world would have probably needed a crisis of a similar magnitude to shake up the self-serving colonialist system. Moorcock’s thesis goes a bit like this: if they had been able to act as rational actors in pursuit of their own self-interest, the Great Powers of the colonialist era wouldn’t have chosen to go to war with each other; had they managed to keep the peace for long enough, their ruling classes would have realised that their interests were best served by preserving the status quo for as long as possible, fixing up the system of international trade so as to best enrich themselves whilst ensuring that the colonised majority simply never got an opportunity to break free.
The end result of this is that by the fantastical world of the 1970s, with its plastic and its airships and its miniskirts, social progress has slowed to an absolute crawl. In Britain, women have only just managed to get the vote, and there’s umming and aahing as to whether the voting age for women should be lowered so that it is in line with that for men; as far as any other social justice front you can think of goes, progress has been outright miserable. The lot of the middle and working classes at home has improved, but purely and solely at the expense of the quality of life of people in the colonised countries, but to address the parts of this alternative history which are different from our own timeline the international pecking order is as blatant and formalised as it was in Bastable’s own time; the Imperial powers call the shots, and the various brown people from various brown countries suck it up and are polite about it and maybe get a civil service job if they’re really lucky. Thanks to the working classes of the home nations being paid off with the largesse of overseas, whatever socialist movements were takng root in Bastable’s time have withered away and expired, and it’s only the anarchists who are making any concerted broad-based attempt to change the system.
In short, Moorcock constructs a world where advocating for the overthrow of all governments everywhere is absolutely reasonable – because all governments everywhere are either colonial powers or the puppets and vassals of the colonial powers. Whether or not this is the case in their own timeline is an exercise for the reader to consider, but the value of the book isn’t in any parallels it draws with our own world so much as it’s in the exploration of Bastable’s gradual awakening to the fact that he’s been a tool of murderous and self-serving governments and that whilst the anarchists may or may not have the moral high ground, the various world empires are occupying the moral Mariana Trench. This is the moral and ethical basis of the entire series, really, because in showing us how Bastable changes his view of the world, it prompts us to consider our own views, and in particular the conclusions we reach when we read stories – whether these are in the form of novels or newspaper articles.
Even though I hadn’t really encountered many unreliable narrators before I first read The Warlord of the Air over a decade ago, I think it’s as good an introduction both to the concept and the general idea that you shouldn’t necessarily accept the assumptions of the person who happens to be addressing you at any particular time. It’s essentially an appeal to the reader to question Bastable, then question Bastable’s society, then to question themselves and their society, and to just keep questioning, because whenever you stop bad things occur. Right at the end of the book, Bastable makes the same old mistake of unquestioningly throwing his lot in with Shuo Ho Ti’s cause, and it’s only Una Persson who ponders whether it’s really right to try taking the war to the imperial powers by dropping that really neat experimental bomb on Hiroshima.
The novel is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. In particular, Una Persson’s role is a bit awkward; unless you’ve already read the Jerry Cornelius stories or Dancers at the End of Time stories she appears in subsequently, or read the Bastable books out of order, odds are you really won’t notice that she’s important at all, because although she’s this odd presence in the anarchist party who seems to have qualms about the bomb which suggest she knows more about it than people from this timeline really ought to know, but even that last hint towards the end of the book is a bit too subtle and too late to really be effective. In fact, taken on its own, the book is a resounding failure when it comes to including women; there’s one, she doesn’t overtly do very much, and her name pretty much amounts to “I am a faceless cipher”. I suspect most readers, unless they were aware of Una’s importance to Moorcock’s other books, would assume she was meant to be what she was represented as – Guevara’s love interest with a less sexist version of the pun-tastic names Bond girls tend to get. I do not discount the possibility that this is precisely what she was conceived as before Moorcock decided to make her a major feature of The English Assassin.
