Polymath A (mostly) technical weblog for Archivale.com

December 3, 2009

Book Review (fiction): ZRS, by Rowan Partridge

Filed under: Aeronautics,Lighter than Air — piolenc @ 7:09 pm

Review of ZRS

by Rowan Partridge

Reviewed by F. Marc de Piolenc, ABAC. This review first appeared in Aerostation, Volume 24, Number 3, Fall 2001.

Published by Atlantis Productions, P.O. Box 700, Edgewater, Florida 32132-0700, USA. Softbound, coated cover. $25.00 + postage for the printed version, $10 for the ebook version on CD-ROM (in Microsoft Reader format).

A few days ago my post office box was graced with review copies of Rowan Partridge’s opus and Rich van Treuren’s Hindenburg: the Wrong Paint.., which reached my outpost of civilization in the southern Philippines with amazing speed. I started with ZRS, figuring that it would be the more difficult to review. It is after all a first work of fiction, and privately published, which in my sad experience portends a very difficult “read.” To my surprise and delight my fears were unjustified, and I raced through the book, pausing only for food, a few hours of sleep and the odd marginal note. The book was a damn’ good read, as it turned out, and I would have considered it money well spent if I had paid the list price. I cannot account for the excellent quality of this book, because I know nothing of the process of its production. Perhaps Mr. Partridge had the services of a good novel editor or book doctor; perhaps he is simply a very gifted writer – one who has the rare ability to look critically at his own work. That question will have to be answered by somebody else. Suffice it here that the results are worthwhile.

The two-dimensional characters, jerky action and implausible plot line that are “par for the course” with much privately published work (and an unjustifiably high percentage of “mainstream” publishers’ offerings as well) are absent. Indeed, Partridge takes on a very difficult characterization – that of co-protagonist Susan Briars, née Thornton – and pulls it off with riveting efficiency. Suzie emerges as a very difficult character to like or to identify with, but very easy to believe. Her husband, the Commanding Officer of the airship Long Island, is not quite as well developed; we see him mainly through Suzie’s eyes at the beginning of the book, and through his actions and utterances under fire as the plot develops.

Not surprisingly, considering the author’s citizenship, the real hero of the book is an Australian Naval officer originally detailed to observe US Navy LTA operations, who ends up filling an operations slot on the Long Island after Pearl Harbor, and much of the climactic action of the book centers on Australia.

The book is billed as an historical novel, but the label doesn’t quite fit. The canons of historical novelry require that pivotal historic events not be tampered with, preserving the broad outline of history as it happened. The fictitious characters and action have to be embedded in that unalterable matrix. The “history” of the world in which ZRS takes place, on the other hand, deviates radically from that of our universe, which puts the novel in the genre known as “alternate history.” Yet even that newly-recognized genre has its canons, which cannot be violated without taking the risk of negating the willful suspension of disbelief that is the core of the interaction between a novelist and his readers. Ideally, altering a single pivotal event or circumstance must give rise, plausibly, to the all the other differences between the novelist’s universe and that in the history books, and Partridge has almost attained that ideal.

His hypothesis is simply that the demise of rigid airships was due largely to bad luck compounded by hubris. If that postulate is accepted, then it is not difficult to see the presence or absence of key personalities – combining familiarity with the technique of lighter than air flight, military or political authority, and restraint – as the “driver” of all the key LTA events. Thus by saving one vital LTA figure (and one airship) from early extinction, Partridge works a fateful change in the development of rigid airship operations in the US Naval service.

In the world of ZRS, the Akron‘s encounter with the North Atlantic one stormy night is not fatal, as it was in sad historical fact. Instead, a waterlogged and damaged ship bounces back into the air and limps home, carrying Admiral William Moffett and an important lesson which Moffett will not hesitate to impart with all his authority and vigor. The survival of Moffett, a key figure if ever there was one, has a cascade effect on later events. The Admiral remains a champion of lighter than air development while recognizing the limitations of that technology. On the one hand, he pushes the construction of new ships, both in the corridors of the Navy Department and in the halls of Congress. On the other, he resists pressure to push the ships’ operations beyond their capabilities. In particular, he puts his authority and prestige behind the withdrawal of the damaged Macon from the West Coast fleet problem that would lead to her loss in our world – saving her, too, for another day.

Though nominally retired by the time the action in the book takes place, Moffett still figures as an extremely influential friend and elder statesman of LTA.

Other survivals include the R.101, which returns to the mast shortly after starting off on her maiden voyage to Karachi, the CO refusing to be responsible for the consequences when the overloaded, baulky ship encounters bad weather, and the Hindenburg, which was filled with helium as originally intended, the helium having been released to Germany thanks to the earnest lobbying of Admiral Moffett.

All the saved ships but Akron figure in the plot…as cannon fodder! Macon is destroyed on her mast at Ewa, Oahu, Hawaii, during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor; R101 is lost while evacuating wounded soldiers from Singapore (with the Australian officer’s wife, a nurse, aboard), and Hindenburg, now filled with hydrogen to maximize lift and making a liaison/cargo flight to Japan in the service of the deutsche Kriegsmarine, is destroyed by fighters from the Long Island.

