The airminded Mr. Kipling

Rudyard Kipling, that poet of empire, also wrote two very airminded science fiction stories: "With the night mail" (1905) and a sequel, "As easy as A.B.C." (1912). Both were set in the then-remote 21st century, and revolved around the Aerial Board of Control - the ABC of the second story's title. This is effectively a world government, composed of elite aviators, which had grown out of the necessity to regulate air transport:

Her black hull, double conning-tower, and ever-ready slings represent all that remains to the planet of that odd old word authority. She is responsible only to the Aerial Board of Control-- the A.B.C. of which Tim speaks so flippantly. But that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons of both sexes, controls this planet. 'Transportation is Civilization,' our motto runs. Theoretically, we do what we please so long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all it implies. Practically, the A.B.C. confirms or annuls all international arrangements and, to judge from its last report, finds our tolerant, humorous, lazy little planet only too ready to shift the whole burden of public administration on its shoulders.

The globalising effects of air transport (more airships than airplanes) has helped the world to outgrow war; and more and more countries are becoming tired of messy politics, and place themselves in the ABC's hands:

The story of the recent Cretan crisis, as told in the A.B.C. Monthly Report, is not without humour. Till 25th October Crete, as all the planet knows, was the sole surviving European repository of 'autonomous institutions,' 'local self-government,' and the rest of the archaic lumber devised in the past for the confusion of human affairs. She has lived practically on the tourist traffic attracted by her annual pageants of Parliaments, Boards, Municipal Councils, etc. etc. Last summer the islanders grew wearied, as their premier explained, of 'playing at being savages for pennies,' and proceeded to pull down all the landing-towers on the island and shut off general communication till such time as the A.B.C. should annex them. For side-splitting comedy we would refer our readers to the correspondence between the Board of Control and the Cretan premier during the 'war.' However, all's well that ends well. The A.B.C. have taken over the administration of Crete on normal lines; and tourists must go elsewhere to witness the 'debates,' 'resolutions,' and 'popular movements' of the old days. The only people who suffer will be the Board of Control, which is grievously overworked already. It is easy enough to condemn the Cretans for their laziness; but when one recalls the large, prosperous, and presumably public-spirited communities which during the last few years have deliberately thrown themselves into the hands of the A.B.C., one cannot be too hard upon St. Paul's old friends.

In "As easy as A.B.C.", this theme is expanded upon, with the ABC being called in to Chicago to put down social unrest; as Michael Paris notes, this story shows that as peaceful as Kipling makes the ABC out to be, ultimately its authority rests on the use of its aircraft as weapons.Michael Paris, Winged Warfare: The Literature and Theory of Aerial Warfare in Britain, 1859-1917 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1992), 39. Though they do have the power to immobilise people as well as kill.

This is a very early instance of an idea which was to enjoy some currency in the 1930s, of an aviation-based technocratic alternative to democracy - in particular H.G. Wells' Air and Sea Control in The Shape of Things to Come (1933).Ibid, 29. Paris also suggests that as Kipling and Frederick Sykes (head of the RAF in 1918) were friends, the ABC stories may have had some influence on the latter's airpower ideas, particularly air control.Ibid, 39-40.

Although I think I've read "With the night mail" before, I'd never seen the faux ads for dirigibles and (air)shipping news reports which (according to Bleiler, Science-fiction: The Early Years) accompanied the 1909 New York edition, obviously to add to the verisimilitude.Kind of like the "Would you like to know more?" hyperlinks in the propaganda inserts in Starship Troopers ... oh, I feel so unclean now that I've mentioned that film. These are so fun! Not that newspapers have Edwardian-style "answers to correspondents" sections any more, but perhaps they should:

PLANISTON -- (1) The Five Thousand Kilometre (overland) was won last year by L. V. Rautsch, R. M. Rautsch, his brother, in the same week pulling off the Ten Thousand (oversea). R. M.'s average worked out at a fraction over 500 kilometres per hour, thus constituting a record. (2) Theoretically, there is no limit to the lift of a dirigible. For commercial and practical purposes 15,000 tons is accepted as the most manageable.

PATERFAMILIAS -- None whatever. He is liable for direct damage both to your chimneys and any collateral damage caused by fall of bricks into garden, etc., etc. Bodily inconvenience and mental anguish may be included, but the average courts are not, as a rule, swayed by sentiment. If you can prove that his grapnel removed any portion of your roof, you had better rest your case on decoverture of domicile (See Parkins v. Duboulay). We sympathize with your position, but the night of the 14th was stormy and confused, and - you may have to anchor on a stranger's chimney yourself some night. Verbum sap!

Oh, and if anyone is looking for a job:

FAMILY DIRIGIBLE. A Competent, steady man wanted for slow speed, low level Tangye dirigible. No night work, no sea trips. Must be member of the Church of England, and make himself useful in the garden.

M. R., The Rectory, Gray's Barton, Wilts.

But mind where you drop your grapnel.

(Thanks to Peter Farrell-Vinay for the pointer, and also for noting the similarity to Wells.)

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15 thoughts on “The airminded Mr. Kipling

  1. Chris Williams

    "Parkins v. Duboulay" sounds a lot like the results of the HG Wells story 'My First Aeroplane'. Which came first, I wonder?

  2. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Hmm, looks like "My first aeroplane" was published in The Strand Magazine in January 1910, so Kipling was first. Not that Wells would ever need to "draw inspiration" from another writer ...

