Limyaael's Rants

Technology in Fantasy

Written on 2004-12-20; Read the original post on LiveJournal

1) Technology is usually easier than magic. In many, many fantasy worlds, magic is represented as rare, for a variety of reasons:

-It may be an inborn talent, which is highly dependent on the individual people possessing it.
-It may have been once widely used and then destroyed, as in those fantasies where there is a fallen sorcerous empire lurking in the history. In such cases, the ‘modern’ fantasy world often has no idea how to use the magic or the artifacts it may have left behind.
-It may be very expensive because of the materials used to make it (unicorn hair, hen’s teeth, etc.) or restricted to a certain area because of those materials (such as a hedge witch’s herbs).
-It may be distrusted by peasants and other superstitious people.
-The mages themselves may be unwilling or unable to help for a variety of reasons.

Technology, applied properly, is a much less individual art. Yes, skilled wood-carvers would be relatively rare, but assembling a rough and ready table out of stumps and lengths of wood is not beyond most people. Materials can take the place of one another—stone for wood in house-building, glass for shutters in windows—without disastrous metaphysical consequences as in magic. (There may be physical consequences, certainly, such as a wooden house burning down more easily, but not the same kind of oh-no-the-world-will-end-if-I-don’t-do-this-just-right consequences that more often hang on magic). Most people can be taught to use technology, whereas the usual trend in magic is that mages have to have innate power as well as training. I really would like to see more authors write about magic that’s not linked to bloodlines and inborn talent, but I’m enough of a realist fantasist to suspect that that’s probably not going to happen.

Basically, unless you have a world saturated in easy-to-use, easily-available, inexpensive magic that everyone can use, technological solutions to problems should be more common.

2) Form follows function. Here I go with the obvious lessons again. Well, you can skip this part if you like. Or you can apply it to technological constructs driven by magic.

Imagine that a person in your fantasy world wants to get from place to place. He wants something that will move. He wants something that will carry his trade goods, let’s say lumber. He wants something that can handle mud and steep slopes. He wants a means of sheltering his lumber from the rain that will cause his wood to warp.

So he creates a cart. It can move, with the wheels rolling and oxen or donkeys or horses (or unicorns!) drawing it. It’s big and heavy enough to carry lumber. It goes through mud if the wheels don’t get struck, and it goes up and down hills thanks to the power of the animals pulling it. It has a cloth cover that can be drawn over the bed to protect against the rain and snow and other precipitation.

Does it have huge wings extending off to the side? No. Why? It doesn’t need them, and the wings would drag and slow the cart without providing enough propulsion (without some kind of external power source) to get it off the ground. Likewise, it may have lanterns hanging on it in the case of a dark or snowy night, but does it have a thousand lanterns? No. Why? It doesn’t need them, and there’s probably no place to hang them anyway.

When you’re designing new technology for your world, or deciding on the level of technology that your world needs, keep form follows function foremost in your mind, not second or fifth or last. Every part of the design needs to have some use, even if it’s only to look pretty, and such things should only be common in places where people have the money to afford the decorations and little or no need to actually use the object for its intended purpose (such as a jewel-decorated sword in the hand of a noble). Even more common are parts of the object that once had a purpose, like the abandoned wing of a building, and have been left behind or excluded as they’re not needed any longer. Don’t design useless gewgaws to add to your technology, especially not ones that would actually impair the functionality.

For machines driven by magic, keep this very sternly in mind. You might think that a skimming platform powered by magic could easily serve as a sort of flying machine, but how fast does it go? How high does it go? Does it have any kind of protection against the weather, or any way to keep its passengers from falling off? Unless the skimming platform had a dome of magic around it, the passengers would probably suffer. It would be easier, in that case, to build walls around the thing, or at least a railing, especially if the magic to create the dome would cost more and the lifting magic could lift the thing regardless of weight.

3) Consider transportation and communication. I could shorthand this one as: I wish people would pay more attention to the fucking geography.


Very well, then. You’ve got a castle stuck high up in the mountains, or in the middle of a dense forest, or in the middle of a vast desert. It has silks and spices from countries half a world away, on the other side of not only the continent but a vast ocean. Its inhabitants also know the latest news, such as things that happened in those distant countries.

Well, how? Those kings would have to be some awfully rich kings to pay to have those silks and spices transported all that way. And they would have to have very good communication devices, either technological or magical, to learn the news so quickly, and not just once in a while from the traveling merchants.

I am not a big fan of building castles wherever they strike the author’s fancy anyway, but if you love your castle in the middle of nowhere, then you have to cut back on how often they receive trade goods and news. Otherwise, the kings will have to have a mighty treasury and extensive trade contacts and all the necessary magic and/or technology to keep the current news and goods coming. And if they can talk to people on the other side of the world via a magical portal, what’s to keep them from transporting food and other goods through the portal as well? It would probably be easier, no matter how much you mourn the loss of your trade caravans and bright bazaars.

