How to fly

In the previous entry in this very irregular series of how to fictionally do a thing, I suggested that invisibility was one of the oldest of these fantastical ideas. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me that flight was just as old and just as fantastical. After all the myth of Icarus is far more famous than Plato’s Ring of Gyges, if we are talking about Ancient Greek sources. The difference is that we’ve stopped thinking of flight as being fantastical and think of it as more of a chore involving cramped seats and humiliating security checks.

Flight is still fantastical though. The superhero genre in particular indulges in essentially magical flight for a plethora of superheroes but we also have Harry Potter’s broomsticks and a in science fiction a host of machines that just casually hover about without the aid of great big blades chopping the air. So this is how to get airborne.

  • Be lighter than air. Proven technology! Anything less dense than air will be buoyant in air and float upwards. How to do that?
    • Use hot air and have a hot air balloon (or dirigible).
    • Use a gas that is lighter than air such as helium or burst-into-flames gas aka hydrogen.
    • Have some super light but amazingly rigid material contain a space that is tautologically full of vacuum.
    • You know that thing that Ant Man does where he goes really big rather than really small? If we assume he stays the same mass then his overall density should drop and he should float.*
    • Somehow make all the air really heavy so you float. I suspect this might also stop everybody’s lungs from working properly so you die. I suspect all I’ve done is invent swimming in water.
  • Push the air around really fast.
    • One way is to go really fast in general but have fixed wings that push the air down i.e. a plane.
    • Or do exactly the same thing but use Bernoulli’s principle to explain why it helps you fly.
    • Use a massive rocket to explode gases and push those out downwards. If you are feeling scatological do this using a superhero’s bottom an intestinal gas.
    • Have articulated wings beat the air in a pattern that generates lift, like a bird and/or be a bird. You may need hollow bones.
    • Have big blades that spin around really fast and push the air downwards to generate lift i.e. a helicopter.
    • Use a mix of all these things for a really complex flying machine.
  • Mess with gravity. OK but what if you don’t have to go downwards?
    • Anti-gravity. Magnetic forces attract and repel, so just figure out a way to make gravity repel. Ideally have it like a switch you can turn on or off. Yes, this does imply you can make some sort of perpetual motion machine but we can let the accountants take care of that.
    • Gravity blocker aka Cavorite. Slightly different concept to anti-gravity. Here you negate or shield an object from the force of gravity. There still needs to be some force to move the object upwards but only enough to deal with inertia.
    • Distort space-time geometries. See my previous discussion of faster than light travel.
  • Be in space. Either get far enough away from any planetary masses or be in orbit around them and you can float about as much as you like. Perhaps more than you like if your bones start suffering from it.
  • Use some other force. Gravity sucks. It’s seriously weak. A fridge magnet can defy the combined gravity of the mass of a planet.
    • Some sort of hand wave about electro-magnetism.
    • Less of a hand wave about superconducting materials and electro-magnetism.
    • Definitely magnets somehow.
    • The Strong Force is over a hundred times stronger than electromagnetism! So that’s very strong. Surely that can help! [reads fine print: “At the range of 10−15 m “. Hmm OK maybe not a viable distance.]
    • The Weak Force doesn’t sound so great and also I have really no idea what it does and the explanations seriously don’t help. The good news is very few people know enough about it to contradict any vague claims you might make about it. So claim that using a clever material that helps you fly because of the weak nuclear force and you will annoy some physicists but seriously, how many physicists are there in the world anyhow? Not many.
  • Magic and or psychic powers. Yes, that is a non-explanation but you can point to forces that are stronger than gravity such as love, hate, believing in one’s self, nature and rainbows.
  • Be immaterial. I think this coincides with several of the other things listed above but it deserves its own entry. If you don’t actually have any substance because you are a ghost, spirit or astral projection then there is nothing stopping you flying. Simple.
  • Be virtual. If you exist in a virtual environment as a computer simulation then gravity is also simulated. By hacking the system or somehow by becoming “The One” you should be able to fly. Hints that you might be “The One” is if your name is an anagram of “One”. If Brian Eno starts flying unaided that may indicate we are all in a simulation.
  • Take lots of drugs. You won’t actually fly and you should not attempt to fly.

At the end of this, I realise I don’t know what the in-universe explanation of how Superman can fly is. I get that he gets his powers from being a Kryptonian living on Earth with its yellow sun that fuels his powers but what makes him fly? Answers on a postcard please.

*[As this doesn’t happen, we have to infer that his mass changes when he gets big or small. However, if you are imagining some amazing ability to shrink or grow large then I think the density thing is actually way more interesting.

20 thoughts on “How to fly

  1. IIRC, Superman initially couldn’t fly, he just jumped really far (an eighth of a mile, in his introduction). But the artists kept drawing him in mid-jump, and it looked like he was flying, so eventually they said, sod it, he can fly. So, flight by… mistaken reader assumptions? I suppose it’s no less sensible than some other things.

