28 February 2013

Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 12 : Technology in Fantasy

Welcome to Part 12 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, a roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature!
Today, Carole McDonnell, Valjeanne Jeffers, Theresa Crater, Sylvia Kelso and Warren Rochelle join me in discussing technology in fantasy.

Andrea K Höst

Have you ever played Civilization?

You start with a group of settlers, and you end up in space. Along the way you build an Empire, clawing your way up a hierarchical technology tree where Pottery leads to Masonry, and Bronze Working leads to Iron Working, and you don't get to skip a step. You also never go backwards, never have your Great Library burn down, never have barbarians banding together to crush your Empire, and you never lose half your clever construction techniques.

Nor do you ever discover anti-gravity stones which allow you to construct floating cities and give every person fast, inexpensive and wide-ranging travel abilities.

I've discussed previously in my Impacts of Magic series, that it's rare to see magic used to significantly alter this hierarchical development of technology, and through technology to significantly change social and cultural development. Often magic is depicted as inimical to technology, causing more advanced examples to fail when in its presence. It is rare to the point of almost never to have a healing mage show up and start teaching non-mages that there's different blood types, the basics of immunology, and the importance of sterilisation.

One series which does seem to marry technology to magic is Terry Pratchett's Discworld - from the Hex computer to cameras - but this appears to be a parallel technology tree rather than advancements in practical science.  Other worlds have magic assisting technology (see all of Final Fantasy), but the injection of magic into a world of technology, or technology into a world of magic, rarely seems to massively alter the technology tree.  We simply get "the Industrial Age + Magic" or "Feudalism + Magic" or "Faerie + Computers" without the complete revolution which that injection of other should surely bring.

Instead magic is often depicted as stultifying and backward instead of an instrument of revelation and advancement.

Magic in our world belongs to the charlatan. Rational science disproves magic, reveals its smoke and mirrors. Instead of partners in advancement, they are foes. Thus, to the fantasy author, it is only natural to make magic an enemy of scientific advancement. Science, with its need for comprehension and proof, with its systematic testing and extrapolation, should hate "explanationless" magic. Would science want a magic which can shortcut scientific testing, point out the correct result, and leave science to merely test and prove it?

Even in the genre of 'modern magic', urban fantasy, we rarely see any significant shift of this world's technology tree. We might get a werewolf working for, say, customs, sniffing out drugs, but we rarely get technology which has undergone a paradigm shift because magic is real. The closest we seem to come is a 'steampunk sensibility' (which appears to use clockwork technology with more than an element of magic about it) or the kind of World Behind story found in Gaiman's Neverwhere or Rowling's Potter books – magic is present but separate.

But perhaps the reason for the rarity of magic altering the technology tree is simply the sheer difficulty in mapping the result. How big a change would that anti-gravity stone bring about? Think of the impact on the Age of Expansion. Trade. Wars. At what point would mapping all those changes start to distract from the story and become an exercise in overwhelming worldbuilding, leaving the reader struggling to understand the rules?

Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia. She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.

