In 1907, H. G. Wells wrote a novel called The War in the Air. At the
time, flight was only in its infancy. On a superficial level, the novel
extrapolation of how aircraft would change the nature of warfare. He
describes a fictional “future” world of 1915 in which a worldwide war is
waged involving bomber zepplins and smaller, gun-mounted aircraft.
However, if the novel were merely about the advent of aerial warfare,
the novel would remain largely uninteresting today. As it happens, the
text’s real substance in about the changes in society Wells perceived,
how those changes would shape coming wars, and the danger that those
changes, in combination with the technological might of advanced weaponry,
risked obliterating the tenuous social and technological progress, which
many believed (and still believe) to be a new stable state for humanity.
Although the twentieth century produced aerial warfare implements and
logistics far different from those described by Wells, it is not
entirely clear that we have evaded the social danger he describes. In
fact, a good argument could be made that we are encroaching on the swift
and calamitous fall he predicted over a century ago.
The novel is narrated by a pseudo-omniscient narrator from a future time
in which technological progress and social stability have been achieved.
That narrator describes the events of the life of one Bert Smallways, a
young man from London of 1915, who accidentally gets himself caught up
in the military expedition that begins the eponymous aerial war.
Smallways’s family name is intentionally chosen. At the beginning of the
book, he and his brother fumble through the running of two business
ventures, manage to bankrupt themselves, and Bert then comes up with a
plan for them to make money singing and dancing.
Wells, via his omniscient narrator, is direct about his opinion of
Bert’s situation. Although his behavior is, on one level, ridiculous and
self-serving, the real culprit, Wells believes, is Bert’s society, which
has trained him to care only about finding himself a successful
commercial venture and accumulating profit. His education has not
prepared him to think about any contexts broader than his own immediate
gratification, and when the news around him begins to emit warnings of
impending military conflict, Bert’s reaction is that he can’t be
bothered to care about all that. He has a business to run, and when the
rare bank holiday rolls around, he wants to enjoy it.
Slowly, over the course of being accidentally transported to Germany,
then across the Atlantic to New York and finally Niagra, Bert is forced
to harden into the kind of man capable of taking war seriously. The
novel’s final depiction of Bert is chilling. With all civilization
destroyed and no hope of any social infrastructure to enforce law and
order, the new Bert takes what he wants and creates his own
order by brute force. The allusions of Odysseus’s return home are apt,
but unlike in the Odyssey, where the conclusion at least puts the
characters back into a situation that is, for them, normal, those
parallel events represent, in a pseudo-modern context, a world that has
lost its social order.
In a world where war is aerial, where land and sea no longer dictate the
forms of ‘war fronts’ or provide natural boundaries, war continues
endlessly, and the individuals on the ground become further and further
abstracted from the process of governments blowing each other up to
wrest power from one another. In 2020, the reality of drone warfare and
cyber-warfare seems a kind of hypertrophied realization of Wells’s
concern, although we have yet to experience the complete social collapse
he believed such advances would entail.
In places, the novel grates stylistically. Some events, which could have
been much shorter are elaborated in excruciating detail (most of the
details of aerial warfare and Bert’s time aboard the German airship),
while others, which seem worthy of greater detail get a scant few lines.
The omniscient narrator, in my opinion, does not work very well, and is
used to beat the reader over the head with thematic information that a
savvy reader could derive themselves. Despite these problems, I rank
this as one of the stronger Wells novels I’ve read.
The most interesting element of the novels for me was, in fact, the
author’s prefaces to previous editions. Wells wrote two. The first was
written in 1921, which he included as a way to give context to readers
who were coming to the novel having had the experience of the first
world war. The second was written in 1941, an interesting year indeed
for a novel about the impact of social and technological changes
vis-a-vis warfare. Wells wrote in 1941 that he was including the 1921
preface, and that beyond that, he desired only to add his “epitaph”: “‘I
told you so. You damned fools.’ (The italics are mine.)”