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 scientist I might have credited those exhibits with inspiring it all. (As it was, even high school pre-calc defeated me, my early dreams dashed on the hard harsh blackboard of life. Those freaky imaginary numbers. The sneeringly rational ones. Those two ultimate snobs, sine and cosine…)
The display that pleased me most, however, was far from the interactive brain-teasers. It was a three dimensional replica of a Heath Robinson machine, a proper working model, complete with a jaunty gentleman driving a contraption that either served up a spoonful of peas or fried an egg, or perhaps both. I spent a great deal of time observing that gentleman and his wonderful, complex, ridiculous invention. If you have never heard of Heath Robinson you are in for a treat. Google him.
The fascinating part wasn’t exactly how, in engineering terms, the peas got to the spoon, or the egg to the plate – 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. The machine was 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.
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 which might form a part of everyday life. These things naturally have a basis in ‘reality’ as it is presented in the story. People living in a gigantic tree the size of a mountain, surrounded on every side by a precipitous drop, would invent a means of air-travel, be it the taming of great birds, hand-gliding or simply hot air ballooning. Argosian dirigibles were part of that imperative.
But fantasy worlds and fantasy vehicles aren’t bound solely by questions of engineering. It wasn’t enough to have the Argosians harness Tree-ether and launch their floating ships into the skies. There were ideas involved. This was a people in the grip of ancient superstitions: they distrusted science. They used only certain pre-approved forms of air-travel. Their ruling priestly classes paid a great deal of lip-service to the notion of a Natural Law, while in secret making use of forgotten technologies as they saw fit. A dirigible wan’t supposed to travel faster than weather dictated. Sails were acceptable, steam-driven propellers were not. Ether jets might be used for direction change and special air-currents harnessed for speed, but the thought 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 their dirigibles were a product of science and engineering, but within limits. They would be built of overlapping sections of hardwood and buoyed by a great many ether-balloons, including spare sets to replace those lost or damaged during a flight. They were steered with long poles if small, or nudged about with ether-jets when large. They would use sails and parachute-like screens to advance or lose speed. Some fantastical contraptions might be observed employing pedal-driven propellers.
But an Argosian dirigible would primarily be built of ideas. It be fuelled by superstition and prejudice. It would remain at the mercy of the wind and weather, an entirely inefficient means of transport requiring ten times more effort and energy to move about than a streamlined Zepplin. Practicality would not be the main concern of these magnificent, soaring, cumbersome vehicles.
To begin with, at least, Argosians didn’t believe in speed for the sake of it. They didn’t think the final destination was the only motivation for the journey; they remembered, unconsciously, buried under a heap of superstition, that the faster you go, the more likely you are to leave a piece of your soul behind.