Hardcover, 329 pagesBorrowed from the library
Published 1975 (originally 1900)
Read October 2013
Simon Newcomb was a Canadian-born U.S. astronomer; H. G. Wells actually references him in The Time Machine to justify that book's depiction of time as another dimension. His Wisdom the Defender, Newcomb's own stab into scientific fiction, is much more typical of fin-de-siècle attempts at the genre than Wells's exemplary work. Basically, in the 1940s, a Harvard physics professor named Archibald Campbell invents the air-ship and decides to use it to impose his law on the world: that there should be no more war. It's a sort of typical position of the era, peace through brute force. Newcomb engages with some of the philosophical ramifications of this ("He who would wield the power of a god must bear the responsibility of a god"), but most of the book is pretty plodding, to be honest. When he's finally forced to use his air-ships ("motes") in combat, Campbell knows that what he is doing is intellectually sound, but can't shake the feeling that it's just murder-- so he's got more of a conscience than any George Griffith protagonist at least. (This is damning with faint praise.)
Thankfully and somewhat improbably, the problem of one man imposing his will on the world through overwhelming destructive force does not backfire, because Campbell is such a swell guy he eventually becomes known as "His Wisdom." Everyone comes to like Campbell's rule and there are no problems of any sort in international relations ever again, thanks to Campbell's arbitration. Who knew a physics professor would have it in him? This is the sort of novel that Wells would skewer in The War in the Air, and rightfully so.