New Worlds: Three If by . . . Something Else

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Under normal conditions, human beings really only have two options for how to get someplace: go via land, or via water. But we’ve always stared at birds in the sky and thought about what it would be like to join them — plus, science fiction and fantasy writers have the option of positing travel via magic or imaginary technology. So let’s take a look at those possibilities.

When you say “flight,” most people’s minds will go to the Wright Brothers and their historic flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. But a decade or so ago the Science Museum in London had an exhibition on the history of flight, and it documented centuries’ worth of people strapping wings or rockets to their backs in the hopes of conquering the sky. Most of them, as you can imagine, met with painful failure.

Which isn’t to say we couldn’t make anything fly. Kites, bamboo-copters, and sky lanterns (small hot-air balloons) were invented in China, probably in the sixth, fourth, and third centuries BCE respectively, and were subsequently used both for entertainment and tasks like military signaling. Those designs don’t take much in the way of technological sophistication. Lifting the weight of a human being is harder, though — and once you’ve done that, you have to tackle the problems of stability and control.

The first manned balloon flight was in 1783. But hot-air balloons can only really be steered by adjusting your altitude to seek out suitable air currents — which is why one of the terms for an airship is “dirigible,” i.e. directable. These are aerostats, or lighter-than-air craft, and rely on the use of a lifting gas . . . which is part of their downside. Many of those gases are either toxic or extremely flammable, as the tragedy of the Hindenburg demonstrated. These vehicles contrast with aerodynes, heavier-than-air craft — e.g. the airplanes and helicopters we’re accustomed to — which use thrust to keep the craft in the sky.

Once we figured out how to get up there and move around, the next big challenge was infrastructure. Crossing the Pacific, for example, required building a network of airstrips on various islands where planes could stop to refuel, before we developed jets that could do it in one go. (Car travel had a similar problem, which we’re now repeating with electric charging stations, but creating the infrastructure is easier.) And when we step from air travel to outer space, that problem rears its head very significantly.

Getting something into space requires massive energy in order to escape the planet’s gravity. But fuel is heavy, and the more mass you’re trying to move, the more fuel you need, and around and around it goes in a loop, without much hope of a refueling station along the way. Once out in space, you can use an ion drive, but quite a lot of research effort has been poured into finding better methods — and here we cross the border from reality into fiction.

In some science fiction, space travel remains very much a long-term proposition. Either the vessel is a generation ship, with the descendants of the original passengers arriving at their destination, or the ship comes close enough to the speed of light that time dilates: less time passes inside the craft than outside it. But that kind of thing doesn’t allow for a galaxy-hopping adventure, so in fiction you’ll more often see some form of faster-than-light travel. These are all theoretical at best, outright impossible at worst, but for our purposes here, the interesting question is not their plausibility; it’s the effect they would have on the setting.

Take the idea of a wormhole — a natural phenomenon that allows rapid travel from one fixed spot to another. In a universe where these exist, control of these passages would immediately become a vital concern. It would affect shipping, migration, warfare, and more; polities would fight over the wormholes, charge fees for their use, and be worried when they don’t control both ends of the portal. And journeys would still be moderately long, because you’d have to travel to and from the termini, which presumably would be done at speeds slower than light.

That produces a very different world from one where any ship can just drop into hyperspace or some other equivalent and pop out again wherever they want to be. Writers have varied wildly (sometimes within the same setting) on how easy this is, what kinds of perils ensue, and how long a ship spends in transit . . . but if that kind of thing were possible, it would make for a very different set of problems. Now, instead of defending a known point, you have to cope with the possibility that vessels might appear anywhere, at any time, without warning. Controlling trade would have to be about controlling access to settlements rather than routes, and warfare would have to be about maintaining a highly mobile fleet that can go quickly to the site of any problem, rather than fortifying the equivalent of a mountain pass.

Fantasy has generally paid less attention to this than science fiction has. One notable exception is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series — not entirely surprising, given his own experience in Vietnam. At the outset of the story, the various magics that allow for rapid travel have been forgotten. Once they’re rediscovered, though, the characters do what you would expect: they begin to work out how best to employ those for all kinds of tactical purposes, ranging from espionage to surprise inspection visits to transporting armies across the land. Late in the story, some characters even open up gateways horizontally in the sky, allowing them to perform satellite reconnaissance on troop movements.

Allowing this kind of thing in a story means opening up multiple cans of worms. On the one hand, the advantages of being able to connect far-flung parts of the story without losing days or weeks or months to travel time can be very tempting. But when the author does that without thinking about the consequences, it cheapens the world, and sometimes undermines the drama instead of assisting it. The characters seem dumb for not thinking of the obvious applications; plot holes develop because someone could have used this technique but didn’t; or they do use it, and now you can’t trap your protagonist in a scary place anymore because they can just handwave themselves out of it. (You saw the communication version of this happen about fifteen years ago, with a spate of movies all wrestling with the problem of how to maintain drama in a world with cellphones.)

