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The World

The setting is an endless sky of naught but pillowy white clouds and floating islands scattered across the skyscape. In such a world, how would the various nations, from small city-states to large empires, trade with, conquer, and otherwise move people and resources between one another?

Geographic Details

The islands sizes vary from small acre-large landmasses to landmasses the size of Australia (with the average landmass being somewhere between the size of Liechtenstein and The Netherlands). Some landmasses are closer to one another, and some further apart from one another. There are some groups of landmasses which are somewhat close together, with large distances between these groups and others. These are called Archipelagos (but can be thought of as possessing local diversity and complex international relationships in the local sphere much like a continent).

The average distances between islands in the world is quite large. Even "close" islands are out of visual range for all but the clearest days with optimal light conditions, where they appear as small specks in the sky. "far" islands are tremendously far away and cannot be seen at all. Of course, there exist some islands which are significantly closer to one another such that even birds migrate between them, but most fall between the two bounds mentioned above.

There is no correlation between any of the 6 cardinal directions and any effects on temperature, pressure, or other environmental features. There are indeed some cold and wintry islands, as well as hot barren desert islands strewn across the sky, but the climate in these areas is unrelated to their position relative to their neighbours.

Note: There exist strong "currents" similar to tradewinds in various places in the sky (due to concentrated flow of mana / Ley lines / dragon veins). These currents are rather localised and can be though of as behaving similar to a slipstream, speeding up travel along their course. They don't cover the entirety of the sky; but split and merge in a complex network which doesn't double-back on itself. The currents are dynamic, but take up to hundreds of years to split, merge, or move by any great degree.

Viable Aerial Creatures

There are no man-made airships, but there are a variety of tameable wyvern sub-species (which can effectively be grouped as "big" and "small"), as well as sky whales. Wyverns are bipedal reptilian creatures possessing webbed wings. The big wyverns can be thought of as being capable of carrying up to ~3 people, and the small wyverns only a single passenger (the pilot). Sky whales are gargantuan creatures, many times larger than an actual whale and up to hundreds of metres* long. They are peaceful creatures, flying from island to island, but are out of the control of humans.

Big wyverns are capable of making the journey between close islands at maximum capacity with ease, and they can make the journey between far islands with fair difficulty and at reduced load. Small wyverns can just about be able to make it to close islands, with far islands out of the question. Sky whales are able to fly indefinitely with ease.

Note: If it helps, there are technically dragons as well, capable of carrying many tens of people, however they are noble and intelligent creatures of incredible power, and would only ever offer their assistance if particularly enamoured / interested by a human or situation. Unlikely to volunteer for goods delivery.

Current Ideas

With the exception of invading close smaller countries, which may be possible with a collection of large and small wyverns, and given the restrictions provided, I feel that sky whales offer the greatest potential as a large-scale logistics solution. The primary concerns that remain unresolved being that the sky whales are meant to be the paragon of freedom, and having them work with / subordinate to the terrestrial races would compromise this image.

  • Sky whales will often fly by islands and loiter about before being on their way.

    Pros: Sky whales retain their "freedom" and means they can have goods loaded onto them (somehow).

    Cons: For the sky whales to be loaded up with cargo implies knowing where they're headed next. With a clear migration pattern, they feel less whimsical and free-flowing. Unless docked, loading and unloading cargo would be a complex operation perhaps requiring smaller aerial creatures.

  • Once near an island, sky whales are benefited by some form of hospitality such as cleaning, prompting them to dock.

    Pros: Similar to above, but more conducive to large-scale logistics operations.

    Cons: Feels either like the sky whales are being used, or otherwise like a quid-pro-quo arrangement. Both of which detract from the imagery with which they are to be associated.

I'm hoping for some form of solution that allows for the fairly large-scale logistics that would be necessary to facilitate complex trade / military events; either by modifying the above ideas or recommending new ones. I'm happy to clarify or expand on any of the above points.

* I'm bad at approximating sizes. Maybe larger, maybe smaller. Gargantuan nonetheless.

