The Works of H. G. Wells: The Land Ironclads - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The Works of H. G. Wells: The Land Ironclads

Alexander Wallace reports from the frontline.
Perhaps nothing defines modern warfare more than the tank. These treaded artillery vehicles are almost monstrous in their sheer presence, and emblematize the way that human industry can be honed into a supply chain of destruction, from mines to assembly lines. They were the answer to the machine gun after cavalry horses were shredded by a hail of bullets. They bypassed the Maginot Line, turned Kursk into a necropolis, and much later reduced the Iraqi Army to cinders.

They were also one of the many things that H. G. Wells turned out to predict with some accuracy. He predicted the desolation brought about by strategic aerial bombing in The War in the Air and the specter of nuclear annihilation in The World Set Free. In his reputation as "prophet of the future" is also evident in his story The Land Ironclads, originally published in 1903 in the Strand magazine. It is shorter than much of his work that I have covered in this series, but it is one with enough worth writing about for this article to be worthwhile.
There are two nameless sides to the unnamed war which backdrops The Land Ironclads. There are the defenders, a hardy people with great marksmanship and a reverence for the outdoors. Opposing them are the attackers, a people of clerks and shopkeepers (derided for such by the defenders) who fight with technology that is scary and new to many. The modernity that the attackers represent is embodied in the namesake machines that assault the position. They are not quite the tanks that we remember in black-and-white images from World War II, or even the behemoths of World War I. Rather, they are propelled by wheels that drive a series of small legs, which when combined with the carapace-like armor give off a distinctly caterpillar-like impression. They are equipped with many guns, and they smash the defender’s trenches.

Even if the story does not match exactly to the Great War that would begin at Sarajevo eleven years after the publication of the story, I could not help but imagine all involved in The Land Ironclads wearing pickelhauben or Brodie helmets. The story is an uncanny prediction of exactly the role that tanks would actually play. Horses, after a certain point of technological development, are feeble things that die easily. Wells was in a world that had tractors and steamships, so a landship took only so long to imagine.

There are two main characters in the defending trenches: a lieutenant and a war correspondent. It is through their interactions that this world is portrayed; the lieutenant fights for his life, and the newspaperman wants to sell a story. They both see creeping, hulking modernity overwhelm their position, and are captured by the end. This was the modernity that Europe and the United States, in their savage wars of peace, thrusted upon the world without giving the world much say in the matter. Industrial civilization broke damn near everything in other parts of the world, and the lieutenant and the newspaperman have to see its wreckage being born right in front of them.

The most insightful moment in the entire story is the ending, where the defenders are surrounded and our two main characters prisoners of war. The reporter notices something interesting; that the look in the eyes of the landshipmen seems less than human. They had just destroyed a great many lives by pulling triggers and pressing buttons and pulling levers. The whole enterprise is a deeply impersonal one. Is not much of modern war like this? They said that the Gulf War in the 1990s was a war that looked like a video game; today, America wages war with drones operating an ocean away. Technology has not just made it easier to kill in a mechanical sense; it has made killing easier in a psychological sense, as human beings do not feel like human beings when viewed with such distance between them. It is what leads to the casual obliteration of a wedding in Yemen or a city in Japan. It is what leads to the fall of these defenders’ trenches.

It can be truly astounding how much H. G. Wells predicted from at least a decade off; the man was a genius and incredibly learned. The Land Ironclads demonstrates this better than much of his other work, so prescient it is down to the details (method of locomotion notwithstanding). This is the value of reading old science fiction: it shows us how people thought about what was imminent, and what was clear and what was not. In our own speculations, we can learn much from them.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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