Phaser, Disruptor, Windmill: Technology in F/SF

The question of technology is a familiar one for the science fiction genre, but it is almost equally important in the fantasy and urban fantasy genres. In the last, the relationship between technology and magic, or technology and paranormals, is very important.

With that in mind, let’s break the issue down by genre:

Most fantasy worlds are stuck in a medieval to early modern level of technology with occasional forays into ancient and Victorian levels. In part, this trend is likely due to the tradition of medieval romances and legends that serve as the foundation of the modern genre. The medieval era also tends to be romanticized to some extent in Western society, functioning as a source of and setting for dreams and flights of fancy, the home of the proverbial knight in shining armor.

The tendency toward the medieval could also be tied to the same reasons that Renaissance faires and HMB are popular. Frankly, swords and armor are, in the popular imagination, cool. The era before gunpowder and WWI-type horrific warfare—mass destruction, mass chemical/biological weapons, nuclear devices, carpet bombing—and even the printing press is often seen as “simpler” somehow.

That said, there is no real reason that fantasy has to be stuck in the medieval or Renaissance technology level. It could easily be set in a secondary world with modern technology (Max Gladstone gets close to this), or Victorian, or steam (China Mieville), or others.

Urban fantasy, in the majority of cases, is based in modern technology, which brings in other issues and potential tweaks to the subject.

The interaction between magic and technology is, perhaps, the most important issue. Some hold that magic and modern technology are incompatible and affect each other negatively. They decide that magic and tech contradict each other and cancel each other out. Others argue that there is no reason the two should be inimical, but rather that they can work well together. And, of course, there are those who fall somewhere in between. Jim Butcher and Ilona Andrews provide good examples here, with technology and magic continually vying with each other.

Even if magic and technology can be co-mingled, that does not necessarily speak to every species. Sometimes, to play with ideas, authors limit technology problems to certain species. For instance, the classic fae and iron issue, which causes trouble for fae trying to travel in the modern world, in cars made of steel.

The question does provide fertile ground for unusual effect, though. For instance, high concentrations of magic may affect electronics (Rowling). Cell phone signals may interact with certain paranormal lineages to attract monsters (Riordan, Percy Jackson). Magic may only disrupt technology if it is directly applied to the piece of technology (Riordan, Kane Chronicles).

Technological development is an issue of obvious importance to the science fiction genre, from cyberpunk’s chrome to space opera’s blasters to the entire genre’s starships. Whether the technology involves travel ,communications, medicine, protection, combat, lifespans, cloning, genetic engineering, robotics, or AI, it can all profoundly affect the cultures and societies of the world. The choice of technology can also affect what stories can be told in the setting—if interstellar travel or communications are difficult or slow, then the setting is unlikely to have a galaxy spanning civil war with epic space battles.

Choosing the level of technology, or levels if each area is considered independently, should be done carefully so the technology doesn’t bury the story or other world elements. With that in mind, the technology will both define societies and be defined by them. Take, as an example, smartphone technology. The introduction of relatively cheap, and thus widespread, smartphone usage has brought about significant changes in all of Earth’s societies in terms of communication, connectivity to others, cross-cultural dissemination, information gathering, traffic safety, and a host of other areas. On the other hand, society has defined the smartphone in terms of usage as well. The evolution of the smartphone has been guided just as much, if not moreso, by average users and their desires as it has been by programmers and engineers. Regardless, technology will always affect the social growth and evolution of societies, whether that tech be cloning, cybernetics, regular space travel, or cold fusion.

Additionally, technology can be widely different based on species or nation, and not just in level of development. Example 1: Star Trek’s Romulans have cloaking technology that other species lack, Klingons use disrupters while the Federation uses phasers. Example 2: Babylon 5’s humans use rotational methods for artificial gravity, Vorlons have living bio-tech ships, Shadows have cloaking tech.

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Re-History: Revisiting History in Worldbuilding

History is an important element of every worldbuild, regardless of genre. In Clancy-style thrillers, the history of nations and the history of organizations are important. David Morrell built entire action thrillers out of small pieces of history, and built secret organizations and societies with their own histories. On a larger scale, Tolkien and George Martin constructed huge continental or global histories going back several millennia.

