Argosian dirigibles

I first posted this piece on the Voyager Online site, a fair while ago now. I thought I’d put it up here on the website for those who had not seen it yet. It’s called, ‘How to build an Argosian dirigible.’


As a child I lived for a time in Toronto, Canada. One of my fondest memories of that city was the science museum, a fabulous labyrinthine place equipped with displays a kid could actually touch. Oh, the buttons that whirred and the physics that stirred! If I’d had the brains to become a quantum theorist I might have credited those exhibits with inspiring it all. (Alas, this was not to be the case. Even high school pre-calculus defeated me, my early dreams dashed on the hard  blackboards of life. Those freaky imaginary numbers. The sneeringly rational ones. Those two ultimate snobs, sine and cosine. All Greek to me, thank you Pythagoras.)

The display that pleased me most in the museum was far from the interactive brain-teasers, atop a long escalator filled with sounds of recorded birdsong – for this was the late 70’s and early 80’s, a time of bamboo and disembodied tweeting. (No social media pun intended.) There, some thoughtful person had created a three dimensional replica of a Heath Robinson machine, a proper model complete with a jaunty little gentleman working an intricate contraption that either served up a spoonful of peas or fried an egg, I’m not sure which, though I did spend a great deal of time observing that gentleman and his wonderful invention. If you have never heard of Heath Robinson, you’re in for a treat: Google him.

It was not the precise way, in engineering terms, that the peas got to the spoon, or the egg to the plate, or whatever it was, which fascinated me – though that was part of the charm. It was the fact that the egg, or the peas, took an inordinately roundabout route to do what they were supposed to do and get where they were supposed to go – a brilliantly complex, fussy, over-engineered monstrosity masquerading as something one might need in real life. A simple task was done in ten times the number of steps normally required: sheer genius.

And so a love of fantasy, and of all things needless and without practicality, was born.

One of the many satisfying things about creating a fantasy world is being given carte blanche to imagine the gadgets and contraptions people there might invent. These things naturally have a basis in ‘reality’ as it is presented in the story. People living in a gigantic tree surrounded on every side by a precipitous drop would invent a means of air-travel, whether it was the taming of great birds, hang-gliders or simply hot air ballooning.

But fantasy worlds and fantasy dirigibles are not bound entirely by questions of engineering, or even efficiency. It was not enough to have the Argosians harness Tree-ether and launch their floating ships into the skies. This was a people in the grip of ancient ideas and superstitions: they distrusted science. They used only certain approved forms of air-travel. Their ruling priestly classes paid a great deal of lip-service to the idea of the Natural Law, while in secret making use of forgotten technologies as they saw fit. A dirigible was not supposed to travel faster than weather dictated. Sails were acceptable, but steam-driven propellers were not. Ether jets might be used for direction change and special air-currents harnessed for speed, but the idea of a machine that flouted such concerns and went without the wind would stir up a deep uneasiness in the Argosian soul. Somewhere deep down a collective memory existed, the confused sense that when one allowed a machine to just do anything, one was inevitably trafficking with demons.

So an Argosian dirigible might be described as being built of overlapping sections of hardwood, called clinkers. It would possess a great many ether-balloons, including spare sets to replace those damaged during a flight. It could be steered with long poles if small, or nudged about with ether-jets when large, and used sails and parachute-like screens to advance or lose speed. Some fantastical contraptions far to the north, in foreign parts, might employ pedal-driven propellers. But an Argosian dirigible would also be built of ideas. It would run on superstition and use religion as fuel. It would be at the mercy of wind and weather, an entirely inefficient means of transport taking ten times more effort and energy to move about than a streamlined Zepplin. Practicality would not be the only concern of these magnificent, soaring, cumbersome vehicles.

For to begin with, at least, the Argosians did not believe in speed for the sake of it. They did not think that the final destination was the only motivation for the journey. They remembered, unconsciously, deep down and buried under a heap of superstition, that the faster you go, the more likely you are to leave a piece of your soul behind.

But then of course, times changed, and they forgot even that much. They retained fossilized fragments of wisdom – something about respecting God’s will, and praising the Tree. They mumbled their prayers and built their dirigibles. By then, they had forgotten where to go in them.

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