The War in the Air
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The story was written in 1907 and depicts a war happening in the late 1910s – then a future history, which can be considered as a retroactive alternate history. The basic assumption behind the plot is that immediately after the Wright Brothers's first successful flight in 1903, all of the world's major powers became aware of the decisive strategic importance of air power, and embarked on a secret arms race to develop this power (there is a reference to the Wright Brothers themselves disappearing from public view, having been recruited for a secret military project of the US Government – as were other aviation pioneers in their own respective countries). The general public is virtually unaware of this arms race, until it finally bursts out in a vastly destructive war which destroys civilisation.
When bankruptcy threatens one summer, he and his partner abandon the shop, devise a singing act ("the Desert Dervishes"), and resolve to try their fortunes in English sea resorts. As chance would have, their initial performance is interrupted by a balloon which lands on the beach before them, and which turns out to contain one Mr. Butteridge. Butteridge is famous for his successful invention of an easily manoeuvrable fixed-wing aircraft whose secret he has not revealed and that he is seeking to sell to the British government or, failing that, to Germany. Prior to Butteridge, nobody had succeeded in producing a practical heavier-than-air machine, only a few awkward devices of limited utility such as the German "Drachenflieger", which had to be towed aloft and released from an airship. Butteridge's invention is a major breakthrough, as it is highly manoeuvrable, capable of both very fast and very slow flight, and requires only a small area to take off and land, reminiscent of the later autogyro.
By accident Bert is carried off in Butteridge's balloon, and discovers Butteridge's secret plans on board it. Bert is clever enough to appraise his situation, and when the balloon is shot down in a secret German "aeronautic park east of Hamburg," Bert intends to pass himself off as Butteridge to sell the secret. However, he has stumbled upon the German air fleet just as it is about to launch a surprise attack on the United States - and Prince Karl Albert, the author and leader of this plan, decides to take him along for the campaign. The Prince, world-famous as "The German Alexander" or Napoleon, is a living manifestation of German Nationalism and boundless imperial ambitions, his personality as depicted by Wells in some ways resembling that of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Bert's disguise is soon seen through by the Germans, and – narrowly avoiding being summarily thrown overboard by the furious Prince – he is relegated to the role of a witness to the true horror of war.
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