Tag Archives: aviation

674. The Voice of a Scholar

This will be short, an excerpt from The Cost of Empire, set in the year 188-, in an alternate universe. It refers in part to what was published in Old Lascar.
Sometimes a writer drops a clue to his personal philosophy into conversations between his characters. Take this as a hint from a guy who could never get enough of learning.

Very little in an ordinary dirigible is asymmetrical, but the King Class had been designed to carry bombs or troops, and only given diplomatic quarters as an afterthought. As a consequence, in making room for the dining hall and the staterooms there had originally been no place for the passengers to gather and watch the view below. A second design had pulled the passageway from the center to the port side, lined the outboard wall with windows, and lined the inboard wall with benches. It had been unpopular while crossing the Arabian Sea, but now interesting scenery was back and so were the lounging passengers.

David had begun to spend his off hours there, answering the passenger’s questions and enjoying the scenery himself.

The fleet of eight had followed the coast down to Mangalore, circled the city without landing, and headed inland following the Netravathi River. Normally, Harry could have jumped the Western Ghats, but with an overload of passengers, cooks, servants, fancy food, and the added mass of the walls and fixtures of the passenger’s quarters, the ship’s altitude capability was considerably reduced.

This morning, Kalinath was seated on one of the benches, with his bodyguard sitting stiffly beside him. There was no place for Singh to stand and it clearly made him nervous. He looked on suspiciously as David approached, put palms together, and said, “Namaskar, Sri Kalinath.”

“Namaskar, Mr. James. Sit.” He gestured to the place beside him, and David took it. “How is it that you know to say namaskar, instead of namaste?”

“You are from Bengal, are you not?”

“I am. Have you been to India before?”

“No. I learned the difference from an old man in London, a displaced lascar.”

“A servant?”

“No, just an old man. He sat every day in the sun on the street near where I was living while they were building the Harry. I talked to him occasionally. He taught me the difference.”

“I don’t know many Englishmen, Mr. James, who talk to old men on the street whom they do not know.”

David shrugged. “I don’t normally, either, but I knew I was going to India and I wanted more than I could read in the newspapers. This old man was clearly a Sikh, and he seemed so calm and — I suppose the word is dignified — that he seemed like someone worth knowing.”

Kalinath only nodded, and chose not to pursue the subject. The river below was brown and slow. The countryside was green and heavy with trees. The air moving through the dirigible was still warm, even at a thousand feet of altitude, and carried a trace of the smell of vegetation. As they talked and the dirigible moved inland, there was a rapid change from coastal plain to foothills and forest gave way to plantation. David asked, and was told that these were crops of tea. Kalinath knew tea, and gave a brief description of its cultivation.

“You see, Mr James, even though I am a son of scholars and a man of the cities, when I knew that I would need to go to England to plead the case for my homeland’s freedom, I had to become an expert on many things. One cannot champion a land he does not know intimately. You understand, I know.”

“Not personally.”

“Come, Mr. James, one scholar knows another when they meet.”

“I’m no scholar, Sri Kalinath.”

“Is there anything about the construction and management of this craft that you do not know?”

“No, but that’s my job.”

“And you asked an old man about India, and the proper form of address.”

David shook his head and said, “I just wanted to know.”

“I just wanted to know,” Kalinath repeated. “That, Sir, is the voice of a scholar.”

661. J. G. Ballard’s Coral D

J. G. Ballard and The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D

New Age, New Wave, New Deal — the names never seem to hold up more than a few years. When the New Wave in science fiction became an old wave, it kept its name. That’s too bad, really, because it makes a genuine change in science fiction seem a little silly. Art Noveau suffers from the same illogic, but since the phrase is French, no one notices.

I was there when the New Wave happened but I won’t try to define the movement. It can’t really be done, although Wikipedia does as good a job as anyone will. It was an exceedingly amorphous movement, full of wonderful writing and unbearable crap — pretty much like most movements.

For me as a reader, long before I became a writer, the New Wave just meant that there were wonderful stories available from Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and J. G. Ballard. And in the weird department, Ballard made Ellison and Zelazny look like insurance salesmen.

I’m going to try to untangle Ballard’s The CloudSculptors of Coral D down a few paragraphs, but first let me tell you a couple of things.

I bought Ballard’s complete short stories when it became available, probably ten years ago, but I hadn’t read a single story from it until recently. I remember his work with awe and wonder, but that doesn’t mean memories of joy. His stories crawl around like worms in my subconscious, so I didn’t read them again, even though I normally re-read everything.