Not every story needs fast travel, whether it’s technological or magical. But some kinds of settings require it — e.g. a cosmopolitan interstellar empire — and even if it’s only in the background, the reader should feel the effects.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Three If by . . . Something Else — 12 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Three If by . . . Something Else - Swan Tower

  2. I’ve seen it said that hot air balloons could have been invented anytime in the past 10,000 years, you just need cloth and fire and a big basket. Not too useful for travel but nice for aerial surveillance and sheer “wheee! I’m flying!”

    Then there’s aerial communication, like carrier pigeons (which seem to have been a lot more common in Eurasian history than in fantasy… maybe because medieval Europe was a lacuna in pigeon use). Or the intelligent talking ravens of the Hobbit, who should be a very powerful ally of the dwarves (but also a people in their own right.) (And the thrushes; only ravens and the line of Girion can understand them, but they understand everyone else just fine, clearly smart too.)

    • You’d need good enough fabric, I think; balloons on a larger scale mostly used silk until the advent of synthetics. If it’s too heavy or not tightly enough woven, your balloon won’t operate very well.

      As for pigeons, I went looking once to see whether it’s true that one could use other birds (like ravens) for the task. The answer turns out to be “no, not really, unless you posit Fantasy Birds that are smarter than the real ones.” The poor pigeon doesn’t get the respect it deserves!

  3. Let’s not forget mixed-mode transportation. The obvious “fantasy” example is the horse-drawn barge, which can more FAR more weight than the horses could either on a cart or on their backs. And this certainly applies to lighter-than-air vessels, too, and even takes advantage of it. A team of horses can pull a lighter-than-air craft that is lifting more than the horses could pull or carry on the ground (especially in bad terrain).

    Which leads to the principle omission in almost all fiction: Logistics. Think “fantasy equivalent of the Berlin Airlift,” and how that affects everything (including story opportunities!). This is the real problem with space travel: It’s not just the weight of the fuel, but the weight of the life support and nonfuel consumables (food, air, water, medical supplies, etc.) that determines the size of the vessel that has to be pushed by the fuel in the first place! There just aren’t a whole lot of grocery stores and/or gas-station bathrooms between here and Mars… let alone between here and Proxima Centauri.

    • A team of horses can pull a lighter-than-air craft that is lifting more than the horses could pull or carry on the ground (especially in bad terrain).

      Do you have an example for that? I feel like there are some practical reasons it wouldn’t be too efficient — drag with contrary winds, lead ropes tangling in branches, keeping the fire lit or dealing with the lifting gas, etc — but if there’s a time and place where it got used, I’d love to read about the details.

      • Unfortunately, my references on early use of mixed-mode LTA transport are either in storage or just notes from European sources. I recall some use by the Anglo-French forces in Crimea, but it’s so hazy I may be mixing things up.

        Bad terrain doesn’t always mean “forested,” either; it is often, before mechanized paving (and relatively cheap tarmacadam after the industrialization of petroleum), code in military assessments for “unsuitable for roads because too soft, too undulating, etc.”

        And as far as efficiency goes, remember: For logistics, just the ability to do something is at least as important as its efficiency… especially when it trades an inefficiency that one can afford for an efficiency one desperately needs. Consider the efficiency tradeoffs involved in “a cart with spoked wheels” — almost no one ever thinks about the inefficiencies involved in obtaining and seasoning timber (especially before the wide availability of thermometers), crafting the wheels, etc. However, those are all inefficiencies that can be “afforded” in a way that “inefficient caisson movement under Marlborough” cannot!

    • Didn’t the early USA use horse-pulled river/canal barges to transport supplies?

  4. The Union had a Balloon Corps during the Civil War. Barges went up and down the Potomac and sent up a guy with binoculars in a hot-air balloon — at first to gain information, but then rapidly to force the Confederate forces to stick to routes that could not be observed.

  5. I was reading part of a book on mahouts and their elephants today, and it mentioned that they’re often used where there are no roads (or the roads are inaccessible for reasons of weather, flooding, etc)

    …and it got me thinking, however briefly, about Tolkien’s oliphants – on one hand, long-legged critters like elephants tend to get bigger in arid places where their legs give them an advantage stride-wise…but on the other hand, bigger animals need to eat and drink more. So as useful as oliphants would be militarily and economically, keeping more than one of them would be a literal white elephant financially.