Thursday, September 1, 2016

History of Flight: Unpowered Flight

If you had to guess where would you say the first lighter-than-air craft was invented?

If you said China, you're either-well versed in history or you know how to game a short-answer test. Because, let's be honest here, the Chinese have invented 90% of everything. If you're ever on Jeopardy and the hint starts with, "The first place to invent…" Don't even read the rest of the question. Just buzz in and say, "What is China?"

First in Flight

Kongming Sky Lanterns
CC Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons
First documented in the 3rd century CE, the sky lantern is a hot-air balloon with an envelope made of paper and a fire slung underneath. Its invention is usually credited to Zhuge Liang, a military strategist of the Three Kingdoms period, and to this day is also called by his courtesy name, Kongming. Originally used as a psychological weapon to spook the hell out of enemy troops,[1]  Kongming lanterns were later used for military signaling, and by civilians during Mid-Autumn and Spring Festivals,[2] to create a festive river of light rising thousands of feet into the air.

Europe would not replicate this technology until 1709, when Bartolomeu de Gusmão flew a paper balloon of the same basic design as the Kongming lantern to a height of 12 feet[3] . De Gusmão is thus regarded, by several sources I discovered while researching this article, as the man who proved that hot air can buoy up a lighter-than-air craft. Yeah, nice try. You've proven that hot air can buoy up more than just balloons.

And while we're on the subject, do you know where the first heavier-than-air craft was invented? Yeah, that was China, too. That aircraft is the kite, invented in China in the sixth century CE, if not earlier[4] . Like the sky lantern, the kite was not just a plaything, but an instrument of war. They could be used by city garrisons to send signals to friendly forces during sieges, or by military units who were cut off and unable to communicate their predicament by any other means[5] . They could be flown over enemy walls, and the length of the string used to calculate the distance that sappers should dig to, in order to undermine the defenses[6] . They were even used in psyops operations. Propaganda messages were written directly onto the paper of the kites, which were flown up and over enemy lines, then dropped by cutting the strings[7] . In civilian use, kites were employed in an aerial form of long-line fishing, in which a line and hook could be suspended from the kite, well away from the shadow of the boat[8] .

But surely the first human being to fly was Orville Wright? Or, if not him, then Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, the first man to ascend in a tethered hot air balloon in 1783?

Go Fly a Kite - Yuan Huangtou EditionSo, do you remember what I said earlier about buzzing in quickly if you're ever on Jeopardy? Yeah. The first documented human being to achieve flight was Yuan Huangtou, the son of a deposed Chinese emperor, in the 6th century CE. It wasn't as auspicious an event as you might be imagining, however. Guinness wasn't there, for one thing, and Yuan Huangtou was a prisoner of Gao Yang, a man who combined the traits of a scientific tinkerer with those of a true psychopath. Yuan Huangtou and other prisoners were tied to kites and thrown off the Tower of the Golden Phoenix in Ye. Alone among these unwilling pioneers of aeronautics, his kite actually flew, traveling a distance of two and a half kilometers before landing safely[9] . Compare this to Orville Wright's famous flight, which covered a paltry 37 meters, though of course Orville's flight had the distinction of being both powered and voluntary.

There are even stories of Lu Ban inventing a kite capable of lifting a man into the air as early as the 5th century BCE, for surveillance or as a platform for archery[10] . Historians usually regard these stories as exaggerations of Lu Ban's achievements, if not outright apocrypha, but the idea isn't as absurd as it may seem. 19th century inventors, Samuel Franklin Cody most famous among them, revisited the concept by building war kites that could lift not just one but several observers up to altitudes of thousands of feet, for as long as the wind remained steady. Many of these kites were made from nothing more than hemp, silk, cotton, and bamboo—all materials that were available in China in the 5th century. Which is to say, it's unlikely but not inconceivable that Lu Ban beat Cody to the punch by two and a half millennia.

Europe Discovers Finally Figures Out Flight

But whoever may have first invented the manned kite, credit for the first manned balloon goes to the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Etienne, of France. The Montgolfiers were paper manufacturers, because it just keep coming back to paper, doesn't it? Say, who was it that invented paper, again? I don't know, probably some white dude, right?

