Fiction Friction: Analogous and Alternative Technology in Fantasy Works

By Tom Anderson

One difficulty of writing works of fiction set in our own world, which is arguably common to all genres but particularly noticeable in epic works involving war and politics, is that one is constrained by the ‘rules’ of the technology that underwrites the world we live in. Even works that range far from the conscientious ‘rivet-counting’ of the technothriller (or military AH) cannot always forget or ignore such limitations. It is always interesting to gauge how an author (or director, or editor) feels on this point, or how they judge their audience.

For example, even a romantic comedy whose focus is on matters of the heart, perhaps involving a climactic race at the airport for its protagonist to mend a misunderstanding, is unlikely to forget that the fateful transatlantic flight will take more than an hour. It is expected that the general audience would notice such a discrepency and it would destroy their suspension of disbelief. Complicating the matter further is that the ‘rules’ are not static, but change as technology advances. About twenty years ago, I recall horror film enthusiasts expressing regret that the invention and popularisation of mobile phones would destroy the old gimmick of our protagonists losing all contact with each other and the outside world. Fortunately for the horror fans, of course, people have since turned from indestructible Nokia phones whose charge lasts forever to fragile and battery-eating smartphones, so it is now still perfectly viable and believable to pull the old isolation plot.

An interesting example where changes haven’t affected the portrayal of technology is in the area of software and ‘computer hacking’. Considering how ubiquitous computers have become, it is striking that Hollywood still thinks it can get away with portraying hacking as basically magic. A classic case is the basis of a world-ending plot being ‘the hackers have stolen the nuclear launch codes!’ – as though the world’s nuclear missiles are all plugged into the internet and we all just stand helplessly by as they launch, rather than some bloke in a silo in North Dakota with a floppy disk and a key going “er no, the President’s standing right here and he’s telling me to ignore the fake order, you idiot”. Things may have actually gotten worse, as the internal workings of computers become increasingly hidden behind graphic user interfaces or, worse, smartphone ‘apps’. It is an example of Clarke’s Law, treating sufficiently advanced technology as indistinguishable from magic, as though hackers are wizards and computer systems (or nukes) are djinns or sprites enslaved through spells that we never truly understand or control – just because the author and the audience doesn’t.

Yet this suggests an interesting turnaround: if sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, could sufficiently advanced magic be indistinguishable from technology? A number of fantasy authors have looked at the idea of using fictional magic as an analogue or alternative to the technology we enjoy in our own world. This idea has been batted around many times and I am certainly not going to cover more than a fraction of them here. Possibly the best-known or most mainstream case is how the Harry Potter series has wizards use magical alternatives to ‘Muggle’ technology; however, this was never very consistently considered at the time by JK Rowling (as it was only meant to be a background element). We therefore get a picture of wizard arrogance towards ‘inferior’ Muggle ways (as in medicine), yet at the same time their alternatives are often actually less capable than Muggle technology; it’s stated that said technology often goes haywire around magic and is not usable (in part to eliminate a technological suggestion by Harry as to how an eavesdropping was carried out) yet we also see wizards using a steam train and radios. Nonetheless, it does supply a bit of a hint as to how this concept can become interesting: analogues do not have to be exact, with different magical ‘rules’ to those of technology. Wizards can teleport around the world, something Muggles could only dream of – yet a spell that kills one person at short range is treated as a fearsome banned ultimate weapon, being rather less effective than the muzzle-loading firearms Muggles were using two centuries earlier.

Brandon Sanderson, in his ‘Stormlight Archive’ series in particular, is an example of an author who has put more thought into this idea. The world of Roshar is very different to Earth in landscape, flora, fauna and much more, but I’ll focus on technology. On the face of it, the Rosharans resemble your stereotypical mediaeval-fantasy setting, with wars being fought with swords, bows and arrows and the like, with powerful nobles possessing hand-me-down ‘Shardplate’ suits of armour and ‘Shardblade’ weapons of lost advanced make whose secrets are unknown. Yet there are many differences. Horses are very rare on Roshar, so cavalry does not exist as such (individual horses being used only to transport the aforementioned nobles around on the battlefield). A feature of the world is that ghostly sprites called ‘spren’ appear to signify various emotions and natural phenomena, which means battlefield medicine is far more advanced than our Middle Ages, as healers have learned to associate rotspren with infected wounds and use soap and disinfectant to clean them.

