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Zeppelin backstory

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Back when I was writing my zeppelin story, I said that I would talk about its origins at some point. Figure now's as good a time as any. (Actually, wrote this a month or two ago, but just now got around to posting it.)

Warning: This entry will contain major spoilers for my zeppelin story, "The Last of the Zeppelins," which can be found in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories. If you haven't read the story, you may enjoy it more if you read it before reading this entry.

My first college roommate, Rick P., had a high-school friend, Ed C., who visited Swarthmore a couple of times. On one of those visits, sometime in 1988 or '89, Ed ran a roleplaying game. It was going to be the prologue to a campaign, but we never played beyond that first session. It was meant to be like the opening scene of a James Bond movie—an action-packed ending to an implicit earlier adventure, and then at the end of that prologue the opening credits would roll, and the main story would begin.

The game was an over-the-top pulp adventure, something like a Justice, Inc game. Ed created the characters ahead of time and assigned them to us. I played a stage magician and escape artist (this was long before Cavalier and Klay, of course) named Presto; somewhat like Schmendrick from The Last Unicorn, he had once or twice experienced flashes of real magic. Chris C. played General Garrulous Bore, an elderly British Adventurer whose quasi-superpower was that he could be skilled in just about anything as long as he told a long boring story about how he used that skill back in the war, or during some other adventure. Bruce H. was the inscrutable Oriental contortionist, Yu Rong. There was an eccentric absent-minded inventor, G. Whiz (played by Rick), who wore a lab coat with dozens of pockets containing useful gadgets, only he could never remember what was where. Fortunately, he had a pet ferret (or possibly weasel; we don't remember for sure) named Scraps who lived in his pockets and could always find things for him; G. Whiz had been known to remark that Scraps was smarter than he (G.) was, though Scraps couldn't speak. Scraps was played by Alex W., with great gusto and charm.

And then, of course, there was the intrepid two-fisted American hero who led us: Hugh Betcha, played by a guy named Don who I never saw before or since; a friend of Ed's, I think.

There was also a female character who may simply have been known as The Girl, played by another friend of Ed's who I didn't know; she had a knack for getting into trouble, but the brains and pluck to get out of it as well.

The game began in a zeppelin. The evil villain, cackling maniacally, had tied us all up, and I think his plan was to crash the zeppelin into the Empire State Building; but we quickly escaped from our bonds, and a running battle inside the zeppelin ensued. The climax of the adventure was Hugh and the villain duking it out atop Belvedere Castle in Central Park, and the apparently-climactic scene in my story is a pretty close copy of that scene, including Hugh's dialogue. Don did a really excellent job playing Hugh. (Thanks to Chris and Rick for relating that dialogue to me when I asked them for memories of the game; I had forgotten all about it, as well as about many of the other aspects of the characters and plot.)

So that was the game. Not the absolute best game I ever played in, but probably among the top five.

Unfortunately, both Ed and Alex later killed themselves. (Entirely independently, and years apart.) So when I decided to go with over-the-top pulp adventure for my zeppelin story (rather than any of the other ideas I'd been kicking around), I wanted my story to be partly an homage to that game, and particularly to Ed and Alex.

But even though I wanted to use some of the characters (or at least their names; they're not quite the same characters) and that climactic scene (originally, before the refresher on what happened in the game, I was going to have the climactic fight happen in the zeppelin itself, over the storm-tossed New England coast), I didn't really want to try to use Ed's plot, such as it was; I wanted there to be some modern depth to my story as well as pulpy goodness.

When I told Arthur E. about the call-for-submissions for the zeppelin book, he got enthusiastic and did what he tends to do in such circumstances: he went and checked out a whole bunch of books about zeppelins from the library and read them all. We had some great long conversations about the books. Good stuff. And I skimmed through some of the books as well; they and Arthur provided some invaluable information.

In particular, a guy named Harold G. Dick (co-author of Dick & Robinson's Golden Age of the Great Passenger Airships) had been, iIrc, an American engineer on loan to the Luftschiffbau zeppelin works in Germany before WWII. He had a bunch of interesting things to say, but the most useful thing for my purposes was his conspiracy theory: the idea that the airlines wanted to destroy airships as a viable transportation method. (He said airships were pretty viable at the time. In the Hindenburg, for example, a North Atlantic crossing took less than half the time it took by the fastest water ships of the time.)

I was really taken with that idea. I was also thinking about David Siegel's nine-act movie structure, specifically the notion of the "reversal," in which the protagonist (somewhere between the halfway point and just before the end of the movie) discovers that the goal they were working toward all along was the wrong goal. So I thought the airline conspiracy would be a nice counterbalance to the pulp adventure, and I briefly considered having Hugh discover the truth and then be ignominiously killed at the end.

On the other hand, I didn't want the ending to be a total downer. Alex would've wanted the heroic adventurer to save the day; he would've hated it if the bad guys definitively won.

So, with all of that in mind, I wrote up the story, making everything as over-the-top as I could. Naomi B. and Arthur E. and Kate B. and Mary Anne all read it and said various nice things about it, and supplied various suggestions (most of which I took). And I sent it off.