  3. Christ! Two forgotten classics of sci-fi in one post! "My First Aeroplane" is a cracker, and "As Easy as ABC" is better yet.

    It's interesting that Kipling's ABC strongly resembles two very different institutions - one is the British Empire (ABC members as the Indian Civil Service), which in a broad sense was very much dedicated to the proposition that transportation is civilisation, especially as regards railways, shipping and telegraphy, and technocratic government. Kipling went so far as to write a poem about submarine cables, which makes him the Neal Stephenson or Bruce Sterling of his day. Air Control, of course, was chiefly deployed to reduce the need to get involved and send British troops too far from...the transportation system.

    The other, spookily, is the EU! Technocratic/economic integration (and precious little democracy) as a preventative against war, with the support of a dread deterrent from the sky (i.e. cold-war US air power)? Further thought: EU founding father Jean Monnet ran a Franco-British economic cooperation organisation during the last years of the First World War, where he dealt with Churchill as Minister of Munitions. Before that he was often in the UK on business...

  4. ... in fact, having just looked at "As Easy.." for the first time in years, I'm struck by how cruel the ending is. Another curious point is that Kipling's airship is propelled by what seems to be a nuclear reactor...

  5. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Yes, I can see the parallels with the empire, which was bound together with Red Routes, telegraph cables, railway lines. And the language of "Night mail" is pretty obviously meant to evoke both railways and shipping. But the ABC isn't just a British organisation: in "Easy as" the members sent to Chicago are from Russia, Japan and Italy (though another would seem to be a Brit and the Board does sit in London). So maybe it's a more generic "white man's burden" thing? (Well, honorary white man in the case of Japan.)

    From ABC to EEC - very cheeky! But interesting. I didn't know that about Monnet. The ABC stories did strike me as being as being somewhat in the vein of Norman Angell's The Great Illusion (though that came out a few years after "Night mail"), which could also lead to the ideas behind the EU. (I'm sure somebody out there has written several fat books on the intellectual ancestry of the EU by now!)

    I spotted the weird radium-powered Fleury Ray thing too ... I think there was some speculation in the air at the time about using radium as an energy source: Wells was always banging on about Frederick Soddy on this matter. 1905 was also the year of Einstein and E=mc2, though I somehow doubt Kipling was a regular reader of Annalen der Physik! Pretty advanced stuff, whichever way you look at it - it's a long way from The Jungle Book!

    (Kipling as the Victorian Neal Stephenson, heh!)

  6. Another possible source: there was an intellectual movement at the time that saw the future, not just in Imperial Federation (the creation of an overarching political structure for the UK and the Dominions) but in a federation incorporating the USA.

    One of the key people in this was Lionel Curtis, one of Lord Milner's staff in South Africa, who went on to help found the World Federalist movement. Years ago, I attended a lecture for Britain in Europe given by Sir Anthony Meyer (Tory MP who acted as stalking horse against Thatcher), who described how he had been influenced by Curtis at Cambridge.

    There will have to be a full blog entry on this, I feel, as it has a bearing on some popular current ideas (Thomas Barnett's Core and the Gap, for one).

  7. Chris Williams

    In that case, another book for the bibliography: Pocock's _The Early British Radio Industry_. AKA 'how the First Lord of the Admiralty also invented radio'.

    Thinking on this, I can get you right back to Tennyson's utterly brilliant poem Locksley Hall. Here we go:

    Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:
    That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do:

    For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
    Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

    Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
    Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

    Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
    From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue;

    Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
    With the standards of the peoples plunging thro' the thunder-storm;

    Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
    In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

    There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
    And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.


  8. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Thanks Chris. True story: "Locksley Hall" was Harry Truman's favourite poem. I don't know what it means that the man who ordered the first military use of the atomic bomb, just happened to carry around a copy of a poem about air warfare and world government in his wallet for 50 years ... but it must mean something! Unless he just liked the way the words rhyme.

    PS Alex's promised post is up at The Yorkshire Ranter.

  9. Chris Williams

    'the next stage will be the emergence, soon or late, of the greater cimmunity than the commonwealth of nations; perhaps the continental community, the European; the American; the Asiatic. The existing groupings will grow to these larger groupings as aviation prospers and provides the means of growth. And then there must be-again if the past is a sure guide-another, greater clash, a tremendous war of continents in which yet vaster forces will meet in fiercer struggle' etc etc etc

    from 'Air Power and the Expanding Community' by Major Oliver Stewart MC AFC (London: George Newness, 1944) p. 225 .

    Stewart appears to have been a Spenglerian, though - for him the world federation was not an attractive end point, but the inevitable brewer of decadence, leading too...

  10. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Geez, was anyone not predicting world-government-through-airpower back then? Still, it's all grist for my particular mill!

  11. Dave Bell

    Marcus Rowlands started off his "Forgotten Futures" series of role-playing games with the setting in these stories. So Kipling might be said to have inspired the concept of Dame Kylie Minogue being drenched with airship ballast while performing in The Crystal Palace.

    It's worth checking out as a source of proto-SF and fantasy. It's not all Utopian. See the Forgotten Futures website.

  12. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Thanks Dave - yes, there are a number of interesting items on there, even from a strictly aviation perspective: particularly the Vickers airship catalogue, which I might be inspired to blog about in future!

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