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Assume a setting where, aside from a few relatively large landmasses (think Ireland), most landmasses are no bigger than 50km in the largest side. These islands drift relatively fast, at rates ranging from a few meters to a few kilometers a day. In this setting, the nations that were founded in these few large islands eventually grow too big and seek to expand.

How would they go about this expansionist drive given there's a very big chance that the lands they conquer will eventually drift far away from them, possibly into the range of rival nations? How would they maintain hegemony over their lands? Would they even try to?

EDIT: Technology-wise, instant communication would be limited to radio, meaning at most a range of 2000km for long wave transmitters.

While the question is aimed at a world of flying islands and no solid surface, I decided to omit this so as to keep it relevant in oceanic worlds and other similar, if more fantastical, alternatives.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think this would be more answerable if you define time scales involved. Earth's continents move around. The borders between countries on Earth change regularly. Sometimes countries join, or split; just look at Europe's history over the past circa 100 years. Sometimes land is sold to another country (look at Alaska, which was part of Russia not that long ago), and sometimes it is taken by force. And so on... $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 25 '17 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ What size are the other landmasses if Ireland counts as large? Also why wouldn't they hold onto their colonies? The British empire had a pieces all over the world and held onto them despite their proximity to rivals. Where Vikings settled, however, they quickly separated from any allegiance to original rulers. It all depends on the culture. What is yours? Answering this, I imagine, will answer your question for you. $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Nov 25 '17 at 12:49
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Edited in, between a few meters to a few kilometers a day. LioElbammalf As stated in the body of the question: "most landmasses are no bigger than 50km the largest side" or around 2500 sq km. $\endgroup$ – Miguel Bartelsman Nov 25 '17 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ Beyond communication, what is the tech level of the setting ? It compares to our current one ? $\endgroup$ – Uriel Nov 25 '17 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ No-one has asked how these things keep from crashing into each other. Pretty soon, where you used to have two small islands, now you have one larger one. I got yer territorial expansion right here! $\endgroup$ – Spencer Nov 25 '17 at 22:37
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Viking-style raiding

If these drifting island-states were to conquer, they surely wouldn't value the land itself, which might be too far away to visit within a man's lifetime. Instead, they would value what was produced by the land.

You would end up with viking-style raiding. The 'conquerors' from one island wouldn't be looking to permanently own territory; instead they would be interested in anything that wasn't nailed down. Anything of value would be looted, taken, or enslaved. A successful conquering society would look something like the Roman empire; there would be a well equipped and well-trained army; oriented primary toward raiding of course, lots of slaves captured as booty doing the manual labor, and plenty of wealth abounding that could be traded away in the rare times when conquest/raiding was not being actively pursued.

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Islands Trajectories and its implications

If floating air islands, drifting ocean islands implies being on a sperical planet, the movements throughout the years should be periodical and as stable as planets and gravity.

The islands periodical movements could be as long as multiple years (their planet revolution)

We can imagine some scenarios regarding islands proximity:

A cluster of islands could belong to a single nation, or several's.

Two clusters would have (like planets) would have times when they are the nearest/farthest to each other. Those times would be favorable for war or pacific trading. (their would be a "season of war", if neither of them beat each other)

If they drift along a linear path, some islands would experience a single climate or multiples, depending on the angle of this trajectory.

The ones experiencing a large spectrum of seasons and meeting a lot of other clusters experiencing a single climate, would logically be the best trading "platforms".

I personally think linear trajectories would be too boring (but it is still a very good system), your floating islands could follow the path of some kinds of magical flows, so islands meeting each others would be more complex.

If some nations could interfere (just a bit, not like driving it completely) with their islands trajectory(eg: by building an engine...) of interfering with the flows, it would spice up the world a lot.

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Such setting can evolve in several directions depending of factors like:

Culture: pacific nations may simply negotiate and exchange the moving islands based on some agreed rules, like the closer main island has ownership. In non-pacific settings, you likely will see permanent war considering the speed of some islands. This will either lead to permanent exhausting wars that will drive most resources from nations, either to one nation controlling everything after some time.

Resources: what kind of advantage do such small island provide ? If the setting creates high uncertainty on islands' future ownership, long-term investment is unlikely: temporary settlements rather than big cities, fast resources extraction rather than mining, no agriculture. You could even question the interest of owning such piece of land that can cost you more than it provides.

Nation definition: our conception of nation is strongly driven by our real world stable geography. Will this concept also emerge in the same way in such setting ? Big islands may simply impose taxes on the drifting islands without even considering a geographical expansion. Maybe a cultural expansion would be closer of their idea of "nation".

Technology will indirectly modify how to extract resources from islands and modify the war capacity. However if usually also increases the costs, so the return of investment of faster extraction or war may still be negative.

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It would work much like a giant game of go. Conquest is a matter of cutting off supply lines and making it more worth while to remain a part of the empire than to separate once the land masses have separated again.

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