I was thinking about those stories one day in 2017, especially the one called Deep End which is steeped in hopelessness about the human condition. A short story popped out of my head and fell onto paper. Since Ballard inspired it, it is grim. If you are interested in a dip into the black pool, click here.

Then, a few weeks ago, I found myself being challenged by Joachim Boaz. He recently reviewed Thirteen to Centaurus by Ballard. It’s one of Ballard’s works that I had not read, so I decided to do so before I read Boaz’s review.

But before starting that, I decided to re-read something I remembered fondly (but faintly) in order to repair some of the trauma induced by Deep End.


I normally avoid spoilers, but not this time. I could lay out the events of The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D completely, and it would be like a skeleton compared to a man. The plot is nothing. The words are everything.

Here is what happens. Four men come together in a strange landscape, clearly one which remains after a cataclysm. One is a pilot with a broken leg, one is a dwarf, one is an artist, one is a playboy. Together they become purveyors of a transitory performance art. They sculpt statues out of clouds, flying in gliders, and carving with silver iodide.

Every one of these men is a cripple in one sense or another. The pilot with his broken leg, through whose eyes we see events, is the least crippled of them.

Enter Leonora Chanel, heiress, flawed beauty, and murderess. She surrounds herself with portraits of herself, and she is the most crippled of them all. She hires the men to sculpt her face in the sky, but at another location. When they arrive, the main character says to her . . .

Clouds . . . those are tigers, tigers with wings. We are manicurists of the air, not dragon-tamers.

. . . and we immediately know that not all of the sculptors will survive.

I will leave the rest of the how and why unreported in case you read the story. What we have here is a group of damaged men, in a damaged world, under the spell of a powerful la belle dame sans merci. It could be Burma after WWII, or any of a hundred other places, in any of a dozen movies or novels out of the fifties.

What makes it science fiction, and moving, is not the plot but the descriptions. And what makes the descriptions memorable is as much what is left out as what is said.

Vermillion sands. Towers of coral rising up from the shattered bed of a dead sea. Sonic statues which wail eerily at just the right moment. Gliders, “brilliant painted toys, revolving like lazing birds above Coral D”. Leonora’s jeweled eyes, a phrase repeated almost too often before we find out what it actually means. “Memories, caravels without sails, crossing the shadowy deserts of her burnt-out eyes.” The dwarf, “with a child’s overlit eyes”.

It is all clearly an allegory, but Ballard gives us very few clues as to what it is an allegory of. One character says, “We had entered an inflamed landscape,” and that is a good short description of Coral D and of Ballard as a writer.

The people, actions, and motives are as surreal as the landscape. It seems like a cop-out to say this, but Coral D, like most of Ballard, has to be read. It can’t be conveyed. And when you finish reading, you may still feel frustrated and confused.

But you won’t forget it.


Now, from the sublime to the absurd.

When I was ten years old, while other kids were reading Spiderman, I was reading Scrooge McDuck. My hyper-religious parents would not allow non-Disney comic books in the house.

In one episode, Scrooge had another get-rich(er) scheme. He outfitted biplanes with bulldozer blades, flew around herding clouds into cubical shapes over farmers’ fields, and seeded them with silver iodide — all for profit. I don’t remember too much more detail, and I have been unable to find a copy anywhere, but I do remember one picture of the rain falling to the exact middle of a wooden fence, since Scrooge McDuck would not let one drop of his rain fall on a field which had not been paid for.

You would have a hard time finding two works more superficially similar and essentially different than McDuck and Coral D. It boggles the mind. Did Ballard read McDuck in his youth and get a picture lodged in his subconscious? Or was Carl Barks, who wrote and drew Scrooge McDuck, secretly a fan of weird science fiction?

Either alternative is too strange to contemplate.

593. Flying the Good War

A note before we begin. The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 10 liftoff is Saturday, but my post on that event will wait for the anniversary of the descent, next Wednesday.

For Americans, WWII was The Good War. For many of us, it was the last war we could be proud of. It is also the last war we won. There has to be a connection in that somewhere.

My father came home from the war, found a wife and had a son, all in a year. I grew up in the shadow of the war he had just fought. The idea of being a pacifist, or even questioning going into the military never came up for me until much later when America found itself in Viet Nam.

