There’s a joke that does the rounds on Twitter every so often that somewhere around 2015 or 2016 we slipped into an alternative timeline. One of the bad ones where your cuddly best mate wears an eyepatch and jackboots and everyone’s suddenly got sinister facial hair. This would, in a way, be a comforting notion, except that it can easily be disproved with one simple look to the sky. If this really were a parallel world, even one of the bad ones, the sky would be filled with the silent, graceful shapes of airships gliding serenely back and forth. Nothing says ‘parallel universe’ like an airship. From Fringe to Doctor Who, from Wolfenstein to Bioshock Infinite, if you want people to know they’re on the path not taken, bung a Zeppelin in the sky and, to be honest, you may not even need the evil goatees.
I’ve had a bit of a thing for airships since I was in my teens. I loved – and love – all airships, but it was the great steampunk contraptions of wood and cloth and wrought iron that had me most under their spell. Where the ‘ship’ is taken literally and a creaking old galleon is slung implausibly and enchantingly beneath bulging balloons. Games love them too – they’re most associated with JRPGs, although I think it must have been in Super Mario Bros 3 that I first encountered them. But the airship that really sparked my love affair was in a much more obscure place. Does anyone remember the Fantastic Worlds expansion pack for Civilization 2? Anyone remember the airship units? I do. For some reason that unit captivated me. I loved it, in all its tiny, pixellated glory. I couldn’t find a picture of it. Sorry. Take my word for it, though: that was a good airship.
The history of fantasy flying machines goes back further than you might think. Both the ancient Greek playwright Euripides and the historian Herodotus give the vengeful sorceress Medea a flying chariot drawn by dragons, which she uses to escape Athens after murdering her children.