Carole McDonnell

There are two fallacies often found in fantasies where technology is concerned.
The first is that magic is purely fantastical. Of course, some magic is. Demons, faes, and gods abound in much fantasy. But for the most part, magic is a kind of technology in its own right, an art and lore that can be learned from wizened teachers or from ancient books. For instance, in Shakespeare's Tempest, Prospero has his wonderfully researched and studied Book.
The second fallacy is that some fantasies show the same pattern of civilization as Earth's. The Bronze Age, then the Age of Steel, animal technology, the Industrial Revolution/Steam Age, the age of electricity/radio/telegraph, the computer age/DNA technology/laser technology, and the space age, etc. But this particular sequence seems wrong to me. One culture might be more knowledgable about one type of technology than another. Or, one culture might have a technology that is considered magical or superstitious or "impossible" or "godly" in another culture. Also, some aspects of a certain technology might be explored in one culture but not explored in another. In addition, certain technologies are lauded, then forgotten, then rediscovered.
For instance, the Chinese had "gun" powder for many years but the Europeans invented the gun before the Chinese did. Some western cultures used "leeches" medically in the past and have begun using them again. Some so-called "primitive" cultures understood the nature of homeopathy (like curing like) before the sophisticated Europeans discovered the cowpox/smallpox connection. Other so-called "tribal" cultures understood how to use flies and centipedes for crime detection before European civilization got the idea. (Flies are often used by some African tribes to determine whose murderous-but-newly-washed dagger still retained the victim's blood and centipedes were used in ancient Korea to check if the blood on a dagger was human or animal.)
Thus it is possible for the technology of a particular world to NOT fall into the western model.
In my novel, The Constant Tower, the characters are warriors. Some would say the setting is "Bronze Age/medieval." But one tribe has solar panels because they understand the nature of light, and the studiers of this world understand music and the effect of "unheard sounds" in ways that would be considered miraculous by some of Earth's less "civilized tribes" or might seem merely fantastical to those with a western mindset.
Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildeside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Tower. http://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/

Valjeanne Jeffers

Technology and fantasy: put them together and you have a delicious synergy that's not quite SF, not quite fantasy. Some of my favorite authors have skirted the divider between fantasy and science fiction. Octavia Butler, for example, while she is almost always described as a science fiction author blended the two quite brilliantly in books like Wild Seed and Clay's Ark. Nalo Hopkinson also combined them with sheer genius in her novels Brown Girl in The Ring and Midnight Robber.

 The existence of technology in fantasy often results in the co-existence of “science and sorcery,” as Charles Saunders (creator of Sword and Soul) has described my Immortal series. In my novels you have werewolves and vampires—totally in control of their preternatural abilities and using said abilities to protect their universe; but still such characters are most often found in fantasy or horror genres. Yet, the Immortal series also has time travel, aliens... and technology to support its futuristic setting. Such as in the excerpt from Immortal book 1:

Karla walked across the wooden floor of her living area into a kitchenette. A press of her fingers on the first sphere of a triangular pod started coffee brewing.
She filled a cup with chicory, walked back into the living area and pushed the second button on her remote, activating a blue panel beside the window. Jazz music filled the apartment. Like her bedroom console the unit kept time, transmitted holographic images and played tapes. Using the third button, she opened the curtains.
Thus, the Immortal novels have been described as both fantasy and science fiction novels. Use a little science and one still can be considered a Fantasy writer. Use a bit more and you've inched into the science fiction genre. An excerpt from Colony: A Space Opera (my novel in progress) illustrates this point:
She was born 20 years after Planet Earth's decline. The same year IST began building the probes: lightweight spacecrafts that humans could live in for years, if need be, and that moved fast enough to break the sound barrier—traveling millions of miles within weeks.
In 2065, global warning had accelerated. The final stage in Earth's destruction had begun. Temperatures of 150 degrees scorched the planet. Tidal waves, monsoons and cyclones tore it apart. Those who could afford it moved underground. Food became the world's most valued resource. The rest were herded under the domes.
Scientists scurried to genetically reproduce fruits and vegetables—with horrible side effects. Money still ruled the world. But money was gradually becoming worthless. That's when the government saw the writing on the wall and created IST and the probes: spacecrafts designed for one purpose, to seek out planets capable of sustaining human life.
When a writer uses technology in fantasy, the lines between the genres are even more gloriously buried. Thus, what may be described as science fiction by one reader/writer can just as easily be characterized as fantasy by the next. The only real rule here is to make one's technology believable; credible; plausible. Although it doesn’t yet exist—in a kind kind of literary sleight of hand.
Pulling this off, just gives me one more reason to absolutely love speculative fiction...even if no will ever be able to figure out whether I'm a science fiction or fantasy writer yet. In fact, I think I prefer it that way.
Valjeanne Jeffers is a graduate of Spelman College and the author of the SF/fantasy novels: Immortal, Immortal II: The Time of Legend, Immortal III: Stealer of Souls, the steampunk novels: Immortal IV: Collision of Worlds and The Switch II: Clockwork (includes books 1 and 2), and the space opera Colony.
Valjeanne's fiction has appeared in Steamfunk!, Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology, LuneWing, PurpleMag, Genesis Science Fiction Magazine, Pembroke Magazine, Possibilties, 31 Days of Steamy Mocha, and Griots II: Sisters of the Spear (in press). She works as an editor for Mocha Memoirs Press and is also co-owner of Q and V Affordable editing.
Preview or purchase her novels at: http://www.vjeffersandqveal.com

