There are lots of ways for characters to travel in science fiction: spaceship, wormhole and teleportation to name a few. All of these are useful for getting characters to move across long distances in a hurry. But from the days of early science fiction (before mankind mastered the power of flight) to the steampunk books found on shelves today, a particular method has persisted as being one of the most beloved modes of transport: the airship.
Read the last SF Signal on 5 sci-fi series a decade old that are still going strong.
Speaking of Steampunk
In our reality, it's hard to imagine airship travel being prevalent when there are more efficient means of transportation. But when authors imagine worlds where society is necessarily limited to earlier technologies like steam power, airships suddenly become the way to go. That's why the majority of airships in science fiction and fantasy appear in steampunk stories. (A romantic might argue that steampunk was created expressly for the purpose of using airships.)
In some stories, airships are integral to the story. Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius novels, Agatha H. and the Airship City and Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess (both based on their popular comic), includes airships that play prominently into the plot. A recently reprinted classic, The Other Log of Phileas Fogg by Philip José Farmer, playfully returns to the works of Jules Verne—particularly Around the World in Eighty Days—for an adventurous take that posits Fogg as the immortal child of humanoid aliens on a secret mission coinciding with his famous airship voyage. And Dexter Palmer's wonderful The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a steampunk retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest that takes place almost entirely on an airship.
Steampunk is indeed rife with airships. Steven Harper's Clockwork Empire series (the latest book of which is The Impossible Cube) is a steampunk adventure set in a world where Britain and China are superpowers and airships fill the skies. Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century (particularly Boneshaker) includes several airship scenes that perfectly capture the feel of steampunk. Stephen Hunt's Secrets of the Fire Sea is the latest in a series marked by airship battles and high adventure. Lavie Tidhar's Bookman (the first in a satirical adventure series) bills itself as steam-powered take on V for Vendetta with automatons and airships.
Author George Mann is a lover of airships, too, as evidenced by his Newbury and Hobbes novels (notably The Affinity Bridge in which Maurice and Victoria investigate an airship disaster coinciding with a zombie-like plague) and his post-steampunk era superhero Ghost novels (like Ghosts of War, which features a nail-biting airship battle). The wonderfully lavish book Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett profiles the "real" life of the globetrotting inventor who was the steampunk, airship-traveling hero of many early sf adventures. An anthology airship aficionados might also enjoy is All-Star Zeppelin Stories edited by Jay Lake and David Moles, which is based around the theme of airships.
Not Speaking of Steampunk
For the record, steampunk does not hold a monopoly on the use of airships. Traditional science fiction has its fair share as well. Edgar Rice Burroughs populated Barsoom (what the natives called Mars) with airship as a means of travel. In Michael Moorcock's classic multiverse novel Warlord of the Air, World War I never happened and airships are a common means of warfare. Karl Schroeder's Virga Series (beginning with Sun of Suns) takes place in massive balloon where people travel between floating communities via airship. Tobias Buckell uses airships to good effect in Crystal Rain, Sly Mongoose and Arctic Rising. In Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy airships are used for transport about the Red Planet, much as they are in Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds (where low-lying areas are prohibited from using any technology that is more advanced), Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld novels and Helix by Eric Brown.
Fantasy is not completely devoid of airships, though they appear to a much lesser extent. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman features travel by airship, as does Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, The Ships of Air by Martha Wells, Cold Magic by Kate Elliott and China Miéville's Bas Lag novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council), and some of Fitz Lieber's Lankhmar stories.
Hey, Kids! It's an Airship!
It's worth noting that a handful of excellent young adult fiction that also contain airships. (Hook ’em while they're young!) Airborn by Kenneth Oppel kicks off the trilogy by introducing a world where airships are the primary means of travel. In Philip Reeve's YA series The Hungry City Chronicles (beginning with Mortal Engines) steam power is the most advanced form of technology in a post-apocalyptic world. Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series posits an alternate World War I that pits steam-power against genetic engineering. And Planesrunner by Ian McDonald (the first book in the Everness series) introduces multiple parallel worlds where a young man searches for his father with the help of the Captain of the airship Everness.John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo-nominated group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.