In recent years, scientists have begun learning how to trap spren in gemstones and use them to create technologies called ‘fabrials’. For example, one type splits the gem in two and then the two halves always move together in the same pattern when one is moved, no matter where they are in the world. This leads to the invention of the ‘spanreed’, with a scribe writing with a pen attached to one half gem and the other half transcribing their words halfway around the world – a kind of magical telegraph. Not only does this equal a technology from our own world, but larger versions can be used to magically hoist a platform into the air unsupported (by doing a sympathetic movement with the other half behind friendly lines), allowing archers to fire from it down on an enemy army. This kind of interesting, schizophrenic mix of old technology and that which is unrecognisable and unachievable in our own world, results in a very different and unique setting.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is an example where this trope was initially used for comedy, but later treated more seriously as part of the setting. In the first book, The Colour of Magic, the exotic tourist Twoflower has an ‘iconograph’, a camera in other words. His companion Rincewind the wizard always felt the world should work more rationally, and is at first excited by this seeming scientific breakthrough – only to find it works by a tiny demon inside painting the pictures. (This is also a cleverly subtle pun, as the Kodak Brownie was one of the first affordable cameras, and a brownie is also a kind of small household fairy in Scottish folklore). This idea would be reused with demons pedalling inside pocket-watches and a more advanced form acting as the ‘Dis-organiser’ or ‘Gooseberry’ (a pun on the electronic personal organisers and Blackberries of later years). In Moving Pictures, alchemists invent celluloid and are able to get demons painting very fast on individual squares of film, allowing the creation of cinema.

That book is an example of how, in the early Discworld books, any new craze of this type turns out to have a dark secret behind it and does not achieve a lasting change to the status quo. From The Truth onwards, however, there is an important change. The growth of magical technology is always implied to have been limited by the Unseen University establishment of wizards, who are nervous about it being used too widely. But now, purely technological alternatives arrive, such as the printing press, watches that work through clockwork rather than demons, and the ‘clacks’ semaphore telegraph. These begin to change the world and society permanently, and the last couple of books before Pratchett’s death even feature the rise of the steam engine and railways. Given the length of the Discworld series, it is fascinating to see this change. Early on, magical technology substitutes were either a throwaway joke or an explanation for an anachronism in an otherwise mediaeval-fantasy world; for example, a Mississippi paddle-steamer riverboat actually being driven by trolls on a treadmill. Yet as the series wore on, Pratchett began creating a very different setting, looking at what this fantasy world would turn into as the technology we recognise begins to come about.

Featuring anything beyond the stereotypical ‘mediaeval European fantasy’ technology can itself be jarring and interesting, though the genre is not so static as it used to be. Brent Weeks’ ‘Lightbringer’ series involves magic based on control of coloured light, but it is also set in a world with gunpowder, arquebuses and cannon, as well as other contemporary innovations. Brian McClellan’s ‘Powder Mage’ series involves the rise of a new kind of magicians, men and women who can control and enhance gunpowder and firearms now the latter have been invented, and who challenge the existing traditional magicians and overthrow the old regime in a way reminiscent of the French Revolution. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books feature helium-powered airships in a setting otherwise inspired by Han Dynasty China, along with dragons landed on wooden ships being treated like aircraft carrier battle groups. There are many other examples.

I’ve briefly looked at some cases where using magical analogues of technology can produce a world interestingly different from our own. But what about the opposite – what about creating a system of magical technology that is as rigidly similar to the world we recognise as possible? Harry Turtledove does this in his ‘Darkness’ series (and I believe he does something similar in a series about the American Civil War, though I haven’t read it). I always wonder if this series was inspired by how J. R. R. Tolkien wrote how he was annoyed at the number of people who assumed The Lord of the Rings was a fantasy allegory for World War II, when in reality much of it had been conceived and written before the war broke out. Either way, Turtledove decided to write what those critics had evidently been thinking of, and penned what was, in fact, a fantasy allegory for World War II.