Theresa Crater

I recently reread Bram Stoker’s Dracula for my Speculative Fiction workshop. While my writing students bemoaned the fact that Stoker does all the things they are advised not to do in their writing, I noticed Stoker’s love of technology.
The vampire is deeply rooted in old ways. His castle sits on a precipice, difficult for attackers to penetrate—and for Harker to escape from. His house is lit by multiple candles and furnished with old and moldy brocades. He uses centuries-old methods of travel for the most part—carriages and boats—yet maintains an interest in the trains in London, in particular their schedules.
But our group of heroes out to kill the Count rely on new-fangled machinery. Mina practices her shorthand, which her fiancé Harker relies on to send her secret message—although Dracula intercepts the letter. She types manically to escape her fears, but this useful skill allows her to compile a complete history of all the group knows about vampires and the Count’s doings. Dr. Seward records his diary on the phonograph, a technology that still mystifies me.
Our intrepid group also relies on a new mental “technology”—they hypnotize Mina after she’s been bitten to gain access to the vampire’s consciousness. Mesmerism was a new-fangled idea created by Anton Mesmer in the early 19thcentury, but which gained popular fascination during the spiritualist phase of Victorian society. If not technology, it certainly is a new way of looking at human consciousness.
Stoker sprinkled his novel with the gadgets his readers were finding popping up in their world. I don’t think he intended this contrast, but it’s there.
Theresa Crater has published two contemporary fantasies, Beneath the Hallowed Hill & Under the Stone Paw and several short stories, most recently “White Moon” in Riding the Moon and “Bringing the Waters” in The Aether Age: Helios. She’s also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches writing and British lit in Denver. Born in North Carolina, she now lives in Colorado with her Egyptologist partner and their two cats. Visit her website at http://theresacrater.com.

Sylvia Kelso

Technically, you should excuse the pun,“technology” is any form of applied science/knowledge, from a hand-axe to a nuclear bomb. For a fantasy writer “technology” becomes a most pressing question in the planning or first-paragraph stages of a novel or a world-building. The level of “technology” you factor in, whether by planned outline or draft-impulse, will decide almost everything about your invented societies, and quite a lot about the actual world.

