I don’t get much chance to read for pleasure, but two things I’ve been reading recently spurred my imagination. After reliving the advent of modern transportation in the solid non-fiction Jet Age by Sam Howe Verhovek, I stumbled upon two pieces of speculative fiction from an unlikely source that predated everything presented there. In between The Jungle Book and hundreds of other works, Rudyard Kipling imagined a future of air transportation that is coherent yet entirely unlike our modern world.
With the Night Mail
One doesn’t often think of Rudyard Kipling as a science fiction author. Indeed, considering that he was active around the turn of the last century, science fiction was not even a literary genre in his time! But Kipling wrote two thought-provoking “future stories” in a world where global transportation had trumped politics, population growth, and even war.
Written in 1905, With the Night Mail supposes that the world would be linked politically and socially by an active air transportation network. But Kipling’s future is based on massive yet buoyant dirigibles not the airplanes of today. And this is just the start of the fantastic yet inaccurate world he imagined.
To maintain movement through the skies, the Aerial Board of Control (A.B.C.) was given complete control of traffic through the skies and (ominously) “all it implies.” With the Night Mail follows a protagonist’s journey from London to QuÃ©bec on a “Postal Packet” airship, and is written in the typical confident Victorian English style.
It is astonishing that, 25 years before H.G. Wells, Kipling would create so thorough a future world around a fairly mundane story. Indeed, like Tolkien, Kipling includes a strange postscript of “bonus content” set in this future world in the form of newspaper advertisements and letters to the editor.
The story itself is not much great literature, with forgettable characters who do little to develop or challenge the reader. Clearly, Kipling delighted in piecing together a future world rather than setting compelling characters in it.
Marvelously Clever Yet Entirely Off-Base
Airplanes (unproven technology in 1905) are sidelined as dangerous and impractical. As an advertisement for a dirigible construction company proclaims, “it is now nearly a generation since the Plane was to supersede the Dirigible for all purposes. TO-DAY none of the Planet’s freight is carried en plane. Less than two per cent. of the Planet’s passengers are carried en plane.”
Kipling’s power source is a turbine moving inside a closed-loop compressor and condenser reminiscent of today’s refrigeration coils. The propellant is “Fleury’s gas”, which “can lift anything” with “almost indefinite powers of expansion” yet will condense instantly once it touches a radium-powered ray. This same substance provides both lift and thrust, yet requires constant attention from an expert operator. Kipling delights in creating future jargon for these airships while incorporating conventional ocean lingo varying from quaint to precocious.
Although Guglielmo Marconi had already begun demonstrating radio communication at the time, Kipling does not grasp the importance of this work. The dirigibles are guided by illuminated beacons on the ground and “Mark ships” in the sky. Although a “General Communicator” presumably relies on radio waves, the captain shouts to passing airships through an open window. Most communication is through colored or flashing beams of light rather than long-distance radio beams.
Indeed, the entire purpose of the story’s journey is archaic: Packet 162 is delivering paper mail, and transports a “coach” containing bored clerks sorting sacks of letters. It would be impossible to imagine a time of continuous communication, broadcast media, or a global network of intangible information exchange at that time.
As Easy as A.B.C.
Where With the Night Mail was confident if a little tempered in terms of enthusiasm, Kipling’s next work in this fictional world was downright gloomy. As Easy as A.B.C. follows another aerial journey, this time to quell uprising in Chicago that threatens the flow of traffic through the skies. it is here that Kipling dives into the ominous overtones of the A.B.C.’s mandate of “all that it implies”.
The narrator, a reporter, joins an international crew on a high-performance A.B.C dirigible on their way to Chicago. The trouble? The people of Northern Illinois shut down their navigational beacons to force the A.B.C. to intervene against a group of “serviles” who dare to promote government, organization, and “crowds.”
This is by far the most surprising difference between Kipling’s two stories: The first was an amusing lark, while the second is serious commentary on the state of human relations and government.
Kipling also seems surprisingly reactionary in terms of the development of technology in the intervening years. While his 1905 story could be forgiven for not taking “aeroplanes” seriously, by 1912 the Wright brothers had successfully demonstrated controllable, manned, powered flight. Yet Kipling still dismisses it.
This stands in stark contrast to his seeming acceptance of radio technology. From a “ground hold” that uses supergravity to a light-based weapon, Kipling has well and truly accepted that electromagnetic waves are the future of technology.
Most interesting is Kipling’s take on the future of government. He presumes that greater availability of communication and transport technology would lead to a state of ultra-libertarianism, where governments would be dissolved apart from boards like the A.B.C. which merely facilitated transport. The population of Chicago despises “crowds”, collectivism, and government generally. This is well beyond the anti-communism and -socialism that would be a hallmark of writing and thought 50 years later. And it seems truly bizarre to modern readers.
It is wonderful to open one’s mind to completely alien ideas. This is especially true when reading speculative fiction from a century ago, since one can compare the actual development of society and technology with that supposed by the author. For me, science fiction helps reinforce an attitude of humility. After all, if great thinkers and writers could be so wrong about the world of today, surely I can be entirely wrong about the world of tomorrow!