The other day I started thinking it might be fun to write a steampunk novel. Steampunk, for those who are standing out on the sidewalk with their noses pressed against the glass, is a sub-genre of science fiction. The typical setting for steampunk is Victorian England, and typically a story is tricked out with fantastic clockwork gadgets and gigantic machinery. Electronics are strictly forbidden. There’s not much punk in steampunk, but there’s a lot of steam.
The collection of steampunk at my local library is spotty, but not too bad. I grabbed a stack of books and started doing a little market research. A persistent thread running through many of these books, I discovered, is the airship. It’s not hard to see why. The airship is charmingly retro, it’s impressively large, and it moves in a slow, dreamy, dignified way. The dirigible is a perfect icon for steampunk.
So I started doing a little research on lighter-than-air flying craft.
My curse as a writer is that I like things to make sense. I don’t care much for ideas that defy the laws of physics. I’ve written stories about elves, and unicorns, and ghosts, but those are just magic premises suitable for fantasy. Once you have a race of elves, they’re subject to the laws of physics just like everything else.
What I quickly discovered is that there’s a reason why, in our own world, blimps and dirigibles are not widely used as aircraft. They’re just not very practical.
For a lifting agent, you have three choices — hydrogen, helium, or hot air. Hydrogen provides the best lift, and it’s cheap and readily available, but it’s also very dangerous, because it’s highly flammable. Given the slightest provocation, a big bag of hydrogen has a tendency to burst into flame.
Helium is not quite as good a lifting agent, but it’s pretty good. It’s also scarce and expensive. Those party balloons you just bought at the store really ought to be illegal, because helium is useful stuff, and we have no way to manufacture any more. When the Earth’s supply of helium is gone, it’s gone.
Hot air is cheap and safe, but it’s a less efficient lifting agent. Because it’s less efficient, your gondola (the thing hanging under the gas bag) can’t carry as much. The gondola has to carry fuel for the burner that provides the hot air, of course. If you also want some kind of propeller, so as to control what direction you’re flying, that’s going to take fuel too. And then there’s the crew, the weight of the gondola itself, and the sandbags that you’re carrying for ballast so you can cut them loose if you need more altitude in a hurry. In the end, you won’t be able to carry much in the way of freight or passengers. Hot air balloons are fine for a spectacular ride at the state fair, but they’re just not a good method of transportation.
As a writer of steampunk, you’re faced with a few stark choices. You can ignore all this nitpicking — just go ahead and write about ironclad airships with mounted cannon, and trust that your readers will be so thrilled they won’t know or won’t care. You can invent a new type of safe hydrogen, though that violates the laws of physics. Or you can dispense with airships altogether and make do with steamships and railroad trains.
Personally, I lean toward option 3. The trouble is, readers of steampunk want to be thrilled. They want to discover visionary wonders of Victorian technology! A steampunk novel with no mechanical marvels is certainly possible in a literary sense, but it would be at a disadvantage in the rough-and-tumble book publishing market.
Still chewin’ on this dilemma. Not sure what I’ll end up with.