How many science-fiction or fantasy novels have you come across that have for a time portal a Hindu shrine? Not too many, I surmise. In “A Nomads of the Time Streams,” a trilogy by Michael Moorcock, well, that’s where it all begins, in the Temple of the Future Buddha (which I’m quite certain is loosely based on Nepal’s sprawling Pashupatinath Temple.)
A supremely engaging ragout of steampunk (a genre of science-fiction, set in the past), time travel, and a critique of colonialism, racism, socialism, it explores alternate versions of the 20th century. What if the research for the Manhattan Project hadn’t taken place in Los Alamos, New Mexico, but in a pastoral vale in China? What if the Britons had never left India? What if it wasn’t the Americans who bombed Hiroshima? What if the blacks had enslaved the whites?
Moorcock prefaces each novel with a quirky backstory, which heightens its suspense. He tells the reader that it was his grandfather, who’d run into Bastable on a vacation to the little-known atoll of Rowe Island, and it was during that encounter that the senior Moorcock jotted down every word of the absurd tale Bastable told him.
After several failed attempts to get it published—because the “story” wasn’t “fiction,” he gave up, and left the manuscripts to the care of a steel safe in his attic. The writer stumbled upon them serendipitously.
It’s the dawn of the Edwardian era. A young British army officer named Oswald Bastable, posted in India, leads an expedition to an ancient, theocratic, Himalayan mountain kingdom to sign a military pact. The meeting with its priest-king ends badly. Bastable is lost in a maze of secret chambers in the belly of the holy palace. When he comes around, after what he thinks is a tremblor, he’s hurled forward in time.
From there on, he becomes a temporal nomad, on a quixotic quest to return to own time. Unwittingly, he plays a pivotal role in shaping the destiny of the worlds he visits. No matter where he is or when he is—though, always in his future—and what the geopolitical configuration of that world, it inevitably plunges into war.
In “The Warlord of the Air,” book No. 1 of the series, published in 1971, he arrives in the London of 1973, and beholds a marvelous utopia—a clean, fog-free, well-lit city, where traffic moved in an orderly fashion, up and down the many-tiered elevated ramps. Poverty has been banished and the seedy rookeries are gone. People are well-fed, well-dressed, prosperous, and content.
The elation he experiences on encountering that metropolis soon dissipates, though.
Taking up employment in the Special Air Police as what we, today, would call a “sky marshal,” his job is to keep a lookout for unruly, gun-toting passengers on airships as well as to field on-board complaints, such as petty thefts.
His brawl with a racist and bellicose American scoutmaster on the Loch Etive costs him his job. In turn, it propels him into an adventure-ridden voyage to the Orient that opens his eyes to the hidden, ugly realities of that age.
The entire world isn’t a paradise. It’s divided into two hemispheres: that of the colonizer and the colonized. Its land, people, and resources are divvied up into unequal slices, greedily gobbled up by the five nations of Britain, France, Japan, Russia, and America. The heyday of British imperialism, far from being over, is at its peak, the Union Jack flying proudly over distant colonies and far-flung protectorates. King Edward VIII is still on the throne.
Moorcock has cleverly plucked the political web of the 1800s, and planted it onto the 1900s, extending Pax Britannica—an era of tepid peace and stability in Europe, between 1815 and 1914, when Britain became a hegemon, holding sway over nearly a quarter of Earth’s total landmass—well into the last quarter of the 20th century.
But the winds of change are slowly stirring. Friction comes to a boil. Sparks of nationalistic revolution are erupting, in pockets, all over the world, spearheaded by an Oxford-educated warlord, who’s half English and half Chinese.
Bastable is deeply dismayed by his terrorist acts, but begins to see him in a kinder light on discovering that he’s sowing the seeds of a truly egalitarian society, built on justice, liberty, art, and science, where everyone is treated equal, regardless of color or creed. Driving his hijackings, bombings, and assassinations, is a vision for a better, fairer, world.
