Friday, 16 October 2009

prophetic visions

"When Burt Smallways" reads the blurb to Wells' 1907 classic " is accidentally whisked off to Germany in a balloon carrying plans for a top-secret aeroplane, he gets involved in Prince Karl Albert's massive airship raid on New York... the first step in a war which soon flares into world-wide catastrophe." The novel sees fearless and hapless Burt witness, from relative safety, the destruction of the Western world, before striving to make a new life for himself in a brutal and feudal post-war society of devastated Europe.

He tumbles into the balloon while assisting an eccentric inventor (a narrative technique perhaps borrowed from Verne's Mysterious Island?) and when, at length, the fog clears he finds himself bobbing between gargantuan Zeppelins – he lands in a German air park, described as an endless matrix of orthogonally aligned airships, each tied down to the ground by a mass of fuel pumps and strings of lights. The scene invokes a cross between Gulliver's Travels and Archigram's Instant Cities.

He sees the fire bombing of New York, a massive aerial battle over Niagara Falls, and only after many years of travel does he make it back to the small suburb where the story began. Civilisation is completely destroyed, and the novel ends with an interesting remark from one of the characters. As he stares up at the rusting monorail lines he realises that even if his children were to live to 100 they would never see the wonders of the society he grew up in.

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