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Comic artist. I'm looking to mess around with the 'floating islands' trope to see just how 'hard' a magic system I can make it. The idea is to finally explain "what keeps the islands up" and see how it can be applied to other aspects of the setting.

PROBLEM

An effective telepathic piloting system for airborne crafts/structures using a touch-to-use crystal?

BACKGROUND

I want the method of levitation to be outlined in a clearcut manner that allows other effects to springboard off of it. The setting is a large village/town composed to many of these islands, ranging in size from "house + yard" to larger farming islands. The crux of the magic system is that a stone structure, when in a single unbroken piece, can be moved through x-y-z space using a 'piloting crystal' that must be embedded or 'plugged into' the stone at the center of some sort of rune.

I'm trying to configure the 'interface' for the 'pilot' to move these floating islands (and other inventions). My first thought while daydreaming the idea was they would be atop the floating island -- keeping the 'piloting pedestal' in their house or perhaps on the roof.

It feels too hand-wavey to say they just "think of moving up" and the structure moves up. It also wouldn't be very visually compelling during intense scenes to have them "thinking harder/faster" every time while simply touching/holding the pilot crystal.

The only rules I'm partial to are that the pilot has to be touching the pilot crystal with their skin and that the structure being piloted be a single piece of unbroken stone.

How could one envision a system of piloting with these crystals that is more physically engaging than just standing there, sweating and grunting during intense periods?

CURRENT SOLUTIONS

  1. Multiple Crystals + More Complex Engineering: If you can think "up" or "down" etc, then this would allow different crystals to be touched/activated to power inter-woven machinery, similar to complex machines today. My only problem with this solution is that it just becomes something kind of like neolithic steampunk with a bunch of stone, retro-futurist machines that lose the spirit of the free-bird kind of old school fantasy from whence the trope came.

  2. Paired Crystals: Having a Piloting Crystal and a "Receiver Crystal" that lets you control the structure remotely. This actually solves another problem I ran into: These islands, in close proximity to each other, would be almost impossible to move safely since no amount of mirrors would give an otherwise primitive, quasi-agrarian people a practical way to safely pilot an entire island without the risk of smashing into each other.

I'm currently leaning towards 'Paired Crystals' but would love to hear some other fun ideas. I'm not in love with either option but want to dig down into this trope and really explore it and give this setting a set of much-needed rules.

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  • $\begingroup$ To pilot a flying machine you need to control six degrees of freedom: move forward/backward, slide left/right, go up/down, roll (rotate around the front-to-back axis), yaw (rotate around the up-to-down axis) and pitch (rotate around the left-to-right axis). A force-sensitive device, such as a pointing stick (the "nipple" embedded in the keyboards of some laptops) can control two degrees of freedom. The force-sensitive device doesn't move, it senses force using solid-state accelerometers. You need three of those; arrange them as you like best. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 21, 2022 at 0:18

3 Answers 3

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Paired crystals or lots of crashes

The situation you have described is:

  • a technologically primitive setting - no autopilots, even if they could interact with the telepathic crystals and lots of trouble seeing directly beneath any given island; and
  • a village consisting of many islands (dozens?) which presumably need to stay quite close to each other but not keep crashing into each other.

If each island in the village independently determines its vector then there are going to be crashes. A human standing in the middle of an island at least a hundred metres across will not be able to eyeball perfectly whether they are stationary with respect to another island 50 metres away or whether they are closing at 10-15 centimetres per minute, so every night the village must either spread itself out widely or accept that there will be a collision somewhere in the village.

The simplest alternative I can see is that each flying island (or craft - see later) has its "motive" rune-embedded crystal linked to a "reference" rune-embedded crystal and the position of the island is determined with respect to its reference point. So the village centre has its reference crystal mounted either on the ground or on some really big (city?) flying island and the village controller moves the village to where it needs to be with respect to that. Each of the subordinate islands in the village has their reference crystal embedded in the village centre island, so once they move into their position relative to the centre they will remain there and the village will move as a whole. If you want there to be levitating "air boats" then each will have its reference crystal on its home island and it will define its movements with respect to that location. (If you don't want air boats then the islands will need to get very close and stay very still with respect to each other during transfers in order for gangplanks to be used.)

