One summer morning, sometime in the 1910s, the good men and women of New York City awaken to the sound of engines thrumming in the morning air. Craning their heads, they peek out of their windows to see the sky crowded with ominous hulks, great gasbags bearing the eagle insignia of the Kingdom of Germany. From loudspeakers a message is sent: give up! Your fleet in the North Atlantic has been routed, and you have no aeroplanes that can reach our zeppelins. Surrender your city, and no more lives need be endangered. To drive the point home, several airships shift and angle their way to positions over the Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall, Wall Street, and a few other landmarks. As one they open their payload doors, raining tonnes of high-explosive bombs on the structures below.
A scene from some modern steampunk novel? No, this is an old nightmare, almost 110 years old by my count. It is a pivotal sequence from The War in the Air, H. G. Wells’ serialized novel, written for The Strand all the way back in 1908. It’s a novel I have had on my mind recently, so I spent the last week rereading my old water-damaged copy. As it turned out, it did not awaken the same passions it once had in me, but it did clarify my thinking on a few points.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, it should be mentioned beforehand that it is a novel written in the great British tradition of scientific romances. In other words, it is a story where characters are cameras to the action rather than actors. In The War in the Air, the main cameraman is a Mr. Bert Smallways of Bun Hill, just outside of London. He is a young, simple, somewhat stupid middle-class man who looks no higher than the heights of conventional success. However, as he is living in the near-future year of 191-, he is unknowingly living in a world of rapid technological change, particularly in transportation. While the establishment of worldwide monorail networks draws the most attention in the early chapters, it is the advances in flight that prove to be the more important. Every nation and empire on Earth is working on their own flying machines, integrating them into their political schemes. By the novel’s opening the breakdown in relations between America and Germany are threatening the peace of the world, while a new Japanese-Chinese alliance builds and bides its time. Finally, both literally and figuratively, the balloon goes up. Bert is skyhooked by comic happenstance to Germany, where he becomes the permanent guest of Crown Prince Karl Albert, the Alexandrine figure who will lead Germany’s aerial armada to victory over America. While he does “succeed” in immolating Manhattan Island, his actions serve to tip off the great aerial world war that lays waste to the Age of Industry and which, by the novel’s end, has returned mankind to the condition of medieval poverty.
Now I am of two minds about this novel. Speaking from a strictly scholarly context, it is a story worthy of rigorous study. In its historical context, it was part of the great trend of “future war” novels that thrived between the Franco-Prussian War and the outbreak of the First World War. However, unlike most of those novels, The War in the Air was not written by a general looking to warn the public of foreign devilry or of an entertainer looking to make a quick pound, but of someone taking the concept of aerial warfare seriously and warning people of the dangers of unchecked militarism. As an example, compare The War in the Air with The Angel of the Revolution, a story of aerial warfare written in 1893 by George Griffith, a now-forgotten competitor to Wells. His story is much more of a positive adventure, as a despondent English inventor becomes part of a band of good-natured anarchists and proceeds to save European civilization from the Russian hordes. There’s one scene in that book that has always stuck with me; about a third of the way in, our heroes are flying over Saint Petersburg in their flying machine when they decide, just out of the blue, to bomb the fortress and naval base at Kronstadt into the bedrock. Griffith treats this as a triumph. By contrast, in Wells’ book his sympathy is always with the little Smallways on the ground.
The War in the Air is also interesting as one of the earliest, most coherent images of a particular type of 20th century apocalypse: the Air War that levels civilization. It’s an image that floated around in the Western consciousness for decades, and it always seemed to jump to the next available technology. Wells started with zeppelins, but when the First World War showed the limitations of them, the dream moved to airplanes with the motto “the bomber will always get through.” The bomber, as WWII showed, did not always get through, but the idea stuck around, eventually marrying itself to nuclear weapons in both their gravity-bomb and missile-warhead form. Indeed, a lot of the mantras behind deterrence theory and nuclear strategy were developed in embryonic form in the 1930s for bomber-based conflicts. The fantasy has gone into hibernation over the last few decades, but I do have to wonder if the current fears over drones ties back to those old deadly dirigibles in some indirect winding way.
However, all of this does not answer one basic question: is The War in the Air enjoyable to read as a lay person. Here, I must confess, my answer would have to be no. The War in the Air stands at a turning point in Wells’ development as a writer. As he rose in popularity, Wells wanted to be seen less as a writer of “Vernian” juvenile fictions and more as a serious writer and thinker. As a result, The War in the Air often has the feeling of a lecture, with Wells the Fabulist giving way to Wells the Educator, and there are plenty of passages bemoaning the folly of arms races, of the disorganization of capitalist society, the idiocy of the press, and so on, and so on. Even if you agree with Wells, it becomes grating after a while.
There is, perhaps, also a conceptual problem hidden in The War in the Air. There’s an old essay of George Orwell’s, entitled “Wells, Hitler, and the World State” that was written during the Second World War that discusses Wells’ place in the English world of letters as well as his blind spots. The key thing in this essay, for the purpose of this discussion, is Orwell’s insight as a man who was, at heart, part of the non-military middle class. He had no truck with nationalism or soldierly glory, but as such he could never understand the appeal of such forces. In The War in the Air, the German Crown Prince is the villain of the piece, but while Wells indulges in name-calling and mockery, there’s no sense of conceptual understanding of this character. He’s a Napoleon, so all that motivates him is greed, and that’s that. As such, The War in the Air ends up being a book that warns about the First World War that offers no diagnosis of how to prevent such a conflict.