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    $\begingroup$ You seem to have answered your own question with the vast number of flying creatures available. Is there some reason that these creatures (especially the wyverns) are not useful for your purpose? $\endgroup$ Nov 7, 2020 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Just'Existing Wyverns have low carrying capacity and limited range, being more widely employed for military scouting, short jaunts by those fortunate enough to possess one, or reporting urgent news and similar affairs. The number that would therefore be required to facilitate any meaningful amount of inter-island trade, or to support an invasion would be financially unfeasible. $\endgroup$
    – Ragnadam
    Nov 7, 2020 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ How hard are wyverns to breed? $\endgroup$ Nov 7, 2020 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Just'Existing Wyverns have reproductive cycles of ~2 - 5 years and lay ~2 - 4 eggs per cycle, though it is common for only 1 or 2 to make it to maturity. Wyvern gestation periods are between 3 and 6 months depending on the wyvern, and it takes 3 years for the wyverns to grow from juvenile to adult. However, the costs related to fielding a fleet of wyverns are not just acquisition, but maintenance (meat), rider wages and training, and kit among others. Coupled with their low capacity, while it's technically possible to use them, it remains financially untenable. $\endgroup$
    – Ragnadam
    Nov 7, 2020 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ On the lines of Justexisting, wyverns or similar creatures don't seem to be able to travel the long distances you describe as average in your world making commerce very limited. Of course we don't know how laylines or magic work, if either are very powerful it would explain some, but then also you've answered your own question (you didn't write it down though). Another question is why the limited technological development? It would seem obvious that air transport is developped in such a world and a very good set of excuses would be necessary to avoid it. Welcome and good luck. $\endgroup$
    – Tomás
    Nov 7, 2020 at 21:26

3 Answers 3

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I think flying animals is your best bet, it seems like a good fit to your story, that said:

  • is allowed. Awesome.
    • Transportation scrolls.
      • These could be made available by the destination town, and sold by the equivalent of a tourist agency.
    • Levitation spells.
      • Can be used to levitate the sections of a bridge. Magic has a maximum range from the mana source, so both sides need to cooperate the keep the bridge up.
    • Human flight spells.
    • Magic carpets.
    • Transportation spells.
      • As an interesting weakness, you can only transport to a location you can see, or that you've been before. But you can take someone with you.
      • This means your mages need to train a new generation in order to allow people to visit another island. If your mages are killed, you're permanently isolated.
      • Mages have been doing this the old days, when the lands were joined together.
      • If a town loses their mages, it will be permanently isolated.
  • Technological solutions:
    • There are natural fibres which can stretch beyond visual range without breaking. Eg Spider silk, pine fibres, Oak fibres, glass fibre may also be easily made and is on that list too. That implies it's possible to create a rope that spans two islands.
    • Airships aren't allowed, but a hot air balloon requires large fabric processing and that's about it.
    • Since we can have long ropes, giant kites can be used with known prevailing winds to transfer humans and people in one direction. Kites can be trimmed to steer them to fly at an angle to the winds.
    • If there's mountains with updrafts, hot deserts, or dark fields, simple gliders can be made, rise up on the thermals to several km up, and then travel the distance. A decent modern glider can get 16:1 ratio - if you can get 4km up (air starts to thin), you can travel 64km. The first glider flight was 1850s - so not a lot of tech needed.
  • Mixed technology / magic:
    • Give people a parachute, a helmet, and then the village mage uses magic to accelerate them in a ballistic trajectory towards their destination. The mage can't see the island at the required resolution to land them on the surface, so aims a few km up and then they fall using the parachute.
    • Use magic to run ropes between two islands, and then build a bridge between the two. Maybe use magic to bless the ropes with super strength too.
    • Use magic weight changing spells, so that you can fly there with hand-held wings. (In Sci-Fi we'd call this "Inertial dampeners")
    • Use the magic transportation with the "you must see where you're going" weakness, but societies invent powerful telescopes, allowing them to see further.
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    $\begingroup$ I appreciate the numerous and varied options that you've recommended. I suppose I could've clarified on my world's magic system, but I thought it was too much detail. Primarily that mana cost scales like time or space complexity in programming. E.g. the cost of teleportation is directly proportional to the distance and mass being teleported (+- a bit). Personally, I'm most fond of your suggestion to make use of the islands' geography, and will explore that further. There are indeed some bridged islands in my world, but most are too far apart. I enjoyed reading through your suggestions. $\endgroup$
    – Ragnadam
    Nov 9, 2020 at 19:26
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If Your islands are floating like boats on a some ethereal, unseen sea, why not use them as boats.

