Entry updated 24 May 2019. Tagged: Theme.
This entry covers some sf depictions of personal flight using strap-on wings, jet packs and other wearable rather than vehicular devices. For discussion of larger flying machines, see Airships, Balloons, Pax Aeronautica and Transportation. For self-levitation by means of Psi Powers, see Telekinesis.
Naive sf and Proto SF visions of flying with mechanical wings generally ignore the difficulties associated with heavier-than-air flight on this small scale, though with occasional hand-waving exceptions. Examples include the myth of Daedalus and Icarus; Lucian's dialogue Icaro-Menippus, with winged flight to the Moon; the wing-using Lost Race of Robert Paltock's The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (dated 1751 but 1750 2vols); wings powered by "magnicity" within the Hollow Earth in William R Bradshaw's The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892); the English taking to the skies ("Hastings permitted mixed flying.") in Ernest Bramah's What Might Have Been: The Story of a Social War (1907 anon; with new preface vt The Secret of the League: The Story of a Social War 1909 as by Bramah); and the Tibetan Lost World of Gilbert Collins's The Valley of Eyes Unseen (1923). There is more sf sophistication in Robert A Heinlein's "The Menace from Earth" (August 1957 F&SF), where low Gravity permits flying as a leisure activity (see Games and Sports) in an atmospheric storage cavern on the Moon; in Terry Carr's "The Winds at Starmont" (in No Mind of Man, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg), which takes place on a low-gravity planet; and in George R R Martin's and Lisa Tuttle's Windhaven (May 1975 Analog as "The Storms of Windhaven"; exp 1981), set on a colony world whose high-energy winds make personal winged flight possible. Concessions to plausibility are rarer in Comics, though the artificial wings of the DC Comics Superhero Hawkman – introduced in 1940 – are attached to a harness of Cavorite-like "Nth metal" which provides an Antigravity boost. Similarly, artificial wings in Dru Pagliassotti's Clockwork Heart (2008) are said to be made of a lighter-than-air metal called ondinium. Those worn by the flying character Peregrine in Alan Moore's Top 10 (1999-2001) appear to have no special explanation. Relevant media productions include Birdman and the Galaxy Trio (1967-1969), where Birdman's sidekick uses artificial wings, and Brewster McCloud (1970)
The use of jet packs for individual atmospheric flight is a venerable sf tradition. An early appearance is in the first tale of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, "Armageddon – 2419 A.D." (August 1928 Amazing) by Philip Francis Nowlan, where US soldiers in a Future War fly by means of Rockets strapped to their backs. A jet pack forms part of the costume of the DC Comics character Adam Strange, who debuted in 1958, and is built into the Powered Armour of Robert A Heinlein's Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959). The device features from time to time in The Jetsons (1962-1963); Gahan Wilson's whimsical cover for the January 1969 F&SF shows Santa Claus using a jet pack. Gordon R Dickson's Dorsai mercenaries train with jet packs, here termed "jump belts", in Tactics of Mistake (August 1970-January 1971 Analog as "The Tactics of Mistake"; 1971). An experimental model is central to the retro film The Rocketeer (1991; vt The Adventures of the Rocketeer). One sometimes-encountered alternative is the gyro pack or copter pack with propellor blades, as favoured by Alan Moore's Superhero Tom Strong (whose Comics debut was in 1999).
Individual Antigravity packs, belts and harnesses, though lacking the feasibility of jet packs (which have often been built and demonstrated in short-term use but remain impractical as Transportation), at least eliminate the central hazard of strapping oneself to a rocket. An early example appears in E E Smith's The Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946; rev with cuts 1958) and is shown in Frank R Paul's cover painting for this tale's opening instalment in the August 1928 Amazing. DC Comics' teen Superhero ensemble the Legion of Super-Heroes issues "flight rings" (based like Hawkman's harness on "Nth metal" and introduced in 1965) to provide parity to team members who lack the native power of flight. Flying shoes with built-in antigravity – harking back to the seven-league boots of fairy tales – appear as "gravity sandals" in Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and under the brand name "Startrooper Sevenleague boots" in Bob Shaw's Who Goes Here? (1977); Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao (1958) proposes a Cyborg variation with antigravity grids implanted into the soles of the feet. "Repulsorlift" antigravity belts feature in the Star Wars universe. Bob Shaw thoughtfully considers the social and criminal repercussions of widespread use of antigravity harnesses in Vertigo (1978; exp vt Terminal Velocity 1991).
Having posited an inertia-cancelling space drive in his Lensman series, E E Smith added this feature to individual spacesuits, so that even after abandoning their Spaceship in Galactic Patrol (September 1937-February 1938 Astounding; 1950) his heroes can flit between planets "at quadruple the speed of light". This magic Technology is a long way from early dreams of strapped-on wings that slip the surly bonds of Earth, and seems on the whole more ridiculous than sublime. [DRL]
previous versions of this entry