Bert Smallways, whose name might perhaps strike us as just a touch too Dickensianly over-determined for this particular story, is a bicycle-repairman in Kent in the 19-teens. He lives in a place called Bun Hill. Now, I wondered if this was supposed to be a version of Biggin Hill, but the epilogue reveals that it's hard by Crystal Palace, so it must be a fictionalised version of Forest Hill—which gives the novel a nicely personal resonance for me, since as a nipper I attended Eliot Bank Primary School, which is in Forest Hill. Anyway, not to get distracted: Bun Hill used to be a sleepy village until it was swallowed by the expansion of London. The novel, which is in three main acts, starts with some passages about the pace of this change: Bun Hill residents complaining about how things ain't what they used to be.
Old Smallways would sit over the fire mumbling of the greatness of other days, of old Sir Peter, who drove his coach to Brighton and back in eight-and-twenty hours, of old Sir Peter’s white top-hats, of Lady Bone, who never set foot to ground except to walk in the garden, of the great, prize-fights at Crawley. He talked of pink and pig-skin breeches, of foxes at Ring’s Bottom, where now the County Council pauper lunatics were enclosed, of Lady Bone’s chintzes and crinolines. Nobody heeded him. The world had thrown up a new type of gentleman altogether—a gentleman of most ungentlemanly energy, a gentleman in dusty oilskins and motor goggles and a wonderful cap, a stink-making gentleman, a swift, high-class badger, who fled perpetually along high roads from the dust and stink he perpetually made. And his lady, as they were able to see her at Bun Hill, was a weather-bitten goddess, as free from refinement as a gipsy—not so much dressed as packed for transit at a high velocity. [War in the Air, 1:1]This, we might say, is the coming of the horizontal machines. The coming of the vertical machines remains to be told. Unlike Old Smallways, young Bert, as a representative of the coming generation, is properly excited by the newer technologies:
Bert grew up, filled with ideals of speed and enterprise, and became, so far as he became anything, a kind of bicycle engineer of the let’s-have-a-look-at-it and enamel chipping variety. Even a road-racer, geared to a hundred and twenty, failed to satisfy him, and for a time he pined in vain at twenty miles an hour along roads that were continually more dusty and more crowded with mechanical traffic. But at last his savings accumulated, and his chance came. The hire-purchase system bridged a financial gap, and one bright and memorable Sunday morning he wheeled his new possession through the shop into the road, got on to it with the advice and assistance of Grubb, and teuf-teuffed off into the haze of the traffic-tortured high road, to add himself as one more voluntary public danger to the amenities of the south of England. [War in the Air, 1:1]The first portion of the novel is a sort of motor-bicycle Kipps; Bert and his brother Tom run a repair shop, take their girlfriends for a jaunt in the countryside, and are blithely unconcerned by the increasing threat of war with Germany, reported with increasing hysteria by the press. This is a technologically pepped-up 19teens, with not only motorbikes and cars but a global network of monorail trains and lots of excitement about the possibilities of heavier-than-air flight. This latter development seems to face insuperable difficulties, until a bumptious fellow called Butteridge manages it, flying all around Britain in his new craft (‘something in the nature of a bee or wasp ... in the middle was a long rounded body like the body of a moth, and on this Mr. Butteridge could be seen sitting astride, much as a man bestrides a horse’) and announcing his name with a megaphone. Then he dismantles his machine and hides the parts, informing the world ‘my name’s Butteridge. B-U-T-T-E-R-I-D-G-E. Get that right. I’m an Imperial Englishman. I’ll talk to you all to-morrow.’ [1:5] Despite his protestations of Englishness, his plan is actually to sell his invention to whichever government offers the most money.
This first portion of the novel ends, after Bert and Tom take their girlfriends out for a spin in the country, with a beautifully written description of Bert's motorbike catching fire. I'll come back to this scene in a bit; but in terms of the plot, losing so expensive a thing as a motorbike has dire consequences for Bert and Tom. The two lose the lease on their shop. They try their luck as buskers, singing comic songs on the beach at Dymchurch.