Facing this daunting task, one thing writers and worldbuilders find themselves facing the question of what to include. Limiting history to rulers, battles, and wars gets boring and dull fast. Histories can include foundations of nations, cities, other sites, and organizations; reigns of rulers and dynasties; conflicts between nations, leaders, religions, and groups; treaties, good & bad times (ex. the Great Depression); inventions of note; first contacts between civilizations and species; the rise and fall of nations, families, and organizations.

In fantasy, urban fantasy, and sci-fi, history forms the foundation of current events and national or species relations. It affects current organizational relations as well, ex. the mages and clergy are at odds because the priests tried to purge magic from the country 100 years ago.

The depth and detail of histories varies widely, for a host of reasons. We know that Tolkien’s history is very complex and detailed thanks to the Silmarillion and Lost Tales. Frank Herbert’s was probably equally detailed, based on what Kevin Anderson and Brian Herbert have been able to reconstruct from his notes. Rowling and George Lucas’s histories seem to have started rather sketchy and been filled in when needed. Michael Moorcock seems to be somewhere in between. The depth of detail also depends on the length of the piece. Neil Gaiman didn’t need to be excessively detailed in putting together a history for Neverwhere, a relatively short standalone novel. Herbert needed a detailed history for his extended epic. The role of history in the piece can also determine detail. For Neverwhere, detail and depth were not particularly necessary, just a general knowledge of London history and the Atlantis legend even though that history forms the plot. On the other hand, the history of Middle-Earth drove the plot of a wide ranging epic.

Once the history is outlined or fleshed out, how does it get incorporated?

The methods are almost as varied as the elements of history itself, sometimes they aren’t even necessary.

History can be introduced through the laws and cultural traditions of the setting. J.K. Rowling’s wand usage laws derive from the wizarding world’s history with non-human species. Frank Herbert’s imperial edicts against artificial intelligence have their roots in the Butlerian Jihad, 10,000 years before the events of Dune.

Tolkien utilizes the songs and stories of the elves, dwarves, hobbits, and Rangers to convey elements of Middle-Earth’s history.

In certain settings and types of stories, courses and books can relate parts of history. A good example of Rowling’s use of the school setting to convey her fictional history.

The very landscape can be tapped to tell the reader about the world’s history. For example, Tolkien’s use of the Argonath, the Barrows, and Weathertop or George Lucas’s shots of the temple of Yavin IV.

Family and national relations are another good way to bring in the world’s history. George R.R. Martin does this well, if in a somewhat heavy handed way, with the Starks (former Kings of the North) and the relationship between Dorn and King’s Landing.

Species relationships build out of the family and national ones. Rowling’s discussion of the various Goblin Rebellions and the plots present in many vampire-werewolf movies—in which ancient relationships lead to species conflict—are good examples.

The appearance of organizations or groups can be used as a moment to narrate or describe some history. For example, Martin’s use of the return of the Faith Militant under Cersei Lannister-Baratheon.

Other times, the entire plot of the story can reveal world history or the real world antecedents of the fictional world. The entire plot of A Song of Ice and Fire (Martin) is based on the English War of the Roses. Harry Turtledove builds most of his secondary worlds out of history, including Videssos and the setting of the Fox novels which are treated almost like alternate histories.

Turning to real world history is often an excellent option for finding inspiration for fictitious histories. There are many interesting elements, moments, and odd things in our own history that spawn plots, cultures, or even entire worlds. For instance, the appearance of the Plague in Europe, which yielded significant socio-economic and religious change. Or the sumptuary laws that were instituted throughout most of Europe to differentiate the impoverished noble class from the wealthy mercantile classes. Perhaps even the family relations of the European heads of state leading up to and throughout WWI (almost all of whom were cousins).

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Who Wants to Live Forever?: Lifespans & Immortality (F & SF)

The idea of extending the average human lifespan is a common feature of science fiction as well as fantasy and urban fantasy. The introduction of non-humans with very long lifespans, or even true immortality, is also common. For example, R.A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long, C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves (immortal) and dwarves (long lived), or any urban fantasy writer’s vampires.

 Because of its prevalence, there are a wide variety of options that can be played with as part of the concept.

