H. G. Wells’ 1908’s The War in the Air is a standalone near-future (from the perspective of 1908) military thriller.
The inevitable march of progress has transformed bucolic Bun Hill into a thriving London suburb. Greengrocer Tom Smallways views this change (and change in general) with the deepest suspicion. His brother Bert, on the other hand, is eager to embrace change, particularly of the sort that involves Bert becoming wealthy.
Middling bright and uninhibited by any particular sense of ethics, Bert has thus far been denied the riches to which he is so clearly entitled, riches that would enable him to marry the charming Edna. When fate drops into Bert’s lap the chance to make a fortune by selling stolen military information to the Germans, patriotism inhibits Bert not at all.
Flying machines seemed certain to be the Next Big Thing. Certain intractable issues, in particular, the tendency of heavier-than-air vehicles to suddenly plummet from the sky, put this dream on hold. Now inventor Butteridge seems to have produced a safe, stable airplane, the design for which Butteridge would be happy to hand over to the British government in exchange for a few considerations.
Negotiations stall. In the interval thus provided, Butteridge and his darling lady friend suffer a ballooning mishap that plunks them down next to Bert. Bert takes part in the effort to bring the errant balloon under control, with the result that Butteridge and his companion escape, while Bert (and more importantly, Butteridge’s airplane blueprints) are carried off towards Europe.
The balloon delivers Bert to Germany, in particular that part of Germany where ambitious Prince Karl Albert has assembled a vast and utterly secret air force comprised of huge dirigibles and single-pilot planes. Styling himself a modern day Alexander, the Prince is determined to establish Germany as the world’s ruler. Step one in his plan: crush America before it can foil Karl Albert’s plans.
It doesn’t take long for the Germans to work out that the man offering to sell them Butteridge’s plans is not Butteridge himself but some chancer. This very nearly gets Bert tossed overboard. He is permitted to remain as the fleet’s guest (at least until such time as they need to shed ballast). This affords him an unparalleled opportunity to witness history being made.
Initially, Prince Karl Albert’s war goes according to plan. First he smashes the American fleet at sea, then he forces New York to surrender. The flaws in his plan soon become apparent:
The difficulty of the Germans in both these cases came from the impossibility of landing any efficient force or, indeed, any force at all from the air-fleet. The airships were quite unequal to the transport of any adequate landing parties; their complement of men was just sufficient to manoeuvre and fight them in the air. From above they could inflict immense damage; they could reduce any organized Government to a capitulation in the briefest space, but they could not disarm, much less could they occupy, the surrendered areas below.
In the end, the Germans settle for annihilating New York City.
This proves a harbinger of what is to come. To the Germans’ consternation, they discover they are not the sole power to have covertly assembled vast air fleets. The Invasion of America rapidly develops into a global War in the Air. Of particular concern is the joint Japanese-Chinese air fleet that appears over America. The Chinese are determined to establish Asian dominance over the westerners who so recently humiliated them, while the Japanese are eager to show that Port Arthur and Tsushima were not flukes. In short order, Prince Karl Albert finds himself on the receiving end of a lightning war.
While Bert has few talents to offer his increasingly anxious and hostile hosts, he does have an admirable talent for survival. While all around him experience the various horrific deaths air war offers stalwarts, Bert survives to bear witness. As civilization dies around him, Bert resolves to somehow find his way across America, across the ocean, and back to his beloved Edna.
I was prepared to wade through the usual amount of casual racism one expects from a British book of this era. I was somewhat surprised1 that by the standards of 1908, Wells is peculiarly willing to admit the various peoples of the world who are not British might nevertheless have valid concerns and aspirations.
(The British Empire) had given these subject races cigarettes, boots, bowler hats, cricket, race meetings, cheap revolvers, petroleum, the factory system of industry, halfpenny newspapers in both English and the vernacular, inexpensive university degrees, motor-bicycles and electric trams; it had produced a considerable literature expressing contempt for the Subject Races, and rendered it freely accessible to them, and it had been content to believe that nothing would result from these stimulants because somebody once wrote “the immemorial east”; and also, in the inspired words of Kipling—
East is east and west is west,
And never the twain shall meet.
Instead of which, Egypt, India, and the subject countries generally had produced new generations in a state of passionate indignation and the utmost energy, activity and modernity.
the Asiatic peoples had been forced in self-defence into a like diversion of the new powers science had brought them.
The author’s grasp of technical details re heavier than air flight are, unsurprisingly, wrong, but Wells does manage to paint a vivid image of the strengths and weaknesses of air fleets. His vision is even more apocalyptic than the later air wars turned out to be. His aircraft are stupendously cheap and easy to assemble. They are much more capable than WWI planes were in reality. Well, exaggeration — and smashing civilization — sell more books. Still, given that he was writing long before the thousand-bomber raids of WWII, he does a fair job of imagining the future.
The Gutenberg edition of this book only has the 1921 preface, which reads in part
Our author tells us in this book, as he has told us in others, more especially in The World Set Free, and as he has been telling us this year in his War and the Future, that if mankind goes on with war, the smash-up of civilization is inevitable. It is chaos or the United States of the World for mankind. There is no other choice. Ten years have but added an enormous conviction to the message of this book.
The 1941 preface is more to the point:
Here in 1941 The War in the Air is being reprinted once again. It was written in 1907 and first published in 1908. It was reprinted in 1921, and then I wrote a preface which also I am reprinting. Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in that year, twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: “I told you so. You damned fools.”
The War in the Air is available on Project Gutenberg.
1: I was even more surprised at the comparative lack of racism given that I remembered passages in other Wells works, such as:
the nation that most resolutely picks over, educates, sterilizes, exports, or poisons its People of the Abyss […] will certainly be the ascendant or dominant nation before the year 2000.