Oswald Bastable: The Original Steampunk Trilogy

H.G.Wells and Jules Verne share the honour of being amongst the father’s Science Fiction, and retrospectively the fathers of Steampunk. There is little doubt the Verne and Wells influence on Steampunk is huge, though their tales are set in a present of which they were a part, rather than the imagined past of Steampunk. If you’re looking for the origins of actual Steampunk in literature, then you have to look a little less far back than Victoria’s reign, to the 1960’s and 70’s and a handful of writers who paid homage to Verne and Wells and the days when steam and empire went hand in hand. (Though the term Steampunk itself sprung from a humorous comparison to Cyberpunk in the 80’s which was considered the new big movement in Scifi at the time.) In that 60’s / 70’s cadre of writers, there are a few who might be claimed to be the true fathers of Steampunk, Peakes ‘Titus aAlone’ the third of the Gormagast trilogy is considered by some to be the first real Steampunk novel. Though for me it is Micheal Moorcock’s ‘Nomad of the Timestreams‘ trilogy that holds that honour, even though it was, admittedly, influenced by Peake’s work. It is also,  coincidently, where I first encountered the genre, way back in the dark days before the internet, or the 80’s as we knew them…

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I was a Moorcock fanboy, long before I was a Steampunk fanboy. He was the first of a long line of authors I have devoured over the years, and with him, it started both early and rather oddly. The first Moorcock I read was ‘The Sailor on the Seas of Fate‘ because the title intrigued me, and I loved the cover of the 1980 pulp paperback edition I still have kicking about at home.  As an introduction to Moorcock and the Eternal Champion series, it’s probably both the best and worst of books to chose. The best because it throws the four big eternal champion incarnations all together at once, the worst because as a 10-year-old understanding what the hell is going on when the four who are one merge together to fight an alien, that is a city that may be a chaos god, is a bit of a challenge. It was weird has hell, and I was certainly not in Kansas anymore… I loved it, did not understand half of it, and started feasting my way through all the other Elric novels, then Corum, Eckrose and Hawkmoon over the next couple of years till the big four incarnations had run dry. Then I started on any other Moorcock I could find, which lead me down some strange roads, ‘The Fireclown‘ and ‘The Brothel in the Rossen Strasse‘ were particularly odd books to read as a thirteen-year-old… But Moorcock is a well that takes a long time to run dry, and somewhere along the way I came across Oswald Barnstable, in a three-book compendium entitles ‘Nomad of the Time Streams’. The cover of this compendium proclaimed itself to be the first Steampunk Novel.. (as this was a 1984 edition that was published just after William Gibsons Neuromancer and the birth of cyberpunk )  This was how a fascination with all things Steampunk was first germinated within my id…

I have read a lot of Steampunk since, both the good, the bad and the just plain awesome. Much of it takes the basic concept of ‘fun with cogwheels’ and runs off in strange directions. Yet I am hard pressed to think of a single Steampunk novel that has influenced me in the way the three ‘Nomad of the Timestream’s‘ novels had. Perhaps this is because I was still young at the time, still forming my own ideas about the world, how it should be and my place within in it. That said, I would venture it has more to do with the way Moorcock uses these fast-paced boys-own adventure stories to talk about a whole range of ideas and concepts. This is not to say the Steampunk of writers after Moorcock have not touched on big subjects, but often it’s is more a genre of pure escapism than a genre used to expound an encompassing set of political ideals. Indeed, it is one of my niggles with Steampunk fiction on occasion, as some writers make great use the setting but do so in ways that ignore the issues of an Imperialist world, and the darker side of Victorian-era Britain and America. Not that every novel should be an education, or that adventure and fun for the sake of itself are anything to be sniffed at. But an awareness of racism, imperial dominance and other significant issues that come along with the 19th-century, set a novel apart from just being ‘fun with cogwheels…’

Moorcock’s trilogy, unsurprisingly given Micheals political leanings and the 1960’s as a backdrop to those views, does not shy away from any significant issues. Indeed it embraces them and uses his protagonist’s wanders through alternative worlds to explore them in some depth. The first novel, and undoubtedly the most out and out steampunk of the three, ‘Warlord of the Air‘ sees Edwardian soldier Oswald Barstable wanders into a cave in the below the temple of the future Budha. Seeking refuge after an ambush by Afghani bandits. When he finds his way out it is into an alternative world in the latter half of the 20th century. A world where the sun has yet to set on the British Empire as world wars were avoided and the age of colonialism has never faced the crises that drew it to its conclusion. Enter a world of airship armada’s, anarchists, and imperial powers dominating the world. Without the first world war, Russia remains under the stranglehold of the Tsar’s, America and Japan never came to blows. China and India remain in the thrall of imperial powers. To the patriotic Edwardian soldier, thrust by fate into this new world, it seems at first a utopia, until he starts to see how the imperial powers maintain order. Crushing any dissent beneath iron-shod boots, aerial bombardments, and brutally imposed oppression.

the_iron_orchidUna Persson, a name that I knew from other Moorcock books when I first read ‘Warlord of the Air‘, is among the leaders of a group of anarchists seeking to end imperialism as a force. She is as much an incarnation of the Eternal Champion as Oswald himself. Though his actions play the greater role in these particular events, at least from the perspective of the narrative. Miss Persson, however, has a far wider role in Moorcocks wider universe as a whole. She is probably one of his most recurring characters, she is often cast as something of an Edwardian character herself, though a rebellious one. You get the feeling if she had been a suffragette she would probably have pushed other people under race horses and tried to blow up Parliment. Peaceful protest is not her thing at all. As a proto-steampunk Heroine Una has a lot to recommend her, though she has many guises through the many novels she appears in It is easy to imagine her in a loose fitted corset, fascinator, bandola hung with hand grenades and sporting a Tesla pistol. She is also a woman of singular opinions, and never afraid to voice them.

