Here's the question:

What do you believe would be the social and cultural implications in a world that has floating landmasses (floating as in "floating in the air")? These "islands" float much like a boat does in open sea, moving at random (see note) (but with no possibility of flipping over itself).

What I would like your opinion is on each of these islands cultural traditions and political views would be, considering this weird feature...

These islands occur naturally, at both the surface of the planet and these islands are populated by intelligent beings. Also, I believe the randomness in its movements prevent the islands from being used as efficiently for military purposes such as dropping stuff on the surface.

The technology on the surface is steampunk-ish, there are flying airships, cities are huge and large government bodies exist. The people on the Islands try to live in a environment friendly way, since they can't extract resources from the Islands without severely reducing the habitable area they have. However, there are enough resources (food, water) on the Islands to sustain life. In regards to the weather, it varies with an island's geographical position.

Magic does exist in this world and can be wielded by anyone with the appropriate training, but you need to understand the underlying process to be able to use it correctly (that is, to magically heal a wound, you must understand the physiological process of healing).

Both the surface and the islands are populated by intelligent beings, but not exactly of the same race. Trade between civilisations is possible, and occurs rather frequently. There is a common organization to mediate politics between surface and the Islands, but there are sovereign states (Islands are like city-states, and the surface has "regular" kingdoms).

As a side note, this is a fantasy setting, so anything is possible. A source of inspiration for this is the Kingdom of Zeal from Chrono Trigger (see e.g. this fan art).

Note: Just clarifying the random movement point, it was a bad choice of words. The movement would not be random, but it would be subjected to the direction of the winds, similar to a boat on sea.

  • $\begingroup$ Supposing the islands are big enough and not too high in altitude to have their own lakes the question is still very broad. What aspect of their culture are you most interested in ? Also, what is their level of technology? Do they have planes, magic or another way to reach the ground without risking their lives? The question could be about the military aspect, political organization, or simply how they adapt to the different climates overtime. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Jan 5 '15 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ Floating landmass seems to be quite magical substance: light enough to float (lighter than air), and solid enough to support non-floating creatures walking on it. In such magical world, many other magical things would work very differently. hard to answer - hard to know that other magic you have there. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Jan 5 '15 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ 1. Is travel between the islands and the planet's surface possible? 2. Are the intelligent beings the same on the islands and on the surface? (i.e. same race). 3. Are the beings on the islands more, less, or the same in regards to technology and/or magic? $\endgroup$ – James Jan 5 '15 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ Guilherme, I voted to close this, I like the question but it needs a little more detail. As it stands the world is not defined enough (see my previous comment) for there to be a good single answer, those answering have to assume a lot of information. Please edit and I will be happy to retract my vote. Welcome to the site. $\endgroup$ – James Jan 5 '15 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ I added some more info. Hope it to clarify some points. Thanks, James. $\endgroup$ – Guilherme Costa Jan 5 '15 at 19:02

They would block out sunlight below them. If they are of any noticeable size the risk of having your farmland get no light due to these islands would be a major concern. People would thus consider them hazards and concerns and avoid areas where landmasses regularly floated. Ideally they would move fast enough to not block any one area of light for any significant amount of time, but none the less no one is going to want to be below them.

It would be nearly impossible to get to these landmasses, until you have at a minimum hot air balloon level of technology, making it rather difficult to exploit or take advantage of them. If we assume there already are people on them perhaps they would build some equivalent of giant ladders, but either the islands are dangerously close to the ground, making them a hazard for any large towers or buildings, or they are so high up that climbing up and down ladders to get to the landmasses would be impossible for a normal human. Thus anyone on the landmasses would be mostly independent of the ground. Potentially multiple landmasses may interact, if they float close enough together and at speeds slow enough that build temporary bridges between them..

However, if these landmasses are small it would make it difficult for them to support living people. You need a certain minimum amount of land to support a breeding population without inbreeding. If landmasses 'collide' regularly enough to allow interchange of people between them that would help, but it seems unrealistic to expect these masses to come close enough to have regular travel between them be possible. This would mean living on the masses would be difficult. At the very least there would be heavy incentive to encourage your people to move, while bringing in new people, to combat inbreeding. Thus, with travel off of the landmasses being so hard, any opportunity to for transfer of people would need to be pounced on. Rather this is to another land mass or being close enough to a mountain to make it not be life-threatening dangerous to try to travel off of the lands. Ultimately though the small size, the high atmosphere (making it hard to breath), and major wind and weather concerns would make living on the landmasses quite difficult, most would prefer the ground unless the landmasses are HUGE.

Frankly I see them as nothing but an inconvenience until you have a more reliable means of travel. You would need airships of some sort, or equivalent magical transportation, to make these landmasses viable and useful. Travel and trade between them and the ground is mandatory. Of course once you have airships you have the question of rather someone would try to 'drive' your landmass, with either an airship or a gigantic land-sale, to control where it goes.

