Today The War in the Air by H. G. Wells (1908) is marketed as "Steampunk." Alas, assemblers of Steampunk are apparently interested in rifling it (and other scientific romances) for their generic cargo cult, so the comedy and politics of Wells' novel remain largely undiscussed. That's too bad, as the novel overflows with energy and novelty, its style both sharp and graceful, redolent of its origins in the Long Fin de Siècle.
In H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (2010) Michael Sherborne does a fine job summing up the novel's many strengths:
....Wells probably put a lot more thought and care into New Worlds for Old than his scientific romance The War in the Air, published in October 1908, which he knocked out in four months and regarded as a potboiler. The book owes something to the science fiction of George Griffiths, acknowledged in the text by a reference to his Outlaws of the Air.Wells was exasperated when Beatrice Webb told him she preferred The War in the Air to Tono-Bungay, but her judgement is defensible. The scientific romances were Wells's most distinctive contribution to literature, and this was the best one since The First Men in the Moon, if not The War of the Worlds. It also succeeded in incorporating comedy, political concerns and foresight, making it one of the most quintessentially Wellsian of his books.
Its protagonist is a cycle dealer and sometime beach entertainer named Bert Smallways, who is accidentally carried from Britain to Germany in a hot-air balloon. Mistaken for an aviation pioneer whose flying machine constitutes a leap forward in the arms race, he is taken to the USA by an invading German airship fleet. Wells manages to give a much more spirited and humorous account of America here than he had done in The Future in America. When the Chinese and Japanese intervene in the conflict, industrial civilization is incinerated by world war. Hardened by his experiences, Bert takes his revenge on militarism by shooting the German leader at Niagara Falls, then makes his way back to his sweetheart in Britain and lives as a vigilante leader in the ruins where, decades after the Great Exhibition marked the triumph of globalization, its collapse is symbolized by the splintered pinnacles of the Crystal Palace.
The combination of omniscient narrator and globally mobile hero enables Wells to connect the general and the particular exceptionally effectively, with the movement between overview and involvement synchronized with Bert's ascents and descents. Argument and adventure are neatly dovetailed, showing that the persistence of rival nation states in an era of advanced technology is likely to lead to mass destruction, world war and even the breakdown of civilization. In contrast to New Worlds for Old, The War in the Air has probably gained in power in the hundred years since it was written, many of Wells's prophecies having proved remarkably accurate.
The novel begins with a couple of chapters devoted to coincidences and misadventures of Bert Smallways, a man oblivious to war frenzy in the popular press around him. After an accidental balloon ride takes him from England's south coast to Germany, the fate of Bert and civilization become inextricable.
They were rising in the air smoothly and quietly, and moving slowly to the throb of the engine athwart the aeronautic park. Down below it stretched, dimly geometrical in the darkness, picked out at regular intervals by glow-worm spangles of light. One black gap in the long line of grey, round-backed airships marked the position from which the Vaterland had come. Beside it a second monster now rose softly, released from its bonds and cables into the air. Then, taking a beautifully exact distance, a third ascended, and then a fourth.
"Too late, Mr. Butteridge!" the young man remarked. "We're off! I daresay it is a bit of a shock to you, but there you are! The Prince said you'd have to come."
"Look 'ere," said Bert. "I really am dazed. What's this thing? Where are we going?"
"This, Mr. Butteridge," said the young man, taking pains to be explicit, "is an airship. It's the flagship of Prince Karl Albert. This is the German air-fleet, and it is going over to America, to give that spirited people 'what for.' The only thing we were at all uneasy about was your invention. And here you are!"
"But!—you a German?" asked Bert.
"Lieutenant Kurt. Luft-lieutenant Kurt, at your service."
"But you speak English!"
"Mother was English—went to school in England. Afterwards, Rhodes scholar. German none the less for that. Detailed for the present, Mr. Butteridge, to look after you. You're shaken by your fall. It's all right, really. They're going to buy your machine and everything. You sit down, and take it quite calmly. You'll soon get the hang of the position."
Such droll interludes soon fade away.
In this manner the massacre of New York began. She was the first of the great cities of the Scientific Age to suffer by the enormous powers and grotesque limitations of aerial warfare. She was wrecked as in the previous century endless barbaric cities had been bombarded, because she was at once too strong to be occupied and too undisciplined and proud to surrender in order to escape destruction. Given the circumstances, the thing had to be done. It was impossible for the Prince to desist, and own himself defeated, and it was impossible to subdue the city except by largely destroying it. The catastrophe was the logical outcome of the situation, created by the application of science to warfare. It was unavoidable that great cities should be destroyed. In spite of his intense exasperation with his dilemma, the Prince sought to be moderate even in massacre. He tried to give a memorable lesson with the minimum waste of life and the minimum expenditure of explosives. For that night he proposed only the wrecking of Broadway. He directed the air-fleet to move in column over the route of this thoroughfare, dropping bombs, the Vaterland leading. And so our Bert Smallways became a participant in one of the most cold-blooded slaughters in the world's history, in which men who were neither excited nor, except for the remotest chance of a bullet, in any danger, poured death and destruction upon homes and crowds below.
He clung to the frame of the porthole as the airship tossed and swayed, and stared down through the light rain that now drove before the wind, into the twilight streets, watching people running out of the houses, watching buildings collapse and fires begin. As the airships sailed along they smashed up the city as a child will shatter its cities of brick and card. Below, they left ruins and blazing conflagrations and heaped and scattered dead; men, women, and children mixed together as though they had been no more than Moors, or Zulus, or Chinese. Lower New York was soon a furnace of crimson flames, from which there was no escape. Cars, railways, ferries, all had ceased, and never a light lit the way of the distracted fugitives in that dusky confusion but the light of burning. He had glimpses of what it must mean to be down there—glimpses. And it came to him suddenly as an incredible discovery, that such disasters were not only possible now in this strange, gigantic, foreign New York, but also in London—in Bun Hill! that the little island in the silver seas was at the end of its immunity, that nowhere in the world any more was there a place left where a Smallways might lift his head proudly and vote for war and a spirited foreign policy, and go secure from such horrible things.
Wells cannot imagine the kind of mass radicalization in wartime that enabled the soldiers of the Triple Alliance to end World War One. The Zimmerwald Left does not appear in his crystal ball. And so his air war leads to a complete collapse of modern life: modern states atomize and half a millenia's progress is overthrown.
It's a powerful novel, free of the unrelieved programmatic banalities that ruin The Shape of Things to Come.
Sooner Bert Smallways than Phillip Raven!
4 May 2021