ANYWAY. The Montgolfiers got their start in the business of flight by experimenting with paper balloons and various buoyant substances. They first tried steam, but found that steam and a paper balloon don't go together super well. Then, learning of Henry Cavendish's experiments with hydrogen—then called "inflammable air"—they tried to fill their paper balloons with that. It didn't work, the hydrogen leaking out too quickly to provide buoyancy, but at least they didn't blow themselves up[11], so let's file that under "blessing in disguise."

Their breakthrough came in 1782, when Joseph noticed flecks of ash rising up a chimney. Believing that the smoke from the fire was permeated with a heretofore unknown type of buoyant gas, he named it Montgolfier Gas[12] . Personally, I would have gone with "De Gusmão, No Wait I Meant Zhuge Liang or, Oh I Don't Know, Maybe About Three Hundred Million Chinese People With Sky Lanterns Gas," but I guess that wasn't catchy enough. By any other name, however, the brothers had a solid foundation on which to build ever-larger hot air balloons. In tests conducted in 1782 and 1783, they lofted unmanned paper balloons of up to 20,000 cubic feet, reaching estimated heights of over a mile.[13] 

In a classic case of snobbery being the mother of invention, the French Academy was pissed that a couple of paper mongers had beaten them to a lighter-than-air balloon, and so commissioned Jacques Charles to duplicate the Montgolfier brothers' creation. Charles was confident of success, though it turned out he didn't have a clue how the brothers' balloon operated. He planned to buoy his own balloon with Cavendish's inflammable air, and lucky for him, paper was not a politically acceptable envelope material. Instead, he outsourced the job to brothers Marie-Noel and Anne-Jean Robert, who had developed a means of coating silk with rubber to make a tough material that retained hydrogen gas for long enough to loft a balloon.

It worked, and the test balloon ascended three thousand feet above Paris before drifting away and coming to a landing in the village of Gonesse. There, believing it had come from the devil, the villagers attacked the balloon with pitchforks, flails, and at least one firearm, before tying it to a horse and dragging it across the countryside[14] .
Montgolfier Balloon Being Assaulted by Peasants in Gonesse
From Astra Castra: Experiments and Adventures in the Atmosphere

So, do I even need to point out that there are no recorded cases of Chinese villagers committing aggravated assault against a Kongming lantern? No? Okay then, let's move on.

The aerial competition between the Montgolfiers and Jacques Charles was now on. The Montgolfiers came back strong, lofting living passengers aboard a flying machine for the first time in European history in September of 1783. Those passengers were a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. In the presence of King Louis, they were sent up in a wicker basket slung under a balloon decorated with the royal arms. The animals came down intact from an estimated height about 1,700 feet, confirming that life could survive at the lofty altitude of… well, a smallish hill. Seriously though, some scientists doubted that[15] .

First Manned Flight (Subcategory: Voluntary)

With those naysayers out of the way, the race was on to take a person into the air. Again, the Montgolfiers were first in Europe. That is, they were the first to build a balloon that could do it. They weren't the first to go up in it—are you crazy? They sent some snot-nosed kid up ahead of them, and so Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier made the first tethered flight, less than a month after the concept was proven on a sheep[16] .
Montgolfier Hot Air Balloon Tethered Flight

Another month saw another breakthrough from the Montgolfiers: sending not just one but two poor bastards up in a balloon, and cutting the cord. It was Rozier again, joined this time by Marquis François-Laurent d'Arlandes. The Marquis was a last minute substitution, by order of the king. Louis had actually wanted condemned criminals to be the first to make an untethered flight, but Rozier wasn't hearing it. He talked to the Marquis, who talked Louis out of robbing Rozier of his glory. Louis agreed, with one condition: that the Marquis accompany him. Because even kings have a sense of humor.

The aeronauts rode on a wicker balcony surrounding a brazier on the underside of the balloon. They carried a supply of straw, which they were supposed to steadily feed onto the fire, though the Marquis was distracted by the sights passing below and had to be continually reminded of his task. He was also somewhat distracted when the balloon caught fire. No bigs, though. He spotted it in time and put it out with a wet sponge. If he hadn't been quite so on the ball, they would have come down in a flaming wreck onto the rooftops of Paris.[17]  As it was, they crossed the Seine and came down safely on the opposite side of the city.

