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.