What Turtledove did with geography, language and culture in this setting is rather interesting, and I’ll come back to that in a future article. For now, I’ll just focus on technology. The war in the ‘Darkness’ setting has to resemble the WW2 we recognise in terms of capabilities, what is achievable and what is not. The average infantry grunt is armed with the mundanely-named ‘stick’, a sort of standardised, mass-produced magic wand or staff that shoots a potent light beam like a laser in lieu of bullets. Stick fire is attenuated by rain, meaning climate affects the battlefield. Instead of bombs, there are ‘eggs’, whose true nature is never explained (but as they’re made of metal, they’re probably not literally eggs). In place of tanks are ‘behemoths’, great creatures vaguely reminiscent of aurochs or rhinoceros, which can mount either ‘heavy sticks’ or ‘egg-tosser’ catapults on their backs. Larger egg-tossers stand in for artillery. In place of submarines are ‘leviathans’, great sea-creatures piloted by riders who use them to sink enemy ships. Ships themselves are made of wood, but usually float above the surface of the water using the power of the ‘ley-line’ network criss-crossing the world. This limitation means that naval combat is usually restricted to those lines, and at one point the Algarvians invade Sibiu (i.e. the Germans invade Denmark/Norway) by exploiting this assumption and using a fleet of conventional sail ships instead that aren’t limited to the ley-lines. Later in the books, Turtledove also features the (real-life, but cancelled!) Project Habbakuk, an aircraft carrier (or dragon carrier in this case) made of Pykrete, a combination of wood and ice.

As just noted, dragons take the place of aircraft here, probably the most common fantasy stand-in of this type. Reflecting the grim and industrial nature of the setting (and the real war) Turtledove portrays the dragons as stupid and brutish beasts that have to be raised from hatchlings to obey human riders, and that imperfectly – in contrast to how they are often treated as beautiful and wise creatures in many fantasy works. Dragons can breathe fire at others (fighters) or drop eggs on ground targets (bombers).

Possibly the most controversial analogue in the books is that both the Algarvians and later the Unkerlanters (the Nazis and Soviets) unleash a kind of devastating magical attack on distant foes with a spell that involves sacrificing many innocents. This is implied to be the equivalent of the Holocaust, which has never sat well with me (even though Turtledove is Jewish himself and certainly has more right to write about this than I do). To my mind part of the uniquely evil aspect of the Holocaust is that the Nazis were still killing Jews and others even when it was absorbing effort that could have been fed into their military struggle with the USSR, as though it was more important to them to murder as many innocents as possible than to win the war. Turtledove’s analogue instead implicitly portrays the genocide as serving a purpose that benefits their war effort, which feels problematic to me.

Also featured in the ‘Darkness’ series, perhaps most prominently, is the magical analogue to the Manhattan Project. Magical equivalents for nuclear power and weapons are nothing new; indeed, these feature in the Discworld series as well, as Terry Pratchett was an expert on nuclear matters from his journalist days. Turtledove invokes two magical laws he also refers to in his other, unrelated fantasy settings: the law of similarity and the law of contagion. Two things are connected because they have properties in common, and they are also connected because they have touched each other. Magical researchers in Kuusamo (the USA) discover a fundamental ‘new physics’ connection between these two laws, which allows them to unleash a new source of power equivalent to splitting the atom. The first such ‘magical nuke’ is used to destroy the capital city of Gyongyos (Japan) and bring an end to the war. I have skipped over this quite rapidly, but this is one of the more interesting aspects of the setting in how the ‘scientists’ discuss their new breakthroughs and the theory behind them.

This has been a brief rundown of some examples of how magical equivalents and analogues to technology can be used in fantasy settings. There is more to discuss both on this topic, and in other analogues in fantasy; I will come back to the Darkness series in future to discuss what it does with language, culture and ethnicity.

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Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.