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Entry updated 26 February 2024. Tagged: Theme.

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For some six months in 1783 Paris was the Cape Canaveral of the eighteenth century as Parisians watched a succession of extraordinary ascents by hot-air balloons. The first successful manned trip took place on 21 November, as reported by Benjamin Franklin, and it started off a long series of speculations about the conquest of the air, almost certainly the first fictional response being The Aerostatic Spy: Or, Excursions with an Air Balloon by an Aerial Traveller (1785; exp vt The Balloon: Or Aerostatic Spy, a Novel, Containing a Series of Adventures of an Aerial Traveller; Including a Variety of Histories and Characters in Real Life: In Two Volumes 1786) anonymous, featuring a dirigible [for further details see Anonymous]. Thomas Jefferson was certain that balloon Transportation would lead to the discovery of the north pole "which is but one day's journey in a balloon, from where the ice has hitherto stopped adventurers". Franklin was certain that the new balloons would revolutionize warfare; and L S Mercier added a new chapter to the 1786 edition of his L'an deux mille quatre cent quarante (1771; rev 1786; trans as Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred 1772) to show how the "aerostats" were destined to link remote Pekin to Paris in a system of world communications. When the inhabitants of major European cities watched the new balloons drifting above, they thought they saw the beginning of a profound change in human affairs: the assurance of a growing mastery of Nature.

Even before successful manned flights the principles of balloon-flight (something that had been understood since ancient China) were being extrapolated by Proto SF writers: for instance in Die geschwinde Reise auf dem Luft-Schiff nach der Oberen Welt, welche jüngsthin fünf Personen angestellt ["The rapid journey by airship to the upper world, recently taken by five people"] (1744) by Eberhard Christian Kindermann, which details a journey to Mars by balloon. In England the vogue for balloon-related tales was in the 1780s and 1790s, with a great many titles published, often anonymously, with such titles as A Journey Lately Performed Through the Air in an Aerostatic Globe (1784) – in which a character flies by balloon all the way to Uranus ("the lately discovered planet Georgium Sidus" as it was then known) – and A Voyage to the Moon, Strongly Recommended to All Lovers of Real Freedom (1793).

For a brief period there were plays, poems and stories about balloon travel – even a space operetta, Die Luftschiffer; oder, Der Strafplanet der Erde: Ein Komisch-satirisches Original Singspiel In 3 Aufzügen (1787 chap) by Maximilian Blumhofer, which was performed (date unknown) before Catherine II in the Imperial Court Theatre at St Petersburg. Expectations about the future carried over into occasional stories like The Balloon, or Aerostatic Spy (1786), published anon, the first of the round-the-world stories that ran their course up to Jules Verne's Cinq semaines en ballon (1863; trans as Five Weeks in a Balloon 1869), which seemingly inspired Władysław Umiński Balonem do bieguna ["To the Pole with a Balloon"] (1892 Wieczory Rodzinne; 1894). The balloon proved a most useful marker of the future (as the Rocket was to do in a later period), and was used by early sf writers as a convincing way of establishing the more advanced circumstances of their future worlds – as in Edgar Allan Poe's "Mellonta Tauta" (February 1849 Godey's Lady's Book), in whose 2848 CE a balloon pleasure-excursion is commonplace and devoid of any Sense of Wonder ("Are we forever to be doomed to the thousand inconveniences of the balloon? Will nobody contrive a more expeditious mode of progress?"); though a story like Poe's "Hans Phaall – A Tale" (June 1835 The Southern Literary Messenger), despite or because of its elaborately detailed description of balloon Space Flight, was clearly meant to hoax. On the other hand, the jet-propelled balloon featured in Elbert Perce's Gulliver Joi: His Three Voyages; Being an Account of His Marvelous Adventures in Kailoo, Hydrogenia and Ejario (1851) was intended more seriously. Balloons, whether spoofed as the grotesque playthings of "balloonatics" or advocated, were the source of the first visual fantasies of the future: there were engravings of balloon battles, vast transport balloons crossing the Atlantic and airborne troops crossing the Channel. By the 1870s, however, experiments with heavier-than-air flying machines had turned popular attention towards Airships and aircraft of the future – although even in the mid-1880s Henry Frith published "The Balloon of the Future" (May 1885 Cassell's Family Magazine). The future world of H G Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899; rev vt The Sleeper Awakes 1910) features "great fleets of advertisement balloons and kites". In G K Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908) it is a strictly mundane captive balloon, forming a minor attraction at the London Earl's Court Exhibition, which is "liberated" for an aerial escape.

This was, however, not the end of balloons in sf. In variously romanticized forms, they appear in C C MacApp's Prisoners of the Sky (1969); Edmund Cooper's The Cloud Walker (1973), where balloons are reinvented in a Post-Holocaust English setting; Gene Wolfe's "Straw" (January 1975 Galaxy), a brief Alternate History tale based on the notion that man-carrying balloons could plausibly have been invented in medieval times; Ian Watson's The Book of Being (1985); Bob Shaw's The Ragged Astronauts (1986), with balloon travel between twin planets sharing a common atmosphere; Philip Reeve's Far-Future adventure Mortal Engines (2001); and elsewhere. The colony world of Jack Vance's The Anome (February-March 1971 F&SF as "The Faceless Man"; 1973; vt The Faceless Man 1978) has an ingenious system of "balloon-way" continental transport with passenger- and freight-carrying balloons tethered to mobile "dollies" running on tracks. An unusual form of hot-air balloon features in Vernor Vinge's The Peace War (1984), in which a spherical Stasis Field or "bobble" enclosing a large volume of warm daytime air takes flight in the evening cool.

Balloons also became – though to a lesser extent than various forms of retro Airship – recurring props in Steampunk scenarios, as demonstrated in such novels as Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines (2001) and in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories (anth 2004) edited by Jay Lake and David Moles. Alan Moore's and Kevin O'Neill's Graphic Novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (six issues 1999-2000; graph 2000) features a reappearance and new flight of the balloon Victoria from Jules Verne's already-cited Cinq semaines en ballon/Five Weeks in a Balloon, which has somehow been preserved in the vast storage holds of Captain Nemo's Nautilus. The flight of the titular balloon-ship in Avram Davidson's quasi-Ruritanian story "Eszterhazy and the Autogóndola-Invention" (November 1983 Amazing) is assisted by magic, as is the makeshift balloon in Diana Wynne Jones's fantasy The Islands of Chaldea (2014). [IFC/AR/JC/DRL]

see also: Loontown.

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