In 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary, my cousin and I played refugees escaping to America. In 1962, when the first theatrical movie played on TV, it was The Enemy Below. Our whole family watched together as an American destroyer played a game of wits with a German U-boat. After that, I wanted to join the Navy.

(I did, eventually, but that was an entirely different set of circumstances, and a whole different story.)

That’s how it starts for a boy, and reading can be a big part of the story. A lot of space adventure juveniles are really stories about space navy or space marines. The Bullard and Rip Foster books mentioned about a month ago (post 582) are examples, but they are much toned down compared to the juveniles about WW II, written while we were actually fighting.

God is my Co-pilot wasn’t a juvenile, but it is still that kind of book. During the days just before America entered WWII, Robert Scott was a volunteer pilot fighting the Japanese on behalf of the Chinese. Millennials will have to do a mental reset on that issue; Japan was an industrial powerhouse then, China was a backward country of peasants, and the Japanese attacks were brutal. America’s sentiments were with the Chinese.

Robert Scott wrote his memoir in 1943 and thousands of American kids read it from that time forward. I was one of them. When he shot Japanese planes out of the sky, I cheered him on. But he also strafed soldiers on the ground. That was a little tougher to read about, but they were the enemy, after all. He nicknamed his plane “Old Exterminator” . It was quite a bit different from fifties TV where the cowboy always shot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand.

Even though Scott’s tone was dispassionate, hating the enemy came through clearly. That was also true of R. Sidney Bowen, who wrote the Dave Dawson series, but there was nothing dispassionate about his way of putting things. For example:

The dark of night had come again to war besieged England, and from the northern most tip of Scotland clear south to the Isle of Wight British eyes and ears were on the alert for any and all surprise moves by Hitler’s devilish hordes on the other side of the English Channel and the North Sea. . . . At Lands End Base, however, there were two who were not waiting for “Satan,” with his trick mustache and ever drooping lock of greasy hair, to make the next move.

The Nazi was almost screaming by the time he finally came to a pause. Dave, looking at his flushed face, spittle drooling mouth, and popping eyes, knew that he was not looking at just one man but at a living symbol of the whole rotten to the core Nazi breed. Just as Air Marshal Manners had said, “Clever, cunning, and a genius at his work, but a black hearted, ruthless murderer.”                         both quotations from Dave Dawson on Convoy Patrol

Like Scott, Bowen had been a military pilot. He started out driving an ambulance during WW I. He later lost that job because he was underaged, returned to the US, and when he turned seventeen, volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps. He saw limited service as WW I wound down. He then joined the US Army Air Service.

He became a journalist, and later became editor-in-chief of Aviation Magazine. When WW II broke out in Europe, he began the Dave Dawson War Adventure series which produced fifteen volumes during the war. They were still available in one local library when I discovered them fifteen years later.

They weren’t literature. They were really pretty awful. They did have something going for them besides slam-bang action and hyper-patriotism, and that was all the airplanes. Dave and his buddy Freddy were constantly flying different Allied planes, forever getting shot down or parachuting behind enemy lines for reasons of espionage, and always escaping in a captured Nazi or Japanese plane. Over the course of fifteen volumes, they must have flown sixty types of planes.

Whatever Bowen lacked, he knew his planes.

Dave Dawson began as an American volunteer in the RAF, just as Bowen had done one war earlier. When America entered the war, Dave and Freddy bounced back and forth between flying for Britain and flying for America. Eventually, they fought in every theatre, taking young Allied readers with them.

They hated Nazis and they hated Japs (Bowen’s word), but they were never cruel. They would never have strafed troops on the ground, as the real Robert Scott did regularly. In Dave Dawson with the Pacific Fleet, two spies were escaping from the boys’ aircraft carrier, carrying vital information to the Japanese. Dave and Freddy shot down their plane, but the spies parachuted. Dave and Freddy agonized about the situation; the information the spies were carrying could cost American ships and lives, but in the end they could not bring themselves to machine gun the spies as they floated down.

Robert Scott would not have hesitated a heartbeat.

Dave and Freddy couldn’t keep the spies from reaching a pair of Japanese cruisers, but they did manage to singlehandedly sink both ships, killing thousands of Japanese with a clear conscience. (If you think you detect my tongue jammed securely into the corner of my cheek, you are quite right.)