Of course, women being nearly invisible is a trait of the sort of fiction Moorcock is pastiching here, which ties in to the basic problem with the challenge Moorcock has posed himself: on the one hand, he’s trying to highlight the failings of a particular genre of fiction, but at the same time the joke doesn’t work unless he’s able to craft a recognisable pastiche. Over the course of the entire trilogy, Moorcock more or less fails to tackle sexism to remotely the same extent he does colonialism and racism; sure, Una is meant to be a strong female character, but it’s a bit much to ask her to represent her entire gender, especially since the anti-racist and anti-colonialist causes in this novel and the next one have a number of advocates. But aside from this fairly glaring flaw, it’s a pretty devastating demonstration of how “mindless entertainment” can reinforce all kinds of nastiness.
Multiverse bollocks: The framing story here is very similar to the one deployed in the first of the Michael Kane novels – a stand-in for Moorcock (Edward P. Bradbury in the Kane stories, Moorcock’s grandfather here) is on holiday and bored somewhere, when he encounters a mysterious stranger who has just returned from a journey in space and/or time and has an amazing story to tell, and promptly spills the beans. Of course, what both the Bastable books and the Kane series have in common is that they’re pastiches of early 20th Century adventure fiction, so the use of a framing story of a sort which is also common in the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitators isn’t so surprising.
Links to the Cornelius stories are common, right down to Professor Hira being present at Dawn City, Shuo Ho Ti’s techno-socialist wonderland. The most significant one is the individual who recruits Bastable to serve on the Rover, a dandified youth with a talent for driving fancy cars named Cornelius Dempsey. This might be a mere analogue of Jerry Cornelius – goodness knows there’s enough of them – but I’m inclined to think it’s the man himself, given the presence of other characters from his books like Hira and Una, the fact that he gets Bastable’s attention by claiming to be his brother (which as a fellow incarnation of the Eternal Champion he kind of is), the way he supposedly gets himself killed in a gun battle (Jerry dies a lot in his stories), the references in dialogue to burning out a cancer through violence (a clear nod to A Cure For Cancer) and of course the fact that he seems to be nudging along the apocalypse through his intervention.
You could, in fact, viably read this book as a Cornelius side-story with the action depicted from the point of view of a hopelessly confused bystander that Jerry trolls into taking his place at ground zero for once. Certainly, parts of The English Assassin seem to be set in a war which, if it isn’t the same global conflagration that is kicked off at the end of this story, could well be a close cousin of it. Similarly, the plot point of the protagonist falling into the clutches of a Bondian supervillain only to help them with their plans is very similar to the later stages of The Final Programme.
The 1990s revision changes some characters’ surnames in order to work more extraneous Beggs and von Beks into the series. Though there was at least precedent this time for the names being tampered with because the UK publishers nudged Moorcock into changing the names of the alt-universe Enoch Powell and Ronald Reagan.
Oh, and “Dempsey” might be a reference to the Hope Dempsey, the starship from The Black Corridor.
The Land Leviathan
The sequel sees a return of the double framing narrative structure of The Warlord of the Air. Discovering an old safe in his grandfather’s attic, the present day Michael Moorcock has it opened to discover another manuscript. The first part of this is penned by Grandpa Moorcock, who provides us with an extended story of how, burdened with a reputation as a crank as a result of his attempts to publish The Warlord of the Air, Grandpa Moorcock journeyed into a China fractured by civil war, banditry, and the colonial power games which had brought the nation to its knees, in the vague hope of tracking down Bastable at the Valley of the Dawn and getting some more information out of him.
What Grandpa Moorcock discovers instead is Una Persson at the head of a contingent of Chaos troops, passing through on her way to another timeline. On the way she drops off a manuscript – Bastable’s memoir of his second adventure, which once again forms the innermost layer of the story. This time, after returning to Teku Benga and deliberately inducing another journey through time, Bastable finds himself in yet another alternate universe – this time, a 1904 in a timeline arising from a massive burst of technological advancement beginning in the 1870s, thanks to the genius inventor O’Bean. O’Bean’s inventions were implemented in every colonial possession of the imperial powers, and for a time world hunger was eliminated and productivity increased so much that even the colonised peoples of the world found themselves wealthier and possessed of more leisure time. This ultimately lent greater urgency to various independence movements, because people realised that so long as they had their own O’Bean machines they could do very well for themselves without the meddling of distant and unaccountable imperial masters, and as the great powers saw their place at the top of the heap threatened they started to get desperate and irrational. The end result was a world war involving horrendous chemical and biological weapons, to the point where Europe is a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by desperate and brutal clans of plague-ridden survivors.
