• Dr. Timothy X. Merritt

Fantasy Airships: Hidden themes in movies, books, and video games

My upcoming novel, the Flight of the St. Paul, prominently features a modern Lockheed-Martin airship nearly 300 feet long with a cargo capacity of twenty tons. She was originally designed as a cargo carrier, but the St. Paul proved to be too small to be economical and was repurposed as a disaster relief vessel.


We know that Fantasy Airships are used to portray the setting of movies, books, and video games. However, did you also know they also represent hidden themes based on a combination of nostalgia coupled with aspiration, and futures that might have been? Regardless of the genre, fantasy airships are imbued with their own personality and the ability to provide the freedom of the skies, and the sense of belonging that only comes from being a part of an exclusive group of adventurers.


Important elements of Airships

Typically, fantasy airships are used to symbolically portray the theme and setting of a fictional world. An iron-clad airship with cannons and machine guns portrays a quite different setting from a delicate vessel made with gossamer sails designed to catch the zephyrs of a distant cloud planet. Fantasy airships need not be particularly functional or practical (in the sense that they are light enough for helium or hydrogen lifting gas). However, they do need to be believable. To this end, various artists offer a wide variety of interesting (if implausible) solutions that usually involve some chemical compound that provide properties of buoyancy that cannot be found in nature.


Airships in Movies

Perhaps more than any vehicles of fiction, airships represent a blend of nostalgia coupled with aspiration. Often, they hearken back to a bygone era (similar to sailing ships) that is perceived as more glamorous, more adventurous, or more grittily courageous than our current era. Unlike spaceships, which represent a future made possible by as-yet un-invented technological innovations, airships subtly represent a future that might have been if only technology, society, and fate had taken a slightly different path.


There is a spectacular airship battle between the Duke of Buckingham’s airship and a much larger vessel piloted by the evil Captain Rochefort, in which the Three Musketeers fight a heroic aerial battle that ends in epic catastrophe. On a much more sedate note, the German Zeppelin LZ-138 made a brief appearance in the movie Indian Jones and the Last Crusade. This type of portrayal is much more frequent in movies. The merest appearance of an airship contains potent symbolic power to convey a time and place with hardly word spoken. However, for true fantasy airship portrayal, nothing beats the Mobile Airstrip featured in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. She is a top-secret flying aircraft carrier that unabashedly violates all the rules of physics in glorious fashion to bring us an awesome platform from which to base further adventures.


Airships in Books

Far more important than the often-dubious mechanical properties, a fantasy airship must have personality. She must serve essentially as another member of the crew. Construction of any airship is necessarily a massive undertaking, she will have a history, she will have her quirks, and she will have a certain way of traveling through the air that is unique to her nature.

It seems I’ve always held a special spot in my heart for airships, but I fell in love with the luxury passenger airship Aurora when the protagonist Matt Cruse went aloft to battle sky pirates, endure a crash landing on a remote island, and discover a new species of flying “cloud cats” in the novel Airborn by Kenneth Oppel.


In contrast the nearly derelict, armored metal airship Ketty Jay from Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding was a love affair of a different sort altogether. The improbable and cantankerous airship is lifted by an imaginary gas “aerium” and propelled by an equally imaginary fuel source “prothane.” But after a few swashbuckling scenes, featuring the charismatic but burnt-out sky pirate Darian Fey, the technical details I normally find so important disappeared into irrelevance. You limp along with her as the rag-tag band of misfits who crew the Ketty Jay engage in gut-wrenching aerial dogfights without the spare parts needed to keep the old bucket of bolts held together.


Yet no airship’s personality comes close to Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan. Technically, she is not a ship at all, but a genetically engineered flying creature (some sort of whale-based DNA). I must confess that the concept of British Darwinists creating a “beast” that encompasses an entire genetic ecosystem makes me cringe a bit. Nevertheless, it represents a truly wild ride of imagination and radical speculation.


Airships in Video Games

In addition to movies and books, fantasy airships make frequent appearance in video games. From Dauntless, to Ascent, to AirBuccaneers, no single video game has captured the spirit, flavor, and possibilities of fantasy airships as Final Fantasy. The Final Fantasy series incorporates airships into the entire series, from the tiny, pixilated cartoon dating back to the NES era, to the mighty Strahl the pirate Balthier uses to fly around the skies of Ivalice. What all these airships have in common is their promise of freedom. By their very nature, airships are creatures of the sky, able to lift the traveler from the bounds of the earth and transport them anywhere their quest requires. The freedom of the skies, always entwined with the vagaries of wind and weather, creates a siren’s call to the adventurer. Sailors fall in love with the sea, Aeronauts fall in love with the sky.


Hidden Theme Revealed

There is one more element of fantasy airship that arises from two inescapable realities of lighter-than-air travel. First, by definition, airship travel is relatively slow. It takes time to cross oceans, mountains, and deserts. This gives the crew time to talk, to plan, to fight and fall in love. The second reality is that in the entire history of human flight, only a very small number of people have ever traveled in this manner. Even if the artist portrays a world where airship flight is widely available, in reality we still know that it is a rare breed indeed that has ever sailed untethered through the endless skies. The combination of abundant time shared within an exclusive group builds a sense of belonging that is both rare and precious. With that treasure in mind, let me be the first to welcome you aboard the St. Paul.

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