The Worst Proto-SF Novel in the History of the World

While I was writing my dissertation I looked at almost everything I came across that was published in 1859, the focal year for the military changes I was studying. It turns out that 1859 was actually quite a good year for literature: Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities, J.S. Mill On Liberty, Darwin On the Origin of Species. But there was also some real trash, including Carlsruhe professor Hermann Lang’s The Air Battle: A Vision of the Future, which is probably the worst work of early or proto-SF in existence. The following is based on notes I wrote when I read it.

The plot is simple: 5,000 years in the future, on the devastated island of Great Britain, a quarrel between Harold Wynter and Brian O’Connor leads both men to leave England.  O’Connor boards a ship from mysterious Madeira, and Wynter is trapped aboard a Brazilian ship when he goes to Yarmouth in search of him.  With Harold out of the way, the Jewish ferryman Jonas tries to take the family lands.  In response, Harold’s sister Brunehilda flings herself aboard a Saharan flying ship.  Together, their adventures lead to – pause for shock and fainting here – a global change in the balance of power.

In Lang’s far future world a series of cataclysmic earthquakes have led to a shift in power from Europe to Africa and South America, as well as the invention of flying ships, or “aerials.” The great empires of Sahara, Madeira, and Brazilia are all ruled by blacks, and the former is fighting to end the slave trade in whites.  The South Pacific has a strange island inhabited by savages who are Blue (accompanied by an oblique reference to the ridiculousness of believing in “red men”). Lang is very impressed with himself for creating such topsy-turvy world, and never misses the chance to make the point: people constantly refer to the great poets of England, Australia, and Japan, or talk about the “noted philosopher, Newton, or Nothing (laughter)” and his predecessor, “Baking, or Bacum.”

Of course, in the process Lang manages to replicate almost all of the conventions of stock mid-century melodrama with painful predictability. He can’t even be bothered to come up with new ethnic stereotypes for his future world. Instead, there’s the villainous and avaricious Jewish ferryman Jonas, a coward who defrauds Harold of his land and commits suicide at the very end; the hot-blooded Irishman O’Connor, who becomes the chief admiral of the Madeirans; and the Saharan comic servant Jakadox, who speaks in dialect and is constantly getting in and out of scrapes. Lang can’t even resist getting in an entirely irrelevant poke at Roman Catholicism, reporting that the Saharan statesman Carthagon brought simplicity back to Christianity against “the infamous practices coming into fashion, similar, in many prospects, to the ancient popish forms, which lingered after the last of the popes had died in exile, ages ago.”

Calling The Air Battle painfully bad does a disservice to other bad books. Despite getting into the genre early, Lang still manages to make his story hackneyed and cliched. Even compared to average bad Victorian literature, this is bad stuff indeed.


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