The Kippsy social-comedy tone of this first portion is very nicely handled. And the transition from this phase of Wells's story to the next, a more rarified inhabitation of modes of narrative Sublime, is occasioned with a little flourish of farce. On the beach Bert sees a balloon descend in distress; inside it is the portly Butteridge and his inamorata, a matronly blonde lady who has fainted, or otherwise fallen ill. Bert is one of several people who rushes to the basket, helps Butteridge pass the unconscious lady out, and accidentally falls into the basket as Butteridge tumbles accidentally out: ‘the balloon, released from the twenty-five stone or so of Mr. Butteridge and his lady, was rushing up into the sky at the pace of a racing motor-car. “My crikey!” said Bert; “here’s a go!”’
The second portion of the book, from chapter 3 onwards (of eleven) shifts tone towards something much more thoughtful, often elegiac, threaded with lyric moments of this kind:
Bert Smallways was a vulgar little creature, the sort of pert, limited soul that the old civilisation of the early twentieth century produced by the million in every country of the world. He had lived all his life in narrow streets, and between mean houses he could not look over, and in a narrow circle of ideas from which there was no escape. He thought the whole duty of man was to be smarter than his fellows, get his hands, as he put it, “on the dibs,” and have a good time. He was, in fact, the sort of man who had made England and America what they were. The luck had been against him so far, but that was by the way. He was a mere aggressive and acquisitive individual with no sense of the State, no habitual loyalty, no devotion, no code of honour, no code even of courage. Now by a curious accident he found himself lifted out of his marvellous modern world for a time, out of all the rush and confused appeals of it, and floating like a thing dead and disembodied between sea and sky. It was as if Heaven was experimenting with him, had picked him out as a sample from the English millions, to look at him more nearly, and to see what was happening to the soul of man. But what Heaven made of him in that case I cannot profess to imagine, for I have long since abandoned all theories about the ideals and satisfactions of Heaven.Bert is blown, helplessly, through the skies, across the channel and Continental Europe. He eventually comes down over a German airfield, and is immediately hustled aboard the flagship of the huge German zeppelin fleet by its hotheaded commander Prince Karl Albert. Larger than life, this Prince: ‘to many he seemed Nietzsche’s Overman revealed. He was big and blond and virile, and splendidly non-moral’ [4:1]. Karl Albert believes Bert to be Betteridge, whom he has apparently been expecting, and whose blueprints he proposes to buy. The Germans realise their mistake soon enough, but by then the fleet is airborne and on its way to attack New York.
To be alone in a balloon at a height of fourteen or fifteen thousand feet—and to that height Bert Smallways presently rose—is like nothing else in human experience. It is one of the supreme things possible to man. No flying machine can ever better it. It is to pass extraordinarily out of human things. It is to be still and alone to an unprecedented degree. It is solitude without the suggestion of intervention; it is calm without a single irrelevant murmur. It is to see the sky. No sound reaches one of all the roar and jar of humanity, the air is clear and sweet beyond the thought of defilement. No bird, no insect comes so high. No wind blows ever in a balloon, no breeze rustles, for it moves with the wind and is itself a part of the atmosphere. Once started, it does not rock nor sway; you cannot feel whether it rises or falls. Bert felt acutely cold, but he wasn’t mountain-sick; he put on the coat and overcoat and gloves Butteridge had discarded, and sat very still for a long, time, overawed by the new-found quiet of the world. Above him was the light, translucent, billowing globe of shining brown oiled silk and the blazing sunlight and the great deep blue dome of the sky. [War in the Air, 3:1]