If you make magical transport from the landmasses to the ground immediately below it possible, but otherwise keep transportation limited to middle-ages level, I think you get a more interesting story. Then the landmasses are possible, though with a heavy need to trade with land below them, and to constantly have a flux of people in and out of the lands to avoid inbreeding. This would lead to nomadic sort of people, who trade with whoever they run into. They would have to be pretty friendly, they have no control over where they go and the people below them will always curse their blocking out the light, so it's important to be able to keep on the good side of those below. Unless, of course, they are the only ones who can do the magic-transportation to the ground thing. Then they can simply not go down near hostile peoples. They would, however, be at the whims of fate as to when they can trade. I imagine issues with stockpiling of supplies and risking the supplies you want running out because you haven't drifted anywhere that have people that will trade favorable with you.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting. I did not imagine the sunblock scenario... Regarding to trade, I believe it would happen often, as the world as whole has a steampunk level of techonology and airships, which is not a monopoly to the island people. I also imagined that they are able to "dock" (via huge chains or something of the sort) to a nearby mountain for a time which they would trade with the surface. $\endgroup$ – Guilherme Costa Jan 5 '15 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ If they 'chain' themselves to a mountain the sunblock issue becomes more severe. they are going to have to figure a way to get permission from those below them or risk quite a bit of wrath. If others can reach them easily then the fact that they can't avoid floating into hostile territory becomes a significant problem. they float over the wrong landmasses they will be called invaders and looted, they are too small presumably to defend from a large earthbound government and some are totalitarian enough to do something like that. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jan 5 '15 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ You don't really need much contact to avoid inbreeding, if the culture has adapted to isolation. Something like one or two chances per decade for adventurous young people to hop on and off should be plenty to keep the gene pool viable. Indeed, I believe there have been some real-world societies (e.g. on remote islands, in isolated mountain valleys, or in the deep arctic) that have historically managed to survive despite comparable levels of isolation. Of course, if the floating islands were that isolated, they might almost as well be uninhabited, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. $\endgroup$ – Ilmari Karonen Jan 6 '15 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ They move. That wouldn't be an issue. $\endgroup$ – Caleb Woodman Nov 10 '15 at 18:08

Such islands, unless powered and controlled by a random number generator, could not move truly randomly on their own. As Henry Taylor says, their movement would be governed by the prevailing atmospheric winds.

However, the societies on these islands could be completely separated from the people below. They would be able to support some number of people depending on their size (see my answer to this question for a detailed estimation of the size required). In short, to support one person you need around 500 square metres of space (in terms of a rectangle, that's $\sqrt{500} \approx 22.5$ metres per side). You need the same amount of space again for every extra person. Therefore, an island one kilometre per side could support $1,000,000 \div 500 = 2000$ people. That's a reasonable number of people: such a society would have most of the services and social phenomena such as crime that we know today.

However, these islands could quite easily be weaponised. If a country wanted an island for its use as a nuclear base, they could quite easily take it, given their better resources and larger military. They could proceed to install jet propulsion systems, albeit on a much larger scale than those used in aircraft. This would, however, be very fuel costly, so there would need to be a good reason to bomb someone before they use it.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the human resource requirements equation in your linked answer. I will definitely make use of it in my writing. I think you need to scale up the square-meters per human value a little to keep the 2000 humans from stepping on their potatoes. It might also be good to factor in trellises and hanging gardens, but your basic idea of an acreage to population ration is extremely strong and valuable. Thanks Again. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jan 5 '15 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor That answer defines the bare minimum necessary. Of course if you want houses and other comforts, you need more space. $\endgroup$ – ArtOfCode Jan 5 '15 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder how much extra growing space you could get by hanging long ropes of pots off the edge, down the cliff face along the sunward side. Or maybe planting trailing plants along the clifftop and letting them grow down the cliff face, rooted at the top. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Jan 5 '15 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ @githubphagocyte google.com/… $\endgroup$ – TecBrat Jan 6 '15 at 9:38

I doubt that they would move randomly. If the planet has high winds at the altitude of the islands, they might follow those winds, which might appear random over short periods of time, but would have prevailing trends. If the planet had no such winds, the islands would probably appear to follow courses counter to the planetary rotation as the fixed surface below them is dragged along while they stay relatively stationary.

The islands' cultural role would depend on their size, number and the scale of the governments under them.

If the government rules all the lands that the island might float over, then the island could serve as a center of power with great castles and towers; easily defensible and symbolically above their subject lands.

If more than one government rule the lands beneath the island, they would probably remain undeveloped since one ruler wouldn't want to invest resources in lands that would soon change hands to the next down-wind ruler.

If the islands were large enough with farm-able land and water, they might be separate nations, like gypsy caravans wandering above the fixed nations of the world.

  • $\begingroup$ Both the surface and the islands have independent governments, and there exists an institution that mediates relations between surface and the islands, with representatives from the major political powers of the world. $\endgroup$ – Guilherme Costa Jan 5 '15 at 19:35

One possibility to consider is that some of the islands may become colonized by the equivalent of viking raiding parties. They would have a walled village in the center of their island, and crops and suchlike on board. Lookouts at the edge keep an eye out for suitable targets.

Whenever their island drifts close enough to a target they all drop down from the island on ropes and go raid the target, hauling their loot back up to the island when they are done.

Even if only some islands have raiders on board this could make the appearance of an island be a cause of terror for anyone who sees it approaching.

The drifting would give them a constant source of new targets, while their own position would be very hard to attack.

One thing you don't seem to have considered though is collisions. What happens if two of these islands drift into each other?


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