The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand is a lovely story. It is nominated for the 2011 Hugo for best novella and is (I believe) worth being on that list.
It is the story of three men–Robbie, Emery and Leonard. At one point (30 years before the story opens) all three had worked in the Smithsonian’s General Aviation Gallery. The curator, Maggie Blevin, had some rather odd ideas about the origins of powered flight. She documented these ideas in the self published “Wings for Humanity!” One of the ideas centered on a 17 second film clip of a powered flight of a vehicle called the Bellerophon flown by one McCauley. The clip showed the flight and crash of the air ship. In the clip there is a strange flash that precedes the crash. The partial destruction of this film clip presages the removal of Blevin as curator.
Now, 30 years later Robbie and Emery are recruited by Leonard to reconstruct the film clip and present it to Maggie, who is dying of cancer. Leonard has constructed a model of the Bellerophon–he bacame a model maker at the Smithsonian. Robbie has been muddling through life after his wife’s death from breast cancer. He’s been raising his son Zach as best he can with mixed results. Emery has been semi-successful after hosting a show somewhat like Mystery Science Theater 3000.
So, the three guys together with Zach and Zach’s friend Tyler head for Cowana Island, South Carolina, to re-film the 17 seconds.
That is the basic background of the story. There are some mysteries to find on the trip and I’m not talking about those. I will mention that Hand does a wonderful job with settings. Passages like the following provide us with great imagery:
He began to see palmettos among the loblolly pines and pin oaks, and spiky plants he didn’t recognize. When he opened the window, the air smelled of roses, and the sea.
“Hey.” He poked Zach, breathing heavily in the seat beside him. “Hey, we’re almost there.”
He glanced at the directions, looked up to see the hybrid passing him and Emery gesturing at a sandy track that veered to the left. It was bounded by barbed wire fences and clumps of cactus thick with blossoms the color of lemon cream. The pines surrendered to palmettos and prehistoric-looking trees with gnarled roots that thrust up from pools where egrets and herons stabbed at frogs.
I enjoyed this story quite a lot. Interesting characters, great imagery and a nice touch of mysterious background.