Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why Are Technology And Magic So Often Mutually Exclusive?

Normally I'd ramble for a bit and tell people about my latest book releases, maybe plug a tee shirt, or offer a back link to something you might find helpful. This week though I'm talking about something that's very near and dear to my heart, so I'm skipping all the usual fluff. In short I would like to ask my readers a question, and it's a question I want them to take very seriously.

Why are magic and technology so often seen as mutually exclusive in mainstream fantasy and sci-fi?

Except in very rare circumstances.
There are countless examples of this sliding scale in fiction. In stories like A Flight of Dragons the whole premise of the book is that science and technology is actively eradicating most kinds of magic. In the popular series The Dresden Files just being near magic makes technology act up (which requires our lead to avoid things like computers, cinemas, and at times actual electric lights). Even in the classic series Harry Potter there's just something about the presence of magic that renders technology non-functional more often than not.

Why do we do that?

Clarke's Third Law

Even if you have no idea who Arthur C. Clarke is, you've heard his third law. In a nut shell it states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This is an oft-quoted rule when it comes to fiction, but according to Esther Ingels-Arkell over at i09 the law doesn't really work the way we think it does.

Accroding to Arkell's argument this law only holds water if the feat being accomplished is something we believe we can't do ourselves with the right time and training. While we might not be able to build a TV or a laptop, much less a car that runs off of solar power or methane gas, most people who know these things exist believe that they could be replicated by anyone. The reason that we freak out about magicians who seem to be able to levitate, people whose brain waves can bend spoons, and those who can be buried for a week before rising unharmed is that we know, deep down, these are not things that anyone can do. These things are well and truly magical.

Is Magic V. Technology Really About Ignorance?

Let's go back to A Flight of Dragons for a moment. The central crux of the story is that mankind is embracing technology and logic, and it is this philosophical decision to give science a big ole' bear hug that is robbing the world's great wizards (well, all but the evil one) of their powers. This is in a very real sense a metaphor for how we as readers and writers often think about magic. Magic is a product of a simpler time, whereas science is a product of enlightenment. Science can be explained, and magic can't be. Even in our fiction magic is something that just can't exist in a world where we've split the atom, have flying cars, or combat capable laser cannons. And if it does exist then technology just closes its eyes and refuses to admit that magic is there.

I see your fireball, and raise.
Well, most of the time anyway.

Breaking The Mold

There are a lot of niches where the sliding scale has been trod underfoot. The roleplaying game Shadowrun and the books set in its world combines the elements of high fantasy with the gritty neo-noir of cyberpunk for a strange, exciting love child. D20 Modern allows mages to store spellbooks on their palm pilots, and in Pathfinder gunslingers might adventure alongside sorcerers to deliver a one-two punch (even in this game though the resistance to guns existing alongside magic is prone to some hardcore resistance).

In the spirit of this co-existence I'll make a suggestion that goes even further; what would magic enhanced by technology look like? Say that ancient covens always had 13 witches because that was the timber the chant required to hit the proper level; what could one witch with a mixer and recording software accomplish? If psychotropic mushrooms altered your brain chemistry and perception so you could see spirits and ghosts, what could modern pharmaceuticals allow you to do? Using enchanted steel to make a sword is one thing, but what about bringing magic and science together to make a rail gun straight from the heavens?

What kind of marriage would you give science and magic if you wanted them to play nice?

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  1. My only request for a story is that if there's to be a mix of magic and tech, it should start that way. I've seen too many stories broken by one or the other coming in too late (Dragon Riders of Pern comes to mind).

    Also, some stories I just can't see a mix working (Notably, the original Conan movies). I suppose in a case like that, the story is asking me to suspend two areas of disbelief instead of one.

    1. While the films are geared toward the fantasy aspects of sword and sorcery, the Conan stories weren't shy about bringing in forgotten technology disguised as magic. An influence that Lovecraft had on his pen pal, I think, along with the squamous creatures from dimensions unknown.

  2. I tend to think that the reason these two don't often blend well is largely due to a lack of creativity and being open-minded. Stumbling in here from a Pathfinder reddit, I know firsthand a number of DMs that don't like the idea of technology much past pulleys and levers in their games -- basic medieval-to-Renaissance style stuff. This seems to be a pretty commonly held viewpoint from what I can see. But like so many things, whether or not it works is almost entirely the result of the execution of the writer/DM/players etc. I'd have had no issues having a wizard's spell book on a smartphone, or a Rogue using an app to gain a +2 on something like a Linguistics or Knowledge check. You just need to make it seem natural, not cobbled together. And for the most part, it needs to start out that way, not come in later (as mentioned above).

    I love the idea of technology augmented by magic. Imagine a plane that flew powered by magic, or cars that didn't need anything other than a daily spell cast on them to work. How would it affect the economy? The world? The people? There are loads of angles one could run with to create interesting and dynamic worlds.

    My biggest gripe of Magic VS. Technology is which trumps the other? If Thor routinely trumps Iron Man, then why do we need Iron Man? Obviously, because they each bring different things to the table that are both useful/integral. It just needs to be presented in such a way. There are some things magic just can't do as well as tech, and vice versa.

    I think the only thing really holding these two back from playing nicely together more often is lack of well-thought-out presentation.

    1. You might just love Palladium books Rifts setting.

  3. I did actually read several of the shadowrun novels when the RPG was still in it's first or second edition.

    There is also a company called Palladium Books ( that does Super-science and magic very well. They several settings including fantasy (Palladium Fantasy), Super Heroes,(Heroes Unlimited, Horror (Beyond the Supernatural, Nightbane, and Dead Reign) and Super Science and Sorcery (RIFTS) which is a World where Almost anything is possible. They only have three novels and one anthology out but you might find them worth checking out.

    Personally I love the mix of magic and technology Palladium does. They even have a class (Technowizard) that can merge magic and technology. In fact they even have to use technology as a focus component to cast their spells to full effect. Think a caster/gunslinger that can only cast his fireball as a cartridge he loads in his pistol or shotgun.

    My wife is kind of in both groups. Magic/tech world like Harry Potter or The Sorcerer's Apprentice she's fine with. Put magic in worlds like Star Wars, Star Trek, or Babylon 5 and she kind of freaks and I quote "Get that Fantasy out of the Science Fiction.