After reaching his beloved England, Bastable is astonished to discover Una Persson imperilled by a tribe of savage Brits in East Grinstead. After rescuing her, Bastable finds himself hoping for answers, convinced as he is that she is a fellow time traveller, but as always she’s got her mind on her mission and isn’t inclined to tip her hand. After they part, Bastable decides to take up an offer of a life on the high seas with this universe’s equivalent of Captain Korzeniowski, who scrapes a living from piracy with his cutthroat submarine crew. Eventually, Korzeniowski and Bastable realise that the time has come to turn privateer for one of the new powers emerging from the anarchy. They choose what they consider to be the most appealing option: Bantustan, an enlightened republic in the former colony of South Africa run according to Marxism as reinterpreted by its visionary leader, President Gandhi. Bantustan, though idyllic, is a small fish in a big pond, and is in a precarious position between the two new emergent superpowers – the isolationist Australasian-Japanese Federation and the New Ashanti Republic, an expansionist and Afrocentric empire ruled by the so-called “Black Attila” General Cicero Hood, who is said to pursue a genocidal agenda against the white race. Bastable is horrified when he is chosen to form part of a diplomatic mission sent to set up a Bantustan embassy to Hood’s empire – and is even more aghast to learn that Una Persson seems to be helping Hood. Thus, our hero makes a decision: he will go along with the mission and take the opportunity to assess what sort of man Hood really is – and if it turns out Hood is the monster he is rumoured to be, Bastable is willing to assassinate him to end his dreams of conquest.
As you can probably tell from the above, Moorcock sets up a decidedly problematic situation for the plot of this one, and the first time around I stopped reading the book because I thought he was essentially writing a literary tone argument (though I wasn’t aware of the term at the time). On the whole, I don’t think he’s quite doing that; in the long run, the novel turns out to be addressed to a white audience and is an attempt to raise the question of how you’re supposed to do the whole “ally” thing, rather than being addressed to a more general audience and saying “isn’t it upsetting when anti-racists get all militant”. On the other hand, it is mildly problematic that Moorcock chooses to frame the argument in these terms anyway.
To shed a bit more light on where Moorcock is going with this: towards the close of the book when Hood is invading the United States, Bastable decides that enough is enough and bails out, seeking to contact the embattled American government to lend his help. Moorcock’s seems to be going for the idea that when privileged people find that privilege under threat, they’ll usually get incredibly nasty in order to combat that; in this case, the white resistance to Hood’s invasion consists of a bunch of Ku Klux Klansmen and what’s remains of the federal government, which has re-established slavery in order to get manpower to build defences against General Hood’s army. It’s this point, where it’s clear that Hood’s enemies are going way, way further than Hood ever does, that Bastable finds that he can’t morally stand by his own ethnicity as he was intending to do so, and that instead a greater loyalty to humanity as a whole prompts him to take action.
What’s particularly nice about the ending of The Land Leviathan is how peripheral Bastable is to it; he’s absolutely not a white saviour come in to save all the black dudes. Sure, he steps in when he sees a slave coming under attack from his supervisors, but once he does so it turns out the slaves already have a fully-developed plan to take down the Klansmen from the inside fully prepared, and once the plan kicks off Bastable essentially has to follow their lead – his intervention means the plan comes off more smoothly, but ultimately the liberation of Washington DC isn’t down to him. And on a more general note, Bastable – like Una – is on the periphery of Hood’s victory; whilst Bastable still thinks Bantustan is the ideal, he also seems to have realised that he can’t simply equate Hood’s radical politics with the Klan’s. He’s still troubled by some of the things the Ashanti Empire does – and it’s far from perfect – but he’s learned not to tell Hood (or any other person of colour) what they’re meant to think about racism or how they’re meant to respond to it.
