Saturday, 14 March 2015

Magic as Tech, and the Time-Tech Conundrum in Fantasy Writing

A thousand years ago, the greatest wizard of all time, Evil Fred, was cast away into another dimension, but now he is about to return and threatens to conquer the world!

Sound familiar? It is the basis of a zillion fantasy stories including The Lord of the Rings. But I have an issue with this plot. If Evil Fred was alive during the technological equivalent of medieval Europe, what would the world look like upon his return? If the fantasy world in question progressed as our real world did, wouldn’t his deadly fireballs seem a bit dated when he showed up to rule the 21st century? At best, he could get a job at a Renaissance Fair.

The heart of the issue is that most of us (directly influenced by Tolkien?) want our fantasy worlds to be forever set in a medieval world, albeit one with ‘magic’. This obviously begs a few difficult questions. Unless the world was created in an iron age, the technology must have developed from earlier techs, so did it stop developing or are we just witnessing a certain a point in the world’s history? If this is the case, what is the time-span of the fabula, including the history that is necessary to make it function (e.g. is there a relic that was created 1000 years earlier and, if so, was the knowledge and craft available)? If a culture was able to make a really cool sword 1000 years previously, why are they still only making swords (not nukes) and why is that old sword still important?

Before exploring possible answers, you may need to consider what constitutes ‘magic’ in your world. I will address this question more deeply in a separate blog post, but what’s important here is the methodology of the magic. If the power can or must be learned and it relies on a set of rules, then there is probably a science to it. I would suggest that the typical fantasy wizard casts ‘magic’ that operates in this fashion. Again, using The Lord of the Rings as an example, when the elves are asked about their ‘magic’, they seem confused because, to them, it is simply science [1] (thus demonstrating Clarke’s “law” that any technology advanced enough will indistinguishable from magic to the uneducated [2]). Why does this matter? Because, if magic is the science of the day, then it should advance along with the technology (in fact, it probably drives it forward). In my early example, Evil Fred’s fireballs are outdated not because he returned to a world that had nukes simply growing on trees, but because those nukes are the direct intellectual descendants of Fred’s fireball spell. For this reason, you really can’t separate technology from ‘magic’, and both should become more sophisticated through time.

So, if this presents a problem for your plot, how do you fix the time-tech conundrum? Well, to be honest, you probably don’t need to. I think most fantasy readers will give you a pass on this. Still, addressing the topic would make your world more interesting. Here are a few ideas that I have toyed with. None of them are perfect, but they may be good starting points.

Science and industry, at a high level, may require the support of a centralized government. If this collapses, a golden era may go with it. Baghdad, a city not currently known for its scientific prowess, was one of the brightest intellectual lights in the western world from the 9-12th centuries [3]. Historians are not really sure why it all fell apart (though it is easy to blame theocratic repression, this can’t be the sole issue because the city was a religious centre during its apex as well [3] – certainly the Mongol invasions didn’t help [4]). The important thing about a golden scholarly age such as Baghdad’s, however, is that information was diligently recorded and travels to and from the city was extensive enough that much of the knowledge was translated into other languages and locations before the collapse. Even if Baghdad had burned to the ground, the knowledge would not have perished from the earth (this is partially true for the material at the library at Alexandria as well, though the destruction of the library occurred approximately 1000 years earlier and it is not known how much unique material was lost [5]). If you are going to propose that a large amount of advanced technologies were lost, you may want to consider how those technologies advanced so far in secret and died with their generations of creators.

You could rationalize your world’s scientific stasis by limiting its population. The industrial revolution required much more than just knowledge; it required large cities and a society with loads of specialization in its population [6]. If a world (such as Middle-Earth) has only a few million people [7], then it probably would not undergo such a shift. Why the population of this world has not increased due to technological advances (in agriculture, for example), as it did in real world history [6], is a more subtle problem that you may want to consider. Furthermore, if your magic is a science, you might still be stuck explaining how research could have progressed far enough to create powerful spells, yet other technologies have lagged behind.

One possible answer to the time-tech conundrum may be to set a tech ceiling. Production of ‘magic’ or a certain technology (if you can even separate those two concepts) could lead to a specific type of global catastrophic event (with more powerful magical spells fuelling the problem proportionally). This would knock everything back until the cycle started again. If the set-backs were global in scale, affecting all aspects of society, then it would also help to address the idea that scientific discoveries can’t be stopped from happening once the societal and technical pieces are in place to drive them (for example, even if Darwin had never existed, we know that the mechanisms of evolution would have been established, as Alfred Russell Wallace independently found them shortly after Darwin did -- but would it have been so if all of the world’s intellectual progress had been set back?). Of course, some of the earlier knowledge (pre-collapse) would persist, so the cycle would be shorter each time, but only a certain level of industry could be reached. This answer (my favourite one) is obviously influenced by real world concepts of global warming and the threats of global thermonuclear war, each of which may set limits on our real-world global prosperity, so it might sound too modern for your setting, but it might also lend the explanation credibility.

And so, as Evil Fred is led away in energy-binds, he can overhear the elvish children’s schoolyard banter through the chain-link fence:

“A fireball?! Did that old dude really just cast a fireball?”
“Yeah, totally lame, right?”
“We did that in class, but we didn’t bother with the fire; we just started with atomics.”
“Really!? I can’t wait til I’m in 6th grade; our teacher still has us doing plasma-based stuff.”
“Aww, man, don’t wait til 6th grade, just look it up on Magipedia; it’s all there...”

Works Cited

H. Gee, The Science of Middle-Earth: Explaining the Science Behind the Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told!, Cold Spring Press, 2004.
A. C. Clarke, "Hazards of prophecy: the failure of imagination," in Profiles of the Future, London, Gollancz, 1962.
J. Al-Khalili, The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
A. Y. al-Hassan, "Factors Behind the Decline of Islamic Science," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 23 March 2014].
M. Bragg, Composer, In Our Time: The Library of Alexandria. [Sound Recording]. BBC UK radio program. 2013.
J. Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, London: Vintage Books, 1998.
T. Loback, "The Kindreds, Houses and Population of the Elves During the First Age," Mythlore, vol. 14, no. 51, 1987.


  1. You too, eh?

    Now keep in mind that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

  2. Two revisions to my post:
    1) If magic is usable (e.g. by a sorcerer) but not understood by that user (akin to the way that I can write this sentence even if I can't explain to a neurobiologist which parts of my brain allow me to do so and why), then my thesis falls apart. This might be a good answer to why fireballs don't evolve into nukes.
    2) Magic might not fuel technology, but could stifle it. Winchell Chung presents this view very well in The Porcelain Argument:

  3. Its Funny, I've been building a notebook of "Historical Events with Magic" as a blog post, wasn't going to publish until I got to a nice round number..

  4. Intriguing! Is it a list of milestones (e.g. first levitation spell circa year 100; flying spell 50 years later)? I look forward to reading it