And then David M. and Jay L. told me (among other things) that it wasn't over-the-top enough, and they asked for revisions.

I discussed the story at length with David, who supplied all sorts of great ideas (including a couple forwarded from Jay) and did an excellent job of helping to shape the story. The beginning and the ending in particular are quite different from, and definitely stronger than, the original versions. David's and Jay's guidance also improved my handling of the weapon system and various character motivations, among other things.

And somewhere around the second or third revision, Mary Anne pointed out to me that what I had here was a story about the end of the pulp-fiction era, watching the black-and-white (or four-color) pulp story run full-tilt into the moral complexity and ambiguity and shades of gray of mainstream literary fiction. In particular, Hugh and the Baron live in a heavily-genred world (remind me sometime to talk about genre levels in fiction and TV shows and RPGs—ideas that started for me with Kung Fu: The Legend Continues); everyone else in the story lives in a more nuanced and less heavily genred world, but Hugh and the Baron haven't figured that out.

I thought that idea was totally cool. It wasn't what I'd explicitly had in mind—I had set out to write a fun romp that had a little more intersection with the real world than traditional pulps did—but it totally fit the gut feeling I'd had (without consciously articulating it) about the story. So in the course of revision, I tried to bring that out more. David liked the idea too, iIrc.

Sadly, readers don't seem to have seen the story that way; reviewers who mention it all tend to talk about it as just a fun romp. Which is fine too; that's certainly a lot of what it's still meant to be. But in retrospect perhaps I should've worked a little harder on bringing out the pulp-vs-literary idea.

Anyway, here are a few other elements that wandered in at various times:

  • Not long before I started writing this story, I had spent a while thinking about how to write action sequences and specifically analyzing Mark Hoover's story "Slugball" to see why it worked for me so much better than most of the action stories I see. Various of y'all provided good further analysis (as comments to that entry), but what struck me most about the story (in this context) was that Mark did a great job of choosing high-impact action verbs. So from the start of writing my story, I focused on using action verbs. I think it works pretty well—if nothing else, it gives me a lot of words I can punch up when I'm reading the story aloud. Unfortunately, I didn't work on using the other techniques that came up in that discussion; I wish I'd kept those in mind too.
  • I read somewhere or other (during research for the story) that H. G. Wells's 1908 science fiction novel The War in the Air featured German flying machines called drachenflieger, or "dragon-flyers." I loved the name, and appropriated it as a nod to Wells even though I haven't read the book in question. (I gather that these days the term may refer to hang-gliders.)
  • The modified Vega Gull plane that Hugh flies across the Atlantic is a direct steal from the real-world Vega Gull that Beryl Markham flew across the Atlantic, as described in West with the Night. Though hers was customized specifically for her use, which is more plausible. But what the hell, it's pulp.
  • I think it was the Dick & Robinson book that suggested that Göring was an enemy of the zeppelin; I think it was under Göring's orders that the last German zeps were destroyed on the ground to make room for an airfield. I may have the details wrong at this point, but it was something like that. Anyway, that's what the "Verdammt Göring" line is about.
  • The history of United Airlines—or rather, of United Technologies Corporation, which was a sibling company of United Airlines after antitrust busted up United Aircraft and Transport in 1934 for combining aircraft manufacture from air transport—is a fascinating one. My story doesn't quite take place in the real world, but it's almost a Secret History; I used some of UTC's background for various things about the Corporation. (I think that may've been David's suggestion, or possibly Arthur's, though iIrc a fair number of the things I had already decided on turned out to match pretty well.)
  • In some ways, this story is an attempt to deal with stuff people have been telling me about some of my fiction on and off for years: with one previous story in particular, my workshop told me that I wasn't doing a good enough job walking the thin line between genres, that it was too genred to be a realistic story but too realistic to be a genred story, and the mix just wasn't working. So in this story I was trying to find a better way of mixing genre levels.

The following didn't fit in the story, but I loved the line, so I may as well quote it here—it's a real-life quotation from Hitler, talking about zeppelins:

"The whole thing always seems to me like an inventor who claims to have discovered a cheap new kind of floor covering which looks marvellous, shines forever, and never wears out," [Hitler] once said. "But he adds that there is one disadvantage. It must not be walked on with nailed shoes and nothing hard must ever be dropped on it because, unfortunately, it's made of high explosive."

Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine, by Douglas Botting, p. 255

I'll close with two versions of an Author's Note that I considered adding to the end of the story at various times while I was writing it:

Note: The author is aware that the Hindenburg explosion was caused by flammable dope rather than by hydrogen gasbags; he has portrayed the popular conception of that event because he considers it more true to the genre.

Or, more concisely and more generally (after I decided not to include various details of the Hindenburg incident):

Note: The author is aware that this story contains numerous scientific, technological, geographical, and historical inaccuracies.

Fortunately, by the time the story was ready to submit, I had decided the note was unnecessary. I think it's probably reasonably clear to any reader who would really care about such things that I was playing fast and loose with real-world details. And the note would've been a bad idea anyway; I keep telling authors to trust the strength of their material, and I think adding that kind of disclaimer to a story is often a sign of lack of such trust.

1 Comment

Yeah, the disclaimer? I like to think I would have made you take it out.

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