This article was originally published in “V3I2: Technology – Worldbuilding Magazine” on April 14, 2019.
This issue of the magazine is all about worldbuilding with technology.
– 6 articles on or related to worldbuilding with technology.
– 4 short stories linked by a common setting and struggles.
– An interview with Joshua Jenkins about his dystopian version of the near future.
– An interview with James Schumacher, also known as Quasar, creator of the simulator game Species.
– An artist feature with Matthew Myslinski, creator of the worldbuilding project Driftwood Archives.
– New prompts and other extras!
Best of all, you can read this, and every issue of the magazine, for free!
So, you have decided to build a fantasy world. Something with dragons, perhaps? A sweeping, epic tale? But there will definitely be magic, so how can you incorporate science and technology believably? Many people focus so much on the magic in their fantasy worlds that they forget that magic and technology can coexist. Any well-built fantasy world will have some measure of both.
To be fair, there are different levels of magic in fantasy. For this article, I’ll be focusing on worlds that use a hard magic system—systems that have specific rules surrounding magical use, costs, and limitations. There are also different interpretations of technology and science. I’ll refer to technology as the man-made tools and objects that we use to make our lives easier and science as anything that utilizes a specialized knowledge of the world around us.
First, let’s look at what kind of impact technology can have. The saying, “necessity is the mother of invention,” applies to all worlds and especially to the development of technologies.
A Case for Technology in Fantasy
Why develop a gun when you can just shoot a fireball from your hand?
Well, how does one magically create a fireball? How long does it take to make it? What if only some people can manipulate fire? Magic must have limitations to allow for conflict, which in turn makes for more interesting stories. So it would make sense to develop technologies that could equal or even surpass magic. Technology can give magic-like powers to those not capable of magic. Unless the magic in your world is both common and cheap, there will always be someone who can’t shoot a fireball out of their hand.
In the 12th century, the Chinese used bombs called “fire cannons.” It was basically just a fireball shot out of a tube of bamboo, though it only traveled a short distance. Metal cannons that shot arrows or stone balls made their way onto the battlefields by the 13th century. Imagine if the Chinese had fought against magic users. How fast might guns have developed if non-magic folk had to fight against those with magical abilities? The need to defend yourself from magic would be a large incentive to speed up the development of technologies.
However, technological change doesn’t need to happen quickly to be profound. We perceive technological advances today very differently from two hundred years ago. Advancements happen so quickly now that your great-grandfather’s life involved a very different level of technology than your own. Change any slower than that isn’t really perceived as a change in retrospect, but for people at the time changes still happened. You control the effect a piece of technology has on your world, partly by placing your story in different stages of that technology’s development.
Remember our “fire cannon”? Gunpowder was a side result in the search for longevity-increasing drugs by Taoist alchemists. That alone tells you that during its early years they were merely trying to find a good use for the “fire medicine.” While it went on to change the face of warfare, it did little to influence the day-to-day life of the average person. There would be more jobs in the growing industry, and it would become part of the cultural story, but there was no real cultural shift required for its use.
On the other hand, the printing press was a technology created around the 8th century that would later create a massive cultural shift within different societies. By the 13th century, China’s printing press improved the speed of communication and disseminated information to commoners. The same happened in Europe roughly 200 years later. Books became prevalent in society and helped create a class of educated citizens. Meanwhile, collections of printed books became a status symbol for the wealthy. The printing press influenced every aspect of society, from education to status.
Technology and science can influence the immediate culture of your story, or it can be used as a tool to build the backdrop of your world. It’s your job as the author to figure out which one will give your readers the most enjoyable story. Even without books, science, at its core, is the careful study of the world. A wizard who creates potions would have to study the effects of certain plants to know which work the best. A scholar of dragon lore would have to study dragons to be able to tell the difference between a dragon’s breath attack versus a roar of pleasure. Once we understand how something works, we can create technology which exploits that understanding. You can study magic the same way you would study botany, animals, or chemistry. And just because “magic is magic” doesn’t mean that it is inherently more interesting to study than some other topic. Intense study leads to breakthroughs in both magic and technology. Humans have investigated the underlying patterns of the universe for millennia, so it would only make sense to still do that even if there was magic in our world.
Kinds of Technology
There are entire sub-genres dedicated to worlds where magic and science coexist. Urban fantasy is most commonly associated with the idea since it is set in the modern world with a dash of magic. However, there is a broad umbrella of science fantasy subgenres which try to blend science fiction and fantasy together. Even if you prefer to set your story in a more traditional fantasy world, technology can play a vital and important role.
Technology has to fulfill a purpose in your world and, more importantly, your story. Your magic system may come first since this is fantasy. Once you have a base, look at your marvelous magic system and identify the holes magic can’t fill in your world’s societies or cultures. Perhaps technology can. When people need something they will use the easiest method to get it, we’re just lazy like that. So, if only some people can use magic, or magic has a very high cost, us lazy humans will try to find another way to get what we need. If the magic fulfills the need, then the demand for technology goes away. At least, for most people. Remember to look for conflict.
Imagine someone who lives in a vast country and magic has no real means of transporting you anywhere faster than you could walk. Perhaps there is a way to transport things with magic, but it requires the use of a dragon’s heart and is highly experimental. For some people this isn’t a problem, but for others it might be. Enter technology. If people need better transportation, then perhaps they will end up with steamships before cannons. An arms race between technology and magic to fill certain needs may be an interesting conflict to explore in your world.
Specialized technology could come out of a world with constant stressors on its population. These stressors could include wars, the need for food, or highly coveted resources. Making lives more comfortable would be addressed next. A farmer could be thrilled at his new tractors and harvesting equipment, but I doubt the little boy eating a sandwich in the city cares how the wheat for his bread was harvested. If magic can’t do it, technology eventually will, but it’s up to you to decide your story’s focus.
Magic and technology can blend together really well, with each filling in gaps that the other cannot handle. Let’s go through some questions you can ask yourself to see if adding technology to your story would be a good thing.
The first and most important one to ask is: Does this technology add or create tension/conflict in my story? If yes, then go ahead and add it. If not, you may want to rethink why you want to include it. Add technology that makes your world vibrant and complex, not just because it’s cool.
If your world has gods, do they approve of this technology? The answer will depend on the kinds of gods. They tend to like having control over certain aspects of your world, and any technology that interferes with those aspects may not be approved of. Unless you have a god that likes to tinker and thinks a flying mechanical horse would be a great gift.
How would this technology affect a character’s upbringing or chosen profession? You can’t be a scholar if there are no books to read and learn from, and you would grow up very differently on a floating dirigible than in a farming village.
Will it affect culture, social status, religion, philosophy, politics, or government? One technology may have a huge impact on one of these aspects but very little on what happens day-to-day. Another could change an entire culture. It’s up to you to figure out how much of an impact technology will have on your world in much the same way you decide how magic would.
Remember, your world can look and feel like anything you want it to be. But for the reader, you want to keep things consistent and explainable. Your aim is to entertain with a story full of conflict and challenges that your hero must overcome to win the day. Both technology and magic can move that narrative forward. Make it a great story.
“Gun and Gunpowder”. Silk Road, accessed March 2019
“Printing Press”. History, A&E Television Networks, accessed March 2019
“History of Gunpowder”. Wikipedia, accessed March 2019