On Fiction and What-If Modelling

As a writer of both fact and fiction, any even faintly novel or controversial factual study runs the danger of being accused of muddling the two. Of course any historical novel or hard sci-fi must judiciously and cunningly interweave them. So, quite contrary to the accusation, the writer who embraces both fact and fiction must be an expert in the distinction between them, and at detecting flaws in their interweaving. Some of our greatest writers on factual matters, such as HG Wells, Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, have also been past masters at science fiction. Fred Hoyle published both papers on his steady-state cosmological theory and SF novels such as The Black Cloud, and nobody doubted which was a serious scientific hypothesis and which was imaginative fiction. That is no coincidence.

And yet in my what-if aircraft concoctions, I find that this distinction alone is not enough to guide me. Whiffing – making models of what-if imaginings – has exploded in recent years, both from the kit manufacturers and from the enthusiastic "kitbasher" plumbing the depths of their spares box. Many of these kits of course are copies of machines which have appeared in F&SF media, especially TV series such as Thunderbirds or Star Trek, and films such as Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. Others are re-imaginings of cancelled projects; German WWII jets are a favourite there. Many a kitbasher likes hanging extra bells and whistles on their favourite warplane, until it looks like more like a mechanical hedgehog than a sky bird. In all this, my eye sees a sharp distinction between realistic fiction on the one hand and pure fantasy on the other.

A fantasy craft is all about the looks and the dream, it need bear no relation to practical engineering, and indeed the creator may be entirely clueless about such things. On the other hand a fictional aeroplane is a genuine might-have-been; what the creator might have done if they had been a professional aero engineer at the right place and time. The more the fictional designer knows of the engineering disciplines involved, the more convincing will be the design.

Now, in the real world of aviation, there is a sense in which every plane starts its life in the world of F&SF. The most soundly-engineered success story spends its first days, even years, as a piece of imaginative fiction. The purpose of the development programme is to harden up the engineering and weed out the fantasies. Even here, design decisions are made surprisingly often on the basis that it "looks right". Only as it takes shape on the factory floor and emerges on its first successful flight does it move from fiction to historical fact. Many such successes have their failed rivals, the ones that never left the realm of what-if; there have always been the losers. From the lone mad inventor to the unlucky corporate, they litter the streets of never-never land. And in many of these cases, their downfall was built in; the problem was not with any hard engineering of the proposed future, but was an unintentional fantasy element in the conception and planning of that future. Whether massively dominant or a minor moment of indiscretion, a fantasy plane is never going to fly. That fantasy might be an insane vision of a flying saucer or a submarine-spaceplane, or it might be no more than an unconvincingly optimistic cost or performance estimate.

The same phenomenon occurs in the world of the what-if modeller. Many a commercial kit of some unbuilt project reproduces its fantasy as faithfully as every other part of it. Those kitbashed hedgehogs utterly fail the power-to-weight needs of the practical warplane, even if there is room in the fuselage for all the additional weapon systems avionics. At the very least, any fictional engine upgrade would need its air intakes enlarging for the extra mass flow, and the increased power and weight, combined with clutter disturbing the aerodynamics, would need a lot of extra fuel tankage to maintain a viable operational range. The real-life story of the F-16XL (pdf) offers a case in point (and a fabulous basis for whiffing!).

In my what-ifs, I try hard to keep the fiction and the fantasy separate in my mind. Indeed, part of the fun is to take some unworkably fantastic scheme, say the Handley Page "Sycamore" slewed flying-wing passenger plane, and develop convincing-sounding technologies to camouflage the fantasy. HG Wells once explained that he had done exactly that for his novel The Time Machine. He knew perfectly well that time is not a "dimension" in the same physical way that those of space are, but it offered such a neat (and fashionable) gimmick for his time-travelling hero that he used it to wrap his impossible fantasy time machine in. Thus, the reader was carried seamlessly past the awkward moment in the narrative and back onto the plausible fiction. You will find such games, for example, in my "study" of the Blohm & Voss Bergahorn. On the other hand, with my DH.88A Meteor, I tried hard to get the engineering and historical setting right, and in consequence have twice had to substantially alter the backstory. Some of my Fantasy What-If Aircraft come close to the borderline, being perhaps technically feasible but historically too far from the wider realities.

The fun for the more informed observer is to try and spot the seams in my concoctions, to tease apart fact from fiction from fantasy. Even among experienced aero engineers, the disagreements can be startling. Where did Handley Page's technology challenge end and my cynical judgement as fantasy begin? (Hint: Boeing later did some revealing theoretical studies of the concept's flight dynamics). And that, for me, is what what-if models, indeed all historical and futurist fiction, are all about; not only to entertain but thereby to make you stop and think, and maybe even to learn something new.

Updated 15 May 2023