Science fiction and fantasy have long been genres that get misrepresented, lumped together, and dismissed as frivolous. While fans of the genres know the value of the characters and tropes, the use of magic or highly advanced technology in these books is often still seen as just the fun window dressing on the story. We can probably understand how this belief comes into being, but when you examine most fantasy and science fiction stories it becomes clear that this isn’t entirely accurate. Instead, most uses of technology result in an examination of what humans consider fair or equal while most uses of magic result in an examination of class structures and natural differentiations.
I’ve been a long-time fan of Mercedes Lackey, so when she created her Collegium Chronicles series—about the creation of one of the established systems in her fantasy novels—several years ago I was pretty excited to see what her plans were. As it turns out, I didn’t connect well with those books. They’re Harry Potter knock-offs, so I’m not really the target audience. But it gave me an interesting glimpse into the role of technology in fantasy worlds. Now, I have no desire to step into the debate over what technology boundaries exist for pure fantasy and what magic boundaries exist for pure science fiction. Instead, I want to take a look at how we use human-made “science” in fantasy worlds (and maybe a bit of vice versa).
It’s commonly understood that magic and technology come from different places. Magic is, by definition, inherent in the world whereas technology is created by the sentient creatures, usually humans. That difference causes a number of different tropes in the use of each type of resource.
While it’s entirely possible to write a world were magic power is accessible to everyone if they train hard enough, this is rarely done. For the most part, magic is a power used by the magically chosen, the people gifted by some deity as a result of their dedication or goodness, the born mages, or the fantastical creatures who are shaped by it. That gives magic the job of separating the society into different cliques. Even if social division isn’t a major element of the plot, this basic story element forces such a division into the story.
Consider, for example, the similarities between The Incredibles and Frozen. Both are children’s movies featuring main characters hiding their magical power from less gifted humans. The Incredibles is pretty open about the class difference created by having super hero powers, but it’s present in Frozen, as well. The main focus of Frozen is on Elsa’s personal acceptance of her place in the world, but it still acknowledges that she is not in the same world as her subjects or her sister. This is even more true if you consider the sequel in the evaluation, where she basically becomes a nature spirit-god at the end.
You might contrast my above examples with books like the Dragonlance world, where there is no element of being chosen so much as dedicated study bringing mastery. Even within this world there are some hints that certain members might be better skilled than others, but this is more like in modern day science research or artistic skills. Just about anybody can learn to draw or do scientific experiments, but many people agree that there are varying degrees of natural skill. The thing about the Dragonlance world is it still creates hierarchies. Every magic user is forced to undergo a dangerous, often crippling, test at a certain level of skill and if they fail (or refuse), they are killed. Thus, you accept the hierarchies dictated by the Towers of High Sorcery or you don’t study magic. Dragonlance, then, is a rare case where the magic system inflicts a hierarchy not inherent in the magic itself.
In contrast to the traditional role of magic, technology is almost always universally available. Because it was created by humans (or other sentient creatures), there’s no element of selective skill or use. Many of these stories include the smart-guy trope who is a computer genius (or that world’s equivalent), but that person is exceptional not because they were just born that way. Instead, they are someone who dedicated themselves to the study of technology and learned their skills. In many of these stories, however, there’s a running joke about the smart-guy trope that the character can’t keep a solid relationship because they are so invested in technology. This trope does not exist for serious magic users. The implication is that if everyone studied as hard, anyone could be a computer genius.
Again, The Incredibles is a great example of using science as an equalizing force primarily because it’s pretty explicit in trying to use science to even the playing field between normal humans and Supers. Consider, for example, Syndrome’s line “When everyone’s super, no one will be.” This is a blatant acknowledgment that the goal of using technology as an equalizer is to eliminate the class differences caused by selective magical systems. Even counter examples like technology used for genetic engineering to create a super-race don’t always do a good job of questioning this element. After all, in most instances, the goal of creating super-humans through genetic engineering is to apply those same traits to every human, thus evolving the species. Or, in the more morbid alternative, to eradicate any humans not deemed worthy of the genetic modifications.
Technology, then, serves almost universally as a status equalizer where magic serves as a tool to differentiate one set of characters from another.
Mixing It Up
We often look at science fiction as an investigation of the human psyche, which makes sense, given that all technology is man-made—or was at some point in the story’s history. But when we realize that technology is inherently an equalizer, we find that science fiction is more about investigating what humans perceive as equality. Similarly, fantasy magic systems investigate how humans navigate natural differences between class structures or cultural history.
The thing that fascinated me about the Mercedes Lackey’s Collegium Chronicles books was that she took an already established world full of magic and added what amounts to a scientific research laboratory for teenagers. In the framework I’ve laid out, this means she took an inherently classist society where magic users where chosen by god-like beings to be part of the elite guard force that protected all that was good in the country and she added an equalizing force. But when you add that equalizing force to a society so inherently classist, you get conflict. In the world of those books, the researcher kids were considered crazy and potentially dangerous.
Look again at Dragonlance as an example of mixing magic and technology. The gnomes of Dragonlance are defined by having inventions that don’t work. Anyone with inventions that do work is termed a “mad gnome” and ostracized by society. But no one would specifically ostracize someone who tried to become a magic user and failed. That person would just be a normal commoner (or whatever they were before) and would return to the life they’d known. At its core, Dragonlance is a world that assumes magic is the answer and technology is flawed. Now, that is likely not the opinion of the authors, but that’s definitively the belief that the world holds. Technology is dangerous, and making something that works is strange and a potential danger to the existing society.
In contrast to Dragonlance, there exist plenty of worlds where magic is used as a force to create mechanical weapons, as well. This melding of technology and magic is less of a counter-example than it may seem, however. There still exist some within society who must wield the magic to create the machines—often falling into the special gift category of magic—and typically a different group of people use those machines.
What To Do With It
Now, the point isn’t to say that all fantasy has to be class based or that all science fiction has to be focused on improving or evaluating equality. Some of the best works are actively attempting to subvert the inherent nature of the tropes they follow. What is important is to recognize the inherent effects of various elements so they can be applied and interpreted accurately. I’ve heard much hate for the chosen one trope lately. But the chosen one trope is just a distillation of the essential nature of magic into a single figure. The chosen one trope, or heavily classist societies, or fantasy that integrates its magic into machines to create new, magic-powered weapons—they all start with the same basic elements.
As with all story-telling, the beauty is in how you use it.