Wait, I hear you asking "but I want to know what it looks like!" My suggestion is that a pilot approaches their motive crystal, but doesn't touch it until they have selected and picked up in one hand a "pointer" crystal, with various sizes available. Large pointers are for big movements - with "big" meaning whatever you want depending on the demands of world and story - small for fine movements etc. The pilot then:

  1. Places their non-master hand on the motive crystal for their island/craft.
  2. Moves their pointer crystal around until it "clicks" (vibrates/lights up/sends telepathic pulse) at the moment that the pointer is in the correct position to reflect the current position of the island with respect to its reference crystal.
  3. Drags the pointer crystal to the new position the island needs to be in. If the crystal is dragged faster than the island can fly to the new related position or if the pilot breaks the physical connection with either the pointer or the motive crystal then the island will stop moving and step 2 must be repeated. Steady hands will be needed for a successful journey, with considerable strength also if a sufficiently heavy pointer (required for long distance travel) is being used.
  4. Listen out for the lookouts telling you to stop because the island or village is about to run into something!

Example: Tanner A is on a subordinate island of the village that is currently positioned level with the village centre with its motive stone 90m north of its reference stone. All the other subordinate islands in the immediate vicinity are also maintaining the same level as the village centre. The wind shifts to a northerly, blowing the stench of the tannery across the village. Tanner A is politely requested to move some distance to the south until the wind changes again.

Tanner A sets the assistant tanners as lookouts and then takes up his smallest pointer crystal, which works at 1:100 scale, in his right hand. He places his left hand on the motive crystal and slowly moves the pointer until it is 90 cm north of the motive crystal, moving it around gently until it clicks/flashes/whatever. He then slowly moves his pointer up 50 cm, raising the tannery island 50 m with respect to the village centre island. Maintaining the same height, he then slowly moves the pointer over the motive crystal until he is at nearly full arms reach, with the pointer 50 cm above and 100 cm south of the motive crystal.

Unfortunately, this leaves him directly over another subordinate island, so he needs to move further for politeness and safety (as people do not like tannery waste products falling on their homes) but his arm length does not let him move further with the smallest pointer. Breaking contact with his left hand, the tannery island stops moving for the moment. The tanner puts down the smallest pointer crystal and takes up a larger one, that works with a scale of 1:500. He returns his left hand to the motive crystal and even more carefully moves the pointer until it is 10 cm above and 20 cm south of the motive crystal, gently moving it around until it engages. Perspiration beads on his forehead as he agonisingly slowly moves the pointer another 20 cm to the south (40 cm south in total), then lowers it 10 cm until the tannery is at rest again at the same level as the rest of the village but with its motive crystal now 200 m south of its reference crystal on the village centre. The tanner removes his left hand from the motive crystal and puts the pointers back into their storage bag until the next time the wind changes...

Edit: Based on comments from the OP re level of conflict in this world, it's worth noting that any mechanism that allows flying stone islands to be piloted effectively also allows those islands to be used as massive kinetic energy weapons. The advantage of the solution I have proposed is to reduce the amount of accidental carnage, but I cannot think of an option that will prevent deliberate attacks. As a villager in this situation I would really want my village to be able to relocate and move away from the fighting.

If fighters are desired then one option could be to employ a squadron leader craft that has its reference crystal back at base but its squadron of small fighters (with their reference crystals on the squadron leader) can zip around with a fair degree of freedom within a few hundred metres of the leader without having to swap pointer crystals all the time. If a fighter can kill an enemy squadron's base craft then that will eliminate the entire squadron, so it is critical to correctly balance offensive action against defending your own leader. Weapons on fighters are well outside the scope of this question though...