I admit to liking the excitement, the danger, and the mystery of those books, but for me it was mostly about the planes. Before the space race started with Sputnik, I was already in love with hot planes, and there are no hotter planes than military ones. I put those sentiments into the mouth of Snap in Like Clockwork, when he said to Pakrat:

“Weapons of war are the most beautiful machines men build. I don’t know why it is so, but it is.”

The Dave Dawson books are available in an e-book megapack, which I bought while doing this post. I don’t recommend them, but one reviewer said, “I appreciate that they are clean books, but with enough adventure for a boy.”

Okay, maybe. If John Wayne shooting a few hundred Indians to save the fort was good clean fun, so was Dave Dawson.

When I was a kid, I used to watch those cowboys-and-Indians shoot-em-ups, but I can’t do that any more. I can still ignore the Dave Dawson book’s failings under the excuse of nostalgia, and read one once in a while when it’s late at night and I’m too tired to think. I’m sure it’s the planes that make the difference.

I don’t see books like these any more, but today’s youth don’t need them to get a military fix. They have video games. (There’s that tongue in cheek again.)

588. How Quickly Do You Write?

How long does it take to write a novel, a short story, or a poem?

Those who visit this site and register a like usually have websites of their own which I visit, so I know that many of you write. Many more of you would like to, or are just starting to. “How long does it take?” may not mean much to a poet, but anyone writing a novel has to wonder if she/he has a reasonable prospect of completing it.

I had that question myself when I started. I wondered if I could sit down and write every day until I had produced a novel. It seemed more likely that the well would run dry and I would end up going on to something else, but there was no way to know except by trying.

I began the day after Labor Day, 1975, and wrote five days a week. By Christmas, I had a novel. It was short, simple, and unsalable, but it was finished. I loved the process and I was hooked.

I started my second novel, Jandrax, the first of the next year, and had it finished by summer. That needs a little explanation. It was in the mid-seventies and the typical paperback novel ran about 50,000 words. Today a typical novel is, at minimum, twice that.

Novels in the seventies were often extremely fast paced. These days they are (to my taste) glacial. Comparing Gordon Dickson’s early novel Dorsai! to his late novel The Final Encyclopedia will show you what I mean.

Jandrax could have used more smooth transitions between scenes and less twitching speed. About another seven thousand words and another two or three weeks of attention would have helped. Still, it fit into its era and was published by Del Rey, but I would slow the pace if I were writing it today. A bit. Not much.

During 2017 I wrote a novel of about 90,000 words called The Cost of Empire. The rough draft took about four months and it went out looking for a home at the end of six. That is about twice the pace of my first published novel, which makes sense after all these years of experience.

Next I wrote Like Clockwork, a much more complicated novel. I worked from January to July of 2018; then I broke off and rewrote what I had as a novella for a sales opportunity that had come up. That didn’t pan out, so I went back to the original concept in October. I lost most of December and January to another project, then finished the novel at the end of February. Call it ten months of writing, spread out over fourteen months altogether.

Ten months vs. six seems about right for a complex vs. a straightforward novel at this stage of my life. The longest I ever took from concept to publication was just short of forty years, but that was a special case.

I write, rewrite, and polish — then polish again. Most authors with a long list of novels don’t do that. Louis L’amour clearly did little if any revising. His books are full of inconsistencies that he or an editor should have caught, but that didn’t keep him from being spectacularly successful. He wrote 89 novels in 38 years.

During World War II, Robert Sidney Bowen wrote about twenty air war novels for boys in five years. He said he could complete a novel in ten days and he never revised. No problem — considering their style and quality, revision probably would not have helped.

Lester Dent reportedly once wrote an entire Doc Savage novel over a weekend, although that amounted to taking two shorter works he had already written and blending them together.

I think we all want to write a bestseller in record time in a frenzy of inspiration. That dream probably won’t come true for any of us, but I know of at least once that it happened.

Colonel Robert Scott, WW II war hero, was recalled by the Pentagon for a tour America to stir up feelings of patriotism with his personal story of shooting down flocks of Japanese planes.

Near the end of that tour, Colonel Scott was asked by the Scribner (sic) publishing house to relate his experiences in a book. But he had only three days to do so before he had to report to Luke Field in Arizona as its new commander, so he simply spoke his recollections — 90,000 words — onto wax cylinder recording devices.*

Three days! God Is My Co-pilot became a best seller.

*The quotation is from his obituary in the New York Times.

