Thursday, March 29, 2007


Plok and I have created a new science-fiction subgenre. I am astounded.

Indeed, as the Bard put it: "My mind is aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention." That's from Resplendent Buttock-Cradles, one of his lesser-known works. No, really, it's in the same collection as Titus Andronicus and Troilus and Cressida. Would I lie to you?

Since I "invented" Heliumpunk, I feel authoritative enough to define it: "A future or near-future setting where anachronistic and obsolete technology is given a new lease on life, not just because it is cool, but for plausible reasons within the setting."

It's called Heliumpunk because Plok has posited an intriguing view of the future involving Zeppelins and circumpolar freight routes, made feasible by the excess helium created as a byproduct of the fusion process. I was immediately fascinated by the thought of obsolete technology suddenly re-emerging as once again viable, and thus was born a new subgenre.

It's not meant to be tongue-in-cheek the way Steampunk is, though it can be wryly amusing at times. Firefly did similar things with its "Wild West Space Travel" idea; I'm thinking specifically of the holographic saloon window that people could be thrown out of without damage to the bar fixtures.

Off the top of my head: The resurgence of the polearm as a melee weapon. The polearm, as you may or may not know, was originally a farm implement that the peasants put on a long stick when they decided to revolt. It was only after several of these revolts that it became clear that a polearm was really, really good at unhorsing knights, and from there it became a standard infantry weapon until finally being replaced by the rifle.

Fast-forward to the setting of Heliumpunk. Unless robotics and automation has increased remarkably, you're still going to have humans loading and unloading cargo. I can see many, MANY uses for a long stick (now perhaps made out of carbon fiber reinforced composite) with a curved hook, a cutting blade, and a sharp point: hooking cargo, cutting tow lines, etc. And I would further expect that both longshoremen and Zeppelin pilots would find a way to turn these into weapons again.

Again, all of this is very rough, but it's been consuming my thoughts all day. Plok and I are already sharing our ideas over email. Eris willing, maybe we can turn this into a novel.

A novel with polearm-wielding Zeppelin pilots flying over the Arctic whilst being pursued by multinational Helium conglomerates.


sean witzke said...

Refferring to Mel Brooks as the Bard... you are "everyone's new crush".

Also, are you familiar with Matt Wagner's The Aeiralist?

ZC said...

This is.. this is actually a really really good idea.

Jeff said...

if you check the dial on the Jeff-o-meter, it's buried in the freaking out section right about now.

This setting begs to have air pirates who are after your helium, flying around on crude gliders with harpoon guns and futuristic goggles.

Yes, the italic tag is the only html I know...why do you ask?

xrundog said...

Yeah, helium-punk! I'm thinking a reinvention of the Robin Hood tale. Except instead of a forest, it'll take place in the sky with airships and floating cities. Little John with a polearm. Robin with a crossbow (no guns around the airships please!). Hell yeah!

Leech said...

Hmm. Helium. Sounds tasty.


Sounds like fashion. Only with more ways to hurt people.

I like it! Will this be when Darwin-punk come around? Cause, I could so see "Idiot256 fell out of the zeppelin. Accidentally, just like Idiots 1-255. The sharp stabby stick was shoved into his torso to try and save him, as it was the only thing they tried. Again, just like Idiots 1-255"

plok said...

Actually, it's possible that the cities will be underwater ones...

Depends on what Erin thinks, though!

Jeff said...

how do you get a zeppelin to an underwater city?

my mind is blown.

stumpy said...

I love it!
When does it come out? Where can I buy it?
Is there going to be a "Stumpy" character in it?
(Everyone knows a truly great book has to have a stumpy in it.)

DemonicBunny said...

Sorry to burst your bubble, but isn't "we have invented a new genre" a bit pretentious?

I mean...

a. Isn't "retropunk" already an established genre?
b. Re-using old stuff because it's internally plausible, isn't that pretty much what the reinvention of BSG is doing?

bittercupojoe said...

There are a few problems with polearms as shupboard weapons:

First, their reach, while being wonderful in an open melee, is decidedly bad in close quarters, whether city streets or the confines of a vessel.

