H.G. Wells was one of the founders of modern SF who shot to fame as a result of a series of novels which have remained popular since they were first published: The Time Machine (1895); The Invisible Man (1897); The War of the Worlds (1898; and The First Men in the Moon (1901). What is less well known is that Wells thereafter became more of a general futurist (or futurologist, to use a more recent term) and social commentator. He was very interested in how technological developments affected the way people lived, and many of his works (he wrote dozens of novels and even more non-fiction books) concern social issues, as indicated by a non-fiction title from 1901: Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought.
However, judging by the title, I thought that The War in the Air (published 1908), would be what is known today as a "techno-thriller", forecasting how the development of aircraft would affect warfare. And so, in a way, it is – but it is also far more than that. This novel is very different in approach from the author's The War of the Worlds published a decade earlier, and (probably as a result) much less famous. While TWotW has one of the most dramatic beginnings to any SF story, TWitA has a very slow, meandering start. To be fair, this is in part because Wells decided to set his story in what appears to be an alternative history in which monorails, consisting of gyroscopically stabilised cabins running along a comprehensive network of single wire overhead tracks, are the principal form of transport (and even run across the Channel). For shorter journeys, bicycles are still the main mode of everyday travel. Balloons and airships are in the skies, but no-one has been able to design a reliable heavier-than-air flying machine. The rest of the background appears to be more or less what one would expect from England in 1908, filled (as it historically was) with rumours of war from the growing power, technological sophistication and aggressiveness of Germany.
So Wells had some world-building to do in order to set the scene. He might have sketched in this background in a prologue so that he could get straight on with the story, but instead he chooses to achieve this by focusing on some ordinary characters in a small village not far from London and showing their lives and their reactions to the world they live in. The principal actor is Bert Smallways, something of an anti-hero, a young man of questionable moral standing, chiefly interested in making money while putting in the minimum effort to acquire it. Almost the entire story is told from Bert's viewpoint, but he is not the narrator – that person is a detached, god-like presence from some time in the future, prone to express great dissatisfaction with human activities. One amusing touch is that the narrator doesn't really approve of Bert, as shown when the young man comes across some love-letters "…of a devouring sort in a large, feminine hand. These are no business of ours, and one remarks with regret that Bert read them." However, the narrator observes later on: "Bert Smallways was by no means a stupid person, and up to a certain limit he had not been badly educated. His board school had taught him to draw up to certain limits, taught him to calculate and understand a specification. If at that point his country had tired of its efforts, and handed him over unfinished to scramble for a living in at atmosphere of advertisements and individual enterprise, that was really not his fault. He was as his State had made him…."
To do justice to the novel it isn't really possible to avoid spoilers – you have been warned!
The first significant event on the national scene is the appearance of a heavier than air flying machine made and piloted by the larger-than-life and moderately deranged inventor, Butteridge. This bears no resemblance to any flying machine we would recognise, as it takes a form similar to a giant wasp, propelled by fast-beating wings and with the pilot sitting on its back. Butteridge demonstrates its capabilities by travelling around Britain in one day's flight, then invites bids for the secret. (We have to remember that although this novel was published five years after the Wright brothers' first powered flight, hardly any further progress was made in aeroplane design until 1908, when Blériot first flew across the Channel.)
Bert's adventures start when, following a peculiar chain of circumstances, he finds himself alone in the basket of an uncontrollable balloon travelling across Europe, and in possession of the secret of Butteridge's aircraft. He lands (or to be more precise, is shot down) over Germany, right in the middle of a vast fleet of highly-advanced airships about to take off in order to launch an invasion – of the USA! This is the beginning of what turns out to be a world-wide war, with every major nation launching vast fleets of airships against each other. The rest of the story recounts Bert's picaresque and darkly amusing adventures with the German Zeppelins, including slow and ponderous battles between fleets of airships and the tiny one-man aeroplanes which are carried and launched by them, alternating with the narrator's fulminations about the state of the world, some of which apply just as much today as they did then. Some extracts from these:
Everywhere, all over the world, the historian of the early twentieth century finds the same thing,…congested nations in inconvenient areas, slopping population and produce into each other, annoying each other with tariffs and every possible commercial vexation, and threatening each other with navies and armies that grew every year more portentous….
It is impossible now to estimate how much of the intellectual and physical energy of the world was wasted in military preparation and equipment, but it was an enormous proportion.
…mechanical invention had gone faster than intellectual and social organisation, and the world, with its silly old flags, its silly unmeaning tradition of nationality, its cheap newspapers and cheaper passions and imperialisms, its base commercial motives and habitual insincerities and vulgarities, its race lies and conflicts, was taken by surprise.
A peculiarity of aerial warfare was that it was at once enormously destructive and entirely indecisive. It had this unique feature, that both sides lay open to punitive attack. In all previous forms of war, both by land and sea, the losing side was speedily unable to to raid its antagonist's territory and the communications. One fought on a "front", and behind that front the winner's supplies and resources, his towns and factories and capital, the peace of his country, were secure.
[The airships] could inflict immense damage; they could reduce any organised government to a capitulation in the briefest space, but they could not disarm, much less could they occupy, the surrendered areas below.
…the fantastic fabric of credit and finance that had held the world together economically for a hundred years strained and snapped. A tornado of realisation swept through every stock exchange in the world; banks stopped payment, business shrank and ceased, factories ran on for a day or so by a sort of inertia, completing the orders of bankrupt and extinguished customers, then stopped.
Everywhere went the airships dropping bombs, destroying any hope of a rally, and everywhere below were economic catastrophe, starving workless people, rioting and social disorder.
…while the collapse of the previous great civilisation, that of Rome, had been a matter of centuries, a thing of phase and phase, like the ageing and dying of a man, this, like his killing by railway or motor car, was one swift, conclusive smashing and an end.
After many adventures Bert manages to get home and rescue his girlfriend from the traditional fate worse than death. There was to be no return to normality, however – with the end of the capitalist economy, life slipped back to a subsistence level not dissimilar to medieval times, with one important difference: medieval people knew how to live in such an environment and were able to manufacture what they needed on a small, domestic scale, but few of the survivors of the crash of civilisation had such knowledge or skills. The great majority of the population died, of disease or starvation. Bert and his woman survived for many years and were considered fortunate that only four of their eleven children died in infancy. On rare occasions, they saw an airship passing in the distance, but in the absence of newspapers or any form of communication, they had no idea what was happening beyond their own parish, let alone whether or not the war was still being waged.
Essentially, this novel is a passionate polemic on the futility and massive opportunity costs of war, warning of the dangers an oblivious world was sliding into. Only six years after its publication Europe was at war with itself with appalling results, but life in most of the rest of the world was not greatly affected. A world war now, of course, would be far more destructive than Wells envisaged, and our high-tech society, dependent on a vast global web of integrated trade and finance hugely greater in complexity than a century ago, would crash much harder than in Wells's time. And our pampered populations, who think that food comes from supermarkets and that everything they need can be ordered online, would be much less capable of coping with such a crash.
It is not so surprising that this book seems to have been far less popular than the author's SF escapism: it contains some very uncomfortable messages.