A classic if rather hypothetical example is Middle-earth. Whatever Tolkien pre-invented in The Silmarilion, the pre-Industrial nature of Middle-earth was decided at the moment early in the first chapter, that he made hobbits mighty hunters with hand-thrown stones. He might have let them “take a gun out” like a Heyer Regency hero, given that Bilbo was the picture of a wealthy early 20th Century middle-class English male. Whether conscious or unconscious, or possibly prompted by the equally spontaneous choice of a children’s story genre, denying Bilbo the weapons of his Real-Earth period affected every further page of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The nexus of Tolkien’s personal stand-points behind this choice does generate fascinating contradictions. While the Shire’s weapons are limited to stones, staves and bows, Minas Tirith has swords and spears, and magic defends Lorien. But evil, paradoxically but inevitably, introduces to Middle-earth the very technological level that Tolkien most loathed. Isengard and Mordor are copybook unregulated high industrial complexes, complete with waste, pollution, desolation, wheels and hammers, and “‘mind[s] of metal and wheels.’” (The Two Towers, Ch. 4)
But The Hobbit’s original gunpowder ban does not allow these fearsome lairs to spew out steam engines, aircraft, big guns, mechanical soldiers or machine-guns or mustard-gas, not even rifles and muskets. The Orcs seem to have been bio-engineered – which would not require all this mechanical paraphernalia –and they, like everybody else, fight with sword, bow and spear. Even the mighty Grond only uses muscle-power. The sole exception to this pre-industrial ban is the “blasting fire” by which the Orcs manage to infiltrate the stream-way at Helm’s Deep. Everywhere else, evil as industrialism can affect Middle-earth only through its environmental damage.
Other fantasies happily introduce later forms of real world “technology” in secondary worlds. Martha Wells’ Ile Rien series begins with a just-pre-Industrial society using pistol and arquebus, then moves to a faux Edwardian/Victorian period that still uses pistols, and in the second series, uses magic to present WWI and later technology like airships. Here, as with Naomi Novik’s Napoleonic War dragons, the tech. level is pre-set to industrial. But if less strikingly than with The Lord of the Rings, much of the available real-world technology, from cine cameras to machine guns, is again not admitted.
More dissonant cases exemplify what has been touted as “science fantasy” – where “science” – ie actually some form of very modern tech – is juxtaposed with an earlier technological level. A really striking example, and one of my favourites, is Barbara Hambly’s Windrose trilogy, whose second title epitomizes the type: The Silicon Mage. Though the cover appears pure fantasy, in fact, an impressive apparatus of spells, spell diagrams, sigils, and simple wizardly capabilities is connected to and through computers, to work in both primary and secondary worlds, with astonishing discrepancy and more amazing lack of fuss – now THAT is a real fantasy-tech.
There is, of course, an older wholly invented technology, the matrix science of Darkover, but though that otherwise pre-industrial world and its societies beg to be classified as fantasy, the origins of Darkovan “humanity” from a space diaspora make a strong claim that the whole world and series be called SF.
Which opens the other question about“Technology in Fantasy” – namely, if fantasy, apart from contemporary urban primary world stuff, starts to introduce really current tech. like gene-engineering, nanotech, and less realized forms such as cyborgs, even if the actual society is (apparently) pre-industrial, has the form then become SF?
SF is usually seen as the genre of the future, however often overtaken. Modern fantasy, to use a paradox, is usually seen as the genre of “the past.” How close can such a fictional “past” come to the “present,” or with imaginary tech, to a future, without sliding over the generic boundary? Whatever the writer’s intent, or the bookshelf label, if the savvy specfic reader perceives the conventions, icons and protocols in the text as SF, why isn’t it SF?

The generic SF/fantasy boundary concerned me deeply while I was struggling with the SF theory chapter of my PhD. Past/future-time, science/magic as unreality’s ennabling device, evidence of change, progress; I canvassed those and a number more of the abundant definitions. In the process I suddenly found myself, like Octavia Butler’s heroine in Exogenesis, conducting an experiment “in the field.” Once the opening paragraph of Amberlight arrived, the conscious project was to see how nearly I could make a text walk the tightrope, marked by Hambly’s Silicon Mage,between fantasy and SF.
Hence, the McGuffin in Amberlight, the “qherrique” which turned up as opening donnée, became the basis for a thought experiment in gender-role reversals, as well as the key to society’s shape. Only women could “work” the mysterious – substance, entity, animal, vegetable, mineral? The society became a matriarchy. Qherrique’s most crucial quality was its psychic effects, coveted by every other society, making Amberlight-the-city unthinkably rich. But qherrique had a bouquet of other attributes – pizo-electric, photo-synthetic, it could be worked like a mix of pearl and stone to drive machines, to power tools, to produce guns. Light-guns and horseless vehicles. Is this fantasy, or is it SF?
It charmed me immensely when I sent the novel in ms to Andrea (Hosth), asking outright, Do you read this as fantasy or as SF? And she responded that she couldn’t decide. The indecision reappeared among reviewers when I finally got the novel into print. It was political fantasy, it was high fantasy, it was a sub-genre of feminist SF: a whole grab-bag of answers turned up. Leading, perhaps, to the most interesting general conclusion – that the level and type of technology a writer consciously or haphazardly bestows on a specfic novel will not merely dictate the shape of that world and its societies, but even the genre in which the work will belong  - or, if as with Amberlight, Loki or Coyote was around at the moment of inception, not.

