Yesterday, on Twitter, I mentioned “I love steampunk because airships.” And this is mostly true. I would also say that seeing such elaborate and diverse costumes over the years has been equally as inspiring, but what drew me to even look at those costumes and think of them was the concept of the airship.
Oddly enough, I’m scared to death of flying. My fascination doesn’t translate to the real world. If you sit next to me on a flight, I’ll have white knuckles gripping the armrests and I’ll be staring out the window like a frozen animal in the face of a predator. It’s awful. People hate sitting next to me because I make them so anxious. Part of it is probably a lack of trust in other pilots in control, but that’s another story.
Airships though captivated me ever since I first grabbed what was then Final Fantasy III (and is now labeled VI, yes I know it’s confusing for the people not familiar with it!) on the SNES. The video game starts out as a fantasy with some cool Mechas that operate off of magic, another interesting use of mechanical technology in the place of standard fantasy tropes, but the game really opened up when the player receives and airship.
It took the map of the game and allowed you to fly over anything, go to secret islands to level up and find cool rewards, head to a floating continent in the sky — another use of the concept of air travel really– and I’d subconsciously thought of that throughout my life.
I’ve recently watched and rewatched all of the Hiyao Miyazaki films with my kids, and I’m definitely not the only one who’s fascinated this way. Almost all of his films feature some alternative form of air travel. Kiki’s Delivery Service, while the main is flying on a broom, has a supporting character who’s designing a personal bicycle with wings for example. Naturally there’s Castle in the Sky which has all sorts of different mechanical or magical air vessels. Different means of flying and epic air battles of swashbuckling more like the sea battles of past than what we see in modern air combat are just cool concepts worth exploring.
Airships really come about in four forms in steampunk or semi-steampunk literature/film:
- The zeppelin or blimp style airship. These are the most prominent from what I’ve seen, spanning from the early Final Fantasies to most steampunk books and art. If you look at the early 1900s, this was one of the most highly regarded forms of air travel, until people realized in trial by error that a big gas balloon could be extremely deadly.
- Magical airships. Like the Castle In The Sky, sometimes there’s just floating things that travel off of some magic force that don’t get explained away, but hold a certain charm to them all the same.
- Propeller Airships. Final Fantasy XII had one of these and I thought it was super cool. And this was what I went with in For Steam And Country, as the characters describe giant turbines that keep the ship aloft. Someone asked me once if I designed it purposefully off of old “rotor ships”, which is pretty cool thematically itself. I was thinking about final fantasy, but pretty sure eventually those origins could be traced to that.
- The Personal Craft — these often look like planes or bicycles or motorcycles in the sky, and often bear the least explanation when we see them in use. From jetpacks to ornithopters, these are fun to explore.
And that’s what we see for the most part. Each in their own forms are fascinating and something interesting to look at, and write about. Now that you have your nice confirmation bias, look around and see the cool sense of wonder that different concepts of air travel you see in different fantasy films and literature. They’re everywhere!