The War in the Air, by H. G. Wells

Second paragraph of third chapter:

To be alone in a balloon at a height of fourteen or fifteen thousand feet — and to that height Bert Smallways presently rose — is like nothing else in human experience. It is one of the supreme things possible to man. No flying machine can ever better it. It is to pass extraordinarily out of human things. It is to be still and alone to an unprecedented degree. It is solitude without the suggestion of intervention; it is calm without a single irrelevant murmur. It is to see the sky. No sound reaches one of all the roar and jar of humanity, the air is clear and sweet beyond the thought of defilement. No bird, no insect comes so high. No wind blows ever in a balloon, no breeze rustles, for it moves with the wind and is itself a part of the atmosphere. Once started, it does not rock nor sway; you cannot feel whether it rises or falls. Bert felt acutely cold, but he wasn’t mountain-sick; he put on the coat and overcoat and gloves Butteridge had discarded — put them over the “Desert Dervish” sheet that covered his cheap best suit — and sat very still for a long, time, overawed by the new-found quiet of the world. Above him was the light, translucent, billowing globe of shining brown oiled silk and the blazing sunlight and the great deep blue dome of the sky.

Next in my sequence of novels by H.G. Wells, this is one I really knew nothing about. It was written in 1907 and set in the very near future, maybe the late 1910s. Global society is suddenly and swiftly transformed by technology: the invention of a super-efficient monorail changes the dynamic of industry and commerce, and advances in aeronautic engineering make old military concepts and procedures irrelevant. Our hero, Bert Smallways, gets comically mistaken for the great British inventor Butteridge by the German war fleet, and accompanies them on their surprise attack on America. As a result of the outbreak of war, civilisation collapses.

To get the bad bits out of the way first: I don't like Wells' consistently patronising attitude to people of the social class of his protagonist. Having now read Claire Tomalin, I realise that it's overcompensation because he came from that background himself. But I still don't like it. Also, while mocking the Western fear of the Yellow Peril, he ends up there himself, including depicting a unified jihad from the Gobi Desert to Morocco. Though perhaps that can be excused as a corrective to imperial determinism, which was certainly the dominant take of his day.

The first use of aeroplanes in combat was not until 1911. (Italian planes versus Turkish troops in Libya, since you ask.) Wells depicts a world of rapidly developing technologies, with fixed-wing tactics vying with dirigible airships for usefulness. Of course in real life the airships turned out to be less useful, and military investment went into planes, but it wasn't a bad guess. He also spots the important point that air domination is not enough without a strong ground follow-up.

I think he was also unusual for his time in describing just how devastating an air-led total war would be on the global economy. His chain reaction didn't quite happen in 1939-45, but since then we've been very alert to the prospects of atomic warfare.

And I must say that a real chill went down my spine as he described a successful assault by air on New York. 2001 is not that long ago…

Still, it's a book of its time, and I couldn't really recommend it to anyone who was not, like I have become, a Wells completist. You can get it here.

My next Wells novel is A Modern Utopia, of which I know nothing.

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