Late but not to be outdone, the Robert brothers replicated the feat ten days later, sending Nicolas-Louis Robert—the elder brother—and Jacques Charles up in a hydrogen balloon. With no need for a brazier, their balloon featured a boat-shaped gondola, beating the Montgolfiers on style by a wide margin. They also beat them on duration, staying up two hours where the first untethered flight of the Montgolfier balloon—depending as it did on a continuous supply of fuel to stay aloft—only lasted half an hour.

Ebullient at the achievement, Charles stayed aboard after they'd landed. Once the elder Robert disemballooned, he signaled the ground crew to let go and went back into the air. Which was rather poor judgement on his part, since he hadn't considered the reduction in ballast from his departing co-pilot. He shot up to 10,000 feet so quickly that he saw the sunset twice in one day: once from the ground and again from aloft, having risen to an altitude where it hadn't yet gone down. As cool as this may sound, I wouldn't try it at home. Charles certainly didn't recommend it. He described an excruciating pain in one ear, and vented hydrogen to bring himself back down[18] . After that little misadventure, he never flew again[19] .

The Sky Conquered

At the beginning of 1782, the lighter-than-air balloon was a festive tradition and niche tool of military signalling, so unknown in Europe that Joseph Montgolfier thought he'd discovered hot air and tried to name it after himself. By the end of 1782, a human being had gone to 10,000 feet and returned safely to Earth.

The years to come would see even greater feats. In 1784, the balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard flew a distance of 70 miles. In 1785, he crossed the English Channel[20] . The age of the aeronaut had arrived, opening up a literal new dimension in human endeavors. The question, "Will Man ever fly?" had been resoundingly answered.

The only question that remained was, "So, uh, how do we use this to kill each other?"

We'll see how it was answered in the next article.

For further reading, check out the references listed below. I also recommend Ken Liu's phenomenal The Grace of Kings, which incorporates many of the above inventions into an epic fantasy setting.

 [1]Yinke Deng, Ancient Chinese Inventions, 131-132


 [3]Anderson, Flight and Motion, 120

 [4]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 577.

 [5]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 577.

 [6]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 577

 [7]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 577.

 [8]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 576.

 [9]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 588-589

 [10]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 573.

 [11]Payne, Lighter than Air, 1-2


 [13]Collier, The Airship, 16

 [14]Payne, Lighter than Air, 3

 [15]Payne, Lighter than Air, 4.

 [16]Payne, Lighter than Air, 4.

 [17]Payne, Lighter than Air, 6-7.

 [18]Collier, The Airship, 20

 [19]Payne, Lighter Than Air, 10

 [20]Collier, The Airship, 20

Wednesday, August 31, 2016




Check out the cover reveal at, right here!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review: Dreamrush by Garrett Calcaterra

Dreamrush is a collection of short stories, so I'll review them each individually.

The Knight's Dog

The description says this is often compared to Game of Thrones, and it's easy to see why. As soon as you're juxtaposing a knight bleeding out with a mastiff's pendulous scrotum, you know your fantasy has gone beyond pretty elves and manichean battles between good and evil. But don't think that, just because you've read G.R.R. Martin, this story won't hold any twists and surprises for you. The Knights Dog is a solid, grounded, gritty piece of short fiction, and a great opener for this collection.

Page Fault

My favorite of the collection. "Page Fault" is the dual narrative of a far-flung apocalyptic future where a tiny nucleus of survivors ekes out a pitiful existence, defending banks of ancient computers which store the digitized personalities of the bulk of humanity, allowing them to live on in simulated realities. But the glorious digital immortality promised to the digitized survivors comes with unsurprising caveats and conditions. For one, the primary simulated world was designed to run on the same rules as ours, including a stratified society of haves and have-nots. Worse, it seems that some of the haves have figured out how to rewrite the rules for their own benefit. Worse still, in the outside world, the barbarians are at the gate, and the lives of millions are on the line. If this sounds like I'm gushing, it's because I am. This is such an inventive, well-written, and fun story. Crossing genres in new and interesting ways, it combines Mad Max with Snow Crash, then throws in a dash of Al Capone and World of Warcraft. I love it!

