Fantasy Worldbuilding: On Technology & Magic

One of the reasons I love to write Steampunk and Urban Fantasy is I don’t have to make excuses for why there is both gunpowder and magic in my world.

Or better said, I don’t have to argue why I shouldn’t have to make an argument for having both magic and gunpowder in a fantasy. To me, one of the most annoying tropes in fantasy is the assertion that magic removes tech. First of all, it’s applied with horrific inconsistency. There can be High Renaissance fashion, castles, rapiers, full plate armor, caravels, and even primitive steam engines. In other words, all the trappings of the late 1600s. But, JRR Tolkien forbid you ever, ever include anything that looks like even a primitive firearm. Somehow, the inclusion of a musket ruins fantasy.

I once read Raymond Feist’s defense for this. That was where magic emerged, technology stalled because it wasn’t ‘necessary.’ OK, if that’s what you want to do with your world, fine. But let me point out why this is actually illogical.

First, magic is unpredictable. Even Mordenkainen or Pug can find their spells going awry every so often. Whether that be because they’re out of reagents, the Gods thought it would be funny, or just plain bad luck. Magic is not reliable. And the less certain your mage is, the more likely it is things go boom in your face. So why should we think that the uneducated masses would trust magic as far as they could carry a stake?

Second, It assumes that every genius is a wizard. Why would this be true? Does every genius pursue the same fields of knowledge in our world? Do the all become politicians? Businessmen? Even philosophers? Nope. So why do they all become magicians in your world? ‘Cause? Not an answer. Then there’s the question of what happens if magic is a gift that not everyone has access to? isn’t it entirely likely that a certified Leonardo Da Vinci doesn’t get the magic bug? So what does he do? Stay a farmer? Not buying it. See Tavi in Codex Alera on this score for a character where this is well done.

Third, philosophically, magic and technology are opposed forces. Magic is insular, elitist, academic, esoteric, and expensive. Thus it;s the province of a very few. Technology is practical, utilitarian, comparatively inexpensive and reliable, and easy to reduplicate compared to magic as well. Thus, it becomes the force that gives power to the masses. Magic is the essence of an elitist feudal regime. Technology the harbinger of advancing freedom and the Renaissance. So it’s somewhat laughable when technology is stifled and yet the masses yearn to be free without knowing what the rest of the masses are thinking.

So, while my current writing project is an Epic Fantasy set in a pseudo-Hellenistic era world (thus no black powder), I have no problem writing fantasy with firearms and advancing technology (pretty much everything else I’ve done). And even in my current project, the Hellenistic era saw a lot of advancement in society and technology, and I can emulate that freely. 😉

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2 thoughts on “Fantasy Worldbuilding: On Technology & Magic

  1. Gunpowder Fantasy is starting to finally make some headway against the generations of readers who were so firmly against firearms in fantasy.

    I think that to an extent, the popularity of Steampunk has helped make this transition because readers have become accustomed to magic and technology working together.

    • Sorry for the late response. I’ve been tech-inhibited for the past four days. And I agree that black powder fantasy is becoming more common. I’d say it was probably Urban Fantasy that opened the door for Gaslight Fantasy (Steampunk+magic, which is what my Iron Conqueror is), and more traditional fantasy with guns, like Michael Stackpole’s DragonCrown War Cycle.

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