The War in the Air is not one of H. G. Wells’ better-known novels, but it’s worth the look. It taps into a futuristic, semi-sci-fi theme like some of Wells’ more prominent works (e.g. The Time Machine), but it also stays firmly grounded on 20th century earth. Altogether, it’s a riveting war story that both entertains and illustrates the horrors of conflict.
Wells selects the aptly-named Bert Smallways as his protagonist. Bert lives in a small village in the English county of Kent, where he works as a bicycle repairman and watches the world modernize around him. Through a series of ridiculous events, he ends up alone in a famous inventor’s hot air balloon flying over the English Channel and continental Europe. He is soon shot down over a German airfield and taken captive, where he learns that Germany is on the brink of declaring war on the United States. Initially, the Germans think he’s the famous inventor and bring him along as their massive fleet of airships launches into the skies above Europe. From his position aboard the flagship, Bert witnesses the events of the war: aerial battles, bombings, attacks on cities, and deaths of the crewmen onboard. The flagship eventually suffers damage and drifts into Canada, where it crash-lands. Once there, the Bert and the Germans learn that the rest of the world has erupted into war. The global conflict and the characters’ predicament only grow from there.
The book was first published in 1908, and Wells meant it to be a social commentary on the European militarism that he believed would lead to a massive war. However, he writes so that his political stance usually doesn’t hinder the story. In general, things move along fairly smoothly and quickly, and the plot becomes extremely suspenseful after the first German attack.
As the war grows, the reader’s curiosity and interest deepen in two ways. First, we want to know what is going to happen to Bert. Second, Wells forces us to consider what it truly means for literally the entire world to be at war: cities are bombed, civilians are killed, disease is rampant, etc. There is an ominous sense of impending catastrophe through much of the book, which heightens our investment. Sure, we’re worried about Bert; however, the world is at stake, so we wonder, “What’s going to happen to us?”
Wells also manages to build the reader’s concern for most of his characters, even the villains. Bert, of course, is the centerpiece, the likeable guy who just wants to go home. He’s innocent and worries about Edna, his love back in England, which makes it easy to worry about her too. At the same time, it’s possible to develop an interest in Prince Karl Albert, the German royal who sparks the war. He’s obviously a tyrant who seems to care only about himself, making it easy to root against him. Still, Wells makes it clear that his fate is tied to Bert’s, forcing the reader to hope that things go well for him so that Bert survives.
Although The War in the Air tells an entertaining story, it lacks in a few areas. The beginning is extremely slow, which may be off-putting to some readers. There are early hints of war, but at times the reader may wish that Wells would just get on with it. There are also many instances where Wells halts the story to provide philosophical and expository sections, a common practice in the early 1900s but a taboo in modern writing. They can get fairly distracting, and they interrupt the flow of the plot, especially if the reader isn’t accustomed to similar authorial styles.
Readers should also be warned that they may find some content offensive. The early 1900s were a time of widespread stereotypes, and Wells’ novel is no exception. Asian soldiers are occasionally referred to with unpleasant racial terms. Similarly, there are sporadic generalizations and stereotypes about other demographics and nationalities.
In spite of its shortcomings, many readers will enjoy this story of reluctant adventure. Although the beginning can be hard to muddle through, it’s well worth it once the war truly begins. The War in the Air is action-packed, but it also elicits a host of emotions, and those two qualities together are what make this an excellent book.
Interested readers can find a free copy legally available here, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
And just to be absolutely clear, just because I enjoyed this book doesn’t mean that I approve of the negative or racially charged content. I don’t, but I went into this book understanding that it was a product of its time. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the “Disclaimer” page on this blog.