'The Land Leviathan' is a solid and interesting follow-up to 'The Warlord of the Air' (click here for review) because it delivers a great deal of the same while mixing up everything for effect and deepening the bigger picture in a number of ways.
One is the way that the framing story is expanded considerably. Instead of a mere few words to set us up, we're given three pages of introduction by the author and a 36-page prologue by his grandfather, another Michael Moorcock, as he travels to China to track down Oswald Bastable, the time-traveller who told him the outrageous story that his grandson published as a novel. With nothing else to go on, he aims for the Valley of the Morning, which featured so prominently in that book.
Another is the fact that it isn't really an alternate future but an alternate past. 'The Warlord of the Air' was published in 1971 and set in 1973, even if its lead character had only just left 1902. 'The Land Leviathan' was published in 1974 but it tells a tale that the elder Moorcock discovered in 1910 that saw Bastable only lost for two years, finding this world in 1904.
A third is that Moorcock fails to find Bastable but he does find this new story about him, handed to him by no less than Una Persson, who had been a companion of Bastable's towards the end of that previous alternate future and, of course, features in the new one too. Clearly there's something more going on here than simply one man waking up in the future. Moorcock cross-pollinated a lot of his material, especially within his 'Eternal Champion' multiverse, and this was merely the early days for a character who would make it all the way to the title of another Moorcock novel outside this series. Her name is notable, of course, translating simply to 'a person.'
There's a point in this book that explicitly ponders on this idea. Oswald Bastable has found his way to a new alternate future consistent thematically with the previous one but different in almost every other way. At one point, travelling over the flattened city of London in Persson's airboat, he thinks about whether this is how another city would have looked after the actions of the warlord of the air in his previous adventure. 'I had begun to wonder,' he wrote, 'if I move from dream to dream. Was reality only what I made of it?'
Of course, playing with reality is what novelists do and it's fascinating to read this variation on a tune deepen it. While 'The Warlord of the Air' took place in a future where neither world war happened and so the great empires found a balance until the colonies they ruled rebelled under a charismatic Chinese leader, Gen Shuo Ho Ti. Here, the inventions of a child genius from Chile, Manuel O'Bean, prompted a utopian era planet-wide until the pace of technological change outstripped man's ability to cope with it and a War Between the Nations erupted on a scale more vast even than the ones we know from our own history, shorter but more devastating because of the use of biological weapons. Most of the northern hemisphere is reduced to rubble.
It makes this novel a post-apocalyptic story with some passages, such as those dedicated to Bastable's wandering of the ruins of southern England, reminding of M P Shiel's 'The Purple Cloud.' Of course, post-apocalyptic stories were first written by Victorians, such as Mary Shelley's 'The Last Man' and Richard Jeffries's 'After London.' Shiel just misses that cut, as 'The Purple Cloud' began publication in the same month that Queen Victoria died.
Moorcock's predominant concern in 'The Warlord of the Air' was with slaves overturning their masters, but it wasn't literal there, focused instead on native populations being mistreated under colonial rule. It's made literal here with the Black Attila, Cicero Hood, building his New Ashanti Empire on top of the ashes of the world. He's a former American slave who harbours a deep resentment for Americans and plans to return there with a vengeance so that he and his army can free his black people.
As with the previous book, Americans are characterised as racist bullies, not least because they've re-implemented slavery, and that perhaps shaped the material more here than previously, where this was highlighted through a single character based on Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California. The most recognisable Americans here are Herbert Hoover, the racist governor of New York, and 'Bomber' Joe Kennedy, a racist explosives expert working for President Frederic Penfield, who runs the government in the style of the Ku Klux Klan. None are any more endearing than Capt Egan was in the previous book. The only positive Americans to be found are in smaller roles for Paul Robeson and Al Capone, as a leader of slaves and a noted Sicilian aviator respectively.
Some real people were brought back from the prior book in similar but not identical guises. Josef Korzeniowski (ie Joseph Conrad) is a captain again here, for instance, but a different one to reflect the different world in which he lives; he captains a submarine here rather than an airship. The majority were introduced fresh to this book, such as Mahatma Gandhi, the president of Bantustan, formerly South Africa, which avoided the Boer War and apartheid and became a utopian Marxist society where the races mingle freely but which has to deal very carefully with the warlord who has taken over the rest of the continent and beyond.
And, of course, as before, the theme is very much the Victorian scientific romance approach to cloaking philosophy inside adventure. This future looks at utopias and dystopias, just as its predecessor did, and Bastable, as our avatar, finds that he changes sides and allegiances a number of times as he discovers more about the bigger picture. There's even more thought in this one than the previous book, playing with deep concepts like good and evil, war and peace and justice and injustice, along of course with colonist and subject, master and servant and freedom and enslavement.
I believe that, while the valley of world revolutionaries of Gen Shuo Ho Ti was a fascinating concept in 'The Warlord of the Air', the uncompromisingly warlike but still purposeful New Ashanti Empire of Cicero Hood, the Black Attila, is a more focused way to throw these thoughts out there for us to latch onto. There are a variety of dynamics in play: not merely New Ashanti versus the Australasian-Japanese Federation, its most powerful opponent, or New Ashanti vs the United States, but also its peaceful relationship with the privately pacifist Bantustan and its motion into being a new colonial power by taking over the remnants of Europe.
Like the best scientific romances of the Victorian era, 'The Land Leviathan' and its predecessor, 'The Warlord of the Air', which should be regarded in the same breath, are worthy as novels, not just science fiction, alternate histories or steampunk but as literature. They're also worthy of being read more than once, because the ideas, contrasts and philosophies are likely to mean different things depending on our own experiences of the world and our exposures to different mindsets. The books will grow as we grow. This is idea-heavy alternate history of the sort that is rarely written today. ~~ Hal C F Astell