Wells distinguishes the pretext for this attack (‘relations were strained between Germany and the United States because of the intense exasperation of a tariff conflict and the ambiguous attitude of the former power towards the Monroe Doctrine’) from the real reason:
The real deciding cause, it is now known, was the perfecting of the Pforzheim engine by Germany and the consequent possibility of a rapid and entirely practicable airship. At that time Germany was by far the most efficient power in the world, better organised for swift and secret action, better equipped with the resources of modern science, and with her official and administrative classes at a higher level of education and training ... in the history of progress it seemed she held the decisive weapon. Now she might strike and conquer—before the others had anything but experiments in the air.And so Bert watches, an unwilling passenger, as the Germans wreck New York from the skies: ‘a great crash and uproar, the breaking down of the Brooklyn Bridge ... the bursting of bombs in Wall Street and the City Hall. New York as a whole could do nothing, could understand nothing’ [6:1]. The city surrenders, but its citizens mount guerrilla resistance regardless and the Germans find that, however good a zeppelin fleet is at destroying things, it is ill-suited to occupying territory. The dirigibles prove vulnerable to small-arm fire, and the Germans are forced to retreat to Niagara Falls, evicting the local population and building a German airbase. At this point a huge Asian airforce arrives, attempting their own invasion of America. The Asiatic air fleet is also zeppelin-based, although they have the advantage of additional fighters planes called ‘Niais’: each ‘a one-man machine, built very lightly of steel and cane and chemical silk, with a transverse engine, and a flapping sidewing; the aeronaut carried a gun firing explosive bullets loaded with oxygen, and in addition, and true to the best tradition of Japan, a sword’ [8:1]. I've no idea where Wells found this name, by the way. ニアイス (niaisu) means ‘near miss’ in Japanese, but is it likely Wells knew that? He would have known that niais is French for a sot or a simpleton, but it's hard to see the relevance of that.
Particularly she must strike America, swiftly, because there, if anywhere, lay the chance of an aerial rival. It was known that America possessed a flying-machine of considerable practical value, developed out of the Wright model; but it was not supposed that the Washington War Office had made any wholesale attempts to create an aerial navy. It was necessary to strike before they could do so. [War in the Air, 3:1]
Anyway, the Japanese crush the Germans, suffering heavy losses themselves. Prince Karl Albert's flagship is destroyed and Bert ends up on Goat Island in the middle of Niagara Falls, stranded because the tourist bridge has been destroyed. He discovers that the Prince and another surviving German officer, both badly wounded, are also marooned on the island. Using his bicycle repairman superpowers, Bert starts to fix one of the crashed Japanese niais; but the Germans high-handedly cache all supplies of food and try to put him on half rations by way of controlling him, and relations break down. Bert runs off, and chances upon a discarded gun from the air-battle in the undergrowth. After hiding out for a while, hunger brings him back to the Germans:
He advanced upon his antagonist with his gun levelled, some foolish fancy of “hands up” in his mind. The Prince became aware of him, the yawning mouth shut like a trap and he stood stiffly up. Bert stopped, silent. For a moment the two regarded one another.Had the Prince been a wise man he would, I suppose, have dodged behind the tree. Instead, he gave vent to a shout, and raised pistol and sword. At that, like an automaton, Bert pulled his trigger.The other fellow runs off in a panic and later drowns. Bert, once he gets over his shock and distress, mends the Japanese ornithopter, pilots it across the water into New York State and so escapes.