4) Know what technology will change the world, and what will not—and why. Two of the most significant inventions in the history of the world were gunpowder and the printing press. The former changed the nature of weaponry and spelled the eventual doom of the armored knight. The second led to almost too many consequences to count, but included more communication in general, higher literacy rates, the easing of the way for social movements like the Protestant Reformation (if people had not been able to read Bibles, Martin Luther’s recommendations would not have gained so wide an audience), the development of science, the growth of modern media, and so on and on.

Yet these inventions occurred in China first. Why didn’t they affect the West earlier and more profoundly?

The Chinese alphabet was the problem for a Chinese printing press; it was simply too big to print easily. An alphabet of 26 letters was much easier to manipulate. And both inventions occurred in a country distant enough from most of the West that their immediate influence on Europe was not profound.

So, consider what kind of technologies you’re inventing and the impact they will have. A means of global communication might change things wonderfully—if it was relatively inexpensive, and if the people who invented it saw the need to propagate it, and if it was reliable enough, and if the country it occurred in was both open enough to other countries to make the invention known and accessible enough for the technology to spread, and if it didn’t require years and years of special training to know how to use, and if there was a lively interest, commercial or otherwise, in getting to know the rest of the world…

You see that there are immediate problems in the way of developing a world-spanning, world-changing technology. Only if they’re able to be overcome, or if the author cheats, such as giving technology the help of magic, will its impact be deep and wide-spread—and even then, it will probably be less sudden than something like the Internet, since, in a less technologically changed fantasy world, it will need more time to spread.

5) Know what other technologies must develop around your new invention to enable it. Fantasy authors are often accused (rightly) of leaving holes in their ecology and economy, even as they develop elaborate systems of magic. It’s almost as though the typical fantasist falters when asked to work with interconnected systems outside the fantasy elements. I know I am happier when I can Make Shit Up than when I have to do research.

However, if you’re going the technology route, you are much more restricted by the limits of the physical and the possible. Let’s go back to our system of global communication, and let’s assume that it’s technological instead of magical. What does it depend on?

The flight of birds? Then the people who use it must already have figured out ways to tame birds, and train them to home, and keep them alive in captivity, and adjust for messages lost to chance and storms and predators, and send messages with the birds in such a way that they won’t be blown loose. (The length of messages that birds in fantasy are sometimes asked to carry is so great that it frankly surprises me the poor things don’t have to hobble to their destinations).

Fast couriers? Then there must be fast horses, and posting stations, and clear roads, and ready sources of food for the horses, and people to take care of them, and places to draw the people from, and means of keeping the posting stations free of attack (like horse thieves wouldn’t try to hit them!), and places to get food for the employees, and the development of leather or some other relatively inexpensive material to make the tack, and the art of the farrier, and means of riding fast, and…

Electricity? Then, first of all, they have to understand what electricity is, which frankly is not common in most fantasy worlds. Then they have to have a source of it. (Say lightning, and I will laugh at you. Then I will want to know how they tame it enough to be usable). Then they have to figure out how to generate electricity from the source. Then they have to figure out how to transport the electricity to every place it’s needed, and how to channel it, and how to protect people from it, and how to contain it, and how to regulate it, and how everyone will pay for it, and how much to allow everybody, and how to make devices work on it, and, and, and…

Be prepared to do some heavy research, yes. But those books don’t weigh as much as the shame that will come and hang around your neck if you plow blindly ahead and then make a silly mistake, or worse, invent some new technology that absolutely depends on a smaller science your people haven’t developed yet.

6) If your world has no science, how did the technology get there? I’m perfectly willing to believe that a fantasy author could develop a method of creating technology that did not resemble science as practiced in some part of Earth. That is, I am willing to believe it when I fucking see it, and not before.

The moment you go wandering off into metaphysics and magic to talk about technology not actually driven by magic, there are problems. You might argue that, “Well, yes, people believe in invisible gremlins to drive their cars when there aren’t any such things, but it does no harm.” What happens when they apply this magical thinking to dealing with car trouble? If they believe gasoline is gremlin food, what happens if they decide to light some of that gasoline on fire as a sacrifice to a god to send them more gremlins? There would still be nasty consequences.

A purely magical or metaphysical system of tenets to support and create technology would depend on an incredible number of stupid coincidences and blind good luck. Besides, at some point someone would discover Occam’s Razor. Why accept some elaborate explanation of invisible magical power when someone else can explain, in clear and physical and natural terms, how this particular invention works? And why continue to persist in making technology when the magical explanation doesn’t prevent people from getting hurt or killed? Sooner or later, people would abandon the work in fear, and the technology would stall.

A lot of fantasy authors seem content to let technology into their work, even if in fairly limited fashion. Very few of them are willing to let in science. Yet, why not? Science fiction has certainly kidnapped enough from fantasy, given all those galaxy-spanning empires. Perhaps fantasy should kidnap some things back.

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