419. Airship Flamel

As I mentioned previously, I found To Rule the Skies: An Airship Flamel Adventure when its author, Michael Tierney, liked one of my posts and I went to visit his website. I bought it as an eBook, which is an adventure in itself. I read eBooks on my desktop Mac. Things that come through iBooks work fine, but the Kindle download is a piece of crap. As you read, it jumps to a new page every few seconds without any input from the user. The only way to successfully read is with your finger lightly on the mouse, and that only works part of the time. This is particularly irritating since the old Kindle download worked fine.

Let me say at the outset that I loved this book. It was a hoot. However, I’m not sure how many of you will feel the same. It probably depends on your vision of what steampunk should be.

To Rule the Skies reminded me of the books I read when I was a kid back in the fifties. Then books were straightforward, violence was muted, and nobody had any literary pretensions. Irony was unknown.

You couldn’t write a book like that if it were set in today’s world, or in the past as seen from today. You can do it in steampunk. As Perschon said of Oppel’s Airborne, it was a time “before the cynicism and doubt the Great War produced. This is the Gilded Age; this is the time of Victorian Optimism.”

That attitude may not be realistic, but it is a breath of fresh air.

The plot resembled an episode of The Wild Wild West, but the crew of the airship Flamel was pure Victorian British. Stiff, long winded, formal, but that was its charm. The tone was somewhere between innocent naiveté and tongue in cheek.

After all, True Grit isn’t Louis L’Amour, and that is its charm. The same thing works here.

I think its time for an example.

Sparks flew at every connection and disconnection. Montgomery was worried that the chamber was imbalanced and he made ready to pull the switch that would break the connection to the umbilical.  “She canna take it any more!” he cried, and just as he did, the shaking stopped suddenly, and the plasma inside the chamber settled down to a slowly pulsing orange glow.  He spun in his chair and checked the gauges.  “All normal, Mr. MacIver!  The luminous matter reaction has started!”  Montgomery slumped in his chair relieved.

MacIver? Say that one out loud. And engineer Montgomery shouting, “She canna take it any more!” as he performs a miraculous repair on a dying piece of high tech machinery. The pop culture references come thick and fast.

I hope Michael Tierney isn’t insulted if I say it isn’t literature, but, man, is it fun.

418. India by Dirigible

Today the British dirigible Henry V, nicknamed Harry, reached western India, then traveled south from Goa — still in Portuguese hands in 1887 in our world and theirs — to Mangalore (now called Mangaluru) where they will follow the Netravathi River in their crossing of the Western Ghats.

God, I love writing novels

This morning, so far (I’m writing this on Sept. 29), I have four views of various posts. Three are from the USA and one is from India. That is no surprise. As I reported in a previous post, India is the third most common country of origin for those who view my blog, after the USA and Canada. I don’t understand why, but I like it a lot. I have had a strong connection with India since 1967.

(This is in textual parentheses because it is a parenthetical event. I took a brief break to watch Well Read on my local PBS and found a rerun of an interview by Indian author Anuradha Roy. It was both another connection, and a caution that what I know about India is small compared to a writer who is a native.)

During my first year in college, I switched to Anthropology because Biology was going through a phase where, if a study didn’t require an electron microscope, it wasn’t worth doing. I was there to study ecology, and couldn’t see spending my life wearing a white coat in an air conditioned lab. Anthropology seemed a better bet, and I soon became enthralled with India. I even ended up taking a year of Hindi, but a language you don’t speak, goes away. I could still tell you how to get to the Ajmiri hotel, and that’s about it.

When I  was about to graduate from college, my wife and I volunteered for the Peace Corps and were assigned to a project in Mysore, the Indian state which is now called Karnataka. Between my draft number and Nixon’s cancellation of the Peace Corps deferment, we never got to go. Instead, I spent the next four years in the Navy, and then returned to college for an MA where my thesis was on Indian village economics.

Then I became a writer, and I never got to India.

India, however, always remained a part of my writing. In A Fond Farewell to Dying, a young scientist from post-apocalyptic America goes to India which, two hundred years from now, is the only refuge of civilization. In the steamunk novel I am now writing (still in search of a good title) Lieutenant Commander James of the dirigible Henry V is caught up in a conflict between Britain at her peak and her Indian possessions which are beginning their long fight for freedom.

