Saturday, 12 April 2008

'The War In The Air' and Steampunk

'The War in the Air' by H.G. Wells
This is the only image I can find online of this 1970s Penguin book cover for 'The War in the Air', the one I remember reading as a boy and again in that turn of the century style that I like.

When commenting on H.G. Wells's 'The War of the Worlds' and steampunk aspects of some of its spin-offs I was reminded of 'The War in the Air' (1907; novel 1908) also by Wells. I came to this novel as a boy, prompted by the small airships which flew over my house in the summer, out on short pleasure trips or off to film sports events. Of course, they were tiny compared to the airships of the past but that droning sound of their engines as they approached probably stirred up in me a feeling of excitement as it would have done in a boy fifty years earlier. Maybe I was destined to have an interest in counter-factual and steampunk ideas from that stage on.

'The War in the Air', possibly, has more use for current steampunk thinking, or, even, bakelitepunk/Zeppelin Age work than 'The War of the Worlds'. This is because, rather than featuring technology developed by aliens, it as about a war between different Powers on Earth. It was pretty prescient about the kind of airborne combat which would develop during the First World War 1914-18 that broke out just a few years later and would cost the life of Wells's son. The politics of the world Wells portrays are interesting with an aggressive Germany, Russia divided in revolution (the 1905 Russian Revolution would be fresh in readers' minds at the time), China and Japan in some kind of alliance (this is the least likely outcome more feasible was a collaborationist government installed in China by the Japanese as occurred 1931-45) and the USA in tension with Japan; the USA itself seemingly facing a repeat of the tensions of the 1850s that resulted in the American Civil War (1861-5).

Against this background of global politics, the focus of the story is on Bert Smallways, a man who builds light aircraft as a hobby in the way men of the time were increasingly fiddling with bicycles and later motorbikes. This focus is reminiscent of the characters we see in the 'Steamboy' (2004) movie, where three generations of the Steam family: Lloyd, Eddy and James, are featured as keen amateur engineers whose work ends up being desired by governments. Smallways effectively creates a kind of flying motorbike which lands him in contact with Alfred Butteridge an aviator and then with the German airship fleet which goes to attack New York. However, at the same time, the Japanese-Chinese alliance forces, using similar flying motorbikes, also invade the USA, as well as Pacific islands and Australia. War breaks out in Europe too, between Germany and their Swiss allies and Britain, France and Italy. The widespread fighting leads to a desolate backward world. Interestingly, all of this was in a context when the Kaiser of the German Empire, Wilhelm II spoke in 1895, about the danger of the 'yellow peril' meaning the growth of states in East Asia.

Though 'The War in the Air' has not been as referenced as much in subsequent media as 'The War of the Worlds', elements of it do turn up in other stories. In the first volume of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' some of Fu Manchu's guards ride on flying motorbikes with long tails which are very similar to those described as used by the Chinese forces in 'The War in the Air' especially at the Battle of Niagara Falls. I take the lack of reference to these in critiques of the 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' novel as stemming from the unfamiliarity most people have with Wells's lesser-known novel. However, it fits Alan Moore's use of people and inventions from right across Victorian/Edwardian fiction.

In some ways Robert Conroy's '1901' (1995) which sees a German invasion of the USA in 1901 owes something to Wells's novel, but, probably, more to 'The Invasion of the United States' by H. Irving Hancock (1916) which envisaged an invasion of the USA by Imperial Germany in 1920-21; not an unreasonable suggestion given that the First World War was raging at the time and Germany was unbeaten and the USA had not entered the war yet, despite some of its shipping being sunk by German submarines.

A more recent example is 'Turning Point: Fall of Liberty' a PC and console first/third person shooting game which envisages a Nazi German invasion of the USA in 1953.  Despite it being set presumably after Britain and the USSR have lost the Second World War and jet fighters and long-range rockets have been developed, a lot of the invading German troops are brought by airship. There is one wonderful screenshot that shows this:

Unfortunately the game is apparently not very exciting to play and the story does not develop a great deal as you are a builder in New York fighting back against the Nazi invaders. It does stem from an interesting counter-factual however, that Winston Churchill was killed on 13th December 1931 when he was hit (in reality) by a taxi in New York. In this game Britain made peace with Germany in 1940, as was expected by people on both sides at the time.  The Japanese decide not to attack Pearl Harbor, presumably sated by easier gains in British, French and Dutch colonies and also, I imagine, fighting for gains in Siberia with Germany having turned against the USSR a little sooner.

'The War in the Air' probably does not offer the steampunk enthusiast a great deal beyond lots of airships and flying motorbikes, but it does put them in a context of the Edwardian era when steam trains were the main form of transport in the UK and steamships had not converted to oil from coal. It also has that context of the inventor in his garage building something that could be of a challenge even to governments. Of course, this was a time when car companies in Britain and elsewhere were becoming established in precisely that way. The ingenious individual against greater powers is always a nice perspective for stories and who of us could not dream of powering around the skies on a flying motorbike? This angle I imagine is one that we are likely to see featuring commonly in steampunk writing.

I am not the only one commenting on 'The War in the Air' on my blog:

I have to replicate the image from these blog pages used to illustrate the invasion. The image of large airships over New York was not an uncommon one as the Hindenburg (which was three times larger than a Boeing 747 jumbo jet aeroplane is today) and other German airships flew over the city in the 1930s and after the Germans, the Americans and especially their Navy, long had an interest in airships.

These days, portrayal of the near future usually has as bleak conclusions as those shown by Wells, but nowadays the technology is usually small scale and the stories about big business or big government. The individual enthusiast is still the focus through which we see the developments but these days he (and interestingly it does still tend to remain 'he') is likely to be a computer hacker or conspiracy theorist rather than a garage engineer. So, though there may be similar conclusions, the scope and the vision of how we reach such situations is much more constrained than a man sweeping over New York as part of an airship fleet.

As an aside, while researching this posting I came across a recording on YouTube originally captured on an Edison phonograph wax cylinder recording in 1908. It is very crisp given the age. The audio is illustrated by covers of books available that year, including 'The War in the Air'. Just right for the steampunk mood:

As with 'The War of the Worlds', you can read 'The War in the Air' for free online see: or

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