A Brief History of Failed Attempts at Human Flight

Our Innate Desire to Rise Above It All

Joe Fassler at Lit Hub: Years ago, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I found myself writing about flight. It started as just a few paragraphs, a bit of spontaneous fiction jotted down in a notebook: a man stood on the roof of a barn, wearing a pair of enormous wings built from wood and cloth. His friend on the ground—the narrator—looked on nervously, ready to call an ambulance. And then the man jumped. Somehow, he flew.

I still remember the surprise I felt as the scene spilled down the page. The thrill of liftoff, a human body lofted in midair. The whole thing only lasted a minute before the man swooned back to earth in a shuddering crash. He was safe, he’d done it. Hoarse, joyful shouts echoed around the field.

That scene became the seed of my novel, The Sky Was Ours, which has a similar pair of handmade wings at its center. It’s about a small cast of modern-day characters obsessed with finding a way to freely navigate the air the way birds do. Success is far from certain, but they’re convinced their efforts have revolutionary potential: the hope is that flight will jam capitalism’s relentless machinery the way nothing else can, allowing the earth to heal and a new, nomadic way of life to flourish. When I put my notebook away on that first day, though, I had no idea that I was embarking on a major project—or that the history of flight would become an obsession of my own.

It happened slowly. I kept returning to the scene I’d written, fascinated by something in its basic formula—man, barn, wings. The impossible pull of the sky. In time, I started to flesh things out, developing my first tentative sense of who these people were, and why they were attempting something so audacious.

Before long, I ran into a more practical question: Was a book about self-powered flight science fiction or magical realism? Was it literally, physically possible to fly like that, or could such a thing happen only in the realm of fantasy? This wasn’t a topic like time-travel or mind-reading, after all. Flight—as birds and bugs, drones and planes show us every day—really is possible, even unexceptional. But are we capable of it, physically? Did anyone really know?

More here.

The Sky Was Ours by Joe Fassler is available from Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.