Book Review: The Man Who Ended War

The Man Who Ended War
by Hollis Godfrey
1908
Feedbooks edition
https://www.feedbooks.com/book/6626/the-man-who-ended-war

At a press conference by the Secretary of War, someone asks about a strange letter that the government got earlier that day. The writer of that letter claims that the world has been too long in conflict, so he’s going to put a stop to it by destroying the navies of the world unless everyone agrees to disarm. They’ve got one year.

Everyone dismisses it as the work of a crank, but intrepid reporter Jim Orrington (our narrator and protagonist) isn’t so sure. He asks to see the original letter, and spots something a bit odd. He is able to persuade the government to allow him to bring the original (!!!) to Tom Haldane, a scientist friend of his, where they accidentally discover a part of the letter was erased and written over. That erased part gave a list of dates and times when battleships would be destroyed. It also happens that Tom noted some odd behavior of a piece of his lab equipment on occasions, and, musing on how one might destroy a battleship from a distance, they wonder if it could be connected.

When the USS Alaska disappears off the eastern coast of the US, at the same time that equipment exhibits its strange behavior again, Jim and Tom – and Tom’s sister Dorothy (a fair scientist in her own right) – manage to conjure up a device that acts as a locator for the source of whatever it is that vaporized the Alaska. Using Jim’s Washington connections, they get the OK from the president (!!!) to go ahead and track down “The Man” responsible.

As more battleships vanish, it’s a race against time to find “The Man” and put a stop to his doings.

This novel is definitely a work of its time, and it most definitely is a work of SCIENCE fiction.

Godfrey was an engineer and educator, so he had to be up on the latest in Science. Which, in the early 1900s, meant radioactivity and radio. Both were just beginning to be understood, but hadn’t yet become the silly “does everything, and makes life better” that they would be in the 1920s. From a geopolitical standpoint, naval power was seen as the key to global domination. Battleships and dreadnoughts were the superweapons of the day. Aircraft were a novelty, and armies were little more than masses of men with guns. England and Germany were locked in a political fight over who would rule the waves.

So a novel about a mysterious scientist with a device using radioactivity to send out a beam that can turn a battleship into a cloud of dust? Sure!

Most of the novel is a chase through England, following the clues of fallen shutters and shop signs, and mysterious lodgers. False leads abound. The science part is happily never explained; no one stops for a lecture on what happened or how the device works. Godfrey just shows the results; an intelligent reader should be able to write the standard “mad science lecture” on their own. It’s also internally consistent; once the effects of the ray are established, they don’t change just to serve a plot point.

It’s a pretty good romp. The pacing is quick, and there’s enough attention to the details of the investigation to keep your interest. And a scene where the fleets of England and Germany meet for a battle in the English Channel (Germany blamed England for the loss of two of their capital ships; the attempt to “end war” actually started one) becomes a massive tragedy as ship after ship vanishes. Because Tom dove down to the Channel floor where an English ship vanished, we know what became of the crews of those ships…..

If there’s one problem with the novel, it’s Godfrey’s simplistic belief that all the World Powers would agree to disarm without complaint. We all know that’s not going to happen. The loss of navies won’t end war; you can still fight on land. What about “cold” wars, where the fighting is done through special agents that travel on civilian vessels? What if a way is found to neutralize the ray? So many problems…..

Still, it’s an enjoyable read. I found myself picturing John Steed and Emma Peel zipping around southern England, hot on the trail of another mad scientist……

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