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Entry updated 20 November 2023. Tagged: Theme.

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In this encyclopedia the term "airship" is generally used for powered lighter-than-air craft extrapolated from dirigible Balloons and employed as Transportation. However, it seems reasonable also to mention the winged but machine-driven Consolidator featured in Daniel Defoe's The Consolidator (1705), which was soon forgotten, like all Chinese Inventions, being supplanted in Proto SF by balloons; and to include the early, fantastically huge, heavier-than-air flying machines that proliferated in fiction before the Wright Brothers' pioneering heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk in December 1903. Such aerial Inventions' command of the skies so thoroughly defied the (yet to be formulated) science of aerodynamics that some form of Antigravity would seem necessary. Alan Moore's and Kevin O'Neill's Graphic Novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (six issues 1999-2000; graph 2000) ironically makes this point by using a reimagined version of H G Wells's Cavorite to render a typically grandiose nineteenth-century airship capable of flight.

Such heavier-than-air precursors of true airships include the electrically-powered Albatross in Jules Verne's Robur-le-Conquérant (1886; trans Robur the Conqueror; Or, A Trip Round the World in a Flying Machine 1887) and the steam-powered "air-ship" Ariel in George Griffith's The Angel of the Revolution (21 January-14 October 1893 Pearson's Weekly; cut 1893). Griffith's story is a notable instance of eventual Pax Aeronautica based on air power. Somewhere between these examples and plausibly lighter-than-air craft, nodding as it were in both directions with a solid hull constructed of magically near-weightless metal, is the air dreadnaught Attila of E Douglas Fawcett's Hartmann the Anarchist, or The Doom of the Great City (June-September 1893 The English Illustrated Magazine; 1893), in whose Future War scenario London is destroyed from the air.

Airships may be found in many novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, often merely as vehicles for Fantastic Voyages to Lost Worlds and the like, though occasionally as tokens of a Lost Race's advanced Technology. Examples include: Albert Robida's Le vingtième siècle (1882; trans as The Twentieth Century 2004); Joseph Shield Nicholson's anonymously published Thoth: A Romance (1888; exp 1889); Gordon Stables's The Cruise of the Crystal Boat: The Wild, the Weird, the Wonderful (1891); Edward Stratemeyer's Beyond the Edge of the World (written 1891; 2013); Herbert D Ward's A Dash to the Pole: A Tale of Adventure in the Ice-Bound North (1895); Joseph E Badger Jr's The Lost City (1898); Oto Mundo's The Recovered Continent: A Tale of the Chinese Invasion (1898); Stanley Waterloo's Armageddon: A Tale of Love, War, and Invention (1898); Mrs Anna Adolph's Arqtiq: A Study of Marvels at the North Pole (1899 chap); Charles Willing Beale's The Secret of the Earth (1899); E S Curry's The No-Din: Romance, History and Science of Pre-Historic Races of America and Other Lands (1899); Leon Lewis's Andrée at the North Pole: With Details of His Fate (1899); H G Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes: A Story of the Days to Come (1899); Rev T McGrady's Beyond the Black Ocean (1901); J P Armour's Edenindia: A Tale of Adventure (1905); Lancelot Lance's Hortense: A Study of the Future: A Romance (1906); A L Hallen's Angilin: A Venite King (1907); E D Eldridge's A Voyage in the Motive Ship Pelican to the North Pole, Captain Solomon, Commander (1908); Edgar Wallace's The Council of Justice (1908), with a narrowly averted bombing raid on London by a blimp-style airship; Herbert Quick's Virginia of the Air Lanes (April-October 1909 Cosmopolitan; 1909); Allen Kendrick Wright's To the Poles by Airship; Or, Around the World Endways (1909); George Glendon's The Emperor of the Air (1910); Roger Pocock's The Chariot of the Sun: A Fantasy (1910); W Holt-White's Helen of All Time (1910); Richard Bonner's The Boy Inventors' Flying Ship (1913); and Captain F S Brereton's The Great Airship: A Tale of Adventure (1914)

Perhaps the most memorable, durable and distinguished tales of fantastical lighter-than-air craft are Rudyard Kipling's With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D.: (Together With Extracts from the Contemporary Magazine in Which it Appeared) (November 1905 McClure's as With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D.; rev vt 1909 chap) and its sequel "'As Easy as A.B.C': A Tale of 2150 AD" (March-April 1912 The London Magazine), the latter depicting a Pax Aeronautica imposed by the transnational Aerial Board of Control.