To be honest, it’s impossible for me to give a really complete review of this book. Like the previous one, it’s based mainly about pointing out in story form some issues which the mostly-white mostly-middle class science fantasy readership who religiously bought Moorcock’s books in the 1970s really needed pointing out to them. I can say that from the point of view of such a reader that it manages to drag those issues out and get you thinking about how to be a good ally and all that without being patronising or irritating about it; I can’t say that it doesn’t inadvertently patronise and belittle people who actually suffer from racism, because that’s really not my judgement call to make. What I will say is that I’m very much in two minds about the way the novel seems constructed to mainly address a white audience; on the one hand, it’s the white audience that needs to hear “Listen, you really don’t get to tell people they’re not meant to get angry and shouty about this stuff”, on the other hand I can’t help but think it’s a bit of a failing of an anti-racism story if the most developed characters are a pair of white time travellers, and the most significant non-white characters are essentially placeholders in a political allegory.
Another thing I’m in two minds about is the resurrection of a particularly odious subgenre of late 19th/early 20th Century fiction in which some world leader arises who has the temerity not to be white, and the civilised world has to unite in an epic clash of civilisations to save the white-ruled nations of Earth from being completely overrun. (As far as I’m aware the villains in such books were usually Asian – the subgenre hit its height just as people were wittering on about the “yellow peril” – but Moorcock had kind of already covered that base in the previous book.) You could argue that this is kind of the point – after all, The Warlord of the Air was based on the same conceit of taking a very problematic genre and deconstructing it, but I’d argue that there’s a qualitative difference here.
Globe-trotting adventure fiction and spy stories have pushed some noxious stuff over the years, but I could conceive of stories in those genres which aren’t rooted in racism, colonialism, misogyny or whatever. I can’t say the same thing about a subgenre whose very premise is “People who are not Like Us are going to launch a global conflict aimed at bringing us low!” At most, Moorcock adds “…and we deserve that, because we are terrible people” to the end of that statement, which doesn’t really make it that much better. I know that sort of fiction is still very much with us – browsing the scuzzy end of Amazon it seems to me that scary Middle Easterners are the bogeymen du jour, as they have been since before 9/11, though you can still find people writing breathlessly about the final conflict between the white race and wicked Jewish conspiracies and/or massed hordes of black people if you look – but I really don’t think it’s as interesting to deconstruct it to pick apart its problematic aspects as the sort of story The Warlord of the Air was based on. Taking these things to bits and building them up again upside down is only interesting if it highlights aspects of them which weren’t already painfully obvious, and if you weren’t already aware that the whole clash of civilisations/”white man beware!” subgenre was a crock of shit then it’s kind of too late for you.
I guess that’s my big problem with The Land Leviathan – at the end of the day, through the character of General Hood Moorcock seems to repeat the idea that the louder and more militant sort of black activist is out for revenge against white people; at most, he’s saying that they’re right to do so, rather than challenging the idea that this is what anti-racist activists want in the first place. It also doesn’t feel as inclusive. Whereas socialist-leaning anarchists of a political flavour similar to Moorcock’s own tastes could read about Bastable’s delightful misconceptions about anarchism and socialism in The Warlord of the Air and smile to themselves, I’m not sure a black person reading The Land Leviathan would necessarily find Bastable’s attitudes that funny this time around. As I said, the novel does seem to be consciously addressed to a white audience, but I’d say that makes it more imperative to make sure that everyone else doesn’t feel excluded.
Then again, it could just be I’m discomforted on some deep level by Moorcock’s depiction of a world where, except in a few last holdouts, white people are really not the privileged class any more. This is another reason why I’d love to get more opinions on this one.
Multiverse bollocks: Aside from another appearance by Professor Hira, pretty minimal. Oh, aside from the fact that Una’s troops who meet grandpa Moorcock in the framing story are proudly wearing the eight-arrowed star of Chaos.
The Steel Tsar
This is a novel Moorcock never actually wanted to write, and he readily admits it. With more serious projects rebuffed by his publishers, a second divorce on the cards and money being extraordinarily tight, it’s no surprise that Moorcock found himself writing an unnecessary sequel to one of his popular series in order to make some cash – and equally unsurprising that he was in a foul mood during the process. Right from the dedication (“To my creditors, who remain a permanent source of inspiration”), the book fairly oozes resentment at its own existence. It’s the ink-and-paper equivalent of a scowling teenager muttering about how it didn’t ask to be written.