Deus ex Aurum

Grounded in the actual history of the California gold rush, "Deus ex Aurum" tells an alt-history story of James Marshall. In reality, Marshall was among the party who first discovered gold, but was bum-rushed by prospectors and never reaped the rewards of his discovery. In this story, we see what might have happened if Marshall sought compensation by way of the supernatural. I liked this story overall, but I think it failed in one important aspect: the attempt to explore the forgotten cultures of the gold rush. While the portrayals of Chinese-American and Nisenan characters were mostly informed and respectful, I was disappointed right off the bat by a wizened-magical-Chinese-man stereotype. Things got a lot better from there, but the story is still fundamentally focused on a white guy. There's a parallel narrative from the perspective of Marshall's Nisenan friend, Meesham, but even his narrative is still centered on Marshall. This is still a good story, but it would have been a great story if it ditched the stereotype character, and if it had more and stronger parallel narratives that really belonged to Nisenan, Chinese-American, and Mexican-American characters.

Gold Comes Out

This is a fun one! Set in the same alternate, gaslamp reality as "Deus Ex Aurum", "Gold Comes Out" follows pirate captain Jardine, who's still plying the waters and seeking his fortunes long after the age of piracy has come to an end. Without spoiling things too much, by the mid-19th century, being a pirate is neither safe nor easy. When Jardine enters the world of the gold rush, he begins plotting the greatest individual act of piracy ever imagined. You just can't go wrong with an enjoyable adventure/heist story set against an interesting, well-imagined backdrop.


I haven't read the Dreamwielder books, which this is a prequel to, but I plan to now. A tale of loyalty and betrayal, "Wulfram" follows the eponymous character as he seeks out the last heir of a kingdom in upheaval. Wulfram is a fascinating character. He was magically twisted into a living weapon during some previous war, and is now striving to rediscover the nurturing side he lost, as he tries to protect this child king. I believe he's one of the villains of the Dreamwielder series, but he appears here as a tortured soul, caught between worlds. This is a great short, and I can't wait to read the books.


Wonderful short fiction. Grab this collection if you like gaslamp fantasy, genre bending, gritty fantasy, or if you just want some bite-sized stories that you can read start-to-finish before bed. As of this writing, the collection is priced at $8 for a paperback or $4 digital, which for 124 pages of solid fiction is quite reasonable. Highly recommended!

Bloggity and Authory Updates

Hello, loyal readers! I just wanted to give you a quick update on my impending fame and fortune (fame and fortune not available in all states.)

  • The Guns Above is still looking at a summer 2017 release. I am excited and terrified.
  • I'll have a new website going live in a couple of months, but this blog will be staying right where it is. You'll start noticing some changes to the appearance, to better match the theme of the website, but you won't have to change your bookmarks.
  • Instead of my previous schedule of small weekly articles, and my more recent habit of big long stretches of nothing, I'll be doing one highly researched, long-form article per month. Those will post on the first of the month, starting next month. For September's article, I'm thinking of doing something on the early history of the airship.
  • I'll also try to post something lighter once a week, on the old Wednesday schedule, but consider that a very soft promise (like my parents' wedding vows.) If my life decomplexificates itself anytime soon, we'll go to a firmer or more frequent schedule.
  • On a more personal note, I'm going to try my hand at writing a short story for the first time in seven years. Since it's been so long, I'm easing back into it with one of my most milquetoast and unimaginative ideas, about a Texas cowboy having adventures with an alien sidekick that communicates only through body odor. So, definitely keep an eye out for that one. It has Nebula Award written all over it.
And now, a review!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit is amazing. I love the characters, in all their scheming glory. I love the immersive world building, the no-hand-holding style of dropping the reader into a truly alien setting where the very rules of reality are altered by changes to the calendar. I love the smooth prose, the little moments that give characters life, the awkward exchanges, the unusual hobbies, the triumphs and the sudden plunge into cold water of reversed fortunes. I love the density of themes: shared belief, loyalty, games, hobbies, mathematics. Yes, I loved the math. And I say this as someone who has always hated math.

