Sunday, March 06, 2011

Planes and Trains and Automobiles

Transport in Speculative Fiction

Last week I looked at questions of "styling"--the literal and metaphorical furniture--in my work in progress Shadow Puppet.  One of the areas which makes the most difference is transport, both for the logistics and feel of the story. 

My Mondia novels, for instance, make extensive use of "gallumphers", which are quadrupedal beasts of burden, as similar to horses as the reader wants to make them.  In Shadow Puppet, we are in the early years of heavier-than-air transport, with a level of technology broadly equivalent to the 1930s/40s.  One strand of the story is about aerial warfare--the sometimes contradictory influences here being The Dam Busters, Catch-22, Apocalypse Now  and Generation Kill--so getting the aircraft right is particularly important.

"Right" in this context is not primarily historical accuracy (after all, this is an imaginary world and other aspects of it are at variance with what the reader will expect), but more about plausibility and dramatic coherence.  I'm not writing a story like Memphis Belle, with a sizeable aircrew and their varied interactions; neither am I following Catch-22, where you never see any missions.  I only really want two characters on the planes, and what I envisage is something like the British Mosquito light bomber, a primarily wooden aircraft at home in a variety of contexts.

I also want to include that staple of steampunk styling, the dirigible.  Airships lumbering through the sky alongside propeller-driven warplanes make a satisfying tableau, as well as reinforcing for the reader that although many of the elements are familiar, the story and the environment will not be.

My researches into the Mosquito have been fascinating.  I'm interested, but in an abstract way, in how far and fast the planes can travel and what materials were used for construction.  I'm more interested--because I will need it to be convincing--in how the planes behaved in the air.  

1942 poster for the Mosquito bomber

Most interesting of all, though, are the memoirs of the men who flew them--how easy it was to fall asleep when flying in a warm cockpit, what happened when one of your two engines packed up, how little time you actually spent in the air (and so how much time you had to worry about the next time you went up).  These reminiscences help to create characters, and they provide wonderful incidental detail.

You never got all this stimulation with gallumphers...


dolorah said...

With all this research I'm sure your characters will be authentic. I'm anxious to see how you put dirigibles and airplanes in the same scene.

I just bought Dog of the North and will check out The Last City after I read this one. I do like dragons though; it may be a hard choice.


pecooper said...

So, are you going to show where the Airships are based? I ask because the US Navy sent me to boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval station, which was originally a Navy airship base back in the 1920s. The the old airship hangers were still there 40 years later and were used as drill halls and places where recruits could safely be parked in winter weather.

I remember they were huge, with a big echo inside them. We were told that clouds sometimes formed inside them, but I rather doubt that was true. I can believe the stories about condensation forming and it raining inside them, though. They were big enough to be visible from anywhere on the base.

Tim Stretton said...

I don't think we'll see too many airships in the book, but they are always fascinating so I don't want to lose them altogether.

The vast hangars sound amazing, so don't be surprised to see one of those!

pecooper said...

Cool. I'll look forward to seeing it. There is a nice article with pictures of various hangars at

Tim Stretton said...

Great link, Paul! Thanks.

These are just the kind of thing I like when I'm doing research. It really gives a sense of scale.

Unknown said...

I've mentionedd before the Cardington Hangars. They are amazing. You should come to sunnie Bedfordshire and check them out!

When I was writing my failed 1950s devil worshipping RAF wives book, I actually did some research on planes such as the Supermarine Swift. Very interesting. Made me feel like a proper writer for once.

Tim Stretton said...

The Mosquito is definitely my favourite. I like the idea of a wooden plane being highly effective in the same conflict that dropped an atomic bomb.

I'd like to think the devil-worshipping RAF wives will see the light of day in due course.

pecooper said...

If you are still interested in Airship Bases, Mike Transreal recommends Howden's Airship Station by Kenneth Deacon about one of the UK's most important based during WWI.