The reason why I say The Warlord of the Air is a surprisingly good read is not because it’s sci-fi but because the title will probably have you thinking it’s a senseless pulpy novel where a lot of things blow up. Well, a lot of things do blow up, but this is by no means an extravagently thoughtless novel. Quite the opposite, actually, it’s a high-concept and very clever sci-fi story.
Bear with me here while I try to explain the premise. The Warlord of the Air itself was published in 1971, but it’s meant to take place at the turn of the 20th century. It’s narrated by a man who relates that he’s just returned from a time-travelling adventure, but is worse for wear and addicted to opium–so we have in him an unreliable narrator, something you don’t find too often in genre novels (one exception being Gene Wolfe). He tells of how, during a colonial mishap in India, he was knocked unconscious only to wake up decades in the future. The interesting thing is, his future is our past, but here’s the rub–it’s not our past. A psychological element is added to the story. His future is not our past at all, it’s the future as he might imagine it in a dream, based on his current reality. It’s one of the best examples of retro-futurism out there.
In his future, there’s many differences. First, World War I never happened, because it’d be impossible for a mind at that time to even conceive of a war on that scale. Without the First World War to bankrupt the superpower countries, (and without the Bolshevik Revolution as well) countries like France, China, Russia and so on are still major imperialist countries, as is the US. Another difference: zeppelins still traverse the sky.
You can tell that this had a huge influence on the subgenre of steampunk. After this book, blimps/zeppelins are staples of alternate reality/steampunk/retro-futurist stories. Movies and literature are littered with them. For instance, in the parallel universe on Fringe, one thing that sets their reality apart from ours are the blimps above New York. Thomas Pynchon’s epic Against the Day begins with a group of characters riding a big balloon airship around. Moorcock himself was probably inspired by Jules Verne, but Moorcock in turn inspired lots of others.
I think based on the title, you’d assume the whole thing was random fighting, but the book itself is light on action but big on ideas. It’s light physically as well. I think it was only around 200 pages or so.
I would say The Warlord of the Air is necessary reading for any who likes speculative or new-wave science fiction. If you’re interested in Hard Science Fiction, then this isn’t necessarily for you. If you’re a reader who doesn’t like to hear about science, you’re in luck: there’s not really any science in the story.
It’s an unusual sci-fi book, and highly enjoyable. You can see an influence of the great fin-de-siecle writer’s like Verne, Wells, Shaw, and Conrad in it, but also a sort of versatility and punkiness that’s inimitably Michael Moorcock.
Bottom line: The Warlord of the Air is a sci-fi novel I’d highly recommend, and if you don’t like it, well, at least it doesn’t take long to read.
*It’s very possible it didn’t take long to write either. I’ve heard before that Moorcock, at least in the 60s and 70s, wrote somewhere around 15,000 words on a good day, and at that rate could finish writing a book in less than a week, much like Philip K. Dick who’d write entire novels in 2-3 days. Most full length novels are between 30,000-50,000 words.
If sci-fi’s your thing, you can read my review of Gene Wolfe’s new book Home Fires.
If you like time-travel stories, my new book features a short story about visiting the future. My book is The Madness of Art: Short Stories.
If you’ve read The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock, what was your opinion of it?