Assuming that whatever is keeping then in the air only affects the rock (or a part of the rock) and increases in strength the deeper you go, then you would be able to change height by adding/losing weight, maybe by collecting rain or maybe having ballast islands, larger islands that transfer ballast from islands that want to go up and add it to islands that want to go down.

You could have propelled by winds (via parachute like sails) or you could have them towed around by some of your creatures, even if they can't carry the entire weight they can still drag it, akin to dog sleds or canal boats, and when they get tired that can rest on the island.

Large islands/continents would be stay approximately at the same spot, as the high mass would make then very hard to move, and/or the winds maybe keep pushing them to the same spot.

Hopefully that helps.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the response. Admittedly, I hadn't thought of such an option. My impression of the islands was akin to points in the sky where things would naturally float, which build up over time from pebbles and dust carried there by the wind. Of course, this could be revised. I suppose if implemented, the inertia of the islands would keep them going once they start, but how would you address the need for a large (and costly) group of (presumably) wyverns to get them going in the first place? $\endgroup$
    – Ragnadam
    Nov 9, 2020 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ You don't need man made ways to move the islands. They are flying so presumably they could be affected by the wind unless their mini biomes stop external wind from acting on the island. However if that's the case then on smaller islands (which would presumable have smaller magic weather fields) you could build arms that were long enough to go outside this bubble to let them catch the air. Or go with a cheapish option of ox or horse driven propellers $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2022 at 19:51
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Cable car system

Overall this would operate similar to movable islands but assuming the islands are stationary. Create a system of heavy "undersea cable" like constructions running between two islands, where each cable system is able to support the majority of the weight of some gondola. Since the cables carry the vast majority of the weight then the gondola need only be dragged forward by small wyverns. When needed the wyverns can rest on the gondola or slipstreams can be used to push the gondola along the path. Let's also say that the gondola can have an any maximum carry weight depending on size and construction. Ideally we can ignore friction unless breaking, either through magical means or technological. To handle the construction of this system one or two large wyverns would run an initial very light line to a far off island. After the initial line has been set use this line to carry some of the weight of a heavier line, which is guided again by the wyverns. This whole process can be repeated as needed until eventually a very heavy line could be run which would allow for a gondola system to be established to move people and goods at a large scale. While it would take many wyverns to run these heavy cables over a large distance the support from the previously run lines would allow for them to have the ability to carry much larger loads without much of a major issue. Not being able to see the islands is not an issue the cables would have the ability to carry most of the weight of the goods in the gondola and the gondola itself can be dragged by the wyvern, if kites or sails are allowed then where possible the slipstreams can be utilized to further improve transport speed and if needed wyverns can rest on the gondolas as required.

This could open up an eventual rail network like scenario where there are certain lines that can handle say, 1 tonne vs lines which can handle a maximum of 500 Kg all of which are built up using this series of support cables which are dragged by wyverns in the beginning.

Edit

The above assumes that the material for the cable is enchanted or otherwise created such that it is able to support its own weight over any given distance. This can be done in the following ways 1) defining the material to be incredibly strong and light, ie Mithril. 2) by saying that there is an enchantment on the material which allows it to be strong enough to support itself. 3) The material is suspended additionally by some type of enchanted connection to the slipstreams nearby providing energy for supporting the load of the cables. Magic can also be used to help the wyverns to support the weight in the initial flight

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  • $\begingroup$ This runs afoul of the problems that space elevators have. The material eventually isn't strong enough to support itself for the length needed. Additionally, it also has the related problems that powerlines have, in that they droop quite a bit between towers. The description has the islands at quite a large distance from each other, making even the initial, "light", cable too prohibitively heavy for the wyverns to carry and get it started. $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2022 at 21:29

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