'The War in the Air' and the Cult of the Airship

By Alexander Wallace

LZ1, Count Zeppelin's first airship as depicted by Peter Scherer

All Change Points, from Xerxes to the last presidential election, create worlds with clean, efficient Zeppelin traffic. Changing history may produce Zeppelins as an inevitable by-product, much as bombarding uranium produces gamma rays. Often, the quickest way to tell if you are in an Alternate History is to look up, rather than at a newspaper or encyclopedia. From this premise, it is not outside the realm of Plausibility that our history between 1900 and 1936 was, in fact, an Alternate History. It would, at least, explain a lot.

Kenneth Hite, in An Alternate-Historical Alphabet

The airship: graceful and elegant, the means of relaxing pleasure jaunts and adventures involving impersonating Nazi ticket agents. They are graceful and elegant, infused with that interwar charm that has enabled things like big band jazz and swing dancing to persist long after their heydays. Airships call back an age that is perceived as being sophisticated and adventurous, oozing with class that we think of as having vanished. But, much as the age it invoked saw the beginning of its end at Wanping and Gleiwitz and had its poetry become barbaric after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the age of the airship ended in flames in Manchester, New Jersey.

Alternate historians, as Kenneth Hite so eloquently states, have a somewhat subdued love affair for the airship. The best description I’ve seen for this state of affairs is that these serve as an easy indicator that the timeline in which they are featured is not entirely serious. They also serve as part of the genre’s fascination with the first few decades of the internal combustion engine, in which such engineering creations are similar enough to modern devices to be comprehensible but not so familiar as to not be exotic. It’s the impulse that gives the community the fascination with wunderwaffen and other strange military prototypes of the era, the Bob Semple tank being but one example.

It is in this context I would like to bring to the attention of the community a work of H. G. Wells, the great writer and futurist, entitled The War in the Air. This book portrays a world in which airships are used as tools of mass destruction, and in that regard predicting things that he of 1907 would not have realized he was predicting (having died in 1948, he, to his despair, would see a great many things he predicted come true).

The novel juxtaposes the story of the protagonist Bert Smallways, whose Kentish hometown of Bun Hill has become a suburb of London, with the development of the airship as a technology and then as an instrument of politics by other means. In that regard, Wells establishes that this is a book about modernity and what is lost by its advancement. A major stepping stone to the airship that would wing wide desolation is created by a certain Mr. Butteridge, who to modern readers is eerily reminiscent of the likes of Elon Musk.

It is telling that the plot doesn’t really kick off until Bert Smallways, having been pushed to near destitution, finds his way onto one of Mr. Butteridge’s airships and, by utter accident, sends it flying over the Channel into Europe, and lands at what is essentially a proto-Area 51 in Germany, where the Germans are preparing an airship fleet for an attack on the United States. It is telling that Bert finds himself thrown into the broad sweep of geopolitics by accident, serving as a metaphor for how technology is so often used for means by politicians and generals of which its inventors would never have approved.

H.G. Wells as Photographed by George Charles Beresford

Bert, having conned his German finders into thinking that he is the original Mr. Butteridge, is brought along with the German invasion fleet to attack New York. As the narrative shifts to the pummeling of New York, Wells opens up with a beautiful passage that, with only minor alteration, could just as easily describe New York of September 10th, 2001:

“For many generations New York had taken no heed of war, save as a thing that happened far away, that affected prices and supplied the newspapers with exciting headlines and pictures. The New Yorkers felt perhaps even more certainly than the English had done that war in their own land was an impossible thing. In that they shared the delusion of all North America. They felt as secure as spectators at a bullfight; they risked their money perhaps on the result, but that was all. And such ideas of war as the common Americans possessed were derived from the limited, picturesque, adventurous war of the past. They saw war as they saw history, through an iridescent mist, deodorised, scented indeed, with all its essential cruelties tactfully hidden away. They were inclined to regret it as something ennobling, to sigh that it could no longer come into their own private experience. They read with interest, if not with avidity, of their new guns, of their immense and still more immense ironclads, of their incredible and still more incredible explosives, but just what these tremendous engines of destruction might mean for their personal lives never entered their heads.

They did not, so far as one can judge from their contemporary literature, think that they meant anything to their personal lives at all. They thought America was safe amidst all this piling up of explosives. They cheered the flag by habit and tradition, they despised other nations, and whenever there was an international difficulty they were intensely patriotic, that is to say, they were ardently against any native politician who did not say, threaten, and do harsh and uncompromising things to the antagonist people. They were spirited to Asia, spirited to Germany, so spirited to Great Britain that the international attitude of the mother country to her great daughter was constantly compared in contemporary caricature to that between a hen-pecked husband and a vicious young wife. And for the rest, they all went about their business and pleasure as if war had died out with the megatherium....