Or at least, it is in the version I own. Here, Moorcock has made my work as a reviewer extraordinarily difficult, because in the process of compiling the 1990s omnibus editions of the Eternal Champion series he took one look at the text of The Steel Tsar as it existed at the time, though to himself “No, this can’t be allowed to stand” and gave it the most thorough and complete revisions he’s given any of his novels. I do not have a copy of this particular Bastable omnibus (The Nomad of the Timestreams, as opposed to The Nomad of Time, the previous and unrevised omnibus edition), and checking on E-Bay it seems that prices for the thing tend to be rather extortionate, so I am not in a position to say whether the tweaked version is an improvement or not. According to Moorcock he tried to turn it into a lynchpin of the Eternal Champion series and use it to convey a bunch of important ideas about the Multiverse, and in my experience this is never a very good sign. And even a thorough revision can’t get away from the fact that, as Moorcock himself has said at points, the book simply was never meant to exist and the Bastable series could have stood perfectly happily as a two-parter.
But then again, it is hard to see how Moorcock’s revisions could make the original version of The Steel Tsar any more tedious, disjointed, confused and aimless than it already is.
In the interests of getting stuck into the action as jarringly and abruptly as possible, Moorcock drops the framing story featuring his grandfather, as well as any explanation of what Bastable got up to between the end of The Land Leviathan and the start of this one. Instead, the latest volume of Bastable’s memoirs is delivered to our Moorcock by Una Persson himself, who makes sure to express how worried she is about him and how it’s a shame his life is in such turmoil at the moment.
As for those memoirs themselves, Bastable seems to have been in as irritable a mood as Moorcock himself when writing them, because they start in an alienating and confusing manner which seems to be an attempt at mildly nonlinear storytelling as a half-arsed tool to get the reader to not worry too much about how Bastable got to this universe. In a 1940s during which a first world war between the Great Powers is kicked off by a nuclear terrorism incident at Hiroshima – a stark parallel with the conclusion of The Warlord of the Air – Bastable finds himself caught up in the early fighting and eventually, after some adventures, washes up on Rowe Island, the same place he encountered Grandpa Moorcock in our timeline, where he finds the neurotic and opium-addicted Mr Dempsey, who turns out to have been the pilot of the airship that carried out the Hiroshima raid.
Having established a heap of parallels to the first book in the series (Dempsey in particular behaving a lot like Bastable did in the framing story there), the plot then meanders. There’s a Japanese raid and a prison camp sequence and an escape, Bastable ends up a volunteer in the Russian air force in a Russian Empire where a moderate socialist government emerged from the revolution and Stalin is leading a Cossack insurgency whilst disguised as Dr Doom, Una Persson shows up in the company of Nestor Makhno, Bastable finally gets around to saying to Una “look, you’re obviously a time traveller too, care to clue me in?” and Una is evasive and offers him membership of the League of Temporal Adventurers.
Part of the problem with this novel is that despite it ostensibly being at least partially about Bastable getting some damn answers at last, Moorcock doesn’t offer any. This is probably deliberate – Una would be less useful as a stock character for the Cornelius stories if her goals and motivations were clearly and concisely explained, because being as oblique as possible about what the characters want and who they are and why they do the things they do is kind of the point of those stories. On the other hand, that level of opacity really isn’t the point of the Bastable series – you’ve probably noted by now that unreliable narrator stuff aside they really aren’t that subtle – and I can imagine the vagueness surrounding Una becomes positively enraging for any reader who hasn’t read the relevant books.
This, incidentally, is a great example of why I so dislike a lot of the way Moorcock implements his multiverse, and why I have reasons beyond childishness to call the the bits where I point out the crossover content “Multiverse bollocks”. There’s a point in Moorcock’s back catalogue – I’d be inclined to place it somewhere in the early 1970s – where his writing was increasingly aimed exclusively at those readers who follow all (or at least most) of his various series, as opposed to a reader for whom a particular series might be their first encounter with his fiction, or indeed a reader who might be up for some alternative history adventure fiction but isn’t keen on sword and sorcery epics or psychedelic cosmic terrorism hijinks.
