A Head of Steam

In which The Author finds the past catching up with him

When I was in my mid-teens, one of the Science Fiction writers whom I really enjoyed reading was Michael Moorcock. His prodigious output and wide range of subject matter seemed quite remarkable. When I came across a new Moorcock book in Graham Ewington’s Bookshop in Aberdare, or (more likely) Lear’s Bookshop in Cardiff, it was anyone’s guess what would lie behind the eye-catching and often disturbing front cover.
It might have been a new bind-up of the Elric short stories, or one of the many volumes in the Eternal Champion sequence of interlinked sword-and-sorcery novels. His fantasy writing reached its apotheosis in the spellbinding Gloriana, or the Unfulfill’d Queen, set in a dazzling parallel London of the Sixteenth Century.
Alternatively, it could have been one of his hard SF novels, like The Black Corridor, set amid social collapse in the near future. The Michael Kane adventures, set on Mars, straddle the two former camps. Most people browsing in a bookshop today would come across the Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon and Castle Brass novels in bind-up forms, and assume that was pretty much the extent of Mr Moorcock’s published work. It isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.
How do you begin to classify the Jerry Cornelius books, his extraordinary satirical quartet about the quest for personal identity in an era when everyone was hiding their true natures from each other (and themselves)?
There were the critically-acclaimed Colonel Pyat novels: Byzantium Endures was published when I was still in school. The Vengeance of Rome hit the shops in 2006. I still remember my amazement when Mike M., the rep from Random House, showed me the cover of the final volume while I was doing a sub in work.
‘Good God, don’t tell me he’s finally finished it?’ I gasped, and Mike laughed. I was apparently the first bookseller he’d encountered who’d heard of the earlier books.
The faint-hearted reader would be advised to steer clear of the iconoclastic Nebula Award winner Behold the Man, in which a time traveller visits first-century Palestine in search of Christ Himself.
As well as these, Mr Moorcock produced (amongst other books) the haunting magical realism of Mother London and King of the City; the spoof spook romps of The Chinese Agent and The Russian Intelligence; the tragi-comic Dancers at the End of Time sequence; the speedfreak vaguely film tie-in of The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle; and an overlooked trilogy of novels about an Edwardian soldier who had come well and truly unstuck in Time: The Warlord of the Air (1971), The Land Leviathan (1974), and The Steel Tsar (1981).
These last three are rather strange to re-read in the Twenty-First Century. Purporting to be taken from manuscripts left by Mr Moorcock’s grandfather, they are written as the first-person account of Oswald Bastable, a former soldier and opium addict. Cut off from his unit by a local uprising in India, Bastable takes refuge in an abandoned temple. It proves to be a portal in Space and Time, and a gateway to a series of parallel universes.
In The Warlord of the Air Bastable is rescued by a giant airship and returns to London in the year 1973. The First World War has not occurred, and the great empires have continued to carve up the globe between them. Bastable gains employment on the airships, and comes into contact with a group of revolutionaries, including a radical Russian named Ulianov. Being a decent sort of cove, Bastable throws himself into their struggle against oppression. However, it seems as though History has a way of correcting itself. There are fixed events in Time, after all. The political instability in the Crimean Peninsula seems to be one of these fixed points. There are other fixed points as well; at the conclusion of the first book, Bastable finds himself witnessing one of the immutable atrocities of our age.
The Land Leviathan takes Bastable to another alternative universe. Vastly accelerated technological development has led to the virtual collapse of civilisation in the Northern Hemisphere. Bastable finds himself in the wealthy utopia of South Africa, which is ruled peacefully by Gandhi, and where apartheid has never been established. He becomes an emissary to the benign dictatorship of the ‘Black Attila’, an African revolutionary who declares war on White America. The ‘Land Leviathan’ of the title is a massive tank which serves as his mobile headquarters. Once again, History takes the upper hand and events move to a devastating conclusion.
In The Steel Tsar, Bastable visits a world where the Confederate States won the American Civil War and the October Revolution never took place. After a series of adventures, Bastable sets out to destroy the ‘Steel Tsar’, the battle weapon of Iosif Dugashvili. You’ll have to read the books to find out how events develop.
All three books are characterised by Mr Moorcock’s deft handling of alternative history, and by the frequent appearances of real people within the fictional structure. Some of his regular characters appear as well, most notably Una Persson, who features throughout the Jerry Cornelius books and the many related novels.
In particular, his use of fictional technology within a historical framework puts these books very much at the foundation of the Steampunk genre. To me, at least, it seems that Alan Moore was heavily influenced by Mr Moorcock’s books when he came to write his famous graphic novels about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. These alternative histories, built around viable but non-existent technology, follow in the tradition of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Steampunk has now become a recognised sub-genre of SF, some forty years after The Warlord of the Air was published.
The last couple of seasons of Doctor Who seem to be very Steampunk-influenced. In particular, have a look at the production designs in ‘The Beast Below’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, and ‘The Time of the Doctor’. My pal Clint visited a craft fair in Brecon recently, and met some Steampunk enthusiasts who’ve adopted the full Cosplay image. He told me later that he’s been keeping an eye out for vintage clothes which he can customise in a suitably eclectic style.
My regular readers probably know that I’m far from being a dedicated follower of fashion. However, with the recent emergence of the Steampunk style in mainstream films and TV, I’ve been wondering whether it’s the sort of image which I could really pull off. After all, I read the original Steampunk books before Steampunk was even a word, so I feel as though I should pin my colours to the mast, so to speak. Don’t be at all surprised if I turn up one day wearing a three-piece suit under a frock-coat, with a pocket watch and a bowler hat, and a pair of goggles for effect. And, quite possibly, if I can learn how to tie one properly, a bow tie.
After all, these days, bow ties are cool…
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