Incidentally, at the other end of the Netravathi River which was mentioned in the first paragraph, is Mysore, the region I was assigned to almost fifty years ago. I never made it in the flesh, but I’m looking forward to going there by dirigible.

God, I love writing novels

409. Man Stuff

I wrote this last Thursday. The post, not the quotation.

          Marquart and Dael took a bench in a completed corner. “Tell me how you have things arranged,” he said.
          “None of the wardens will leave their houses until late in the morning. The first will arrive here about midday. We will have roast krytes ready by then . . .” Marquart waved away her recitation. He didn’t care about preparations for food and drink; he was satisfied that there would be plenty of both.
          “Who will sleep where? Who will arrive first, who will stay latest, who will want to get me alone to talk to, who will get drunk quickest, who is likely to pick a fight, and with whom?”
          “Oh, man stuff.”
                                          from Valley of the Menhir

Today, I was writing chapter eleven of my latest steampunk novel. So far my hero (I don’t do wimpy protagonists) has served aboard four dirigibles and has risen in rank from Sub Lieutenant to Lieutenant Commander, brevet, in the British air service. These craft are the result of an unscrupulous Brit who, through theft, intimidation, and assassination has crippled the German airship effort and stolen all their ideas.

Earlier this morning (as I wrote) Lieutenant Commander David James and I settled thirty passengers into their berths on the Henry V, a dirigible of war acting as a passenger vessel carrying diplomats the the Grand Durbar in Delhi. If you don’t know what a durbar is, you’ll find out in coming months. David hated every minute of it.

Then we got a break of several hours as he got to go back to his real job as the lowest member of the group of senior officers, seeing to details as the dirigible, nicknamed Harry in reference to Shakespeare, leaves London for Paris. We have been following David’s career for eleven chapters now, and he has done a little bit of everything as he worked his way up. He will do even more in the future, and we will (metaphorically) stand at his shoulder and give him our moral support.

Man stuff.

The year is 1887, Victoria is on the throne, and our Britain is even stronger than the real one was since they just won the German War, largely through a squad of spies and assassins that remains Britain’s guilty secret. David is one of the few Brits who knows this.

Now its time for me to take David by the shoulders and march him down to the lounge to preside, as a stand-in for the massively scarred Commander VanHoek, over the first evening meal of the cruise. He hates the idea. Actually, so do I. In writing, as in life, sometimes if you want to go to a certain place, the path to get there passes through places you would rather avoid.

I’ve been researching Victorian aristocratic gossip in order to build a world like yet unlike our own. It’s not my cup of Earl Grey, but it is the job I’ve taken on, and I will do it well. Well enough, in fact, to move my readers through the event without arousing their distaste. That’s the writer’s equivalent of “never let them see you sweat”.

Still, I’ll be glad when the dinner is over so David and I can get back down to the engineroom where we can try to get another horsepower out of those damned, recalcitrant McFarland engines.

Man stuff.

403. Steampunk Dirigibles

Warning: this post gets nerdy.

If it has dirigibles, it’s steampunk. No, that doesn’t quite work.

If it doesn’t have dirigibles, it isn’t steampunk. No, that doesn’t work, either.

If it is steampunk, then chances are, there’s a dirigible in it somewhere. OK, now there’s a pronouncement I feel comfortable with. Even Brisco County, Jr. had a dirigible eventually.

The variety of airships (a more generic term) in steampunk is huge, especially if you look at the vast number of illustrations on line. The Aurora in Oppel’s Airborn is entirely realistic. The Predator in Butcher’s Aeronaut’s Windlass if essentially an air-floating wooden sailing ship. Some are essentially floating cities. Some run on diesels. Some run on magic, or crystal power.

Back here on Earth, everybody knows at least one dirigible, the Hindenburg, just like everybody knows at least one steam ship, the Titanic, and for essentially the same reasons. Beyond that, real knowledge of actual airships is spotty.

It might be helpful, before embracing the infinite variety of steampunk airships, to have a go at definitions for those which actually existed.

First up, why dirigible instead of Zeppelin? Answer: for the same reason that we use the word automobile instead of calling all automobiles, Fords. Ferdinand von Zeppelin meant more to the development of dirigibles than Henry Ford did to the development of autos, so if you want to say Zeppelin instead of dirigible, I won’t argue with you. After all, I used to say, “Gimme a Coke,” when I really wanted a Pepsi.