And then suddenly, into a world peacefully busied for the most part upon armaments and the perfection of explosives, war came; came the shock of realising that the guns were going off, that the masses of inflammable material all over the world were at last ablaze.”

The narrative then follows Bert Smallways throughout the state of New York as he tries to outrun the war, at first between America and Germany, and then a frantic war of all against all as an alliance of China and Japan blitzes the Western world. In that, Wells continues a reductionist xenophobia that presents a unified ‘yellow peril’ attacking the countries dominated by white people, with no consideration for the differentiation between different Asian cultures. Even as he makes this rather damning mistake, he does show how technology can be a destabilizing force on the world scene. His understanding of the deeper issues remains relevant, even if its actual implementation is flawed and bigoted in one of its basic assumptions.

The novel ends with the airship bringing about an era of warfare that combines the worst aspects of insurgencies with the worst aspects of conventional warfare: the destruction of cities is completely feasible, but the weapons used to do so can hide, and be manufactured, far more easily than the bomber planes that levelled Dresden, Coventry, and Tokyo. Bert eventually finds his way back to an England that has reverted to an agricultural society, reuniting with his beloved and becoming a patriarch of a large family.

It is clear that Wells overestimated the revolutionary power of the airship, but the basic ideas he touched upon came true in ways that are not immediately obvious. The most obvious is the sheer destructive potential of air power; the bombardment of New York is eerily reminiscent of the Battle of Britain, down to having the aggressor be Germany; indeed he also predicts the clash between Germany and its neighbors to the west. The China-Japan alliance can be seen as a halfway-off prediction of the aggression of Imperial Japan, which at 1907 had already beaten China and had brought Korea into its orbit.

In regards to the bombing, one could also argue that Wells saw the raw destructive potential that would ultimately culminate in the atomic bomb; after all he predicted an end of industrial civilization reminiscent of nuclear war. In his book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Daniel Ellsberg convincingly argues that there is direct continuity between the doctrine of strategic bombing as originally used by the Royal Air Force on Germany and the decision to render unto Hiroshima and Nagasaki the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. In that sense, Wells had, to paraphrase Frederik Pohl, predicted the automobile but not quite the traffic jam.

Another prediction that turned out to be true was the growing decentralization of warfare, albeit not with the technology that would allow such a development. Wells talks about how anyone with sufficient engineering knowledge could easily create an airship and rain hellfire on whoever displeased them. The technologies that have brought upon such a sea change in the real world are the internet primarily and the drone secondarily. It is now possible for a single individual to cause utter chaos and destruction, as Wells predicted, but not on the level of destroying civilization. In this regard, Wells had predicted the traffic jam, but not the right type of automobile.

What makes Wells’ harbingers of devastation different from fears of nuclear war is his conception of the actors that would enable it. In his essay You and the Atomic Bomb, George Orwell discusses the distinction between democratic weapons, weapons which can be manufactured and used by the people at large and consequently help the people fight the elite, and tyrannical weapons, weapons which can only be made by organizations led by elites and consequently are ways of continuing elite rule over the people. Orwell discusses the atomic bomb as a tyrannical weapon that would destroy the masses’ capacity to revolt, whereas Wells predicts the method of mass destruction as a democratic weapon, with civilization suffering a death of a thousand cuts. It is true that most of the devastation in the book is on behalf of state actors, but Wells mentions many times the potential for small-scale usage of airships.

All of these forecasts indicate that Wells had a very real fear of what modernity and technological progress could end up doing to humanity; in many ways, he was right. Much like the forecasters of nuclear holocaust half a century later, Wells was reacting to a perceived future. That is what differentiates his conception of airships from the cult of the airship in alternate history circles, which reacts to a perceived past. In a response to a video I made with Matt Mitrovich about the genre of alternate history’s relationship with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, rvbomally, the noted writer on alternatehistory.com, wrote an article on the Alternate History Weekly Update on how the writing of alternate history creates a gap between the writer and the experience of being on the receiving end of the history one writes about.

Someone fascinated with warplanes, for example, is unlikely to have had their family killed by a stray bomb, much in the way those that romanticize the age of the airship lost nobody on the Hindenburg or lived through zeppelinitis and the bombing of Great Yarmouth.

This is the fundamental difference between Wells and modern alternate historians with enthusiasm for airships. Airships have never been carriers of doom to people alive today; they have always been quaint evocations of a simpler time (although those who lived during that time would most likely disagree). Not so to Wells and others living in 1907: they were the future, and the future was terrifying (as it often is to us).

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