Most of all, I love that nothing is a mere gimmick. The techno-magic system is original, fleshed out, and interesting. You rarely see that. There's a lot of pulp out there that manages one of the three, and good stuff that manages two, but nailing all three is rare. And this approach to deep, fresh ideas flows through every aspect of the book. Every little detail is weird and wonderful, and the implications of every detail are thoroughly explored. Nothing is window dressing here. Nothing is a gimmick.

This is essential reading for anyone who likes military sf. And I mean essential. It's an entirely new take on the genre, and you simply can't say you understand that genre if you haven't read it. In fact, if you haven't read it, I don't even want to be around you. Apart from how one-sided our conversation will be, as I gush on and on about this book while you stand mute, I'm a little worried that your unenlightened presence might destabilize the space around you. So read it.

Yours in Calendrical Heresy,

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Book & Blog News

Whoa. Wrong book.

As good-hearted people who read the comments section may already know, I finally managed to trick someone into publishing one of my novels. All that time spent training with Tibetan masters in the shadow arts that cloud men's minds has really paid off. And people say FSU is just a party school.

The novel is titled The Guns Above, and it'll be available from Tor Books sometime next year. And yes, it's that Tor Books. I know, right?

I'll give you more details and excerpts and suchlike in the months to come. For now, let's call it an action-adventure gunpowder fantasy, and tease you with this pitch:

For years, Auxiliary Lieutenant Josette Dupre has served loyally in His Majesty's Royal Aerial Signal Corps, whose fragile airships are the army's eyes on the battlefield. When, by royal decree, she becomes the first woman to command an airship, Josette finds herself caught in a tempest of politics and prejudice. Her crew is skeptical of her abilities, her commander has taken a personal interest in destroying her career, her new airship is an untested deathtrap, and the army has sent an observer to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision. At this point, she only hopes she can survive long enough to be killed by the enemy.

So it's kind of like Aubrey-Maturin on an airship, which is a book I'd buy in a heartbeat. So, insofar as I'm highly representative of the average American... Shit. Well, Tor has a great marketing department, anyway.

They also have the world's best editor, Diana Pho. This is not me sucking up, by the way. It's an objective fact. I did the math. She also moonlights as the founder of Beyond Victoriana, an award-winning multicultural steampunk blog that challenges the community to recognize a world which extends beyond the suburbs of London.

And of course I have to thank Paul Lucas of Janklow and Nesbit, who would be the world's best agent, except that Justin Beiber's agent must surely have signed a deal with Lucifer or something. Paul's definitely the world's best literary agent, though, and the most patient agent of any sort. Because really, he would have to be, wouldn't he?

That's the book side of things. But you ask, hat and/or heart in hand, (and in the latter case, ew,) what does this mean for the blog?

The blog will still exist, but it may not stay here. My tentative plan is to integrate it into a dedicated website geared towards publicity sometime in the next few months. The current blog just isn't well tuned for tricking you into buying my books. I mean, I'm looking over it now, and I can't even tell what my own name is. (Seriously, though, what the hell is my name? If you know, please send me an e-mail at... umm... Does anyone know my e-mail address?)

In the meantime, I'll be trimming the fat around here. That means, starting within the next few weeks, articles will begin to disappear due to issues of popularity, incongruous theme, relevance, or too-much-cursing-even-for-me-which-is-really-saying-something-let-me-tell-you. So, if your taste is bad enough to want to read a particular article of mine, but not quite so bad that you already have, you might want to go ahead and get that done, because it may disappear at any time.

Sometime in the summer to fall timeframe, I'll start doing regular articles again. They probably won't be weekly, as they were before, because a combination of book stuff, day jobs, and criminal activity doesn't leave me as much spare time as I once had. So we'll aim for monthly at first, with smaller updates in between, and see how that goes.

And finally, let me apologize for the paucity of substantial articles over the past few... [checks archives] holy shit, it's been, like, over a year. Why the hell is anyone still reading this? That's just an irrational level of dedication, right there. In other words: the best level of dedication. So leave a note in the comments, and on the day I finally rule this world, you will be rewarded with land and power.