Thursday, 8 March 2012

The War in the Air - H G Wells


This 1908 classic is one of Wells's lesser-known 'scientific romances'.  To my mind, it benefits from having a Mr Polly/Kipps-style everyman - Bert Smallways - as its hero.  Bert is hapless, his involvement in the titular war is accidental - but it also determines the outcome and Bert is equipped at the outset with the skills necessary for him to turn the tide.

To a far greater extent than Wars of the Worlds, Invisible Man or Time Machine, enjoyable though they are, War in the Air accurately predicts much of what was to come, not only murderous air raids but social and political trends.

Even in 1908 (probably earlier, because War in the Air was serialised in the Pall Mall Magazine before being published in book form) Wells accurately foresaw....
  1. "The great powers were first the United States, a nation addicted to commerce... Next came the great alliance of Eastern Asia ... advancing with rapid strides year by year to predominance in the world's affairs.  Then the German alliance still struggled to achieve its design of imperial expansion, and its imposition of the German language upon a feebly united Europe..."
  2. "Even more pacific than the British Empire were France and its allies, the Latin powers, heavily armed states indeed but reluctant warriors, and in many socially and politcally leading western civilisation.  Russia was a pacific power perforce, divided within itself, torn between revolutionaries who were equally incapable of social reconstruction, and so sinking towards a tragic disorder of chronic political vendetta.  Wedged in among these portentous larger bulks, swayed and threatened by them, the smaller states of the world maintained a precarious independence, each keeping itself armed as dangerously as its utmost ability could contrive." [pp 72-73]
Fascinating.  With historical hindsight the diagnosis seems so right, yet so little of it came to pass, but still these are the very same threats to supposed world order that a malign press and untrammelled political cadre use to bludgeon us into cowed obedience a clear century later.  What did come to pass, which Wells predicts with worrying accuracy, were the said press, ineffective government, even the Credit Crunch.
  1. "...and they permitted the growth in their midst of an evil-spirited press, mercenary and unscrupulous, incapable of good and powerful for evil.  Their State had practically no control over the press at all."
  2. Already the whole financial fabric of the world was staggering... Credit went down in a wild whirl of selling.  Everywhere appeared a phenomenon that had already in a mild degree manifested itself in preceding periods of panic; a desire to secure and hoard gold before prices reached bottom.  But now it spread like wildfire, it became universal."  [pp. 230-232]
On the other hand, he did also postulate a worldwide monorail system and gyroscopically-controlled two-wheeled cars.  Nevertheless, even when Wells sets outside to be frivolous, or offers us a simple adventure story, he cannot resist the considered critique on the world as it was and is.  The hallmark of a true literary great.

Book of the blog thus far.

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