AIRSHIPSFrom Fiction to Reality: Could Airships Be the Key to Greener Travel?

By Claire Elise Thompson

Published 4 May 2023

Airships have captured science-fiction writers’ imaginations — including Kim Stanley Robinson in Ministry for the Future. We examine the tech’s utility in the real world.

The Vision

“It was beautiful! And she was getting her work done. So — where had this obsession with speed come from, why had everyone caved to it so completely?

Because people did what everyone else did. Because first no one could fly, then everyone could fly, if they could afford it; and flying was sublime. But also now a crowded bus ride, a hassle.

And now, on most of the planes Mary flew on, people closed their window shutters and flew as if in a subway car, never looking down at all. Incurious about the planet floating ten kilometers below.”

— Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, p. 419

The Spotlight
Last month, we hosted our second Looking Forward book club gathering, exploring Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. Stan himself joined us to talk about how he approached writing science fiction set just a few decades from today, and his decision to make that future a hopeful one. In smaller groups, we discussed our reactions to the ideas presented in the book, as well as our own climate work and ideas.

One theme we didn’t get to was Stan’s vision of the future of travel. Ministry for the Future includes some memorable travel scenes; Mary Murphy, the ministry’s leader and one of the book’s protagonists, journeys from Switzerland to California by clipper ship and high-speed rail, enjoying the scenery and serenity. Later, she joins a wildlife observation tour on a dirigible (a type of airship). The passengers watch caribou migrating over tundra stretching to the horizon; they land on a snowy meadow, inaccessible by road, in Yosemite National Park to observe a family of wolverines. As they fly, they see other airships: “Giant robot freighters, circular sky villages under rings of balloons, actual clippers of the clouds sporting sails or pulled by kites, hot-air balloons in their usual rainbow array.”

Those visions of a world where airships are the predominant mode of sky travel resonated with many readers — and the idea that, in a sustainable world, long-distance travel will become slower, rarer, and more intentional. But how close are we to a future where that is the norm? For this newsletter, we’re taking a look at the future of air travel, and those who have chosen to forgo it in the present.