Tuesday, 4 January 2000

Michael Moorcock: The War Lord of the Air (1971)

Edition: Granada, 1984
Review number: 411

The War Lord of the Air is one of my favourite Moorcock novels. It inspired by turn of the century adventure stories with a fantastic element, with influences such as Buchan, Haggard and Wells as well as the tradition exemplified by (say) Lanier's Brigadier Ffellowes stories. It is a precursor of the genre known as "steampunk", with its additional element of alternate history centred around alternate technology.

Whilst on a mission to a remote kingdom in the Himalayas in 1902, Captain Oswald Bastable of the British Army is caught in an earthquake. He recovers consciousness in a ruined city - but the ruins seem old. Eventually he discovers that he has travelled through time to 1973 - but not 1973 as we have experienced it. The First World War never happened, and the world remains divided up between the colonial powers. The dominant technology is that of the airship, powered by compact steam engines. Feigning amnesia (and, of course, having no knowledge of any event since 1902), Bastable attempts to make his way in an entirely new world, though actually one not as different from 1902 as the real 1973 would have been.

As in other alternate histories, part of the fun lies in seeing well known people in very different situations. There are several revolutionaries, including Che Guevara and an aged Vladimir Ulianov (Lenin), but the oddest is the clean cut young army lieutenant Michael Jagger.

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