I’m reading Kenneth Oppal’s Airborn, a young adult novel shortlisted for the 2004 Governor General’s Award in children’s literature. It’s easy to see why Mr. Oppal’s work is on the list, as it’s a very well written, action-oriented fantasy set in an alternate Earth of giant airships and ornithopters.
The story opens with Matt Cruse, cabin boy on the great airship Aurora, who’s on crowsnest duty when he spots a derelict hot-air balloon adrift over the Pacific. Relaying this to the captain, he rusn down to the bridge and helps haul the ailing occupant of the balloon (an old man) on board. Before the old man man dies, he talks deliriously of great, beautiful creatures in the sky. Matt thinks little of these last words until a year later when free-spirited Kate de Vries comes on board. She knows of the creatures the old man was searching for, which others have dismissed as foolish legend, and she’s determined to find them, with or without Matt’s help. Of course he helps.
Airborn has elements of Treasure Island, as well as the lower deck/upper deck romance of Titanic (though don’t let that deter you). It also has airships. Lots off them. Giant cruise ships in the sky, slipping with silent grace through the clouds, and not a swastika or a reporter shouting “oh, the humanity!” in sight. And, with it, we see the beginnings of a trend: airships are cool.
Airborn itself bears superficial similarities to the children’s anime movie Castle in the Sky. Miyazaki’s tale is even more fantastic than Oppal’s, with the action set on unknown lands, but he and Oppal both share the atmosphere of grace and airiness that their worlds of airships bring. I believe Airborn and Castle in the Sky are both compelling partly because they both invite the reader to fly.
But that’s not all: Zeppelins feature prominently in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials sequence as both a symbol of how his religion-dominated world is technologically out-of-date, and also as an effective tool in building menace (though one would think that equiping Zeppelins with machine guns would be a strategic mistake. Would you really want to bring such a ship to within machine-gun range of potentially incendiary bullets?). Unlike Airborn, Philip Pullman’s Zeppelins are sinister retro artefacts that help make the familiar world more alien.
Heck, Zeppelins even feature in Rosemary and Time, as instruments of menace. Equipped with dangling, clasping, three-fingered arms (Dan’s idea of making them like Doc Ock arms seals the deal), they harry our heroes, seeking to drag them to the Orwellian/Camazotzian City of Marble and Chrome.
To say that Zeppelins are making a comeback in children’s literature is a little inaccurate, since they only just appeared. But the real heyday of the Zeppelins was seventy years ago, and now a number of authors are making use of them these past few years. Most of these authors seem to be operating in the realm of children and young adult literature. I find that interesting.
I am ashamed to say that you can blame Elton John for Zeppelins appearing in Rosemary and Time. I watched the video to his song Believe at an impressionable age. The video had no connection that I could see to the lyrics, and I watched it only once, but the images stayed with me. It was in black and white, featuring an art-deco, Metropolis-style skyline, with Zeppelins everywhere, moving in slow, graceful precision.
The retro nature of the technology also gives the artefact an exotic feel, like something out of place or out of time, but there is something about the heft and the grace of a Zeppelin that makes it powerful, and makes you feel small. In the right hands, the effect can be comforting and quaint, (see Airborn and Castle in the Sky) or it can be menacing (see His Dark Materials).
It’s no accident the Nazis were using the Hindenberg and other Zeppelins as a propaganda tool, you know. Boeing 747s come the closest in making you wonder just how the heck the thing got off the ground, but Zeppelins are cruise ships in the sky. Not to be trifled with. The economics of these slow-moving beasts, and the PR disaster of the Hindenberg, may have relegated the Zeppelins to history, but they seemed to have remained in a part of our psyche.
Zeppelins are not yet cited as cliches to avoid, so they haven’t outstayed their welcome, yet. Look for these cool pieces of retro technology to make more appearances in children and young adult literature, especially if the Dark Materials sequence is made into a movie trilogy.