Una’s role in the Bastable books works only if through reading other Moorcock stories about her you know what her significance is, and as a consequence the trilogy as a whole (and The Steel Tsar in particular) is markedly less interesting if you haven’t read the Cornelius stories and don’t intend to. Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon and John Daker make guest appearances in each others’ stories in incidents which only someone who had followed all four series could possibly care about. Spurious Cornelius analogues are inserted where they don’t belong simply for interconnectedness. It drives me mad to watch an author as talented as Moorcock sabotage a large proportion of his back catalogue by including heaps of material designed solely as a wink to people who read all of his other stuff as part of an extended literary game which, by the early 1980s, had begun to resemble a bizarre sort of literary masturbation. (An analogy which aptly describes the situation some Champion incarnations found themselves in, whereby if you took a broad view of who might be an incarnation of the Eternal Champion you end up with stories in the protagonist, the protagonist’s love interest, the antagonist, and the ancestors of the protagonist’s allies are all the Eternal Champion).
Even aside from the crossover aspects, however, The Steel Tsar is clearly inferior when you put it next to the two preceding books. The Warlord of the Air and The Land Leviathan both had a political message which they wore on their sleeve; you could take this as a positive aspect of those books or a weakness of them, but either way you can’t say the arguments they presented weren’t clearly indicated and reflected in the text. The Steel Tsar seems to want to say something about Stalinism and the sort of weaksauce not-really-socialism that alt-universe Lenin was grousing about in The Warlord of the Air and so on, but it’s far from easy to work out precisely what it’s going for.
Whereas the previous two books were built around fairly clear themes – colonialism and racism respectively – and had their central conflicts reflect those themes, the central conflict in The Steel Tsar reflects… well, it’s hard to say what it’s about because it’s devilishly hard to pin one down. Is it Dempsey’s attempt to make amends for what he did to Hiroshima? Maybe, but if that’s so shouldn’t Dempsey be the main character? Is it the battle of a supervillainous Stalin versus the milder socialism the Russian government espouses in this timeline? Possibly, but then again it rather breaks the traditions of the series to have the main proponent of one side of that argument be such an obvious monster as Stalin is here. Is it something to do with the world war which breaks out as a result of the Hiroshima bombing? Not really – once Bastable gets to Russia he doesn’t really get involved in it, and we never really find out enough about the war to really understand what the issues at stake are.
Another problem with the world war this time around is the sense that the series has taken a step back. In The Warlord of the Air we encounter a timeline where the World Wars never happened, but where something approximately as apocalyptic is implied to happen after Bastable gets kicked out of that particular universe. In The Land Leviathan, Bastable finds himself in a universe where the World Wars have been thought – not the ones we are familiar with, nor the ones he kicks off in the previous book, but something very much akin to them – and where the global world order is being realigned. There’s a sense of some sort of meta-timeline progressing there which matches the development of Bastable’s character, so skipping back to the middle of The Steel Tsar‘s alternate world war seems like a regression (and it seems to match a regression in Bastable’s character, perhaps because the genuinely nice and humble person he becomes by the end of The Land Leviathan doesn’t suit Moorcock’s needs here).
In short, it’s an enormous mess and not even the spectacle of ten-foot-tall robo-Stalins stomping about the place can perk it up. And the worst thing is, Moorcock passed up the chance for a truly world-class pun, considering that he already had Stalin in a big scary face-concealing mask. He should have called the book Tsar Wars.
Multiverse bollocks: Dempsey this time around doesn’t actually seem to be a Cornelius analogue; the name Cornelius is never applied to him, for instance, and it would be very unlike Jerry to feel anything approaching guilt. Between this, and the fact that he’s guilt-ridden to the point of losing his mind about something he did whilst in command of a ship, makes me wonder whether we are meant to be reminded not of Jerry Cornelius but of Ryan from The Black Corridor. Another thing which makes me thnk this is that Professor Marek, the Frank-equivalent from The Distant Suns (which, if you remember, used recycled text from The Black Corridor), is responsible for developing the nukes this time around.