With little to criticize on literary grounds, it is time to deal with some technical difficulties.

First, the airship Long Island:

She is an outgrowth (with the emphasis on growth – 12 million cubic feet!) of the Akron and Macon, most of whose salient characteristics she shares: deep frames, inboard engines driving pivoting propellers. But there is a jarring difference. The outer cover is now made of metal – presumably duralumin – bonded to the transverse frames and longitudinals with a mix of rivets and adhesive/sealant. This configuration Partridge calls “metalclad,” but it has no resemblance to the airships developed by ADC, Schwartz or Slate – it is simply a framed rigid airship with aluminum substituted for fabric in the outer cover. All the features of conventional rigids that can be dispensed with in a true metalclad are retained: fabric gas cells, shear wiring, netting and so on, along with their weight and (in the case of the cells) fragility. It is clear that the author is aware of at least some of the difficulties this hypothetical airship type presents, because he has Susan Briars (an MIT- and Stanford-trained engineer and a convert to LTA) criticize it bitterly. It seems, however, that the gas cells in particular are needed as plot drivers, as a casualty to two gas cells during airplane recovery operations is the source of the first major peril surmounted by the Long Island and her crew. How this configuration was chosen by the Navy over the much more sensible ones already proposed and proven is not explained, but the simplest surmise is that the unlikely combination of personalities and talents required to create the true metalclad types simply didn’t appear in ZRS‘ universe – and that really is more plausible than what actually occurred! After all, if a novelist had dared to use a character like, say, Fritsche or Slate in his work, he would have had difficulty making him credible to the reader.

Materials:The author refers to a sandwich consisting of a wood core with aluminum facings as “Alclad.” That name is in fact a trademark for an all-metal Alcoa product consisting of duralumin sheet with thin layers of pure aluminum on both faces for corrosion protection. Goodyear’s trade name for their balsa core, aluminum face sandwich material, used in blimp car structures among other places, is Bondolite.

Firearms: The author arms his Australian hero with a “.38 caliber Browning revolver.” To the best of my knowledge, John Browning had no interest in revolvers and spent his entire career on magazine-fed weapons.

[Note (December 2009): I have since learned that the Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre in Belgium, which produced and marketed many of Browning’s designs, obtained his permission to market a line of revolvers under the Browning name, even though he had no hand in their design. I don’t know whether any of them were chambered for a .38 caliber cartridge, but there certainly were “Browning” revolvers.]

Language:The lure of naturalistic dialog is almost irresistible, and the author yields to temptation, attributing some rather unlikely modes of speech to his American characters in particular. Naturalistic dialog requires careful research and immersion when operating with dialects other than the author’s own mother tongue, and it is clear that Partridge’s linguistic research could not match the meticulousness of his research into naval and LTA matters. This makes the often bizarre utterances of his characters a bit distracting, at least to an American reader. Of course he is in the good company of many noted British and Commonwealth authors, including Ian Fleming (who has one American villain say “Get the photo?” quite a lot), and even Agatha Christie, despite her American antecedents.

As for the German characters, their speech is straight Katzenjammer, not Hochdeutsch. Herr (or is it Doktor?) “Linstein,” the Goodyear engineer whom we meet briefly, is given to exclamations in “German” that would have had my instructors reeling. It is important in any case to note that real foreign-born educated speakers of English are proud of their ability to speak the acquired language, and are therefore very unlikely to lapse into the mother tongue in the first place, so having Linstein say “nicht verstehen!” is the equivalent in implausibility of having a modern, educated Frenchman yell “sacrébleu!” in conversation with American colleagues (only worse, because “nicht verstehen!” is not grammatically correct). Aboard Hindenburg, things get even more chaotic, as the helmsman of the Kriegsmarine Zeppelin is attributed the Army rank of Gefreiter (private first class or lance-corporal). The author even manages to misspell “jawohl” and “Kapitaen.”

Fortunately for us readers, both episodes are brief, and we are so thoroughly “hooked” by the time these hiccups occur that they make very little difference to the enjoyment of the book as a whole. The contrast between the photographic accuracy of the Long Island, her crew, ranks, positions and procedures, on the one hand, and the casual treatment of their German opposite numbers, on the other, is jarring nonetheless.

Plotting is little short of ingenious. The author has somehow managed to get one ship involved in nearly all the major events of the early part of the Pacific war: Pearl Harbor, the evacuation of Singapore, the Japanese raids on New Guinea and northern Australia, the Doolittle raid on Tokyo and the battle of the Coral Sea which closes the book. Only the Philippines get left out. He does this without obvious effort, the plot flowing smoothly and without resort to fantastic coincidence. One artifice in particular that he has not resorted to is making the ship “charmed” or invulnerable. Long Island is nearly lost early in the book and has to undergo extensive repairs Stateside; she ends her career draped across the deck of the carrier Lexington, riddled by Japanese airplanes in the Coral Sea battle.

Well worth the time and effort required to obtain a copy, this one is a “keeper.”

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