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This thrilling tale is H. G. Wells at his modernist, visionary best. In 1907, a naive Londoner named Bert Smallways finds himself an unwitting passenger on a fleet of German airships heading over the Atlantic to attack New York. What unfolds in characteristically Wellsian fashion is a clash of early flying machines that leaves Gotham in shambles and unleashes the terrible age of Total War. Uncannily relevant to our own era, The War in the Air remains a cornerstone of early science fiction.
387 pages with a reading time of ~6 hours (96890 words), and first published in 1908. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2010.
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“This here Progress,” said Mr. Tom Smallways, “it keeps on.”
“You’d hardly think it could keep on,” said Mr. Tom Smallways.
It was along before the War in the Air began that Mr. Smallways made this remark. He was sitting on the fence at the end of his garden and surveying the great Bun Hill gas-works with an eye that neither praised nor blamed. Above the clustering gasometers three unfamiliar shapes appeared, thin, wallowing bladders that flapped and rolled about, and grew bigger and bigger and rounder and rounder–balloons in course of inflation for the South of England Aero Club’s Saturday-afternoon ascent.
“They goes up every Saturday,” said his neighbour, Mr. Stringer, the milkman. “It’s only yestiday, so to speak, when all London turned out to see a balloon go over, and now every little place in the country has its weekly-outings–uppings, rather. It’s been the salvation of them gas companies.”
“Larst Satiday I got three barrer-loads of gravel off my petaters,” said Mr. Tom Smallways. “Three barrer-loads! What they dropped as ballase. Some of the plants was broke, and some was buried.”
“Ladies, they say, goes up!”
“I suppose we got to call ‘em ladies,” said Mr. Tom Smallways.
“Still, it ain’t hardly my idea of a lady–flying about in the air, and throwing gravel at people. It ain’t what I been accustomed to consider ladylike, whether or no.”
Mr. Stringer nodded his head approvingly, and for a time they continued to regard the swelling bulks with expressions that had changed from indifference to disapproval.
Mr. Tom Smallways was a green-grocer by trade and a gardener by disposition; his little wife Jessica saw to the shop, and Heaven had planned him for a peaceful world. Unfortunately Heaven had not planned a peaceful world for him. He lived in a world of obstinate and incessant change, and in parts where its operations were unsparingly conspicuous. Vicissitude was in the very soil he tilled; even his garden was upon a yearly tenancy, and overshadowed by a huge board that proclaimed it not so much a garden as an eligible building site. He was horticulture under notice to quit, the last patch of country in a district flooded by new and (other) things. He did his best to console himself, to imagine matters near the turn of the tide.
“You’d hardly think it could keep on,” he said.
Mr. Smallways’ aged father, could remember Bun Hill as an idyllic Kentish village. He had driven Sir Peter Bone until he was fifty and then he took to drink a little, and driving the station bus, which lasted him until he was seventy-eight. Then he retired. He sat by the fireside, a shrivelled, very, very old coachman, full charged with reminiscences, and ready for any careless stranger. He could tell you of the vanished estate of Sir Peter Bone, long since cut up for building, and how that magnate ruled the country-side when it was country-side, of shooting and hunting, and of caches along the high road, of how “where the gas-works is” was a cricket-field, and of the coming of the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace was six miles away from Bun Hill, a great facade that glittered in the morning, and was a clear blue outline against the sky in the afternoon, and of a night, a source of gratuitous fireworks for all the population of Bun Hill. And then had come the railway, and then villas and villas, and then the gas-works and the water-works, and a great, ugly sea of workmen’s houses, and then drainage, and the water vanished out of the Otterbourne and left it a dreadful ditch, and then a second railway station, Bun Hill South, and more houses and more, more shops, more competition, plate-glass shops, a school-board, rates, omnibuses, tramcars–going right away into London itself–bicycles, motor-cars and then more motor-cars, a Carnegie library.
“You’d hardly think it could keep on,” said Mr. Tom Smallways, growing up among these marvels.
But it kept on. Even from the first the green-grocer’s shop which he had set up in one of the smallest of the old surviving village houses in the tail of the High Street had a submerged air, an air of hiding from something that was looking for it. When they had made up the pavement of the High Street, they levelled that up so that one had to go down three steps into the shop. Tom did his best to sell only his own excellent but limited range of produce; but Progress came shoving things into his window, French artichokes and aubergines, foreign apples–apples from the State of New York, apples from California, apples from Canada, apples from New Zealand, “pretty lookin’ fruit, but not what I should call English apples,” said Tom–bananas, unfamiliar nuts, grape fruits, mangoes.