However, in the world of my upcoming steampunk novel, you wouldn’t dare say Zeppelin. It would be unpatriotic. A Brit with more ambition than morals stole Zeppelin’s plans, sabotaged his work, and built a British fleet of airships before the German war, while Zeppelin’s war efforts came to nothing. The result was a sweeping British victory, an overwhelmingly powerful Britain, and a very interesting world to write about. But no one calls dirigibles Zeppelins.

In our (real) world, airships are often divided into three classes, blimps, semi-rigids, and dirigibles. Blimps are bags of lifting gas which hold their shape entirely due to internal pressure. Pull the plug, and they collapse. Semi-rigids have a keel structure which helps to keep them from distorting due to localized weights, such as engines, but they still don’t have a solid skin. Dirigibles have a skeleton and a skin, and individual gas bags for the lifting gas. Dirigibles are sometimes called rigids; that is the most accurate term, but it is rarely used.

You will find this three part division in dozens of books on airships, and it fits pretty well. But the word dirigible was used far earlier, and at that time it meant “capable of self-movement and control”. There were dirigible torpedoes in the water, long before Zeppelin put dirigible airships into the air.

Which drags us back to another recycling of an old word — torpedo. During the American Civil War there were two types of torpedoes, stationary and spar. A stationary torpedo was a mine. When Admiral Farragut sailed into Mobile Bay, shouting, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” that would translate into modern English as, “Damn the mines, full speed ahead.” A spar torpedo, on the other hand, was an explosive device attached to a long wooden pole and rammed into an enemy ship by a steam boat, often sinking both. Neither kind of torpedo had self propulsion or self steering.

Torpedoes with that capability were initially called dirigible torpedoes. The adjective dirigible was later dropped. E. E. Smith, in Triplanetary, recycled that old term for use in galactic warfare:

In furious haste the Secret Service men had been altering the controls of the radio-dirigible torpedoes, so that they would respond to ultra-wave control; and, few in number though they were, each was highly effective.

The original hot air balloons were (and still are) unable to steer or move on their own. The quest for dirigibilty (controlled self- movement) led to blimps, semi-rigids, and “dirigibles”.

So, there is plenty of confusion even before we get to the use of airships in steampunk. Call them dirigibles, if you want. Call them Zeppelins, if you want. I don’t see how anyone has a right to complain about your choice.

358. X-37b

This picks up where 343. Black Shuttles leaves off.

The Air Force has wanted space for a long time, since it’s beginning actually. NASA took its MISS program and turned it into Mercury. The Air Force wanted the Dyna-soar, but Gemini beat them out in a fight for appropriations. The Air Force coopted Gemini for a manned reconnaissance station, but unmanned satellites did the job sooner and cheaper. There were rumors that Skylab was largely an Air Force observation post disguised as a science station. Possibly true, but it seems doubtful. Finally they got the Space Shuttle, at least part time, but civilian cautions after the Challenger disaster threw off the Air Force schedule and they fell back on their own resources.

Luke Skywalker got to fly a spaceplane and blow up the Deathstar. The Air Force never did. Okay, maybe the Aurora will change that, if it exists.

(What the heck is Aurora? It is either a follow on to the SR-71 or a myth. Conspiracy theorists believe in it, and the rest of us aviation and space crazies want to. I’ll do a post on it some day.)

What the Air Force ended up with was a highly capable unmanned vehicle called the X-37b. So far it has only flown four missions, but they are all long duration. The latest ended early this month, May 7th, when the craft landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a mission of 718 days.

What can I tell you about the mission? That is a lot like the Aurora. Except for the fact that X-37b does exist, and the Aurora may not (probably doesn’t) exist, everything else is classified.

I gave you a link in Black Shuttles for more information, and warned you that it would be frustrating because of the secrecy involved. I have no such link for X-37b. Google it and chase down the conspiracy sites if you want entertainment. If you want facts, join DARPA. Then maybe you can find out which building houses the facts, but they still won’t tell you about them.

I can tell you a bit about the craft itself. It looks like a miniature space shuttle, about 29 feet long, about 10 feet tall, with a 15 foot wingspan. It is launched inside a streamlined shroud on top of an Atlas 5 missile. It has a payload bay about equivalent to a medium pickup bed.

The program started in 1999 and is closely linked to the X-40, which ultimately became a drop-model test bed for data needed to build the X-37b. NASA transferred the project to the military in 2004 and it disappeared into the black world.