Una Persson’s meetings with Moorcock, which are the premise for her giving him the manuscript of the book, were originally established as a framing story for the Dancers at the End of Time stories as a means for Moorcock to get word of the terminal period of Earth’s history.
Nestor Makhno’s Ukrainian anarchist forces were the subject of one of the flashbacks in Breakfast In the Ruins, and Una’s dealings with him were a cornerstone of The Entropy Tango. (He also has a cameo in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle/Gold Diggers of 1977.) Of course, he also appears in Byzantium Endures, the first Colonel Pyat book, which is set in Ukraine during the post-revolutionary wars – and towards the end of the book, when his narration is getting more and more incoherent, Pyat rants about a Steel Tsar.
The Picky Buyer’s Guide
I suppose a lot of people who might be thinking about dipping into the Bastable series would be interested mainly in their role in establishing the steampunk aesthetic, so I suppose I should say a few words about that. There’s a curiously consistent aesthetic between all three books, mainly because Moorcock realises partway through The Land Leviathan that he doesn’t really want to cook up a radically different set of technologies and visual styles every time Bastable visits a different era. The thing is, it’s not actually very steampunk as far as I can tell, and not merely because the aesthetic is strictly speaking extrapolated from the Edwardian era as opposed to the Victorian era; the thing is, Moorcock understands that aesthetics do change as technology and fashions and accessibility/pricing of materials changes, so even though Bastable’s romping around in an old-timey uniform and noting how the various nations’ military airships are decked out in their imperial colours, at the same time Bastable also mentioning how women are wearing miniskirts and passenger airship interiors are decked out with plastic furniture (which seems amazing to him because he is from History but of course to us it sounds cheap and crappy). So, er, not as many history-frolics as you might want here, sorry steampunk fans.
The other reason I suspect most interested readers might consider reading the Bastable series would be because you’re interested in Moorcock’s takedown of infamously imperialistic/racist literary genres and want to see how he does it. On the whole, I think The Warlord of the Air is a bit more successful at this than The Land Leviathan, which smells a little problematic to me, though as I’ve mentioned previously I’m really not the one to make the call on that one.
However, I can suggest reasons why The Warlord of the Air may be more interesting than The Land Leviathan beyond the stuff I’ve outlined above. Firstly, as I mentioned Moorcock didn’t really go very far in making a distinctive and separate aesthetic for The Land Leviathan, so if you care about the whole majestic alt-history airship thing at all the former book’s going to cater to you a little better than otherwise. Secondly, The Warlord of the Air‘s plot really comes together nicely in the last few scenes when you realise what it’s been building up to, whereas The Land Leviathan tends to meander a little, though not nearly to the extent that The Steel Tsar does. Lastly, The Warlord of the Air also teases out a lot of the racism inherent in the colonialist/neo-colonialist fiction it lampoons, whereas The Land Leviathan is a lot more one-note, so I think Warlord has a mild edge on the intertextuality front.
Of course, all three books are pretty miserable when it comes to the inclusion of women who aren’t total ciphers, so there’s that. But then again, throughout the entire trilogy Moorcock absolutely resisted the temptation to have an alt-history Hitler pop up, so he deserves at least some props for self-restraint.
Buyer’s guide now looks like this:
The Stealer of Souls 
Stormbringer (post-1977 edition) 
The Eternal Champion (the novel, not the omnibus)
The Shores of Death (AKA The Twilight Man) 
City of the Beast (AKA Warriors of Mars) 
Lord of the Spiders (AKA Blades of Mars) 
Masters of the Pit (AKA Barbarians of Mars) 
The Winds of Limbo (AKA The Fireclown) 
The Final Programme 
A Cure For Cancer 
The English Assassin 
The Condition of Muzak 
Gold Diggers of 1977 (AKA The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle)
The Rituals of Infinity (AKA The Wrecks of Time) 
Behold the Man
Breakfast In the Ruins
The Ice Schooner
The Black Corridor
The Warlord of the Air
 Collected in The Roads Between the Worlds.
 Collected in Warrior of Mars or Kane of Old Mars.