 Extended Life versus Immortality

There is a difference between an extended lifespan and immortality. Someone whose lifespan has been extended will eventually die of natural causes, because they continue aging and the body will eventually break down. On the other hand, an immortal individual will never die of old age. Either version may or may not include immunity to disease, immortality usually does.

 There are also three major varieties of life extension and immortality that can come into play:

Extended Life—The individual ages and gets progressively older, but lives longer.

Slowed Aging—The individual ages, but at a significantly slower rate than other people; ex. the individual ages one year for every five that pass.

Unaging—The individual never ages beyond a certain point, usually achieving adulthood or being turned into an immortal.

 

Once the decision between extended life and immortality is made, there are other questions. The most important is how does the life get extended or why is the character/species immortal. Literature and movies give us thousands of possibilities for achieving an extended life, from medicine to alchemy, natural genetics to magic items.

There are also several different kinds of immortality:

Alchemical Immortality—A common element of Western and Asian, particularly Taoist, legend is the elixir of life, an alchemically brewed drink that prevents death so long as the individual drinks it on a regular basis. Ex. Nicholas Flamel (Rowling & Scott), the Taoist Immortals.

Ascension—Some sources discuss the option of ascending to a higher, usually non-corporeal, plane of existence and state of being, often through enlightenment, to achieve immortality. Ex. Bodhisattvas, The Ancients (Stargate).

Food-Based Immortality—Many mythologies around the world refer to specific foods that give the eater immortality. Ex. the Norse gods and Idun’s apples, the Chinese Peaches of Immortality.

Item-Based Immortality—Occasionally we come across stories in which a magical item confers immortality upon the owner, usually this is seen as a curse and the item cannot be removed or discarded.

Location-Based Immortality—Sometimes, an individual attains immortality, but only while (s)he remains in a given place; if the individual leaves that place, then they age at an accelerated rate until reaching their true age. Ex. the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones.

“True” Immortality—Nothing is required for this immortality to come into effect, usually this means the immortality is genetic in nature. Ex. Tolkien’s elves.

Undeath—An arguable immortality occurs when the individual achieves a state between life and death. Ex. ghosts, liches, the Norse draugr.

Vampiric Immortality—Individuals attain and maintain immortality by feeding on others, whether feeding on blood, emotions, or other life forces.

 In all cases, there are some biological and psychological effects to extended lifespans and immortality that should be considered.

 Maturation is perhaps the first biological effect that comes into play. With some sources of immortality or extended life, this is not an issue. When, for instance, an individual achieves immortality through alchemy, a magic item, or a location, then maturation is not an issue. For those who achieve immortality or long life naturally, some age normally until adulthood, then stop or slow down. Others have slowed aging from the start, ex. D&D non-humans.

 Psychologically, there is the question of how the mind contains and processes the memories and information acquired over centuries or millennia. For non-humans, the simple answer is that their minds naturally evolved to adapt to their extended lives. For humans, whether they reach immortality through alchemy or becoming a vampire or other means, most writers and worldbuilders come to the conclusion that eventually the weight of processing centuries of memories and information would become too much. This could lead to mental breakdowns or other issues. Some handle this potential problem by using torpor. If applied, this means the immortal occasionally enters a semi-hibernation state, whether willing or otherwise, during which they rest apart from society. This has the effect of preserving the mind and avoiding ennui on the part of the individual. It also serves to allow the society to evolve and others to shape or lead society.

 Alongside the personal effects, immortality and extended life, particularly on a widespread scale, are bound to have social effects.

Governance—The governance of society is an important issue, particularly if there is widespread immortality. Is there static, staid leadership that causes society to stagnate or are there artificial mechanisms in place to ensure change? For example, among Tolkien’s elves, both Elrond and Galadriel ruled their respective peoples for millennia in lands that effectively never changed, which was one reason they had to leave Middle-Earth.

Inheritance—If a significant number of people in society never die (of old age) or take centuries before succumbing to age, do their descendants ever inherit their worldly possessions? When? How?

Reproduction—If an immortal species can reproduce rapidly, they are very likely to overrun the world in a short time. This is one reason that many worlds with vampires include societal laws regarding who can create new vampires and when. On the other extreme, even an immortal species that reproduces too slowly will eventually die out. Balance between the two extremes seems to be key.