It was his first experience of an oxygen-containing bullet. A great flame spurted from the middle of the Prince, a blinding flare, and there came a thud like the firing of a gun. Something hot and wet struck Bert’s face. Then through a whirl of blinding smoke and steam he saw limbs and a collapsing, burst body fling themselves to earth. [War in the Air, 9:8]
Which brings us to the last, briefest portion of the novel. Returning to the outside world, Bert discovers that aerial warfare has broken out globally. The big cities are all smashed and burned, civilisation has mostly broken down and the ‘Purple Death’ is sweeping through the population. He also discovers that Betteridge died of an apoplexy on Dymchurch beach soon after losing his balloon; but, luckily, Bert still has a copy of the blueprints about his person. These he manages to deliver to the President of the United States. He then finds his way back to Britain through a world ruined and depopulated by war and disease and is eventually reunited with his girlfriend Edna. Bert's story peters-out into post-apocalyptic quotidiana: ‘at times came robbers and thieves, at times came diseases among the beasts and shortness of food, once the country was worried by a pack of boar-hounds he helped to kill; he went through many inconsecutive, irrelevant adventures’ [11:5]
The Epilogue is set thirty-years later. An old man and a young boy chase a chicken through overgrown Bun Hill towards the ruins of the Crystal Palace. ‘In face and expression he was curiously like that old Thomas Smallways who had once been coachman to Sir Peter Bone, and this was just as it should be, for he was Tom Smallways the son, who formerly kept the little green-grocer’s shop under the straddle of the mono-rail viaduct in the High Street of Bun Hill. But now there were no green-grocer’s shops, and Tom was living in one of the derelict villas hard by that unoccupied building site that had been and was still the scene of his daily horticulture.’ He regales the youngster with stories of the ‘bicycles and moty-bicycles’ and ‘all sorts of whirly things’ of his youth. All gone now. The new Old Tom (if you see what I mean) and his people are in a worse way than their pre-Industrial Revolution ancestors, ignorant of all but the most basic living practices: so for example, ‘they had lost any idea of making textiles, they could hardly make up clothes when they had material, and they were forced to plunder the continually dwindling supplies of the ruins about them for cover.’ He tells the boy of the wonders and terrors of the old world, and the lad finds it hard to believe, or even understand. On the topic of the whys and wherefores of the war that has extirpated global civilisation, the novel gives Old Tom the last word: ‘“You can say what you like,” he said. “It didn’t ought ever to ’ave begun.”’ And that's where Wells leaves us.
There's a sort of double-meaning in the title of Wells's novel. On the one hand it is simply descriptive, since this is indeed a book imagining what war might look like if it involved aircraft. On the other hand, though, it is a book that finds war simply to be, in the air, like a pestilence. Its murderous belligerence is an affliction that humankind can't escape. The young lad at the novel's end, baffled as to how humanity could have thrown away the splendours Old Tom was describing asks: ‘but why didn’t they end the War?’ Old Tom replies:
“Obstinacy. Everybody was getting ’urt, but everybody was ’urtin’ and everybody was ’igh-spirited and patriotic, and so they smeshed up things instead. They jes’ went on smeshin’. And afterwards they jes’ got desp’rite and savige.”Earlier in the novel Bert, marooned on Goat Island with Prince Karl Albert and the other German, ought to have been able to get along with them. They could have pooled their resources. Instead they ended up trying to kill one another. ‘War’s a silly gaim,’ is Bert's conclusion afterwards. ‘We common people—we were fools. We thought those big people knew what they were up to—and they didn’t. Look at that chap! ’E ’ad all Germany be’ind ’im, and what ’as ’e made of it? Smeshin’ and blunderin’ and destroyin’, and there ’e ’is! Jest a mess of blood and boots and things! Jest an ’orrid splash! Prince Karl Albert!’ [9:9]. The closest Bert comes to deeper analysis of this inglorious conflict is regretting that he didn't speak German, and the Germans had barely any English, as if what we had here (to adapt Cool Hand Luke's celebrated analysis) is a failure to communicate: ‘it’s jest not knowing German does it. You can’t explain’. But, really, there's a darker moral in The War in the Air: it's in us, and we can't help ourselves. We breathe it in like air.
“It ought to ’ave ended,” said the little boy.
“It didn’t ought to ’ave begun,” said old Tom, “But people was proud. People was la-dy-da-ish and uppish and proud. Too much meat and drink they ’ad. Give in—not them! And after a bit nobody arst ’em to give in. Nobody arst ’em....”
