The War in the Air

by H.G. Wells

Rating: ★★★★

This is perhaps the clearest example of Wells' prophetic powers that I've read. In it, he correctly predicts (in thrust, if not all details) the invention of aerial warfare, the outbreak of the First World War and the Indian Revolution. Writing as he did in 1907, before even the English Channel was crossed by air, this is a truly extraordinary achievement.

The novel focuses on one Bert Smallways, a bicycle engineer from Bun Hill who is accidentally caught up in a balloon belonging to an inventor, and strays into a secret German air fleet as it heads accross the Atlantic to seize New York, thus heralding the opening shots of a world war. The tale begins a little slowly, with some time spent building up Bert's background while the scene of the world is set, but becomes more adventurous and gripping as it goes on, and the early chapters are well worth wading through.

The book is riddled with insight. Wells rails against the education system which made Bert believe he was the better of any Subject Races, comments on America's inexperience with war in their own land (with a passage regarding the attack on New York that seems to a modern reader to aptly describe that city's reaction to the Twin Towers attack), predicts the problems which lead to the Blitz and highlights above all the dreadful economic impact of war, warning of an apocalyptic collapse of civillisation.

Not everything he wrote hit, of course. Japan and China didn't fuse into Eastasia; the monorail didn't come to dominate transport, and while Wells broadly predicted the political will behind the First World War, his description of the actual combat is more applicable to the Second. But from the position he wrote, what he did get right is truly staggering, and all that he wrote differently was certainly possible, and it's amusing to consider this future history as an alternative history.

The other Wells books I've read this year have been somewhat political. While the anti-war sentiment inherent in the story is arguably political, the story focuses mostly on things which have already happened, and so becomes less something which you have to agree or disagree with, heightening the sense of escapism. I'll close with the 1941 preface to this book, which struck me as truly something stirring.

HERE in 1941 The War in the Air is being reprinted once again. It was written in 1907 and first published in 1908. It was reprinted in 1921, and then I wrote a preface which also I am reprinting. Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in that year, twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: "I told you so. You damned fools."