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story, “At Sunset” appears in Luna Station Quarterly for September 2012.

Warren Rochelle

Fairies don’t really need machines, do they? Not the ones in my novels Harvest of Changelings, and its sequel, The Called. Elemental beings—Fires, Airs, Waters, and Earths—they have magical powers to use and manipulate these elements, with extra abilities for their particular element. Fires, for example, are best suited for heating things, so there is no need for electrical stoves. Instead, Fires, heat up stones, and in war, create fireballs. Airs are the most gifted telepathically and the winds answer to their call. Waters can call the rain and raise waves. The garden of an Earth is fertile, verdant, and productive; Earths can awaken volcanoes, make earthquakes. Machinery as we know it Here never developed There.

But the magic of this Faerie uses machines—at least it does Here. When Hazel, one of my four main characters, and one of the changelings, is called to return to Faerie, her gateway is not a wardrobe or a door in the side of the hill, rather it is a computer. Hazel has on her computer, Worldmaker, a program that allows the user to construct his or her own world from the ground up, to its people and civilization, its climate, its history. And it is through this portal that Hazel, accompanied by her loyal Siamese, Alexander, enters Faerie. As the dragon she encounters explains, “It was your machine . . . and your game. The machine knocked at the door and the game opened the door to this place; the machine answered a call from this place. It can talk to other machines, yes? Create invisible links of energy, of electricity? Such a link was made to here, which is beyond dreams . . .” (Harvest of Changelings 69). The computer, as a pegasus tells Hazel later, is “a dream-gate” (154).

In The Golden Boy, a novel-in-progress, I explore this link between machine and magic. In this novel the world is dominated by the Columbian Empire and the New World and a rational, science-privileging super-church, which is in opposition to the Old World and those who would also embrace magic and those who use magic, and those who are, the fey. Fairies, who are again Elementals, are iron-sensitive. The only way they can touch a car without pain is to touch one sealed in a plastic coating. Magic and machine in this universe are ways for one to fight the other.

So what? Is this just another take on the famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke, one of his Three Laws, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”? On reflection, no; rather I find myself doing something perhaps connected, but still different. Machines give us the power of magic: they can enhance speed and allow us to travel over great distances in a short amount of time—seven-league boots and aircraft. The magical can call down the lightning; laser rifles and cannons harness light for war. Software such as Hazel’s Worldmaker and the software that creates virtual realities allow us to enter the hills, go through the wardrobe. Through television and film, through computer monitors, we enter, and for a time, live in any number of alternate worlds. Technology, then, allows us to explore just the kind of world my changelings find in Faerie, the kind of world the heroes in The Golden Boy are trying to save.
Magic, in the literature of the fantastic, in counterpoint, allows the reader to contemplate a world without the mechanical. It reminds us that we can—really we can, despite what my students tell me—survive without the machine. It reminds us that the Morlocks and the Eloi are possible. Magic warns of the possibility of the Borg.
Technology then, is magical; it is fantastical. Technology allows us to create a magic of the mind, and magic reminds us that it is the mind that we can find real magic. Any sufficiently advanced technology really is indistinguishable from magic.
Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, "The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. Most recently, his story, “The Boy on McGee Street,”was published in Queer Fish 2 (Pink Narcissus Press, 2012). http://warrenrochelle.com

That's it for this month's Travelling Round Table! Feel free to join in the discussion in the comments.


  1. Ms Butler is one of my favorites

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