He sucked his old gums thoughtfully, and his gaze strayed away across the valley to where the shattered glass of the Crystal Palace glittered in the sun. A dim large sense of waste and irrevocable lost opportunities pervaded his mind. [War in the Air, ‘Epilogue’]
What has prevented global destruction hitherto, says the narrator, is partly luck, ‘sustained good fortune’ [10:1], and partly the relative effectiveness of terrestrial defences against terrestrial attack, a balance built up slowly over millennia. But, The War in the Air says, as for the first of these, luck doesn't last forever; and as for the second, aerial warfare completely alters the parameters of conflict. Nowhere is safe from, and no defences can be erected against, destruction raining out of the clear sky. War is a fiery conflagration that cannot be quenched, and a Purple Death to which there is no cure. Well, to be fair: of these two governing tropes, the Purple Death is introduced only at the end, and feels like an afterthought. But the fire trope runs rights through. So for example: the episode at the end of Chapter 2, where Bert, Edna, Tom and Tom's girl picnic in the countryside, functions as a small-scale comic anticipatory version of what is to come. The four lovebirds are having so much fun they are as oblivious to the newspaper placards warning of war as they are of the fragility of the machines on which they rely. Here they are hurrying to get home before it gets dark, and they need the motorbike's dodgy headlamp:
Bert was anxious to get as far as possible before he lit—or attempted to light, for the issue was a doubtful one—his lamps, and they had scorched past a number of cyclists, and by a four-wheeled motor-car of the old style lamed by a deflated tyre. Some dust had penetrated Bert’s horn, and the result was a curious, amusing, wheezing sound had got into his “honk, honk.” For the sake of merriment and glory he was making this sound as much as possible, and Edna was in fits of laughter in the trailer. They made a sort of rushing cheerfulness along the road that affected their fellow travellers variously, according to their temperaments. She did notice a good lot of bluish, evil-smelling smoke coming from about the bearings between his feet, but she thought this was one of the natural concomitants of motor-traction, and troubled no more about it, until abruptly it burst into a little yellow-tipped flame.Bert stops, but can't prevent the flame spreading through the entire mechanism. A crowd gathers, and they try and smother the conflagration with a tarpaulin, ‘there was a moment of triumph. The flames vanished.’ But then the tarpaulin catches fire: ‘it burst into a bright red smile in the centre. It was exactly like the opening of a mouth. It laughed with a gust of flames. They were reflected redly in the observant goggles of the gentleman who owned the tarpaulin. Everybody recoiled.’ The result is a wreck, ‘the mixed ironwork and ashes of his vanished motor-bicycle’. It foreshadows, in miniature, the global conflagration that the rest of the novel delineates. When the German fleet first reaches New York the narration pauses:
“Bert!” she screamed. [War in the Air, 2:2]
It was so great, and in its collective effect so pacifically magnificent, that to make war upon it seemed incongruous beyond measure, like laying siege to the National Gallery or attacking respectable people in an hotel dining-room with battle-axe and mail. It was in its entirety so large, so complex, so delicately immense, that to bring it to the issue of warfare was like driving a crowbar into the mechanism of a clock. [War in the Air, 6:2]New York is a complex and delicate mechanism, and War is a crowbar that smashes it up double-quick time. The rapid collapse of civilisation under the pressure of the new aerial war—rather improbably rapidly, it struck me as I read—is the extrapolation of this principle to the world as a whole.
As far as that goes, Wells's metaphor reveals his preconceptions about society as such. In saying so I don't mean to twit Wells for not foreseeing how actual aerial warfare was to go. He was by no means alone in thinking that mass bombing would mean the end of civilisation—as late as the 1930s many people predicted a new war would mean the end of the world on those grounds alone. Which is to say, the consensus tended to overestimate how destructive such assault would be. In September 1941 the chief of the air staff, Charles Portal, promised the UK government total victory over Germany by bombing alone in six months, if only the war effort could be diverted towards the production of 4000 extra bombers. His plan was: 43 selected German industrial centres, totalling fifteen million inhabitants, were each to be heavily bombed six times in succession, ‘in order to exhaust their capacity for recovery’. Churchill, though, rejected Portal’s plan, arguing that ‘the effects of bombing, both physical and moral, are greatly exaggerated’, and warning against the fundamental unreliability of any calculations that did not include the variable of the enemy’s reaction. He was right, as subsequent events demonstrated. After their ‘success’ (if we can use such a word for a crime against a humanity) in obliterating Hamburg, Bomber Command moved on to the attempted annihilation of Berlin. By the time these raids were launched, though, the Germans had reacted to the previous attacks by setting up more and better defences, new searchlights, night fighters with radar, spotters on the ground to guide fighters to their targets, many more anti-aircraft guns and other things. The result was massive loss of aircrew and planes for Bomber Command, and the survival of Berlin as a city. Only much later in the war, when Germany was exhausted, stretched thin and losing, were Bomber Command able to repeat their earlier ‘success’ with the total destruction of Dresden. [Richard Overy lays all this out in his The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45 (Allen Lane 2013)]
Wells's imagined aerial craft are considerably more vulnerable than were the RAF's real-life bombers. Indeed, the German zeppelins are so flammable that no naked flames are allowed on board, and the crew are forbidden from even carrying matches about their person (one crewmember who has absentmindedly forgotten this rule and brought some matches with him onto the craft, is hanged mid-flight by Prince Albert as an example to the others). Wells's dirigibles are ‘absolutely gas tight and filled with hydrogen’. We're reminded ‘ultimately that made a highly explosive mixture, but,’ the narration adds, a little lamely ‘in all these matters risks must be taken and guarded against.’ [3:5] Hard to see how to guard against the massed ranks of determined enemies firing explosive bullets right into your gasbag; and, indeed, The War in the Air is full of exploding and burning zeppelins.