Social Climbing—Without natural death, or centuries between natural deaths, is it possible for individuals to climb in society? Usually, in mortal societies, openings in the social status structure are created through death or retirement. If we remove one or both of those, then society is heavily affected. Some artificial measures can evolve in society to solve the problem, including challenges and assassination, of opening up positions at the top of the social heap.

Social Influence—The longer a person lives, particularly in high end social positions, the most they influence and direct society. This can cause the same effects as governance. For example, Yoda spent 800 years on the Jedi Council and training Jedi, which means he exerted a massive influence on the Jedi Order’s philosophy, training methods, and membership as well as exerting influence on the direction of the Republic.

Of Blogs and Books

I had a thought last night and started some preliminary exploration this morning.

I’ve found that over the last four years of maintaining this blog, I have written over 24,300 words about world building and the F/UF/SF genres.  Combined with the roughly 20 posts I broadly conceived of in the last week or two . . . I’m seriously considering revising the 43 relevant posts and the upcoming 20-ish into something resembling a book.

I’m also considering setting up a Patreon account, to fund more writing time (that isn’t one of my 2.5 jobs – tutoring, resume writing, and freelance editing).

You’ve Gotta Live Somewhere: Nations in Worldbuilding

Westeros.

Lankhmar.

Melnibone.

Gondor.

The Dragaeran Empire.

The Galactic Republic.

The United Federation of Planets.

All worlds have countries, whether in fantasy, sci-fi, or alternate Earths.  Some are real, and therefore don’t need much development beyond modifications to the genre or history.  The culture is there, the cities, government, currency, etc. are all there, just potentially different.  Others need to be built whole cloth, from the ground up.

As with the others in this mini-series, there are some minimum elements that I think we need to know.  Other details can be added, of course, such as currencies, cultural inspiration, fashion, customs, economics, and languages, as desired.

Government—What kind of government is present?  Is the government effective?  What about a public government versus a shadow government?  There are a wide variety of potential governments out there, so there’s no need to be limited to the typical fantasy empire or kingdom, nor for the sci-fi republic or empire.  What major political factions exist?

Head of State—Who is in charge of the government?  Is this individual a figurehead or does (s)he have actual authority and power?  Or is this a council or similar group of people?

Geography—What’s the land like?  Or planet, as the case may be?  Who are the country’s neighbors?  What relationships does it have with its neighbors?  The internal geography can dictate transportation, communications, even sub-cultures and political divisions (both in terms of governing divisions and political factions).

Legislature—What body establishes the laws of the country?  In some cases, this might be the head of state, with or without input from an advisory body.  In other cases, there may be an entire legislative branch apart from the executive.  Or the judicial branch may make the laws.

Law Enforcement—Who enforces the laws of the country?  This is both who is on the streets as well as the judicial branches.  Are there any special law enforcers?  Or is law enforcement a scaled thing—e.g. local, regional, national?

Capital & Major Cities—The capital of the country is obviously a good thing to have in mind.  But, there are also different types of capitals.  What’s the political capital?  Are there more than one (ex. at one point, the Roman Empire had two)?  Is there a financial capital?  Perhaps an academic capital?  Or even a religious capital?

Ex. Washington, D.C. is the political capital of the U.S., but NYC is the financial and tourism capital.  Riyadh is the political capital of Saudi Arabia, but Mecca is effectively a religious capital.

Religion—What religion(s) is/are known or represented in the country?  Is there a state religion?  Are there state gods?  If there are multiple religions, how do they relate to each other?  If there is a state religion, is it open to others or not?  What are the faiths present like?  Is there an unofficial state religion?

Ex. Officially, the U.S. has no state religion, unofficially Christianity is the state faith of the country; Denmark has a state religion, but it is very tolerant of other faiths; the UK has a state religion, led by the political head of state (who is a figurehead in both cases).

History— What has gone on in the country?  When was it founded?  How many leaders has it had?  Was it involved in any major historical events?  Has it changed over time?  How?  Were there any notable rulers (good or bad)?

