On magic as technology

I’ve previously written about the idea of magic and technology coexisting, and I touched briefly on some of the ways that a world would be different from our own, if magic truly did exist the way it’s often described in fantasy literature. This week, I’m taking it to 11. We’re going to look at what happens when magic doesn’t just live alongside technology, but either replaces or supplements it.

A world with magical technology shows up in the occasional mainstream setting. Many Final Fantasy games, FFVII and FFXII for example, have a heavy emphasis on magic working as or with technology. D&D’s Eberron setting has a high-magic world where magical implements take the place of technological devices. And, most familiar of all, the Harry Potter series has a number of “industrial magic” instances: messenger owls, phantom quills, etc.

The core conceit

The first thing we have to ask about a magic-as-technology setting is this: how common is the magic? If only a certain few can wield magic at all, it won’t form a major function of the technological progression. But if objects that use magic can be made and then used by those without magical talent, then you have the basis for a “technomancer” guild, where mages can create enchanted objects for the general public. Give everybody the capability for techno-magic, and many people will use it to make things. Some won’t, though, and magic-based “factories” could spring up, offering production lines and volume discounts. It might be a bit like today’s PC market, where most people buy a computer from a big name like Dell, but a select few learn how to build their own. They might pay a little more, but they get a level of customization not possible for the “big boys”.

Knowing how many magically-aware people we have, we can move on to the second question: how does magic work? I don’t mean in general, but only in comparison to science. If magic and technology work in basically the same way, and they can affect one another, then you have a “magitech” setting where the two almost merge (e.g., Final Fantasy). “Technomancy” is more of a situation where magic replaces tech (e.g., Harry Potter). Both of these have their ups and downs, but we’re not here to debate them today. They both have one thing in common: the notion that magic works in a predictable, testable, repeatable fashion. In other words, magic is scientific.

Branching off

When, in the course of history, was “scientific” magic discovered? The farther back you put this defining event, the less the final result will look like our world. Humans have an amazing capability to adapt new things to their use, and magic would be no different.

Take our own world, for instance. If magic had come into being, say, on December 21, 2012, the world as we know it would be largely the same. (I actually had an idea for a story based on this very topic, years ago, but I never got around to making it.) Three years isn’t that much time, after all. We’d probably just be seeing the first stirrings of a magical revolution right now.

Move the magical zero-hour back, though, and things begin to happen. Anywhere within an average lifetime, and the world doesn’t change enough to be unrecognizable, but you get lots of fun what-if questions. What if Osama bin Laden had access to magic in 2001? What if NASA had magical air-recycling in the 70s? What if the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were magically-enhanced? Or, for that matter, what if the Japanese had magical defenses against them?

Beyond a lifetime, the possibilities start to get too much. World War I is just now at the edge of living memory, but imagine if it was the first magical war. The body counts might have been even higher, the damage to the land far worse. Or things could have been changed for the better. Who knows? Wars are the easiest to speculate about, but any historical event could have gone differently if magic had been involved. And then everything would change.

Once you go back far enough, and once magic gets powerful enough, civilization itself turns out differently. If you have magical means of sending messages across miles, who needs radio? Magical copying can eliminate the need not just for electronic copiers, but for the printing press, too. If running water can be provided by a spirit of a river that anyone can tame, then why would you ever invent the aqueduct?

Not just invention, but every facet of life can be changed through the proper application of magic. Travelers could move about at night with magical illumination sources. A “ray of frost” spell is going to be a big boost to the study of heat transfer. “Flesh to stone” can take the place of mausoleum statues. The list goes on ad infinitum, because there’s nothing that wouldn’t be different in a world full of verifiable, technical magic. Even literature wouldn’t be immune. Sword-and-sorcery fantasy in such a world would probably be more of a satirical, comedic genre, or maybe a stylized look at the real world. The true literary heroes might become those who did great deeds without magical help.

How much do you need?

This is a rabbit hole that goes on forever, and it’s easy to get lost in it. For somebody trying to create the illusion of a techno-magic world, I can only offer a little advice.

First, decide on answers to the two questions above. Figure out where magic changes the “natural” order of history (even if you’re making a fantasy world). Work out what kind of magic the people would have access to, and how many of them can use it. The decisions you make here affect everything else, so they’re the most important.

Second, you can “cheat” by saying that just about everything that happened before magic matches up with our world. The precise details won’t be the same, but a world where magic was discovered in Roman times would probably have something resembling a Stone Age and a Bronze Age before that. Basically, any invention from before your branching point gets in for free, and you can work from there.

Third, think about what you need. Sure, it’s fun to explore the different possibilities, the different paths of the butterfly effect, but you do need to remember the needs of your story. Magical, oceangoing ships without sails might be interesting, but people living in a landlocked city-state probably won’t care about them, so a story set there might only mention them in passing, such as a brief phrase dropped in a traveler’s tale.

Fourth, use logic. That’s the whole point of technological magic, that it works the same as science. Wands of magic missile can replace guns, sure, but if they’re easy (and cheap) enough to make, then they would replace guns just about everywhere. Probably bows, too. Hunters would use them, and so would assassins. If that changeover is far enough in the past, society might completely forget how to make guns. (And that could make an interesting story hook, if I do say so myself.)

Finally, resist the urge to stagnate. If magic replaces technology, that doesn’t mean that progress stops. No, it just starts going in a different direction. It’s humanity’s unspoken desire to evolve, and the history of civilization is that of people coming together to change their environment to better suit them. That won’t stop simply because magic becomes involved. In many cases, industrial magic might cause things to speed up. If we can make things fly using magic in the High Middle Ages, then Da Vinci, the Montgolfiers, and the Wrights never need to design or build gliders, hot-air balloons, and airplanes. Magical airships, ornithopters, or the like would be a common sight to them, so why bother making something less powerful, less efficient, and more dangerous?

Going deeper

In case you couldn’t tell, I really like these thought experiments. I want to do more of them. I want to follow the rabbit hole deeper. Maybe it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Maybe you’re satisfied with Generic Medieval Europe With Wizards. That’s fine. I understand that, and sometimes it’s just what I need, too. But I definitely want to keep exploring the intersection of magic and science. I can’t promise it will be a regular, weekly thing, but I’ll put them in every now and then.

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