In other words, the point of Wells's novels is not the invincibility of these new war-machines (quite the reverse, in fact); it is, on the contrary, on the immense fragility of the cities over which they fly. This in turn speaks to an assumption about society as such that underlies War in the Air and other books by Wells. Recall Jean-François Lyotard's thesis that Modernism involved a shift from ‘the idea that society forms an organic whole’, to a new conception, in which ‘the theoretical and even material model is no longer the living organism’ but that of the machine, what Lyotard calls a ‘cybernetic’ logic regarding which the ‘systemtheorie is technocratic, even cynical’ [Lyotard, Postmodern Condition (1979), 11]. Lyotard's focus is on the way efficiency replaces harmony as the social salient. That's part of Wells's tacit critique too: the systematic ruthlessness of the German social order, as he portrays it in this book, for instance. But he's more focused in this novel on the comparative fragility of a machinic society. The older organic society might absorb shocks which would, Wells says, shatter the newer machinic one. Put it this way: had Bert taken Edna out for their picnic in a pony and trap, it's highly unlikely the pony would have caught fire on the way home.
It is one of the deliberate ironies of the novel that the machines that come to smash this newly cybernetic society, to ‘drive their crowbars into the mechanism of this clock’ in Wells phrase, are all described with organic similes. The zeppelins are repeatedly compared to fish (‘the fish-like shoal of great airships hovering light and sunlit above, filling the sky, seemed equally remote from the ugly forcefulness of war’ [6:1]), sometimes to monsters, or birds, usually in ways that put placid conceptual distance between them and the catastrophe of which they are the authors. ‘There the monsters hung, large and wonderful in the evening light, serenely regardless of the occasional rocket explosions and flashing shell-bursts in the lower air.’ [6:1]
It was deep twilight now, a tranquil blue-skyed evening; everything rose out from the splashes of light upon the ground into dim translucent tall masses; within the cavities of the airships small inspecting lamps glowed like cloud-veiled stars, and made them seem marvellously unsubstantial. Each airship had its name in black letters on white on either flank, and forward the Imperial eagle sprawled, an overwhelming bird in the dimness. [War in the Air, 4.2]Smaller aircraft are compared to insects, bats and smaller birds: the Japanese niaias fly on ‘curiously curved, flexible side wings, more like bent butterfly’s wings than anything else ... and they had a long humming-bird tail. At the forward corner of the wings were hooks, rather like the claws of a bat’ [8:2], Butteridge's new model flying machine is repeatedly described as insectoid, possessing:
something in the nature of a bee or wasp. Parts of the apparatus were spinning very rapidly, and gave one a hazy effect of transparent wings; but parts, including two peculiarly curved “wing-cases”—if one may borrow a figure from the flying beetles—remained expanded stiffly.... The wasp-like resemblance was increased by the fact that the apparatus flew with a deep booming hum, exactly the sound made by a wasp at a windowpane. [War in the Air, 1:5]Less ornithopter, then, than vespathopter, or perhaps scarabothopter. The Kipps-like specific social detail of the first portion of the novel gives way, in its latter sections, into some splendidly inventive descriptions of these great monsters of the sky. My favourite of all of them may be this line: ‘the Asiatic airship hovering like a huge house roof without walls above the Suspension Bridge’ [8:5], a sort of ur-version of Douglas Adams's ‘the spaceship hung in the sky in exactly the way a brick doesn't’. It lends the careful specificity of Wells's descriptions of the aerial warfare a mythical overlay that adds a nice resonance to the text.