Ex. Rome started as a kingdom, became a republic, then turned into an empire before becoming the Italian city-states, then a fascist ally of the Nazi regime, before finally settling as a democratic republic.

Sci-Fi Top 10

After some conversations, I’ve decided that this week and next, I’ll post some of my top 10 (and then some) lists for books (and a couple stories).  None of the lists are in any particular order.

To kick it off, Sci-FI:

1)      Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

One of the top cyberpunk classics, following the adventures of the (aptly named) Hiro Protagonist as he navigates a world of corporate enclaves, private security, and mafioso pizza delivery. Mixes high tech, cyberspace, ancient Babylonian myth, and linguistic theory into an enjoyable ride.

2)      Tunnel in the Sky, Robert Heinlein

YA adventure novel charting a class of survival students training to lead interstellar colonies. In many ways a response to Lord of the Flies, although Heinlein cheats by giving the students prior survival training and gear.

3)      Foreigner-series, C.J. Cherryh

Space opera following Bren Cameron, diplomat between the “invading” human minority and the alien majority on an alien world. The series evolves from Cameron’s work as a glorified translator into a major mover in the alien society.

4)      Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Classic collection of short stories set on Mars. My personal favorite is “Usher II”, a piece against censorship.

5)      Demolished Man, Alfred Bester

Classic about a telepathic detective that inspired J. Michael Straczinski’s Babylon 5 psi cop Bester.

6)      Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick

Classic better known as Ridley Scott’s film adaptation Blade Runner. Much more complex and philosophical than the adaptation.

7)      Dune, Frank Herbert

Classic epic of politics, genetics, religion, betrayal, redemption, and empire.

8)      Gather, Darkness!, Fritz Leiber

A relatively unknown novel about a society in which the church governs society and is opposed by “satanic witches”, both apparently using magic. In fact, each side employs concealed technology in their fight for control of society.

9)      A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller, Jr.

Classic post-apocalypse piece following the monks of St. Leibowitz who attempt to maintain some semblance of civilization in the apocalyptic landscape.

10)  Stainless Steel Rat-series, Harry Harrison

Interesting series that mixes sci-fi crime drama with military sci-fi as the title character is brought into government service as spy and military officer.

When Genres Collide: Mixing Tropes and Styles

I’m shamelessly ripping off part of the title from an old SFRA conference name.

I’ve been working on two small, focused worldbuilds lately, taking a break from the massive multiverse builds and getting back to basics. In the process, I’ve been thinking more than a little about cross-genre writing and exploration. Obviously, this is something that’s been around for a while, at least the last thirty years, probably more. After all, Ray Bradbury preferred people to consider his writing fantasy (including The Martian Chronicles) rather than science fiction, despite the obvious sci-fi elements and lack of “traditionally” fantasy ones. And Fritz Leiber wrote in almost every genre imaginable, with a few crossovers in his Lankhmar stories (notably with Lovecraftian horror), roughly 80 years ago.

On one hand, I like genres. They certainly serve a purpose. They give readers a sense of what to expect from a story, they make marketing and advertising easier, and all that stuff. On the other hand, it’s also fun to see and think about cross-genre writing. C.J. Cherryh’s Morgaine and Hammerfall books spring to mind alongside John De Chancie’s Castle Perilous and even Robert Asprin’s MYTH books.

And, really, virtually all fiction is cross-genre. Lord of the Rings mixes epic fantasy and fairy tale; Harry Potter combines urban fantasy, epic, and mystery; Artemis Fowl mingles urban YA fantasy with action/adventure/spy; the Southern Vampire series mixes urban fantasy, southern lit, chick lit, romance, mystery, and horror.

Right now, I’m at the point of considering a high/urban fantasy and space opera mix. In a way something like secondary world Harry Potter grown up meets Firefly or Stargate (once I figure a few things out) with a dash of MYTH (without the humor and punnage). I’m still letting the broad strokes stew, poring over some fine points, while wrapping up a straight urban fantasy setting.

Regardless, I find cross-genre work very interesting, when done well. As with anything, when it’s not thought through or just slapped together, it tends to fall flat. Mixing the tropes and styles gives birth to some fun, new things as the synthesis of genres creates something rather different from its ancestors.