In Angela Carter’s amazing Nights at the Circus, Fevvers, a highwire act if ever there was one, causes disbelief and awe in equal measure because she’s billed as a flying woman, but in flight she takes her time and rudely ignores the laws of gravity. It’s as if she’s daring the audience to call her a fake, to accuse her of being held up by invisible wires and other tricks of the circus trade.
Steampunk has its own version of this high wire act, in that depictions of dirigibles in movies represent a kind of tipping point for the audience’s threshold of disbelief. Most films don’t attempt to realistically map out what a fantastical dirigible might look like—they’re just interested in something that seems visually cool. We can get behind that—cool is good. But sometimes it doesn’t work, especially because a dirigible in a righteous Steampunk movie is a kind of character in and of itself. Not believing in a character, even one made of canvas, wood, and metal, can doom a film.
A good example is Hiyao Miyazaki, in movies like Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Watching and re-watching that classic, we never think about whether his sky machines are realistic or not. To us, it’s because Miyazaki gives us dirigibles that are detailed but not too baroque. They also have a weight to them that makes the engines have to drone to keep them in the air, but they’re not so heavy that they’re unbelievable. Not to mention, a variety of lovely whirring and clanking sounds help reassure us that these lumbering creations are real.
On the FAIL end of the spectrum, the (kinda ’orrible) Mutant Chronicles might’ve included the least efficient Steampunk airship in the history of cinema. In watching this monstro-city of heavy metal belch, burp, and fart its way into the sky, our jaws dropped. It was as if George W Bush were in charge of the engineering team and had said, “no safety rules, burns 100 tons of coal for every foot it travels, has its gunnery station exposed so anybody can blast it away, you can only track stuff through the sky by looking into this tiny hole, and if something crashes into it, even something small, the entire ship blows up real good.” Which, of course, it does (taking all of the African-American character actors in the movie with it, sigh—another subject for another post).
So our question to you, O Lords and Ladies of Steampunk: what does it take for you to believe in a dirigible? Which movies do you find most awesome in this regard, and which fall into the category of laughable?
We know suspension of disbelief is strong in you, young Steampunker. Let us know how strong...
Jeff VanderMeer’s current projects include Finch, Booklife, Last Drink Bird Head, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, and The Steampunk Bible. For more information visit jeffvandermeer.com and booklifenow.com.
Hugo Award-winner Ann VanderMeer is the fiction editor for Weird Tales and the co-editor of the fiction anthology Steampunk as well as the forthcoming Steampunk Reloaded.