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Flights of Fantasy and Fact: Man-made Wings in Literature and History subject of Dec. 3 program

Today’s guest blog post is by science fiction and fantasy author Fran Wilde, who will be visiting the Library on Dec. 3 to talk about “Flights of Fantasy and Fact: Man-made Wings in Literature and History”. Wilde is also a technology consultant and former engineering and science writer. Her short fiction has appeared in publications including Asimov’s Magazine, Nature Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Tor.com. Her first novel, Updraft (Tor, 2015), takes place high above the clouds, in a city of living bone.

Lithograph of man who flies with wings attached to his tunic. From the Library of Congress Tissandier Collection.

Lithograph of man who flies with wings attached to his tunic. From the Library of Congress Tissandier Collection.

For a ground-dwelling species, we sure dream a lot about wings. Even now, 112 years after the Wright brothers shifted attention from the glider to the propeller-engine model of the Wright Flyer I, the allure of wearable wings and un-engined flight* still calls to us in both fact and fiction.

Our most-Super superheroes fly. Our witches ride broomsticks. Our Hobbits are rescued by Eagles (repeatedly). Meanwhile, from The Metamorphoses to the Ramayana and beyond, human flight has numbered among the height of our aspirations and the greatest of our hubris.

Daedelus built wings of wax, string, and feathers that melted when Icarus flew too close to the sun. In the Ramayana, demi-god brothers Jatayu & Sampani also flew too close and fell. Bladud, a King of the Britons in 500 BC, was killed when he attempted flight from a temple in Trinovantum (London).

As early as 800 AD, we have records of wearable wings being tested. Abbas ibn Firnas, an Andalusian polymath, inventor, and poet, constructed wings and (according to Moroccan historian Ahmed Mohamed al-Moquarri) after “getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air.” From 636 AD, the Tang Dynasty chronicles man-lifting kites in the Book of Sui. Around 1125 AD the monk Eilmer of Malmesbury is recorded in Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings) by William of Malmesbury, as putting wings on his hands and feet and launching himself from a Malmesbury Abbey tower. “He flew for more than a furlong.” Both Abbas ibn Firnas and Eilmer of Malmesbury are said to have sustained injuries upon landing. More successful, in some ways, was Hezârfen Ahmet Çelebi, in Constantinople, who — according to the writings of Evliya Çelebi — from 1630-1632 “practiced flying over the pulpit of Okmeydani… with eagle-like wings… then flew from the very top of the Galata Tower and landed in the Donancilar Square.” He was later exiled to Algeria by Murad Khan.

Design drawings for a man-powered flying machine with manually controlled wings entitled, "Vélocipède aérien," proposed by Jean Jacques Bourcart, Paris, August, 1866. From the Tissandier collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Design drawings for a man-powered flying machine with manually controlled wings entitled, “Vélocipède aérien,” proposed by Jean Jacques Bourcart, Paris, August, 1866. From the Tissandier collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Dreamers, artists, and engineers continued to try. From Leonardo da Vinci, to Otto Lilienthal, to the Wright brothers, gliding and soaring has remained one of our dreams. Today’s wingsuit fliers — including Dean Potter (longest wingsuit jump of 4.7 miles, who passed away May 16, 2015 in Yosemite along with Grant Hunt), Jhonathan Florez (who holds the Guinness Book of World Records record for the highest wingsuit flight), Ellen Brennan (the fastest-flying woman in the world), and Jeb Corliss — stun us with the beauty, danger, and possibility of flight.

Meantime, in fiction, and especially in this year’s science fiction and fantasy, more are taking to the skies. You’ll find fictional wings made of silk and bone (my own Updraft [Tor 2015]), silk kites (Ken Liu’s silkpunk saga, Grace of Kings [Saga Press 2015]), and wax and deerskin (Alan Smale’s alternate history, Clash of Eagles [Random House 2015]). In movies and games, too, our imaginations are continually taking flight.

What does this say about us as a species, of our dreams for the future, and our technical aspirations? Man-made wings transform the individual and create an ability to glide unhindered by engines or fuel. If we achieve it, what then? I’m guessing the sky’s not the limit.

Cover of Fran Wilde's Updraft (Tor, 2015) , photo by Steven Gould

Cover of Fran Wilde’s Updraft (Tor, 2015) , photo by Steven Gould

On Thursday December 3, 2015, 12 p.m.- 1 p.m. Fran Wilde will speak about “Flights of Fancy and Fact: High-flying Tales and Real Man-Made Wings”and her recent book Updraft (ToR, 2015). This event will be held in Room LM 139 of the Library of Congress James Madison Building, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington D.C. This program is sponsored by the Library of Congress Professional Association’s  “What If…Science Fiction and Fantasy Forum” and the Library’s Science, Technology, and Business Division. The lecture is free and open to the public; tickets are not required. Copies of Wilde’s book will be available for purchase and signing following the program.

The Library of Congress has one of the best aeronautical collections in the world. Of special note are the Tissandier Collection that contains 6,000 items of which over 400 items have been digitized and made freely available online, L’Aerophile Collection with over fifteen thousand items from the French journal that documented the early history of aviation; and the Institute of Aerospace Science Archives that contain aeronautical subject files collected between the years 1939 and 1962 that document the first balloon flights to the development of the modern air force. There is so much more to discover you might want to explore our book Aeronautical and Astronautical Resources of the Library of Congress: A Comprehensive Guide (2007)

* Because you may wonder, and because I come from a family of engineers who will ask, I am restricting this discussion to wearable wings, man-made — so ballooning, glider planes, vimanas, and organic wings (whether bio-engineered, mutation, or angelic in origin) aren’t on the table, although these, too, have a rich place in our literature, history, culture and mythologies.




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