And, indeed, this suggests another way of reading this catastrophic story. Brian Aldiss's widely-quoted thumbnail of SF itself, ‘hubris clobbered by nemesis’, in part derives from his thesis that the genre begins with Frankenstein, that foundational story of science as overreaching that will inevitably be punished by Providence. We can take The War in the Air as another iteration of this venerable and, in SF, well-nigh ubiquitous theme. But there's a wrinkle: mankind's hubris is addressed in this book as a specifically vertical thing. It's why it's a German fleet that occupies most of the narrative centre-field: the point about Prince Karl Albert as ‘Nietzsche’s Overman revealed’ is no mere throwaway reference. The air is the over-space that literalises the stance of the overman. We might consider Wells's novel a version of the Tower of Babel myth: Wells's people blaspheme by intruding upon the highest spaces, as Babel's builders did. Think of Bert Smallway's most common expostulation: ‘Gaw!’—his repeated ejaculation in the face of both terror and astonishment—and the way it mangles the name of God into a cockney incoherence. Or, more substantively, think of the old-fashioned hubris of Karl Albert, who pretends as overman to be a god: his airship is adorned inside with what Wells, sarcastically enough, calls ‘the great picture by Siegfried Schmalz of the War God, that terrible, trampling figure with the viking helmet and the scarlet cloak, wading through destruction, sword in hand, which had so strong a resemblance to Karl Albert, the prince it was painted to please’ [4:9]. Schmalz is exactly the right fictional artist's name for this kind of thing, of course, and the novel is pretty unforgiving of its presumption. The Germans are fond of singing Luther's “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” as they go into battle, but Bert, broken when he discovers the corpse of his friend on Goat island, is permitted a more sincere invocation of the deity: ‘“O God! I carn’ stand this,” he said, and crept back from the rocks to the grass and crouched down ... “I done,” he said, “The world’s all rot, and there ain’t no sense in it. The night’s coming...”’ [9:3] He's not wrong.
The mouthfeel of this novel is strikingly elegiac; striking in the sense that, I suppose, I opened the book expecting it to be about ... I don't know: escape. Freedom. Slipping the surly bonds of earth, all that. But at pretty much every point in this novel Wells pointedly avoids the cliché that the ability to fly is in any sense liberating. Of course, if that's a cliché now (‘Let Us Celebrate The Freedom of Flight!’ et al), it was less so in 1908, before flight had become a social ubiquity. But that only makes Wells's prescience on this matter all the more remarkable. He could have written a novel about a hero pilot or a hero inventor-aviator, or even a regular Smallways-type hero who is set free from his restrictive life by the marvellous possibilities of flying. But he did not do this. Bert, in The War in the Air, is a passive, unwilling passenger throughout; a helpless onlooker caught up in the aerial battles, terrified and constantly disadvantaged. The people who think flight will liberate their ambitions, like Prince Karl Albert, are shown to be profoundly wrong. This new aerial technology does not free mankind; on the contrary it destroys us. Flight, so far from connoting freedom, is shown to be, in effect, death. It is, I think, a wholly unprecedented approach to the subject (the earlier chapters of Richard Hallion's Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age from Antiquity to the First World War (OUP 2003) seem to support my sense of this). It's not that Wells is immune to the beauties of the high sky; on the contrary War in the Air is filled with lyrical and evocative writing about that experience, some of which is quoted in this blogpost. That lyric beauty shades elegaic, though. Skip forward ten years, and bring in a very different sort of writer, and here's ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’ (1919) to stand as an unofficial gloss on Wells's novel.
