RogerBW's Blog

The Sky Riders, T. C. Bridges 17 March 2021

1919 boys' adventure. Martin Hamer's airship design is stolen (and covertly constructed), along with the niece of Mortimer Carne, the industrial magnate whom the inventor had hoped to get to build the thing. Clearly the thing to do is build another airship and track him down.

This is a book I read as a child, remembered with vague goodwill, and recently tracked down again. And it stands up rather better than I'd feared, apart from the Great Big Problem: first a group of Tuaregs, then later a cannibalistic tribe from Africa, are depicted as not only subhuman but intrinsically evil, to the point that bombing and machine-gunning them is really the only reasonable thing to do. (Also racist language of the day, of course; judging by other writers of the period it might have raised a few eyebrows even then.) Basically they are more part of the environment than anything more complex.

Mind you, so are the villain's henchmen, most of whom we never even get to meet. See, he's found an extinct volcano somewhere in the Sahara, with a lost-world-ish jungle in its crater, and an Assyrian temple part-submerged in the lake… and that's what Bridges wants to write about, along with two plucky lads getting into the villain's base to rescue the girl. All else is scenery and obstacle.

Indeed, the bulk of the narrative is essentially physical struggle: getting through the jungle, being captured by and escaping from the cannibals (in a surprising nod to realism it's admitted that the villain has imported them, to make the place even more hazardous), breaking into the temple lair, then escaping. Which includes the splendid line, one I've remembered over the years:

"There are beasts there that don't belong in the natural history books."

So far, so standard thud and blunder. But there are also airships involved, which make everything better; indeed, the climax is a duel in the air, and even involves a consideration of the advantages as well as the disadvantages of hydrogen versus helium as a lifting gas. All right, there's a magic fuel with "twice the power of petrol, much less weight, and stores in a far smaller space", but it's surprisingly unimportant to the plot.

"Do you know, I really believe that I have at last found the perfect lines for a dirigible. Remember, too, that her frame is not aluminium, but all steel, that she is far more rigid than anything of the kind ever yet produced, and that she, the full-sized ship which I shall build, will stand driving through any storm that blows. What is more, she can alight on hard ground more easily than any 'plane, and can be anchored out in the open with perfect safety."


Characters? Well, I suppose. Cyril Hamer is a fairly blank boy hero for the reader to project _him_self into, reasonably smart as well as a good shot; he's accompanied by comic-Irishman Tim M'Keown, who says things like

"The man hates ould Carne like cowld poison. It's my belafe he'd sooner cut the nose off his face than give up the girl."

but of course has an indomitable spirit. The Girl doesn't get to do much, though she can at least steer the boat during their escape. And the Fate Worse Than Death that she's threatened with is being turned over to the cannibals to be raised as one of them, which shows a surprising inventiveness if not much practicality.

Eh, make sure your past-filter goggles are firmly in place, and even then it's purest fluff, but there's still some fun to be had here and it would be a shame to lose what's good in avoiding the author's mindless fear of the Other. Freely available.

  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 12:28pm on 17 March 2021

    "But there are also airships involved, which make everything better"

    I look forward to you standing for political office on that ticket! :-)

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:36pm on 17 March 2021

    Well, it'll get votes from the harking-back-to-days-of-Empire types, and the clean-quiet-cheap-transport types, and of course all the steampunks. Just, alas, none of any of the above with economic literacy; I keep hearing about modern cargo airship schemes, and they keep running out of money even without mishaps.

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 04:34pm on 17 March 2021

    Don't forget mecha and airships go together for rip-roaring pulp action too.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 04:37pm on 17 March 2021

    The trick is to stop someone inventing large fixed-wing aircraft, which just spoil stuff.

  5. Posted by Nicola Zealey at 08:27am on 18 March 2021

    "But there are also airships involved, which make everything better"

    The Chinese government seem to believe this. They have at least two types in development and plan to start production in 2022. Of course, it is very likely it will all be a massive waste of money but at least they are willing to try.

    Concorde was an economic fiasco but it was still magnificent. Brunel's SS Great Britain was a financial disaster. Putting a man on the moon made (and still makes) no economic sense. There are numerous examples. Economics is not the only measure.

    It seems to me the West has lost its passion and vision. The Victorians get a terrible press (and much of the criticism is justified) but at least they were willing to risk all in great endeavors. Maybe, this is part of the attraction of Steampunk.

  6. Posted by Phil Masters at 10:35pm on 18 March 2021

    I seem to recall that several companies have been willing to try airships in the West over the last few decades. They just keep running into that pesky reality stuff. And meanwhile, the Chinese aren’t, to my knowledge, willing to try submarine aircraft carriers, or steam moles, or hypersonic sub-orbital troop transports. Wimps. One would almost think that they were worried about feasibility.

  7. Posted by Phil Masters at 10:38pm on 18 March 2021

    (And anyway, as Ken Hite noted, the presence of airships is a sure sign that you’ve slipped into an alternate timeline, which will also be marked by the presence of successful totalitarian government systems and global wars. We spent the 1930s in such an alternate history, and it turned out to be No Fun.)

  8. Posted by RogerBW at 10:56pm on 18 March 2021

    As supposedly said by a general working on SDI: "Whoever came up with these 'laws of physics' must've been some kind of goddamn commie."

    (I have a whole blog post about submarine aircraft carriers.)

  9. Posted by Nicola Zealey at 08:12am on 19 March 2021

    I have always said building submarine aircraft carriers was nuts. They are a short and sad not funny joke. Heard about the submarine aircraft carrier? It sank!

    But I'm not convinced airships break the laws of physics. I agree, there are enormous technical difficulties. Chances are high what the Chinese make in 2022 will be at best a magnificent failure but based on what they learn from that failure something much more practical in economic terms may be developed. At the time of Brunel there were plenty of skeptics who had good reason to claim an all iron ship made no economic sense. They were right! But from the first all-iron ship vitals lessons were learnt.

    As for the alternative timeline, I may have bad news folks. I suspect we're already in it! In any case until 2022 comes around we won't know what the Chinese achieve.

  10. Posted by Nicola Zealey at 10:02am on 19 March 2021

    One prediction I will make is if the Chinese do manage it then they will need to build a lot of very large very impressive hangers all over the place. One of the biggest issues with airships is, of course, where to store them. Ideally there would be enough dotted around so in the event of a severe storm the airships could feasibility head to a safe haven. It's one of the reasons airships need big government to work.

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