Though Una’s escapades entangling Bastable within them, Oswald starts to see that the empire is not the shining light he imagined it to be. Eventually he ends up converted to the anarchist cause, helping them fight the empire… But history has a way of creating mirrors throughout Moorcock’s alternative universes. The odd real person crops up in the narrative, Enoch Powell as an airship major with a particularly brutal approach to keeping order, Churchill as a former Viceroy of India, Lenin as a failed revolutionary, and, of all people, Mick Jagger as a junior army officer. There are more chilling mirrors, however, in this case with the climax of the novel when the anarchist plot to force the imperial powers to relent their control. By setting off a new weapon in a little-known town in imperial Japan by the name of Hiroshima…

Oswald turns up once more in ‘The Land Leviathan’, after suffering a breakdown due to his part in the Hiroshima bombing at the end of ‘Warlord’ he found his way back to the cave hoping to find his way home. Instead, he finds himself somewhere far stranger. It is a 1904 which has already witnessed a world war more devastating than any of our own. Barbarism has replaced western civilisation and only the nations of Africa, freed from colonial oppression when the western world imploded, escaped relatively unharmed. Bastable falls in for a while with a submarine captain, Joseph Korzeniowski (the real name of Joseph Conrad the writer who coincidentally or not.. in his early life spent some time as a sailor). The submariner is loosely in the employ of the president of the Marxist Republic of Bantustan, (A South Africa that never had apartheid and is referred to more than once as the ‘rainbow nation’, which given the novel was written  in the early 70’s is just a little on the spooky side.) The president, one Mahatma Gandhi who migrated from India, has charged Joseph to deliver aid where possible to the ruins of the west. While the president attempt to dissuade General Cicero Hood, who rules the rest of Africa, from persecuting a war against the ruins of the west, enslaving the white race as his own race was once enslaved.

Bastable has many issues with Hood’s plans, considering the self-styled ‘Black Attila’ to be a force for evil. Yet is surprised when hood visits South Africa to find Miss Una Persson at the general side. He is equally surprised to find despite Hood’s reputation for savagery he is a highly educated man of refined tastes and manors. Hoods plan’s to enslave the white races of America and Europe he discovers are revenge for hundreds of years of exploitation, but Hood intends to enslave them for one generation only. A suitable revenge, in his opinion. It is the exchanges between Gandhi, Bastable, Una and General Hood that lift this above run-of-the-mill alternative Earth fiction. There is a philosophical stand point been taken by each of them, as the land leviathan slowly crawls its way across the shattered remains of the United States. The Leviathan itself is a for all intense and purposes half a dozen battleships nailed together and plonked on top of a set of tractor treads half a mile wide.

The third of the trilogy, ‘The Steel Tsar‘ introduces a world where the Confederates won the civil war, before striking an accord which left the northern states independent of the south. The first world war and the October Revolution never happen, and imperial Japan bomb Singapore rather than pearl harbour. Most of the action, however, involves Oswald joining the Imperial air navy of Russia, due to his experience with airships. History repeats itself, and in time Oswald is part of a mission to drop the first atomic bomb again ( how often can one man drop the first atomic bomb…) Bastabale, however, had grown as a character since the events of ‘Warlord of the Air‘. He sides more with the anarchists than imperialists. Eventually, he turns the weapon against the tsar’s forces instead, leaving the anarchists victorious…

If you like your Steampunk to be ‘fun with cogwheels‘ and nothing more then this trilogy is possibly not for you. Which is not to say it isn’t just that, but like much of Moorcock’s work there are undertones. Throughout he deconstructs 19th-century imperialism, racism, socialism, Marxism and the concept of anarchy. It is this deeper text, the underlying philosophical arguments, that make this such an engaging read. Which is not to deride its descendants in modern Steampunk, plenty of it both tries and succeeds in being more than just ‘Fun with Cogwheels‘ but few do it with the same eloquence and design as Moorcock does in ‘Nomad of the Timestreams’.

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There is plenty of other Moorcock with roots in steampunk, the Hawkmoon novels are full of cogwheel goodness, the dancers at the end of time, the Cornelius novels .. but only this trilogy is out and out steampunk. It is also an example of what can be done with a genre which gets labelled by some to be nostalgic fluff, with impressive cosplay, that makes for eye candy game worlds in computer games. Steampunk is no more limited by its genre than novels in other genre are. You can posit questions on the human experience, politics, religion, ethics, sexuality, morality and any other big subjects you care to name, just doing so with airships, cogwheels and brassy ladies with Tesla pistol’s hidden beneath their corseted skirts…   Moorcock showed us what could be done with the genre way back in the early 70’s, before it was even a genre at all…

That said I am off now to work on the second draft of Hannibal Smyth and the Wells of Time, which is nothing more than ‘Fun with Cogwheels‘ and the occasional mechanical spider in the eye…

 

 

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