I know that I shall meet my fateThe stroke of echt Yeatsian genius here, I'd say, is the word ‘tumult’ in that gorgeous twelfth line. Of course tumult means, primarily, ‘violent commotion or agitation’, the sort of thing in which dogfighting pilots might engage. But the word is from the Latin tumultus (‘an uproar; bustle, violent commotion, disturbance, war’) which in turn derives from the same root (tumeō, ‘I swell’) as tumulus (‘a heap of earth, mound, hill, knoll, hillock; a barrow, grave, tumulus’). It's as if the line drove to this tumult in the clouds, with extraordinarily elegant economy, superposes the war that has led the airman into the sky with the grave death has prepared for him, whilst at the same time mimicking the piled-up tumulus of the clouds themselves, a sort of external correlative of both states. Very high up, in the sky; and very far down (impossible to go further down, really) in the grave, focused together into the same thing. The beauty of Yeats's short poem is its unillusioned lyric elegiacism; and when Wells's novel passes beyond the ground-based Kipps-style humorous bathos of its first section, that's the mode it inhabits too. It really is a remarkable piece of fiction.
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
A brief coda, that follows on from that last point. We're likely to think of our hero Bert as a fictionalised version of Bertie Wells, another iteration of his perennial fictionalised autobiographical small-man-having-big-adventures figure, like Lewisham and Kipps. But it's possible Wells had a different Bert in mind as inspiration. This one, in fact:
Designer and flier of both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air craft, Alberto Santos-Dumont was one of the most famous aeronauts of his day. Wells's ‘The Truth About Pyecraft’ (1903) makes admiring reference to Santos-Dumont's skill as an aviator, and when My Airships (above) was published in English in 1904 it became a best-seller. Wells took several details in his own imagined air combats, I think, from Santos-Dumont's chapter on ‘The Airship at War’, including the destructive possibilities of possessing the sky and the ability of the airship to rise above the range of ground-based gunfire (the chapter ends by referring to ’the unique maritime advantage of the air-ship’ [Santos-Dumont, 316], which Wells also touches on). Let's take Wells's Bert as an ironic English version of this great Brazilian Bert, an individual from the small ways of Bun Hill rather than the grander sounding sainted mountain of Alberto's surname. And this small nominal inversion speaks to a larger antithesis to the project outlined in My Airships. Because, as Robert Macfarlane notes
Santos-Dumont was a technological utopian, and his aeronautical dream was, despite his carefully cultivated aristocratic hauteur, a democratic one. He did not patent any of the blueprints for his machines, as he felt that they ought to be publicly available. According to Hoffman, he saw the flying machine ‘as a chariot of peace, bringing estranged cultures into contact with one another’.Wells, clearly, saw the potential of this new technology quite otherwise. If I say subsequent events tended to prove the Englishman more correct in this than the Brazilian, I am only agreeing with Santos-Dumont's own later opinion, when guilt at the (important) role he had played in developing this new technology overwhelmed him.
The effects of the war on Santos-Dumont were profound. In the early 1920s, he lobbied most of the governments of Europe to demilitarise flying machines. Subsequently he lapsed into depression, holding himself ‘personally responsible for every fatality caused by a flying machine’, whether civilian or military. To punish himself, he ‘read as much as he could about the gory details of the deaths’. A friend, the writer Martin du Gard, noted in 1926 that ‘he now believes that he is more infamous than the devil. A feeling of repentance invades him, and leaves him in a flood of tears.’ He was depressed for most of the 1920s, checking himself into various European sanatoria. One day he ‘glued feathers to his arms, and strapped on wings powered by a small motor in a backpack’ – only the intervention of a nurse stopped him from jumping out of a window. By the end of 1928, he felt well enough to return to Brazil ... Four years later, in the middle of the Brazilian civil war, during which government planes bombed rebel positions, he hanged himself from a hook on his bathroom door in a hotel in São Paulo. Symbolic to the last, he used for a noose two bright red ties from his flying days in Paris.Poor fellow.