Tuesday, July 14, 2015

H.G. Wells' The War in the Air

It can be said that the theme of the apocalyptic has been part of Wells' work since the beginning of his career--The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds, for example, unambiguously so. However, in subsequent decades he increasingly presented apocalyptic visions arising in the very near future, as a result of more grounded, more literally true factors.

In 1907's The War in the Air, intensifying nationalist, militarist and imperialist behavior combine with the increasing power of military technology to wreck the world--a theme Wells was to revisit in works like The World Set Free (1914) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). However, at this point he has not yet gone fully over to the "future history" approach of those later books, which submerge the narrative of any one character within the larger stream of events. Instead the invasion story element is blended with the realist satire of novels like The History of Mr. Polly (1910).

Running through it all is the story of Bert Smallways, the sort of character he was to sum up in Mr. Polly as "one of those ill-adjusted units that abound in a society that has failed to develop a collective intelligence and a collective will for order, commensurate with its complexities." A son of the lower middle class with a head full of notions as conventional as they are wrong-headed, "Smallways" embarks on a career of small-scale entrepreneurship that only points up its outmoded, futile quality, first in a bicycle repair shop, and later as a street performer. The hapless Smallways, through a series of blunders, finds himself ballooning to Germany, and landing in the staging area of the aerial component of a German air-sea attack directed against the American East coast, with the intent of forcing the U.S. to clear the way for its own imperial ambitions.

Smallways ends up the Germans' prisoner, from which position he becomes a witness to a great battle in the Atlantic in which German forces defeat the United States and go on to attack New York--just as Sino-Japanese forces attack the country's west coast. Very soon the whole world is at war, and while the Sino-Japanese alliance gets the better of the Western powers, their victory is ultimately a Pyrrhic one. The physical destruction caused by the fighting, and even more than that, the resulting chaos, opens the door to famine and pestilence which bring down modern civilization, and leave the remnants of humanity scrambling to survive in the ruins.

In that, there is the second great difference between The War in the Air and Wells' later treatments of the theme, the fact that the book closes with the post-apocalyptic image, rather than a portrait of a process of rebuilding and renewal creating a saner world. One may read this as a more pessimistic work, but one can also see it as a matter of his keeping this Smallways' story--the blend of which with momentous world events is surprisingly seamless.

Indeed, one could argue that it was the vision of larger events which ended up being relatively crude in this work. Certainly one might declare his early recognition of the destructiveness of aerial warfare as prophetic--but in hindsight it can also appear exaggerated, the kind of thinking that made air forces attempt to "bomb their way to victory" so many times in this past century, at such a high price in human life.

Additionally, the treatment of the geopolitics is uneven. As in his later work Wells was here a critic of nationalism, racism, imperialism and war. Yet, the images of the German attack on America, the Sino-Japanese attack on the West, can seem to play into the clich├Ęs of the invasion story genre (the "frightful Hun," the "Yellow Peril") so popular at the time, and which contributed to the toxic political atmosphere against which he was trying to fight. The satirist always risks appearing to promote what he is criticizing--and Wells was in this case less careful than he might have been, the book quite easily (mis)read as just another invasion story regaling us with spectacular techno-thriller bits as it warns us to keep on our guard against the villainous foreigner. Still, these are comparative quibbles next to the book's considerable imaginative and technical accomplishment.

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