Penguin has recently brought back into print one of H. G. Wells’ more interesting rarities, though (like many of their new editions) the cover art is disappointing. Unlike past volumes, which used attractive contemporary illustrations, the design for The War in the Air looks like a Rorschach blot superimposed on a radar screen. It’s unfortunate that the editors didn’t see fit to reproduce the imaginative Edwardian drawings of giant airships and outlandish flying machines from the original book.
Wells’ prophetic 1908 tale of world war, revolution, aerial combat, and even Islamic jihad, was well ahead of its time and offered some remarkably accurate forecasts of horrific events that would destroy the superficially stable fabric of early 20th century society. It is, however, marred by being twice as long as his earlier novels and is padded with sanctimonious monologues. It takes the author fifty pages of preliminaries before anything particularly interesting happens. In the last two chapters, the protagonist, a good-natured Cockney bounder named Bert Smallways – one of the more sympathetic figures in Wellsian fiction – is simply abandoned. The reader can skip that part.
Granted that some of the institutions Wells criticized were deserving of censure, it is unfortunate that he chose to drag out his later stories with a lot of supercilious whining about the intellectual inferiority of everyone other than himself. Overlooking these weaknesses, Wells was amazingly perceptive about the nascent menace of German militarism. He sums up the strengths and weaknesses that would plague the Teutonic Reich in two world conflicts:
At that time Germany was by far the most efficient power in the world, better organized 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. These things she knew, and she exaggerated that knowledge to the pitch of contempt for the secret counsels of her neighbours…. Moreover, she had a tradition of unsentimental and unscrupulous action that vitiated her international outlook profoundly.
The Prussian leaders of the future exhibit the same detached ruthlessness that would become the hallmark of Nazism. And the imaginary air forces on all sides engage in terror bombing against civilians, a practice that became widespread thirty years after The War in the Air was written. Of course like any piece of fiction, Wells simplifies and accelerates the course of events. Cities are reduced to rubble within days, and civilization collapses within a matter of months, apparently with no hope of ever emerging from its “medieval” squalor and ignorance. The result is a rather contrived piece of forecasting that stifles Wells’ otherwise interesting plot twists and imaginative storytelling.