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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Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (with apologies to David Bowie)

I recently started reading Verlyn Flieger’s A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie and it got me thinking.  Flieger discusses the changes that were occurring in the world during Tolkien’s life, particularly during his late-teens and early-20s.  In many ways, this begins as a New Historicist read, noting the major movements and such that were part of Tolkien’s socio-historical context, beyond the old references to WWI.  Flieger examines the movements and countermovements that occurred in the early-20th century in science, art, and philosophy, thoughts and knowledge that changed worldviews.  The work of Freud, Jung, Einstein, Planck, Pound, Joyce, and Picasso.  Each of whom essentially changed how we view the world, or responded to such changes.

 This got me thinking about my grandparents’ lives.  They went from radios and public phones to four channel black & white TV and rotary dial to cable, smartphones, and streaming TV.  Even in my own, relatively short, life, the technological changes from VHS to Blu-ray, landlines to pocket size cell phones, green screen dial-up computers to tablets.  Not to mention all the scientific advances, medical advances, changes in psychology, and philosophies of the last three decades.

 Unlike Tolkien, I grew up with theories of uncertainty regarding the world and continual change, from Einstein to Schroedinger, Jung to Freud, and others.  I grew up with the idea that change is the only constant in the universe.  I grew up in a household with science and mythology, both of which essentially teach the same thing via different methods and languages.  I love the “uncertainty” theories, multiverse theory, and all the possibilities that come from them.

 But, I can also understand why some people desire the comfort of perceived solidity often found in conservative religion and revisionist history (the idea that history never changes, therefore our knowledge of history never changes).  The very things that I enjoy, the uncertainty they engender, can be frightening.  The perception of something going on, unchanged, for 1700+ years (as false as that belief is) can be a comfort, I suppose.  Personally, I think that way lies stasis, which is in many ways equivalent to death.  But, that’s me.

 The fear is then fed by our changing technology.  For instance, dissemination of news.  In my grandparents’ day, there was only an hour or so of news a day (on the radio and at the movies) and newspapers came out twice daily.  Reporters had to be good at what they did.  They had to condense the entire day’s news into an hour block.  Even in my lifetime, I recall only having news on TV at 5, 6, and 11, or about three hours of news a day.  Even then, reporters had to keep things condensed and focused.

 Today’s 24 hour broadcasts let reporters get lazy, with ten, twelve hours covering the same story.  The coverage starts with Geraldo, then Van Susteren, then O’Reilly, then Hannity, for instance, all talking about the exact same event.  It is easy to see why fear develops and gets out of hand.  It is easy to see how 10+ hours of coverage of the same event turns into the belief that multiple events occurred, thereby amplifying the reaction.

 While our technological advances have unleashed at era of unprecedented access to information, I’m not sure that it is good for society or the individual psyche, especially when the internet news and mobile update elements are added.

 Thinking about these things, I think it is easy to see why we appear to have increases in mental disorders, people (a shrinking number) clinging to conservative religion (theoretically stable and unchanging), and an inordinate growth of fear among the general public in developed nations, particularly the U.S.

Writing Technologies

Doing a little Xmas Eve writing and thought of something.

I see people asking about and discussing various software and such for writing all over.  So, I thought I’d share mine.

Right now, my writing technology consists of:

1) A handful of Mead Five Star 2-Subject notebooks (9.5 x 6.5″; two pocket divider)

2) A Bic round stic med/moy ballpoint pen.

3) Some half sheets of paper reused from the unclaimed print-outs box at work (well, several places of employment over the years) for maps, rough sketches, and initial notes.

If/When I’m doing writing on the computer, add MS Word app (tablet) or TextMaker Standard 2012 (much cheaper, fully compatible, version of Word; desktop).

Secondary World Technology

Sorry it’s been quiet lately.  Holidays and all.

Anyway, I’ve been considering some ideas and have a question for the groupmind.  Has anyone done a secondary world setting where they’ve included modern technology as the baseline (e.g. early-21st century Earth tech as the standard for a non-Earth world)?  If so, how’d you handle it?

I’m thinking about how a lot of urban fantasy (primary world) describes tech (using brand names, firearm calibers, and other recognizably Earth things), but I’m not sure that’s easily translatable into a secondary world.  Or is generic the way to go?  Maybe I should look at some Warcraft fic (admittedly more steampunk-fantasy).

Technological Development or Lack Thereof

One of the most common complaints, or observations, about non-urban fantasy is that the genre is stuck in medieval technology. In part, I think this technology choice comes from the genre’s roots in medieval romances (Arthurian and others). It may also be the same impetus that draws people to ren faires, the SCA, and various LARP groups. That said, there’s certainly nothing wrong with upgrading the tech level of a fantasy world. Do you want secondary world Elves and Dwarves with muskets and airships? Go for it. But, there are also good reasons for technological development to be stunted.

Magic is the most obvious one. Some authors argue that magic and technology cannot co-exist, that they are inimical to each other. A great example is Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, where magic actively shuts down and tears apart the physical signs of technology. Alternately, there’s a good argument to be made for the presence of magic halting technological development. If magic is present and can be used to perform certain common tasks (such as transporting water or grinding flour) cheap or easily, then why develop aqueducts or windmills?

Disasters can also explain stunted tech development. Some sort of apocalyptic event, whether natural or magical, can set back or completely reset the development clock. The effects that apply in post-apocalypse literature, film, and TV can be applied to fantasy too.

For those worlds with multiple sentient species, racial mindset can also be a factor. A common trope with long loved or immortal species is the idea that they are slow to change. They may also be adverse to innovation. Whether Elves or Vampires, a long lived species could be so hidebound that their technological development is stunted. Depending on their population and influence, this could be a racial weakness or it could be imposed on other races.

Socio-political factors can also slow technological advancement. Two of the strongest elements here are religion and the upper class. Both have a vested interest in controlling technology and technological development. We need only look at writing technology in our own history to see this. For centuries, arguably even longer, only the priests, who’d developed writing, were literate. They controlled the technology of writing, which meant they wielded great power and earned riches by hiring our their services to the rest of society. Likewise, the development of the printing press was held back in both China and Europe. In the former case, the nobles purposely stunted development through laws that kept movable type from being invented. In Europe’s case, both the Church and nobles did what they could to limit printing presses, often in the name of combating heresy.