Tuesday, 16 April 2013


"The War in the Air," by H. G. Wells; George Bell & Sons, London. (Robertson Proprietary, Adelaide) .
—The restless genius of Mr. Wells has at least three sides. He can deal with social problems in a style varying from serious ("Anticipations" ) to heavy ("Mankind in the Making"). His short stories are mostly based on scientific data which in some cases lead on to a startling forecast of the future of mankind ("When the Sleeper Awakes"). He has in reserve the pitiless dissection of the "bounder" type, as in that masterpiece "Kipps," where love and petty ambition and the perils of the uneducated rich shut out all the background of scientific marvels, of which the author is master. "The War in the Air" is probably the finest thing he has ever done— much as that is to assert. He has deliberately united in it all his three styles. The invasion from Mars made "The War of the Worlds" admittedly fantastic; the present story, is merely an anticipation of what, in some form or other, must come —the struggle for the mastery of the air and incidentally of the world. Looking back comfortably from somewhere far on in this century, the historian is amazed at the want of foresight shown in the speeches and writings of this present age. Mankind was on the edge of a precipice, and yet was afflicted with an incurable optimism:— The most striking thing of all this web of wisdom and error is surely that hallucination of security. To men living in our present-world state, orderly, scientific, and secured, nothing seems so precarious, so giddily dangerous, as the fabric of the sociable order with which the men of the opening of the twentieth century were content. To us it seems that every institution and relationship was the fruit of haphazard and tradition, and the manifest sport of chance, their laws each made for some separate occasion, and having no relation to any future needs, their customs illogical, their education aimless and wasteful. Their method of economic exploitation, indeed, impresses a trained and informed mind as the most frantic and destructive scramble it is possible to conceive; their credit and monetary system, resting on an unsubstantial tradition of the worthiness of gold, seems a thing almost fantastically unstable. And they lived in planless cities, for the most part dangerously congested; their rails and roads and population were distributed over the earth in the wanton confusion ten thousand irrelevant considerations had made. Yet they thought confidently that this was a secure and permanent progressive system. . . . Men said, indeed, that moral organization was not keeping pace with physical progress, but few attached any meaning to these phrases, the understanding of which lies at the basis of our present safety. Mr. Wells places the crash at not more than 10 years from now. All the nations have become disgusted with the collapse of vaunted flying machines, and have set to perfecting them in comparative secrecy. Germany is ready first, and makes a raid on New York. Straightway Asiatic squadrons move westward on Europe, and eastward on America. The injured nations can do nothing but strike back. Even the conquerors can only strike afresh. An airship cannot hold conquered territory ; at any spurt of resistance it can but drop more bombs. The ruffianly element in each city seizes its opportunity. Commerce is wrecked. The whole credit system collapses. Famine follows, and — the Purple Death. The world goes back to primitive conditions, "back to the manure," with the grower of animal and vegetable food the only person, who is of real importance. Over all this tremendous theme the author's fine imagination plays with electrifying force. He can devise the battle plan of a whole continent, or the vigilance committee plan of a single village. He locates each centre of resistance in New York, and anon lets one airship drift before a gale into some vague space in Labrador, where its crew can do nothing but pick flowers by a waterfall. There is an unforgettable vignette of an unidentified town in Germany, into which a balloon bounces, so to speak, for a few minutes only. Goat Island, right on the roaring brink of the double Falls of Niagara, is the scene of action for several days. Of bloodshed — sheer wanton or desperate destruction of life — there is necessarily much.

The battle scenes are vivid, yet full of calculated effect. Not less so is the military execution of a German soldier for the heinous airship crime of carrying a forgotten box of matches:— They hung the man from the Adler. They gave him 60 ft. of rope, so that he should hang and dangle in the sight of all evildoers who might be hiding matches or contemplating any kindred disobedience. Bert saw the man standing — a living, reluctant man, no doubt scared and rebellious enough in his heart, but outwardly erect and obedient on the lower gallery of the Adler, about 100 yards away. Then they had thrust him overboard. Down he fell, hands and feet extending, until with a jerk he was at the end of the rope. Then he ought to have died and swung edifyingly; but, instead, a more terrible thing happened. His head came right off, and down the body went, spinning to the sea— feeble, grotesque, fantastic, with the head racing it in its fall. 'Ugh!' said Bert, clutching the rail be fore him, and a sympathetic grunt came from several of the men beside him. 'So,' said the Prince, stiffer and sterner, glared for some seconds, then turned to the gangway up into the air ship. For a long time Bert remained clinging to the gallery. He was almost physically sick with the horror of this trifling incident. He found it far more dreadful than the battle. He was, indeed, a very degenerate, latterday civilized person. This unheroic hero pervades all the terrific scenes of carnage. The full title of the story is "The War in the Air, and Particularly How Mr Bert Smallways Fared While it Lasted." He was "a vulgar little creature, 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." He was singing comic songs on the beach when a balloon carried him off — the incident is made to appear possible, and even natural — and he was plunged into the German raid on America. He came back from it all "brown and lean and enduring, steady eyed and pestilence-salted; and his mouth, which had once hung open, shut now like a steel trap." He shot a butcher who coveted his girl, and he became head of the local vigilance committee, or marauding gang, as one may elect to name it. Some readers may prefer the opening 60 pages, which are mostly pure fun. There is Butteridge, the inventor, who would insist on talking about his love affairs when reporters wanted to hear of dirigible balloons. "The exact particulars of the irregularity never came to light, but apparently the lady had in a fit of high-minded inadvertence, gone through the ceremony of marriage with — one quotes the unpublished discourse of Mr. Butteridge — 'a white-livered skunk;' and this zoological aberration did in some legal and vexatious manner mar her social happiness. The public learnt with reluctance and alarm that a sympathetic treatment of this affair was inseparable from the exclusive acquisition of the priceless secret of aerial stability by the British Empire." There are the upset and the burning of a motor cycle on the highroad, with an ineffectual girl in the background saying. 'Oh, my God!' and 'Help!' and 'Fire!' and a helpless, contradictory crowd in the foreground all doing the wrong thing, while "a young man with an enquiring mind fixed on to the owner and wanted to argue that the thing could not have happened." Clearly another "Kipps" may come from Mr. Wells's pen at any time. But the haunting idea of this wonderful book is the deep, unquiet thought that the next great war will be a matter of personal peril for every woman and child— that "nowhere in the world any more was there a place left where a Smallways might lift his head proudly, and vote for war and a spirited foreign policy and go secure from such horrible things." The book contains many of A. C. Michael's fine drawings, reproduced from The Pall Mall Magazine. No intelligent person can afford to leave the volume unread.

 The Register 5 December 1908,

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