X-37b is a scaled up version of the X-40, so early versions had to undergo additional drop tests, this time using a Scaled Composites White Knight (mother ship for the SpaceShipOne program).

To date, there have been four missions, all launched from Cape Canaveral. The first three landed at Vandenberg. The fourth mission landed on the old Space Shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center.

The future of manned space fighters does not look promising. Most of the new X craft (X-40 through X-57, so far) are unpiloted, but that is simply a cost issue. However, the X-45/46 and X-47 are pilot programs (yes, pun intended) for unpiloted operational fighter jets.

Would-be Luke Skywalkers need not apply. Sorry.

357. Mike Mars and Project Quicksilver

If you Google Mike Mars, you’ll get Mick Mars, lead guitarist for Mötley Crüe. In fact, if that is how you got here, sorry about that. The only connection, besides spelling similarity, is that Mick Mars is of the right age to have read Mike Mars when he was a kid.

Our Mike Mars is a fictional astronaut from a fictional project called Quicksilver. The series was written by Donald A. Wollheim.

The eight Mike Mars books were unique in science fiction. They were so tied to the moment that they became outmoded on publication. They were both strikingly accurate and completely false. They were less of an alternative reality than a conspiracy theory version of the early 60s.

Here’s the setup. Project Mercury has selected seven astronauts, who will conquer space for America – ostensibly. They are all military test pilots of great experience. At the same time, a second, secret space program is being formed to duplicate their work, using hot young (read: expendable) pilots just out of fighter training, but no one will know of their flights. And they will do their thing just a hair sooner than the old guys. The project is called Quicksilver.

I look at that paragraph today with awe at how dumb the notion was. When I found Mike Mars, Astronaut on the shelf at the hobby store where I bought my books, I flipped at how cool it all was. It was 1961; I was 13 years old.

Thirteen is the golden age of science fiction. (I didn’t make that up; it’s a well known cliché.) Thirteen is also the age when you like things you wouldn’t even look at a few years later.

Mike Mars is the nickname of Michael Alfred Robert Samson, one of the young pilots chosen to participate in Project Quicksilver. The first novel takes him through selection and early training until he is chosen as one of the young astronauts. It also includes a murderous saboteur and makes the reader aware that one of the seven, Rod Harger, is a traitor. After all, this is a book for boys, designed to sit on the shelf beside the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Jr.. Just being an astronaut isn’t exciting enough to give a climax every fifth page.

In Mike Mars Flies the X-15, the seven Quicksilver astronauts get glide flights in the X-15, and one of them will get to make a powered flight into space. (Guess who gets the powered flight.) We become more aware that six of the young astronauts are patriotic team players, but Rod Harger is in it for the power and the fame, and his father has thugs at the ready to tip the scales his way. This sets the pattern for the books — about half an accurate portrayal of training and flights and about half Hardy Boys style chasing crooks through empty hangers.

In Mike Mars at Cape Canaveral, Mike rides a Redstone rocket in a sub-orbital flight, after spending half the book fighting off more saboteurs.

In 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in orbit, followed shortly by John Glenn. The Russian’s had won — except that those of us reading the Mike Mars series knew that Mike beat both of them in Mike Mars in Orbit. But, of course, he could never tell.

(True believers like me knew that Rick Brant had beaten all of them into space, back in 1958 aboard the Pegasus in The Scarlet Lake Mystery, but that was an accident and, of course, he could never tell either.)

In Mike Mars Flies the Dyna-Soar (see 342. Dyna-soar) Wollheim finally ran out of reality. The first four books had involved real hardware, but the real-life Dyna-soar was never finished. Space kids all over America forgave him however, as we flew with Mike to rescue a fellow astronaut in the coolest spacecraft that was never built.

There were three additional books, Mike Mars, South Pole Spaceman, Mike Mars and the Mystery Satellite, and Mike Mars Around the Moon. They never came to my hobby shop bookshelf, so I never saw them. It would be pointless to seek them out now. Within five years, alternative versions of early space travel had gone from unthinkable to not worth thinking about. NASA and the Russians made the conquest of space real, and I had grown beyond kiddy books.

But God the ride was fun while it lasted.


Meanwhile, back in the real world, the secret military space drone, X-37b, recently landed at Kennedy Space Center after it’s longest flight to date. We will see how the Air Force is still trying for a Mike Mars reality in tomorrow’s post.