By book No. 2, “The Land Leviathan,” which came out in 1974, Bastable realizes, he’s “trapped forever in the shifting sands of Time.” He’s caught in the crosshairs of a post-apocalyptic West, its civilization and civility, wiped out by brutal warfare; its population, decimated.
Those alive, are getting on barbarically, deformed by the ravages of serial plagues, brought on by the rain of deadly viruses, unleashed by biological bombs. When he returns to England, he’s stunned to see that all that remains of his beloved country is a miasmatic wasteland. To survive, he has to leave his homeland.
A kink in time brings back his old compatriots. Together, they roam the dark deeps, preying on orphan nautical stragglers on the high seas. When they grow scarce, Bastable and his party relinquish their life of piracy, and offer their services to the navy of a non-aligned nation called Bantustan (a.k.a South Africa), a gleaming, modern, republic, living in harmony both with its citizens and those outside it. Its president is Mahatma Gandhi.
In the aftermath of a disastrous war, a broken America has reintroduced slavery. Cicero Hood, a military genius and monarch of the rising Ashanti Empire, has declared war on all Caucasian countries. From the porches of Benin—a tiny West African nation on our map—he’s marched to Europe and foisted his lion-emblazoned flag on its soil.
But he has his eyes on a more prestigious trophy: America. He’s not after territory, but justice. The son of an Arkansas slave, he’s on a mission to liberate his black people from servitude.
The Ashanti Empire is a mash-up of a historical and a geographical entity: Benin Empire—a pre-colonial, African kingdom that existed between the 15th and 19th centuries—and Ashanti, a gold-rich, cocoa-producing, administrative region in present-day Ghana, whose capital is Kumasi.
In both these books, a new structure is in the making. And Bastable has a grandstand view of it. But he, a fin-de-siècle British citizen, is in a quandary, unsure of whether he should ally with his own kind or hop over the fence to, what in his own world, is the enemy camp.
He’s het up with the emergent leaders, whose acts, he believes, aren’t motivated by anything other than vapid vendetta and insensate rage. But when sees that they’re driven by an altruistic motive that aims to liberate the many from the rule by the few, he throws in his lot with them.
With a formidable armory and a flotilla of terrestrial, aerial, and aquatic vessels, which can pulverize resistance, literally, Hood arrives on the shores of a smoldering, stunted, New York, and proceeds onto Washington, D.C.
The excitement built up by “The Warlord of the Air,” and intensified by “The Land Leviathan,” collapses in book No. 3, “The Steel Tsar.”
Bastable makes his way from Rangoon on a greasy, Greek cargo airship, bound for Bangkok. Struck by an electrical storm, it crashes over the jungles of the Malay Peninsula. By halfway, he’s survived two air crashes and the carpet-bombing of a shining British colony; made a narrow escape in a stolen boat; lost his way; got shipwrecked; and washed up on the shores of the very island where he’d met the elder Moorcock.
1941 is where he is. Imperial Japan and Russia are at war, 35 years after they fought in our world, with a winning outcome for Russia. Rescued from a little island, off the coast of Hokkaido, he arrives in a post-czarist Russia, in the throes of a domestic turmoil. Driven by a ruthless ambition, a Georgian priest turned Cossack military commander, is sowing the seeds of a socialist takeover through destructive science.
As the plots rolls, ploddingly, towards its end, it loses its tempo and focus, and becomes a cat’s cradle of discordant discourses. By then, Bastable feels “like a cross between Rip Van Wrinkle and the Flying Dutchman, with a touch of the Wandering Jews besides.” He has gone from being a soldier to an airshipman to a “chrononaut.”
His present appears to be a resounding echo of his recent past, a side effect of his journeying across the “multiverse,” a set of parallel universes, of which ours is one. Time travel takes place courtesy of a group of sorcerers, who can tamper with time. The svelte revolutionary Una Persson tells him: “You cannot return to your own time.” So, she invites him to join the “League of Temporal Adventurers.”