Retro review–The Warlord of the Air, the proto-steampunk classic

Warlord of the Air

Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s been 41 years since Michael Moorcock first published The Warlord of the Air, the first novel in his Nomad of the Time Streams series following Edwardian British Army Captain Oswald Bastable as he becomes unstuck in different timelines in the 20th century.  It has all the elements of steampunk, despite being written more than 15 years before the term came into common meaning, including a focus on airships being the preferred form of transportation in the novel’s alternate 1973, as well as technologies and events that did or did not occur in our own timeline.

Moorcock serves to pull the reader into the story through the device of finding writings from his own grandfather, also named Michael Moorcock, in which his grandfather personally encountered Captain Bastable on a small island in the Indian Ocean in 1903.  Bastable has been unceremoniously ousted from a steam-powered, seafaring vessel and appears disoriented to the narrator so he takes him into his house and learns of the story recounted to the reader as the bulk of the novel.

Bastable’s story begins in India in 1902, where he’s part of Imperial British forces attempting to quell a rebellion led by Sharan Kang, high priest at the temple of Teku Benga.   Bastable ends up unconscious in the caves near the Temple of the Future Buddha, to awaken with the temple in ruins.  He hails a giant airship and soon learns he has been transported to the year 1973.  He feigns amnesia and is examined by several experts, only to finally embrace the utopian future he has discovered.  As a sort of Horatio Hornblower of a fleet of airships, Bastable signs on to a vessel only to come into conflict with “an offensive little Californian scout-leader” named Reagan–“Ronnie” Reagan.  Reagan is annoying and off-putting to the crew and Bastable’s captain, a Captain Quelch–the last captain of the old hydrogen-fueled airships.  Reagan’s insults ultimately cause Bastable to fall from grace and be asked to resign from the airship navy, as, in  response to an attack on his captain and a barrage of insults, Bastable nearly beats Reagan to death.

the warlord of the air

Keeping in mind Ronald Reagan was merely a governor in 1973, Moorcock’s choices of Reagan and only a handful of real-life characters is simply strange.  Reagan’s later importance in real-life adds its own sense of mystery to Moorcock’s story.  Luckily for Bastable, he encounters a new captain, a philosopher captain of sorts named Joseph Korzeniowski–the real name of famous Polish author Joseph Conrad.  Other references to real-life figures include Mick Jagger as an army officer, Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) as a revolutionary (neither World War I or the Russian Revolution exist in Bastable’s reality), and Winston Churchill as a mere viceroy to India.  Soon Bastable learns there is more to Captain Korzeniowski than meets the eye.

Bastable reveals himself to be naive–no honorable British captain would support revolutionaries, would he?  Bastable becomes embroiled in a political, social and cultural battle over the strengths and weaknesses of Imperialism.  Here Moorcock intersperses his own questions and possibly answers reflecting his own view of colonialism and independence.  Ultimately, new winged aircraft become commonplace, and Bastable finds himself participating in the destruction of Hiroshima, the explosion of which blows him back to a further altered 1903, and the beginning of our story.


Several bits and pieces of The Warlord of the Air may remind readers of Firefly (references to an established Chinese dominance in language and otherwise), Star Wars (gritty realism and revolution), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the revisited Captain Nemo from Jules Verne will be familiar to the captains of this novel), and The Golden Compass (British influence and travel).   The airship references are quite good, and the interaction of airshipmen could be interchangeable with scenes from classic movies about British carriers or submarines, or the Horatio Hornblower stories as referenced earlier.

The Warlord of the Air should be interesting to those curious about its role as a precursor to the modern steampunk sub-genre of science fiction.   A new edition of Moorcock’s 1971 novel The Warlord of the Air will be released on January 13, 2013 and is available for pre-order discount from at this link.


  1. Hmm, I was massively disappointed by the first volume in the sequence — so much that I haven’t read the other two. I did like the naivete of the main character — definitely a more satirical take on colonialism….

    • Thanks for the feedback. I definitely think The Warlord of the Air is more of a preview of things to come than an example of the best of steampunk fiction. I’m thinking a lot of steampunk readers may be interested in the roots of steampunk so this out out there for that audience. When you compare this work to the dense world-building and crossover of dozens of characters in modern works, you really see how far steampunk has come in only a few decades. Warlord was more like H.G. Wells than works from this century that fit–or come close to fitting–in this genre or sub-genre.

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