Airships are a mainstay of parallel universe stories – it’s Rule 1: at least one parallel universe has to have airships. Hands up here: I do; in fact my Everness series is named after Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth’s airship, and the ship (augmented by the multiverse-hopping Infundibulum) is your basic Go-Anywhere Machine. It was the image that birthed the story: an airship that can jump between parallel universes.
Why do we love airships so? What is it that is so emotionally and aesthetically satisfying about them? They are uncanny, hanging there in the sky. They are big and substantial – yet they are mostly made of illusion: bags of empty space and thin bones, wrapped in a skin. They are gloriously improbable and impossible to ignore. They are landscapes, they are skyscapes: tame clouds. They make emotional sense, huge yet vulnerable, dignified yet self-aware of their unlikeliness. They don’t fly, they float. This is important: they are not aeroplanes. They are ships. And ships have a completely different emotional vocabulary. Ships need crews. Ships have space; ships have parts and locations: bridges, holds, companionways, cabins, hatches and hulls and engines rooms. Ships have room enough to walk around. Ships have dalliances and intrigues, affairs and rivalries and family. Ships are sociable things: enclosed, self-contained communities.
It’s the difference between the Tardis and the USS Enterprise. Companions notwithstanding, the Tardis is a fighter plane – a time-and-space Spitfire, a single-seater go-anywhere machine with one Timelord at the controls. The Enterprise is a community in space. It’s a village, an extended family. It’s a ship.
For my purposes, a ship offers much more potential than a Spitfire.
And there’s another, quantitative difference, implicit in that analogy. Spitfires fly. They move through a medium. They can only fly because of the movement of air over their wings. They leave the ground by the application of force. Airships leave the ground because of what they are, not what they do. They are gas-bags: lighter than air. They don’t fly through their medium; they float in their medium. It’s in their nature. It requires no external force. They just do it. See? Lighter than air.
I’ve never flown in an airship. I’d love you. You can. The Zeppelin Company runs airship tours over Lake Constance. Yes, that Zeppelin company. A few years back, while the concept of the Everness series was fermenting in my head, the Zeppelin Company ran airship tours over London. Where do you think writers get ideas from? The real stuff, that’s where. It’s always easier and more rewarding to steal rather than make stuff up. Who said writing was an honest business?
But back to Zeppelin trips. I’d love to go on one, but the expense is somewhere between major narcotics and a second-hand Porsche. But I have flown lighter than air. Or maybe, if I’m being consistent, I have travelled lighter than air.
I’ve been in a balloon. A hot air balloon, in Cappadocia in Turkey: a dawn flight over the fantastical tufa landscapes of fairy chimneys and startling canyons.
The first thing you notice as they fire up the burners is that it’s a struggle to keep your balloon on the ground. Ground crew battle with ropes; the balloon fills and swells, the wind catches it and moves it in unpredictable ways – it’s like breaking a wild horse. The balloon is a living thing; it naturally wants to rise. It doesn’t have to throw itself at the sky. Take a run and a jump. It just rises.
And you lift off gently – so gently it takes a moment to realise you are off the ground. You hover for a second while the ground crew stabilise your lift off with the guy ropes. But you are airborne, whether it is one foot or ten thousand feet. You are disconnected from the earth.
Airborne – that’s the word and the experience. Borne on the air. Carried. On, not through, like I said. In a balloon, you don’t feel you are flying: you are airborne. You are part of it. You move slowly and gently – though that can be deceptive— on the wind. Your pilot controls rise and fall, but that too is gentle, and slow. It has to be timed. It takes a moment for the balloon to respond to the new blast of heat from the burners.
Because of this, the sense isn’t at all like being in a plane. You never get those sudden shifts in pitch and attitude, or that dropping, stopping sensation in the put of the stomach (or is it just me who has the hyper-sensitive gimbals?) that seems – terrifyingly – like you are stopping in midair. You never get that sense that you are moving a ludicrous speed, and if you ever stop you will fall out of the sky. You rise, you fall, seemingly without thought. Your balloon is lighter than air, and so are you.
So we could drift from a few feet off the ground suddenly over the edge of one of Goreme’s steep tufa valleys, fantastically sculpted with bizarre rock pillars and stacks, without any sense of the world opening up beneath you, or vertigo, because the bottom of the world is the bottom of the basket in which you are standing. (And that’s another quaint thing about balloons: you travel in a basket, like a kitten in a 1950s Enid Blyton book. Aviation-grade wicker is a delightful concept). You and the balloon are one thing: you are both lighter than air.
Because ascent and descent are so gentle and subtle, you can be surprisingly high before you properly realise it – your body, your kinaesthetic sense, gives you no indication of movement. What you can do is hear. Apart from the roar of the burners, you hear the wind over the balloon canopy, the wind in the riggings lines, the creak of the basket and the lines: bird song, vehicles, farm animals, the burners of other balloons. Every sense is poised, airborne. You are as immersed in air as you would be diving into a pool of water. Everything moves, everything flexes organically. A hot-air balloon, an LTA, is a living thing.
Like most aerial things, landing is problematic. You’ve seen albatrosses, swans, F16s on aircraft carriers – It’s like that. Everything comes back to Earth with a bump, if not a full capsize (we did). The burners are off, the bag collapses: you are no longer lighter than air. It’s earth that holds you up, not air.
LTA is a completely different experience from aerofoil flight, and I wanted to capture the special feel of it in the Everness books. An airship – a ship that floats in the air. Not a cabin crew, or even a bomber crew, but a ship’s crew, up there in midair. I wanted to convey some of the sense of my experience of flying lighter-than-air, and how that might translate to something as big and wonderful and improbable as an airship. There’s a scene in Planesrunner where Captain Anastasia says to Everett, standing before the great window of the airship’s bridge, ‘Is there anything on your world to compare with this?’ The answer can only be ‘no’. I wanted to get the sense of Everett literally standing on air, of an airship being big enough to walk around in (and through, and over as well) while all the time being suspended in midair: floating not flying. An aerial community, a family: Lighter than air.