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  2. The weak nuclear force also has very short range. Since the strong nuclear force is mediated by virtual pions and other mesons, and the weak nuclear force by rather more massive W- and Z-bosons, application of the uncertainty principle leads me to the conclusion that the weak nuclear force has an even shorter range than the strong nuclear force.

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  3. Technically, if you have substance (ie no mass) then you can’t actually stop. So I suppose flying is compulsory for non-physical entities.

    Also at even shorter ranges (~ 0.5 x 10 ^-15) the strong nuclear force is repulsive. Assuming you could overcome the distance/size issue, you could certainly bounce using the strong nuclear force, but I don’t know how well you could fly.

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  4. With no mass, the distinction between flying and standing still disappears. You have to move incredibly fast through space to stand on a point of the surface oof a planet. Move at the same speed through space but a little bit above the surface, and you levitate. Vary your speed compared to the speed of the planet, and you fly. The ability to fly is then not the problem, but the ability to move along with a planet in space.

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  5. Looking at your list more carefully, I note the bit about “heavy air” – this one was actually a plot point in the “Dan Dare” series “Operation Saturn”, where humans can swim in the heavy air on the moons of Saturn. (For some reason, the moons’ natives can’t, although they have dolphin-like flying steeds which evidently can. Neither can their overlord Vora, absolutely my favourite megalomaniac purple teddy bear of all time. [The best moment in the series, I think, comes when Vora is knocked out of a high tower and winds up caught on some projecting something-or-other. “Fetch a doctor! The great one might be injured!” a Saturnian lackey cries, to which Vora replies, “A doctor? One doctor? Fool! I am Vora! Fetch all the doctors!”. It’s almost a shame when Dan Dare finishes him off.])


  6. I do my unaided flying exclusively in dreams, which is covered under your fantasy worlds bit. At a certain age, I started losing certainty and altitude. I couldn’t fly high, or fast, and enemies could grab me.

    Thanks a lot, brain.

    I fought back, though, in various ways. I enjoyed watching POV video of forward motion, and tried to use it to encourage mirroring sensation in dreams. I happened upon information about how birds’ wings worked, and incorporated that when flapping (fingers together on the downstroke, apart on the up). When I couldn’t manage a successful take off, I got around it by simply jumping off of things, after which I’d either start flying, or I’d enjoy the sensation of plunging, land on my feet, and be off again.

    More recently, I’ve gotten some of my chops back. Flap-wing flying is sometimes more convincing, and sometimes it’s fixed-wing “I’m an Airplane!” flight. Incidentally, walking through walls remains really tough. Even in dreams, where I’m almost always at least 20% aware that everything’s BS, I don’t seem to have the mental discipline to just slip through. Invisibility in dreams is similarly tricky for me, because I can always see myself, and it’s hard to get others to play along when they’re figments of the same brain that’s looking right at dream-me.

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      1. Like Icarus? I imagine they have, though I expect the special effects are better now, because we’ve seen so many movies. Perhaps one reason flying wasn’t convincing to me for a while is that the FX were so lame around then.

        Anyway, they had paper airplanes before they had airplanes. Called them darts.

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    1. I have never dreamed of flying. I have had the going to work naked dream any number of times. One may draw what conclusions one will about the state of my subconscious from that.

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      1. That’s a dream that just doesn’t hold any terror for me any more. I’ll be at the old school, and my clothes will change to bedclothes or less, and I just shrug it off. Nobody notices, and it changes back after a while. One day my night-shift brain will give up trying to ‘gotcha’ me that way.

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  7. I remember how a friend once was so annoyed at Honey I Shrunk the Kids movie — he kept harumphing and saying they could never walk on leaves like that because they’d be smaller but the mass would be the same. Grumble, grumble, annoyed looks from nearby movie watchers. Shhh!

    About the flying… one of my recurring dreams relates to flying. Usually I am in a house, but occasionally outside, and somehow I am airborne, but it’s not flying like soaring etc. I go from side to side, up to down inside rooms or across rotundas and stairwells, or going really fast over outdoor spaces. It’s not a heady flight, which I have read means spiritual achievement, it feels more demonic, like being hurled gut-first. I do not like this dream and am glad it has not come around for a good while.

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  8. It’s probably worth mentioning qinggong in relation to becoming lighter than air. It’s a real training thing done in some martial arts (baguazhang springs to mind) but in wuxia fiction it’s taken to unrealistic extremes. Qinggong training is basically the thing that allows a character to run across water, fight on thin tree branches, leap great distances or even circumvent gravity altogether and essentially fly

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  9. Really quick teleportation to the same place should give the effect of flying. Same with moving the whole universe around you.


    1. I realized during my first calculus course that if one could teleport, and understood the concepts of the differential and the integral, that one could also fly/levitate.
      (and by extension, if one could teleport objects, one could then accomplish many of the feats described as “telekinesis”)


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