This story was first published in the United States of America in McClure’s Magazine for November 1905, and in the United Kingdom in The Windsor Magazine for December 1905; it was collected in Actions and Reactions (1909), Scribners Edition Volume XXIV, the Burwash Edition volume VIII, the Sussex Edition volume VIII, and various Pocket and Uniform Editions over the years. Thre are minor variations in the texts of the magazine publications.
It is the year 2000, and – powered by ‘Fleury’s Ray’ – a host of transatlantic aircraft, most of them lighter-than-air (airships), are flying across the air waves. The narrator is on board a mail plane, en route from London to Quebec. The technicalities of the journey, the expertise of the crew, the radio communications they use, and the international beacons which guide the traffic, are described in impressive detail, until the Night Mail docks safely at its Receiving Tower twenty minutes ahead of schedule.
There then follows a riot of invention; mock “Notices to Airmen” (similar to the Admiralty ‘Notices to Mariners’, which Kipling knew well) with information on world-wide flying conditions, and several pages of advertisements for accessories, spares, job vacancies etc. for the aircraft industry. Reading it in an age in which intercontinental air travel is commonplace, one needs to bear in mind that the first successful powered flight had only taken place two years before, in 1903, and that the first flight across the English Channel was not accomplished until four years after the story was written.
This is another flight of fancy which ORG ( Vol. 6, p. 2826) has treated very seriously, with much important information on lighter-than-air flight and the mechanics of the craft concerned. This Editor, writing in 2006, takes the view, however, that Kipling made this up as he went along, adapting procedures and expressions from existing modes of transport. The result was a very successful essay in Science Fiction, despite Arnold Bennett’s unfavourable comments: ‘A glittering essay in the sham-technical. [It may well be that for Kipling’s fellow-writer, the grapes were a little sour ?] While the ORG material is very well worth study, it is not necessary for the understanding or enjoyment of the story.
Some critical comments
Charles Carrington (p. 374) draws attention to Kipling’s:
… astonishing forecast of the contrivances, the utilities, and the safety precautions that airborne commerce would being into being. Radio communication was new in 1904. Although a few ships were fitted with wireless telegraph, there was no radio-telephony, no hint or suggestion of public broadcasting; but Kipling’s air-liner moves through a world-wide network of radio services, supplying weather forecasts, and allotting safety-levels and landing priorities, thirty years before anyone elso had dreamed of ‘flying control’.
See also Fred Lerner’s article in this Guide on Rudyard Kipling considered as a Science Fiction writer, and The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English by Ian Ousby (1988), p. 834.
[J H McG/J.R.]
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