Building things isn’t necessarily a sign of civilization and higher thought—birds build nests, for instance, while ants and bees have some seriously elaborate dwellings—but we’ve definitely taken it to another level. Our planet’s surface is covered by billions of buildings, from straw huts to skyscrapers, and many are constructed on the remains of earlier settlements. And that’s only the housing. Add in all those other things we build every single day, from phones to cars, and it’s clear: humans are builders. We always have been.
Beneath the steel rebar and plastic and composite and the other myriad materials, the art of construction hasn’t changed too much over the ages. We’ve developed machinery to automate nearly every aspect of it, but it still boils down to putting pieces together. In general, the addition of magic won’t change that. As we’ll see, it can function as a sort of replacement for the advanced tools available to us but beyond the imagination of our ancestors.
Because this is such a huge topic (even covering only a small corner of it, as we’ll do here), I’m going to break this up into a few smaller sections, each focusing on one aspect of construction and how magic affects it. We’ll start with the first step in building anything: gathering the materials.
Look around you, and you’ll likely see lots of modern inventions. Computers, phones, televisions—in other words, tech. But take a closer look. Think about the building you’re in, its walls and doors. Things like that. It all had to be built from something, right?
Nowadays, we’ve got a huge variety of materials, especially synthetic ones. Plastic, in the colloquial sense of the word, is a comparatively recent invention, dating back to the 1800s. Aluminum, though found all around us, only started to be used as a component of construction around the same time. Silicone is 20th-century stuff, as are the silicon-based transistors in your computer’s CPU.
In older days, your choice of materials was far more limited. You’ve got metals and alloys, but only those accessible to earlier technology, such as iron, copper, tin, and lead. Wood, clay, and stone are natural and abundant, and they come in lots of styles, each with its own pros and cons. Plants provide fibers, best known for their role as cloth, while animals offer hide, bone, horn, and ivory. Added to these are a small assortment of classical “synthetics”, such as concrete (known to the Romans, among others), glass (at least five thousand years old, not counting natural obsidian), and rubber (derived from plants native to Central and South America).
What can magic add to that? The same thing that technological advances did. We can’t quite get to nylon or graphene, but we can make some advancements. The easiest way to do that is by adding fire: some of the better materials require higher temperatures than early medieval forges can achieve. That’s what it takes to melt tougher metals, for example. (Colder conditions aren’t nearly as helpful, however.)
Most synthetic materials, on the other hand, are created by some sort of chemical process. For that, you need the chemical (or even alchemical) knowledge that comes naturally from the growth of science. Since we’ve already established that the study of magic in our fictional world will increase experimentation and theory, it’s not a great leap to push that same outlook into metallurgy and the study of materials.
Steel, to take one notable example, was notoriously difficult for our predecessors, but magical tech could allow it to be common enough that any old adventurer could wield it. Better control over heat sources and impurities are the reason why, and they give us a number of other advances. Cheaper glass—especially clear plate glass—and ceramics are another good illustration. And if you posit a magical source of electricity (and the understanding of it), then electrolysis nets you aluminum and a number of other niceties.
For our magical society, we won’t go quite that far. They’ve got a good handle on steel, though, to the point where it’s not necessarily the mark of a rich man to have a lot of it. Similarly, quality iron is cheap, and good glass is available. And that’s in addition to the natural set above. (We’ll follow the typical fantasy tropes and say that concrete belongs to an earlier age, its secrets forgotten.) Chemistry is a growing art, but its byproducts aren’t available on an industrial scale…yet. So not too much changes, or so it seems.
The tools of the carpenter’s trade have changed dramatically in the two thousand or so years since history’s most famous practitioner of the craft. My stepdad builds houses for a living, and while he does have a set of manual hammers, saws, and the like, he won’t be using them on the job under normal circumstances. Today, it’s all about nail guns, automatic drills, compressors, generators, and an assortment of saws and sanders and similar implements.
Tools for working with materials reflect the work done, whether in modern, automated form or as the old-fashioned hand tools of yore. Saws are meant to cut, but not in the same way as, say, a knife; teeth work better than a smooth blade for breaking the thick fibrous bonds of wood in a back-and-forth motion. But splitting logs is best done with a wedge, and axes make excellent wedges. Hammering is all about applying force, and a heavy weight does wonders there. And so on.
For most of history, all these things were hand-operated. Most of the time, anyway. There have always been attempts at power tools. Hydraulic (from water) and pneumatic (from air) pressure have always been favorites; compressed air still works well today, assuming my stepdad’s compressor is in the mood to cooperate, which is never a guarantee. Only in recent times have we been able to convert electricity into the motive force necessary for tools, though heavy machinery has been able to use steam for a couple hundred years.
And that may be one of the best parallels for magical tools. We’ve already seen the application of magical force for such uses as transportation, so it’s no stretch to see how it could be incorporated into mundane tools. Our fictional realm can create magic-powered jackhammers, drills, and nail guns, all of which work far better than their hand-operated cousins, if not as well as modern gadgets. Saws? No problem. Cranes? Sure. How about a nice belt sander? We can do that, too.
But wait, as they say, there’s more. Tools aren’t just about force. What about a blowtorch that uses magical fire? That’s also possible, and probably safer than a tank of acetylene, if properly designed. Soldering and welding both benefit from that, as well, making everything from piping to stained glass cheaper and more widespread. And that’s not even counting what a full-fledged mage could do on the job.
Old tools were mostly human-powered, and that obviously means you’ve got to have humans to power them. Construction, especially from the house level on up, requires a lot of labor. Traditionally, that meant companies of hired laborers (or, in less-friendly areas, slaves) working tirelessly on the project du jour. With most tasks being done by hand, there wasn’t much choice.
Magic brings something like automation, and we know how automation affects the labor market. You only have to turn on the news to find out. (I’m writing this a couple of days after the “Brexit” vote, and from a state in the US that is seeing a resurgence in manufacturing…but one that doesn’t benefit unskilled labor. That’s all robots, or it will be soon.) As the use of self-powered tools grows, the need for massive numbers of low-wage laborers declines. The Industrial Revolution would have killed slavery without the abolitionist movement, just as the Robotics Revolution is killing the blue-collar job market today. (How that changes the economy is worthy of its own series of posts.)
So our magical society will be slave-free, both out of a concern for our fellow man and a lack of need for slaves as laborers. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any builders, however. Somebody has to work those tools, and somebody has to make them. But it’ll be a bit more like the year 2000 than 1000. Machines won’t be too widespread, but powered tools will be common enough that most have seen them in action, if not used them.
I could go on forever, and with a much more informed opinion than usual, thanks to my family situation. But I won’t, because I think you get the picture. Our magical realm will be building in a way that should be fairly recognizable: small to medium teams of workers with semi-automatic tools. With magic, they are more efficient than their real-life counterparts, so the work gets done sooner. That implies more building, whether upward or outward, and the better materials will certainly help the former. Towers, pyramids, and other magnificent works were accomplished without magic, but this realm might be more prone to creating such masterpieces. They’ll have the means, and the time will come when there’s nothing better to do.