Worldbuilding 101: Magic and Technology (Part One)

First of all, let me sincerely apologize for being late to post this week. Yesterday, between the hours of 8 A.M. and Midnight, I was home for maybe two hours. All the time I was out, my computer was home. So, I didn’t get my blog written. I have fewer excuses about being so late to post today. Sorry.

Secondly, last post turned out to be very popular. I’m glad. Hopefully this one won’t be a let-down.

Okay, if you’re a fan of speculative fiction (and if you aren’t, then why are you here?), then you know that one of the most intriguing parts of the genres involved is the way that things are possible in the stories that aren’t in real life. All the more so when you are creating a fictional world. That doesn’t actually mean anything is possible though. In fact you have to be very careful about making your magic or technology seem plausible even if everyone knows it isn’t possible.

Disclaimer, if you are writing hard science fiction involving technologies that we either have, or are on the verge of, this isn’t the article for you. You will want to be as accurate as possible and know all you can find out about those particular technologies. No, this is an article about magic and technology that is made up.

Why am I mixing the two together, after all, aren’t the opposites? Magic and science are mutually exclusive, allowing belief in one or the other, right? Well, maybe. On the other hand, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Or, my favorite, this one. (To those who are unfamiliar with the strip, I recommend Freefall as an entertaining and informative Science Fiction webcomic.)  But the point remains, what is the difference between a magic box that keeps thing cool and a refrigerator? Can you truly explain to me how electricity works, or do you function, like I do, with ‘Push this button, lights come on’.  Most of us spend large portions of our lives taking it for granted something will work without truly understanding how it works. Do you know how your car works? How about your computer? Your plumbing? Your eyes? Even if you can understand and explain how one of those works, you probably can’t do the same for all.

So, to an extent, magic and technology are the same. Do this, get that. How? Don’t know, and as long as it works, I don’t care. Some people will care, in your stories and your readers. Which is why you can’t just snap your fingers and make everything work.

Let’s start with technology. In your story, you need a certain level of technology that we don’t have, and probably won’t have in the next five or ten years. Maybe it’s something that will likely never happen, like faster than light travel. Okay, fine. If you are using something that’s been done before, then your readers will probably give you a lot of leeway, especially if you handle it well. Assuming you don’t want to write a technical manual of how such a thing is ‘possible’, then just tell your readers that it’s real in your story, through the story and not as an aside to the audience, and most will probably not even blink. As long as you are consistent with it. If your ship, the Sly Ferret, can get from Mars to Alpha Centauri five in two days in chapter one, then there had better be a very good reason why it doesn’t take them two days to make the same trip in chapter thirty. No, the plot says so, is not a good reason. A better engine making them quicker is a good excuse. The presence or lack of some obstacle works. The ship is in bad shape and can’t risk going that fast is another.

Also, if the Sly Ferret can travel beyond the speed of light, then other ships should be able to travel that fast also. Maybe not all of them, and maybe some are faster or slower, but unless the Sly Ferret is the first ship actually capable of faster than light travel, then there is always the likelihood that an enemy or rival can be as fast as they are or not faster.

In case you haven’t noticed, consistency is key when coming up with new magic or technologies.  But part of consistency is that if person or group A has a particular magic or technology, then why doesn’t person or group B have it too? There may be an excellent reason. That may be part of the story. It may be that magic or technology is very rare or cutting edge. It may be that B is trying to get the magic or technology.  Or maybe B is on the low-end of the magic or technology spectrum. Perhaps B believes that magic or technology is wrong, bad, or otherwise undesirable. This could be anything from the conflict of the story, to a subplot, to a minor detail. But you should know.

The magic or technology that exists in your story is going to affect the way your story works. If faster than light travel is real and common, what does that do for the tourism industry? Or mining? Aeronautics? Do parents frequently send their kids to a boarding school on Mars? Or perhaps schools arrange field trips to nearby planets? How about criminals and law enforcement? Is it easier or harder to get away and hide when you are wanted? Some of that will depend on how long this has existed and how easy and safe it is. Also remember the law of unintended consequences. When the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, I doubt they considered the day would come when millions of people flew every day. They certainly couldn’t have anticipated air shows, parashooting, or 9/11. Lasers, when they were first invented, were useless. Now they are used every day, in printers, to read CDs and DVDs, and more.

Now, magic. The problem with magic, is that unlike science, one presumes that what’s possible at any one point in time is more or less the same as what’s possible in the past and the future. We generally don’t think of magic ‘improving’. So,  if a certain spell is possible, unless you have a reason for it, your readers will assume it was always possible. How would that spell always being possible shape the world? If it is easy to get a magic box that makes things cold, and always has been, how would that affect things? Personally, I think the population of the world would be larger, with food preservation being available at a much earlier time. It would cut down on the amount of hunger, malnutrition, and disease. But what else would happen? Would cold meals be a sign of luxury? Would ice cream become a larger part of one’s diet?

This article is getting longer than I anticipated, so this is Part One. Part Two next week on how to come up with original forms of magic and technology (mostly magic.) See you next week.

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