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The War in the Air (1908)

by H. G. Wells

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3801249,805 (3.45)7
Following the development of massive airships, naive Londoner Bert Smallways becomes accidentally involved in a German plot to invade America by air and reduce New York to rubble. But although bombers devastate the city, they cannot overwhelm the country, and their attack leads not to victory but to the beginning of a new and horrific age for humanity. And so dawns the era of Total War, in which brutal aerial bombardments reduce the great cultures of the twentieth century to nothing. As civilization collapses around the Englishman, now stranded in a ruined America, he clings to only one hope - that he might return to London, and marry the woman he loves.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
I picked this up after reading several reviews praising Well's predictions prior to World War I. However, I just couldn't get into this novel. It's fairly slow at parts, and rather far fetched. That aside, I did enjoy the chapters that would have been better suited as essays on the sociopolitical tensions that led to the first world war and the futility of war. ( )
  skeletor_999 | Aug 25, 2020 |
I picked this up after reading several reviews praising Well's predictions prior to World War I. However, I just couldn't get into this novel. It's fairly slow at parts, and rather far fetched. That aside, I did enjoy the chapters that would have been better suited as essays on the sociopolitical tensions that led to the first world war and the futility of war. ( )
  skeletor_999 | Aug 25, 2020 |
This was a surprisingly good novel by H.G Wells. It's full of action, excitement, adventure, and aircraft warfare! The characters are interesting too and the plot, setting, and thematic concepts that Wells explores were pleasing to me as a reader. Overall, I thought it was well worth reading and should prove interesting to those interested in classics, English literature, and early science fiction.

3.5 stars. ( )
  DanielSTJ | May 6, 2020 |
I’m getting a lot of old books free for Kindle, and as I can read them in the dark while walking home from the local Starbucks, I’ll probably end up reviewing them. In The War In The Air. As usual, H. G. Wells provides an interesting mixture of technological prescience and political naiveté. Wells was a Socialist and a pacifist – nothing terribly wrong with either of those in 1908 when the book was published. The first third is set in the near future – perhaps around 1915 or so – and follows Bert Smallways, a Cockney bicycle repairman, in his life in a quiet London suburb, repairing the odd bike and romancing Edna. Technology has advanced to the point where there are numerous motor vehicles, trains have been replaced by monorails, there’s a bridge across the Channel, airships aren’t unusual, and there are a few heavier-than-air craft (although they are difficult to control).

Things change when Smallways accidently finds himself alone in the basket of a balloon belonging to a Mr. Butteridge, and in possession of Butteridge’s plans for a flying machine that is controllable and maneuverable (to the extent it’s VTOL capable). Butteridge has attempted to sell these plans to both the British and German governments. Smallways drifts southeast and ends up in Germany, into a giant airship base where the Germans are preparing for a trans-Atlantic conquest of the United States. Initially mistaken for Butteridge (because he’s in possession of Butteridge’s balloon), Smallways is shanghaied on board the air fleet flagship Vaterland, where his status devolves from “honored guest” to “ballast” when it’s discovered he’s not Butteridge. The German air fleet sinks the entire US Atlantic Squadron, goes on to obliterate New York City, and sets up a base near Niagara Falls. In the meantime China and Japan have allied, created their own enormous air fleets, and simultaneously invade North America and Europe. The Asian invaders crush the Germans, but are defeated when Smallways escapes and gives the Butteridge plans to the President, who is hiding out in upstate New York. Smallways makes his way back to London and Edna, but the war, famine, and a pestilence called The Purple Death have destroyed civilization (Wells goes to considerable length explaining why money is now worthless). The novel ends with Smallway’s brother Tom reminiscing on “how things used to be” to his son.

The technologically prescient parts are, of course, the potential dominance of air power in future wars. There’s a lengthy discussion of how air power will make the great navies obsolete, and how nations have spent fortunes on their navies for nothing, with the snark that those fortunes could have been used to benefit the poor. The politically prescient parts are also interesting; Wells predicts the ambitiousness of German power (probably not surprising); that the US fleet would defend the Panama Canal (which hadn’t been completed when the book was published); and the rise of Japan (including the seemingly anachronistic idea that every Japanese airman would carry a sword). It isn’t clear if The Purple Death is a biological weapon or just an opportunistic disease; Wells seems to blame it more on the breakdown of civilization than on weapons research.

The main technological gaffes are egregiously overestimating the lift capacity, range and airworthiness of airships and underestimating their vulnerability – even future ones (ironically, one of the German airships is named Graf Zeppelin). The hypothetical German airships are able to carry a bomb load across the Atlantic sufficient to sink a major naval force and devastate New York City, and are amazingly fire-resistant (Well’s airship crews routinely put out fires in the hydrogen cells using fire extinguishers). Wells also decides that airships and aircraft will be so cheap that even minor national governments and independent groups (“air pirates”) will be able to afford them, and underestimates the infrastructure necessary to keep aircraft running. The supposed alliance of China and Japan and the sudden conversion of China from an agrarian nation to an industrial superpower is also contrary to the reality of Well’s time.

Well’s politics, as mentioned, were always Socialist, and he takes a not-very-well hidden delight in the destruction of New York City, which he portrays as a sort of Capitalist Babylon (since there’s no Empire State Building to symbolically destroy yet, the Germans knock down the Brooklyn Bridge instead). Well’s antidote to all this – never explicitly set out but routinely hinted at – is a world Socialist government, with the particularly unsettling idea that such a government would necessarily control the press – to keep it from stirring up “the people” with war propaganda.

Well, it all seemed like a good idea at the time. Nobody had ever tried anything like Socialism in 1908 (ironically, at the time the most socialist country in the world – it had health insurance, workers compensation, pensions, and a State-owned rail system – was Germany, and the German Socialists were almost unanimous in their support of World War I). Of course, there had never been a “Great War” – in the air or elsewhere – either. Worth reading, just like most of Wells, even if not as prophetic as Wells expected. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 31, 2017 |
Another bit of wonderfully speculative fiction from Wells, this time kind of a hybrid of Kipps and War of the Worlds. Marvelous Dickensian beginning, thrilling boys adventure middle and an ending that felt like a precursor to Cormac McCarthy and knocked me up sideways.

I do love my Bertie. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
H. G. Wellsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Parrinder, PatrickEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sawyer, AndyNotessecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winter, JayIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"This here Progress, said Mr. Tom Smallways, "it keeps on."
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Following the development of massive airships, naive Londoner Bert Smallways becomes accidentally involved in a German plot to invade America by air and reduce New York to rubble. But although bombers devastate the city, they cannot overwhelm the country, and their attack leads not to victory but to the beginning of a new and horrific age for humanity. And so dawns the era of Total War, in which brutal aerial bombardments reduce the great cultures of the twentieth century to nothing. As civilization collapses around the Englishman, now stranded in a ruined America, he clings to only one hope - that he might return to London, and marry the woman he loves.

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