Is it a boat? Is it a plane? Is it a bad prop from Thunderbirds? No, it’s an ekranoplan:
Ekranoplans are both a technology that doesn’t quite fit, and a symbol of a mis-placed hope in the future. They are a weird combination of Cold War fetishism and the 1950s belief that if you bolt on enough jet engines, a pig will fly.
Charlie Stross thought up a whole universe just so he could write a story featuring an ekranoplan. Read it – Missile Gap*
The Soviets built some, some bloody huge ones. The Lun is as long as the biggest Airbus, the Caspian Sea Monster had ten engines and is possibly the longest aircraft ever. At some point when the Cold War turned hot(ter), they would come screaming over the horizon, lob some missiles our way and turn tail before we could respond. Ten times faster than a ship, with more payload than any bomber. For a very long time, all we had were photos like the one above.
And now, the Cold War is just a bad dream, and these huge machines are slowly rusting. You can see the only Lun ever built on Google Earth.
It’s amazingly futuristic and outdated. Here’s the on-board kitchen:
Engine control station, eight of them:
This is a Cold War dinosaur, and we’re in a dinosaur versus mammals world. Mammals understand technology development paths, and the need for evolutionary paths from new idea to saleable product. Big ekranoplans are more efficient than aircraft, but small ones suck arse. Gathering the capital to build a big one requires that you prove the idea with a small one, but small ones suck arse. And if you’re only building big ones, then you’re not going to build very many, you’re not going to go through the [build, use, redesign better] cycle very rapidly, so your technology gets left generations behind (see also: nuclear reactors, tidal dams for power generation.) Hence in an alternative universe, ekranoplans have been developed into ocean-crossing infrastructure, but in this universe, they are dead. You just can’t get there from here.
* – Well, ok, Missile Gap has a few other ideas in there. But really, I thinnk it’s just his excuse to have characters say:
“Your task is to take the Sergei Korolev, the first ship of its class, on an historic five-year cruise. You will boldly go where no Soviet man has gone before, explore new worlds and look for new peoples, and to establish fraternal socialist relations with them. “