Light touch, heavy themes

I inhabit a timeline in which the definitive version of Michael Moorcock’s huge fantasy sequence is The Tale of The Eternal Champion, available in your version of reality only in second-hand copies which sometimes slip between the parallels and turn up for sale in independent bookshops (or on Amazon). In your reality Moorcock disavowed this attempt to put his Eternal Champion stories into a narrative chronology, and decided that future editions would be better off hewing to the publication history as an organising principle. However, enough nomads of the time streams take a narcissistic pleasure in reading Moorcock’s versions of themselves that a considerable number of copies continue to make their way into your plane of existence, and you can read this history of the hero with a thousand faces in sequence if you wish—from the first volume Von Bek, to the fourteenth, Count Brass. That’s what I’ve been doing, and with this sixth volume I’ve reached one of the points at which my haphazard earlier reading of Moorcock cuts across the framing narrative. As a teenager I read the third of the novels collected in A Nomad of The Time Streams, and I was thoroughly confused by it—though also delighted. All three stories concern Oswald Bastable, which is the name of a character in a series of children’s novels by E. Nesbit. Moorcock is a big fan of Victorian and Edwardian adventure literature, presumably because it’s what he cut his teeth on as a reader, and there are many instances in his published oeuvre in which he can be seen to be both subverting and celebrating writing of that sort. While two of the novels in this omnibus are set later in the C.20, the hero of all three is launched on his adventures from its first decade, and although they all contain the sort of outlandish things that are found in Michael Moorcock novels, we see them all through the prism of an honourable, colonial era, officer-class Brit.

Moorcock is probably best known for his sword-and-sorcery fiction, and when he writes that sort of thing his world-building can be a bit sketchy. Despite his public dislike for J.R.R. Tolkien he often writes in a similarly mythic mode, which doesn’t afford any very close identification between reader and character, and he tends to gloss over the details and cultural specifics of his imagined worlds and societies. When his writing is more historically situated, however, as in a ‘straight’ novel like Mother London, or in his Von Bek fantasies, set in Europe during the aftermath of the Wars of Religion, he makes a much more rigorous effort, both at world-construction (the design of his fictional setting), and world-building (the use of language and narrative to realise his setting vividly for the reader). Each of the books collected in A Nomad of The Time Streams sees Bastable catapulted to a world similar to his own, but also removed from it—temporally in two cases, and historically in the other: in all of these time-streams, airships feature to a greater or lesser degree. We have noted Moorcock’s interest in the adventure stories of the early C.20, in which airships frequently feature, but it’s also a fairly prescient and well-judged move, which anticipated the popularity of diesel-punk literature by some decades (the Steel Tsar, with which this sequence concludes, having been published in 1981). These worlds are all drawn much more vividly, with far more concrete detail, than those in which characters like Elric or Dorian Hawkmoon have their adventures. In The Warlord of the Air we find ourselves in an alternative 1973, one in which the persistence of the great empires of the Edwardian age, and their continued colonial suppression of much of the world’s population, have retarded technological development to something resembling the level of the 1930s. In The Land Leviathan we find runaway technological progress from the late C.19, which has resulted in a global war, leaving the traditional powers devastated, and influence switching decisively to Africa by the first decade of the C.20, when the novel is set. Here we see less clarity in Moorcock’s world-building, perhaps because a technically advanced culture built on African traditions was more of an imaginative stretch for him—this is something of a shame, as I’m sure that if he had done the requisite research, he could have produced a fascinating setting.

In The Steel Tsar we see a different Moorcock altogether. The first two novels belong very clearly to his practice as a writer of commercial fiction inspired by the pulp tradition, but the last was written after he had begun to receive some plaudits as a litterateur, and was able to explore his interests more fully. In the first two, Bastable, an earnest son of Empire, finds his fundamental beliefs undermined, and is forced to concede that socialist and anti-colonialist positions are justifiable ones, although he remains a simple soldier motivated by a sense of fair play. In The Steel Tsar this becomes a much more significant part of the narrative, and is dealt with in much more detail. At the same time, Bastable’s ‘simple soldier’ schtick gets much shorter shrift, and despite his conducting himself as the hero of an Edwardian adventure should, he basically finds himself a spectator to most of the drama, driven by events and pretty much incapable of shaping them. This story is set in an alternate 1941, and much of the narrative concerns a revolution in Imperial Russia, during which an authoritarian cossack demagogue clearly modelled on Stalin attempts to nuke the Ukrainian anarchist leader Nestor Makhno out of contention for its leadership (the real Makhno died in exile in 1934, but if he hadn’t been in Paris he wouldn’t necessarily have contracted tuberculosis). Within this sub-plot it is always perfectly clear where the anarchist Moorcock’s sympathies lie, and there is a framing narrative (apparently Bastable’s adventures were written down by Moorcock’s grandfather and stashed in the attic) in which he explicitly states his political interests. In all of this the interesting philosophical themes that bubble below the surface of much of the Eternal Champion sequence become overt topics of the narrative, although The Steel Tsar remains an entertainment, and its intellectual indulgences are playful ones. Moorcock is an approachable, unpretentious prose writer, and in all three Oswald Bastable novels, especially the last, he addresses some heavy themes with a light touch.

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