During and after World War One, although Fantastic-Voyage treatments did not entirely vanish, airship tales were often coloured by this conflict. During the Great War itself, John Stewart Barney's L.P.M.: The End of the Great War (1915) sees the strife ended from outside by a mighty Antigravity-enhanced zeppelin, Roy Norton's The Flame: A Story of What Might Have Been (1916), has a Ray-armed airship forcing Germany into early surrender, and a Ray Gun brings down a zeppelin in William Le Queux's The Zeppelin Destroyer: Being Some Chapters of Secret History (1916). Relevant post-war stories include: The Brigand of the Air (1920) by T C Bridges writing as Christopher Beck; Marie Corelli's The Secret Power: A Romance of the Present (1921); Charles Ross's The Fly-by-Nights (1921); Ella M Scrymsour's The Perfect World: A Romance of Strange People and Strange Places (fixup 1922); Leslie Beresford's Mr Appleton Awakes (20 April-15 June 1923 Yellow Magazine as "The Awakening of Mr Appleton"; 1924; cut 1932); Harry Collingwood's The Cruise of the "Flying Fish": The Airship-Submarine (1924); Victor MacClure' The Ark of the Covenant: A Romance of the Air and of Science (1924 US; vt Ultimatum: A Romance of the Air 1924 UK), another Pax Aeronautica tale; John Noy's The Vulture (1927); J Leslie Mitchell's Three Go Back (1932; cut and bowdlerized 1953); and Douglas V Duff's The San Matteo (1957).

In Children's SF, the pre-Great War theme of Airship Boys (which see) was rather quickly overtaken by events – that is, by the heavier-than-air flight revolution – and transformed itself in mid-airstream to Airplane Boys (which also see). More recently, the Airship Boys are included among the bygone genres pastiched in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (2005). Mention should also be made of airship appearances in Winsor McCay's much-loved Little Nemo in Slumberland cartoon strips.

Airships, zeppelins and their ilk have more recently become recurrent trappings of Steampunk (which see), if only as background furniture as in William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine (1990). Steampunk itself is strictly a retro genre set in an Alternate-History nineteenth or twentieth century, as influentially prefigured by Michael Moorcock's The Warlord of the Air (1971), whose Sleeper-Awakes protagonist from 1902 finds himself in an alternate 1973 dominated by colonialism (see Imperialism) and airship armadas. Another proto-steampunk work featuring a steam-powered airship is Colin Andrew McLaren's Rattus Rex (1978). Of the many later steampunk works making use of the airship motif, Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan (2009) is unusual in that the eponymous ship is sentient; and steampunk motifs suffuse the portrait of New York, its skies filled with airships, in Shaun Tan's wordless The Arrival (graph 2006).

Airships with a similar nostalgic flavour often appear in other sf contexts, with later instances perhaps reflecting the continuing allure of pure steampunk. Modern revivals or reimaginings of airship Technology occasionally feature in Technothrillers, such as John Brosnan's Skyship (1981) with its giant, nuclear-powered zeppelin; a still less conventional Power Source is posited in Colin Wilson's The Mind Parasites (1967), where a bare, empty hull is driven by its occupants' power of Telekinesis. In Robert A Heinlein's Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984), airship-dominated Transportation is the distinguishing mark of the first of a succession of contemporary Parallel Worlds. Airships more often appear in Post-Holocaust or Far Future settings, such as John Brosnan's Sky Lords trilogy opening with The Sky Lords (1988), which includes mile-long dirigibles; Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines sequence opening with Mortal Engines (2001); and Chris Wooding's Tales of the Ketty Jay sequence opening with Retribution Falls: A Tale of the Ketty Jay (2009). They feature in Alternate History tales, like Howard Waldrop's You Could Go Home Again (1993 chap), in which there was no World War Two and Thomas Wolfe and Fats Waller return by zeppelin from the 1940 Olympics in Japan; or in arguable Alternate Worlds such as the Ruritanian Europe of Jonathan L Howard's Johannes Cabal the Detective (2010). A military airship operates aboard an interstellar World Ship in Gene Wolfe's Caldé of the Long Sun (1994). Airships traverse present-day Parallel Worlds in Ian McDonald's Young Adult Everness saga opening with Planesrunner (2011), and in Terry Pratchett's and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth (2012). Another sidelong approach to the theme is through secret history, as in John Sladek's Wholly Smokes: The Rise and Fall of the GST Tobacco Empire (2003), where the titular US tobacco company's promotion of The Hindenburg Cigar leads – via an episode of extreme smoking-related carelessness – to the German airship's historical destruction by fire in May 1937.

There are several examples of sf Cinema featuring airships. In the early silent-movie era airships would sometimes be the vehicle of choice for pirates, anarchists and foreigners: Walter R Booth made three such films, featuring invaders in The Airship Destroyer (1909), pirates in The Aerial Submarine (1910) and the self-explanatory titular threat of The Aerial Anarchists (1911). Others include the British The Pirates of 1920 (1911) and an Italian film about a female airship pirate, Filibus (1915). Dirigibles get a better press in France's La Police en l'An 2000 (1910; vt Police in the Year 2000), where the constabulary of that era patrols the city in airships; the German The Sky Monster (1913) revolves around a bet on how fast its Zeppelin can cross and recross the Atlantic. Later airship films include the Jules Verne-based The Stolen Airship (1967; original title Ukradená vzducholod) directed by Karel Zeman; The Island at the Top of the World (1974) directed by Robert Stevenson; The Rocketeer (1991; vt The Adventures of the Rocketeer) directed by Joe Johnston; Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) directed by Kerry Conran; and The Three Musketeers (2011), directed in Steampunk mode by Paul W S Anderson.

A related Anthology is All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories (anth 2004) edited by Jay Lake and David Moles. [DRL]

see also: Advertising; Tom Kidd; UFOs.

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