There are lots of technologies out there that sound wonderful on paper but never make it commercially. They work: but don’t get adopted widely. One of them is airships or dirigibles, as they were once known.
But one place where they still do fly is in steampunk literature, a science-fiction genre, set in the past. “A Nomad of the Time Streams” is a magnificent trilogy by Michael Moorcock in which a British army officer named Oswald Bastable is forever lost in time, getting shunted from one version of 20th-century Western history to another.
“The Warlord of the Air,” the first volume of the series, is packed from stem to stern, with stately, behemoth airships.
When he’s flung into the future from his own time, 1902—the year Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, New York, opened its doors—into 1973 A.D., he’s rescued by a silver, cigar-shaped balloon, of the Royal Indian Air Service, the British colonial equivalent of an N.Y.P.D. rescue chopper.
He’s told that it’s an airship, a lighter-than-air flying machine.
Based on how they maintain their cylindrical shape, these crafts come in three models. The “non-rigid,” often called “blimps,” rely of the pressure of the rising gas within it; the “semi-rigid” vessels use a combination of ballonets and a keel; the rigid airship, usually called a Zeppelin, is supported by a few gasbags and a solid skeleton.
Their virtue is lies in their simplicity. All they have is an “envelope”—the outer cloak, usually made of a rubber-coated fabric—and a “gondola,” the crew car beneath it, which serves as both a cockpit and a cabin.
While reading these books, I couldn’t help observing the plethora of nautical jargon used in describing the myriad airships and their maneuverings.
Bastable flies from Kathmandu to London in the Loch Etive, which he praises as “one of the most famous aerial passenger liners.” At 1,000 feet, it’s longer than the Titanic and nearly four times as long as the 240-foot Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger plane.
She had “eight diesel engines, mounted four a side, with reversible propellers. Her helium capacity was 12,000,000 cubic feet, contained in 24 separate bags inside the hull.”
Her frame was made of Duralloy—a steel alloy also encountered in the “Star Wars” universe—and “she could carry a maximum of 400 passengers and fifty tons of cargo. She could cruise easily at 100 m.p.h. and her top speed was 150 m.p.h. in good weather.”
He makes the journey from Kolkata, India, to London, in 72 hours, which is somewhere faster than a ship, but much slower than an aircraft. Like the (now-retired) QE2, it had, on board, for the entertainment of the passengers, ballrooms, phonographs, restaurants, movie theaters.
Airships don’t have landing gear. Upon arriving at their destination, they were “moored” to a “mast”—a pyramidal structure of steel girders—by a clutch of heavy cables. About a dozen men were needed for this job.
Of the Loch Etive, Bastable recounts:
“We were moored at Berkeley Airpark, taking on cargo and passengers. Because of a delay in finding mast-space, we were a bit behind schedule and hurrying to make up the time as fast as we could.”
“The liner was secured by about fifty thick steel cables, keeping her perfectly steady at her mast.”
“All about me were moored ships of American Imperial Airways, the Versailles Line, Royal Austro-Prussian Aerial Navigation Company, Imperial Russian Airship Company, Air Japan, Royal Italian Air Lines and many smaller lines.”
Travelers climbed down a gangplank.
Aside: The tallest mooring mast ever built was the spire of the Empire State Building, but no airship docked at the skyscraper.
Bastable doesn’t disembark at Heathrow or Gatwick, but at the Croydon Airpark, in Surrey. A vast aeronautical carnival playground, of sorts, with a circumference of nearly 12 miles, “crowded … with scores of airships, both large and small, commercial and military, old and new, it could hardly be placed in the middle of Piccadilly, could it, now?
Other transports that bring a squeal of delight are steam-powered vans and electrical broughams. Petrol is considered primitive and inefficient for these roadways.
The second volume, “The Land Leviathan,” has more variety, featuring crafts that can move over land, on water, underwater, even underground. 19th century armor-plated warships called “ironclads” lock horns on grey billows and exchange tumultuous gunfire and torpedoes.
But I found nothing more curious than the “metal mole,” a spherical transport that moves laterally, under the soil, by burrowing a trench.
Its pièce de résistance, however, is a terrifying weapon of mass destruction of epic proportions called the “Land Leviathan.” Used by Cicero Hood, an African military monarch to conquer America, it’s regarded an invention “too terrible” to have been put into production.
“It was a ziggurat of steel. Tier upon tier, it rose, utterly dwarfing the assembled machines which had already landed. From each tier there jutted guns which put to shame anything we had had on the Dingiswayo.”
“On the top-most turret (the smallest on this metal pyramid) were mounted four long-snouted guns, on the second turret down, there were six such guns, on the third there were twelve, on the fourth there were eighteen.”
“On the fifth tier could be seen banks of smaller guns, perhaps a third of the size of the others, for use in close-range fire. There were about thirty of these.”
“On the sixth tier down were some fifty similar guns, while in the seventh and bottom-most tier were upwards of a hundred of the most modern steam-gatlings, each capable of firing 150 rounds a minutes.”
“There were also slits in the armor plating all the way up, for riflemen. There were grilled observation ports in every tier, and each turret was capable of swiveling independently of the others, just as each gun was capable of a wide range of movement in the turret.”
“The whole thing was mounted on massive wheels, the smallest of these wheels being at least four times the height of a man, mounted (I learned later) on separate chassis in groups of ten, which meant that the vast machine could move forwards, backwards, or sideways, whenever it wished. Moreover, the size of the wheels and the weight they carried could crush almost any obstacle.”
“This was truly a symbol of the Final War, of Armageddon!”
In my travels through these pages, I’d come to look forward to a certain “mystery weapon” that the writer would unveil in each volume.
The last title, “The Steel Tsar,” reveals a “gigantic human figure made of steel and dressed in the regalia of a Cossack hetman.” The Robocop-like creation would embody the spirit of the human after which it was fashioned and lead men to battle.
This review was kindly provided to Stranger Views by writer and journalist Alakananda Mookerjee. As well as book reviews Alakananda also writes extensively on science and space. We’ve visited her website (Cold Clips) and find it one of the more interesting places on the web, with articles such as ‘Tomorrow’s Spacecraft Will Fly On “Coffee Can” Engines’. You can also find Alakananda on Twitter.
This is the second article Alakananda has provided for Stranger Views, the first being her excellent look at Rendezvous with Rama.