Review: ‘The Flying Man’ by H. G. Wells

First published in the Pall Mall Gazette on 4 January 1895, ‘The Flying Man’ is not one of the best-known short stories of the British science-fiction author H. G. Wells (1866-1946), but the tale has some intriguing elements. It’s about a British soldier in Asia who escapes from a ledge (and extreme thirst) by improvising a parachute; this gives rise to legends of a ‘flying man’ among the local people.

Here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot. ‘The Flying Man’ is about a man, a lieutenant in the British army, who recounts his adventure as the ‘flying man’ of the story’s title. In the part of Asia inhabited by the Chin people (what is modern-day Myanmar and formerly Burma), legends have grown up around the story of the British lieutenant who flew. The lieutenant tells the true story of what happened to a man identified only as the Ethnologist, while they drink whisky and soda together.

The lieutenant is leading a group of British and Sepoy soldiers from their camp towards enemy Chin territory. While attempting to get closer to the nearby Chin village, they are attacked, and are forced to wait on a ledge overlooking the river. With only a mule to convey them, and no water, they camp in their stronghold and wait for help.

However, extreme thirst soon takes hold of the soldiers in the heat, and one of the Sepoys either falls off the precipice and down into the river below, or hurls himself over the edge deliberately. The lieutenant then has an idea, and takes their tent and forms a makeshift parachute, deciding to emulate the Sepoy’s action but using the improvised parachute to allow him to land safely.

He throws himself over the edge and down into the river, where the tent does the trick, slowing his fall. He sees that three Chin soldiers have spotted the dead Sepoy and decapitated him, so they can take the head as a trophy. During his fall, the lieutenant lands on one of the Chin men and dashes his brains out. The other two Chins, presumably spooked by the sight of the flying man, flee, leaving the lieutenant to drink his fill from the river before proceeding to the nearby British army camp. Subsequent stories grew up among the Chins about the flying man’s descent, tales which exaggerate the size of his ‘wings’ and state that he had ‘black feathers’.

‘The Flying Man’ ends with the lieutenant telling the Ethnologist that when the British soldiers reached the ridge from which the lieutenant had jumped, they discovered that two more Sepoys had leapt to their deaths over the edge (either in emulation of their lieutenant, or out of despair and extreme thirst). The other men, however, are all right.

‘The Flying Man’ qualifies as a ‘science fiction’ story because of the new method of travel which the lieutenant invents, creating a kind of parachute (if not quite ‘flying machine’) out of a tent and using this device to make his escape from the ledge. But it’s also a story about how legends grow up around what is actually a fairly ordinary piece of technology (if a tent can even be described as ‘technology’ as such).

Indeed, ‘The Flying Man’ is a good example of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous statement that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. The sight of a man falling from such a high precipice and surviving thanks to his contraption is enough to make the more primitive Chin people attribute the incident to some sort of magic or supernatural intervention.

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