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  • $\begingroup$ Wow! What an elegant application of design-thinking! Maybe because I'm a comic artist, I'm guilty of often putting the stylistic cart before the narrative horse. I should explain: After islands, I aim to pursue "offshoot" applications of crystal-stone interfaces -- e.g. "stone star wars/top gun" with different pilots having different levels of telepathic "horse power" that could be used, aside from piloting residential islands, moving stone 'whatevers' (two-seaters for scouting/combat using primitive projectiles, like a spear/stone-thrower behind the pilot) or anything else. $\endgroup$
    – Delirium
    Feb 21, 2022 at 3:34
  • $\begingroup$ That said, you propose an elegant solution -- good enough I have half a mind to kill the darlings I had in mind just to see where it takes the story. My only worry is it might, seriously, be "too good" a solution. I'm very in love with the childish aesthetic that was born from a sketch of a bomb-thrower tossing primitive explosives at other stone crafts from the back seat of a two-seater stone craft during in a big dogfight in the clouds. I know its considered bad form in worldbuilding to try to reverse engineer a shoehorned idea like this but I want to keep trying. $\endgroup$
    – Delirium
    Feb 21, 2022 at 3:39
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you - just be aware that in the early WWI days of military aviation pistols and rifles were tried with zero success, it took mounted machineguns before air-to-air combat was viable. Any lesser missile weapon than a machinegun is not plausible unless the craft are so slow and unmaneuverable that they are more like water navy than air force. But that belongs in another question :-) $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2022 at 3:42
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, very good point. Very... very good. I'd be tempted to hand-wave that with a bunch of speed-line-drenched dynamic action panels but that'd be cheap. Along those lines however, the system you've outlined would actually make for an interesting mode of combat. You could, theoretically, use the 'charting crystal' system to send islands/structures into enemy positions to sew chaos, among other things. Or move troops. The value of finding your enemy's "charting room" with the crystals would be the equivalent of total victory. You could literally rearrange an opposing city/hold it hostage. $\endgroup$
    – Delirium
    Feb 21, 2022 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ Heck, you could have a whole story arc where someone lords over a populace just by sitting in the room -- like holding a gun to the head of every single person that lives there.... interesting $\endgroup$
    – Delirium
    Feb 21, 2022 at 3:54
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Steal/Homage Melissa Scott

You can't outdo the best. Melissa Scott made up an elaborate system where tuned ship "keels" were used as musical instruments, interacting by rules of alchemy with a rich symbolic scenery that linked the planets physically in humdrum ways and functionally in more scenic patterns. It is a great tragedy we don't have any films that I know of to see that series, which is one of the most rereadable stories in sci-fi. If you had the world's best composer on retainer and a crew of inspired artists to do his bidding ... to imagine the movie you could make!

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting! I'll have to check it out -- even if for the old-school book covers! $\endgroup$
    – Delirium
    Feb 21, 2022 at 3:55
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Full body moves

kata

source

Because this is for a graphic novel, right? Have the pilots move the stones with their whole bodies. You can lift sequences from real katas for the drawings. Then one school of pilots moves the stones with intepretive dance.

The pilot must have the crystal. How they are carrying depends on the school of the pilot, and personal preference. The girl in the silhouette below puts it tied against her forehead with a scarf. I hold mine in my teeth.

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  • $\begingroup$ Specifically, this would start with a 22-page one-shot to test the ideas out and feel the world -- but yeah, visual medium. Interesting idea, to use katas or other full-body movements to pilot the islands/crafts. Kind of reminds me Mobile Fighter G gundam. Would they operate in a confined space, similar to a VR play-area? My only concern would be how to make the different kinds of movements instantly 'readable' for the reader the way we immediately understand a character steering a car/piloting a ship doesn't need any expository examples first. $\endgroup$
    – Delirium
    Feb 21, 2022 at 3:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Delirium - similar to Gundam; elements of the body movements for Last Avatar type bending but borrow heavily from martial arts / dance / capoeira. A confined space makes sense but it would be more visually exciting to have the pilot up on deck with other characters in action all around. Simple rule - the force vector of the move is the force vector imposed on the rock. Steady motion will just be like basics practice. I like a combination move that puts the rock into a spin; the crew will be tied in but boarding parties will not. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Feb 21, 2022 at 13:01

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