Entry updated 10 August 2018. Tagged: Theme.
In the sf of the late nineteenth century the sky is full of Balloons. Airships – a term which in this encyclopedia embraces all powered lighter-than-air vehicles – serve as forms of advanced Transportation in the Fantastic Voyages of Jules Verne and others, and in visions of progress articulated by authors like Albert Robida; they are also found very frequently in Dime Novel SF, notably in various series like the Frank Reade Library and Luis Senarens's Jack Wright tales. By 1900 in America, however, the crudely amoral and extremely brutal adventures of cartoon imperialists like Frank Reade or Jack Wright were no longer to the taste of publishers and readers, and were soon replaced by comparatively domesticated, conceptually tame, morally affirmative adventure series for boys, usually starring two or three chums. Carrying over the rags to riches model of writers like Horatio Alger (1832-1899), industriously presenting advances in Technology as affirmations of American superiority, and corporatizing the Edisonade model from simpler Dime Novel days – with a surprising number of chums forming companies to market their Inventions – boys' series soon began to dominate the lower end of the children's fiction market; not least through the entrepreneurial acumen of Edward Stratemeyer (see also Stratemeyer Syndicate), creator of the Tom Swift series and many others.
In this context, it would seem that boys' series featuring advanced balloons would proliferate. The obvious (and sufficient) reason for their failure to do so dates from the Wright Brothers' first successful heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk in December 1903, though in fact it took several years for the implications of that event to transform the imagination of writers. The first boys' series to focus on the use of the air, the Airship Boys sequence begun by Harry Lincoln Sayler in 1909, initially stuck to balloon transportation, though partway through the second volume, The Airship Boys Adrift; Or, Saved by an Aeroplane (1909), the chums literally dismantle their crashed airship and construct an aeroplane from its ruins. The rest is history. Though Sayler did not change his series overtitle, the subsequent Airship Boys tales are properly Airplane Boys stories, as are most of its many rivals and successors, though Richard Bonner's Boy Inventors sequence, published 1912-1914, sticks to the airship.
More recently, the growth of Steampunk has seen the creation of a very wide variety of flying and/or floating devices, though their typical elaboratedness signals nostalgia rather than advocacy. Relatively few of these airships are crewed by juvenile chums; the most prominent homage to the Airship Boys subgenre is probably made in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (2005), which features the Chums of Chance and their great airship Inconvenience. [JC]
- Fred Erisman. Boys' Books, Boys' Dreams, and the Mystique of Flight (Fort Worth, Texas: Texas Christian University Press, 2006) [nonfiction: hb/Bill Maize]
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