- Dr. Timothy X. Merritt
Steampunk Airships: Three features that (nearly) define a genre
Not all Steampunk novels feature airships, but enough of them do that it requires a deeper look. These amazing sky machines appear almost nowhere else, yet they continue to capture the hearts and imaginations of generations long after the Golden Age of airships has passed away.
The three features of Steampunk Airships that (nearly) define a genre are: Historical placement in the 19th century, images that evoke mystery and adventure, and they fulfill the promise of escape into the glory of a bygone era that ended with Hindenburg.
Why do Airships Appear so Frequently in Steampunk?
Steampunk is a sub-genre of fiction that features a blend of retro and futuristic technology. It couples a somewhat nostalgic desire to evoke the 19th Century Victorian era sensibilities combined with the freedom of spirit most frequently associated with the early “Wild West” of the American frontier. Airships have become an iconic image of the Steampunk genre; here are the three reasons why:
Real Airships in History
Airships appear so frequently in Steampunk because the Golden Age of airship aviation exactly matches the Late Victorian Era described by the genre. From the earliest dirigible flights through the terrible use of The Zeppelin in Combat during WWI, it is difficult to convey the enduring psychological impact of these bombing raids to a modern audience. It has been described to me this way; imagine spaceships from another planet parked over major cities that rained death down with no discernible pattern. The people can see the ships, but there is no means to stop or prevent the carnage.
After the first Great War, airships held the collective public imagination as architects, engineers, and entrepreneurs witnessed the US Navy's continued development of Airship Technology. It was commonly assumed that as airships would continue to grow from military to commercial applications, they represented the future of air travel.
However, most people understand that the end of the Golden Era of airship aviation arrived suddenly with the horrific crash of the Hindenburg in 1937.
Images of Mystery and Adventure
The second reason airships appear so frequently in Steampunk is because of the incredible possibilities they open up for artistic expression. Steampunk Airships are largely unconstrained from the limitations of physics. Their envelopes do not need to be large enough to contain sufficient lifting gas to enable buoyancy, they can be powered by wildly heavy steam engines, they can be made entirely of metal, and powered by sails (this will not work with a vessel that is also floating in the same air current). Nevertheless, Steampunk Airships capture the imagination in ways few other art forms can match.
They have inspired countless artists to create various versions of the romantic and iconic symbols. But more than the structures and forms of imaginary flying machines, Steampunk Airships serve to set the theme and capture the mood of mystery and adventure that is so crucial for the zeitgeist of the genre.
Escape into a Bygone Era
It is no wonder then that airships appear so frequently in Steampunk Novels. From the cantankerous armored airship “Ketty Jay” that barely manages to hold together as she propels her crew of misfits from one crisis to another in Retribution Falls, to the nearly sentient, bio-engineered airship designed as an entire ecosystem of interrelated systems in Leviathan, Steampunk Airships set the stage for unforgettable adventure.
The versatility of airships also allows authors to capture a vast array of storylines. One example is Captain Josette Dupre, the brilliant pilot of her fragile signal airship, Mistral. She fights epic battles in The Guns Above against overwhelming odds (including culturally entrenched sexism and bumbling bureaucratic incompetence). Contrast this to the young woman named Cass, who is employed as a diver aboard the beautiful airship "Daedalus." She is hired to explore the ruined cities that lie below the deadly fog that turns people into the undead in the Secrets in the Mist. It is the airship, always the airship, which fulfills the promise of escape into a romantic history of what might have been.
Do All Steampunk Novels have Airships?
No, not all Steampunk novels have airships, but a quick review of some of the Most Popular Steampunk books reveals something like half of them feature airships prominently. The number rises even higher when you consider the novels that show just a brief glimpse of an airship for the sake of atmospherics.
Steampunk is undoubtedly more than just airships. However, the three features that airships bring to the genre are so closely aligned as to make them a perfect fit for a vast array of stories and settings that unleash the creativity of the authors as well as the imagination of the readers. We are swept away with the wind currents to new realms that are both quite different, and yet hauntingly familiar.
Are all Novels with Airships considered Steampunk?
You may have deduced by now that my own heart has been forever captured by the majesty and possibilities that airships offer. And yet I don't write in the Steampunk genre. As a futurist, my novel must take place in a future that is both plausible and possible. The technology has to work. My airship crews are based on airline crews and the crews of modern sea-faring commercial cargo ships. My technological choices are limited to existing technology such as the Side Aperture Radar, or some brief modifications of existing technology like my BARCO Dome, which allows airship pilots to see above and behind the ship’s envelop through a system of externally mounted cameras.
Nevertheless, the three elements of airships I love the most are still available to capture and use to design through the process of Science Fiction Worldbuilding. The rich historical aspects of real airships are a treasure trove of information. Some of it is so strange and wonderful that I could never have imagined it on my own.
While the modern airship technology employed by the Lockheed Martin Hybrid Airship has none of the whimsical sails, cannons, or steam engines of its Steampunk contemporaries, the St. Paul is still a beautiful ship in her own right. She has the clean lines and purpose-driven design based on the realities of combining both aerostatic and aerodynamic lift. The image she evokes is of a majestic shit standing ready to sail the skies of all the earth.
Finally, while my own novel does not hearken back to a romantic, but lost, bygone era, I think my use of airships does something even more important. The Flight of the St. I’m Paul offers a glimpse of a new and wonderful possible future, one where mighty airships will once again rule the kingdom of the sky. You see, rather than an escape into a glorious bygone era, I believe in the promise of the next Golden Era of airship flight that still lies in front of us!