Second, and this is somewhat related to the first, there's the very real possibility of spearing something important accidentally with a polearm, like, say, the gas bladder necessary to keep the ship aloft.

Neither of these is insurmountable, of course. If the balloon is made of a sturdy, puncture-resistant material, the latter problem is solved. The former is tougher, but I'm sure something can be done, either by making the polearms telescoping or separatable, allowing them to be smaller weapons when needed.

Speaking of smaller weapons, in a similar theme, I could see the belaying pin and the hook coming back into vogue in this scenario. The hook, of course, is used for the moving of light cargo, and it is small enough to be useful in close quarters fighting. The belaying pin originally was used as a way to keep ropes tidy and tied up. It has since been replaced with a different and superior technology, but something similar could come about again for different purposes. What if, in addition or instead of a key, to operate a station on the ship, something different was required? Say a cylinder, about 1.5 - 2 feet long feet long, with a holoprojector in it that creates the correct interface for both whatever station it's at as well as the user? If they were sturdy enough, which they'd need to be, given that they'd be used by everyone from the captain on down to the lowliest box loader, they could make decent clubs in a pinch.

Additional interesting effect of helium freedom: abundantly available superfluids (helium can be cooled to a ridiculous level, creating a superfluid) allow for weird new applications like slowing light for artistic effects and the fact that helium never goes to a solid state can be exploited for all sorts of effects, along with being an abundantly available coolant for superconductors.

There's a dark side, of course, as whipits become the drug of choice for the poor.

Erin Palette said...

A quick search of Google does not reveal any information on "Retropunk" as a genre. Believe me, I looked.

I suppose BSG does qualify in a way, but here is the difference as I see it: BSG uses technology that is old from its own perspective, not from the perspective of the viewer. Heliumpunk uses tech that is outmoded even by today's standards and gives it new life.

You make great points, but I never said they'd be using the polearms to fight aboard ship. I'm seeing it more as a dockside thing, or perhaps for the climax when fighting atop the Zepplin.

Regarding hook and belaying pin... well, the hook was already taken care of with the polearm (which I'm going to start calling a gaff). I like the idea of a collapsible haft, but what if it could be disconnected in sections?

That way, you could have a regular 6-ft gaff; a foot-long truncheon; a 3-ft jo stick; or just the gaff head and a foot-long hilt for close quarters work. Or if you needed exra reach, I suppose you could add additional section to the shaft.

It's lego tech!

DemonicBunny said...

Well, if you want to go ahead with it look into the Cargolifter project (which unfortunatly went bankrupt in 2002), SkyCat and the military "superlifter" WALRUS HULA project. Not to mention the inspiring idea of the Orbital Airship (aka "the space blimp").

Blake Stacey said...

So, David Brin's Earth qualifies as heliumpunk thanks to its portrayal of "zep" travel?

Just trying to think of examples. . . .

DoubleTee said...

Shipping containers would help the practicalities of loading/unloading large amounts of cargo.

Multi-tool-toting labourers aren't as romantic as polearm-armed peasants, but perhaps more realistic.

Max Kaehn said...

You might want to check and see just how much energy you’re releasing into the environment to churn out that much helium...

Adam said...

Circumpolar cargo routes... hmm, possibly because the main oceans're too full of hurricanes and icebergs thanks to global warming, so shipping is pretty much finished?

Love the idea.

Monica said...

Erin, I have a small sign on my desk that says "Note to self: ROCK MUCH HARDER" on it, and tonight the inspiration comes from you.

Juan said...

that is just Stomp-on-the-head interesting to me....makes the mind wander.

Anonymous said...

and where all the characters speak in high-pitched voices ... could make for some interesting death scenes as people fall from their pirate planes screaming "noooo" 2 octaves above normal....

Emperor said...

Good call on the fusion/Helium link - I have been pondering this for a while (see for example a recent post here) and the Helium shortage was a big stumbling block.

To add to the idea flexible solar panels are being developed and so ultimately the envelope will be one big solar panel so the airship will require no additional fuel.

As the oil runs out we will have to adapt and airships are the future.

Also with the concept of older ideas coming back using modern materials technology also includes this like the Space elevator.

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