Sunday, 2 November 2014

H. G. Wells’ “The Land Ironclads” – Speculative Fiction done right

What makes a story exceptional? When I’m between writing projects, I’m going to post occasional essays about some of my favourite pieces of writing. This will be fun, partly because it gives me an excuse to re-read some great stories, but also because it’s useful and constructive – both as a reader and writer – to think about what makes a work of writing truly memorable.

Right now, I want to look at what I consider to be a quintessential piece of speculative fiction: H. G. Well’s “The Land Ironclads,” which you can read online here.

Plot summary: Two unnamed countries are at war, one attacking, the other defending. The conflict is at a stalemate – “Since the first brisk movements after the declaration of war things had gone slower and slower, until it seemed as though the whole machine of events must have run down” – and the defenders are happily waiting their enemy out. But the attackers bring in a new weapon – massive, armoured land vehicles, that can easily traverse the trenches. These so-called Land Ironclads push through the front lines and essentially win the war for the attackers.

At this point, it’s worth noting that this story was published in 1903. So, more than a decade before the first World War and the invention of tanks, Wells wrote a story about stalled-out trench warfare, and big armoured vehicles being used to overcome the stalemate1. That Wells predicted both the key problem with trench warfare (its static nature) and one of its solutions (mechanized, armoured units that could cross trench lines) is pretty amazing.

So “The Land Ironclads” does something that many other science fiction stories have tried, but often failed to do: accurately predict a future technological development and its impact. You don’t need to be a sci-fi or history buff to recognise how cool that is; few writers will ever have people describe our work with words like “prophetic.”

But speculation about future tech isn’t Wells’ only achievement. The story is told mostly from the perspective of a war correspondent on the defender’s side. This character could easily have been a vacant shell, existing purely to relay the story. But he’s a quirky, fun character in his own right – from the way he distractedly munches on a chocolate bar throughout the battle, to how he thinks in headlines (“Dawn and the dead,” “Manhood versus Machinery”).

There’s also a satirical edge to the correspodent. As the story begins, he talks to a young lieutenant, who says the attacking nation are poor fighters, because:

"Their men aren't brutes enough... They're a crowd of devitalized townsmen... They're clerks, they're factory hands, they're students, they're civilized men. They can write, they can talk, they can make and do all sorts of things, but they're poor amateurs at war.”

The correspondent (presumably himself an educated townsman) is actually upset at the idea that a rougher, more salt-of-the-earth nation will inevitably trump an educated one. He looks at the soldiers of his own side and thinks very uncomplimentary things:

"Louts," he whispered. "Cunning, elementary louts. And they are going to beat the townsmen at the game of war!"

Then the Land Ironclads attack, the defenders lose badly, and the correspondent’s sympathies quickly change. His view of the (now victorious) attackers:

"Smart degenerates," he muttered. "Anæmic cockneydom."

The impression I get is that Wells is poking fun at the fickle elitism of the educated classes. While Wells was hardly an anti-intellectual, there’s something awfully sly about his depiction of a moody journalist who can’t make up his mind about what side he’s rooting for, even as the battle rages around him.

All the details about civilised soldiers versus brutish men-of-the-land also set up the story’s central allegory about the role that technology plays in war, and how brute force will always be trumped by science. It’s not a subtle point (Wells was rarely subtle) but it’s well made. Both World War Two and the Cold War were notable for the technological arms races they inspired, and from the atomic bomb to space travel, nations have always believed that the scientific edge made all the difference in victory.

In some ways, Wells takes his praise of science and education a bit too far. As he tells, it, the scientifically-advanced people of the attacking side:

“...resented being forced to the trouble of making man-killing machinery; resented the alternative of having to massacre these people or endure their truculent yappings; resented the whole unfathomable imbecility of war.”

The idea that these educated people are just so reluctant to use their murder machines, but they have to, but resent it so much... Well, it feels a bit like bullshit. Educated or not, human beings have relished devising new methods of conflict since the dawn of time. But I suspect Wells intended this not as literal truth, but as allegory about science as a whole. Many scientists would probably prefer not to see their creations used for slaughter, but history has often put them in situations where they have to. From this perspective, the educated attackers in “Land Ironclads” can be seen as symbolising the mindset of an Albert Einstein or Robert Oppenheimer, people whose genius was applied to make terrible weapons of destruction.

But allegorical or not, “The Land Ironclads” doesn’t occupy some heightened, fantastical alternate-reality: there are enough details to make the war feel fleshed-out and realistic. For example, at one point, the war correspondent laments that he doesn’t have enough of a story from today’s events:

He found himself wondering whether his editor would consider the story of how somebody thought he saw something black behind a clump of trees, and how a gun was fired at this illusion by somebody else, too trivial for public consultation.

Then there was this anecdote about spooked soldiers shooting at nothing:

When one early morning the men the defenders sent to lie out five hundred yards before the trenches, with a view to the unexpected emptying of magazines into any night attack, gave way to causeless panic and blazed away at nothing for ten minutes...

These descriptions crystallize the war, making it a character all on its own.

Image from here
Beyond allegory, characterisation and prophetic speculation, I also love “The Land Ironclads” because it’s a pure joy to read. The pacing is brisk, the story engaging. Wells’ prose is wonderfully vivid – take the battle occurring beneath a “cheerless sky” or how, in the panicked retreat following the Ironclad attack, the correspondent becomes “a modest egotist, in a mood of hasty circumspection, seeking the farthest rear.” The description of the battle makes great military sci-fi: from the Ironclads crossing the trench lines, to the bird’s-eye view describing how they are used to enmesh themselves in the enemy lines and clear the way for attacking infantry** to mop up, it all works, and works well.

In summary, let’s list what “The Land Ironclads” achieves:
•    Accurately predicts trench warfare and mechanised armour
•    Satirises intellectual fickleness
•    Spins an allegory about the reluctant, but inevitable, use of science in conflict
•    Strong world-building and a moody atmosphere
•    Tells a cracking tale of high-tech military action

And it does all this in less than ten thousand words. Above all else, the story is a marvel of precision, combining many disparate elements – gritty detail, high-minded metaphor, quirky character interaction – into a fast-paced, rollicking tale that is quick to read but difficult to forget. Top to bottom, this story is everything a short piece of science fiction should be. Wells might have been a man of great vision – a science fiction prophet – but it's his skill with words that makes his writing so brilliant.

* I’m no Great War historian, so I can’t speak with authority on the impact that tanks played on the Western Front, but I assume it was not insignificant. Here’s an overview.

** Technically it’s “cyclist-soldiers” – that is, soldiers riding bicycles. On this detail, Wells might have been slightly off-base – not many 20th century militaries adopted push bikes as a tactic. But I like to think Wells was just imagining something like these guys. Doesn't that make the story just a little bit more awesome?

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