A review of His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine by S. C. Gwynne

Reviewed by Carole McDonnell

His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine
by S. C. Gwynne
May 2023, Hardcover, 20 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1982168278

The history of mechanics, especially failed mechanisms, can be intriguing or exhausting when written by an historian who researches every nook, cranny, bolt, and screw. His Majesty’s Airship is written by such an historian. Now, whether it is intriguing or exhausting depends on the mind of the reader. Some readers might wonder why Gwynne would feel the necessity of putting all – or nearly all– his research into the book, while others, especially those who are fascinated by how great egos, narcissism, obsessions, imperialism, marketing skills and gullibility work together to create failure, will find the book exhaustive and intriguing.

Through these pages, politicians, governmental officials, and the general public are depicted as the self-blinded purveyors of invention. Which, in its humanistic way, challenges the mystique we generally have about the greatness of invention. The author, though not persistently or intrusively humorous, shows his personality often. One pictures him shaking his head here, rolling his eyes there, or holding his head in dismay at how humans –usually those with a great deal of power, money, patriotism, and marketing skills—could go about being so self-deceived about a system of machinery for so long that it could lead to disaster.

The book is primarily a history of airships and national pride. Throughout its pages we encounter one or another obsessive character who has a glorious vision, who is great at self-promoting, and who – all evidence to the contrary– believes he can attain the impossible. A safe, powerful, fast-moving airship. But all, all, are either building their vision upon faulty information, bad and dangerous science, and airy visions. The author’s decision to interweave the fatal last trip of R101 with backstory is fun and suspenseful but also somewhat akin to fishing where the reader is lured in and ready to be caught in the horrible disaster only to have the fisherman-historian loosen the tension line. This was frustrating in the beginning but after a while, the reader gets used to this narrative choice and pushes aside the need to see the devastating flames. It will come when it comes, one thinks, and reads ahead plunging into the next bit of backstory or side story.

At first, the reader is regaled with the self-regaling of these inventers—Zeppelin arguably being the worst, because it was upon his lies that form much of the foundation of all this airship visioning. Then, after an exhaustive tour of national imperialism from Germany, France, the United States, the book focuses on Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. It is here that we meet some of the major characters who will be the focus of the disaster of His Majesty’s Airship R101, the world’s largest flying machine. Lord Thomson, Ernest Johnstone, Captain Irwin, First Officer Atherstone, Michael Rope, Herbert Scott, and Reginald Colmore. (Princess Marthe hardly matters except as some distant vision of Thomson’s glory in the same way that joining the British Commonwealth by air is a distant vision.)  The reader looks on at these men with a combination of pity, anger, commiseration, and exasperation. There’s a bit of “serves-these-privileged guys right” attitude toward the arrogant (and drunk) who always get their way. Yet at the same time one’s heart goes out to the sane, good, silenced people who were on that doomed flight or who had to live with the regret of having been involved in the national delusion/debacle.

The book tells us something new. Certainly most people have never learned this much about airships. But it also tells us what we already know: Inventors and great men don’t always know best; they believe their own lies, they often do great deeds because of envy, unfulfilled desire, or insecurity. They have power to destroy the lives and careers of those who are less powerful. They exist in all ages, honing their skill at self-promotion. Their failures and rare successes change the world.

For better or worse, this book is exhaustively researched. For better or worse, the author doesn’t tell the story in chronological order. But for better or worse, it is a great book. Highly recommended.

About the reviewer: Carole McDonnell is a writer of Christian, supernatural, and ethnic stories. She writes fiction, non-fiction, poetry and reviews. Her novels are: Wind Follower, My Life as an Onion, The Constant Tower, Who Gave Sleep and Who Has Taken It Away?, The Daughters of Men, and The Charcoal Bride, A Town for Timothy, SeaWalker, The Chimeran Queen Her story collections are Spirit Fruit: Collected Speculative Fiction and Turn Back O Time and other stories of the fae of Malku. Her Scriptures books include Blogging the Psalms, A Fool’s Journey Through Proverbs, The Christian Laws of Attraction, The Dignity of Emotions: Ruminations on the Miracles of Our Lord, among others. Her book of Poetry is: The King’s Journal of Lost and Secret Things. She lives in New York with her husband, two sons, and their pets.