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'Guns Above' full of witty dialogue, airships and women with guns

Mountain View scientist's steampunk fantasy inspired by Poe

With a view of Moffett Field from her apartment, Mountain View author Robyn Bennis has airships on her mind.

Her preoccupation is not only due to the proximity to the former home of the Akron and the Macon, two of America's largest airships from the '30s. Lighter-than-air warfare is the subject of her debut fantasy novel, "The Guns Above," published by Tor Books on May 2.

Set in an alternate version of pre-Industrial Age Europe, "The Guns Above" follows Josette Dupre, the first female airship captain in the Garnian Air Corps. Newly installed aboard the Mistral, considered a untested deathtrap, she patrols the front lines as Garnian troops battle their Vizhalian counterparts. The motley crew doesn't respect her, and to make matters worse, she's being spied upon by Lord Bernat, a foppish royal reluctantly placed aboard the vessel by his scheming uncle.

Bennis, 37, grew up reading "hard" science fiction by Arthur C. Clarke ("2001: A Space Odyssey") and Frank Herbert ("Dune"), before discovering humorous fantasy by Terry Pratchett ("Discworld") and Mark Twain.

While in college, she encountered the work that would have the greatest impact on her own fiction, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin naval historical novels, including "Master and Commander" and "The Far Side of the World." The 21-volume series is set during the Napoleonic Wars.

"The series is funny. It's action-packed," Bennis said when reached by phone. "It is amazingly historically accurate. You really feel like you're on the deck of a sailing ship in the early 19th century."

Bennis said that she knew immediately that was the kind of writing she wanted to do at some point.

In addition to O'Brian, Bennis took inspiration for her characters and plot from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Balloon-Hoax." In 1844, Poe published in the New York Sun a literary prank about an English airship that had supposedly crossed the Atlantic.

According to Bennis, the piece offered "interesting, detailed scientific explanation of how the ship worked and the obstacles it had to overcome on the way."

She said, "It inspired me to make something along the same lines, a hard steampunk story with airships you almost could believe would really work and that you might build in your backyard."

The airships in "The Guns Above" are made out of plywood and wicker, which sounds far-fetched, until you learn that the Schutte-Lanz company actually made wooden airships in the early 20th century.

"They built them out of aspen wood," Bennis said, "and they flew quite well. They were actually competitors of the Zeppelin Corporation."

Bennis has a day job in biotech, as a consultant for Twist Bioscience in South San Francisco. A Florida native, she moved to Boston to work for company Millennium Pharmaceuticals after attending Florida State University.

"I was on a team looking at the relationship between certain genes and disease states -- heart disease, skin cancers and whatnot -- which could then be patented for drug targeting."

At Harvard University, she was a research associate in the Brainbow mouse study, which involved creating a gene that would turn on a randomly colored fluorescent dye in the neurons of mice, allowing scientists to map them from end to end.

She followed another company, eventually known as Cellective DX, to San Diego and then moved to the area about 10 years ago, when it set up shop there.

Her current employer, Twist, is in the business of rapid, gene-length synthesis of DNA. According to Bennis, they provide long DNA sequences to order for pharmaceutical research, data storage and chemical production.

"My job at Twist is mostly about breaking things. That's not a joke, and yes, it can sometimes be as fun as it sounds. You'll usually find me stress testing proposed new methods and equipment, seeing where the weak points are before they're integrated into the production line."

Although she definitely dislikes the rent, she appreciates the camaraderie she finds at places such as Clocktower Coffee Roasting Company, the cafe where she wrote much of "The Guns Above."

"Wonderfully eclectic group of people in there," she said. "They're all friendly and they all have wonderfully diverse backgrounds. You don't get that in Boston. I enjoyed Boston, but the people are grumpy all of the time."

"Grumpy" is an apt adjective to describe the protagonist of "The Guns Above."

"Josette Dupre is a stone-faced, cold-hearted soldier," Bennis said. "She's been stuck in the auxiliary corp of the air service for some time. Which means that she is not supposed to participate in any activity which might threaten her life."

The nation of Garnia does not want to rely on women in battle. But aboard an airship there's no such thing as a safe position. There's no such thing as being behind the lines.

Dupre runs into many instances where people dismiss her. They don't think of her as a valid voice at the table.

"I've been through that, as a woman in biotech," Bennis said. "It was a gratifying to write scenes where Josette was able to do what I've never been able to do -- which is just to say, 'OK, then forget you, too.' Brush them off and move on with your life."

Lord Bernat, by contrast, is a fop and a womanizer. Relentlessly rude and naïve, he was born into nobility. But as a second son, he's never going to inherit his father's lands and has no other way of supporting himself.

"He was just a delight to write," Bennis said. "A lot of his most viciously childish and sexist moments are based on things people have done to me. In real life, they never got their comeuppance, but I give some to Bernat."

Dupre and Bernat will return in "The Fire Above," a sequel to "The Guns Above," to be published next year. But Bennis and her publisher will have to gauge the success of the first volume before committing to further adventures.

Publishing a debut novel is all a little precarious, like building an airship out of wicker.

"It feels like my entire future prospects as an author are hanging on this moment, so it's a little frightening," Bennis said. "But it is also very wonderful."

"The Guns Above" is available at Amazon.com. For information about book tour dates, go to Robyn Bennis

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