Magic and Technology

On March 13th I wrote about the Magic vs. Tech debate, and briefly talked about some different ways you can see these two elements mixed. Today I want to talk about some of the considerations when trying to decide just what combination you are going to use in your own writing.

Now, this isn’t just going to be a pro/con list of magic and technology. Sure, there are a lot of fictional worlds where magic and technology are presented as part of a whole (e.g., 45% magic, 55% technology). This doesn’t mean that this is the “right” way to do it, or that it’s the best way for you to do it in your own writing. There are certainly benefits to doing it this way, but never assume there is only one way of doing something!

So if we aren’t just following a recipe, what sort of things do you have to think about?

Lots of stuff. If, somehow, a very powerful mage or spell encountered a high-tech machine -what would happen? I’m not saying this is going to happen in your book, or even that it should. But it’s a good thought exercise.

An assumption that a lot of people make (myself included sometimes), is that magic and technology are mutually exclusive. Either there are disastrous consequences of mixing them, or one removes any need for the other (my standard viewpoint). But these are not the only two possibilities.

What if magic develops in a protective manner to keep people safe as new technologies are developed and experimented with? Magical shields could protect scientists not only from physical injury if something goes wrong, but it could contain dangerous radiation, fumes, and chemicals.

What if technology developed because magic can only be used locally. This means no long distance communications, and very few methods of transportation could use magic (as each type would require a mage to be present. Might work for an airplane or train, but certainly not personal vehicles).

How about magic that can only affect natural products? Plastics and refined metals can’t be touched by magic, but leather and paper could?

Maybe magic is used to supplement technology, making it last longer and work more effectively. Batteries that last weeks rather than days (or hours). Computers that are able to perform searches on what your thinking rather than requiring you to type (or even speak) your thoughts. Cars that can safely fly. Phones that can always make a call (no dropped calls, or no service).

There are tons of ways that magic and technology can be combined! Which is why I suggest you really sit down and think about whether you want one to negate, make obsolete, or interfere with the other.

Even if you are mixing magic and technology, you should try to think of the boundaries of each. It really doesn’t make sense for magic to recreate things that technology provides (and vice versa). That isn’t to say you can’t have a magic lightbulb, or whatever. The light could be fully magical, technology with some magical assistance, or even just plain old technology. But you don’t need to have a light bulb that uses a heated wire to create light as well as some form of magic giving off light. That’s just redundant and a waste of resources and/or energy.

So Step 1 is to figure out what it is that magic does in your world, and what it is that technology does.

Step 2 is to figure out the interactions, where magic and tech compliment each other, and in what instances they conflict, or become redundant.

Step 3 is to think about where things came from and where they’re going to go.

To return to my light bulb example, if the light is created by magic and it’s the technology that provides the energy for the magic to work, then you know that electrical currents would have to have been developed, and that the light bulbs probably produce next to no heat. Additionally because magic could be used, there probably would not have been a progression from candle to lantern to gas lighting to incandescent bulbs to more modern types. Which means that reliable lighting would have been around for a lot longer than what we have had, which could have had a huge impact on when things were developed. Now, because we specified that it required some form of electricity to power it, then we can say that this particular magic-tech combo wouldn’t have had a big impact prior to the 1800s.

But who really wants to go through a list of every single thing ever invented by man (or theorized if you’re setting the story in the future), and try to figure out which uses magic and in what ways. That would be time consuming and tedious.

Instead, take that outline of what magic is good for and think of some key inventions, devices, or types of technology to use as examples of the magic-tech combination you’re going to use. Think of things like cars, computers, power plants, medical diagnostic machines, and the internet. Which are impacted by magic? How does the magic change the way they function? How would this combination affect the development of other machines/technology/the world in general? What do you envision future advancements looking like?

Finally, Step 4 is to apply your magic/tech system to your world. Does this “break” anything? Are there problems with the story (either because a technology is now available, or no longer available)? Does this system make the major conflict silly or something that should have been easy to resolve? Is the conflict going to be harder to resolve?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions then you need to either rethink your magic/tech system, or rethink some of your plot points.

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